If you consider use-cases, trail running shoes are a lot like their road-going counterparts.
Take, for example, a versatile road trainer that is capable of most runs. The Saucony Ride 13 is a good example. You can wear them for fast runs, slow runs, unpaved gravel roads, packed trails, or even marathons.
Sure, it doesn’t excel in one specific area but if you had to buy just one shoe, this is good as it gets.
Likewise, there are many trail shoes with do-it-all versatility. The uppers in both categories require a secure fit. However, the trail shoe exteriors differ by being non-elastic and having protective overlays.
‘Technical’ road shoes are specifically designed for racing and fast running times. These could be low-profile racing flats or newer designs such as the Nike Alphafly. The uppers tend to run narrow for a superior level of lock-down during speed runs.
There are parallels in the trail running shoe world too. Technical trail running is more than mere speed; unless you’re racing, it is less about the pace and more about the engaging experience that it is.
And there’s no single definition of what that term means – a lot depends on the terrain and/or the weather.
That said, all technical trails present a high level of difficulty due to their uneven surfaces consisting of rocks and/or roots. After considering variables such as dust/mud, ice, snow, and the occasional stream crossing, the level of ‘technical’ increases by a few degrees.
It is common for technical trails to have steep uphill and downhill sections, both of which have different requirements for running shoes. Your running speed is a lot higher downhill and you’re constantly scanning the surface for good landing spots between the roots and loose rocks. This is a high speed, high foot cadence activity.
Unlike road or flat gravel paths, technical running isn’t linear. Where and how you land isn’t predictable; you’re thinking on your feet.
A technical trail runner will make a lot of side-to-side movements spread across a variety of foot-strike patterns. You could be forefoot, midfoot, or heel landing depending on the situation. That’s just downhill running; climbing steep verticals present its own set of challenges.
Therefore, the choice of a trail shoe will depend on where you plan to run.
Are your runs limited to gravel paths in the neighborhood park? In that case, you do not need a purpose-built trail shoe. You can use your regular road-running shoe if you prefer.
If you want an outdoor-sey feel, then get one of those ‘soft-roaders.’ These are outdoor versions of the road shoe(s) with a rugged outsole and an upper made of dust-resistant mesh. They’re like the footwear equivalent of compact SUV or cross-over vehicles. The Saucony Guide 13 TR and the Asics GT-2000 8 trail (we’ve included them in our list) are such examples.
Versatile trail running shoes like the Altra Lone Peak 4.5, Brooks Cascadia 15, and the Saucony Peregrine 10 perform well on everything from entry to medium-difficulty level trails. The uppers and the sole composites are decently protective, and the cushioned ride absorbs a lot of the bumps and pokes. They even work well on the road sections.
Technical trails are where shoe choices become complicated. Should you get a shoe with a thin sole, so that you can feel the ground for a better sense of weight and power transfer? But risk getting jabbed under the foot with rocky edges or sharp roots?
Or does it have to be a highly cushioned shoe for impact protection and high-mileage comfort?
If you’re running on slippery terrain, then the outsole needs to be shod with the right geometry of sticky rubber. That, of course, would be an overkill on dry trail paths because that could accelerate the wear and tear. On muddy trails, longer lugs and a tacky rubber compound are pre-requisites.
Nailing the upper fit is the key. Too much room, and you may end up with the unwanted ‘sliding off the midsole’ sensation. Too short, and the downhill hill sections will cause the toes to jam forward into the reinforced toe bumper. That’s not desirable.
Given the complexity, the best we can do is to recommend trail running shoes based on intended use-cases. The first two groups – the soft-roaders and versatile trail running shoes – are pretty straightforward.
The ‘right’ kind of technical trail shoe depends on how you like them served – so our third group brings together a diverse selection of models to choose from.
Crossover trail running shoes – these are the outdoor interpretation of road shoes.
These are your familiar road models re-purposed in a trail form. This way, you get the favorite parts of the road shoe – including a medial post – but with an off-road-ready outsole and color scheme.
1) Asics GT-2000 8 Trail
Performance-wise, very little separates the GT-2000 8 trail from its road version. Both share the same midsole and upper design so the fit and ride aspect is identical.
So why should you buy the 2000 trail then?
The Asics GT-2000 8 Trail has a darker colored upper that is better suited for running on dusty and muddy trails. The GT Trail also comes with a slightly modified outsole design but it doesn’t make a significant difference in the grip quality.
Both models cost the same so there’s no price upcharge.
2) New Balance Arishi Trail
You must be familiar with the New Balance Arishi V3 – a low-slung road running shoe with a minimal upper and firm ride. It has just enough cushioning to keep the feet fresh during daily runs or the occasional half-marathon distance.
Well, the Arishi Trail is the outdoors-oriented avatar of the Arishi V3. Like the latter, the midsole here is made of a single-density Fresh Foam that provides just enough cushioning to filter minor terrain imperfections. It’s a good entry level shoe for regular trail runs, as long as the trails do not get too technical.
Though the snug and short-fitting upper isn’t waterproof, it offers enough protection and comfort for easygoing trail outings.
3) Saucony Guide 13 TR
Saucony’s road-to-trail execution of the Guide 13 TR is similar to that of the Asics GT-2000 8 Trail – except for one important distinction.
The Guide 13 TR’s outsole is made out of a sticky rubber compound, thus giving the trail version a grip advantage over the road version. The midsole is similar in its ride delivery – the Pwrrun foam has a firm cushioning along with some medial side stability provided by the wedge. A ’splash’ midsole paint scheme visually differentiates the Guide 13 TR from the road model.
The upper too, receives a design that is better suited for the outdoors. A closed mesh minimizes the entry of dust and debris, whereas the welded overlays and bumper offer additional protection and structure over the standard model.
Versatile trail running shoes.
Use them every day on most terrains – as long as they aren’t extremely challenging trails.
1) adidas Terrex Agravic Flow
Ok, the Agravic Flow’s closed bootie-type opening is trickier to enter as compared to a regular tongue and collar design.
But once the foot is inside, the upper wraps around the foot in secure comfort. The thin laces pass through the speed loops with ease for a just-right top-down pressure. A thick, fused toe-box in the front guards the foot against the occasional bump.
The Boost midsole has all the cushioning needed for high-mileage runs, and the EVA rim brings stability to the ride. A Continental rubber outsole completely covers the underside for traction and protection.
The lugs have wide spacing between them to prevent clogging. The lugs aren’t very aggressive and are distributed evenly, thus making the Agravic flow suitable for road sections as well. The Boost cushioning keeps the feet fresh on paved surfaces.
Also see: adidas Terrex Two – an entry-level adidas trail running shoe.
2) Altra Lone Peak 4.5
This is the only trail running shoe on this guide with a 0 mm heel-to-toe offset. Be it the heel or the forefoot, the midsole thickness stays the same through its length. The zero-drop midsole helps during full-contact landings while creating a cushioned layer between the foot and the trail.
The Altra Lone Peak 4.5 is all function over form. It may not look very ‘modern’, but it has all the functionality that a versatile trail shoe needs. The ’stoneguard’ plate offers protection from unwanted jabs, and sticky rubber (MaxTrac) lugs offer multi-terrain traction.
The layering on the upper results in a snug fit that prevents the foot from sliding while serving as protection from the bumps and nicks. The Lone Peak 4.5 also has gaiter attachment points should you need one. The closed ripstop mesh and tongue help repel the dust.
3) Asics FujiTrabuco Lyte
This shoe is not to be mixed up with the Fujitrabuco 9; that’s a completely different shoe that is 2 ounces heavier.
On the other hand, the Fujitrabuco Lyte is a versatile trail running that combines ample ride comfort, quick turnovers, and a grippy outsole with bidirectional lugs.
A full-length Flytefoam midsole has sufficient cushioning for long trail runs while being protective. The high toe-spring of the midsole makes it easier to roll forward; this makes the transitions smoother.
The mesh upper is protective too, thanks to the generous application of high-density printing. The tongue even has a pocket to store the laces. Neat.
4) Hoka Challenger ATR 6
Some trail runners prefer a max-cushioned ride for long-distance comfort; here’s just the shoe for it.
The Hoka Challenger ATR 6 does not have a rock plate but its midsole is thick enough to act as a protective barrier. The wide midsole and outsole geometry makes the ride supportive too. The partial outsole doesn’t have an aggressive lug geometry but offers sufficient traction over non-technical surfaces.
Hoka uppers have become progressively better with passing years, and the ATR 6 benefits from those improvements as well. The redesigned upper is smooth, comfortable, and has more room than the ATR 5.
5) Nike Terra Kiger 6
The Terra Kiger 6 has all the bits and pieces than an all-purpose trail running shoe requires. There’s a protective rock plate under an outsole that’s made of sticky rubber for traction. The cushioning needs are met by the React foam midsole and a heel Zoom Air bag.
The mesh part of the upper allows ventilation during warm summer runs while the synthetic welding over the toe and midfoot add support and protection. The breathable Kiger 6 will not do well on muddy terrain or rains, so that’s worth keeping in mind.
Also see: Nike Wildhorse 6.
6) Salomon Sense Ride 3 – wet and dry trails
The Salomon Sense Ride is back for the third time, and it introduces significant upgrades over the 2. Thanks to the redesigned toe-bumper and mesh upper, there’s more interior space than the Ride 2.
The fit is still great at securing the foot without slippage; the bungee-style Quicklace is easy to fasten. The midsole is also new, both from a shape and material standpoint.
There’s more ride comfort delivered by the foam blend that Salomon calls ‘Optivibe’, so the Sense Ride 3 is excellent for longer trail runs. The firm undertone gives the Ride 3 plenty of stability and an efficient transition quality.
The widely-spaced outsole lugs provide excellent grip without relying on an aggressive geometry. This middle-ground approach to the outsole design also makes the Sense Ride 3 suitable for the occasional trail-to-road crossover.
The upper isn’t waterproof, but there’s a Gore-Tex variant for a $40 premium.
7) Saucony Peregrine 10
Saucony went all out for the tenth Peregrine by offering not one, but three variants. All models share an identical upper and midsole design, and with that comes a similar ride quality.
The standard Peregrine 10 has a grippy Pwrtrac outsole with a Pwrrun EVA midsole and rock plate.
The ‘ST’ version has deep outsole lugs for a superior bite on muddy trails – similar to what you may find on Salomon trail footwear. The ST lacks a rock plate though.
Lastly, the Peregrine 10 GTX relies on a waterproof Gore-Tex lined upper to keep your feet dry. The outsole is the same as the standard Peregrine 10 – it has grippy Pwrtrac lugs underneath a protective rock plate.
Technical trail running.
Reserve these shoes for the toughest of terrains and gradients. Most of them work on wet, slippery surfaces.
1) Brooks Caldera 4 – wet and dry
The new Caldera gets a redesigned upper and sole, yet the basics stay the same. In other words, the Caldera 4 is (nearly) as good as the model it replaces.
There are changes, though – most take place below the upper. The Caldera 4 loses the segmented outsole and uses larger rubber lugs that dial up the protection but make the ride slightly stiffer upon contact. That said, there’s still a lot of cushioning. The 4 mm drop midsole is thick and makes long trail runs comfortable.
The upper blends interior comfort and protection through the engineered mesh, padded heel, and fused Urethane overlays. The closed mesh structure keeps the debris out. The Caldera 4’s tongue takes some time to get used to – it uses a piped flap instead of the Caldera 3’s traditional design.
Like the V3, the Caldera 4 has attachment points for a gaiter.
2) Hoka Speedgoat 4 – wet and dry
The fact that this Hoka shoe comes standard with a Vibram Megagrip outsole shows that it means business. This Vibram compound offers traction over wet slippery surfaces while the 5 mm lugs bite into the ground for a confidence-inspiring grip.
The upper comes standard with reinforced toe and midfoot sections for protection. For this year, the Speedgoat 4 adds extra space inside the forefoot for comfort.
And of course, you have the bottomless Hoka midsole for ultra-distance worthy comfort. Though the shoe lacks a rock plate, the thick midsole is an effective barrier against all things rooty and pointy.
3) Salmon S-Lab Ultra 3
The S-Lab Ultra 3, as the name suggests, is the trail running shoe that one picks for the ultras. Well, there are no races anytime soon but that shouldn’t stop anyone from training for ultras distances. Its no-nonsense design sticks to the essentials and discards everything else.
The upper uses a closed, lightweight mesh with TPU-injected reinforcement (Profeel) to reduce weight while creating a smooth and protective upper fit. The desired level of lacing cinch is achieved swiftly through the bungee lacing system. There’s even a nifty pocket in the tongue to stow the fastener away.
The PU+EVA midsole is packed with cushioning for high-mileage comfort; the Contagrip rubber compound is suitable for wet and dry terrain.
4) Salomon Speedcross 5
If running on muddy or slushy trails is your idea of fun, then it’s hard to go wrong with the Speedcross 5. The long and widely spaced lugs made of a soft and smooth rubber bites deep with minimal clogging. The heel and forefoot lugs face different directions for ample traction on uphill and downhill sections.
The ultra-slim outsole profile helps too. The narrow width exerts a greater pressure on the lugs, thus improving the grip over challenging trails. Making that possible is a ‘double-lasted’ construction of the Speedcross 5.
Here, the upper covers the midsole and folds just over the outsole. This unique construction not only results in a slim outsole but also secures the foot better over less than perfect terrain.
The Speedcross upper is functional minimalism at its best. Fused layers cover a closed mesh to deliver dust-free protection. Though the bungee laces are quick to pull together, we wish there was a lace pocket like the S-Lab Ultra or Sense Ride 3.
The molded insole and internal midsole combine to create a cushioned and stable base for long-distance runs.