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Trail running is one of the most accessible outdoor adventure sports in existence. It’s affordable, relatively safe, provides a stellar workout and requires little-to-no technical training (unlike activities such as rock climbing, backcountry skiing or mountain biking). Most importantly, however, there’s something for everyone, from Killian Jornet devotees down to the “weekend warriors.”
From techy alpine scrambles to low-vert river trails and mudfests, trail running is a sport that can take you into nearly every outdoor environment under the sun. Even better, you can run trail literally anywhere, whether you’re based in the humid hills of Alabama, the dry alpine slopes of Colorado, the rugged coastal highlands of Oregon or somewhere in between.
Another great thing about trail running is that you only need one piece of gear: trail shoes.
Consequently, the quality of your trail shoes is absolutely critical to performance and safety when on the trail. That doesn’t mean you have to spend $375 on the best trail running shoes, but you shouldn’t be afraid to do a bit of research and shell out a bit of cash.
In this piece, we’ll go over some important information about the sport, talk to a few experts then dive into some of the top trail shoes on the market right now.
The Benefits of Trail Running
Like road running, trail running is a stellar cardiovascular workout, but the benefits go far beyond that. The varied nature of uphill, downhill and obstacle-laden trails improves stability, flexibility, and leg strength, in addition to giving your brain a workout since you have to find safe foot placements on the fly.
Trail running can also help dramatically improve your balance. Running over roots, rocks and varied terrain, from dirt to gravel to grass, requires significantly more poise than running on smooth pavement. Meanwhile, trail terrain is much softer and easier on your body than pavement. Running on trail, as opposed to road, will keep your knees, ankles and other joints in better health over time.
In addition, the varied sights, smells, sounds, and overall nature you’ll encounter on trails are much more mentally stimulating than your surroundings are when running on paved roads. This means you’re more likely to enjoy your workout and less likely to get bored while running long distances.
What to Look for in Trail Running Shoes
Trail shoes differ from road shoes in many ways. Cushioning, heel-to-toe drop and other road running features are all present in trail shoes, too, though they’re much more important here. If you’ve never run on trail before, however, there are a few new aspects you’re also going to need to think about.
You’ll encounter rocks, roots and more when running on trails, so you need to be sure your trail shoes are built to protect your feet from impact (and hold up over time). For example, features like rock plates, hard plastic or carbon fiber pieces embedded between your shoe’s outsole and midsole will protect feet from injury when running over scree or other rocky surfaces. And if you plan to do some stream crossings, waterproofing is another important protective feature to consider.
When you hit the trail, you need shoes with a grippy outsole. This should include a set of lugs, which give the shoes traction on all sorts of terrain — from mud to gravel to grass (and perhaps even the occasional ice or snow).
Not only do trail shoes need to be rugged enough to handle external obstacles, but they should also be built to prevent foot overrotation and other self-inflicted injuries. You’ll land on varied terrain with each stride, so you’ll need a sturdy shoe to keep your foot in line.
With all this in mind, you can easily break trail running shoes down into three different categories depending on the terrain they’re made for: light trail (dirt roads, gravel, well-tracked flatland), rugged trail (hiking paths), and off-trail (scree, talus, streams, etc.).
This self-explanatory division can help you start off on the right track, and we’ll reference these classes as we go through our product picks.
How Often Should You Replace Your Trail Running Shoes?
This isn’t a time-dependent question, it simply depends on how often you run. The general advice is to replace your trail running shoes every 300 to 500 miles. That means if you run about 10 miles each week, you’ll probably need to start looking at replacing your shoes at the eight-month mark.
“If you start noticing tears in the upper or midsole breakdown, you may want to retire your shoes sooner,” says Montane-sponsored ultrarunner Kevin Hadfield. Hadfield is based in Carbondale, Colorado and also works part-time at local running outfitter Independence Run and Hike, outfitting shoes for trail runners of all stripes.
“You’ll be able to tell when a shoe is just beat,” Hadfield added. “But it all depends on the durability of the shoe and the ruggedness of the miles you’ve put on it.”
Below, we rounded up the best trail running shoes on the market, according to expert recommendations, our own editor product testing and glowing customer reviews.
Nike Terra Kiger 7
Best Trail Running Shoes for Hard, Fast Trail Burns
Hadfield says Nike’s Air Zoom Terra Kiger is “a standout shoe for short, hard efforts on trails.” Customers rank the shoe highly for both comfort and durability. It offers a neutral arch which can work for most foot types, although a few customers with high arches noted they wished the shoe offered more support there.
The Terra Kiger is notable for its wide toe box, low drop height (4.5mm) and lightweight upper, all of which serve to make this an extremely comfortable shoe for fast missions. This seventh iteration, in particular, features updated traction lugs for increased stability on varied terrain.
HOKA Speedgoat 4
Also Consider for Long Distances
The Speedgoat is Hadfield’s favorite trail shoe and the one he most often recommends to his customers, whether they’re hiking up a Class 2 14er or looking at a trail race.
“[The Speedgoat] provides plenty of foot protection and surefire traction on rocky, tough terrain,” Hadfield says. “Working in the retail shop, that shoe is one of those shoes that people either love or hate, but I have at least 70% success rate recommending that shoe to people.” He noted that, if anything, some customers will tend to have a problem with the Speedgoat’s high stack height.
Saucony Peregrine 11
Best Trail Running Shoes for Women
The Saucony Peregrine 11 comes in both men’s and women’s iterations, but this is a favorite shoe of female trail runners, in particular. “[The Peregrine’s] feature a wide forefoot and narrow heel that fits more naturally for a woman’s foot,” says Liesel Goshen, a first responder, avid 14er climber and competitive trail runner based in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The Peregrine’s sport aggressive lugs that bite into rugged terrain well. “If the HOKA doesn’t fit your foot or you don’t like the stack height, but you’re looking for a good trail shoe, this is where I’d go,” Goshen says. “They’re completely neutral with a polyurethane midsole, so they’re durable and have a little bit of energy return.”
Asics Trabuco Max
Also Consider for Long Distances
Asics is a brand you can’t go wrong with, but the Trabuco Max stands out among the pack of Asics shoes as a stable, neutral shoe for long miles.
Goshen notes that her friend who suffered from serious foot and ankle issues found a great running shoe in the Trabuco Max, as it’s “extremely stable and has a bunch of foot protection.” The thick midsole provides optimal support, while the high stack height absorbs impact.
Salomon S/Lab Pulsar
Best Lightweight Trail Running Shoe
The Salomon S/Lab Pulsar was designed for ultrarunning legend Killian Jornet to break course records, and it shows. At only 170 grams, the S/Lab Pulsar is one of the lightest trail shoes in existence. This is a “slim fit, road-to-trail, super lightweight shoe,” says Hadfield. “The downside here is it’s not that durable.”
The S/Lab Pulsar offers minimal cushion and little to no protection, so it’s best for light trail or for all-out FKT pushes. This is also the sole unisex shoe on our listing, though customers report no drawbacks despite the gender non-specific design. As with most unisex shoes, it’s on the slimmer side, so wide-footed runners may want to try it out in-store before ordering.
Saucony Endorphin Trail
Also Consider Long Distance Shoe
Just released earlier this year, Saucony’s Endorphin Trail is already making waves in the running community and is a hard competitor to the Speedgoat. The Endorphin Trail utilizes Saucony’s unique Speedroll propulsion tech to make each stride propel you forward faster. Meanwhile, a thick bed of PWRRUN PB cushioning maximizes energy return.
This comfort and speed-focused trail shoe sports 4.5mm lugs and a 4mm drop. The Endorphin Trail shoe comes outfitted with a D-ring to allow you to attach gaiters seamlessly. With a build consisting of recycled materials, this is a low-footprint, eco-conscious shoe as well.
La Sportiva Cyklon
Best Trail Running Shoe for Rugged Terrain
The Cyklon is this writer’s current go-to trail shoe. It features a fine-tuned fit thanks to the specialized BOA lacing system, which uses a dial to micro-adjust the Cyklon’s laces in a split second. This rugged shoe sports a unique Dynamic Cage, which locks in your heel, grounding your foot to the shoe’s midsole and allowing both foot and shoe to move in unison.
The TPU toecap holds up well over time, and the outsole tracks well on all types of terrain thanks to La Sportiva’s legendary grip technology honed in the mountaineering sphere. The Cyklon is best used on extremely rough, off-trail terrain for shorter distances (think 10 to 30-mile stretches).
Merrell Moab Flight
Best Beginner Shoe
Mainstay hiking brand Merrell has been expanding rapidly of late, and the Moab Flight is one of its standout offerings. With 70% recycled materials in the upper and 100% recycled laces, this is a shoe you can feel good about purchasing.
This isn’t a burly shoe by any means and is best used on mellow trails. That said, the 3mm lugs and Vibram EcoDura rubber outsole (which is also made of 30% recycled material) provide solid traction on dirt and other moderate terrain. A mesh upper offers good breathability. All told, you can’t go wrong with the Moab Flight, and at $110, you won’t find a trail shoe of this quality at a lower price point.
Brooks Cascadia 16
Best Running-to-Hiking Hybrid
Like the Moab Flight, the Brooks Cascadia is a stellar entry-level shoe line, and the newest iteration, the Cascadia 16, is the best model in the series yet. “It’s a great moderate trail running shoe for people that are also looking for a hiking shoe,” says Hadfield.
The Cascadia 16 is a support-heavy, technical shoe that works just as well for lightweight backpacking trips as it does for trail running. If you’re new to the sport of trail running and aren’t sure if you’ll be doing running, hiking or a bit of both, the Brooks Cascadia 16 is a great option for you.
All told, this author has several trail runner friends who have run in various versions of the Cascadia over the years, and it’s always been a reliable shoe.
The North Face Flight Vectiv
Best for Speed
The North Face’s innovative Vectiv line is shaking things up in the trail space, and the Flight, in particular, stands out among the rest. “The Flight is a great shoe for fast, shorter, non-technical trails,” says The North Face athlete and former U.S. Skyrunning World Champion Hillary “Hillygoat” Allen, who was heavily involved in prototyping the Vectiv line. “It’s a responsive, fast shoe for a fast race or a fast workout,” she adds.
At $199, this shoe isn’t exactly budget-friendly, and it’s certainly not one that you’ll want for technical, off-trail running. That said, it’s a top-of-the-line model for performance on moderate to light trails.
The North Face VECTIV Enduris
Best Cushion for Long Days
Allen calls the Vectiv Enduris an excellent shoe for more mid-to-entry level trail runners, and a great shoe for long hours of training where you want a little extra cushion. The shoe sports a mid-level drop at 6mm, and features 3.5mm lugs that perform well on light to rugged trail.
Many customers on The North Face website praise the shoe’s comfort, though some mention that the toe box runs narrow.
Salomon Sense Ride 4
Best Mid-Level Distance Road-Trail Crossover
Salomon’s Sense Ride 4 is the latest in a well-rounded line from industry mainstay Salomon. It features a lightweight build, neutral foot support and great cushioning thanks to Salomon’s Optivibe technology. 4mm lugs grip well in mixed terrain, allowing you to take these shoes into harder turf than some of the others on our list. At $120, it’s an incredibly affordable shoe, combining an entry-level price point with mid-to-high-level quality.
Hadfield ran the Backcountry Half Marathon (13.1 mi) in Aspen, Colorado his Sense Ride 4s and notes that they performed quite well. “This is a shoe I’d recommend for customers in need of a road-trail crossover. It works well for racing everything from trail 10ks to trail marathons.”