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Best Trail Running Shoes of 2024

iRunFar’s experts share their best trail running shoe selections from the more than 300 available trail shoe models, with picks from Altra, Brooks, Hoka, La Sportiva, Nike, Salomon, Saucony, and Topo.

By on May 6, 2024 | Comments
best trail running shoes - Silverton, Colorado

Editor-in-Chief Meghan Hicks testing trail running shoes above Silverton, Colorado. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

It’s a glorious time to be a trail runner. Our most important piece of gear is a pair of running shoes, and there are now more than 300 trail running shoes on the market at any time. This means there are great trail running shoes for every foot, every trail, every terrain, and every distance. There are scores of capable shoes that will work for most feet in most conditions, and handfuls pushing the bounds of what’s possible in various directions. The only downside to all those options is choosing which to buy!

Since 2008, the team at iRunFar has tracked and tested the best trail running shoes out there. Every year, our dedicated testers lace up more than 100 models of trail running shoes before logging tens of thousands of miles and millions of vertical feet across a wide range of geographies to compile the list of our top picks. We continually test shoes and view this guide as a living document that we update regularly as new shoes become available.

Below, we’ve picked 11 of the best trail running shoes that should meet the needs of most trail runners. We also have more specific guides for cushioned trail running shoes, lightweight trail running shoes, and trail running shoes for mud. To learn more about selecting the right trail running shoe for you, read these things to consider in choosing trail running shoes. You can also learn more about our approach to research and testing at the end of this article.

Best Trail Running Shoes

Additional Outstanding Generalist Trail Running Shoes

Best Overall Trail Running Shoe: Hoka Speedgoat 5 ($155)

Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 10.0 ounces (284 grams) | Drop: 4 millimeters (but less relevant with so much midsole)

Pros:

  • Great traction
  • Tremendous cushion in a trail shoe that works

Cons:

  • Just a bit too much shoe for some runners’ liking
  • Less foot lockdown for narrower feet than in previous versions
Best Trail Running Shoes - Hoka Speedgoat 5

The Hoka Speedgoat 5. All photos iRunFar/Bryon Powell unless otherwise noted.

The Hoka Speedgoat was a hit when it launched, and it’s only gotten better through the years. With a breadth of well-cushioned trail shoes on the market these days, the Hoka Speedgoat 5 really is the standout of the group.

While it has plenty of cushioning, that cushioning isn’t so over the top as to get in the way for many trail runners. Further underfoot, there are also generous lugs made from Vibram Megagrip, which yields strong traction in most conditions. That traction has only gotten better with the addition of Vibram’s Traction Lug, which provides more outsole surface area via textured lugs.

The most significant upgrade to the Speedgoat is losing a full half-ounce per shoe. That might not sound like much, but it’ll make a difference whether you’re racing a trail 5k or are 80 miles into a 100 miler. A simplified upper should also reduce the chances of developing hotspots.

Overall, the Hoka Speedgoat 5 is a comfy shoe that can go the distance on any trail.

Full Hoka Speedgoat 5 review.

Shop the Men's Hoka Speedgoat 5Shop the Women's Hoka Speedgoat 5

Best Overall Trail Running Shoe, Runner-Up: Nike Pegasus Trail 5 ($150)

Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 10.2 ounces (290 grams) | Drop: 9.5 millimeters for U.S. men’s 10 and 8.5 millimeters for U.S. women’s 8

Pros:

  • A dialed-in upper
  • Responsive midsole foam
  • Great insole

Cons:

  • Not one’s first choice for loose scree, talus, or other highly technical terrain
Best Trail Running Shoes - Nike Pegasus Trail 5

The Nike Pegasus Trail 5.

The Nike Pegasus Trail 5 is an excellent option for those doing long days on the trails or running on a mix of roads and trails. The Pegasus Trail’s strengths come from the ridiculously great React midsole foam, which one tester of a previous version that used the same foam said “felt alive.” The brand has many decades of designing top-notch footwear, so it’s no surprise the shoe is excellently constructed and plenty durable.

While the Pegasus Trail 5 tacked on a handful of grams from the Peg Trail 4, the shoe remains noticeably lighter than earlier versions. Part of those weight savings in the two most recent versions comes from a lightweight engineered mesh that excels in hot weather.

The Pegasus Trail 5 won’t be your top choice in sloppy trails or if you’re looking for a fast and light option for shorter trail races — although it’s improved in both these areas — but it’s an excellent choice for almost everything else. In fact, one tester noted the earlier Pegasus Trail 3 would be “the one shoe I’d take on vacation if I don’t know the conditions I’ll be running in,” and that holds just as true with today’s Pegasus Trail, if not more so.

Still, you might want to skip the Pegasus Trail on the rockiest and burliest of runs. It’s simply not designed to be the most protective of shoes, and better options exist for such outings.

The most notable upgrades to the Pegasus Trail 5 are better traction on fine debris, thanks to a redesigned outsole, and a more comfortable ankle collar, especially around the Achilles notch.

Full Nike Pegasus Trail 5 review.

Shop the Men's Nike Pegasus Trail 5Shop the Women's Nike Pegasus Trail 5

Best Trail Running Shoe for Beginners: Brooks Cascadia 17 ($140)

Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 11.5 ounces (325 grams) | Drop: 8 millimeters

Pros:

  • An effective everyday road-to-trail shoe

Cons:

  • Heavier
Best Trail Running Shoes - Brooks Cascadia 17

The Brooks Cascadia 17.

The Brooks Cascadia is an oldie but a goody. With a history that goes back to the early 2000s, Brooks found a winning formula in the Cascadia that it’s kept going for nearly two decades. If I had to recommend a pair of trail shoes to a new trail runner about whom I had no additional details, I’d point them toward the Brooks Cascadia 17.

Why? It’s a trail shoe that performs well on a variety of trail conditions while also still being a smooth ride on pavement as a road-to-trail shoe. In addition, the Cascadia’s 8-millimeter heel-to-toe drop should make the shoe accessible for most runners outside of low-drop enthusiasts.

With the Cascadia 17, Brooks didn’t mess too much with a good thing overall but did improve traction with a new outsole pattern and a new outsole compound that performs better on wet surfaces. The shoes continue to provide the stable, moderately cushioned ride for which the Cascadia is known. In addition, the Ballistic Rock Shield offers plenty of protection on rocky terrain.

As it has for ages, the Cascadia 17’s upper offers simple performance with a gusseted tongue and gaiter attachment points. Overall, our primary tester, who has a copious shoe stable, noted the Brooks Cascadia 17 is her “one pair of shoes that can run on most surfaces well. If you’re in the market for simplicity, these may be worth your while.”

Full Brooks Cascadia 17 review.

Shop the Men's Brooks Cascadia 17Shop the Women's Brooks Cascadia 17

Best Trail Running Shoe for Mud: Salomon Speedcross 6 ($140)

Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 10.4 ounces (295 grams) | Drop: 10 millimeters

Pros:

  • An outsole and upper combo that works great in sloppy conditions
  • Improved fit

Cons:

  • Can trap heat and moisture
Best Trail Running Shoes -Salomon Speedcross 6

The Salomon Speedcross 6.

If the Brooks Cascadia is impressive for its longevity, then the Salomon Speedcross line is equally impressive in standing the test of time. Why? Since launching in 2006, the Speedcross is only on its sixth major iteration in over 15 years! It remains a top-performing and top-selling product.

The Speedcross line is special because it combines a well-lugged outsole with a bombproof upper. No matter the terrain or the conditions, you can count on the Salomon Speedcross 6 to get you where you’re going.

The already amazing combination that is the Speedcross was again improved in the Speedcross 6, this time by making the shoe more comfortable. How? Well, Salomon simplified the toebox construction and improved the midsole.

Not only does the Salomon Speedcross 6 now stand worthy for longer runs, but it’s also still an incredibly durable shoe that’ll stand up to many a mile.

Full Salomon Speedcross 6 review.

Shop the Men's Salomon Speedcross 6Shop the Women's Salomon Speedcross 6

Best Zero-Drop Trail Running Shoe: Altra Lone Peak 8 ($140)

Reported Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 10.7 ounces (303 grams) | Drop: 0 millimeters

Pros:

  • Incredibly roomy toebox while maintaining good lockdown

Cons:

  • Less traction on wet rocks and logs
  • Still drifting back up in weight from previous models
Altra Lone Peak 8

The Altra Lone Peak 8.

The Altra Lone Peak 8 is so many things to so many people. For many trail runners, it’s their everyday trail shoe, from a short spin on the roads to an easy run in the local park to a 100-mile race across rugged terrain. For others, it’s an excellent daily wear (and occasional run) option for increasing lower leg strength and mobility outside of running.

It’s no different among hikers, who’ve flocked to the Lone Peak line since its introduction. So, what’s the secret to the Lone Peak’s success? A moderate amount of cushioning atop a grippy outsole with a marvelously roomy toebox.

The Lone Peak 8 perfectly continues the line’s comfortable upper, adequate cushioning, and generous toebox. The upper’s been stripped back a bit, with better breathability, but the reduced toe bumper provides noticeably less toe protection — though it’s more moderate than missing. The Lone Peak 8 is a bit heavier than its predecessor, but testers found it “ran light.”

Underfoot, the shoe is as cushioned as ever, following its switch to more resilient Altra EGO foam in the fifth generation. The shoe continues to provide solid traction for most trail conditions. Overall, the Lone Peak 8 is a nimble, responsive, and yet remarkably comfortable ride with excellent ground feel.

Note that for some, Altra’s zero-drop platform is a big plus, while for others, it’s a challenge. If you’re new to low- or no-drop shoes, gradually build your mileage in Altras, letting any sore or tight calves or Achilles tendons recover between efforts.

Full Altra Lone Peak 8 review.

Shop the Men's Altra Lone Peak 8Shop the Women's Altra Lone Peak 8

Additional Outstanding Trail Running Shoes

With such extreme terrain diversity in trail running and the specific needs of our feet and bodies, there is no single best trail running shoe for everyone and every condition. However, in this section, we profile six generalist trail running shoe models that cover a breadth of ground for whom and under what conditions they excel.

Saucony Peregrine 14 ($140)

Claimed Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 9.4 ounces (267 grams) | Drop: 4 millimeters

Pros:

  • It is a great all-around trail shoe at a reasonable price and lightweight

Cons:

  • Quick to come untied unless double knotted
best trail running shoes - Saucony Peregrine 14

The Saucony Peregrine 14.

Over the past decade, the Saucony Peregrine migrated from a trail racing shoe to something more in line with a classic, everyday trail shoe. However, the Saucony Peregrine 14 is a bit racier than, say, the Peregrine 11, with the shoe getting 1.5 ounces lighter over that time. An outsole redesign debut in the preceding Peregrine 13 improved traction and enhanced mud-shedding capability for the sloppiest of runs. All updates implemented in the Peregrine 14 center around the upper, though none significantly alter the shoe’s fit or feel from that of its predecessor.

Overall, the Peregrine 14 won’t wow you with bells and whistles, but it has a great combination of traction, mild cushioning, sufficient underfoot protection, a breathable yet locked-down upper, and is reasonably light weight. It just performs, and that’s awesome.

You can read our full Saucony Peregrine 14 review.

Shop the Men's Saucony Peregrine 14Shop the Women's Saucony Peregrine 14

Brooks Catamount 3 ($170)

Reported Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 9.4 ounces (266 grams) | Drop: 6 millimeters

Pros:

  • A reasonably lightweight everyday trail shoe

Cons:

  • Not suitable for longer ultras for runners who prefer more cushioning
best trail running shoes - Brooks Catamount 3

The Brooks Catamount 3.

The Brooks Catamount 3 is an everyday training shoe and ultra-distance racing shoe. While clearly from the same DNA, the Catamount 3 is noticeably a different shoe than the original model. Still, it’s a reasonably light, highly breathable, nicely cushioned, and lightly rockered shoe with impeccable construction that made the original a quick favorite at iRunFar headquarters. Those who ran in the Catamount 2 shouldn’t notice any differences aside from an improved fit accomplished by removing a layer from the upper’s mesh and, possibly, the shoe’s very slight weight reduction.

The Catamount 3 could just as easily be the shoe for your first (or next) 100 miler as for your everyday run. The shoe is 100% comfortable out of the box and comfortable enough to wear on your recovery runs. In addition, the Catamount 3’s moderate lugs manage to perform well over a wide range of trail conditions. It should be noted that while the shoe’s propulsion plate aids with uphill efficiency, it does reduce some ground feel.

Our full Brooks Catamount 3 review.

Shop the Men's Brooks Catamount 3Shop the Women's Brooks Catamount 3

Altra Olympus 5 ($180)

Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 11.0 ounces (313 grams) | Drop: 0 millimeters

Pros:

  • Plush comfort in a trail-worthy package

Cons:

  • As a maximal shoe, it can be a bit clunky
  • The most expensive shoe on our list
best trail running shoes - Altra Olympus 5

The Altra Olympus 5.

The Altra Olympus 5 is the most shoe of any offering on this list. In some ways, it’s seemingly an odd combination: Altra’s zero-drop and wide toebox that aim toward natural movement combined with a staggering amount of midsole and a structured upper that restrict natural movement. Still, it’s a combination that a segment of trail runners absolutely adores.

Nothing in the shoe takes away from that roomy toebox, while the cushioning and structure make the Olympus 5 a set-it-and-forget-it trail shoe free of worries. The Olympus 5 cuts more than half an ounce per shoe from the previous version and provides a less constrictive fit while being no less responsive or secure.

Although the story of the Olympus is its maximal cushioning, the shoe’s got traction with a moderately lugged Vibram Megagrip outsole. While the Olympus 5 will give you an amazingly comfortable ride, one big downside is a cost of $180, the most expensive shoe on our list.

Full Altra Olympus 5 review.

Shop the Men's Altra Olympus 5Shop the Women's Altra Olympus 5

La Sportiva Akasha II ($175)

Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 11.5 ounces (325 grams) | Drop: 6 millimeters

Pros: 

  • All-day comfort with plenty of protection

Cons:

  • The heaviest shoe on this list
  • Expensive
Best Trail Running Shoe s - La Sportiva Akasha II

The La Sportiva Akasha II.

If you want a set-it-and-forget-it shoe, consider the La Sportiva Akasha II. It’s an all-day, all-mountain, all-the-miles shoe. Underfoot, the Akasha II uses the same midsole and outsole, providing plenty of traction and comfort in its predecessor and offering a ton of durability. While it’s the heaviest shoe on this list, it feels lighter on the foot than its weight would suggest.

On top of that platform sits a moderate-fit upper that successfully blends the mid-foot lockdown that’s essential for navigating mountainous terrain with enough give and forgiveness to stay comfortable as long as you want to run. This second version of the Akasha includes minor tweaks to the upper to improve its breathability, durability, and protection simultaneously. So, if you loved the original Akasha, be sure to try the Akasha II if you’re looking for a trail shoe you never have to think about!

Full La Sportiva Akasha II review.

Shop the Men's La Sportiva Akasha IIShop the Women's La Sportiva Akasha II

Hoka Torrent 3 ($130)

Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 9.1 ounces (257 grams) | Drop: 5 millimeters

Pros:

  • A surprisingly comfortable “fast” shoe
  • Lower profile for a Hoka, for those looking to give Hoka’s a shot

Cons:

  • Can lack sufficient protection on the rockiest terrain
  • Lugs can shear off on the same terrain; the TPU overlays tend to delaminate
best trail running shoes - Hoka Torrent 3

The Hoka Torrent 3.

Although not necessarily billed as such, the Hoka Torrent 3 is a worthy racing shoe for nearly any race distance. In contrast to the cushion-first appeal of most Hoka trail shoes, the Torrent 3 combines a very grippy outsole and a responsive yet moderately cushioned midsole in a nimble package. Looking back at the Torrent 2, Hoka described it as “a seemingly contradictory combination of cushioning and agility,” and that description still works.

For the Torrent 3, Hoka made the upper even more generous than some other Hoka models, including its predecessor, the Torrent 2. This allows a runner’s toes to spread out without feeling imprecise, although there’s a bit less mid-foot lockdown than in the previous iteration. All in all, the Hoka Torrent 3 is a well-rounded trail shoe with plenty of traction and cushioning for most runners while being a good value at $130.

Full Hoka Torrent 3 review.

Shop the Men's Hoka Torrent 3Shop the Women's Hoka Torrent 3

Topo Terraventure 4 ($135)

Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 10.4 ounces (295 grams) | Drop: 3 millimeters

Pros:

  • Solid balance of protection and agility, especially over technical terrain

Cons:

  • Outsole can wear down quickly
  • Lack of availability at your local running store
Best Trail Running Shoes - Topo Terraventure 4

The Topo Terraventure 4.

The Topo Terraventure 4 delivers durability, breathability, and mountain tackling nimbleness in an unassuming yet dependable package, according to one of our testers who’s put in hundreds of miles across the seasons in this shoe. She went on to share, that the Terraventure 4 “provides a perfect balance of protection and quickness — high turnover and apt responsiveness,” including for “agile and faster technical running.”

Taking a step back, the Terraventure 4 follows in the mold of many other Topo trail shoes, in featuring a wide forefoot, low heel-to-toe drop, and robust construction and protection, even if our team described this model as agile and responsive. It’s a shoe that’s adept at shorter, speedier runs, but could work up to 50k or even 50 miles for someone accustomed to running many miles in a lower drop shoe.

Underfoot, the shoe has a moderate amount of EVA-based cushioning, a forefoot rock plate, and moderately aggressive Vibram Megagrip lugs.

Overall, the Terraventure 4 is a wonderful package deal especially for a runner or experienced hiker who is seeking a trail shoe that offers foundational foot health, durability, breathability, and underfoot protection. The Topo fan on the iRunFar team writes, “Over the last couple of years, the Terraventure models are what I grab on 50k race day, running fast technical trails, and for most training days that may include rocks, tree roots, or considerable agility. Overall, the Terraventure line shows up and performs in its unassuming way.”

Full Topo Terraventure 4 review.

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iRunFar’s Best Trail Running Shoe Comparison Table

SHOE PRICE WEIGHT DROP CUSHION ROCK PLATE
Hoka Speedgoat 5 $155 10.0 ounces 4 millimeters Maximal No
Saucony Peregrine 14 $140 9.4 ounces 4 millimeters Moderate Yes
Brooks Cascadia 17 $140 11.5 ounces 8 millimeters Moderate Yes
Altra Lone Peak 8 $140 10.7 ounces 0 millimeters Moderate Yes
Salomon Speedcross 6 $140 10.4 ounces 10 millimeters Moderate No
Nike Pegasus Trail 5 $150 10.2 ounces 9.5 millimeters Moderate No
Brooks Catamount 3 $170 9.4 ounces 6 millimeters Moderate Yes
Altra Olympus 5 $170 11 ounces 0 millimeters Maximum No
La Sportiva Akasha II $175 11.5 ounces 6 millimeters Moderate No
Hoka Torrent 3 $130 9.1 ounces 5 millimeters Moderate No
Topo Terraventure 4 $135 10.1 ounces 3 millimeters Moderate Yes

Other Takes on Top Trail Running Shoes

For additional expert opinions on the best trail running shoes, check out the advice in Switchback Travel’s Best Trail Running Shoes of 2024 and GearJunkie’s The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2024.

Guides to More Specialized Trail Running Shoes

While we included some cushioned trail shoes in this guide, we take a deeper dive into this category with our dedicated Best Cushioned Trail Running Shoes guide, which contains a larger set of maximally cushioned and moderately cushioned trail running shoes.

Most trail shoes should handle a moderate amount of mud, but for the muddiest of runs, you may want to consider dedicated shoes with enhanced traction. To find some great options, look no further than our Best Trail Running Shoes for Mud guide.

We’ve intentionally focused most of our picks above on a wide variety of generalist, everyday trail running shoes. But what if you’re looking for something speedier for a workout, race, or just for fun? Check out our dedicated Best Lightweight Trail Racing Shoes guide to see some fast and furious trail racing models.

Best Trail Running Shoes for Mud - testing the Saucony Peregrine 12 in water

Jeff Rome tests the Saucony Peregrine in wet conditions. Photo: iRunFar/Eszter Horanyi

Things to Consider When Choosing Trail Running Shoes

Benefits of Trail Running Shoes

First off, what are trail running shoes and what are their benefits?

Trail running shoes provide several benefits over road running shoes when you head off pavement — primarily increased traction, protection, and durability.

Trail shoes often offer more traction than road running shoes by having deeper, more widely spaced outsole lugs that penetrate in mud, snow, dust, and gravel to grip the ground. In addition, a trail shoe’s lugs are often made of a slightly softer and “stickier” rubber that is grippier on rocks but less durable on pavement.

The extra protection of trail shoes applies to both the top and bottom of the foot. Often, a trail shoe’s upper will have a thicker cap around the toes to offer some protection when you inevitably kick a rock or root. Burlier trail shoes can have more extensive reinforcements and overlays to protect the top of your foot.

Unlike road surfaces, the variability of trails can lead to rocks or roots poking through and irritating or injuring the bottom of your feet. Rock plates, found on many trail shoes, can provide push-through protection against sharp objects on the trail. Trail shoes with thick midsoles or very deep lugs might skip a rock plate if those components provide adequate separation between the trail and the sole of the foot.

When used for their intended purpose of running on trails, trail running shoes can be more durable than their road running cousins. This increased durability is primarily through material choice and construction patterns in the upper. First, the choice of the primary material, be it mesh, a knit material, or something else, is often chosen for its ability to hold up better to the conditions trails throw at them. Second, fabric or thin-film overlays are put over areas of the shoe’s upper that are more susceptible to wear, whether a flex point in the front of the shoe or any area more likely to collect and self-abrade with dirt.

Separately, some trail shoe outsoles are constructed such that they are less likely to start detaching from the midsole, which is less of a consideration for road shoes.

Brooks Cascadia 17 - goat approved

The Brooks Cascadia 17 is goat-approved. Photo: iRunFar/Annie Behrend

Size and Fit

How should you choose a size of trail running shoes? If you already own a pair of running shoes or other athletic shoes, you can start by trying the size that works for you there, particularly if you’re staying with the same brand.

In general, you’ll want roughly a thumb’s width between the end of your longest toe and the end of your shoe. Much less, and you could end up with blisters under your toenails as well as more chance of injuring a toe when you kick an obstacle. If you have too much extra room, you’ll be more prone to slide around in your shoe, which is unpleasant on uneven terrain, and you’ll be more likely to catch your toe on a rock or root.

Once you’ve got the length dialed in, you’ll want to ensure you can get a snug fit across the midfoot, from the front of the ankle to just behind your toes. This midfoot lockdown, or metatarsal lockdown, is important for keeping your foot firmly atop the outsole while making any lateral motions navigating the trail and when climbing and descending steep sections of trail.

Folks also have heels with varying volumes, so once your midfoot is locked down, you’ll want to see that your heel doesn’t move too much side to side or up and down relative to the shoe.

Finally, there’s the toebox, which is the forward cavity of a shoe where your toes go. Some people prefer generous toeboxes like those found in Altra and Topo shoes, such as the Altra Lone Peak 8, Altra Olympus 5, or Topo Terraventure 4, while others prefer a more moderate toebox. Toeboxes tend to be narrower in trail shoes aimed at faster or more technical running.

Toebox size is a matter of personal feel and preference. Some shoes, particularly specialist shoes meant for shorter distance racing, very technical terrain, or very steep conditions, may have a more precise fit in the toebox, but you still don’t want your toes smashed together.

If you’re aiming for ultra-distance efforts, you might choose a shoe that has at least moderate room for your toes to wiggle in the toebox, as well as a midfoot lockdown that’s less aggressive and more forgiving as your feet start to swell after hours on the trail.

Should you size up in trail running shoes? In most cases, you should not size up — at least in comparison to other athletic shoes — for trail running shoes.  You want a trail shoe that locks your foot in place with a proper fit, and that’s not too long, such that you could more easily catch a toe on obstacles.

A decade ago, a person might go a half size up in trail running shoes, as some brands had only precise fits that were great when running fast on trails or navigating technical trails but were less forgiving in more relaxed trail running situations. Now, almost every brand offers trail shoes in various fits, so you can choose more accommodating models rather than moving up half a size.

Although it’s become increasingly rare with the proliferation of trail shoes with more accommodating fits, occasionally, an ultrarunner may pack a pair of trail shoes that’s a half size up for events of half a day or longer to help cope with swelling feet, although such shoes are rarely used.

trail runner running in open valley in mountains.

Meghan Hicks testing trail running shoes in New Zealand’s scenic Matukituki Valley. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Heel-to-Toe Drop

Heel-to-toe drop, or more simply drop, refers to the difference in height from the heel to the toe of a shoe. Currently, heel-to-toe drop in trail shoes varies from none to 12 millimeters. Among runners, you might as well ask about religion, sex, or politics before asking for opinions on heel-to-toe drop. However, we’re firmly in the camp of the right answer is what works for you.

There’s an appealing argument that humans’ natural biomechanics are based on no heel-to-toe drop, as found in the Altra Lone Peak 8 and Altra Olympus 5. This is an easier proposition for younger runners, those gradually easing into running, or those otherwise accustomed to low- or no-drop shoes.

Folks with a longer history of running in traditional running shoes might want to stick to trail shoes with higher 8- to 12-millimeter drop like found in the Salomon Speedcross 6 or Brooks Cascadia 17, Nike Pegasus Trail 5, or very gradually transition down to lower-drop shoes if desired. These days, most trail shoes come with moderate drops of 4 to 8 millimeters, like the Saucony Peregrine 14 and Brooks Catamount 3, which seem to work for a wide range of runners.

It’s worth noting the small but growing number of trail shoes’ thick, highly rockered midsoles can negate much of the meaning and utility of heel-to-toe drop numbers.

Lugs

Lugs refer to the protrusions of material on the bottom of a shoe’s outsole. While road running shoes often have minimal lugs, trail shoes generally have lugs that are 3- to 6-millimeters deep, like the Saucony Peregrine 14. Some trail shoes designed specifically for muddy conditions can have lugs as deep as 8 to 12 millimeters! Take a look at the Icebug Acceleritas8 RB9X and our full best trail running shoes for mud guide for the luggiest of trail shoes.

Let’s zoom out to consider how deep our trail running shoe’s lugs should be?

This is a classic “it depends” question. Keep in mind that good technique can make running in mud more effective, and shoes with 5- to 6-millimeters deep, more widely spaced lugs can be great for wet, muddy, or otherwise sloppy conditions.

Most other trail shoes will have 3- to 5-millimeter lugs that are a bit more closely spaced and work in a great variety of conditions, such that unless you live in a notoriously wet environment, are likely to work as your everyday trail shoe.

Going to the extreme for muddy conditions, there are a few trail shoes out there with widely spaced 7- to 8-millimeter lugs that are really only applicable for steep climbing and descending in very wet and muddy conditions and are most likely a specialist addition to one’s quiver of trail shoes. There are even shoes for fell running in the U.K. with 12-millimeter lugs!

Midsole Cushioning

The midsole is the spongy component between an outsole and your foot. These days, midsoles are made from a wide variety of foams and range from minimal thickness to nearly 3 centimeters of material. For more midsole and, therefore, more cushion, consider the Hoka Speedgoat 5 or Altra Olympus 5. We’ve also got an entire guide dedicated to helping you find the best cushioned trail running shoes.

trail running shoe with thick midsole

The generous midsole of the Hoka Tecton X.

Rock Plate

A rock plate is a layer of deformation-resistant material, whether a plastic sheet, carbon plate, or other, that sits somewhere between a shoe’s outsole and the sock liner (aka, insole), but generally directly above the outsole. The rock plate aims to prevent injury to the bottom of the foot as rocks or roots push through the shoe from below. Rock plates vary in length from the entire length of a shoe to the forefoot only.

Traditionally, rock plates were a staple feature of trail running shoes. Even today, a strong majority of trail running shoes have some sort of rock plate that runs from the forefoot through at least the midfoot, if not the entire length of the shoe. With the rise of highly cushioned trail running shoes, brands have started eliminating rock plates from many such models as these shoes’ cushioning provide sufficient foot protection. On the other end of the spectrum, some racing-oriented models omit rock plates both for weight savings and to allow for more natural ground feel.

Waterproof Shoes

Should I buy waterproof trail running shoes? In most cases, you shouldn’t buy waterproof trail running shoes for your trail runs. If it’s snowy or rainy, waterproof shoes can be more comfortable to walk down the street, shovel the sidewalk, or do something in the yard. On the other hand, there are pretty limited conditions where waterproof shoes will keep your feet dry when running.

Waterproof shoes may keep your feet dry if it’s not raining but there’s some moisture on the ground, such as dew or shallow puddles. Likewise, a waterproof shoe can keep your feet dry if you’re running with an inch or two of snow is on the ground.

If it’s actually raining, water will run down your leg, into the shoe through the ankle collar, and stay in your shoe with nowhere to drain. This same scenario would happen with running in anything more than a few inches of snow unless you’re wearing running gaiters. Waterproof shoes are similarly futile if it’s much more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit out, as foot sweat will collect in your shoes and lead to wet feet.

One side benefit of waterproof shoes is they can add a bit of warmth if it’s cold or windy. However, after a couple of hours of running in cold and dry conditions, you still may end up with damp running socks from foot sweat. Still, whether your feet are wet or dry, waterproof shoes can keep your feet a bit warmer.

If you feel the need for waterproof trail shoes, many of the most popular trail shoe models come in a waterproof version, including the Brooks Cascadia 17 GTX, Salomon Speedcross 6 Gore-Tex, and Nike Pegasus Trail 4 Gore-Tex. We’ve got a Best Waterproof Running Shoes guide for additional waterproof options for both the roads and trails.

testing trail running shoes in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado

Meghan Hicks of iRunFar testing trail shoes high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

Why You Should Trust Us

Using the iRunFar team’s 50-plus years of combined trail running shoe testing experience, supplemented by extensive research and the input of hundreds of iRunFar readers, we created this guide.

We began by compiling and considering a list of more than 300 dedicated trail running shoes currently on the market. We whittled down this list with the broad experience of iRunFar’s readers and the expert opinions of the iRunFar team’s members, who extensively test more than 100 models of trail shoes each year over tens of thousands of miles. iRunFar’s founder, Bryon Powell, who’s fastidiously followed trail running shoes for iRunFar since 2008, combines all that information to create this guide.

With the frequent release of new trail running shoes and even more frequent revision of existing models, this is a living document. We update it often as our expert team updates its thoughts on the best trail shoes available!

best trail running shoes - Bryon Powell - Salomon Ultra Glide

Bryon Powell’s been geeking out on trail shoes … for a couple of decades. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Back to Our Best Trail Running Shoe Picks
Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.