Trail running shoes offer more foot protection, support and traction than regular running shoes. While trail shoes are optimized for running, many people buy them for short day hikes since they feel like a sneaker, except with better traction. Unlike road-running shoes, which are designed for different foot types, trail shoes differ based on the terrain they can run. Rugged trail running shoes have thick rubber-lugged outsoles to grip slippery trails, rock plates under the forefoot to protect the sole and rubber toe bumpers to protect against sharp rocks. Since they have deep lugs on the outsole, most trail shoes aren't very comfortable for flat trails or road runs. All of these features make rugged trail shoes the heaviest (often weighing more than 12 ounces) in the product category. Many trail-running shoes are available in waterproof versions, which adds a waterproof membrane on the inside of the shoe. Waterproof trail shoes are great for rain and snow, but they're less breathable and can get hot in warm weather.
If you frequent smooth trails, trail running shoes with grippy rubber outsoles that provide a moderate level of traction are your best bet. They weigh less and are more comfortable for flat, packed-dirt trails than their rugged counterparts. But the former can't compete with rugged trail shoes on mountain or rocky trails since they offer less foot protection -- rock plates and toe bumpers are available on some shoes, but not all. Since most trails are softer than pavement but more irregular, trail shoes provide less cushioning than regular running shoes. Yet some trail running shoes (known as crossover trail shoes) provide enough cushioning for runs on pavement.
Since they have to support the foot over uneven terrain, trail shoes are inherently stable and most runners won't need extra stability features (such as you'd find in regular running shoes). However, runners with severe overpronation (when the foot rolls inward excessively) may need more pronation control than what a traditional trail shoe can provide. These runners should look for lots of stability and extra medial support; ConsumerSearch covers these shoes in the motion-control section.
Like road running shoes, minimalist trail shoes -- which are lower to the ground and much lighter weight than their traditional trail counterparts -- have garnered an increasingly large market share in recent years. Road running minimalistic and zero-drop shoes are covered in a separate report on minimalist running shoes. Reviewers praise the glovelike fit and say the thinner soles help runners feel the terrain better. The thinner outsole does provide far less protection, so these types of shoes are best kept off very rugged trails.
We found the best reviews of trail running shoes at running and outdoor publications such as Runner's World and Running Times magazines. The shoe reviews at Trail Runner are particularly impressive; each shoe is evaluated by wear-testers and Editors' Choice awards are given to the best models. Unfortunately, the latest editions of this magazine aren't available online (though those from 2009 and back are). Runner's World offers a similar testing system. Outside magazine also has excellent coverage of trail shoes, and each model is rated on traction, stability and speed. Other magazines such as Shape, Fitness, Women's Adventure Magazine and National Geographic Adventure are also useful sources for reviews of trail-running shoes.
Owner-written reviews of trail running shoes are harder to evaluate, since fit is such an individual matter. It's also hard to find a good number of reviews for new trail shoes. Buzzillions.com, a consumer review website, is a good source to check, but most of the top-rated trail shoes have been discontinued. Retailers such as Zappos.com, RoadRunnerSports.com and BackCountry.com are also worth checking for trail shoe reviews. In addition, many running shoe brands feature user reviews at their own websites (Brooks Running and Nike stand out). However, these reviews are only helpful if a consumer is already considering a specific model.
Experts suggest using the top picks in reviews as a starting point for finding the best trail-running shoes. Companies make trail shoes on so many lasts and with such variations in design that the best-fitting shoe for one person may be a disaster for someone else. Reviews suggest the best shoes for most feet, and judge durability, traction and suitability for various terrains.