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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 to do it: trail shoes.
Consequently, the quality of your running 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 some research and shell out a bit of cash.
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.
The varied sights, smells, sounds and overall nature you’ll encounter on trails are also much more mentally stimulating than your surroundings 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 are 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, there are a few new aspects you’re also going to need to think about.
Top Trail Running Shoes of 2023
- Best Shoes for Technical Terrain: Dynafit Alpine Running Shoes
- Best Shoes for Women: Saucony Peregrine 12 Trail Running Shoes
- Most Stable Shoes: Asics Trabuco Max Trail Running Shoes
- Best for New Trail Runners: Hoka Speedgoat 5 Trail Running Shoes
- Best for New Trail Runners, Runner-Up: Merrell Moab Flight Trail Running Shoes
- Best Running-to-Hiking Hybrid: Brooks Cascadia 16 Trail Running Shoes
- Best Zero Drop Shoes: Altra Lone Peak 6 Trail Running Shoes
- Best Waterproof Shoes: Arc’teryx Norvan LD 3 GTX Trail Running Shoes
- Also Consider for Beginner Runners: On Cloudvista Trail Running Shoes
- Best Shoes for Hard, Fast Trail Burns: Nike Terra Kiger 7 Trail Running Shoes
- Best Lightweight Shoes: Salomon S/Lab Pulsar Trail Running Shoes
- Best for Speed: The North Face Flight Vectiv Trail Running Shoes
- Best Long Distance Shoes: The North Face Vectiv Enduris Trail Running Shoes
- Best Value: Scott Supertrac 3 Trail Running Shoes
- Atreyu The Base Trail Trail Running Shoes
What to look for in trail running shoes
1. Protection and Cushion
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 layers 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.
Comfort is also crucial, and that means looking into a shoe’s stack height. “Stack height is the height in millimeters of cushion on the shoe,” says Salt Lake City-based trail runner and gear expert Katie Kommer, who also works on the sales floor at REI. “A higher stack height will be more comfortable and plush, but can result in a loss of balance more easily. Lower stack heights may fatigue the feet more quickly but are more precise on technical trails. For long runs on non-technical trails, a higher stack height will keep your feet happy and cozy. On the other hand, shoes with lower stack heights that still feature a rock plate are great for moving quickly through technical terrain.”
Luckily, as trail running is gaining popularity, more shoes are bridging the gap between road and trail shoe, like the Hoka Speedgoat and the Saucony Peregrine.
More than anything else, trail shoes need aggressive lugs to provide traction and a much more grippy, sticky outsole than a road shoe. “When you’re running on asphalt, you have an inherent grip from the sole of your shoe,” says Squamish, Canada-based ultrarunner Josh Barringer. “That doesn’t exist on trail. All trails are different, but your ability to gain and maintain traction comes from the lug.” This should also include a set of lugs, which give the shoe traction on all sorts of terrain — from mud to gravel to grass (and perhaps even the occasional ice or snow). “When you’re running on trail, you absolutely need lugs in your shoe,” Barringer says. “Your ability to maintain and gain traction comes from the lugs, and this is critical.”
This will vary based on location, of course. For flat, hard-packed dirt, deep lugs are less important. For the loamy terrain of Squamish, where Barringer often runs, burly lugs are a must-have.
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, trail running shoes typically fall into three categories based on the terrain they’re made for: light trail styles (made for dirt roads, gravel and well-tracked flatland), rugged trail shoes (built for hiking paths), and off-trail shoes (ideal for scree, talus, streams, etc.).
Heel-to-toe drop, or “drop” is another key aspect of trail shoe build. This describes the difference in millimeters between heel height and toe height. “Pretty much every runner will be used to a shoe with at least a 5 millimeter drop,” Kommer says. “A higher drop offers more support for the foot and relieves pressure on the foot, ankle, Achilles and calves. A lower or zero drop shoe mimics more closely barefoot running. This offers less support, but in turn, encourages better form (for those without injuries in the foot).”
“Zero-drop has benefits,” Barringer adds, “but if you’re not used to that and want to scale up into distance running, it’s not the first step to take. It takes time to get used to.”
Other factors to consider when shopping for trail running shoes
Sizing: Trail shoes aren’t sized exactly the same as street shoes are. “Always go up one half size from your street size. Feet swell when running, and you’ll want plenty of space for them to move around,” Kommer says. “You want to feel a bit of space between your toes and the end of the shoe, without feeling your heel slip up and down as you take the shoes for a test jog.”
Terrain: Thinking about where you’re running is paramount, Barringer says. “Where I live in Squamish, I might be on trails that are covered in mud, or I could head up the road and need a shoe that’s grippy on rock, sticky on slick moss. If you’re in a drier climate like Texas or Colorado, you wouldn’t need to worry about this sort of thing as much.” In the loamy, soft trails of Squamish, Barringer doesn’t need as much cushion. On a hard-packed California trail, he’d need much more. If you’re in a place with a long winter season, winter trail running shoes are a surefire buy.
The first question you should ask, says Barringer, is “What do I need for the environment around me?”
Your Foot Type: Common foot problems such as bunions and plantar fasciitis can cause pain for runners, particularly on the uneven terrain of trails. When looking for trail running shoes for bunions, consider shoes with wide toe boxes and generally wide fits, like the Lone Peak 6 (below). If looking for a running shoe for plantar fasciitis, consider looking for a shoe with extensive arch support, or buy inserts to add support.
But while arch support can help solve plantar fasciitis, it’s not a one-track issue. It may require a bit of analysis. “Overtraining — such as a sudden increase in mileage, intensity or elevation of workouts — limited ankle dorsiflexion range of motion, both high and low arch height, high body mass index and work-related weight-bearing activities coupled with poor shock-absorbing footwear” are all potential causes of plantar fasciitis, says Dr. Brian Eckenrode, associate professor and director of the Running Injury Clinic at Arcadia University.
“Many times, runners exhibit deficits in motion and strength at the foot, ankle, knee, hip or lower back, any of which can affect the movement pattern of running,” he adds. Finding the cause of your plantar fasciitis is key to finding a trail running shoe that works for you.
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 adds. “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.
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Dynafit Alpine Running Shoes
Best Trail Running Shoes for Technical Terrain
- Vibram Megagrip
- Great for vert
- Sizes: 6-12
The Alpine is Barringer’s new favorite shoe, since he tends to run in the more technical terrain of British Columbia, which features a lot of vertical gain and extremely varied, often wet, trail. “This is my go-to because of the great balance between agility and traction that it offers,” he says. The shoe sports a moderate six millimeter drop, with extremely deep lugs and a lightweight overall build at just under 10 ounces. The Vibram Megagrip outsole grips tight on rock, and the rocker build offers solid propulsion.
“I went in for a shoe, specifically not trying to get Dynafit again (after working at Arc’teryx for six years and only running in Arc’teryx shoes),” Barringer says. “Before that job at Arc’teryx, I was only running in Dynafit shoes. After leaving Arc’teryx, I went back to look for a new shoe, and ended up right back in a Dynafit!”
Note: This is a rather small running shoe, so be sure to size up at least a half size or a full size if looking for a comfort-focused fit.
Saucony Peregrine 12 Trail Running Shoes
Best Trail Running Shoes for Women
- Redesigned lugs for better traction
- Advanced rock plate
- Sizes: 5-14
The Saucony Peregrine 12 comes in both men’s and women’s iterations, but it’s especially loved by female trail runners. “The Peregrines feature a wide forefoot and narrow heel that fits more naturally for a woman’s foot,” says Hadfield’s wife Liesel, who is a first responder, avid 14er climber and competitive trail runner based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. The Peregrines sport aggressive lugs that bite into rugged terrain well, redesigned for the 12th iteration of the shoe. “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. “These are completely neutral with a polyurethane midsole, so they’re durable and have a little bit of energy return.”
According to Barringer, this is also another road-to-trail transition shoe. “It feels like a road shoe,” he says. “It doesn’t have the aggressiveness of a shoe like the Alpine.” If you’re looking for the best trail and road running shoes in one purchase, the Peregrine 12s may be for you.
Of note, Barringer and his colleagues did a blind test on a variety of trail shoes, and he added that the Peregrine and Speedgoat felt almost exactly the same on his foot. He’s also tested the Peregrine heavily, and it works well as a road-trail crossover in his eyes, too.
Asics Trabuco Max Trail Running Shoes
Most Stable Trail Shoes
- Full-length spike plate
- Snug fit (size up)
- Sizes: 5-14
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. Liesel 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,” she says. If you’re dealing with plantar fasciitis or other common foot problems but looking to get into running again, then the Trabuco Max might be your ticket back onto the trails. The thick midsole provides optimal support, while the high stack height absorbs impact well.
Hoka Speedgoat 5 Trail Running Shoes
Best for New Trail Runners
- New lightweight update
- Superior cushioning
- Sizes: 6-15
Updated and revamped for 2023 in a fifth iteration that’s half an ounce lighter and grippier thanks to the inclusion of Vibram Megagrip), the Hoka Speedgoat is one of our experts’ favorite trail shoes. “This shoe combines extremely aggressive traction with a ton of cushion to make a shoe that performs on technical trails, for long periods,” Kommer says. Also, the fit is a bit snugger than the Altras [see below] so they are a little more precise. I recommend this shoe for moving as fast as possible in technical terrain.”
The Speedgoat is the shoe Hadfield 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 a 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.
Barringer echoed this, saying that although the shoe isn’t for him, the extensive trademark Hoka cushioning will make the transition to trail easier for newer trail runners. “The Speedgoat might be the best shoe for a road-to-trail swap because of the cushion involved,” he says. “It’ll give you a ride more similar to what you’ll get on the road. Having that extra cushion out the gate helps minimize the fatigue of never landing on a completely flat surface, which is a challenge to get used to as a new trail runner.”
Merrell Moab Flight Trail Running Shoes
Best for New Trail Runners, Runner-Up
- Breathable mesh upper
- Mostly recycled materials
- Sizes: 5-15
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. The three millimeter 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. “My initial thoughts would be that they’re like an Altra, but without that really wide forefoot,” Barringer says.
Brooks Cascadia 16 Trail Running Shoes
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,” Hadfield says.
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. “This is a classic shoe line that’s been around forever,” Barringer says. “You won’t go wrong here.”
Altra Lone Peak 6 Trail Running Shoes
Best Zero Drop Trail Running Shoes
- Wide fit sizing available
- Superior stability
- Sizes: 6-12.5
The Lone Peak 6s are a top pick, according to our experts, and perhaps the best trail running shoes with a wide toe box. “This is a very popular shoe for a reason,” Kommer says. “The zero-drop design, combined with a wide fit and wide toe box, makes for very natural running. However, there’s still enough cushion to support long endeavors (I wore them for a 48-mile run). The traction is also great and doesn’t wear over time. If anything, the midsole loses support before the traction wears down. I recommend these for long days in non-technical/semi-technical terrain.”
If stability is your focus, this is perhaps the most stable trail running shoe you’ll find. “If you’ve got wider feet or like your toes splayed out a lot, this is a great option,” says Barringer, who adds that it’s an extremely popular shoe among the running community in Squamish.
Arc’teryx Norvan LD 3 GTX Trail Running Shoes
Best Waterproof Trail Running Shoes
- Outstanding waterproofing
- Quick-dry breathability
- Sizes: 5-10
If there’s one thing you can count on Arc’teryx for, it’s reliable waterproofing. While Barringer is partial to the older Norvan LD models he helped test, he added that these are a great entry-level shoe, particularly for runners in wetter terrain. “If you want something with a bit more cushion and support on your foot, it delivers.” Other longtime Norvan fans appreciate the update, with one reviewer noting that “the fit feels more forgiving for my wider forefoot.”
On Cloudvista Trail Running Shoes
Also Consider for Beginner Runners
- Superior cushioning
- Recycled materials
- Sizes: 6-13
The soft, comfortable, foot-hugging feel of the Cloudvista makes this a friendly entry to the trail running genre, particularly for newer runners. “It’s a snug-fitting shoe that’s really versatile,” Kommer says. “The rubber outsoles have enough traction to keep you from slipping on any wet trails, but these are mostly designed for comfort. I recommend them for someone who’s just starting to trail run and might want to still use these on the road or someone who runs a variety of different types of trails.”
Nike Terra Kiger 7 Trail Running Shoes
Best Trail Running Shoes for Hard, Fast Trail Burns
- Multiple color schemes
- Segmented rock plate
- Sizes: 6-13
Hadfield says Nike’s Air Zoom Terra Kiger is one of his favorite shoes and “a standout for short, hard efforts on trails.” Customers rank the shoe highly for both comfort and durability, like many of the best Nike running shoes. It offers a neutral arch which can work for most foot types, although runners with high arches may find the shoe lacking in support there. (If you’re looking for arch support shoes, try these).
The Terra Kiger is also notable for its wide toe box, making it a solid buy for wide-footed runners, as well as its relatively low drop height (4.5 millimeters) 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.
Salomon S/Lab Pulsar Trail Running Shoes
Best Lightweight Trail Running Shoes
- Soft sock fit
- Ultra-lightweight (under 6 oz)
- Size: 4.5-14
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 Kevin 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 trails or for all-out FKT pushes. Customers report no drawbacks despite the gender non-specific design, but as with most unisex shoes, this one is on the slimmer side, so wide-footed runners may want to steer clear of it.
The North Face Flight Vectiv Trail Running Shoes
Best for Speed
- Extremely high-energy return
- Sizes: 6-13
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 speed.
The North Face Vectiv Enduris Trail Running Shoes
Best Long Distance Trail Running Shoes
- Excellent cushioning
- Small toe box
- Sizes: 5-14
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 six millimeters, and features 3.5 millimeter lugs that perform well on light to rugged trail. The shoe’s comfort receives high marks, though the toe box runs narrow, so wide-footed runners, or those who like their toes splayed out, may want to approach this shoe with caution.
While Barringer prefers a more burly, technical shoe like the Dynafit Alpines, he notes that a close friend and avid ultrarunner calls the Enduris his all-time favorite and a real workhorse of a shoe. “This is a great shoe for city trails and gravel paths,” Barringer says. “It holds up, whether it’s a 30-minute run or an eight-hour day.” These are perhaps the best long distance trail running shoes available today, and the added cushion proves a boon for heavier runners.
Scott Supertrac 3 Trail Running Shoes
- Long-lasting upper
- 8 millimeter drop
- Sizes: 7-13
While the Supertrac 3s aren’t necessarily any cheaper than the average trail shoe, they’re legendary for their longevity. “These shoes last a really long time,” Barringer says. “If you’re starting out, you want a shoe that’s going to last for a while, so you can get your money’s worth out of it.” The traction is solid on all terrains, while the nylon ripstop upper is notoriously burly. A rocker-style design makes for added efficiency, and the AeroFoam+ cushioning holds up well over long runs (and long run seasons) but isn’t as aggressive as the cushioning found in the Speedgoat 5. So, it’s an excellent choice for runners who prefer a less-cushioned approach.
Atreyu The Base Trail Trail Running Shoes
- Sizes: 4.5-14
Indie-shoe brand Atreyu’s limited, underground marketing allows the brand to bring a top-end trail shoe at a low price of $115. Married to a streamlined, ultra-lightweight design, this shoe will appeal to both budget-conscious shoppers and those seeking a featherlight shoe.
The brand has only produced two shoes in the past, the Base Model and the Race Model, and both have been extremely well-received in the running community. They’re also some of the most lightweight trail running shoes in existence. Barringer is psyched about the upcoming Base Trail, which will ship this September. “I can’t wait to try it,” he says.
How we test trail running shoes
The shoes in this article are a compilation of recommendations from a variety of trail runners based around North America, all with a variety of experience levels and trail preferences. All experts cited here are experienced, competitive trail runners, many with multiple 100-mile races under their belts. Not all shoes in this listing have been tested directly, though most have, and in the former case, customer reviews have been analyzed extensively to provide adequate insight.
Meet the Author
Owen Clarke is a lifelong outdoorsman and outdoor sports journalist. In addition to contributing to Footwear News, Owen is an editor-at-large for Climbing, executive editor for Skydiving Source and Indoor Skydiving Source and a regular contributor to Backpacker, Outside, SKI, Trail Runner and a variety of other outdoor publications. He is an avid backpacker, climber and motorcyclist and has logged miles on two feet (and two wheels) in mountain ranges from North Africa to the Andes to the Balkans. In 2019, he became the first person to hike a new 170-mile loop trail around Slovenia’s Julian Alps.
Meet the Experts
Josh Barringer is an ultrarunner based north of Squamish, British Columbia. A former Arc’teryx athlete and employee, he was instrumental in the development of the now-legendary Norvan LD and LD 2 trail shoes. Among other adventures, Barringer has completed a month-long run in Tasmania, all with handmade gear, and a run along the famous North Coast Trail on northern Vancouver Island. His essay on the latter adventure, “Razed in the Wild,” was published in Sidetracked. Barringer plans to tackle his tenth 100-mile trail race later this year. “The only time I run on the road is when I cross the street to get to the trail,” Barringer jokes.
Katie Kommer is an outdoor gear and apparel writer, trail runner, climber, skier and backpacker based in Salt Lake City. In addition to writing for a variety of digital publications, such as Garage Grown Gear and Popular Mechanics, Kommer works as a gear guru on the sales floor at REI. She is also the co-founder of the blog Small Towns to Summits, which combines “storytelling and sociology in order to share how nature inspires and connects us all.”
Kevin Hadfield is a Colorado-based ultrarunner and Montane athlete, who also works for local run shop Independence Run and Hike. He is a veteran of multiple 100-mile trail races as well as the 205-mile Tor des Géants in the Italian Alps.