Best Trail Running Shoes of Outdoor Retailer Summer 2012

Twice a year, I attend the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, Utah. I then spend three or four months avoiding writing about the best of the ridiculous amount of gear I’ve seen at the show. Not. This. Time. OR ended Sunday and this preview of the best trail running shoes from the show is going up on the subsequent Gearsday, as we like to call Thursday around the office. So here they are – the shoes you want to know about now and might very well want to run in come Spring 2013.

Click on any of the following featured shoes to jump down to our preview of the model. If you don’t find what you’re looking for on this list, try searching this page as we provide abbreviated previews on a number of other models. We’ve also published a more extensive photo set of the shoes of Summer OR ’12 on our Facebook page.

Pearl Izumi E:Motion Line ($115-130 – February 2013)

With nine models, including three new trail models, I’m not going to preview any single model in Pearl Izumi’s new E:Motion Line. Instead, I’ll generally talk about a line that had me intrigued the past few months, pleasantly surprised on the OR floor, and smiling during every run in them since. Quite simply, the E:motion line was the best new footwear concept I saw at this year’s OR.

The Pearl Izumi Trail N1.

The E:Motion line, which will debut in February 2013, is all about feel rather than technical features… and both shoes I’ve tried – the Road N1 and Trail M2 – have felt great. The underfoot packages in both models (and, especially, the road model) have exceptional fluidity. I’ve experienced an easy footstrike and a smooth-as-silk transition that I don’t think I’ve ever felt in another shoe in twenty years of running. Not hyperbole, but fact. It’s 2:30 am and thinking about these shoes has me itching for a second run… and the upper is spectacular, as well. The seamless uppers with minimal overlays are incredibly comfortable. Oh, and no model in the entire line weighs more than 10 ounces.

The Pearl Izumi Trail M2.

The are only two possible downsides I’ve seen to the line and they work in tandem. You see, there are four road-, three trail-, and two triathlon-specific models with three types of stability – N (neutral), M (midfoot stability), and H (heel stability) – and three levels of cushioning – 1 (lowest), 2, and 3 (highest). While eminently sensible, I can see folks getting confused between a Road N2, Trail N2, and a Trail M2, both while chatting with friends and at the store. The somewhat unified (and entirely awesome) colorways is likely to add to the confusion.

Here’s a video Pearl Izumi produced with an overview of Project E:Motion.

Without getting into details here, there are three trail models: N1 (which Timmy Olson wore in setting the course record at Western States), N2, and M2.

Timothy Olson wearing the Pearl Izumi Trail N1 after setting the course record at the 2012 Western States 100.

Montrail FluidFlex ($90 – January 2013)

The Montrail FluidFlex is the most radical departure from its norm that Montrail has taken in quite some time. The FluidFlex is a rockplate-free, 7.6-ounce, 4 mm-drop shoe. Yeah, that’s not your mom’s Montrail Hardrock right there. Plus, it’s based on Montrail’s new midsole material, FluidFoam (not to be confused with Montrail’s FluidPost, which is not found in any of Montrail’s “FluidXxxx” shoes) that yields a softer ride than (and is preferred in tests over) traditional midsole EVA.

The Montrail FluidFlex.

Other new models from Montrail: FluidBalance (a sub-10 ounce hybrid with a 10 mm drop on the FluidFoam platform); FluidFeel (8-mm drop, 10.3-ounce everyday trainer riding on FluidFoam; replaces the Fairhaven, keeping the midsole tooling but ditching the upper).

La Sportiva Helios ($120 – March 2013)

The La Sportiva Helios is the first of two major examples of a company turning back the dial on its cutting edge shoe model to reach a balance between concept and performance. At only 1.2 ounces more than the Vertical K (8.1 vs 6.9 ounces), the small changes to the VK platform may make the Helios an ultra-distance option for a much larger number of runners. While the outsole material and pattern are similar between the two models (the Helios uses a more durable FriXion compound), the Helios has a significantly wider footprint that will offer stability to a tired runner. Atop the outsole, La Sportiva uses the same midsole material, but with a 2 mm LaSpEVA plate in the Helios. The upper of the Helios offers more structure than the Vertical K as well as a wider toe box. All in all, the the Helios is a more structured, more protective Vertical K, which should allow for the shoe to be an every-day trainer rather than a racing/fast training shoe.

A mixed pair of the La Sportiva Helios.

Other new shoes from La Sportiva: Anakonda ($125 – replaces the X-Country and C-Lite; has 4 mm drop and hard heel stabilizer for off-trail use), Quantum 2.0 ($130 – changes to Vibram outsole with opposing lugs; broader fit), Ultra Raptor ($130 – rides softer than the original Raptor, lower drop at 8 vs 12 mm, lost a little weight), Women’s Vertical K.

Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra ($180 – January 15, 2013)

The Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra, the followup to the original S-Lab Sense, could win an award for the biggest improvement through the smallest changes. The first change is a firming of the durometer (softness) of the midsole that should greatly increase durability. Second, Salomon is dropping the price $20 from $200 to $180. Third, Salomon has added lugging to the formerly bare midfoot area. Fourth, the ProFeel Film has been extend backward to provide a bit more midfoot protection. Finally, for the aesthetically modest, the formerly red and white shoe will now be a slightly less flashy combination of red and black. The changes to the shoe result in a slight increase in weight to 7.4 ounces and represent a trend of scaling back bleeding-edge minimalism/ultralightness to allow for greater durability and practical comfort levels.

The Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra.

Other new models from Salomon: Sense Mantra (consumer/trainer version of the S-Lab Sense; only $120; 6 mm drop; 1 ounce heavier than S-Lab Sense); Crossmax 2.

The North Face Hyper-Track Guide ($120 – Spring 2013)

Next season, The North Face is introducing a new line of trail shoes based around its new Cradle Guide technology in which two irregularly-shaped midsole pieces are molded together without glue or hard edges. The layers are contoured differently depending on the model to cradle your foot as warranted by the specific shoe model and its intended uses.

The racier of the three new Cradle Guide shoes is The North Face Hyper-Track Guide, which weighs in at 9.5 ounces. Going forward, The North Face intends to distinguish its trail shoe models as being designed for rocky or smooth terrain and the outsole of these shoes speaks that the Hyper-Track are intended for smooth terrain. TNF did include a plastic “heel clip” primarily to lock the heel in place, but left torsional flexibility to allow for different types of footstrikes on different aspects (climbing/descending/cambered). A welded upper removed many seems.

A mixed pair of The North Face Hyper-Track Guide.

Other new shoes from The North Face: Ultra Guide (intended for rougher terrain with heavy lugs; channels around each lug smooth out the ride on pavement and hardpack; SnakePlate); Double-Track Guide (traditional stability shoe designed for wider range of people; more medial arch and medial wrap).

Vasque Pendulum ($110 – January 2013)

The Vasque Pendulum appears to be a happy compromise between the now extinct Vasque Transistor and Vasque’s more conventional trail offerings (Mindbender or Velocity 2.0). The Pendulum revives the Transistor’s Fluxfoam and curved strobel, which gave the Transistor a great under-foot feel, but moves the Fluxfoam into a removable footbed. The overall structure of the shoe harkens to Vasque’s traditional strength in the “real trail shoe” category. However, this is in no way a throwback. The shoe also incorporates growing trends in the trail running market, such as a 6 mm drop, a nearly one-piece upper, and a low weight for a full-function trail shoe at 10 ounces.

The Vasque Pendulum.

Altra Superior ($95 – Spring 2013)

Following on the success of the Altra Lone Peak, a burly, well-cushioned trail shoe, the Altra Superior will debut next spring. Aside from being a zero-drop, cushioned trail shoe, the most notable feature of The Superior is its removable rockplate. That’s right, the shoe comes ready to tackle the toughest trails in the Wasatch (or any other mountain range), but transitions to an even lighter, lower, more flexible shoe should you be headed out on some buffed out singletrack or simply desire those qualities. The Superior (8.9 ounces) is a full ounce lighter than the Lone Peak. That weight savings comes from a more stripped down upper as well as less underfoot material that goes along with a lower stack height (19 vs 23 mm).

The Altra Superior.

New Balance Leadville – MT1210 (~$125 – early January 2013)

After a few years of concentrating on the minimal end of the trail shoe spectrum, New Balance has put time and effort into a more traditional trail shoe, the New Balance Leadville, which is named after the Leadville Trail 100 race that the company now sponsors. Before getting techy, its important to note that these shoes were developed with ultrarunning specifically  in mind. New Balance sent its product team to a multi-lap trail ultra (for the record, the Mount Agamenticus 50k) to take foot scans every lap to map foot expansion, which they mapped at 7% overall. As a result, the shoe was designed to allow expansion on the top of the foot as well as in the toes. They also found that runners’ arches dropped during the race, so they’ve included a small medial post in the shoe. On the tech side, the Leadville incorporates New Balance’s ultralightweight FantomFit upper construction, which I believe is only found in two other models, the RC5000 racing flat and the next shoe we’ll discuss. The Leadville has a well-lugged Vibram outsole, a forefoot rockplate, and fully-gusseted, welded tongue with no stitching. As for numbers, the shoe weighs in at 10.3 ounces and has an 8 mm drop.

The New Balance Leadville/MT1210.

Updates to existing New Balance models: MT10v2/Minimus Trail (increased outsole flex along with reduced lug size in low-wear areas; about an ounce lighter; redesigned forefoot band with more give; redesigned liner for better Achilles comfort); MT110 (dropped lateral side of shoe 1 mm).

New Balance Minimus Hi-Rez ($120 – April 2013)

Okay, this is not a trail shoe… and it’s barely a running shoe, but I’ll be asked a million questions about it, so here it is, the New Balance Minimus Hi-Rez, a 4.3 ounce, zero-drop, 8-mm-stack-height shoe with FantomFit construction. Oh, and it’s got 40-some fully articulated midsole pods laminated onto the fabric that’s directly below your feet. Those pods are primarily a midsole compound with only a small portion of lugs in high-wear areas cover with any outsole compound.

The New Balance Minimus Hi-Rez’s outsole.

Again, this is not a trail running shoe. The pods will stay coupled to the shoe during its couple-hundred-mile life, but all bets are off when descending a rocky slope at high speed! Personally, I’d use the Hi-Rez as a non-running trainer to help strengthen my feet and lower legs as I go about my day… knowing that I could break into a sprint at any time.

The New Balance Minimus Hi-Rez’s upper.

Brooks Pure Grit 2 ($110 – January 1, 2013)

The Brooks Pure Grit 2 consists of the same midsole and last as the original Pure Grit, but there are major updates to the outsole and upper. On the outsole, there are smaller, multi-directional lugs that should greatly increase traction. On the upper, the nav band is now exposed and extended over the entire lateral side and there’s a full tongue wrap. Reinforcement has also been added to the toe. The changes will mean that the Pure Grit officially goes from 8.9 to 10.0 ounces.

The Brooks Pure Grit 2.

Brooks Cascadia 8 ($120 – February 1, 2013)

Until we’re proven wrong, revisions – even minor – to the Cascadia line warrant inclusion in our OR wrap ups. The biggest updates with the Brooks Cascadia 8 come in the midsole where the the drop was lowered from 12 to 10 mm (the heel was dropped from 22 to 20 mm, while the 10 mm forefoot height remains unchanged) and BioMoGo was blended with Brooks DNA in the midsole. This blend removes glue and hard edges between various midsole components. Underfoot, the lugs have also been redesigned, while in the upper there have been slight changes to the shape and material found around the toebox. The latest version of the Cascadia will weigh 11.9 ounces, which gives the Cascadia the following official progression in going from the Cascadia 5 to the Cascadia 8: 12.0, 11.2, 12.2, and 11.9 ounces.

The Brooks Cascadia 8.

Scott T2 Kinabalu ($120 – January 2013)

Scott’s trail shoes have come a looooong way in the past couple years. The first pair I tried a few years back wasn’t worth more than a run. Then, last winter, I gladly logged some runs in a newer model. Now, Scott is transferring its road know-how into its trail shoe line with the Scott T2 Kinabalu. I’ve yet to run in these fully-featured 9.8 ounces shoes with a conventional drop (11 mm), but would gladly give them a few spins around the mountain. These shoes were designed with water in mind with a perforated sockliner and channeled midsole that leads to drainage ports.

The Scott T2 Kinabalu.

Asics GEL-FujiTrainer 2 ($100 – January 2013)

The US has only had the Asics GEL-FujiRacer for a few months, while the Japanese have already had another Fuji model – the FujiTrainer. Well, next year, America gets in on the action with the Asics GEL-FujiTrainer 2. The FujiTrainer is one ounce heavier than the FujiRacer (9.7 vs 8.7 ounces) and comes with a 8 mm drop. The upper features a gusseted tongue, lace garage, and open mesh fabric. The outsole has a more aggressive lug pattern than the FujiRacer while lacking the racer’s drainage ports.

A mixed pair of the Asics GEL-FujiTrainer 2.

Hoka One One Bondi B 2 ($160 – Spring 2013)

How did a road shoe – the Hoka One One’s Bondi B 2 – get in here? Because I see a heck of a lot of the original Bondis out here on the trails of Utah. With the Bondi B 2, Hoka focused on improving the shoe’s upper. There’s a new, more open mesh as well as revised overlays that should reduce friction. There’s also a softer ankle pad to increase comfort. Finally, there are now heel and tongue pulls to help get your Bondi B 2s on more easily.

For a more complete look at some of Hoka One One’s newest models, as well as at the 2012 Speedgoat 50k and some personal Hoka stories, here’s a not quite final version of a forthcoming Hoka video.

[Click here if you can’t see the above video.]

Saucony Peregrine 3.0 ($110 – March 2013)

Saucony continues to dial things in with its Peregrine line. No longer on the minimal side of things, the Saucony Peregrine 3.0 is best described as a lightweight (9.9 ounces), low-drop (4mm) real trail shoe. In this iteration, Saucony added more sticky rubber to the center of the shoe for increased traction on hard and/or wet surfaces. The company also opened up the upper’s mesh a bit to increase breathability. Other than that, it’s the same great Peregrine.

A mixed pair of the Saucony Peregrine 3.0.

Patagonia EVERmore ($110 – February 2013)

The Patagonia EVERmore continues in the direction Patagonia Footwear took with the Fore Runner. That is, focusing on lighter weight and more minimal structure. At 7.8 ounces, the EVERmore is certainly light, while it’s even lower to the ground with a 17/13 mm stack height, which yields the same 4 mm drop as the Fore Runner. The EVERmore has neither an arch shank nor a heel counter, but it does have a small forefoot rockplate. The shoe is also built around a new last with a more roomy toebox.

The Patagonia EVERmore.

Other new shoes from Patagonia Footwear: Fore Runner EVO ($120; updated lining; more forefoot wrap; more drainage ports); Gamut ($125; follow up to the Specter with better out-of-the-box comfort).

Dynafit Feline Ghost ($130 – March 2013)

The Dynafit Feline Ghost is a step in the right direction for the company. At 9.2 ounces, this looks like another strong entry into the sub-10 ounce, real-mountain-running-shoe category. It’s got cushioning, stability, and protection all in a lightweight package that rides atop some solid lugging. These might very well be worth checking out in person.

Shoes Omitted, But Not Forgotten

I’ve only got so many hours in the day, so I tried to be better about sticking to the most core trail running products above. However, I collected lots of info on other new shoes, such as these:

  • Born 2 Run – A minimalist shoe with the big toe completely separated from the other four;
  • Merrell’s M-Connect Line, including the Vapor Glove and Road Glove 2; and
  • Teva TevaSphere – A rounded heel design.

Call for Comments

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on these shoes. We’ll also try to answer any questions that you have!

Bryon Powell: is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Having spent nearly 20 years as an ultrarunner and three decades as a trail runner, he's also written Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and co-wrote Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running. He calls Silverton, Colorado and Moab, Utah home.

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