Unlike running shoes for the road, trail shoes don't come in a variety of categories to suit different pronation needs (pronation refers to the foot's inward roll when it hits the ground). Thanks to their lower profile, beefier soles and added protection around the heel and toebox, trail running shoes are inherently pretty stable. Experts say that most runners, whether they're biomechanically efficient or overpronate slightly, can run in any trail running shoe. For those with serious overpronation, some trail shoes have additional motion-control features; these shoes are covered later in this report. When choosing a trail-running shoe, experts recommend focusing on the type of terrain. Those who run rocky and rugged trails will benefit from stable (and heavy) trail running shoes with extra protection over the toebox, and stiff support in the midsole and around the ankle. Runners who frequent smooth, packed-dirt trails will appreciate something lighter with more flexibility and cushioning.
Lighter-weight trail running shoes have become more and more popular, and we found the most expert reviews praising the Saucony ProGrid Peregrine (*Est. $90) . This shoe was introduced in February 2011 and won the coveted Editor's Choice award in the 2011 Runner's World magazine Trail Shoe Guide. The shoe also received major attention from Outside, Shape, Women's Running Magazine and Canadian Running -- all of which selected the Peregrine as a top trail-running shoe in their annual guides. Unfortunately, there are very few user-generated reviews due to the shoe's recent release, but those available are very positive.
Built on the same base as the highly praised Saucony ProGrid Kinvara 2 (*Est. $90) , the Peregrine is known for its heel height that sits much closer to the ground than a standard trail shoe. The heel-to-toe drop is also substantially less -- a mere 4 mm -- than the 35 mm featured in most trail-running shoes. Wear-testers at Shape say the lower profile allows runners to really feel the terrain, but that the shoe doesn't lack in the protection department. Multidirectional lugs make for a stable foot-plant on most surfaces, wet or dry. The balance between the light weight and stellar protection make this a great trail shoe for a variety of runners on all kinds of terrain.
Another lightweight shoe that has garnered widespread attention is the Pearl Izumi SyncroFuel XC . Experts say it's a good all-around trail shoe for those who run mainly smooth trails. The SyncroFuel XC is also a good pick for racers. In 2010, this model earned Editors' Choice awards from Women's Adventure Magazine and Trail Runner, which called it the best racing shoe tested. The SyncroFuel XC also earned a Best of Adventure award from National Geographic Adventure magazine. High points in the review included comfortable cushioning and a snug fit through the midfoot, which kept the shoe stable while still allowing testers to feel the trail underfoot. "Every tester who stepped into this shoe called it her hands-down favorite," Kristy Holland said at Women's Adventure Magazine. Testers particularly liked the seamless mesh upper for preventing blisters and keeping the feet cool on hot runs.
Unfortunately, the SyncroFuel XC was replaced with the SyncroFuel Trail II (*Est. $115) in July 2011. At the time of this report, the Trail II has received no reviews. While the shoe features the majority of the same features as its predecessor, Pearl Izumi did make some major updates. For one, the sole was heavily revamped to feature much more aggressive lugs and a new, multidirectional pattern to provide excellent traction on rough terrain like dirt and rocks. The company also added more protection to the shoe. At just 10.1 ounces (men's), this remains a very lightweight and responsive shoe.
For runners looking for an even lighter-weight, minimalist experience, the past year has seen the introduction of the men's Merrell Trail Glove (*Est. $110) and women's Merrell Pace Glove (*Est. $110) . We cover zero-drop and minimalist road running shoes in a separate report, but given the growing popularity of this shoe, they're an important option to discuss. The Trail Glove and Pace Glove weigh about 6 and 5 ounces, respectively -- nearly half the weight of a standard trail shoe and 4 ounces less than the top-rated, lightweight Saucony ProGrid Peregrine. Plus, the shoe sits remarkably close to the ground at just 1.4 mm. The Trail Glove/Pace Glove has been very well received by most reviewers and highly touted by many established running publications. The shoe, they say, is ideal for efficiency training and for strengthening the foot. The runner is able to get a near-barefoot running experience while being protected against roots and rocks. Runners take note: Most experts recommend easing into these shoes incredibly slowly (particularly if you aren't accustomed to running in near-barefoot style shoes).
As with all barefoot-style shoes, user reviews are mixed. Consumers who are outspoken advocates say the Trail Glove/Pace Glove has too much protection and outsole to feel like a true barefoot shoe. Runners who are more accustomed to standard trail shoes find that the protection on this shoe is lacking. Several user-generated reviews also mention leg soreness after running -- a common complaint of those transitioning to more minimalist shoes since they encourage a forefoot strike and work different muscles in the leg than more traditional models.
For runners looking for a more minimal shoe but who don't want to go as minimal as the Merrell Trail Glove/Pace Glove, the New Balance Minimus Trail (*Est. $100) has also been on the receiving end of high praise. Outside magazine went so far as to call the shoe the "best barefoot-inspired trail runner to date." Like the Trail Glove/Pace Glove, the Minimus Trail is incredibly light (7.2 ounces for men) and sits very low to the ground. It provides virtually no midsole, but the tacky outsole provides excellent grip and protection along rocky, rough trails.
Other brands have trended toward more minimalist shoes, as well. Montrail introduced its Rogue Racer (*Est. $110) in March 2011. It weighs slightly more than either Merrell's or New Balance's minimalist shoes, coming in at 8.5 and 7.4 ounces for men and women, respectively. The shoe also sits slightly higher off the ground at 20 mm (but still much lower than a standard trail shoe). Reviews, again, for this model are positive. Outside magazine says the Rogue Racer has a "modest" midsole rock plate and toe bumper. Editors add that minimalist trail runners adore the shoe, but more "casual" trail lovers are left wanting more cushioning.
Outdoor adventure-gear company Patagonia has also taken its fair shot at trail-running shoes over the years. A lightweight trail shoe for smooth trails is the Patagonia Tsali (*Est. $115) , a 10-ounce model (8 ounces for women) that still provides a good amount of foot protection. The Tsali is picked as one of the best trail running shoes for women by Shape magazine. Although they acknowledge that the Tsali is best suited to light terrain, testers praise its support and lightweight feel. Traction over smooth trails is also good. However, testers for Runner's World have a few complaints, namely that the shoe feels too wide around the forefoot, making it hard to achieve a snug fit. The large toe bumper also bothers some testers.
If you encounter some asphalt or pavement during your trail runs, you'll want to consider an option that's well suited to handle both trail and road work. In this category, we found that most reviewers recommend The North Face Single-Track (*Est. $100) , which continues to receive positive feedback from both experts and consumers. At 11.5 ounces (9.5 ounces for women), the Single-Track is a little heavier than the Pearl Izumi SyncroFuel Trail II and Saucony ProGrid Peregrine, but unlike other trail-specific running shoes, it has enough cushioning to transition easily from the trail to the road. Reviewers praise the versatility; The North Face Single-Track earned a 2010 Best Debut nod from Runner's World and the coveted 2010 Gear of the Year award from Outside magazine. "Everyone on our team -- from hardcore ultramarathoners to high-cadence 10K trail racers to casual runners -- fell in love with this shoe almost from the beginning," said Outside's Lisa Jhung. Testers rave about how comfortable the shoe is, and a snug heel cup helps increase overall stability. Traction is good on most trails, they say, although some reviewers wish for more grip on wet or muddy terrain. Buyers beware: According to Jason Mitchell at FeedTheHabit.com, an outdoor gear website, the Single-Track runs a little small, and he recommends ordering up a half size.
When it was first released, the North Face Single-Track attracted much attention for its flexibility and ability to balance protection with comfort and responsiveness. While it's still a solid shoe, 2011 brought much more competition to the crossover road/trail category of trail-running shoes. In particular, the Salomon XR Crossmax Neutral (*Est. $130) has received very high marks in this category. It made its debut in February 2011, and Runner's World selected this shoe as a Best Debut in its 2011 Trail-running Shoe Guide. Testers say the XR Crossmax Neutral offers a stellar combination of both protection and comfort, and that it's well-suited for long runs over mixed terrains. The shoe delivers comfort, a smooth ride and great arch support. It's slightly heavier than The North Face Single-Track, but testers say the XR Crossmax Neutral still feels nimble. Editors at Women's Adventure Magazine say the shoe is "lightweight and absorbing enough" to make it ideal for transitioning easily between technical trails and roads. The one drawback often mentioned is that the quick-pull laces could use some improvement.
In addition to the praise heaped upon the XR Crossmax Neutral by Runner's World, the shoe was selected by Running Times, National Geographic Adventure, Fitness, Women's Adventure Magazine and Outside as one of the top shoes on the market for 2011.
Other popular crossover trail-to-road options include the Montrail Fairhaven (*Est. $110) and the Brooks Trailblade (*Est. $85) . The Trailblade is known for its stellar cushioning and excellent traction -- a combination known for creating an ideal crossover shoe. The Montrail Fairhaven was designed specifically as a hybrid trail/road shoe, and reviewers praise its flexibility and fit. Multidirectional lugs add nice traction and a medial post helps mitigate overpronation. This shoe is a good lightweight crossover shoe for runners who also need motion control.
Another top pick for light-to-moderate trails is the Brooks Cascadia 6 (*Est. $110) , an update to the award-winning Cascadia series. The most recent incarnation of the shoe was released in February 2011, and we found nearly as many high-praising expert reviews for the Cascadia 6 as we did for the top-rated Saucony ProGrid Peregrine. The Cascadia 6 earns good feedback from the 2011 trail shoe guides featured in Runner's World, Running Times, Outside, Canadian Running and Fitness magazines. Some reviewers, particularly the user-generated evaluations at REI, say the shoe isn't ideal for wet terrain. Plus, it seems to have a very wide toebox. The Cascadia 6 is a manly shoe, and some say it's better fitted to a man's foot than a woman's. Still, reviewers say it provides stellar traction, and is excellent for foot protection and durability.
Whether a trail-running shoe can tackle rugged terrain or is more conducive to smooth, groomed trails can be difficult to determine when you're staring at a wall (or a computer screen) full of trail shoes. In addition, due to the popularity of the minimalist movement, many companies are offering more lightweight, less protective trail shoes instead of the heavier, more protective versions needed to attack rough, rocky terrain. The Montrail Rockridge (*Est. $75) , however, fits the latter bill. Not only does this trail shoe cost much less than many of its competitors, but it also consistently impresses testers with its stability and traction. "On the worst running surfaces of our test -- loose dirt, rock slabs and muddy sidehill traverses -- the Rockridge excelled," Lisa Jhung writes in the 2010 Outside magazine gear guide. Jhung later describes the grip as "gluelike." The Rockridge earns a 2010 Editors' Choice award from Trail Runner magazine, where testers also praise the grippy outsole lugs for providing excellent traction over rocks and trails. Reviewers rave about the rock plate, with testers at Runner's World and Running Times saying it protects feet from sharp rocks and other obstacles. Stability is also a high point, especially since it doesn't come at the expense of feeling the trail; numerous reviewers say the shoe is highly responsive.
We saw a few minor complaints that the shoe can feel slightly hard underfoot, however, especially for testers who strike heel first or run on smooth trails. But not all reviewers have this complaint -- Brian Metzler at National Geographic Adventure says the Rockridge provides enough cushioning for road runs. The shoe has a roomy fit and spacious toebox, which pleases wide-footed testers, but those with narrow feet may have trouble getting a snug fit. The Montrail Rockridge weighs 11.4 ounces for men and 9.2 ounces for women, and would be a good choice as a light hiking shoe for those who like the feel of a running shoe instead of a heavier hiking shoe or low-cut boot. It should be noted that this shoe is fairly old as far as trail-running shoes go; most brands update models every year and sometimes even more frequently. Because the Montrail Rockridge has been available for more than a year, expert attention has diminished and it's rare to find new reviews of the shoe. Despite this, the shoe's popularity is continually bolstered by reader praise. A recent 2011 Amazon.com user, for example, says the Rockridge is "top-notch" and "is lightweight, fits well and, above all, has an outstanding outersole."
Another shoe that has remained widely popular despite its original release more than a year ago is the La Sportiva Raptor (*Est. $110) . Reviewers say the shoe has a snug fit that tends to run narrow, which could be a deterrent to those with wide feet. This trail shoe weighs more than the Rockridge (12.3 ounces), but it sports a grippier tread and a wraparound toe bumper to protect against toe stubs. Experts say the Raptor is a top pick if you consistently run the most rugged terrain. "Wearing a pair of Raptors is like having a pair of Jeeps with oversized tires and a roll cage on your feet," Brian Metzler writes at Running Times magazine. The multidirectional lugs on the outsole are tough and sticky, making the shoe a good choice for trails with slippery rocks and steep climbs. Some reviewers say the Raptor has more grip and traction than any other trail shoe on the market.
The La Sportiva Raptor's lacing harness tightens the whole upper, not just the part around the laces. It also has stable support around the ankle, which helps prevent rolls and sprains, according to testers at Trail Runner magazine. However, Warren Greene and Martyn Shorten of Runner's World magazine say the heel is stiff, and Brian Metzler at Running Times thinks the Raptor is "too much shoe" for running on smooth trails or roads. The Raptor comes in unisex European sizes ranging from 36 (approximately a men's size 4.5 or a women's size 5.5) to 47.5 (roughly a men's size 13.5).
Newer shoes oriented for rugged terrain include the New Balance 915 (*Est. $125) . This is one of the toughest shoes introduced in recent years. Specifically designed to carry runners over the toughest, rockiest terrain out there, this shoe features New Balance's Rock Stop technology between the outsole and midsole, which helps the shoe maintain flexibility. Runner's World says the 915 offers an "impressive combination of protection and grip." Some reviewers note that this is an incredibly firm shoe -- runners should stick to tough trails and avoid pavement at all costs when wearing it. Women's Adventure Magazine selects the New Balance 915 as one of its favorites of 2011, saying its traditional, tough-as-nails features are married with a more minimalist style, resulting in an excellent trail shoe.