The difference between trail running shoes and road shoes
Trail running shoes may look like burly road shoes, but subtle
modifications make a big difference in performance. Most trail shoes have
thicker soles and rubber toe caps than their road counterparts, the better to
shield your feet from rocks and debris. They usually feel firmer underfoot,
too, so you can get more tactile feedback from the trail.
A trail running shoe's
profile is also wider and lower than that of a road shoe, keeping
your feet closer to the ground and lending extra stability on irregular
surfaces. Supportive overlays on the upper protect you from abrasion and help
lock your foot in place.
Finally, most trail shoes sport multidirectional lugs on the outsole
that are designed to offer good
traction, whether you're going uphill or downhill. The deepest, most
aggressive lugs grip loose terrain well, but can feel unstable on packed dirt
trails or pavement. Softer lugs usually offer better traction on hard surfaces,
but also wear faster.
When choosing a trail running
shoe, experts recommend focusing on the type of terrain you'll do most of
your running on. Of course, your own running style comes into play too. If
you're an agile runner who can avoid most trail obstacles (instead of running
right over them) and you like feeling what's going on beneath your feet, the
thin, flexible sole and snug, glove-like upper of a minimalist-inspired trail
shoe may appeal to you. At the opposite end of the scale, you'll find shoes
built for running right over obstacles on rugged trails, with more substantial
soles and uppers and sturdier protective features, like rock plates, underfoot.
We look for four main characteristics in every trail shoe we research: A comfortable fit, cushioning that's
appropriate to the intended use, great traction, and the durability to
withstand repeated use. These
characteristics make trail running shoes a very popular choice for hiking in,
too; but if you want more protection for your feet, we also offer a report on hiking boots. If you spend most of your time running (or walking) on paved
surfaces, you might prefer our report on road running shoes instead.
Finally, many runners have turned to fitness trackers as a fun,
social way of tracking their progress and motivating themselves to keep going.
We've done the research to find the best fitness trackers in several price
ranges; check out the linked report to see the results.
The best trail running shoes
When it comes to just one trail running shoe that can handle all sorts of
trails and varied conditions, from loose dirt to gnarly rocks and muddy
obstacles, experts and users all agree that the (Est. $120) is
tops. It draws an Editor's Choice award from Runner's World and rave reviews
from testers with Outside and Competitor.com, too.
The experts say the Peregrine 6
has just the right mix of cushioning and ground feel (the bouncy Everun
foam in the midsole has been laboratory tested and proven to improve energy
return), and the multidirectional lugs and sticky outsole are aggressive enough
to handle steep, loose terrain without feeling clunky. The flexible rock plate
in the forefoot is a nice compromise between protection and flexibility.
Users love the Peregrine 6's welded upper -- they say it's the perfect
mix of support, give and padding around the ankle. The only criticism we found
is, much like the praise, unanimous: Everybody agrees that the wide forefoot
and upper design are heaven sent for most foot types, but can leave runners
with narrow feet feeling a little disconnected from the shoe on steep descents.
The upper is also likely to give out before the tough outsole, although most runners should be able to get at least
200 miles out of a pair before that happens. The Peregrine 6 has a 4mm
heel-to-toe drop, and a typical men's pair weighs 9.4 ounces.
Narrow-footed runners, don't despair: Our top pick for running on rough terrain, the (Est. $140),
runs toward a narrow fit, and it draws a lot of praise for its
foot-wrapping upper that locks you in to the midsole for great control and
lateral stability on rough terrain. (Heads up: It also runs a half-size short.)
What expert testers really love about this shoe, though, is the way that upper
combines with a supportive, rockered midsole and grippy, multidirectional lugs
on the outsole to give you the perfect combination of protection, agility and
traction on even the roughest, most technical surfaces.
The Akasha doesn't have a rock plate underfoot, and users and experts
alike are surprised to see that they don't miss it. The few testers who didn't
like this shoe tend to complain that the thick midsole isn't flexible enough or
that the heel collar is too high and rigid. Although it is relatively heavy
(11.35 ounces for a typical men's size 9), most
people say its responsiveness and agility makes it feel light underfoot; a
6mm heel-to-toe drop helps. Expect to start seeing outsole wear after 200 to
250 miles, although the shoe will still have substantial life in it.
If you're into long, punishing trail runs or are a heavier runner, the (Est. $125) is a great shoe that draws expert
praise for resilient foam underfoot, a thick, rubberized toe bumper for extra
protection, and a "roomy but not sloppy" fit. That extra space means some
people go down a half-size for the best fit but, once the sizing is dialed in,
reviewers are thrilled with how the upper allows plenty of room for a
high-volume foot, but still snugs down to offer a good fit for narrow feet.
A gusseted tongue does a great job of keeping "trail gunk"
out, and at 10.4 ounces for a typical men's pair they're still very light, given the amount of protection you get.
The manufacturer advertises an 8mm heel-to-toe drop, although Runner's World
found the drop to be a little steeper.
Trail runners with a tendency to overpronate love these shoes because of the medial post that helps keep your ankle from
rolling in too much, and they're great for people with wide feet. The biggest
criticism we found is that while the heel is very comfortable, it's too wide
One note: A couple of experts agree that even though the outsole on the
Leadville v3 is plenty grippy for most terrain, it's better suited to long
trail runs than short, agile courses with lots of fast cornering. Users say you
can expect them to last between 250 and 350 miles before they give out.
Some trail running shoes can hit the road, too
Most experts recommend having separate shoes for trail running and road
running, because the grippy, aggressive soles that make a trail shoe excel
off-road can feel clumsy when you're on the road. There are a couple of shoes
that do a great job of bridging the gap between worlds, though. Our best
reviewed shoe for this category is the (Est. $130), which is designed specifically for road-to-trail
crossover performance and wins a "best update" award from
Experts love the Challenger ATR 2's "just right" balance of
softness versus firm responsiveness and its surprisingly light weight (just 9.5
ounces for a men's size 9). One of the testers for Competitor.com likens its
ride to that of a monster truck, because the thick, supportive sole rolls right
over obstacles -- although when the trail really gets off-camber, the shoe's
thick sole can leave you feeling a little wobbly. The low-profile 4mm lugs provide plenty of grip for most trail conditions
without getting too squishy on the road and, like most Hoka One One shoes, the Challenger ATR 2's cushioning and forgiving
5mm drop from heel to toe makes it an excellent choice for people with foot
problems, including plantar fasciitis and bunions.
That said, the toebox on the Challenger ATR 2 is a little narrower than
the previous model, so if you have wide feet you may need to size up; and these
shoes tend to wear quickly on the sides of the toebox. Several users report
that the upper starts to wear at around 200 miles, although you can usually get
350 to 400 miles of wear from the soles.
If you do more road running
than trail running, another excellent choice is the (Est. $80 and up). The Triumph
ISO 2 happens to be our best-reviewed shoe for road running (see our report on running shoes for even more details and recommendations), but reviewers say the
sole is also grippy enough -- and the midsole cushioned enough -- to handle
some loose trail conditions too. Like most trail shoes, the Triumph ISO 2 is
neutral-cushioned and suits most foot and gait types, and the Everun foam in
the midsole gives it great cushioning while retaining a lively, responsive
ride. As a bonus, the ISO "caging" helps the upper conform to almost
any foot shape -- it's the closest we've ever seen to a universal fit. A
typical men's pair weighs 10.2 ounces and has an 8mm heel-to-toe drop.
These trail running shoes offer traction, waterproofing in wet
All trail shoes are designed for some level of rough terrain and
challenging conditions, but shoes meant for use in wet conditions have a little
something special. Two special things, actually: The first and most important
is an outsole that can grip securely, even on wet rock. The second is a
waterproof/breathable or at least water-resistant upper that keeps your foot
dry when you splash through puddles or wet grass, although obviously that dryness
goes right out the window if you step into water that's deeper than the shoe is
For the full waterproofing
treatment, our top pick is the (Est. $160), which
comes in three versions. For about $130, you get the Speedcross 3's amazing
traction on all wet and soft surfaces and a non-waterproof upper that users say
dries reasonably fast. For around $145, you get a ClimaShield ("CS")
version that's water-resistant and, users say, not terribly breathable. And for
$160, you get a fully waterproof/breathable GoreTex liner.
No matter which version you get, no
shoe beats the Speedcross 3's traction on surfaces that would send a typical
trail shoe sliding. Wet rocks, wet logs, mud, snow -- you name it, this
shoe can handle it. When you're running on snow, the
waterproofing/water-resistance of the GoreTex and ClimaShield versions add some
insulation value to keep your feet warm.
That said, there are a few caveats with this type of shoe. Users say
that if you take the Speedcross 3 out in rough, dry conditions, the widely
spaced, triangular lugs that give it such amazing grip on soft surfaces will
wear down to nothing in three months or less. Also, this shoe tends to run
narrow and a little bit long; some users end up going a half-size down. Some testers
say that while the quicklaces and foot-wrapping upper create a precise fit,
they don't leave much room for high insteps. A typical men's pair weighs 10.9
ounces and although the manufacturer doesn't advertise its heel-to-toe drop,
expert reviewers put it at about 10mm.
If all you want is great
traction in wet conditions and to heck with the waterproofing, we think
you'll love the (Est. $130), which
wins a "best debut" nod from Competitor.com, where testers say its
great traction and foot-cradling upper give you lots of confidence on steep
uphills and downhills.
This is a high-volume shoe that some testers say runs a little narrow,
perhaps because of that foot wrap; the end result is that if it fits, it also
feels wonderfully nimble underfoot. Testers with Runner's World say they're
also impressed with the sturdy build that can handle rough terrain and that
even though the breathable mesh upper isn't waterproof, it sheds mud
wonderfully. A typical men's pair weighs just 9.7 ounces and has a 6mm
Expert & User Review Sources
We found many useful expert reviews
of trail running shoes. A few clearly stand out as the best, thanks to their
extensive hands-on testing and balanced reporting of the results. Runner's World is, of course, top of the heap, along with Trail Runner Magazine,
which specializes in exactly this sort of shoe. Feedback from trail testers
with the running division of Competitor.com, GearPatrol.com and Outside Online is also extremely helpful. Finally, hundreds of user reviews posted
to RoadRunnerSports.com and Amazon.com are the very best source
of feedback on how the shoes perform in real-world conditions, and how they fit
a varied population of feet.