10 Best Trail Running Shoes in 2021

Jens Jakob Andersen
Jens Jakob Andersen on
10 Best Trail Running Shoes in 2021

We’ve tested more than 100 pairs of trail running shoes to help you find the best of the best.

Some trail shoes are created for the harshest off-road challenges like rocks, mud, snow, and branches. They keep you protected and surefooted. Others are made for the more urban-ready conditions and are comfortable enough to switch from roads to trails.

Whichever your purpose is, we have listed our top recommendations in several categories.

And if you want to dive into the nitty-gritties of selecting the best pair for your needs, skip right to our guide on trail shoes below the shoe descriptions.

How we review trail running shoes

To save your time, we spend hours scrutinizing every single shoe release. As an independent shoe testing lab, we purchase all trail shoes with our own money to stay unbiased.

  • We cut shoes into pieces
  • Take them on long runs
  • Measure over 30 different parameters far beyond weight and stack

Instead of “durable” or “comfortable” you get concrete data that puts each trail shoe up against hundreds of others.

To make it as comprehensive as it can be, we have also gone over 200,000 of real user and expert reviews for 500+ trail running shoes. All opinions are reflected in the CoreScore, a number from 1 to 100 which is assigned to each model.

The best trail shoes make it here.

Best overall

After making it to our list of best running shoes, it’s a no-brainer that the Salomon Sense Ride 4 is here to take its throne again. We just can’t get enough of this shoe! 

It’s a trail bruiser, and it darn good one. From the bottom up, it’s got what it takes to conquer the trails. 

It’s easily our choice for high-mileage efforts and steep climbs. This shoe just smashes everything underfoot, owing it all to its 3.57mm lugs.

And the real showstopper here is its fun and energetic ride. Honestly, we didn’t really expect much in this department because it’s one crazy sturdy shoe. In our lab tests, we’ve found that it’s 31.7% stiffer than the average midsole, and the outsole is 6.4HC more rigid than the average. 

Combine that all together, and you get an INCREDIBLY solid shoe! And it’s not a tank that’s going to punish the feet either. 

At 10.5 oz, it tips our scales, alright. But when we took it out for a spin, it did NOT feel heavy at all! It’s nimble, and it didn’t drag our feet down. 

Even more, the upper stunned us! It’s a 10/10 in the comfort arena. It’s plush and soft, we never experienced any rubbing nor hot spots. 

Generally, if you want a trail shoe that’s going to last and excels at its job, the Salomon Sense Ride 4 will not disappoint! 

See our full review and facts

Saucony Peregrine is a real tank for smashing the trails! We have tested it on the most demanding terrain to confirm that this shoe embodies confidence.

The grip is outstanding! The Peregrine has the deepest lugs in our trail shoe collection (4.35 mm compared to the average 3.2 mm) and bites just about anything: rocks, mud, snow, and slush. It even kept us surefooted on wet steep hills. This is essential if you live in a rainy area.

The outsole teams up with a highly secure lockdown. We were able to successfully maneuver some winding paths with ZERO foot movement inside the shoe.

This beast is going to last! There’s not even a scratch or signs of wear after miles of testing. The outsole is 50% thicker than most other running shoes, promising you at least 500 miles of dependable service.

Expect the Peregrine to feel a little stiff at first. But once broken in, this shoe will be your guardian on the toughest trails.

Not recommended for warmer days, it will best serve you in normal to colder temperatures.

The Peregrine makes you feel so confident, you forget about what’s underneath your feet!

See our full review and facts

Best budget shoe

For a less than average price of trail shoes, we find the Brooks Divide 2 an excellent value for $100!

Having tested it from paved roads to the slightly more challenging terrain, we are impressed with the shoe’s versatility! It is a perfect option if you are just starting to mix in some trails into your runs. 

It even feels like a road shoe. The upper is so comfortable you want to take the shoe on the run straight from the box. A gusseted tongue was also a nice surprise found in such a budget-friendly shoe. It was especially helpful in keeping our feet securely locked.

And if you have wider feet, the shoe has got some serious wiggle room in the toebox to keep your toes happy!

Although it is not meant for technical trails, it still packs a rock plate. So if you happen to step on a rock or a sharp object, your foot is sure to be guarded.

All in all, we highly recommend the Brooks Divide 2 as a door-to-trail commuter that equally feels at home on the road and on moderate trails.

See our full review and facts

An even more affordable option, Asics Gel Venture 8 really surprised us with its durability and grip for $70!

Visually, it makes an impression of a simple shoe but once you have it on, the perception changes. It feels unbelievably comfortable around the foot! There is a very minimal break-in period and after a couple of miles, the shoe reveals its true comfort.

The upper scored high in lockdown on our wear tests too! It did a great job keeping our feet in place even on the sharpest corners.

Traction-wise, we were astonished by how well this budget-friendly shoe grips! Gravel, loose ground, mud - it performed very close to the more expensive options.

And if you think a $70 shoe won’t last long, the Venture 8 can prove you wrong. With how minimal the outsole wear is after miles of wear tests, we expect this workhorse to outlast 450 miles!

So, if you are looking for a cheap trail shoe that performs like a $100+ pair and planning to run shorter distances (up to 10K), there is no better option than the Asics Gel Venture 8!

See our full review and facts

Best off-trail

Salomon Speedcross 5 is off the charts!

Out of 500+ trail shoes that we have reviewed, we still consider it the GOAT when it comes to the roughest off-trail running.

This traction monster sports some of the most aggressive 4-mm lugs (compared to the average 3.2 mm). Be it snow, slush, wet rocks, or mud - we never slipped once on our multiple wear tests.

If you decide to go over 10 miles at a time, the shoe’s lockdown stays as sturdy as it was the moment you tied them up. By the way, Salomon’s proprietary toggle laces take seconds to adjust or let loose. You will not want to go back to regular laces after these!

With the amount of protection this Salomon shoe offers on sharp, pokey rocks, we couldn’t believe there is no rock plate inside! No matter what obstacles you hit along the way, this shoe protects you 360 degrees.

We also felt safe on the landings thanks to the wide base of the shoe. No ankle twists or awkward wobbles. The ride is nice and steady.

Durability-wise, this thing was created for abuse. It takes a couple of hundred miles to get the first scratch on the shoe. Expect it to last you well over 500 miles!

In a word, Salomon Speedcross 5 is a no-brainer if you need a tough shoe for the most technical terrain. You can even make your own trails with this machine.

The shoe also comes in a GTX version in case you run in wet, rainy conditions.

See our full review and facts

And if you don’t mind exchanging a few extra oz for maximum possible protection on the trails, there is no burlier shoe than the Salomon XA Pro 3D.

It is so heavy-duty that you can use it as a dedicated hiking shoe. Our wear tests included both running and hiking sessions and this titan nailed them all.

Impossible to destroy, this Salomon can do way beyond the average 500 miles across trail shoes. There is not even a hint of wear on the upper or the outsole after 100+ miles of our wear testing.

It is also the most supportive trail shoe for runners with conditions like flat feet, overpronation, or plantar fasciitis. The shoe clutches all-around your foot and ankle, plunging them into the world of comfort. At the same time, it stays so secure throughout the run that you will not think about making any adjustments to the fit.

Just like the Speedcross 5, the XA Pro uses a miraculous speed lacing. Regular laces never come close to how effortless it is to tighten and loosen the Salomon toggles on the go.

There is no rock plate here but there is even no need for one thanks to the robust outsole. We stepped on all sorts of rocks, branches, and debris without any worries or discomfort!

The shoe also sports some of the largest and hard-wearing toe bumpers we’ve ever seen. Try kicking a rock intentionally and your toes won’t even feel it!

Overall, this is a tank. If you want maximum possible protection and support for running and hiking some challenging trails, Salomon XA Pro 3D is the one.

See our full review and facts

Best for ultra

If you are going on a 100-mile race, there is no better shoe that we can recommend more than the Olympus 4.0.

From over 110+ ultra-ready models that we have reviewed, this Altra behemoth scores the highest in every essential aspect.

First of all, cushioning. Beast of a shoe, it offers an extremely generous amount of cushioning (33 mm) that keeps you running all day long. And even if you’re not going the distance, it is so plush that it makes a perfect easy-day/recovery shoe.

Secondly, it wouldn’t be an Altra without the widest toebox in the history of running shoes! There is so much space to accommodate long-distance foot swelling that frees you from the pressure and blisters.

Third, the Vibram sole has lived up to all our expectations. It is a truly premium material used on top-tier trail running and hiking shoes, and the Olympus is no exception. We were able to tackle everything in it: rocks, mud, loose trails, and more.

And we just couldn’t get enough of this shoe’s overall comfort. You don’t even feel like taking it off after the run! Even more, it breathes well enough to prevent your feet from getting toasted.

This is THE shoe for your longest hauls.

See our full review and facts

It was a neck-to-neck competition between the Speedgoat and the Olympus for the top pick. However, the Olympus scored slightly higher due to the overall comfort.

But still, our choice doesn’t minimize all the admirable qualities of the Speedgoat. With just as much cushioning (32 mm in the heel), it is a runner-up to the best ultra-distance shoe.

Even with the absence of a rock plate, all the amount of firm foam and rubber keeps you protected. Having tested it on some gnarly and rocky trails, we never felt pain stepping on the obstacles.

But most of all, we enjoyed the steady, consistent ride of this trail shoe. Its platform is significantly wider than average (even some other Hokas), which makes you feel so surefooted at all times.

Another brilliant Vibram sole application, the outsole on this shoe bites! We climbed steep hills and crushed it downhill in the Speedgoat. Tacky and grippy, it won’t let you slip and slide even on some muddy areas. As for durability, we equate it to that of the Olympus. 10 out of 10 here!

This Hoka shoe may not offer the same amount of wiggle room as the Altra BUT it is available in a Wide option in case you need some extra space. Overall, it creates a highly secure midfoot cage that never let our feet slide around on the wear tests.

A slightly more affordable option among the premium ultra shoes, the Speedgoat receives all praises from us. 

Not to mention the sexy looks!

See our full review and facts

Best road-to-trail

Brooks just nails it in the Caldera 5! It’s everything we need for the trails and the road. 

First off, it’s got a really good grip. As in, it bites latches onto everything and anything underfoot. On the trails, it crushed every rock and root beneath it, and on the road, it bit into the pavement superbly! 

If you want one hell of a commuter, this is THE shoe. 

After pacing it, we’ve found that it takes the spotlight in long-distance stretches. It’s very cushioned and bouncy, it just pampered our feet from mile 1 to the last. 

Even better, it’s a trail shoe that's solid. We love to (ab)use our shoes in the roughest terrain, and this is no exception. And 30 miles later, it’s still flawless! It not only looks tough, it’s REAL tough. 

What’s also great about this shoe is that it’s got a gusseted tongue, which hands down, gave our feet all the security and lockdown sensation they needed. Add in the very supportive overlays, wobbling is not even in this shoe’s vocabulary! 

At 10.9 oz, the Brooks Caldera 5 is a heavy shoe. But it’s all in the name of protection and comfort, which are exactly what this trail shoe delivered.

See our full review and facts

If you’re not traversing the rockiest of terrains but want to go from trail to the city streets without changing gears, the Nike Pegasus Trail 3 is the shoe.

We cannot stop praising this shoe for having some of the softest and comfiest cushioning across trail shoes. Nearly 38%(!) softer than the average across running shoes, “walking on clouds” just got a new meaning for us.

For those who worry about feeling unstable, we have measured the platform width in our lab. Surprisingly, this Nike is wider than most of its siblings and is even wider than the average: by 3.2 mm in the forefoot and 3.3 mm in the heel!

Rubber durability is another above-average parameter in this trail shoe. Being 20% stiffer than most outsoles, we also expect it to outlast 500 miles.

As expected for a hybrid shoe, the lugs are only 3.3 mm deep. They don’t get in the way when you are on the road but reveal their grippy nature once you hit the trail. But moderate trail only. It’s not the first choice for mud or wet rocks.

And just how sexy it looks! If you want to come out of the trails to the city looking your best, this is the shoe.

See our full review and facts

Consider terrain: light trail vs. rugged trail

Depending on the type of terrain they are intended for, trail running shoes are roughly divided into two categories: light and rugged trail.

Light trail: hard-packed, maintained surfaces

Rugged trail: uneven terrain with rocks, roots, debris, and other obstacles

Given the kind of challenges you may or may not face on these surfaces, trail running shoes offer different levels of protection, cushioning, and traction.

Trail shoe design: basic or sturdy?

light-trail-vs-rugged-trail-shoe.jpg

Light trail shoe (left) vs. rugged trail shoe (right)

 

Light trail shoes

Rugged trail shoes

Shoes for light trails are more similar to road running shoes. They are lighter, more streamlined, and are less reinforced. Some of them can even transition from road to trail and are called hybrid.

Rugged trail shoed feature a sturdier design and materials, added overlays on the upper, and more hard-wearing sole components.

The most robust ones make it to a separate off-trail category.

Level of cushioning in trail shoes

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.

Barefoot-like shoes

Barefoot.png
  • 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 features

See barefoot running shoes for trails

Minimal cushioning

saucony-switchback-minimalist.jpg

Minimal cushioning.png
  • Lightweight and flexible
  • Minimal cushioning for comfort without sacrificing ground contact
  • Little to no arch support
  • Typically with 0 to 4mm heel drop

See all minimalist trail shoes

Moderate cushioning

saucony-peregrine-11-profile-photo.jpg

Moderate cushioning.png
  • Characterized as traditional trail shoes
  • Enough cushioning for comfort
  • Most often features an 8-12mm drop

See our full list of cushioned trail shoes

Maximum cushioning

brooks-divide-2-hybrid-running-shoes.jpg

Maximum cushioning.png
  • 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

See maximalist trail shoes

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. 

Outsole rubber and lugs

trail-shoe-lug-types.jpg

Variations of trail shoe lugs from the lightest to the grippiest

Light trail shoes Rugged trail shoes

Light trail shoes have a moderate level of outsole traction and durability.

The lugs are shallower.

Rugged trail shoes feature aggressive, durable outsoles with deep, multi-directional lugs.

Trail shoes for mud and snow tend to have the deepest lugs to keep you surefooted on soft terrain.

Protective elements in trail shoes

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

See trail shoes with a rock plate

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

All trail running shoes come with a toe cap but have varying degrees of protection

Waterproof coverage.png

Keeps feet dry in wet running conditions

Keeps feet warm in 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

See 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

See water-repellent trail shoes

4. 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.
  • Different lacing techniques can also improve the overall fit.

salomon-sense-ride-4-on-feet.jpg

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.

See our guide on shoe sizing to learn more and find out the right size for you.

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.