Some of you might prefer running on a challenging or dynamic terrain as opposed to just running on a paved road. Trail running is often a welcome break from the monotony of treadmills or tracks. Trail running is a simple and fun way to reignite your passion for running without changing the formula all that much.
What is Trail Running?
Trail running is an exhilarating workout where you move away from paved roads. The aim is to combine the act of running with the steep gradients and hikes on unpaved terrain. Trail running is an amazing way to get a full-body workout where you use your legs and (often-times) your hands to traverse the off-beaten path. This path can vary dramatically and can include mountains, mud, grass, rocks, and even snow.
What are Trail Running Shoes?
It’s a basic but fundamental question, but the significant differences between regular running shoes and trail running shoes are simply a response to what needs have to be met. They feature a whole host of added design choices and accessories to meet the challenge of water, jagged rocks, mud, and hazardous terrain that regular running shoes don’t have to concern themselves with. We’ll get into some of those quirks in the very next section, but they prove to be a huge difference over regular running shoes, especially when it comes to outsole design and protective structure.
What to Look For in Trail Running Shoes
Your next question should, if you’re new to this, be what aspects to look into when picking out the best trail shoes? Should they be lightweight? Should they be more akin to hiking shoes? Here are some things to consider, and help answer those pressing questions:
You may be thinking at this point that lightweight and less cumbersome shoes would be best suited for trail running. This isn’t always the case. Lightweight shoes maybe all of those things, and enable you to get fatigued a lot less than if you were carrying around two laced up bricks on your feet, but you should also remember you’ll be needing adequate protection from the terrain which may include rough and uneven inclines.
A fairly middle-of-the-ground weight is around 1 lb (450 grams) per pair. This weight class should sport enough protection and support for these treks while not compromising in the weight department and have you feeling like you’re lagging behind.
This part is obvious since you’ll be putting your shoes through uncertain terrain. A rugged and sticky rubber outsole is at the absolute core of trail running shoes, but surprisingly the differences in treading between two different pairs of trail shoes also define their characteristics and abilities.
Shoes that do not focus on grip are typically for easier or simpler trails that don’t face too many water hazards or jagged rocks. The reverse is true for very-grippy and sticky treaded shoes. The outsole’s rubber compound, tread depth, rock plate and its tread pattern all play a part in how well it grips the surface.
- Shoes with a sticky rubber compound tend to excel on rocky surfaces, while those with softer or more pliable outsoles tend to feel better and perform better in muddy areas.
- The tread depth (defined in mm) is the height of each lug on the outsole. The tread depth plays an important role and is definitive of what kind of terrain the shoe should be used on. Tall lugs (5mm+) are great at biting into the loose ground and making sure you’re deep in there and don’t fall over or sleep. At the same time though, these tall lugs negatively impact your overall stability on simpler or firmer terrain.
- Some trail running shoes consist of a hard nylon shank or rock plate to protect from impact against sharp and jagged rock. Unfortunately, the rock plate does add some extra weight, so it’s wise to choose shoes depending on your terrain. If you’re going to be running on even or smooth trail surfaces, it’s better to get shoes without a rock plate to save some weight. On the other hand, if you’re planning on running over rocky terrain, a trail running shoe with a protective rock plate is highly recommended.
- Finally, the tread pattern is also an important thing to consider based on where you’ll be trail-running because widely-spaced, tall lugs are a lot better in something like mud over tightly spaced short lugs. At the same time, tightly-spaced short lucks are better on rock and similar terrain over widely-spaced, tall lug designs. Again all of this is dependent on what kind of terrain you’ll be running on, but do keep it in mind.
Cushioning in trail runners also goes by the name of stack-height or heel drop, which is a measurement of where the foot sits inside the shoe with respect to the ground. The greater the heel drop, the more cushioning as the foot is more elevated off the ground, technically speaking. Both have their pros and cons.
Low heel drop shoes (smaller stack height) make for a very nimble ride and makes you feel more connected to the ground, yet they aren’t suitable for longer distances because the impact will really get to you over time.
High heel drop shoes (bigger stack height) are great at giving you a smooth ride, especially over long distances, but you aren’t quite on the same level when it comes to feeling nimble, and it encourages heel striking which is a higher impact stride than midfoot striking. Cushioning is something of personal preference, so figure out which you like more, or base it on distance and the kind of terrain you want to run on.
This is of great importance when you consider the fact you’ll be running fast over precarious terrain, as the chance for injury is high. You want a shoe with a solid platform, wide enough and rigid enough to take hard impacts on uneven surfaces. This may come in the form of a full chassis, the perimeter of the base of the shoe, or shanks that are slid between the midsole and outsole for stiffness. In some cases manufacturers include an exoskeleton design that is around the heel cup to give a bit more structure and protection from roll-over. Harder trail shoes are often stiffer, with more structure, to prevent injury on the challenging terrain, while easier trail shoes are typically more flexible and comfortable since there is a lot less risk to worry about.
Because you’ll be braving the elements, you have to consider getting murky, wet, and muddy. This is where waterproofing comes in. This is a lining that is both breathable and waterproof, inserted into the outer fabric as well as the shoes inner lining. If you aren’t headed to wet terrain, you can get shoes without this feature to save a bit of weight and money. Otherwise, it is a necessity unless you prefer cold, wet feet.
Similar to regular running shoes, the fight against perspiration and heat build-up is a constant struggle. Nylon mesh is a common choice among trail running shoes as it provides ample breathability, letting air in and moisture flow out, while also being reliable and tear-resistant.
Finally, we have toe protection. Given you may face challenging and hazardous terrain, added protection isn’t a bad idea. Most if not all trail runners have some form of toe protection, varying from rubber toe guards to toe-caps. Because speed is still key in this activity, compared to a full-on hiking boot, the protection isn’t quite as substantial, but a lot better than nothing.
So, without further ado, here is our list of the 11 best trail running shoes for the year 2021.
1. Salomon SpeedCross 5
First up, we have the Salomon SpeedCross 5 from a company that has been in the outdoor trail market for a long time, making a reputable name for themselves. The SpeedCross 5 brings together some of the best features Salomon has implemented in previous iterations: single-pull lacing, snug fit, and a lightweight and sturdy design.
When it comes to traction, if that is your main concern, the SpeedCross features 6mm lugs, which is about 2mm larger than normal trail shoe lugs. This translates to you getting great traction on trails of dirt, mud, and snow.
The heel units in these shoes ensure clean foot-striking and stability throughout your stride, with completely welded uppers with a SensiFit arm to help move naturally with your feet while also cradling your foot. Everything from the lace to midsole is designed to give you a secure and snug fit.
The outsoles are made of Contagrip rubber, with the aforementioned deep and sharp lugs for maximum traction on a variety of surfaces. The midsoles are composed of EnergyCell+ technology, giving you great energy return with decent cushioning and durability. The OrthoLite footbeds built-in are also great for shock absorption and have an antimicrobial treatment to deter odor, but are also removable in case you prefer a different insole for your SpeedCross.
If you plan on going on trails that are loose, soft, or uneven, the SpeedCross 5 will excel. They also come in a Gore-Tex version if you plan on taking them out to very wet environments.
The SpeedCross 5 isn’t perfect in every aspect, though. They have a fairly large heel-to-toe drop and sizable lugs. This shoe isn’t the most ideal on hard rocky terrain as it can feel somewhat uncomfortable. Another issue is that the upper is not quite as breathable and it can get a little toasty in there if you’re out running on a hot day.
Regardless of these quirks, the SpeedCross 5 is a great shoe with excellent traction, but you should know that in certain instances or terrain, these aren’t the absolute best, but still one of the top trail running shoes amongst seasoned veterans.
+ Great on mud, dirt, snow, loose terrain
+ SensiFit arm provides great cradling across the shoe
+ Solid energy return from the midsole
+ Removable OrthoLite insole and Gore-Tex coating
– Not ideal for certain surfaces like very rocky terrain
– Upper unit is not very breathable
2. Hoka One One Speedgoat 3
The Hoka One One brand is no newcomer to tough and rugged shoes for a variety of occasions, and the Speedgoat 3 is a testament to their ability. The Speedgoat 3 features an engineered mesh upper with 3D-printed overlays to help enhance midfoot support and give you a locked-down feel.
The midsole is made from a lightweight foam used to give you a more responsive and comfortable ride while conquering those rough terrains. The toe box is moderately roomy, with a wider midfoot construction to give you more accommodation if you have wider than average feet, adding to its comfort and stability.
The Speedgoat 3 also has an integrated tongue to stay in place while running or hiking and the synthetic overlays on the midfoot are great at providing a snug and locked-in feel. Traction is delivered through the Vibram Megagrip outsole to give you the grip you need in both wet and dry conditions.
It also has 5mm stepped lugs that grips almost flawlessly to both hard and soft trail surfaces and zonal rubber placement for even more support and stability. Overall, the Speedgoat 3 is a solid trail shoe with thick cushioning for running over jagged terrain with little effort and also holding its own on a whole host of other surfaces as well.
Unfortunately, the only downside to the Speedgoat 3 is that it has a thick heel wedge some might find cumbersome. This taller stack height also won’t have the same precision that a low-slung shoe would. If this isn’t an issue to you, and you feel perfectly fine with a less nimble but more durable shoe, the Speedgoat 3 is one of the best trail runners on our list.
+ Enhanced mesh upper has good breathability
+ Lightweight and supportive midsole
+ Vibram outsole is good for both hard and soft surfaces
+ Great shoe for jagged terrain
– Not as nimble as other trail shoes due to its thick midsole
3. Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 36 Trail
Nike is no stranger when it comes to running shoes – whether it be road or trail running shoes. The Air Zoom Pegasus 36 Trail is Nike’s attempt at making a shoe that can accomplish both. Just by looking at the serrated treading, you can tell this is more than just a track shoe.
This shoe is a modification to their existing Pegasus 36, a stellar road shoe, to be more of a hybridized crossover that is good on either pavement or moderate trails (parks, dirt-roads, etc). Compared to the original, this is a bit more form-fitting and just as light. Nike also opted for an unpadded tongue that is thinner, thus allowing for a more sock-like and streamlined feel, making it easier to take off and put on.
There is a full Nike Zoom Air unit built in to give you a smooth and comfortable ride you’d expect from the Pegasus line, and a cushioned ST foam to add to that overall comfortability and support. The biggest departure from the original, though, is definitely the lugs which are a new addition meant exclusively to grip on unpaved terrain.
The outsole consists of multi-directional lugs that are present on the heel and forefoot to get a bite into different textured surfaces better than the original track-only shoe. Given that this is a hybrid shoe and not a full-on trail shoe, these lugs are only 3mm, whereas the average trail-only shoe is 4mm or more. The Pegasus 36 Trail offers a solid balance, similar to the Nike Terra Kiger 5 shoes on this list.
Unfortunately, the Pegasus 36 Trail is a victim to versatility – in that, these shoes are not dedicated trail runners but rather a jack-of-all-trades for someone whose regimen consists of both trail and road running.
If you are someone looking for a shoe dedicated to trail running, this isn’t the one. It is more for individuals who want a single shoe that can do a bit of both, meaning it cannot feasibly do extreme or technical terrain well like a dedicated trail shoe is able to. If you want a versatile runner though, these are one of the best trail running shoes to serve a dual purpose.
+ Sock-like feel makes you feel more connected to the ground
+ Hybrid design good for both track and trail
+ Comfort of a runner with the function of a trail shoe
+ Good for people who prefer versatility in their shoe
– Isn’t a dedicated trail running shoe
4. Altra Lone Peak 4.5
At the midway point we have the Lone Peak 4.5 by Altra, a company that came out with some very popular and innovative trail shoes and hasn’t stopped since. Compared to the previous iterations, there are a few updates and revisions in this new one. Namely the upper has been trimmed down, made more flexible and resilient.
The midsole is more durable and responsive than before, with greater longevity and cushioning. The outsole is called MaxTrac which consists of multi-directional claw-like lugs and is just as trail-chomping as you’d expect. With the Altra Lone Peak 4.5, you also get StoneGuard technology that delivers lightweight protection against rock bruising. Lastly, the outsole is also more durable and gives you enough grip and traction to get through any terrain.
The toe box is still the classic large Altra Lone width, allowing for your toes to splay naturally to give you a better and more grounded feel. The lacing system and upper have been simplified further to provide a more streamlined look and feel as well.
One annoying thing about the Lone Peak 4.5 is that the tongue moves around to the sides while running and some might find this unacceptable. Also, if you’re wearing no-show socks, the heel collar has a tendency to rub uncomfortably against the ankles. This is mostly up to preference, but this is maybe a defining characteristic for some users.
+ Durable and resilient upper
+ Midsole lasts longer and can take quite a beating
+ Multi-directional lugs on the outsole
+ Bigger toe box for natural toe splay
– Design might not jive with certain people’s preferences
– Heel collar is prone to rubbing against the skin
5. Nike Zoom Air Terra Kiger 5
Next up are the Zoom Air Terra Kiger 5’s. These are a very well-cushioned and well-ventilated shoe that work wonders for long-distance trail running. Compared to its predecessors, it is lighter and more breathable, with a mesh-heavy design that lends itself to running in the heat of the summer.
The rubber outsole is responsive and grippy, perfect for conquering rough terrains, yet not as overbearing as other trail runners. It can be used as a jack-of-all-trades shoe without issue. The outsole has rubberized pods that are ideal for traction on wet or slippery surfaces, of which there may be many when trail-running.
There is a Nike Zoom Air unit placed in the heel area to give you ample cushioning that responds to your needs, as well as Nike React tech, which is a lightweight and durable foam that gives you a smooth ride even on more jagged terrain.
The aforementioned mesh upper is also perforated, allowing it to easily drain out excess liquid and keep you cooler for longer. Finally, there are forefoot overlays to increase the durability of the shoe and provide some much needed toe protection.
While these shoes are a solid all-around pick for lightweight trail running shoes, they do have a few issues. Namely the fact that the heel collar can feel a bit stiffer than one may like, and that a sock layer is required to prevent any abrasions or irritation over a long run. Also, if you’re looking for a pair that are more on the rugged side, there are other more specifically designed shoes on our list.
+ Great in hot weather thanks to perforated mesh
+ Grippy sole with rubberized pods for added traction
+ Features a foot overlay for extra protection on the trail
+ Solid for both trail and track-running
– Heel collar may feel stiff and needs a sock layer
– Not as rugged as dedicated trail runners
6. Inov-8 X-Talon G 235
The Inov-8’s shoe line is a staple for cross-country hiking in very wet conditions, and this remains true for the G 235’s. These shoes are super-light and built for aggressive use, apparent from their aggressive 8mm lugs, that are double the size of regular trail shoes and eat slippery terrain for breakfast.
The outsole is made of graphene enhanced rubber, giving you an insanely sticky grip without compromise. The one-piece upper is made from durable and tough ballistic nylon, helping eliminate any chance of snagging and giving it a reduced weight.
It also has a full rubber printed rand on the outside to give you added protection. When we mentioned they’re lighter, we weren’t kidding, as they weigh just under 0.5 lbs per pair, and if you appreciate a responsive ride that gives you a feeling of the ground you’re walking on, the Terraultra’s have you covered. If you are the kind of person who loves cross-country racing or want a pair of shoes that are no-nonsense, the G 235 is one of the best men’s trail running shoes.
With that said, these shoes are fairly snug, especially around the toe box, coming at about 2 on the Inov-8 fit scale (1 – narrow, 5 – wide). If you have particularly wide feet this might be an inconvenience.
+ Graphene enhanced outer sole
+ Ballistic Nylon upper
+ Lightweight with 8mm lugs
+ Responsive feel
– Fairly narrow
– Might be overkill for some
7. Adidas Terrex Agravic XT
Now we have the Terrex Agravic XT’s by Adidas, which are made for rough terrain and equally rough weather. These are an aggressive mountain-ready trail running shoes meant for any situation you’re thrown into. They have a molded TPU and mesh upper with welded zones to improve durability and keep the XT long-lasting.
It has a sock-like construction to fit snugly against your foot for a more comfortable feel. There is a TPU toe cap for added protection and a heel pull loop for easy application, and a thin comfortable tongue and padded collar to keep your ankle area supported. The shoes are treated with a Gore-Tex waterproof membrane to keep water out while still giving you a comfortable running experience with moderate ventilation.
Adidas put in a BOOST midsole cushion with an EVA frame that delivers incredible energy during the toe-off phase. Overall a solid pick for dry and wet weather, this protective and responsive shoe is one of the best trail running shoes for hiking and comfortable running.
On the flip side, given how protected and padded the Adidas Terrex is, it feels a bit heavier than other trail shoes, for obvious reasons, and on top of making it heavier, the protective qualities implemented can also hinder ventilation in very hot conditions despite having amazing durability. If you plan on taking on rough trails, these are great but do keep in mind that they will feel a bit heavier if you’re used to less-protective shoes.
+ Good for wet and dry climates
+ TPU and mesh upper are very durable
+ Toe-cap and socklike design keep you snug and protected
+ Waterproof gore-tex membrane and BOOST midsole
– Bit heavier than other less protected trail shoes
– Breathability may be an issue in hotter climates
8. ASICS Gel-Venture 6
Now we have the Gel-Venture 6’s with a design made for smoother trails or paved roads. This shoe will definitely provide more grip, lateral stability, and support than a regular road shoe without taking it to the extreme. But it is also not a dedicated trail runner in that regard.
The Gel-Venture 6 has a mesh upper to give it a light and cooling feel, with a GEL cushioning system to attenuate shock during impact, and a removable sockliner that can help accommodate medical orthotics. The outsole is more in line with trail shoes, with reversed lugs to give you added support and downhill traction on a lot of terrains that you just wouldn’t get with a regular running shoe.
On top of this, there is ASICS High Abrasion Rubber that is placed in critical areas of the outsole for added durability and traction. These shoes are definitely what happens when you cross a great runner with a good trail running shoe, and it provides some of the best of both worlds. If you find yourself as more of a runner at times, and you mix in some rugged terrains as well, these are the exact type of shoe you should go for.
While it almost goes without saying, the Gel-Venture falls behind full-on trail shoes when it comes to serious terrain like rough rocky mountains, etc. If you are focussed heavily on trail running, you are better off getting a true pair of trail shoes rather than a hybrid. These serve a specific purpose for a specific type of consumer, and to use it on the trail exclusively is unwise compared to more efficient options out there. The Gel-Venture 6 are great affordable shoes for someone who runs regularly but also throws in some light off-roading at times, nothing less and nothing more.
+ Lightweight and breathable upper
+ Great cushioning system and removable sock-liner
+ Reverse lugs and High Abrasion Rubber in the outsole
– Meant more for runners that do a mix of both road and trail running
9. Salomon X Alpine Pro
Unlike many of the other running shoes on this list, the Salomon X Alpine Pros are specifically designed for rugged, technical terrain and their primary purpose is to protect and provide grip to your feet.
The outsole is made of Salomon’s proven Wet-Traction Contagrip with a “climbing-zone” lug across the forefoot area. The midsole is an EnergyCell technology that was designed to create a firm and supportive environment for your underfoot. The X Alpine Pro’s upper is a breathable mesh with TPU film overlayed, with a Quicklace lacing system and Endofit inner sleeve.
Everything in these shoes is tailored to provide protection as well as an unparalleled grip on even the most rugged of surfaces you’ll encounter. Even the padded tongue provides you with great protection from any debris you might be faced with on your trail.
With the good out of the way, we do have to mention the bad and the ugly about the X Alpine Pro. Namely the fact that there is a break-in time associated with these and the shoe is overall very firm unless properly broken in. On top of this, it is a quite expensive and the price will only climb as time passes and it becomes more scarce. If you’re looking for the Rolls-Royce of trail running shoes, this is a good option, but don’t be shy to compare it to other alternatives.
+ Superior protection from top to bottom
+ Very flexible, durable and long-lasting
+ Supportive midsole
+ Provides great grip on a variety of tough surfaces
– Quite expensive
– Long break-in time required
10. Brooks Caldera 3
Our penultimate trail shoe is the Caldera 3’s – a great running shoe for distance running and trail running due to its well-equipped design with springy cushioning, firm lugs, and a protective yet breathable upper.
The upper is created with Ariaprene mesh to give you great ventilation and moisture-wicking, as well as mudguards for stretch and structure for a snug fit as well as protection and durability in high-impact zones. The midsole is a BioMoGo DNA cushioned design that is dynamic and quickly adapts to your personal stride.
Different from other iterations are the lace garages that keep the laces out of the way and secure as to not come undone mid-adventure. The outsole is made of a TrailTrack sticky rubber and features the aforementioned high surface-area 4mm lugs to give you amazing uphill and downhill traction, whether it’s wet or dry. Compared to the last iteration, you get a lighter, stickier, and more refined shoe. All in all, a responsive and cushioned ride is what you should expect out of the Caldera 3’s.
On the other side of the coin, there are a few issues the Caldera 3 does have. The first is that the occasional sharp or jagged impact can definitely be felt even through its cushioning, which isn’t particularly ideal, and the fact that the thick midsole mixed with a wide footbed may result in rolled ankles if you find yourself on uneven terrain.
+ Breathable upper with Ariaprene mesh
+ Springy cushioning to keep you going
+ New lace garage and stickier rubber outsole
+ Responsive and good wet or dry
– Cushioning isn’t as impenetrable-feeling as alternatives
– May cause rolled ankles on uneven terrain due to design
11. Saucony Peregrine ISO
Last up on our list is the Peregrine ISO by Saucony. These are a pair of shoes best used on rugged trails, as it is completely unphased by what you throw at it. It has been reinforced since the previous generation of Peregrine to protect your feet from debris via its trail-specific uppers, and give you the perfect lockdown you’re looking for over uneven and precarious terrain.
The midsole (PWRFoam) and topsole (EVERUN) combination are an amazing team at cradling your feet in a comfortable and supportive way no matter what trail you’re on. These have the ISOFIT lacing system that provides you with custom adjustability for that extra sock-like feel to them. The sticky rubber outsole features deep, flexible lugs made of PWRTRACK rubber that dig in like a hot knife and confidently grips any surface, in any direction. These are definitely a pair of shoes to not sleep on if you’re looking for a competent trail shoe.
With that said, the Peregrine ISO’s aren’t the absolute perfect trail runners. They do definitely have some improvements over the older model, but these are not the kind of shoes you should bring to a highly technical trail, because this shoe was designed for long-distance cushioning as well as flexibility over stability. When you’re on highly technical and jagged terrain, you’re going to need more than just cushioning and firm stability, so if that is the kind of terrain you like to battle, there are other shoes that are better equipped.
+ Tough trail uppers
+ Midsole and topsole both help lockdown your feet
+ ISOFIT lacing system provides a touch of extra comfort
+ Sticky outsole and deep lugs to grip surfaces
– Not ideal for highly technical terrain.
To conclude, we have given you the absolute basics of trail running shoe fundamentals: what to look out for, and the best trail running shoes on the market right now. Whether you’re looking for a hybrid shoe that can be on the trail and the track, or a shoe dedicated just to wet track (tall spread out lugs), or rocky track (small, close lugs), there is a shoe here for you.
We hope you enjoy the ever-pleasurable experience that is trail running and don’t forget to take in the sights and sounds as you zoom through that tough terrain. Best of luck!