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. 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.
Best Overall Trail Running Shoe: Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4
[amazon box=B07HYYSP6S title=”Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4″]
- Low to the ground means super stable
- Extremely durable outsole
- Very comfortable
- Runs slightly long
- Slightly more expensive than in previous years
The Nike Terra Kiger 4 is the best overall model that we tested in 2017. As a former Top Pick Award winner for light and fast running, we feel that the newest version of this shoe is even more refined without losing any of the simultaneously protective, sensitive, and light feel that endeared it to our hearts and feet.
This shoe is ideal for running your best on race day or for speedwork but is also featured enough to use as every day, do anything kind of trail running shoe. We have worn it on desert trails and scrambles, for long days on dirt roads, on our favorite trails in the mountains, and off-trail up mountain ridgelines, and were impressed with its performance every time. We especially love how the Phylon midsole, combined with the Nike Air cushioning pockets, provides a low to the ground ride that is supportive and protective without relying on overly thick EVA foam cushioning.
Over time we have found the waffle pattern outsole to be very sticky and super durable, and the newly modified upper is simply the most comfortable foot-hugging design in our fleet. With a massive trail running bias, we were admittedly wary of Nikes when we first started testing them, but as the miles have racked up, we found that despite only offering two models of trail-specific shoes, their designs and performance are simply outshining the competition. As the highest-scoring shoe in this review, we think the Terra Kiger 4 is the first shoe you should check out when shopping for a new pair of speedy kicks.
Best Value: Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 5
[amazon box=B07H8KBQPS title=”Inov-8 Roclite 290″]
- Great durability
- Very Comfortable
- Great value
- Not as stable as better models
The Wildhorse 4 is an everyday trainer style of shoe that is an absolute workhorse. Personal anecdotes abound online of how people have easily run in these shoes for 500 or even 1000 miles, and while we didn’t have time to put that many miles on them, we can say that after about 150, they look as if they have barely been used.
For comparison, many shoes these days suffer from the torn tread or poorly compressed foam midsoles after only a few weeks of use by a dedicated trail runner; to find a pair that will last for an entire season or longer is a valuable find indeed!
Besides their exemplary durability, we found these shoes to perform much the same as our overall best shoe, the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4, although with a bit more underfoot protection and a slight corresponding uptick in weight. For runners who prefer a moderate amount of heel-toe drop, this shoe’s 8mm drop will have you feeling comfortably at home, and no doubt most athletes will find that the Wildhorse 4 will be more than capable of handling everything they encounter.
Due to its incredible comfort and durability, not to mention fantastic foot protection, we also feel that this is an excellent choice for ultra-distance races. At only $110, it is a hair cheaper than most in this review, but was a natural choice for our Best Bang for the Buck award.
Best Shoes for Traction: Inov-8 Roclite 290
[amazon box=B073VSMN6R title=”Inov-8 Roclite 290″]
- Best traction on all surfaces: trail, grass, mud, rock, wet rocks
- Low to the ground profile is very stable
- Very sensitive to the surface underfoot
- The relatively thin midsole doesn’t offer a ton of underfoot protection
- Not as light as we would expect by looking at it
No shoe surprised us more this year than the Inov-8 Roclite 290. Due to its superior traction, matched with excellent stability and sensitivity in a very comfortable package, this shoe tied our best overall award winner, the Nike Terra Kiger 4 as the highest-scoring shoe in the review. Even more telling than its high score was simply the fact that this was a shoe we kept reaching for, time and again, on our way out the door – which says a lot. We chose to recognize it as a Top Pick for its incredible traction. Many years in a row the shoe with the best traction in our testing has been the Salomon Speedcross 4, but this year it was unseated by the Roclite 290.
We found the Tri-C rubber compound to simply be the stickiest rubber on any shoe we tested, an attribute that we loved when scrambling across rocky talus, even when wet! Its super deep and well-spaced out “cleats” also gripped grass and mud better than the rest, which is exactly what we would expect from a shoe born for fell running. If optimal traction is a priority, and you like a light and nimble shoe, we highly encourage you to check this one out.
Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning: HOKA Speedgoat 3
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 4.5 mm | Weight (per pair, size 11): 23.2 oz.
[amazon box=B07L5Q42JL title=”HOKA Speedgoat 3″]
- A ton of underfoot foam cushioning also offers great protection
- Far more comfortable fit than the Hoka Challenger ATR 4
- Light for their size
- Narrow fit in the forefoot troublesome for some
Maximally cushioned shoes have a huge following in the trail running world, and for a good reason! Not only do they protect your feet from rocks and other protrusions, but they also absorb some of the impacts of the act of running itself, resulting in less wear on your body. For older runners and ultra runners, in particular, these advantages are huge. With such a large cult following, we wanted to add more breadth to this section of our review, and boy are we glad that we did! After many test runs, the Hoka Speedgoat 3 blew us away as the best maximally cushioned shoe that we have run in. It has a flatter and more stable feeling platform than the Hoka Challenger ATR 4, while also holding your foot in place more comfortably with a far more padded upper. These attributes, combined with larger and deeper lugs on the outsole made for a noticeable increase in our running pleasure while wearing the Speedgoats.
On the downside, these shoes still suffered from the classic complaints inherent in the maximally cushioned design. With a super fat midsole, your foot lives far off the ground, making for a less stable ride, especially on rocky and uneven terrain. They are also not very sensitive, a bit heavier than the Challenger ATR 4, and like all Hokas are pretty expensive. For ultra racers, older (more experienced) runners, those recovering from impact or overuse related injuries, or just anyone who likes a bit of extra bounce in their step, the advantages of a maximally cushioned shoe generally far outweigh the cons. If this sounds like you, we encourage you to check out the Hoka Speedgoat 2.
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 it’s 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. The products in this review that qualify as low-profile are the La Sportiva Helios 2.0, the Saucony Peregrine 6, the Altra Superior 2.0 and the winner of our Top Pick for Light and Fast, the Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3.
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. The majority of the products we reviewed fall into this category, including our Editors’ Choice award-winning Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2 v3, the Best Buy winning The North Face Ultra Endurance, as well as the New Balance Leadville v3, the Mizuno Wave Hayate 2, Brooks Cascadia 11, Salomon Speedcross 4, the Montrail Caldorado, the ASICS Gel-FujiTrabuco 4, and the La Sportiva Wildcat.
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 body. Check out our review of the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2 if this category interests you.
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 the 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 in 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 this year 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 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.