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Trail Running Shoes

If the Shoe Fits: A Buyers' Guide to Trail Running Shoes

 

Choosing the right trail running shoes, or trail runners, is critical for a positive running experience. Trail runners are about function, not fashion. So, before you punch in your credit card number on your favorite outdoor retailer’s website, or randomly choose a shoe off the wall at your local sporting goods store, consider the features of the various trail running shoes on the market, as well as the unique nature and biomechanics of your feet.

Contents

 

Know Your Feet

Like feet, trail runners come in all shapes, sizes, and stability levels.

First, take a look at your feet. Are they wide or narrow? Are your arches high or flat? (See foot types below.) Do you run or walk on the outsides or insides of your feet? There is a continuum of running shoes, from the neutral cushioning category, to the moderate stability category, to the high stability category.


Trail runners come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and stability levels.

Stability, aka arch support, is the amount of rigidity in a shoe and is one of the most important considerations in selecting a running shoe. Knee pain, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis oftentimes signal a need for more stability. Conversely, shoes with too much stability can force a runner to the outsides of their feet, causing ankle pain.

If you have a running store nearby, a knowledgeable staff member will be able to examine your feet and watch you walk and run. By checking your gait, it becomes apparent whether you over-pronate, supinate/under-pronate, or neither, thus directing you to a shoe with the proper amount of stability.

Over-pronation means rolling your foot inward while walking or running. It occurs when the heel strikes first and then rolls overly inwards to toe-off. This can create torque on the lower leg with each foot strike. Some slight pronation is normal.

In general, the flatter the foot, the more likely a person is to over-pronate. Flat feet are more flexible, thus requiring a shoe that can control that inwards motion of the foot. Added stability in a shoe helps to support the arch and guide the foot in a straightforward motion. If the over-pronation is minimal, a “moderate stability” shoe will suffice. For more severe over-pronation, look for a “high stability” shoe.

Supination, or under-pronation, means rolling your foot and ankle outward while walking and running. It is characteristic of feet with high arches. This type of foot has a more defined structure, causing the runner to walk on the outsides of his or her feet. Since this is the most rigid part of the foot, this type of runner needs a shoe that is more flexible. These shoes are referred to as “neutral” or “cushioning” shoes. By nature, trail running shoes tend to be stiffer because they need to protect the feet on more challenging terrain. Folks that supinate simply will want to look for a more flexible trail running shoe.


Try the wet foot test to find your foot type.

If you don’t have a local expert to diagnose your gait and foot type, try the wet foot test. Get the bottoms of your feet wet and step on a piece of newspaper or paper towel. Compare your wet footprints to the foot types in the chart below. This will help you determine whether you have a high, low, or neutral arch. A flat foot will leave a complete print of the foot, while a high-arched foot will only imprint the forefoot, the heel, and perhaps a bit of the outside edge.

Also, take a look at the wear patterns on the soles of an old pair of running or walking shoes. If you tend to wear down the inner edges of the bottom of the shoe, you likely over-pronate. If you grind down the outside edges, you supinate. Wear in the middle indicates a neutral arch.

 

Know the Terrain

Next, consider the type of trails and terrain you’ll be tackling.

Kathy Hobbs, executive director of the American Trail Running Association and manager of the Teva U.S. Mountain Running Team, suggests that you “consider the terrain that you will be running and go to a specialty shoe retailer and get their advice on what shoe meets your needs.” You should also consider any injuries past or present when selecting a shoe.

While some runners may get away with using their regular jogging skins from running the roads, you are best off getting a pair of trail-running specific shoes. “Road shoes are meant for a foot strike that is relatively the same over time and distance,” says Hobbs. “Trail shoes are for the uneven, unpredictable, changeable nature of the terrain.”

The various types and models of trail running shoes can seem daunting. Hobbs lists the following shoe features as the most important when considering your needs:

Keep an eye out for shoes with a gusseted tongue and wrap-around lacing, both make for a snugger fit, keeping out trail debris. Match your shoe’s features to the terrain you expect to encounter regularly and your needs.

 

Know if the Shoe Fits

Now you’ll need to try shoes on. If you are new to trail running, be prepared for trail runners to feel a bit foreign, even if you are accustomed to road running shoes. Trail runners have a lower profile, giving you the sense that you are closer to the ground and better able to feel the earth beneath your feet. Being aware of the ruts and roots on the trail will help you respond appropriately. Trail runners also have wider bases and more aggressive treads.

Hobbs says “consider fit and feel when testing a shoe and if it feels good, provides appropriate support, and good grip.” If the shoe fits, it will feel snug and boot-like in the back, anchoring your heel in, and more like a sandal up front, allowing your toes to wiggle around.

Be sure you have 1/4 to 1/2 inch at the toe end of the shoe to allow for some swelling room. The longer the run, the more your feet will swell. Hobbs emphasizes the importance of sizing, saying that you will “typically need a half size bigger than your street shoes to make sure your toes don’t smash up to the toe box.” It’s the best way to avoid those nasty black and blue toenails.

In the end, you want to pick a trail runner that feels natural on your feet. You shouldn’t be excessively aware of the shoe. If you are, it may not be right for you.

Once you hit the trails you’ll be glad you chose a shoe that fits properly and has all the features necessary for your trail running adventures. A new pair of kicks can make all the difference in creating a successful and fun trail running experience.

The Best Trail Running Shoes

Top Picks

How we choose: The best trail running shoes highlighted here were selected based on 1,340 reviews of 349 products. Our top picks are those that are readily-available in the United States and have received the highest overall ratings from reviewers.

How we test: Trailspace is powered entirely by our community of readers. The reviews posted here reflect the real-world experiences of outdoor enthusiasts just like you.

If you've used a trail running shoe that you think should be listed here, please share your experience.

Disclosure: Trailspace never accepts payment for gear reviews, product placement, or editorial coverage. When you buy through affiliate links on our site, Trailspace may earn a small commission, which helps cover the costs of running the site.

Altra Superior 4.0

user rating: 5 of 5 (2 reviews)

The Superior 4.0 is a supremely comfortable shoe, with many improvements over its predecessors (better fit, materials, flexibility). Yet the 4.0 maintains most of the best characteristics that make this model my favorite hiking shoe. They are responsive to the trail, fit my narrow feet perfectly, and the tread is excellent for gripping loose gravel and even snowy patches. They are lightweight and dry fast. My only disappointment is that they did not last quite as long as my Superior 3.0/3.5s.

Reasons to Buy

  • Comfortable and great fit for narrow feet, while still maintaining wide foot-box for toe-spread and foot-swelling
  • Lightweight and minimalist
  • Flexible sole
  • Breathable, stretchy upper that conforms to foot shape
  • A great choice for thru-hiking
  • Bonus removable rock-plate (StoneGuard)

Reasons to Avoid

  • Slightly less durable than Superior 3.0/3.5s (separated at the sole/upper seam at inside midfoot at 500 miles=blowouts)
  • Easily allow water inside (also dry fast)

Description & Specs: The Superior 4.0 is the most recent version of Altra's low profile trail running shoe. The 4.0s have been updated quite a bit from the 3.0/3.5 version, with the goal of producing a lighter, grippier, and sleeker shoe. Superiors will probably appeal to those that value minimalist performance such as good trail feel and sensitivity, low-to-the-ground stability, and a streamlined, lightweight profile. Weight (of my sample pair, size women’s 9.5): 14 oz. (w/out removable StoneGuard) Heel-to-Toe Drop: 0 mm (Note: most all of Altra's shoes are zero-drop, which means they have the same height in the heel as in the rest of the shoe) Stack height: 21mm Multi-point attachments for use with trail gaiters   Disclaimer: Writing...

Read more: Altra Superior 4.0 reviews (2)

Top Barefoot / Minimal Shoe / Trail Shoe / Trail Running Shoe / Water Shoe

Vibram FiveFingers KSO

user rating: 4.5 of 5 (18 reviews)

As a children how many of us did not need any shoes and were happy running around barefoot even if it meant to get some blisters here and there? Later on, when we had to put shoes on and go to school and then work and so on, things changed and it would be considered inappropriate to one day show up without any shoes on. I wonder how many of us feel happy with what they are wearing on day to day basis on their feet and how many of us is actually comfortable?The Vibram soles is revolutionary innovation as far as comfortable shoes can be, which is based on the age old methodology that being barefoot helps your balance and will make you feel aware of the nature around and ground beneath your feet.

Read more: Vibram FiveFingers KSO reviews (18)

La Sportiva Bushido II

user rating: 4.5 of 5 (1 review)

The La Sportiva Bushido II is a solid, comfortable trail running shoe for all-around, year-round use on trails and mountains. With excellent traction and fit, it retains everything I loved about the original Bushido trail runner with some minor refinements.

Reasons to Buy

  • Comfort and fit
  • Traction
  • Durability
  • Works well for trail running or hiking
  • Comfortable in year-round temps
  • Cushion and stability adequate for most trail use

Reasons to Avoid

  • For technical runs and hikes, I'll switch to a shoe with more cushion and stability
  • No waterproof/GTX version
  • Costs $130, but the price has remained the same from previous versions and is comparable to other shoes

When I heard that La Sportiva was introducing an updated Bushido II trail runner my first response was "No!" What if they screwed something up? I've worn at least six pairs, possibly more, of the original La Sportiva Bushidos over the five years since they launched. That totals well over a thousand miles, probably double, by my rough guesstimate. While I also have road running shoes for pavement and own a few other pairs of trail runners, not to mention hiking footwear, the Bushidos are my go-to, everyday pair for when dirt, rocks, mud, and snow are underfoot here in Maine.  I rarely think about these shoes.

Read more: La Sportiva Bushido II review (1)

Salomon XA Pro 3D

user rating: 4.5 of 5 (11 reviews)

Salomon’s XA Pro 3D is a heavy duty trail running shoe that has been around, with various updates, for years. It is very heavy and firm for a running shoe, and I use it as a low light hiker. It’s available with a waterproof/breathable membrane, but I like the no-membrane version for it’s very good breathability. Very good traction, support, foot protection, and durability, plus an interesting lacing system, make this a winner. The non-waterproof version’s availability in wide sizing was fortuitous for me, as the regular version was too narrow for my feet.

Reasons to Buy

  • Unusual but effective lacing system
  • Vents sweat well
  • Waterproof/breathable version available
  • Lots of support
  • Solid, grippy sole
  • Width sizing
  • Nice features

Reasons to Avoid

  • Heavier than typical trail running shoe
  • Very firm midsole might not suit some people
  • Relatively expensive for a trail runner

Basic Information The pair weighed 2.2 pounds out of the box, including the light insoles that I discarded. The guy who built my latest pair of custom orthotics recommended this shoe for its relatively firm and more supportive midsole, and I always wear them with the orthotics. The shoe requires break-in because it is so solid; it takes some time to get used to the firmness of the shoe. More on that in a bit. These are on the heavy end of the spectrum for trail running shoes, and also on the more expensive end at $130 full price.

Read more: Salomon XA Pro 3D reviews (11)

Salomon Sense Mantra

user rating: 5 of 5 (3 reviews)

From Meh! to Wow!

Reasons to Buy

  • Excellent wrapping of the feet.
  • Light but tough
  • Amazing allrounder: from trail to rock to mud.

Reasons to Avoid

  • Thick sole decreases sensibility of the road.
  • Non minimalist runners might find them too flat.

I had to attend an unexpected 55k trail race and after research I didn't think that my regular trail shoes (Vibram Spyridon) were suitable. I found a Salomon retailer with a good sale and I chose these Mantras. The reasons to buy them were that they were light enough for a 6 hours long run, and the outsole looked good but not over-specialized to mud or to rock.  Although all the theory was good, when I tried them on, I didn't feel nothing. Completely underwhelmed. I am used to fall in love with the shoes at the shop, to want to run as soon as I try them, but with the Salomon Mantra I just felt "Meh!".

Read more: Salomon Sense Mantra reviews (3)

Brooks Cascadia

user rating: 4.5 of 5 (19 reviews)

Brooks continues to stand on the podium with this high-quality trail runner. Offering ample room in the forefoot while still holding perfectly secure, the Cascadia 16 provides the wearer with a lightweight shoe that has excellent under-foot protection. This lightweight shoe is best suited for the hiker/trail runner that needs great traction and support on groomed trails, rough terrain, or anything in between. The Cascadia 16 is available for both men and women as a waterproof (GTX) or well ventilated, regular model.

Reasons to Buy

  • Outstanding rock shield
  • Stable/comfortable fit
  • Roomy forefoot

Reasons to Avoid

  • Not the best grip in wet/slippery conditions
  • Main face fabric may have questionable long-term durability

Although finding the perfect trail shoe may sometimes feel like chasing a "glass slipper," the Brooks Cascadia 16 checks many of the boxes… Without a doubt, the venerable Brooks Cascadia is one of the ‘tried & true’ products that has been around the block. Currently in its 16th generation, the Cascadia always seems to be reaching for new improvements.    These trail runners are ideal for lightweight/ultralight backpacking, when saving weight is a priority. Using the Brooks Cascadia 16 under loads up to 25 lbs feels comfortable on a week-long summer backpacking trip.    Specifications: Price: $130 ($160 GTX) Men's and Women's separate lines Weight: 298g/10.5oz per men's shoe; 319g/11.25oz actually recorded weight without insole,...

Read more: Brooks Cascadia reviews (19)

La Sportiva Wildcat

user rating: 4 of 5 (8 reviews)

A sturdy trail runner fit for lightweight backpacking. The outsole on this shoe is the best thing since the old Vibram soles on my heavy full-leather boots. They stick to every condition I've encountered on the Appalachian Trail (except for mossy wet rock, but everyone is going to break their neck on that stuff). Lightweight and breathable. If the shoe fits, wear it!

Reasons to Buy

  • Outsole/lugs
  • Breathable
  • Heel cup
  • Dries fast

Reasons to Avoid

  • Durability

After 15 years backpacking in heavy, full leather, boots, I finally decided to give a trail runner a try. I wish I had switched sooner. The differene between having 2 lb boots on each foot vs. this 12 oz shoe is amazing!  Here's the bad news, these shoes will not last as long as a leather boot. The inside of the shoe at the top of where you insert your foot is starting to wear after only about 80 miles of backpacking and trail running. But, that's the only place where I think they are wearing too soon.

Read more: La Sportiva Wildcat reviews (8)

Altra Lone Peak 6

user rating: 5 of 5 (1 review)

These shoes have a fit and build that are great for all day comfort, on or off trail. "Original Footshape fit" is amazing for wide feet! The extra space may make them unsuitable for fierce competition, though.

Reasons to Buy

  • Wide toe box
  • Zero drop
  • Gaiter trap
  • Grippy outsole with great traction

Reasons to Avoid

  • I like Salomon's quick tie laces better
  • No studs

Fit: These use Altra's "original footshape fit", which is their roomiest fit. Believe it, or not, they also come in a wide. When I ordered these, they were only available in wide, so that's what I got.  Comfort: The wide toe box is so comfortable. I'm almost always used to having my foot squeezed, especially at the end of a long day. That's a thing of the past with these. I am constantly checking for another deal on these because I definitely want another when these wear out. Support: Feels great, but I'm used to minimalist shoes, so don't know how they'd feel for someone used to more support.

Read more: Altra Lone Peak 6 review (1)

Top Hiking Boot / Trail Running Shoe

INOV8 Roclite G 345 GTX

user rating: 4 of 5 (1 review)

The Inov-8 Roclite G 345 GTX is a very high quality mid-ankle boot that offers superb traction, while still being very lightweight. Inov-8 classifies this product as a hiking and running boot that provides comfort and traction over trail protection. Graphene rubber technology takes this footwear to a new level, making it ideal for unstable and slippery terrain during moderate mileage days.

Reasons to Buy

  • Incredible traction even on wet mossy rock
  • Comfortable
  • Durable outsole
  • Gaiter compatible (proprietary)

Reasons to Avoid

  • Toe cap/heel cap insufficient against stones
  • No protection on outer foot area
  • Laces are slippery to use
  • Wide openings catch debris

Inov-8 released the Roclite G 345 GTX to meet the needs of the "fast & light" hiker or trail runner looking for exceptional waterproof comfort. Inov-8 claims "superior traction" with this boot, and it was found not only to be accurate, but perhaps the best traction of any boot I've tested. Although several features help these boots shine, they are straightforward, allowing the wearer to focus on the trail ahead. These boots were tested over approximately 150 miles, without the traction giving in a bit.

Read more: INOV8 Roclite G 345 GTX review (1)

La Sportiva Akasha

user rating: 4.5 of 5 (1 review)

A burly trail runner meant for mountain runs or hikes.

Reasons to Buy

  • Sticky outsole
  • Protection from rocks
  • Comfortable
  • Durable

Reasons to Avoid

  • If other La Sportivas fit you, these might not
  • Pricey

I'm on my second pair of La Sportiva Akashas and figured it was time for a review. I've owned several pairs of La Sportivas, but these are the only ones to fit well. The others I've owned simply didn't have enough room in the toe box, these do. This is also La Sportiva's burliest trail runner. I don't have overly wide feet, but do need a roomy toe box—not an easy proposition unfortunately. The Akashas fit snuggly in the heel and midfoot, where you want a shoe to fit snuggly. These definitely have more volume than other La Sportiva's, possibly too much if their other shoes fit you.

Read more: La Sportiva Akasha review (1)

More Reviews of Trail Running Shoes

Trailspace reviewers have shared 1340 reviews of 349 different trail running shoes.

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Foot types

Determine your foot type with the wet foot test.

Foot Type  Wear Patterns  The Issue  The Shoe Type

Flat

Your treads show signs of wear on the inside and by the big toe.

Your foot is very flexible and you strike the ground on the outside of your heel and roll inwards, meaning over-pronation. You need some motion control to prevent that inward roll.

High Stability
or 
Motion Control

Neutral

Your treads show signs of wear down the middle.

Your foot is neutral, meaning you don’t over-pronate, or you only do so slightly, which is normal. No major correction is needed.

Moderate Stability or
Neutral/Cushioning

High Arch

Your treads show signs of wear on the outside and by the little toe.

Your foot is very rigid and you tend to run on the outsides of your feet, called supination or under-pronation. Your shoes should be well cushioned and flexible to counteract the rigidity of your feet.

Neutral/Cushioning

 

Need more help getting started running trails? Read our Trail Running 101.

Other Types of Footwear

Find more footwear reviewed in these related categories:

Mountaineering Boots

Backpacking Boots

Hiking Boots

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