Running shoes are designed based on running mechanisms (neutral, overpronator, underpronation), use (competition or daily training) and terrain (road or trail). Whether you are a casual or a competitive runner finding the right shoe is very crucial. Below is a comprehensive guide to help you find the best trail running shoe.
Trail running shoes compared to road running shoes
At RunRepeat, we feature two categories of running shoes – road and trail. Road and trail running shoe differ in so many aspects. Here are some of the differences between a trail and road shoe:
Upper materials – Trail running shoes usually have durable upper materials to withstand damages. Some feature waterproof membrane while others have a water-repellent coating for foot protection. You can use a non-waterproof shoe in wet environments too. However, if you rather often run in wet conditions, choose a waterproof model. Gore-Tex models are most popular, but there are alternatives. Typically, the most popular models come in non-waterproof and waterproof variations. Waterproof trail shoes are typically 10% more expensive and weigh 5-10% more.
Outsole design – Compared to road shoes, trail running shoes are expected to have more durable traction. Trail running shoes have a varying degree of rough outer soles. If you primarily move on rather compact gravels, you do not need much structure in your outer sole but having a little will improve your grip. For muddy terrains, a rough outer sole will improve your performance significantly. In snow and ice, you need trail shoes with spikes or trail shoes that are compatible with spikes.
Foot protection – Aside from protecting the feet from cold weather conditions, trail shoes also provide foot protection against bruising. Trail running shoes typically have solid soles to offer underfoot protection. Some shoes also offer additional toe protection by adding durable bumpers. For improved ankle support and protection for the joints, trail shoes also offer added cushioning and stability.
Running shoes for light and rugged trails
Trail running shoes fall into two categories – light and rugged trail. Shoes for light and rugged terrains are built differently and offers a diverse level of protection, cushioning, and traction. Runners must determine the type of trails they plan to run on to get the best of its features and performance.
Light trail – These shoes are specifically structured for well-groomed trails such as gravel paths and uniform roads. They are not as heavy as those for rugged trail and are designed quite similar to road running shoes.
Lightweight design ideal for quick-paced runs
Shallow outsole lugs
Average foot protection
Some offers average cushioning; others have minimal midsole cushioning
Rugged trail – Shoes for the rugged trail are built with increased protection and support. These shoes should offer versatility for a wide selection of terrains. These trail shoes have a more aggressive outsole compared to those designed for the light trail.
Improved underfoot and toe protection
Durable upper materials
Tough midsole cushioning for hard landing impact and abrupt descents
Aggressive, multi-directional lug patterns for durable grip on muddy surfaces or soft soil
Characteristics of a reliable trail running shoe
Reliable traction on both light and rugged terrains.
A good trail running shoe offers reliable traction on varied surfaces. Trail running shoes have either soft or solid rubber compound on the outsole. Soft rubber outsole offers more grip on roots, wet rocks, and other slippery surfaces. Hard solid rubber, on the other hand, delivers durable traction on hard rocks, stones, and debris.
Trail running shoes have moderate lug patterns, enough to provide grip on uneven surfaces. For technical terrains, a more aggressive lug pattern is necessary. In addition to traction, a reliable trail shoe should offer a more stable platform.
Waterproof trail running shoes offer protection on wet/rainy conditions. Some waterproof shoes are using GTX membrane while others are using other brand-specific waterproofing technologies. Waterproof shoes are expected to be heavy and more durable compared to non-waterproof ones.
Non-waterproof shoes offer lesser foot protection, yet they still deliver satisfactory performance on technical terrain. If you don’t want to get a waterproof trail running shoe for some reasons, consider buying a shoe with a water-repellent feature.
Rough terrains will require tough running shoes. A reliable trail shoe should come with a durable construction. All materials should be of high quality, and the overall design should be well-made. Trail running shoes should be sturdy from the upper to the outsole. Those shoes designed for rugged trail have more durable outsole, delivering greater protection in high-abrasion areas.
Reliable underfoot cushioning.
Trail running shoes do not always have maximum cushioning. There are trail shoes for barefoot and minimalist runners. Your trail running shoe should offer a reliable underfoot cushioning that suits well your preference.
Cushioning options for trail shoes include the following:
Maximum – These are shoes with significantly generous amount of padding in the midsole. Some runners prefer to wear shoes with maximum cushioning because it reduces joint fatigue on long-distance runs.
Moderate – Traditional trail running footwear have a moderate level of midsole foam which allows runners to comfortably run on rocky surfaces.
Minimal – Trail running shoes with minimal padding are best for those who prefer better ground contact than underfoot cushioning.
Barefoot – These shoes have no midsole padding at all. Barefoot runners found satisfaction in running when they feel the trail. Shoes for barefoot runners are relatively light.
Additional foot protection.
Reinforced soles, toe bumpers, toe caps and alike come in handy for trail running. They provide additional protection from bruising and other accidents caused by rough and sharp trail objects. Salomon, The North Face, and Merrell are some shoe brands that use materials which offer additional foot protection.
Choosing the best trail running shoes
At RunRepeat, we feature reviews of trail running shoes for daily use or competition. During race days or day to day training, every runner must wear the appropriate shoe on the trail. In finding the best trail running shoe, ask these following questions:
Where will you be running?
It is important to think about where you are going to run. Ask yourself – Will you be running on wet and muddy surfaces or grounds with stones and sharp rocks? You might need a shoe that can cross from road to trail or running shoe that can survive a rough, technical terrain. Getting the right shoe for a specific terrain is very crucial as it will not only make your running experience more satisfying, it will also affect the overall durability of the shoe.
Are you going to use the shoe for racing or training?
Racing trail shoes are built differently from training shoes. Trail shoes for competition are usually lightweight, they use less cushioning, and have a lower heel-to-toe drop. Trail race shoes are made for speed, and you should get the best pair if you want to win a race.
Do you need a waterproof shoe?
Will you be running more often through puddles or in the rain? If yes, then you must purchase a waterproof trail running shoe. It is important that you are well-protected as you run through wet surfaces.
How stiff the sole should be?
When trail running, you might need a stiffer sole because it provides enough foot protection. Sole stiffness also plays a significant role in providing a springy and comfortable ride. You must find a trail running shoe with a stiffness that is right for you.
How much support do you need?
You should find a trail running shoe that can provide you with the right amount of stability. Your ankle and foot should have enough support, so your ankle won’t roll. The best trail running shoe should also allow your foot to adapt immediately to uneven surfaces.
Barefoot or maximum cushioning?
Pick the right trail shoe by determining the amount of cushioning you need. 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. If you prefer a closer contact to the ground, then buy a barefoot trail shoe that also offers a decent amount of foot protection.
Will the shoe provide me with the grip I needed?
The grip is one of the most important aspects you should consider when buying a trail running shoe. You should purchase a shoe that offers a durable grip on both wet and uneven surfaces. If you are running mostly on a muddy, soft surface, then you need a shoe with more aggressive outsole lugs.
Close or snug fitting?
Every runner has its preference when it comes the shoe fit – others prefer a close-fitting while others want it snug. Ideally, to perform better on the trail, you should get a running shoe with a tight fitting. It should be tight and secure in the heel and a bit roomy in the toe-box area to allow the toes to move freely for added stability on various terrains.
Additional in-store buying tips
Determine how much support the shoe offers by rolling your ankle. It should help you determine if (1) you can still move your ankle freely and comfortably and (2) your ankle is supported when you trip while running. Ankle support and movement are crucial in trail running.
To know how the shoe performs on uphill and downhill runs, you should run in forward and backward motion.
Bring a thicker sock to get the right size and fit. Runners usually wear thicker socks while running on the trail. It is best to use the type of sock that represent your preferences.
Notable trail running shoe brands
Over the past few years, trail running has become very popular. Several running shoe brands are continuously developing new models to accommodate the fast-growing demand for trail shoes in the market. Below are some of the reliable trail running shoe manufacturers:
Most of the Salomon shoes are expensive, but they are packed with durable technologies. The brand is known for its reliable grip brought by the Wet Traction Contragrip® technology. It is specifically built to provide non-slip traction on both muddy and wet trail surfaces. Other notable Salomon technologies are the Endofit™, OS Tendon System, and EnergyCell + midsole.
The brand is also known because of their innovative technologies and premium materials. Waterproof shoes from The North Face are equipped with Gore-Tex® membrane which provides the foot with a well-protected coverage against rain and snow. Aside from the UltrATAC™ outsole, TPU Snake Plate, and Pebax Heel Cradle, The North Face running shoes also have additional protective elements such as TPU toe cap and mudguards.
Most of the Saucony trail running shoes are expensive, but they are also packed with reliable and premium technologies. Notable technologies from Saucony are the EVERUN Full-length Topsole, PWRTRAC outsole, ISOFIT and FlexFilm technology.
Aside from running shoes, Saucony is also a well-known brand when it comes to lifestyle shoes.
Here are the top five popular trail running shoes based on RunRepeat’s ranking (as of the first half of 2018):
Salomon Speedcross 4
Designed for trail running, the Salomon Speedcross 4 has a thick midsole with a heel-drop of 10mm. The shoe offers a good combination of durable traction, comfortable fit, and reliable underfoot cushioning. The Speedcross 4 uses a Contragrip rubber in its outsole for maximum traction on various terrain. It also uses Salomon’s SensiFit system designed for comfort, enhanced in-shoe fit. The shoe is slightly expensive, but the Salomon fans are willing to invest because of its performance.
Asics Gel Venture 6
Not only popular, the Asics Gel Venture 6 is also one of the well-trusted shoes from Asics. Built for runners with neutral foot motion, the shoe has a comfortable and durable design. It is an alternative option for runners looking for affordable running footwear.
The upper of the shoe is made from synthetic mesh which provides comfort and breathability. It is also flexible enough to conform to the natural shape of the foot. On the midsole is the Rearfoot GEL® cushioning system for maximum shock absorption and responsive ride. Lastly, on the outsole is the AHAR® rubber for durability and reversed lugs for optimum grip during uphill and downhill runs.
Merrell Trail Glove 4
This trail running shoe is built for competition. It is one of the lightest trail running shoes on the market that offers durable design and reliable traction. Despite the minimal cushioning, the Merrell Trail Glove 4 still offers enough amount of underfoot cushioning for protection and responsiveness.
In the outsole is the aggressive Vibram TC5+ which is responsible for providing unmatched grip on varied surfaces. It also provides sole durability, especially in high-abrasion areas. The shoe is reasonably-priced and it's available in both men’s and women’s versions.
Asics Gel Sonoma 3
The Gel Sonoma 3 is another affordable trail running shoe from Asics. It is one of the cheapest, yet it still offers the much-needed performance on the trail. Packed with trail-specific technologies and materials, the shoe won’t disappoint when used on daily trail running.
The outsole is made from durable AHAR rubber with aggressive lugs for grip on varied running surfaces. It also has the notable Asics Gel Cushioning System for long-lasting cushioning. In the upper is a mesh material for breathable and comfortable coverage.
Brooks Cascadia 12
Released in 2017, the Brooks Cascadia 12 is one of the popular shoes for trail runners. It is a bit expensive with a slightly heavier construction.
In the upper is the Element Mesh designed for breathability and sweat-free running. It works well with the Hydrophobic Foam Package which also offers a moisture-wicking capacity.
The also uses the notable BioMoGo DNA midsole foam which is formulated for a responsive and adaptive running experience. Along with it are the Pivot Post System, Caterpillar Crash Pad, and BioMoGo sock liner.
Lastly, the outsole of the Cascadia 12 offers reliable grip and maximum durability. These are made possible by the HPR Green material, 3D Hex Lugs, and Ballistic Rock Shield.
Frequently asked questions
Can I wear my trail running shoe on the roads?
Yes, you can wear a trail shoe to run on roads. However, you have to consider that trail running shoes are heavier compared to road shoes. Your speed might not be as fast when you are wearing your usual road running shoe, yet, trail running shoes offer better traction and protection. Running them on the road is not a problem as long as they are comfortable, and they fit perfectly for you. While it is fine to use trail shoes on the roads, it is still advisable to own multiple pairs of running footwear and use trail shoes solely for trail running.
What is the best trail running shoe on the market today?
There are hundreds of trail running shoes available in the market today. Some of these shoes are lightweight, and others have a waterproofing feature for all-weather protection. Based on RunRepeat CoreScore, the best performing trail running shoe, as of the first half of 2018, is the Salomon Slab Sense 6. This shoe has a lightweight design with a 4mm heel-to-toe drop. Designed for competition, the S-Lab Sense 6 offers a breathable coverage, durable traction and long-lasting cushioning. Other reliable trail shoes include The North Face Ultra 109 GTX, Salomon Speedcross 4, and Asics Gel Venture 6.
Is it expensive to a buy a trail running shoe?
No, trail running shoes are not always expensive. While it is true that most trail shoes are made from premium materials to ensure durability, there are brands, like Adidas, which are selling affordable trail running shoes. Examples of affordable yet reliable trail shoes are the Adidas Galaxy Trail and the Adidas Rockadia Trail. These two shoes are lightweight and are designed for daily trail running. Expensive trail shoes range from $200 to $250. The Under Armour Fat Tire GTX is an expensive pair and is packed with durable technologies. One of the downsides of this expensive shoe is its weight – it is really heavy.
Can I use my trail shoe on gym workout?
No, you cannot use a trail running shoe on gym workout, especially if it has deep treads. Trail shoes are designed specifically for uneven, technical surfaces. Some of them are heavy and thus will limit your speed and routine. Just buy another pair of shoe for your gym workout, there are affordable options available online.
What brand produces the best trail running shoe?
Salomon, Asics, and Merrell are known for their durable and performing trail running shoes. Some of their shoes are for daily training; others are for competition. You can also choose a waterproof or non-waterproof shoe.
Is it okay to use my trail shoe as hiking footwear?
Yes, it is okay to wear a trail shoe while hiking as long as it is comfortable and has enough protective feature. Ideally, hiking shoes should have durable grip, keep the foot dry, have toe protection, and comfortable. All these are also found in a traditional trail shoe. You need to make sure that you pick the best trail shoe that can also double as a hiking shoe. If you are considering to buy another pair for hiking, see the list of hiking footwear here.
Can I buy a lightweight trail running shoe?
Yes. Traditional trail running shoes are usually heavy because of the premium materials and waterproofing elements added to the shoe. Some trail shoes also have thick midsole foam, adding to the overall weight of the shoe. The North Face Ultra 109 GTX, weighing 15.4 oz, is an example of heavyweight trail footwear. However, there are also trail shoes that are lightweight, specifically those shoes built for racing or those with minimal cushioning. An example of a lightweight trail running shoe is Merrell All Out Crush Light.
Is it necessary that my trail shoe is waterproof?
No. Some trail shoes are waterproof while others only have a water-repellent coating. To determine if you need a waterproof trail shoe, you have to assess the running condition. Will you be running on a muddy surface? Will you run on rainy days and puddles? If yes, then you need a waterproof one. If running through puddles is not your thing, then you’ll do fine with non-waterproof shoes. Waterproofing feature should not be the first aspect to look for in purchasing a new shoe. You should give priority to comfort, grip, and underfoot protection. You can check some waterproof and water-repellent trail running shoes at RunRepeat.
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.
This shoe has recently been added to RunRepeat. There are still not enough reviews for us to assign it a CoreScore.
CoreScore A score from 1 to 100 that summarizes opinions from users and experts. The average CoreScore is 78.