10 Best Trail Running Shoes (Buyer's Guide)

Author: Jens Jakob Andersen. Updated: .

Trail running shoes are specifically built to tackle unpaved surfaces. If you are not confident about which one to buy, this guide article will help you.

How we review trail running shoes

At RunRepeat, we provide up-to-date recommendations for trail running shoes by taking into account the latest reviews and shoe releases.

  • We spend 7 hours on each shoe doing research and reading reviews around the internet.
  • More than 200,000 user reviews were analyzed to list the pros and cons of each shoe.
  • We give a CoreScore of 0 to 100 to each trail shoe, indicating how liked a shoe is based on the expert reviews and user ratings.

Popular running shoes aren't the better rated ones

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4 things to look for in trail running shoes

In choosing the right trail running shoes for you, here are the important things to consider: 

1. Different surfaces: Light trail vs. Rugged trail

Trail running shoes fall into two categories – light and rugged trail. Shoes for light and rugged terrains are built differently and offer a diverse level of protection, cushioning, and traction.

 

  Light Trail Rugged Trail

Terrain

Well-groomed, uniform surfaces

Uneven, rugged surfaces

Design

Basic structure, close to  a road running shoe

Sturdy design and materials, supportive upper

Stiffness

Moderately Stiff

Stiff for stability on uneven surfaces

Cushioning

Some offer a moderate amount of cushioning for comfort; others have minimal cushioning for better ground contact

Resilient cushioning for hard landings and steep descents

Outsole

Modest level of traction and durability

Aggressive, durable outsole

Lugs

Shallow lugs

Thick, multidirectional lugs

Protection

Modest level of protection

Increased level of foot protection

 

A few more things to consider with the outsole - trail running shoes have either:

  • Soft rubber outsole - provides more grip on roots, wet rocks, and other slippery surfaces 
  • Hard solid rubber - delivers durable traction on hard rocks, stones, and debris.

2. Size and fit

Shoes with a poor fit can be painful and cause foot conditions like bunions, calluses, and more. A few things to remember when it comes to shoe fit in trail running shoes:

  • A wide toe-box can help with bunion pain but it is not for everyone. 
  • For competition, a snug fit is better; for everyday training, a more natural fit is preferred.
  • An extra-wide fit will cause slipping if you're running on mountain hills but many prefer the wide toe box as it’s more comfortable.
  • During pregnancy, women's feet become larger.
  • Different lacing techniques can also improve the overall fit.

Buying tips

  • Make sure your toes are not cramped. Your feet swell as you run, make sure to have enough space to prevent blisters or black toenails. 
  • Sock thickness can affect shoe fit; try the trail shoes with the socks you plan to wear.
  • Shoe size changes over time, it is recommended to measure your feet when you buy new shoes.

3. Cushioning level

Pick the right trail shoe by determining the amount of cushioning you need. Trail shoes with less cushioning are lighter and offer better ground contact while more cushioning means lesser impact and more comfortable running. Cushioning often comes with stability, and you need more of it, especially on hard foot strikes.

 

Barefoot.png

Barefoot

Lightweight

With 3 to 4mm thin layer padding between the foot and the ground

Enhanced feel for the trail

Less pressure on hips

No arch support or stability feature

Minimal cushioning.png

Minimal Cushioning

Lightweight and flexible

Minimal cushioning for comfort without sacrificing ground contact

Little to no arch support

Typically with 0 to 4mm heel drop

Moderate cushioning.png

Moderate Cushioning

Characterized as traditional trail shoes

Enough cushioning for comfort

Most often features an 8-12mm drop

Maximum cushioning.png

Maximum Cushioning

Thickly cushioned for maximum comfort and plush feel

Helpful in reducing fatigue on high-mile runs

Heel height above 30mm; forefoot height above 25mm

Drop vary from 0mm to 12mm

 

Disclaimer: Stack heights and heel to toe drop are generally following each other, but there are plenty of shoes with high stack heights and a lot of cushioning that maintains a low drop. The guidelines above are general. 

4. Protective elements

Most trail running shoes have external and internal features to protect the feet from rocks and sharp elements. Protective elements are important but they have their own advantages and disadvantages.

 

 

Pros 

Cons

Rock plate.png

- Suited for technical terrains

- Protects feet from sharp rocks and stone bruises

- Adds weight

Toe cap.png

- Ideal for technical, rocky surfaces

- Protects the toes from rocks and trail debris

- Adds durability to the upper of the shoe

- Depending on the materials used, the toe bumper may not be as protective as expected

Waterproof coverage.png

- Keeps feet dry on wet running conditions

- Keeps feet warm on cold weather

- more durable than non-waterproof shoes

- Not as breathable as non-waterproof running shoes

- Once water gets in the shoe, it’s not getting out

- Heavier than non-waterproof trail shoes

- Cost $15-$20 more than non-waterproof trail shoes

Water repellent element.png

- Effective against light drizzle or dampness

- More breathable than waterproof trail shoes

- Offers less water protection than waterproof shoes

Trail running shoes for snow and ice

Although trail shoes are designed to tackle wet, slippery and uneven terrain, there are additional elements that would make them perform even better on ice and snow.

  • They have built-in metal spikes. These spikes are designed to provide enhanced traction on ice and hard snow. While they offer impressive grip, they might be uncomfortable since they can push up the shoe while walking. Also, with regular use, they may need to be sharpened. 
  • Trail shoes for snow and ice have impressive insulation features. Aside from keeping your feet dry through its waterproof coverage, a reliable trail shoe ensures your feet are kept warm throughout the run. A good winter socks can also help to keep your feet comfy. 
  • A fully integrated gaiter is a huge plus. They are designed to prevent debris and snow from entering the shoe, keeping the feet protected and warm. Others may find the use of gaiters uncool but it is optimal to use gaiters when you are running in too much snow. 

The best trail running shoes in every category

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Now, are you ready to buy trail running shoes?

Author
Jens Jakob Andersen
Jens Jakob Andersen

Jens Jakob is a fan of short distances with a 5K PR at 15:58 minutes. Based on 35 million race results, he's among the fastest 0.2% runners. Jens Jakob previously owned a running store, when he was also a competitive runner. His work is regularly featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, BBC and the likes as well as peer-reviewed journals. Finally, he has been a guest on +30 podcasts on running.

jens@runrepeat.com