The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2021

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 well over 200 trail running shoes on the market at any time. That means there are shoes for every foot, every trail, and every terrain. There are scores of capable shoes in the happy middle ground and handfuls pushing the bounds of what’s possible in various directions. The only downside to all those options is having to choose which to buy! Below, we try to simplify things for you by picking 11 models of trail shoes that should work for just about anyone in any condition!

Best Trail Running Shoes – Editor’s Picks

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. In this section, we profile five incredible shoes that cover a breadth of ground as far as for whom and for what conditions they excel.

Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 ($145)

The Hoka One One 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 4 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. Rounding out a great shoe is great lockdown that keeps the foot in place on steep grades and in tight turns. This is particularly impressive (and important) given the shoe’s higher height, thanks to that generous midsole.

Shop the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4
Hoka One One Speedgoat 4

The Hoka One One Speedgoat 4

Two changes made the Speedgoat 4 a better overall shoe than its predecessor with both involving better fit. First, the toe box has a much roomier feel, thanks to some more flexible materials. Second, a move to a less padded tongue makes the midfoot feel less constricted without sacrificing stellar midfoot lockdown. Overall, the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 is a comfy shoe that can go the distance on any trail.

Full Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 review

  • Actual Weight (US men’s 9): 10.5 ounces (297g)
  • Drop: 4mm (but less relevant with so much midsole)
  • Pros: Great traction and tremendous cushion in a trail shoe that works
  • Cons: Just a bit too much shoe for some runners’ liking
  • Other Speedgoat Versions: Wide (men’s – select fiesta/provincial blue color & women’s); Gore-Tex (men’s & women’s); Evo (lighter version of Speedgoat 3) (men’s & women’s)

Brooks Cascadia 15 ($130)

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 her or him toward the Brooks Cascadia 15. 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 8mm heel-to-toe drop should make the shoe accessible for most runners outside of low-drop enthusiasts.

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Brooks Cascadia 15

The Brooks Cascadia 15

The moderate midsole height and time-proven Pivot Post system yield moderate cushioning with a bit of added stability, while the Ballistic Rock Shield offers plenty of protection on rocky terrain. As it has for ages, the Cascadia 15’s upper offers simple performance along with a gusseted tongue and gaiter attachment points. Overall, our primary tester noted the Brooks Cascadia 15 is fit for most terrain, has “total comfort,” and has a price point that’s reasonable. What’s not to love about that combination?

Full Brooks Cascadia 15 and Cascadia 15 GTX review

  • Actual Weight (US men’s 9): 10.9 ounces (308g)
  • Drop: 8mm
  • Pros: A solid, simple, great everyday road-to-trail shoe
  • Cons: Feels like the Cascadia should be an ounce lighter by now
  • Other Cascadia Versions: Wide (men’s & women’s); Gore-Tex (men’s & women’s)

Altra Lone Peak 5 ($130)

The Altra Lone Peak 5 is so many things to so many people. For me, it’s my everyday casual shoe with the occasional short run thrown in to rehab my Achilles. 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 or a 100-mile race across rugged terrain. It’s no different among hikers, who’ve flocked to the Lone Peak 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 toe box.

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Altra Lone Peak 5

The Altra Lone Peak 5

The Altra Lone Peak 5 perfectly continues the line’s comfortable upper, adequate cushioning, and generous toe box. Up top, not much has changed from previous generations, which is good as it’s got great lockdown and decent breathability. Underfoot, the Lone Peak moves to more midsole cushioning than it’s had in a while, if not ever, while a switch to lighter, more resilient AltraEGO foam means it’s the lightest version of the shoe of late. The shoe continues to provide solid traction for most trail conditions. Overall, the Altra Lone Peak 5 is a nimble, responsive, and yet very comfortable ride.

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

Full Altra Lone Peak 5 review

  • Actual Weight (US men’s 9): 10.1 ounces (286g)
  • Drop: 0mm
  • Pros: Incredibly roomy toe box while maintaining good lockdown
  • Cons: Does the “trail rudder” off the back of the shoe do anything but add weight?
  • Other Lone Peak Versions: All weather (men’s & women’s)

Salomon Speedcross 5 ($130)

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 fifth major iteration in 15 years! It remains a top-performing and a top-selling product. What makes the Speedcross line special is its combination of a heavily lugged outsole with a bombproof upper. No matter the terrain or the conditions, you can count on the Speedcross to get you where you’re going.

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Salomon Speedcross 5

The Salomon Speedcross 5

The already amazing combo that is the Speedcross was greatly improved in the Speedcross 5 by making it perform better over longer distances. How? Well, Salomon widened the toe box to allow for more space and thickened the midsole that, in combination with the tall lugs, now provides enough forefoot cushion for this rockplate-less shoe. Not only does the Salomon Speedcross 5 now stand worthy for longer runs, it’s still an incredibly durable shoe that’ll stand up to many a mile.

Full Salomon Speedcross 5 review

  • Company Provided Weight (US men’s 9): 11.3 ounces (320g)
  • Drop: 10mm
  • Pros: An outsole and upper combo that works great in sloppy conditions
  • Cons: Can trap heat and moisture
  • Other Speedcross Versions: Wide (men’s & women’s); Gore-Tex (men’s & women’s)

Saucony Peregrine 11 ($120)

Over the past decade, the Saucony Peregrine has migrated from a trail racing shoe to something more in line with a classic, everyday trail shoe. It won’t wow you with bells and whistles nor is it hugely innovative, but it’s a great combination of traction, mild cushioning, sufficient underfoot protection, and a breathable, lockdown upper. It just performs and that’s awesome.

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Saucony Peregrine 11

The Saucony Peregrine 11

What’s more, the Peregrine 11 is a great value at $120, the lowest price of any model across our top tier of picks, in a dedicated, fully capable trail shoe. For those running in muddy or snowy terrain, there’s also a dedicated soft terrain model, the Peregrine 11 ST, that’s only $10 more.

Full Saucony Peregrine 11 review

  • Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 11.1 ounces (316g)
  • Drop: 4mm
  • Pros: Great all-around trail shoe at a great price; Lots of related versions in the Peregrine line
  • Cons: Isn’t pushing the envelope in any direction
  • Other Peregrine Versions: Wide (men’s & women’s); Soft Terrain (men’s & women’s); Gore-Tex (men’s & women’s); Ice+ winter version (men’s & women’s)

Other Outstanding Trail Shoes

Salomon Sense Ride 4 ($120)

From its introduction, Salomon’s Sense Ride line had been targeted as a road-to-trail shoe with first its Vibe inserts and now its Optivibe midsole focused on reducing vibrations and the energy loss therefrom, leading to more comfortable and efficient running. The combination of that midsole with the shoe’s moderate structure gives the Sense Ride some stability without interfering too much with the ride, making it a great option for someone working their way into trail running or wanting a hint of support.

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Salomon Sense Ride 4

The Salomon Sense Ride 4

The minimally lugged Sense Ride 4’s Contagrip outsole performs surprisingly well over a wide variety of terrain and conditions, including while ascending and descending, and provides enough protection on rocky terrain. The shoe’s fit is also more accommodating than many Salomon models, particularly with a roomier toe box. This means folks who’ve previously been squeezed out of Salomon might want to give the brand another look with the Sense Ride 4. As a bonus, the Sense Ride 4 is also the most road-friendly version of the shoe to date.

  • Company Provided Weight: 10.2 ounces (290g)
  • Drop: 8mm
  • Pros: A great all-around ride on road or trail
  • Cons: Takes a few miles for the shoe to round into top form
  • Other Sense Ride Models: Gore-Tex (men’s & women’s)

Hoka One One Torrent 2 ($120)

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

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Hoka One One Torrent 2

The Hoka One One Torrent 2

The Torrent 2’s upper is a bit more generous than some other Hoka models and allows for a runner’s toes to spread out a bit without feeling imprecise. Indeed, the Torrent 2 stays firmly locked in place on steep descents. All in all, the Torrent 2 is a well-rounded trail shoe with plenty of traction and cushioning for most runners while being a solid value at $120.

  • Actual Weight (US men’s 9): 9.1 ounces (259g)
  • Drop: 5mm
  • Pros: A surprisingly comfortable “fast” shoe
  • Cons: Can lack sufficient protection on the rockiest terrain; lugs can shear off on the same terrain

Nike Pegasus Trail 2 ($130)

The Nike Pegasus Trail 2 is a great option for those running longer on the trails as well as on a mix of trails and roads. The Pegasus Trail’s strengths come from the ridiculously great React midfoam, which our 6’4″, 180-pound tester said “felt alive,” and the brand’s many decades of designing top-notch footwear. So, it’s no surprise the shoe is excellently constructed and holds up to plenty of abuse.

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Nike Pegasus Trail 2

The Nike Pegasus Trail 2

Aside from the React foam, you get a taste of Nike’s innovation with the extended, rockered, slightly pointed heel that’s in line with the brand’s record-breaking road shoes of the moment. The Pegasus Trail 2 won’t be your top choice in sloppy conditions or if you’re looking for a fast and light option for shorter trail races, but it’ll be a great choice for just about everything else.

Full Pegasus Trail 2 review

  • Actual Weight (US men’s 9): 11.0 ounces (311g)
  • Drop: 9.5mm
  • Pros: A dialed-in upper; Great midsole foam
  • Cons: Could be lighter
  • Other Pegasus Trail Models: Gore-Tex (men’s & women’s)

Altra Olympus 4 ($170)

The Altra Olympus 4 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 toe box 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. There’s nothing in the shoe that takes away from that roomy toe box, while the cushioning and structure make the Olympus 4 a set-it-and-forget-it trail shoe free of any worries. Somehow Altra managed to make the Olympus 4’s upper less structured yet provide better lockdown and, therefore, a more responsive ride than some earlier version of the shoe.

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Altra Olympus 4

The Altra Olympus 4

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 4 will give you an amazingly comfortable ride, there is one big downside — a cost that sits at $170, the most expensive shoe on our list.

  • Actual Weight (US men’s 9): 11.1 ounces (315g)
  • Drop: 0mm
  • 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

Topo Ultraventure Pro ($145)

The Topo Ultraventure Pro is a great option for someone looking for plenty of shoe without wanting to go to fully maximal cushioning like the Speedgoat 4 or Olympus 4 above. Still, this shoe has plenty of structure and protection with a generous midsole, a rockplate, and a protective upper. The Ultraventure Pro also offers plenty of traction even in wet or rocky situations with a well-lugged Vibram Megagrip outsole.

Shop the Topo Ultraventure Pro

This is a great all-day shoe without being overbuilt. Our primary tester notes, “with Topo’s generous toe box and dialed in fit, this is a shoe that I would recommend to just about anyone.” For wearers of previous Topo shoes, the Ultraventure Pro’s ZipFoam makes for a softer and more resilient ride that would last for an entire 100-mile run.

  • Company Provided Weight (US men’s 9): 10.4 ounces (295g)
  • Drop: 5mm
  • Pros: An all-day fit and ride for any ultra-distance; a no bullshit shoe
  • Cons: Lack of availability at your local running store

Brooks Catamount ($160)

The Brooks Catamount is the sort of shoe we’ve felt has been on its way for the past decade and is now finally here! It’s a reasonably light, highly breathable, nicely cushioned, lightly rockered shoe with impeccable construction. As such, it’s quickly become a favorite at iRunFar headquarters.

Shop the Brooks Catamount
Brooks Catamount

The Brooks Catamount

The Catamount 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, but our testers found it ran even better after a couple dozen miles of wear. Fortunately, you’re likely to love the shoe enough to hit that mark the first week you have the Catamount.

Full Brooks Catamount review

  • Actual Weight (US men’s 9): 10.2 ounces (289g)
  • Drop: 6mm
  • Pros: A great balance of light weight and comfort that’s worthy of runs of any distance
  • Cons: Takes some miles to break in underfoot

Anatomy of the Trail Shoe

While we tried to be non-technical and avoid jargon in describing the shoes above, there are some terms common to the trail running world that those new to it might not know.

  • Heel-to-Toe Drop (or just Drop) – Heel-to-toe 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 12mm. Some runners prefer the natural movement of no drop, while the same can irritate the lower legs of long-time runners used to traditional running shoes with drops of 8-12mm. Plenty of trail shoe models offer moderate drops if 4-8mm.
  • Lugs – Lugs refer to the protrusions of material on the bottom of an outsole (see below). While road running shoes often have minimal lugs, trail shoes generally have lugs that are 3-6mm deep. Some trail shoes designed specifically for muddy conditions can have lugs as deep as 8mm!
  • Midsole – This is the spongy component between an outsole (see below) and your foot. These days, midsoles are made from a wide variety of “foams” and range from minimal thickness to nearly 3cm of material.
  • Outsole – This the bottom-most layer of a shoe that contacts the ground. It’s generally of a rubber or rubber-like compound.
  • Rockplate – The rockplate is a layer of deformation-resistance material, whether a plastic sheet, carbon plate, or other, that sits somewhere between the outsole and the sockliner. The rockplate’s purpose is to prevent injury to the bottom of the foot as rocks or roots push through the shoe from below. Rockplates vary in length from the full length of a shoe to the forefoot only.
  • Toe Box – The toe box is the forward cavity of a shoe where your toes go. Toe boxes tend to be narrower in trail shoes aimed at faster or more technical running, while many runners prefer roomier toe boxes as the length of their runs increase to multiple hours.
Amanda Basham - 2018 Tarawera Ultra second place

Altra athlete Amanda Basham running the 2018 Tarawera Ultra 100k.

How to Choose Trail Running Shoes

How should I choose a size of trail running shoes?

If you already own a pair of running shoes or other athletic shoes, you can start with trying the same size that works for you there, particularly if you’re staying with the same brand. Historically, I would have counseled to go a half size up with some of the prominent European brands like Salomon, La Sportiva, and inov-8, but that’s becoming less of an issue these days, especially with brands giving excellent guidance as to the relative fits of particular models.

In general, once you try on a pair of trail shoes, 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 an obstacle.

Should I 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 both locks your foot in place with a proper sit as well as that’s not too long such that you could more easily catch the toe on obstacles. Perhaps back in the day, 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 less forgiving in more relaxed trail running situations. Now, almost ever brand offers trail shoe in a variety of 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, although such shoes are rarely used.

How should trail shoes fit?

Aside from choosing the correct length as described above, you’ll want to make sure 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 as well as when climbing and descending steep sections of trail. Folks also have heels with varying volumes, so once you have your midfoot 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 toe box. Some people always prefer generous toe boxes like those found in Altra and Topo models, while others prefer a more moderate toe box. This 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 toe box, 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 toe box as well as midfoot lockdown that’s less aggressive and more forgiving as your feet start to swell after hours on the trail.

What heel-to-toe drop should I choose?

Wow! Amongst runners, you might as well ask about religion, sex, or politics before asking for opinions on heel-to-toe drop. I’m firmly in the camp of there’s no right answer than what works for you.

There’s an appealing argument that humans’ natural biomechanics are based on no heel-to-drop. 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-12mm drops or, at most, very gradually transition down to lower-drop shoes if desired. These days, the majority of trail shoes come with moderate drops of 4-to-8mm, 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.

How deep should a trail shoe’s lugs be?

This is a classic “it depends” question. In theory, good technique should provide plenty of traction in just about any shoe in most conditions. Really. That said, shoes with 5-6mm tall, more widely spaced lugs can be great for wet, muddy, or otherwise sloppy conditions. Most other trail shoes will have 3-5mm 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, shoes with lugs in this range are likely to work as your everyday trail shoe. On the other end, there are a few trail shoes out there with widely spaced 7-8mm lugs that are really only applicable for steep climbing and descending in very wet and muddy conditions and are most likely a later specialist addition to one’s quiver of trail shoes.

Should I buy waterproof trail running shoes?

In the vast majority of cases, no, you shouldn’t but waterproof trail running shoes for your trail runs. If it’s snowy or rainy out, I’ll often throw on waterproof shoes to walk down the street, shovel the sidewalk, or do something in the yard. On the other hand, it’s very rare I wear them running.

It’s possibly that waterproof shoes will 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 there’s an inch or two of snow 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 anything more than a few inches of snow unless you’re wearing gaiters. Waterproof shoes are similarly futile if it’s much more than 50F 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 hours of running in cold and dry conditions, you still may end up with damp socks from foot sweat. Still, whether your feet are wet or dry, waterproof shoes can keep your feet a bit warmer.

A runner descending on a rainy day during the Ring of Steall Skyrace.

A runner descending on a rainy day during the Ring of Steall Skyrace. Photo: Bryon Powell

Why You Should Trust Us

This best trail running shoe guide has been compiled with the expertise of more than half a century of combined trail running shoe testing experience from the iRunFar test team, supplemented by extensive research and the input of hundreds of iRunFar readers.

We began by compiling and considering a list of more than 200 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 test team, who extensively test many dozens of trail shoes each year, including each and every shoe mentioned above. Then, Bryon Powell, who’s closely followed trail running shoes for iRunFar since 2008, and Morgan Tilton, a trail runner who’s reported on trail shoes from dozens of trade shows since 2012, compiled the list above.

With the frequent addition of new trail running shoes and just as frequent revision of existing models, this is a living document. Indeed, by the time of this guide’s initial publication, we’ll be considering a whole new trove of trail shoes both amongst iRunFar’s test team and specifically to supplement this article. Onward and upward!

Bryon Powell - Ultra Glide

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

Frequently Asked Questions about Trail Running Shoes

Do you need different shoes for trail running?

Quite frankly, in all but the most extreme situations, any pair of running shoes will work on the trails. That said, read the next point as to why you might want to pick up a pair of trail shoes after all!

What makes trail running shoes different from other running shoes? What are the benefits of trail running shoes?

Trail running shoes provide a number of benefits — primarily 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 underlaying substrate. In addition, a trail shoe’s lugs are often made of a slightly softer and “stickier” rubber that would be a bit less durable on pavement but grippier on rocks.

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 for additional protection of the top of your foot. Unlike even road surfaces, the uneven surface of trails can lead to rocks or roots poking through and irritating (or injuring) the bottom of your feet. The most common solution here is one of many forms of a “rockplate” underfoot that provide push-through protection for your feet. Trail shoes with thick midsoles and/or very deep lugs might skip a rockplate altogether if those components provide adequate separation between the trail and the sole of the foot.

When used for their intended purpose (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 both 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 put overtop areas of the shoe’s upper that’s more susceptible to wear, whether it’s a flex point in front of the shoe or any area more likely to collect and self-abrade with mud. Separately, most trail shoe outsoles are constructed in a way that it’s less likely to start detaching from the midsole, which is less of a consideration for road shoes.

What’s the difference between trail running shoes and road running shoes?

The paragraphs above highlight some of the aspects of trail running shoes that make them different that road running shoes. Road running shoes can reduce weight by minimizing outsole lug height, eliminate any rockplates for underfoot protection, and have more minimal uppers that are lighter and possibly more breathable. While a small number of specialist trail running shoes offer very minimal training, this is even more of an exception in road running shoes.

What are the best trail running shoes?

These days, anyone telling you there’s a single best trail running shoe is either delusional or trying to sell you something. That said, above we’ve taken a shot at pointing out some great trail running shoes with this guide. We can fully endorse each of the shoes mentioned above. Of our top five editors’ picks, the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 is great for someone looking for more cushioning, the Altra Lone Peak 5 is perfect if you’re looking for zero-drop and a roomy toe box, and the Salomon Speedcross 5 is perfect for muddy or messy conditions, while the Brooks Cascadia 15 and Saucony Peregrine 11 offer two different flavors of great everyday trail shoes.

What are the best road-to-trail running shoes?

There’s no single best option of the road-to-trail shoe. However, coming from the trail shoe side of things, the Brooks Cascadia 15, Altra Lone Peak 5, Salomon Sense Ride 4, Nike Pegasus Trail 2, and Brooks Catamount, each of which are described above, all make great road-to-trail shoes.

Is it ok to use trail running shoes on road?

Yes, it’s completely fine to run with trail shoes on roads and sidewalks. Some models, referred to as “hybrid” a decade ago and now more commonly referred to as road-to-trail models (see above), are specifically designed to run well on both road and trail, as many if not most trail runners run routes with a mix of those surfaces.

On the other hand, trail shoes designed for softer terrain often have taller, more pronounced lugs as well as less midsole, as such shoes factor in the ground providing some cushioning. This combination can lead to discomfort during prolonged stretches on pavement.

One word of caution is the outsoles of trail shoes are often made of softer rubber than that of road shoes and can wear down more quickly on unforgiving pavement, especially if you have a stride that’s uneven or drags on the ground.

2016 UTMB Start - Sergi Colome

The runners take off down the paved roads of Chamonix, France at the start of the 2016 UTMB. Photo: Sergi Colome

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

If you’ll hit an occasional short patch of mud on your run, wear whatever trail shoes you want. If mud will be a regular feature on a particular run, try to pick a pair of trail shoes with at least moderate lugs that 4-6mm, such as those of the Salomon Speedcross 5 or Hoka One One Speedgoat 4. While not covered in this article, there are trail shoes with 7-8mm deep lugs, such as the inov-8 Mudclaw G 260 V2, that work well in extremely muddy conditions.

Keep in mind good technique can make running in mud more effective.

What’s the most cushioned trail running shoe?

As of mid-2021, it looks like the Hoka One One Stinson ATR 6 is the most cushioned trail shoe out there with the Altra Olympus 4 and Hoka One One Challenger ATR 6 not far behind.

Should I wear gaiters with trail running shoes?

Gaiters are fabric collars, often detachable, that cover the top of a shoe and the lower part of the leg to prevent debris from entering a shoe from around its tongue or ankle collar as well as through more porous areas of the shoe’s upper. Whether or not you wear gaiters when trail running depends on trail conditions and personal preference. Personally, I never wear gaiters (except when snowshoeing), but many folks like gaiters, particularly is there’s lots of sand, dust, or other loose debris on the trail. Many gaiters can be attached to nearly any pair of shoes, while some brands make gaiters that easily integrate with their own trail shoes, such as the Altra Lone Peak 5, Altra Olympus 4, and Topo Ultraventure Pro models noted above.

Why are trail running shoes so expensive?

All things considered, most trail running shoes aren’t outrageously expensive, and there are plenty of great models at $130 and under. When you factor in inflation, most trail shoes are in with line or cheaper than they were 20 years ago. Interestingly, there did seem to be a pause in the price increases of all running shoes recently, when brands hesitated to break the $100 per pair barrier. Once Hokas and the Salomon S-Lab Sense came onto the market, that ceiling was destroyed, and there was a diversification of prices.

So, what about all the trail shoes that cost more than $150? Well, a good portion of them do tend to have a higher fit and finish. Other high-price trail shoes are pinnacle products with lower anticipated sales of a highly niche shoe and more significant R&D costs. Are either of these categories worth the premium? Perhaps for a handful of people with significant disposable income, the marginal gains in comfort or prestige are worth the cost of the “ultra-premium” trail shoes, but they’re certainly not necessary. The same goes for seemingly cutting-edge shoes. Maybe they lead to better performance — or maybe they don’t. My advice? Wait a season or two before buying truly groundbreaking trail shoes. If they end up as winners, most brands will offer lower cost, very similar version within two or three years. If they’re not true winners, you just save some money.

Can I wear trail running shoes for hiking?

TONS of people use trail running shoes for hiking, whether that’s for an hour around the local park or a three-month thru hike. Two great options from our list above include the Altra Lone Peak 5 for those who want a wide toe box, perhaps for hours-long or multi-day hikes, or the Brooks Cascadia 15. Both shoes offer moderate cushioning on time-tested platforms. The Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 makes a great hiking shoe for those wanting more cushioning.

Can I wear trail shoes for walking?

Most trail running shoes will be comfortable and effective for walking. Perhaps just avoid trail shoes with overly aggressive lugs. Occasional walks on concrete and asphalt will be fine, but if you’ll mostly be walking hard surfaces, consider buying a pair of road running shoes instead.

Francois D'haene - 2017 John Muir Trail FKT 4

Putting in the miles. Photo: Droz Photo

Where to Buy Trail Shoes?

If you’re in the market for some trail shoes and you have the chance, swing by your local running store to see if they can set you up with a pair. Not only will they have the knowledge to match a pair to your needs and the skill to properly size the shoes, the store’s selection should also be well-suited for local trails. Many local outdoor stores also carry a selection of trail running shoes (as they often double as great hiking shoes) that would, once again, be suited for the local environment.

If you know what you’re looking for, online outdoor retailers like REI and Backcountry carry a huge selection of trail shoes from a multitude of manufacturers. These days, you’re likely to find just as many or more trail shoes on Amazon, with free two-day shipping if you’re a Prime member. If you’ve still not found a trail shoe that strikes your fancy, you could keep poking around Road Runner SportsRunning Warehouse, and even smaller specialty sites like Skyrun until you find what your match.

San Francisco Running Company - Jorge Maravilla

Whenever you can, shop at local specialty running stores like San Francisco Running Company. Courtesy Photo.

There are 10 comments

  1. Ben

    Great article with great recommendations. Interesting to see the changes made to the speedcross 5.

    I recently picked up a pair of the Nike Pegasus Trail 2 shoes, and they are fantastic to run in. Incredibly comfortable. One thing to add though is that the sole is not very durable. After ~120 miles some of the lugs had completely vanished through wear, this on softish ground. Got a refund, and ordered some of those brand new Salomon Ultra Glides. Very excited to try them out!

  2. Ron

    Personal opinion…these are all terrible shoes. Like slapping oversized pillows to your feet and trudging around the forrest. Anyone reviewing shoes that don’t fit like platform shoes and require ankle braces on any technical terrain? It’s actually the weight of the shoes that disappoints me. Its as though shoe makers forgot not every trail runner is a plodder over 100miles. Many of use still look to go short/fast/technical, I miss fell running shoes being reviewed.

    1. Aaron

      I think part of that is because of the few options that really sing in the fell-running category, The X-Talon line is probably the finest of those shoes available in the United States at this point, but past that the VJ iRock line is also really solid.. Past that, there isn’t a lot of diversity in Fell Running shoes to start(I suppose you could probably get PB Walsh if you wanted to, but I haven’t worn those and won’t speak to them.)

    2. bob

      I’m with you, Ron – mostly. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call all of them terrible, but I really hate heavy shoes, and all of these fall into that category in my book. This day and age, with all of our technical advancements, there’s no reason that manufacturers can’t put out an awesome trail shoe at a light weight – see Salomon Pulsar at around 6 oz’s!

      1. Ron

        @Aaron sadly beyond the X-talon I’ve never even heard of any of the shoes you mentioned. I’ve chosen Salomon Sense 4 Pro recently as they’re small, and great technically, but still heavier than required, and narrower than I’d like, but in North America beyond that or Arcterex, or sometimes Inov-8, there’s little else available. Speedgoats (not the person the shoe) are basically the worst option in my opinion. I bought a pair, walked around the house, bundled them up and sent them back. I’d break ankles.

        @bob 100% agree. I’ve not tried the Pulsar, however the Skechers Razor 3 are ideal for me on road. Their TRL line is brutal though, 100km and I’ve blown out the sides, and if there’s a chance of wet they’re dangerous. So many brilliant minds out there, can one of them build a fell running show, enough cushion for a 50k and technical capability without weighing more than 7.5oz and without assuming I don’t have a big toe, ala Helios 3. If anyone has suggestions I’m all ears.

  3. KenZ

    I have used many of these manufacturers’ shoe models over the years, and without calling out specific manufacturers here (because it would sound like an attack, and less of honest feedback/criticism), they are in general ridiculously poorly designed in the sidewalls, ESPECIALLY at the price they are charging. In three of the manufacturers noted above, I have given up on them because after several pairs each, I have had sidewall blowouts usually by 150 miles, although some last to maybe 300. On a $/mile basis, that is crap. One brand new pair of “mountain” shoes by one of the above manufacturers blew out at mile 80. Yes, it was a technical, wet course, but Jesus people, that is ridiculous.

    Now I do have a pair of Saucony Kinvara 2s that I still run flat and easy/non super tech trails in. I have at least 2000 miles on those. They look pretty ratty, but they still work great, and the cushion is fine. And, for the record, I bought those in 2011. So I KNOW it is possible to make durable shoes.

    The other thing I will note, and now I’m calling out Hoka, is the beefy shoes generally have similarly beefy heel cups, and those are less flexible and tend to give me severe blisters and skin rubs. @Speedgoat- I think I saw you eyeing my Speedgoat 3s at Hardrock this last week at Sherman and I could tell you were just about to say “nice shoes” (I had the flowers in my vest). They are great for super rugged terrain like Hardrock, but damnit, get the heel cups better. I dream of someone replicating the heel cups on the old New Balance MT101s. Those were the BEST. Anyway now I’m missing the skin off sides of both my heels. So thank you Hoka for the rock protection, but no thanks for the seeping heel sores. And yes, I did tape my feet first, but it’s just too wet out there to last.

    @Ron- While they are a little stiff and sometimes a bit narrow, you know what I use for minimalist trainers? Cross country race flats. You can get spikeless ones for SUPER cheap off season from Running Warehouse. Like $40/pair or less. Light. Minimal. A tad stiff, but super fun.

  4. The "Grumpy"

    Normally, I just read reviews and move on. But there are some things I feel need a bit of clarifying.

    The first thing I want to clarify is the term heel-to-toe drop (“Drop”): If you said this to a shoe engineer (and yes, there are people like this), they would laugh at you. The “drop” of a shoe is a term that marketing folks came up with (and why they should stay out of writing shoe specs). There is no such thing as a “drop” of a shoe or the last the shoe is built on. The term is heel lift. If you look at your dress shoes in the closet, you can actually see the heel lift.
    In regards to heel lift, they go from 0.0mm to as much as 12.00mm. Which is best? The one that works for you. Given my background, 4.0mm is BARE minimum. 0.0mm is too low and puts a lot of strain on the achilles tendons (which could lead to achilles tendonitis or worse). Yes, there are a few people who can run with 0.0mm heel lift, but they are few and far between. I recommend more 6.0-8.0mm as being best for trail running.

    In regards to “rockered midsoles,” they are done due to the lack of flexibility of the midsole (especially in thick midsoles). If you think about wooden clogs, you will see they have very pronounced toe rockers. This is done due to without the rocker, you would have basically a 2”x4”strapped to your foot and you can imagine what it would be like trying to flex that when you go to toe-off. The “foams” being use for midsoles (which are basically an EVA-type of a material) are not very flexible when they get thick, no matter if they have flex groves in the midsole. Thus you need that rocker to help with the toe-off.

    Do you really need a specific trail-running shoe? It depends. From what I have seen of the trails being run on, a road shoe would work fine. One really does not need high-lugged outsoles as shown in the shoes in this review. I see trail shoes it as a sales-driven thing for the footwear brands.

    While I agree that the outsole rubber on trail running shoes is a bit softer, I do not agree it will give you better traction off road. Even the lugged outsole of a trail running shoe can lose its grip just as quickly as a road running shoe outsole. By the way, I would not advise using a trail-running shoe for road running due to the softer outsole. If the trail head is 0.5-mile from the parking spot, that would be okay to use a trail running shoe. But if it is like more like 1.0 miles, then you will notice the outsole wearing away quicker.

    Now, this brings me to the conversation of road-running shoes versus trail running shoes. There is NO DIFFERENCE on upper materials of a trail running shoe and a road-running shoe. They are the same polyester and/or polyester/nylon combination. While some trail running shoes have a bit more TUP material HF-welded to the upper, in terms of durability they are the same. I have seen both train running and road running shoes with the same upper failures. And as for patterns of the 2 types of shoes, there is definitely no difference between them (as I did shoe patterns).

    Are rockplates needed for trail running? In some cases, yes, when the midsole is very thin. But in a standard midsole thickness of a road-running shoe, those will provide enough protection from stone-bruising. And if you have a shoe without a rockplate and you want to have additional protection even with a “average” midsole thickness road running shoe, you can get metatarsal pads to add to the sockliner to give you that protection.

    In closing, I would say use this article/review as a base. Go to a true running store and talk to the person who is selling you the shoe and find out their background. See how ong they have been running and what they have done. DO NOT LISTEN TO ATHLETES WHO ARE SPONSORED! They will only tell you what their sponsor want you to hear. Trade show are not much better. The people who work at trade shoes are the sales and marketing people (and if there are any shoe developers and shoe engineers), and they are only looking to sell you shoes. I find most runners are highly intelligent people and you are capable of making your own decision.

    The only bit of advice I will give is think about the trails you are running on and really consider if it is worth having a trail shoe when a good road running shoe might be better……

    My qualifications:
    – 31 years selling, developing, engineering, and producing athletic shoes (including running shoes)
    – 21.5 years living in Asia working in factories that made athletic shoes (including running shoes)
    – Developed and engineered (including shoe pattern development and pattern engineering)
    – Oversaw development of new upper materials
    – Assisted in development of outsole rubber and midsole foams

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