If you consider use-cases, trail running shoes are a lot like their road-going counterparts.
Take, for example, a versatile road trainer capable of most runs. Here, the Reebok Floatride Forever Energy 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 as good as it gets.
Likewise, there are many trail shoes with do-it-all versatility. The uppers in both the shoe categories have a secure fit. However, trail exteriors differ by being non-elastic and having protective overlays.
‘Technical’ road shoes are primarily designed for racing and fast running times. These could be low-profile racing flats or newer designs such as the Nike Vaporfly. The uppers tend to run narrow for a superior level of lock-down during speed runs.
There’s a parallel in the trail running world as well – at least in spirit. For technical trail running is a lot more than just 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’ is dialed up by a few notches.
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 was just downhill running; climbing steep verticals present its own set of challenges.
So your 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 like.
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 ISO 2 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 4.0 and 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 too.
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?
And if you’re running on wet terrain, you need trail shoes shod with the right kind of sticky rubber. That, of course, would be an overkill on dry trail paths because they might offer too much grip. For muddy trails, you’ll need longer lugs and a tacky rubber compound.
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 your toes to jam forward into the reinforced toe bumper.
Hence, 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 will depend on how you like them – 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 cousin. 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) Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 36 Trail
Ok, the Pegasus 36 Trail is not a regular Pegasus retrofitted with a new outsole. While it does have a trail-oriented outsole for enhanced traction, the upper is redesigned ground up with a wider fit.
There are extra bits too. Things like the urethane toe-bumper which offers protection over mild trails, or the reconfigured cushioning that features separate heel and Zoom Air bags instead of the full-length Zoom of the road Pegasus.
3) Saucony Guide ISO 2 TR
Saucony’s treatment of the Guide ISO 2 TR is the same as the Asics GT-2000 8 – except for one important distinction.
The Guide ISO’s Trail outsole is made out of the tackier PwrTrac rubber compound in the forefoot, thus giving the trail version a grip advantage over the Guide 13’s standard outsole.
Versatile trail running shoes.
Use them every day for most trail runs – as long as they aren’t technical grade.
1) adidas Terrex CMTK
As we’ve said many times before about the Terrex CMTK – this $90 shoe is one of the best all-around trail shoes you can buy.
The Continental rubber outsole without the latticed windows makes the underside protective yet grippy over dry surfaces. The EVA midsole has enough cushioning for a range of distances.
The upper design is a great combination of comfort, breathability, and protection. The closed mesh lets the air in yet keeps the dust out; the thick Urethane reinforcements shield the foot from the trail debris.
2) Altra Lone Peak 4.0
The Altra Lone Peak may not look very ‘modern’, but it has all the functionality required of a versatile trail shoe. The ’stoneguard’ plate offers protection from underfoot jabs while the EVA cushioning delivers sufficient levels of ride comfort.
Traction is good – courtesy of Altra’s MaxTrac outsole compound and geometry. The Lone Peak is also gaiter-friendly if you want to use one.
Also see: The Saucony Mad River TR, another shoe that can accommodate gaiters.
3) Hoka Challenger ATR 5
Some trail runners prefer a max-cushioned midsole for long-distance comfort; here’s a shoe that fits the description. The Hoka Challenger ATR 5 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 upper fit is quintessential Hoka One One; a snug wrap that holds the foot securely over uneven surfaces.
4) Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 5
The Wildhorse has all the bits and pieces required of an excellent all-purpose trail running shoe. There’s a protective rock plate under an outsole that uses a sticky rubber for traction. The cushioning needs are met by the thick EVA 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.
5) Salomon Sense Ride 2 – wet and dry trails
The Salmon Sense Ride 2 is a goldilocks shoe in which everything feels right. The sleeved upper has a quick bungee lacing with a comfortable yet protective fit. The ride is adequately cushioned for long-distance runs thanks to the Ortholite insole and EVA midsole.
This trail shoe is versatile enough for different surface conditions. The Contagrip MA rubber is designed for wet, dry, and loose gravelly surfaces. And all of this is packed into a respectable 9.5 ounces/270 grams frame.
6) 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 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) adidas Terrex Agravic Boa – for use on wet and dry surfaces
Why did we choose the BOA version instead of the laced Terrex Agravic? The BOA lacing and midfoot panels do a fantastic job of keeping the foot tied down, and you can customize the upper fit tightness without having to fiddle with the lacing.
The Boost midsole makes runs comfortable, but its inherent softness and the grippy Continental rubber outsole also promotes the ground feel.
A thick, fused toe-box in the front guards the foot against the occasional bump.
Also see: The laced, non-BOA version.
2) Brooks Caldera 4 – wet and dry
The Caldera gets updated for 2020 with a redesigned upper and sole. 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 pieces that dials up the protection but makes 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,
3) Hoka Speedgoat 3 – 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 confidence-inspiring grip.
The upper comes standard with reinforced toe and midfoot sections for protection. And of course, you have the bottomless Hoka midsole for ultra-distance worthy comfort.
4) New Balance Summit KOM – wet and dry
Here’s another technical trail running shoe with a Vibram Megagrip outsole. The Summit KOM also has a protective rockplate, so the combined result is an outsole that delivers superior grip over varied terrain and protects the foot from the rocks and roots.
The upper construction and fit is standard trail design – a fused toe-bumper along with textile lining creates a comfortable yet secure-fitting interior.
Also see: The Summit Unknown.
5) Nike Terra Kiger 5- Wet and Dry
This may be the best Terra Kiger edition yet. Nike combines a knobby outsole design with a 004 sticky rubber material to make the Kiger work on most trail surfaces – even wet ones.
The rock plate isn’t one solid piece but segmented. This means that ground protection need not come at the cost of reduced proprioception. A heel Zoom Air bag inside a React foam midsole keeps the ride cushy during long trail runs.
The upper achieves a fine balance between ventilation and structural reinforcement due to its mesh and synthetic build.
6) Salmon S-Lab Ultra 2
The S-Lab Ultra 2 is the trail running shoe you pick for the races Its no-nonsense design sticks to the essentials and discards everything else.
The upper uses a closed, lightweight mesh with TPU-injected reinforcement to reduce weight while creating a smooth and protective upper fit. The desired level of lacing cinch is achieved swiftly through the cable lacing system.
The PU+EVA midsole is packed with cushioning for high-mileage comfort; the Contagrip rubber compound is suitable for wet and dry terrain.