Trail running is a sport with very little start-up costs. But there’s one piece of equipment you can’t do without: trail shoes. Most people wouldn’t think of taking a road bike on a challenging mountain bike trail. The same principle applies to trail running. Standard running shoes are built for pavement, not off-road adventures. Technically, you could try trail running with regular running shoes, but you probably won’t like the results.
Trail shoes are designed for trails and challenging terrain. A good trail shoe will protect your feet while providing stability and traction. And with trail running continuing to grow in popularity, there are new shoe styles and features all the time. Ready to gear up for your first trail run? Read on for shoe-buying advice and some of the best trail running shoes we’ve found.
How to Choose The Best Trail Running Shoes For You
Trail running shoes are made to protect your feet and provide better traction than standard running shoes. They’re usually made from stiff materials, have lugged soles (lugs are similar to cleats) and substantial cushioning, and sometimes have features like a built-in rock plate to protect your foot from punctures. When choosing a trail running shoe, here are some of the main factors to consider.
The type of trail shoe you choose depends on the trails you’ll be using. More technical trails (or off-road routes) require a more rugged shoe. Here are the three main types:
- Light trail: This shoe type is designed to be lightweight while giving you a bit more protection than a standard running shoe. It’s best for running on gravel roads or well-groomed, level hiking paths.
- Rugged trail: This is the best type of shoe for running on hiking trails. Rugged trail shoes generally have multidimensional lugs for increased traction and toe guards and rock plates for extra protection.
- Off-trail: Off-trail shoes are exactly what the name suggests: trail shoes that are designed for off-road running. These are the most rugged (and heaviest) style of trail shoes. Off-trail shoes are often waterproof since you’re more likely to encounter water and mud as you trek across the landscape.
The ideal amount of cushioning in a trail shoe often comes down to a matter of personal preference. Some runners prefer minimal cushioning so they can properly feel the ground (and respond accordingly) and maintain a natural gait. Other runners prefer moderate cushioning to protect their joints and absorb the shock from things like rocks and tree roots. The most common cushioning levels you’ll find are: barefoot, minimal, moderate, and maximum.
Size & Fit
Even if you know your shoe size, it’s important to choose your trail shoe based on how it feels and fits. If possible, get a fit assessment at a store that specializes in running shoes. They’ll not only give you an accurate size, they’ll determine other factors like width, arch height, and how your foot moves in the shoe itself.
Heel-to-toe drop is a factor that’s important in all running shoes—not just trail shoes—and it’s another reason to get a fit assessment before choosing a shoe. This measurement is the difference between the height of the shoe’s heel and the height at the toe. For instance, in shoes with no cushioning, this number is zero. But in shoes with maximum cushioning, this measurement can be up to 12 mm.
If you’re already a runner, it helps to choose a trail shoe that has a heel-to-toe drop that’s similar to your other running shoes. Barefoot-style shoes with no cushioning can take some getting used to if you’ve never worn that style of shoe before.
Best Trail Running Shoes
We’ve rounded up some of the best all-around trail shoes below. Each of these styles has a men’s and women’s version but the basic features remain the same for each. (And keep in mind, that in the end, choosing a shoe is all about proper fit and comfort—and for you that may be either the men’s version or women’s version.)
Brooks Cascadia 15
Brooks is a name with a lot cachet in the running world, and their Cascadia 15 trail shoe lives up to the brand’s reputation. The Cascadia 15 is a rugged trail shoe designed to stand up to rough trails and is popular with hikers as well as runners. Its heavy rubber outsole has deep lugs that provide good traction even on slippery surfaces yet the shoe itself remains fairly lightweight overall. The Cascadia’s moderate cushioning provides just enough shock absorption and its 8 mm heel-to-toe drop is on par with standard running shoes.
La Sportiva Bushido II
La Sportiva’s Bushido II shines on technical trails and hills thanks to its aggressive outsole and strategically designed lugs. (The shoe’s outward-facing lugs even wrap the midsole, helping you keep your footing even when your feet slide sideways or are at an angle.) But while the Bushido’s sole is rugged, the rest of the shoe is surprisingly lightweight and breathable. The Bushido’s lower heel-to-toe drop (6 mm) gives it increased stability and moderate cushioning, ensuring that you can feel the trail—but not too much.
Altra Lone Peak 5
The Lone Peak 5 from Altra is a trail shoe that’s made for challenging trails and off-road runs. Its angled claw-like lugs provide superior traction no matter the terrain. It also has two key features to protect your feet from obstacles large and small: rock plates to protect the toes of the shoes and protective midsoles that also cushion you from impact. The quick-dry mesh upper offers breathability as well as the ability to drain away the rain.
Merrell Bare Access XTR
The Merrell Bare Access XTR is ideal for runners who are looking for a trail shoe with a barefoot feel. Wearing shoes with cushioning changes a runner’s gait—which can be a good thing for some people but not for others. Barefoot trail shoes have minimal cushioning and are designed to mimic the way you’d naturally run if you were barefoot. The Bare Access XTR has a 0 mm heel-to-toe drop which means your foot will land on your midfoot or forefoot rather than your heel. The shoe’s lightweight design and shallow lugs make it a good choice for less technical (and level) trails.
Interested in learning more about trail running before trying it yourself? Check out our beginner’s guide to trail running mastery!