How to Pick the Best Trail Running Shoes For You

The Best Trail Running Shoes

Whether you are a dedicated ultra-marathoner or casually take to the trails once per week, if you trail run, you can benefit from a good pair of trail running shoes. Trail running shoes provide traction and stability on the irregular surfaces of dirt trails. You can wear road running shoes on some trails, but ultimately, trail running shoes give you a more comfortable and economical running experience. 

These are some of the most popular and well-reviewed trail running shoes on the market (as of the publication of this post in January 2023). Additionally, this article will guide you through how to choose the best traill running shoes for you. 

Common Features of Trail Running Shoes

Trail running shoes are similar to road running shoes in their basic anatomy. They have an upper with laces, a midsole, and an outsole. Distinct specifications include heel-to-toe drop, stack height, and cushioning softness. However, there are some features unique to trail running shoes:

  • Rock guard: Rocks are a common part of the trail running experience – but not something you want in your shoes. Rock plates in trail running shoes
  • Lugs: Lugs are a distinctive feature of trail shoes compared to road running shoes. Lugs on trail running shoes are larger to provide better traction on irregular surfaces. Lug length will range across different models of trail shoes. Trail shoes designed for smooth, fast trails will have smaller lugs than those designed for gnarly, technical trails.  
  • Gaiter attachment: Gaiters cover the tops of a shoe to keep water and dirt out. Gaiters are useful if you are running on a muddy trail or highly technical trail. Many trail running shoes have special loops that you can hook your gaiter onto. 
  • Stiffer midsole: Ultra-plush road running shoes lack the stability needed when running trails. 
  • Durable uppers: The trend for many road running shoes (especially racing shoes) is an ultra-light upper. Trail running shoes have more durable uppers that may be reinforced with water-resistant or other protective materials. 

How to Pick a Pair of Trail Running Shoes

If you are accustomed to a certain pair of road running shoes, look for a trail running shoe with similar specifications: Importantly, you should look for a similar heel-to-toe drop (with +/- 2mm) and stack height. 

A trail running shoe should also feel comfortable. You should be able to feel comfortable when you run in them. If they rub in uncomfortable places, squeeze your feet, or cause your feet to hurt, then those are not the best trail running shoes for you. 

Trail running shoes should also accommodate the type of surface you are running on most often. Do you plan to train on steep, technical trails or smooth trails? The more technical the surface, the more traction you need. Will you be running ultra-distances or sub-ultra? The longer the distance, the more cushioning and comfort you may require. You may even opt for a special pair of shoes for trail racing.

(New to trail running? Start the transition from roads to trails with these tips!)

Should You Wear Minimalist or Maximalist Trail Running Shoes?

Based on the results of a 2016 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, there is no significant and consistent metabolic advantage to minimalist shoes compared to traditional trail shoes on a sub-ultra trail run. While some differences in biomechanics occur, they are not significant enough across all runners to be able to say that minimalist shoes are superior for every runner at shorter trail distances. 

A 2021 study in the European Journal of Sport Science found similar results regarding minimalist versus maximalist training running shoes. Neither minimalist nor maximalist shoes had a significant effect on biomechanics during trail runners. The irregular terrain of trails leads to natural changes in footstrike (with most runners using a midfoot strike on uphills and rearfoot strike on downhills). Runners maintain those footstrike changes on varying terrain no matter how cushioned their shoes are. 

If minimal trail shoes work for you, that’s great – keep using them. The same applies to maximalist trail running shoes; if you like them, continue to use them. Neither is superior. Much like road running shoes, the cushion of trail running shoes will depend on what feels the most comfortable to you on the terrain you run on. 

Trail Running Shoes

Well-Rated Trail Running Shoes

Hoka Mafate Speed 4 (men’s/women’s)

The Hoka Mafate are Hoka’s latest and greatest (non-carbon plated) trail running shoes. The Mafate Speed 4 offers the cushioned, forgiving feel that is characteristic of Hoka. This shoe can excel on both rugged trails (thanks to its grippy outsoles) and for faster trail running. 

  • Cost: $185 USD
  • Stack height: 23.5/17.5 mm
  • Drop: 4 mm
  • Weight: 8.5 oz (women’s)
  • Neutral
  • Vibram Megagrip outsoles
  • Vegan; made with recycled materials
Saucony Peregrine (women’s/men’s)

The Saucony Peregrine has been a popular trail running shoe for many years – and for good reason. The shoe is light (particularly due to a thin upper) yet provides rugged traction and solid grip. The Peregrine thrives on non-technical and technical trails alike. 

  • Cost: $130 USD
  • Stack height: 26.5/22.5 mm
  • Drop: 4 mm
  • Weight: 8.3 oz (women’s)
  • Neutral
  • 5 mm lug
Salomon Pulsar Trail (women’s/ men’s)

Both Outside Magazine and Ginger Runner praised Salomon’s latest trail shoe, the Salomon Pulsar trail. The Pulsar Trail is designed for sub-ultra trail races (and maybe fast 50K runners). The shoe combines light protection from the ground with a soft, spring ride. As with many Salomon shoes, the Pulsar Trail runs narrow, especially in the toe box. 

  • Cost: $130 USD
  • Stack height: 32.6/26.6 mm
  • Drop: 6 mm
  • Weight: 9.9 oz (men’s)
  • Neutral
  • AllTerrain Countergrip outsoles
  • Vegan; made with recycled materials
NNormal Kjerag

The NNormal brand is new on the trail scene, as an innovation in sustainability from world-class trail runner Kilian Jornet. The NNormal Kjerag is a lightweight, bouncy, and durable trail shoe. The goal of the brand is to create longer lasting trail shoes; accordingly to the Trail Runner Magazine review, these shoes lasted Kilian over 600 miles on trails. These shoes are made for feeling fast on trails; they may not be the best choice for a runner seeking a cushioned ride. 

  • Cost: $195 USD
  • Stack height: 23.5/17.5 mm
  • Drop: 6 mm
  • Weight: 7 oz (men’s)
  • Neutral
  • Vibram Megagrip outsoles
  • Thin rockplate
Saucony Endorphin Edge  (men’s/women’s)

The Saucony Endorphin Edge is a novel trail running shoe – one with a carbon fiber plate. Even with 4mm lugs, this shoe is a fast, responsive trail running shoe. It may not be ideal for slow, highly technical trails; it is better suited for trail racing and smooth, non-technical trails. As with any carbon plate shoe, the Endorphin Edge is not an everyday trainer. This shoe is best for trail racing and the occasional workout or long run. 

  • Cost: $200 USD
  • Stack height: 35/29 mm
  • Drop: 6 mm
  • Weight: 7.8 oz (women’s)
  • Neutral
  • PWRRUNPB foam and Carbitex carbon fiber plate
  • PWRTRAC outsole
Nike Zoom X Zegama (women’s/men’s)

The Zegama is praised as a comfortable trail running shoe made to go the distance. This shoe is durable enough for ultra-marathons – and offers enough comfort for the distance without having to change shoes. However, it’s grip may not fare well on wet or very technical trails. 

  • Cost: $160 USD
  • Stack height: 37/33 mm
  • Drop: 4 mm
  • Weight: 11.2 oz (men’s)
  • Neutral

The Best Trail Running Shoe is Individual

The best trail running shoe for you may or may not be on this list. While some shoes are better quality than others, ultimately individual preference determines the best trail shoe for you. 

A trail running shoe is the best shoe for you if:

  • It feels comfortable underfoot when running
  • You do not experience irritations such as blistering
  • You have not started experiencing unusual pains or injuries since starting in the shoe
  • The shoe fits your budget

(Read more here about how to pick running shoes that will work for you.)

How to Stay Up to Date On New Trail Running Shoes

Trail running shoe technology is booming! New models come out often. You can read reviews and stay up to date on new trail running shoes with these resources:

This article contains affiliate links. These links cost you nothing extra; they do provide a commission rate to support the website. Thank you for your support!

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