A trail running pair of shoes usually has some extra foam cushioning, so your feet can be better protected from objects not usually found on the road. The toe bumpers and protective overlays found on the uppers of these shoes protect the sides and tops of your feet from sticks or the sides of jagged rocks, while also protecting the mesh material that is designed to let your foot breathe and the shoe shed water should it get wet.
Do you really need trail shoes?
While running is still running on both roads and trails, shoes are increasingly designed for different purposes. Running on trails, or even off-trail through the mountains, forest, or desert, requires a dependable trail running shoe.
Types of Trail Running Shoes
Although there aren’t specific industry-defined categories for trail running shoes, we’ve loosely divided the products in this review into types using a combination of heel-toe drop and the amount of underfoot cushioning. Differentiating shoes in this way is meant to help a person select which type of shoe is most likely to suit their individual needs. For instance, someone who has never run before and has a history of back problems is probably going to want a Maximalist shoe, and perhaps more importantly, is going to want to avoid Minimalist shoes, at least initially. These categories are expanded upon more in our buying advice article.
The two components of a shoe that we have used to define these categories are heel-toe drop and cushioning. Heel-toe drop is the difference between the height of cushioning in the heel versus the toes. Almost all shoes have extra padding under the heel because people tend to land on their heels first when running, and so need more cushioning there. If a shoe has 8mm of extra foam and other materials in the heel than in the toes, then its heel-toe drop would be 8mm. The range of heel-toe drop in the shoes we tested is as high as 12mm and as low as 0mm.
Cushioning, also known as stack height, is used to describe exactly how much material is actually between your foot and the ground while wearing a shoe. This material is the combination of the midsole, made up of the support, cushioning, and rock plate, combined with the outsole, which is the sticky rubber traction that interacts with the ground. Some shoes have very little cushioning, while others, in particular, the Maximalist category, specifically feature lots of cushioning. Whether you desire lots of cushioning or little-to-none is mostly a personal preference, although anatomy and amount of running experience also tend to play a role. The categories:
Barefoot & Minimalist
Barefoot or minimalist shoes attempt to leave the shape and function of your foot in its instinctually unaltered form, and merely slap a piece of rubber on your sole to help with protection and traction. They typically have a 0mm drop and almost no cushioning or underfoot protection except for the outsole. There is much debate surrounding the benefits of the barefoot movement, and the excitement surrounding these types of shoes has waned considerably since its peak following the release of the best-selling book Born To Run. None of the shoes in this review fit into this category, but if you’re curious about this type of footwear, be sure to check out our Barefoot Shoe Review.
Low-Profile shoes exemplify the adage “less is more,” while also striking a “some is better than none,” balance. They typically have a heel-toe drop of 0mm to 6mm and are designed to be light, fast, and supportive of a natural running gait, while at the same time offering the protection and support that most people need for trail running. They tend to have less cushioning and underfoot protection and offer greater sensitivity in return, although there are exceptions.
We recommend these shoes to more experienced trail runners who have developed strong foot muscles, a quicker, lighter running stride, and who can handle (or desire) less foot protection and more sensitivity in their shoes. These are the shoes most often seen on the feet of elite runners at trail races and tend to be the highest performers.
Standard or Traditional
Standard or traditional trail shoes are what we would typically think of when we mentally picture a running shoe, but they also have trail-specific features like a midsole rock plate, aggressively lugged traction, and a water-shedding mesh upper. They typically have 6mm to 12mm of heel-toe drop, a feature that has been standard in running shoes for a long time. These shoes serve as great everyday trainers and specialize in protecting your feet for long-running adventures.
They are the type of shoes that the majority of the trail runners in the world are wearing, and are the type we would typically recommend to the average runner.
When we say “Maximalist,” we mean models that emphasize a large amount of cushioning. These shoes often have a relatively low heel-toe drop, but very high stack heights. HOKA ONE ONE is the brand that has brought this trend to the forefront, although a few others are jumping on board and adding models with extra cushioning. These shoes are very popular amongst ultra-runners and older runners who desire the least amount of abuse to their bodies.
Recent Trends in the Trail Shoe Market
The trail running shoe market is being updated pretty much constantly and so it can be hard to keep up with these changes. Why would you want to? Well, this is a consumer-driven market, after all, and so countless manufacturers are beholden to listen to their customers to try to correct mistakes and problems, as well as design the kind of shoes that people want to buy. Over the course of the many consecutive years that we have been producing shoe reviews, we have noticed that, without a doubt, shoe designs are getting better, and the companies are in fact listening (sometimes it even feels like they are reading these reviews!). We have also noticed that, with a few notable exceptions, the shifts often seem to be industry-wide. On that note, we wanted to point out a few ways in which this year’s crop of trail running shoes is improving for the better:
A New Baseline
Based on the best-selling shoes in this market, it seems as if the industry is moving away from the edges and more towards the middle, defining, in a way, a new baseline. What we mean is that the average shoe now has between 4mm and 8mm of heel-toe drop, down from 10-14mm a few years ago. At the same time, manufacturers have slowly been increasing the amount of underfoot cushioning recently as advances in foam technologies have allowed them to add cushioning without adding weight. The New Baseline is less drop with more foam padding.
Outsoles are Improving
The outsole is the piece of rubber on the bottom of the shoe that makes contact and interacts with the running surface and is thus an important part of the performance of any shoe. More companies are moving towards an outsole that features large, aggressive lugs for grip on soft surfaces, made of durable sticky rubber for grip on hard surfaces, and widely spaced apart in order to best shed mud.
In our opinion, the combination of these three factors leads to the best all-around outsole, like that found on the Salomon Speedcross 4, and so we think it is a positive thing that more companies are incorporating one or even all three of these attributes in their outsole design.
Trail running shoes continue to get lighter. Year after year, shoe companies release updates and new versions of their most popular flagship models, and we often test the new version of these best-sellers, comparing them to previous versions. What we have noticed is that many of these models, such as the Brooks Cascadia, the Salomon Speedcross, and the La Sportiva Helios, have become lighter compared to their predecessors. Even more remarkable is the newer models of the HOKA’s, like the Challenger ATR 2 that we reviewed, are among the lightest in our review despite quite obviously being a much bigger shoe.
These weight losses are due mostly to advances in foam technologies, but also to using lighter weight mesh uppers with thinner film overlays for support rather than heavier plastic or suede materials. Regardless, we believe that lighter is better, so we are happy to see these shoes ditching the extra ounces, and hope this trend continues.