The shoes trail mixed; they work well both on road and on tracks and trails running shoes are popular.
Because of their versatility and comfort, they are a great option for runners who want to start on the trail running or running. We bet for versatility those offer the best combination of protection, grip, weight and comfort for all distances and surfaces.
Except that you run on very technical ground – with sharp edges or muddy surface – the best option is to look for a mixed shoe that gives you a type of movement similar to that of your road shoes.
How to Choose the Best Trail Running Shoes?
Today’s multitude of trail running shoes range from burly, supportive and protective, to minimalist, barefoot-like shoes with trail tread underfoot. So how do you know what’s right for you? Below we explain what to look for. You might also want to check out our Trail Running Shoes Review.
It’s important to consider the type of terrain you run, the type of runner you are, and the type of runner you’d like to be./how much trail you’d like to feel underfoot.
Where do you run?
Considering the type of terrain you run will help narrow down your choices. Do you run smooth, flat to rolling fire roads only? Do you stick to technical singletrack that’s strewn with rocks and roots? Or do you run a little of both? And, do you run sections of pavement to get to your trails? Or do you always drive to a trailhead and run only off-road?
If you run on more mellow terrain than technical, shoes that feel like road running shoes, with ample cushioning, are your best bet. (The caveat applies to a minimalist pick, like the New Balance Trail TK). Look for something that’s comfortable right out of the box, and that has enough cushioning to soften impact from repetitive running on even ground.
If you run technical terrain—singletrack trails strewn with rocks, roots and other obstacles—you’ll want a shoe that either protects and stabilizes your foot, or that allows you to feel the ground underfoot and pick your way through obstacles in a minimal shoe.
Traditional vs. Minimal
Minimal shoes have less cushioning than traditional shoes, and, they also have slighter differences between the heel height and the forefoot heights off the ground. Traditional shoes have a 12-14mm “off-set,” or, difference in “stack height” between the heel cushioning and the forefoot cushioning. These shoes do a good job cushioning a heel-striking stride. Minimal shoes, with a 4-0mm drop from heel to forefoot, aim to inspire a mid- to forefoot strike with each step, which is known as a more efficient stride.
Traction in a trail shoe can either look like big, toothy, aggressive lugs underfoot, or, grip can come from less dramatic outsoles made out of sticky surfaces, with an outsole cut strategically to grip uphill and down. While traction is imperative on hilly, technical terrain, it’s less important on smooth, flat trails. And toothy traction can be a detriment (it can feel clunky underfoot) if some of your run takes place on pavement.
The combination of multi-directional, fairly substantial lugs and hard rubber compounds seemed to make for the best traction on a range of surfaces, from dry to wet to rocky and beyond. The Saucony Peregrine 2 and Salomon Speedcross 3 rated highest in this category, followed closely by the Montrail Mountain Masochist and La Sportiva Wildcat, the latter of which uses sticky rubber like you’d find on the sole of a climbing shoe. The Salomon Speedcross 3 seemed to shed mud and muck the best, likely due to the wide spacing of the lugs.
The Asics GEL-Kahana has the most substantial cushioning, which makes sense and was appreciated, considering it’s a hybrid shoe; it’s meant to be worn on both roads and trails. The Brooks Cascadia 7 also had a good amount of cushioning, and even though its a trail-specific shoe, this feature helps make the Cascadia another good choice for runners who run sections of roads to get to their trails. On the other end of the spectrum is the New Balance MT 10 Minimus, which is built to feel as if you’ve spray-painted the sole of your foot with rubber. Cushioning is a highly personal matter. Some prefer lots of cush for comfort, while others prefer slighter amounts to give them more ground-feel for agility.
The most protective shoe in the review, both underfoot and on the sidewalls, is the La Sportiva Wildcat. The Wildcat is ready for all-day epics on rocky terrain. The Brooks Cascadia 7, Salomon Speedcross 3, Asics GEL-Kahana 6 and Adidas Vigor Trail 2 all had good amounts of protection both underfoot and on the upper. The Vigor Trail 2 feels the beefiest on the foot, which we didn’t love (but that shoe is a great deal for the price). The Saucony Peregrine 2, we felt, had just the right amount of protection for just about every trail type.
The La Sportiva Wildcat rated the most stable in the category, with the dual-density midsole of the Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra 2 right there with it. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the New Balance Minimus MT 10, which again, isn’t meant to provide any stability. Some runners will want to create their own stability with the barefoot-like feel of the Minimus. A couple shoes, like the asics GEL-FujiRacer and Saucony Peregrine 2, gave us great ground-feel with solid traction, which made us feel very stable on the trail.
Weight is also a factor, and some of the more protective, stable shoes are often heavier than the slighter, minimal models or even shoes intended for less burly terrain. Some shoes are able to pack in great traction, a touch of stability and protection while remaining relatively lightweight.
Due to its minimalist approach overall, the New Balance Minimus MT 10 is the lightest shoe we tested. But for more traditional shoes with some cushioning, the asics GEL-FujiRacer, Montrail Mountain Masochist and Saucony Peregrine 2 all managed to pack a ton of great features into a lightweight package. On the heavier end of things is the Adidas Vigor Trail 2.
The New Balance Minimus MT 10 is the most flexible, while the asics GEL-FujiRacer followed closely behind. Surprisingly for how beefy and protective it is, the Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra 2 ranked highly flexible, joining the Saucony Peregrine 2 and Salomon Speedcross 3.
We loved how the Saucony Peregrine 2 gave us great feel for the trail, thanks to its low profile and minimal heel-to-toe differential. The drop from heel to forefoot is just 4mm, as opposed to the more traditional 10 to 14mm of most other shoes in this review. But, unlike the zero drop New Balance Minimus MT 10, the Peregrine still provides cushioning, a decently protective upper, and aggressive tread underfoot. All of these great features pack into the Peregrine 2, while it remains one of the lightest weight shoes in the review. Its lightweight, great traction and flexible forefoot combine to make us choose this shoe for faster trail efforts as well as slower days. The Peregrine can handle a trail race as well as it can handle a casual run/hike combo.
Trail running shoes can cost upwards of $150, but a couple options give you a solid pair of shoes for much less. Our pick for Best Buy is the Adidas Vigor Trail 2. Found as low as $67, this is a well-built shoe that offers comfort, cushioning, traction and protection. The downside is that it’s heavier than most, and can feel a bit beefy overall.
Top Pick: Best Racing Shoe
One shoe in this review is built for racing on trails, and made us feel fast and agile on all our runs. The lightweight (8.7-ounce) Asics GEL-FujiRacer flexes well in the forefoot for a quick turnover, has enough traction underfoot to grip for control, and provides a nimble, ready-for-action feel. And when worn on daily runs of all speeds, we appreciated this shoe’s qualities as a light, comfortable, capable trail shoe.