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Published Nov. 4, 2021

Let’s face it: For many of us, running is a necessary evil. For the military folks, PT isn’t an option (except for maybe Space Force), and a lot of vets continue PT out of a lifetime of habit. Some folks like to run, some outright despise it. So if you’ve got to do it, why not make it interesting? 

Trail running can make this tedious exercise enjoyable and rewarding. If you’re miserable while running, you can distract yourself by focusing on the technical challenges around you, or just enjoy the scenery. While you can tackle tame trails with regular running shoes, you’re going to want to have specifically-made trail runners if you’re thinking of racing over more challenging terrain. Since the technical paths are where the fun is, we’ve put together this list to help you choose the best trail runners to help you take your fitness to the next level.

We’ve got a list of some of the best trail running shoes on the market, and why you should take a look at them. Since shoes are uniquely personal (one person may absolutely swear by a brand that feels horrendously uncomfortable to someone else), we’ve looked at a number of running categories and design styles to help you narrow down your choice. Read on and let’s see which of the best trail running shoes work for you.

Hoka One One makes every “best of” list out there, and for good reason. Their shoes are sturdy and comfortable, arguably two of the most important features of a running shoe of any kind. The Speedgoat 4, though, is in a class all its own. Trail running, though fun, can get hot, so the upper shoe is made of a breathable mesh, and the gusseted tongue is specially designed to also enhance breathability to enhance comfort on long runs.

The midsole, made of a lightweight foam, is thick and provides impressive shock absorption and comfort. Hoka One One doesn’t give a lot of detail on the midsole, but it’s capable enough that the company decided to do without a rockplate with the Speedgoat.

The rubber outsole and 5mm lugs grab the terrain to help you confidently navigate technical trails. The outsoles are made of Vibram Megagrip, and they hold on to the trail regardless of the obstacles you’re running, wet or dry. The lugs are stepped and designed to get you through rocks, roots, and mud.

Specs
  • Weight 10.8 oz (single shoe)
  • Midsole Balanced cushion (although runners can argue they’re more plush)
  • Traction 5mm stepped lugs
PROS

Breathable mesh and 3D printed overlays provide comfort and increased stability

Rubber outsoles (Vibram Megagrip) work extremely well in wet conditions

Midsole cushioning ideal for longer distance runs

CONS

Thick cushioning may be too much for some, especially beginners

Toe box is more narrow than other brands

Best Value

Brooks is well-known for making traditional running shoes, but they also make some well-regarded trail runners too, and the Divide 2 has turned quite a few heads. It’s not the most advanced or sexiest to hit the trails, but it packs a lot of value for a comparatively low price. It’s the perfect shoe if you’re just beginning your outdoor excursions or if you plan on mixing paved road and trail runs.

The Divide 2 is made to feel like a traditional running shoe. The upper shoe is a synthetic mesh for breathability, while the midsole is moderately cushioned and, in terms of impact absorption, works well on both paved surfaces and trails. Under the midsole is a rockplate, which provides additional protection for feet on the trails (at the cost of a little rigidity that road runners may need to get used to).

The Divide 2’s outsole is made of a sticky rubber, and has relatively shallow, multidirectional lugs to grip the earth. Since this shoe is designed to bridge regular road running and trail running, the lug patterns aren’t super aggressive, but the shoe is more than capable of taking you onto gravelly and moderately challenging trails.

Specs
  • Weight 10.3 oz (single shoe)
  • Midsole Moderate EVA cushion
  • Traction TrailTack sticky outsoles
PROS

Designed to work well on paved roads and basic, non-technical trails

Priced notably lower than high-end brands

Includes rockplate for extra protection on trails

CONS

Moderate cushioning not ideal for long distance running

Not really suitable for technical trails

Premium Pick

Altra shoes are often locked in close combat with Hoka One One for top seed on many “best of” lists. In this case, the Olympus 4 and its cousin, the Lone Peak 5 (listed below), were just shy of getting the best overall position. They’re both excellent trail runners, and deserve your consideration.

The Olympus 4 has a similar amount of cushion as the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4. Running in them is like running with bouncy castles on your feet. They feature a notorious wide toe box, although some have complained they run more narrow than other Altra shoes. Like Altra’s other shoes, their ZeroDrop design allows the foot to function as though you’re not wearing a shoe. While this sounds great, it’s not for everyone, so you definitely want to try these out before committing.

The midsole, though large and offering maximum cushion, has special grooves that Altra calls “InnerFlex.” This makes the shoe more responsive and, when combined with the outsole’s impressive grip of the trail, provides confidence and comfort on any run, no matter how far you go.

Specs
  • Weight 11.6 oz (single shoe)
  • Midsole Compression molded EVA
  • Traction Canted lugs and Vibram MegaGrip outsole, excellent grip
PROS

33mm stack height, balanced cushioning ideal for long distance runs

InnerFlex midsole grooves enhance shoe flexibility for added comfort

Upper is made of an engineered mesh for breathability

GaiterTrap hook-and-loop tab supports strapless gaiters for additional protection

CONS

ZeroDrop design doesn’t work for everyone

Not cheap

More narrow toe box than other Altra shoes

We’ve listed the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 as the top overall trail running shoe, and it’s an excellent choice for both men and women. However, we need to make special note of the Women’s Salomon Sense Ride 4. Salomon is a giant among running shoe brands, and with good reason.

Lighter than the Speedgoat 4, the Sense Ride 4 is designed for mixed trail use. In this respect, this shoe is one of the more versatile on the market, as it performs well on paved surfaces and on some of the most technical of trails. The midsole, made of Optivibe foam, has slightly less cushioning than the Speedgoat 4, but also doesn’t quite feel as thick and heavy on the feet.

The Sense Ride 4’s outsole sports smaller lugs than the Speedgoat 4 as well, which gives the shoe plenty of grip while being somewhat easier to run with on paved surfaces. The combined sense of stability and light weight make this a great choice for speed or hybrid running.

Specs
  • Weight 8.29 oz (single shoe)
  • Midsole Moderate (regular) Optivibe cushioning
  • Traction 4mm lugs, rubber Contagrip outsole
PROS

32mm heel stack height and balanced cushioning great for road or trail

Quicklace system means no more shoe laces coming untied

Lightweight, makes ideal for racing or training

CONS

Some report annoying “popping” sound as you break these in

Best Waterproof

I was surprised when I first started trail running that most of these shoes, unlike hiking boots, weren’t waterproof. It turns out, there’s a good reason for this: Waterproofing often means a tradeoff in breathability for your feet, and hot feet make for sweat, blisters, and an uncomfortable run altogether. Plus, you’re likely to have a little more weight added on.

That said, the industry has produced some impressive waterproof trail runners. Salomon’s second entry on our list, the Speedcross 5 GTX, is one of the best. Using industry standard Gore-Tex, this Speedcross 5 is waterproof and built to take on the most challenging trails in whatever weather you’re caught in. Compared to its non-waterproof sibling (the regular Speedcross 5), it’s a little bulkier (with a heel stack height of 37.4mm vs 35mm) and is also ¾ ounce heavier per shoe. But the tradeoff can be worth it, especially if you’re running in wet or cold, sloppy conditions.

Specs
  • Weight 12 oz (single shoe)
  • Midsole Moderate (regular) cushion
  • Traction 6mm multidirectional chevron lugs, rubber Contagrip outsole
PROS

Waterproof, of course

Quicklace system means no more shoe laces coming untied

Deep lugs and lug pattern ideal for mud and soft earth

CONS

A little heavier and larger shoe

Some wearers indicate the shoe size is more narrow than previous versions

Best for Hiking

Trail runners love the Altra Lone Peak series. This shoe constantly rates among the best of all shoes, and deservedly so. Like the Olympus 4 above, it has canted lugs to dig into the earth and provide a sure step on technical trails. Like other Altra shoes, it has a ZeroDrop design. But unlike the Olympus, the Lone Peak has a lower stack height (25mm vs 33mm in the Olympus). That helps make the Lone Peak feel more like hiking footwear.

The Lone Peak 5’s midsole is made of AltraEGO foam and uses what Altra calls Balance Cushioning to attain that ZeroDrop design. The popularity of this model is a testament that many find this a great feature. But again, ZeroDrop isn’t for everyone. Personally, I think it feels kind of weird. Be sure to test this out before buying.

The MaxTrac outsole provides good grip on the trails. Altra uses a multi-directional lug pattern on their shoes, so the Lone Peak 5 should perform well on mud, rock, and whatever obstacles you need to get over.

Specs
  • Weight 11.1 oz (single shoe)
  • Midsole Moderate (regular) cushion, AltraEGO foam
  • Traction Canted lugs and MaxTrac outsole, excellent grip
PROS

Dry holes to help water drain to hasten drying

Updated StoneGuard rockplate provides additional foot protection

Compatible with strapless gaiters for additional traction

Wide toe box allows for a more natural, comfortable toe spread

CONS

You might not like the ZeroDrop design

Not the grippiest of traction

Best Crossover/Hybrid

Brooks steps decidedly into the trail running game with the Caldera 5. With a heel stack height of 32mm, they’re designed to provide comfort for much more challenging trails than their beginner’s shoe, the Divide 2. Plus, the light weight (when compared to other distance shoes) makes it a good choice for racing, or combining paved and trail running.

The Caldera 5’s BioMoGo DNA midsole is a max cushion design, which is what you expect to find in long distance trail running shoes. However, it’s somewhat more flexible and responsive than other shoes that are similarly sized.

The outsoles use a raised tread pattern, and aren’t as prominent as other dedicated trail runners. Although this may impact the Caldera 5’s utility somewhat with highly technical trails, this design makes it more suitable and comfortable for transitioning between road and trail.

Specs
  • Weight 10.6 oz (single shoe)
  • Midsole Moderate cushion
  • Traction TrailTrack sticky outsole, wide area lugs
PROS

TrailTrack lugs designed to provide exceptional grip up and downhill

Upper is an engineered mesh for breathability and support

Gaiter attachments for increased foot protection on technical trails

CONS

Priced as much as other premium brands

Rigid body needs to be broken in before heavy use

Best All Terrain and All Climate

It seems like a given that an Italian company (with American operations based out of Colorado) would be good at making shoes capable of taking on mountains. The La Sportiva Bushido II has a reputation for two things: having a tight fit and being great at tackling rugged terrain.

The Bushido II looks like a more sleek shoe than most on this list. With a heel stack height of 19mm, the shoe uses a combination of two compression molded foam compounds along with an additional compression molded rock guard in the front to protect your feel while moving amongst the rocks. You’ll note that these shoes are meant to be responsive and give your feet a feel for the terrain beneath. So unlike the long distance and ultra shoes like the Speedgoat 4, these shoes fit tightly and don’t carry as much cushion. That’s not to say they won’t protect your feet, it’s just that they’re intended to help you adjust to really rough, rocky ground when needed.

The outsole of the Bushido II also looks quite different, as the outer lugs actually blend into the midsole. The aggressive lug pattern is intended to grip the hard earth and rock you encounter while mountain running, although the comparatively shallow lugs (~4mm) may not do as well in mud.

Specs
  • Weight 10.5 oz (single shoe)
  • Midsole Composite of LaSpEVA, compression molded MEMIex, with EVA rockguard
  • Traction FriXion XT 2.0 dual compound rubber
PROS

“Slip on” design hugs your foot to maximize responsiveness on trails

Mesh upper and gusseted, breathable tongue keeps debris out while still allowing feet to breathe

Layered midsole components and rockplate maximizes foot protection despite less cushion

CONS

Sizes tend to run small, and some complain they are quite narrow

Designed for rough terrain, some indicate the tread wears quickly

Best for Racing

The Superior 5 sheds a lot of weight compared to its cousins, the Lone Peak 5 and Olympus 4, while keeping a good amount of traction and foot protection. In a sort of departure from their other trail runners, this shoe provides more of a snug fit that helps make it a particularly good racing shoe.

The Superior 5 starts with an durable mesh upper that has a “burrito” style wrap-around tongue. Altra says this is to give your foot a locked-in feel, which is a plus if you’re running for speed. It also has a heel stack height of 21mm, considerably less bulky than the long distance trail runners. The midsole is made of Quantic lightweight foam instead of the AltraEGO used by Lone Peak. However, Superior 5 boasts the wide toe box, ZeroDrop design, and InnerFlex ridges (to make the shoe more responsive and flexible) that Altra is well-known for.

The Superior 5’s outsole also uses the same MaxTrac rubber and canted lugs that Altra uses with their other trail runners. This, combined with the unique midsole and upper, results in a lightweight, grippy trail runner you can rely on in a race.

Specs
  • Weight 8.8 oz (single shoe)
  • Midsole Quantic lightweight foam
  • Traction MaxTrac outsole with canted lugs
PROS

Removable StoneGuard TPU insert provides additional foot protection

GaiterTrap hook-and-loop system supports strapless gaiters

“Burrito” style wrap-around tongue helps foot fit snug and comfortably

CONS

Not ideal for long distance trail running

Shoe sizes run a little different from Superior 4 models

ZeroDrop design doesn’t work for everyone, try before you buy

Why you should trust us

Since separating from the Air Force, I’ve personally been running on trails and in races for years (and more recently as part of the Ohio River Road Runners Club), and hiking the hills of southwest Ohio and beyond as a member of the Dayton Hikers organization. Along with the gearheads and other military veterans of Task & Purpose (many of whom have run, raced, hiked, and rucked the world over), we use a combination of hands-on testing, user testimony, and extensive research to decide whether these shoes are worthy of your attention. In cases where we aren’t able to test and break something firsthand, we make sure to evaluate what hikers and industry experts have to say to ensure you’re getting the best advice we can offer.

Types of trail running shoes

The typical trail runner has thicker cushioning and more rigidity throughout than a regular road shoe. More importantly, it has a tough outsole with lugs on the bottom to provide stability on the varied surfaces you’ll find on trails. To help deal with wet and muddy conditions, some trail running shoes are waterproof, while others use breathable meshes and various types of drainage to help the shoe dry quickly and to help avoid blisters. 

Racing trail runners

This is something of an “unofficial” type, as you can race in any trail runner, but some that tend to be lighter and less cushioned are often desired for racing. With lower heel heights and less cushion in the midsoles, these are often used for shorter runs.

Ultra

Designed to help propel runners longer distances, these shoes often have thick cushioning that absorbs impact and propels the runner forward. For longer races, your joints and feet will take a beating, so shoes with maximum cushioning (like with the Olympus 4) are examples of this type of trail runner.

Mountain

Steep climbs with lots of rocks require less weight and thick cushion, as well as more responsiveness than ultra or long-distance trail runners. Mountain shoes are often lighter and more flexible to give the runner a better feel of the ground so as to better adapt to changes in terrain.

Crossover/Hybrid

Although you can run on any surface with trail runners, thick cushioning and deep lugs can make running on traditional paved surfaces feel weird. Crossover/hybrid shoes handle well on multiple surfaces by striking a balance between cushions and lugs. They might not be the best for long-distance trail running, but they can feel better if you’re mixing your runs.

Features to look for in trail running shoes

Midsole/cushioning

The midsole is where your foot actually rests, and where the cushioning is. Most brands classify their shoes as having something like low, medium, or high cushioning. Altra adds a max level. Hoka One One gets a little more creative and uses balanced, plush, and responsive. Whatever adjective is used, the shoes with maximum cushioning tend to be the ultra shoes, the ones intended for long-distance runs. The type of trail and the amount of distance you plan to cover can help you decide on what you need. More cushion helps to absorb impact and sustain the runner on longer runs, but they do add a little weight, which may be a concern for racing. 

Traction

 Lugs are the rubber knobs that jut off the outsole (the bottom of the shoe). Both the makeup of the outsole (typically rubber of some variety) and the lugs play a part in how well the trail runner grips the ground you’re running on. Deeper lugs (5mm or greater) can handle mud better but feel awkward on paved surfaces.

Uppers

The uppers are the top part of the shoe. These tend to be an engineered or synthetic mesh that is somewhat rigid to help protect the foot and stabilize it, while also being breathable. Some companies also add 3D printed overlays to enhance that stability.

Rock plate

The rock plate is a thin plastic or other durable synthetic material set beneath the midsole to help protect against rocks or other obstacles that you could run on top of. Not all trail runners have these (some with thick midsoles may not need them), but they’re nice when they do.

Benefits of trail running shoes

Impact absorption

Trail running is a blast because of the obstacles you have to overcome. But these obstacles, if highly technical, can mangle regular running shoes and make your joints regret your decision to take the trail. Trail runners are designed to absorb the impact when you jump on or over whatever is in your way. They’re engineered to also propel the runner forward, especially those with maximum cushioning. This can really help as you build up your distance.

Traction

Probably the most easily appreciated feature of trail runners is their ability to grip the terrain. Even high-quality road running shoes are apt to slip on wet creek rocks or muddy hillsides. A good pair of trail runners can give you confidence in your steps and make your runs that more productive. 

Waterproofing/drainage

Most trail runners aren’t waterproof, although there are plenty of them on the market. But the nature of trail running means you will likely get your feet wet somewhat regularly. So to help protect your feet from having to run in soaked fabric, most trail runners have drainage holes or are made breathable enough to facilitate drying and eliminate water from the shoe. 

Trail running shoes Pricing

Under $100

Some very popular running shoe brands produce some solid, entry-level trail runners for under $100. The ASICS Frequent Trail Runners and New Balance 481 V3 Trail Running Shoe both offer light shoes with decent tread for a decent price. 

$100-$150

A good number of higher-end brands are represented in this pricing band, including the Altra Lone Peak 5 and Hoka One One Speedgoat 4, two of the best shoes on the market. Shoes in this range offer solid cushioning and quality.

More than $150

This is where you can expect to find your higher-end waterproof trail runners and specialty running shoes. Some, like the Hoka One One TenNine, cost upwards of $200 or more. That’s a lot of technology, and probably only for the seriously competitive trail runners.

How we chose our top picks

We used a combination of comparing our personal experiences and testing with that of choice vendors. Which were best sellers locally versus which sold best online? What did professional reviewers say, and how did that align with customer reviews? We used this to generate a workable list and then selected some for personal testing. We also combed through every positive and not-so-positive review we could find and probed issues when we noted common complaints. The shoes that consistently exhibited quality and customer satisfaction rose to the top, and our own personal experience helped to validate the finalists. 

FAQs on trail running shoes

You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q: Do you need different shoes for trail running?

A: As with most workout gear, the answer is “it depends.” If you plan on long distances (over 10 miles), you probably want to look at the trail runners with more cushion and deep lugs (assuming the trails are technical).

Q: What makes trail running shoes different from other running shoes?

A: The typical trail runner has thicker cushioning and more rigidity throughout than a regular road shoe. More importantly, it has a tough outsole with lugs on the bottom to provide stability on the varied surfaces you’ll find on trails. To help deal with wet and muddy conditions, some trail runners are waterproof, while others use breathable meshes and various types of drainage to help the shoe dry quickly and to help avoid blisters.

Q: Is it OK to use trail running shoes on the road?

A: Usually, yes. However, I don’t like to. The lugs on trail runners are designed to help navigate rocks and roots and to sink into softer trails. Deep lugs feel weird when running on paved surfaces, and wear out faster than they’re supposed to. Having said that, there are crossover/hybrid shoes with shorter lugs and more flexibility for multi-surface running.

Q: What trail running shoes should I use to run in mud?

A: Shoes with large (5-6mm) lugs and aggressive lug patterns provide ideal stability and confidence while running on muddy surfaces. Waterproof shoes are probably best, although they don’t breathe as well, but most shoes are designed to at least drain water as you run.  

Q: What’s the most cushioned trail running shoe?

A: Shoes made for ultra or marathon running tend to pack in the most cushioning. Hoka One One went all in on this maximum cushioning, and the Speedgoat 4 is one of the most cushioned you’ll find.

Q: Should I wear gaiters with trail running shoes?

A: This depends on the kind of trails you’re running and the distance. Gaiters help to keep debris and moisture from getting into your shoes, so if you’re running long distances on muddy, snowy, or sandy trails, they may be helpful. But if you’re running relatively short distances, like three to five miles, they may be more trouble than they’re worth.

Q: Why are trail running shoes so expensive?

A: Regular running shoes are expensive enough as it is, right? Then why are trail runners even more so? It has to do with the increased durability needed in the shoe’s upper, midsole, cushioning, and outsole. The materials that make up the shoes have to be sturdy enough to provide support and absorb impact while also being breathable and somewhat flexible. They also need to be able to last despite being literally run into the ground, so then you can understand how the price of these shoes climbs pretty fast.

Q: Can I wear trail running shoes for hiking?

A: Absolutely. In fact, many serious hikers do. Check out this article from 2019, Top Footwear of the Appalachian Trail. Over 75 percent of the 365 Appalachian trail hikers that participated in the article survey that year wore trail runners at least part of the time. Be sure to break them in the same way as new boots, though, or you’ll wind up with blisters and hot spots. Also, if you have ankle stability issues, you may want to stick with traditional hiking boots.

Q: Can I wear trail shoes for walking?

A: Yes, but the hybrid/crossover trail runners, like the Brooks Caldera 5 and Divide 2, will probably perform the best on paved surfaces.

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W.E. Linde spent 12 years in the Air Force as an intelligence guy and loved both his enlisted and commissioned time. Now a civilian, he toils away as a healthcare business analyst by day and wannabe writer by night because who needs sleep when you have coffee? His time in the military made him appreciate just how funny the term “military grade” can be. He currently writes for Duffel Blog and for the humor site Damperthree.com

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