Ask a Gear Guru: What’s the Best Shoe for Every Kind of Trail?
Two shoe experts weigh in on this season's best trail shoes for this season's worst trails.
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Welcome. We’re your trail shoemeliers, and we’ll be serving you today. You choose the trail, and we’ll find the perfect shoe to complement it. More than 25 years of testing off-road shoes on all types of trails have given us the knowledge and expertise to find a shoe that offers the right combination of upper, sole, tread, stack height, rocker, and lacing system for your specific surface, footing, slope, and weather condition. Of course, terrain and conditions are only part of the equation—distance, pace, fitness level, experience, and ride preferences also affect shoe choice—but these broad trail categories and shoe recommendations should help narrow your search.
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Many trail runs, at least in the United States, stay on wide, rolling footpaths that have relatively smooth surfaces, perhaps with an occasional small rock, log, or root to navigate over or around. On this kind of terrain, you don’t need shoes with the burliest outsoles or the most bombproof uppers. Since many of these trail runs begin and end on tarmac or cement, look for shoes that roll smoothly on the road while offering a bit of additional protection when you venture off. For most of these trail forays, you’ll want a cushioned rebounding midsole that flexes or rocks under your toes and just enough traction to handle loose gravel and dirt without holding you back on paved surfaces. New bouncy midsole compounds tend to be dense enough to provide push-through protection against bone bruises, although for pokier terrain, you might look for a trail model with a light, flexible forefoot plate or embedded mesh webbing. Durability is also a premium since these shoes are likely to see more wear and tear than their road counterparts.
Inov-8 Trailfly Ultra G 300 Max
$190, 9.6 oz (women’s)/10.6 oz (men’s); 6mm drop
The Ultra G 300 Max is a well-tooled, dependable, if somewhat heavy trainer that fares well on a variety of surfaces. It’s built around a firm, protective, bouncy, and seemingly indestructible midsole foam—a TPU/EVA blend enhanced with graphene, the world’s strongest and thinnest material. That innovative midsole is paired with a rugged yet flexible mesh upper with welded overlays for added foot security, plus a grippy graphene-infused rubber outsole with wide 4-millimeter-deep lugs. At 30 millimeters in the heel and 24 millimeters in the forefoot, this shoe’s midsole is unusually thick for Inov-8, which is known for close-to-the-ground mountain-racing shoes. But the designers offset the shoe’s firmness and bulk with deep flex grooves in the outsole, effectively decoupling the heel from the forefoot to enhance stride mechanics and help the shoe adapt and react to uneven footing. The result is a stable, versatile, and surprisingly nimble runner that delivers much of Inov-8’s famed ground feel.
The North Face VECTIV Enduris
$140, 9.8 oz (women’s)/11.15 oz (men’s); 6mm drop
The Enduris is the maximalist training model in The North Face’s new VECTIV trail running line. This well-cushioned shoe features a rockered dual-density midsole that’s firmer on the arch side, which moves you to toe-off with a balance of stability and propulsion. That effect is bolstered by a TPU plate positioned high up in the midsole, close to your foot, and wrapped up around the edges of the heel and back of the foot as far as the arch, providing a supportive platform that moderates the soft, almost mushy midsole. At the front, the plate flexes and rolls more smoothly than the rigid carbon plate found in TNF’s VECTIV Flight racing shoe, which yields a ride that’s more versatile for a variety of runners, paces, and terrains, albeit not as speedy. The Enduris rides plush and smooth on a variety of trails but shines most when the footing is firm and relatively stable, where you can stride out and get the full effect of the quick, forward-driving roll. The grippy 3.5-millimeter lugs provide exceptional traction yet don’t get in the way on the occasional pavement. The meshy upper is snug yet stretchy enough to provide ample volume, even around odd feet, without being sloppy.
Honorable Mention: Topo MTN Racer 2
$145, 8 oz (women’s)/10 oz (men’s); 5mm drop
The Topo MTN Racer 2 combines a wide forefoot and anatomical fit with a responsive, road-ready, low-drop midsole and a burly rubber outsole, creating a shoe that is a competent jack-of-all-trades, if lacking a bit of flair.
On the opposite end of the trail menu, we find rooty or rock-strewn slopes with rarely a secure foot plant. These are trails where the slopes are steep and frightening enough that ascending is easier than going down. In these situations, the quality of your shoes can be a life-or-death factor.
For technical trails, outsole quality (you need good grip!) and good ground feel (to provide catlike agility) are particularly key, so soft, sticky rubber outsoles and thinner midsoles tend to fare better. And while a good sense of your footing is essential, you don’t want to feel underfoot protrusions, so a protection plate or other push-through shielding can save a lot of pain or even injury. On precarious terrain, go for a snug, secure fit and a firm yet flexible sole that gives you the confidence to dance over and around trail obstacles, rather than a plush maximalist sponge or a heavy boot-like shoe. Of course, durability above and below the foot is always a valuable asset in a technical trail shoe.
La Sportiva Cyklon
$160, 9.5 oz (women’s)/11.60 oz (men’s); 8mm drop
With dialed-in security and a firm, low midsole (28 millimeters in the heel, 20 millimeters up front), the Cyklon allows for precise foot placement and is ideal for delicate navigation. This shoe is best suited for short races or speedy training runs in any tricky terrain—rugged, rooty, rocky, or loose. The Boa lacing system, cage construction, unique tongue, and integrated gaiter-like ankle wrap envelope the foot for a secure hold, but it’s the dual-density EVA midsole, plastic toe cap, and sticky rubber outsole with deep 7-millimeter lugs that provide the most assurance on steep, sketchy slopes. Note: step up a half or full size, as this style runs small.
$140, 8.5 oz (women’s)/9.87 oz (men’s); 6mm drop
These low-profile, lightweight, responsive shoes shine on mountainous terrain. They seem capable of pivoting on a dime and adeptly maneuver through variable rocks and scree. With a snug-fitting upper, outstanding traction, and low stack height (24 millimeters in the forefoot, 30 millimeters in the heel), the Alpine brings a minimalist approach to burly trails. Surprisingly, it also rolls nicely enough to handle more sedate terrain, with a smooth flex, rounded rockered shape, and just enough cushioning to deliver moderate shock-absorbing comfort without compromising ground feel. Note: these shoes run very small, so go at least a half size bigger.
Honorable Mention: Speedland SL:PDX
$375, 10.3 oz (unisex); 5mm drop
In a novel use of top-end materials, Speedland impresses with an advanced dual-Boa lacing system and innovative customizable traction to provide an unsurpassed fit and a ride—but they are über-pricey.
RELATED: Ask A Gear Guru: What’s the Deal With These $375 Speedland Trail Shoes?
Slippery, Sloppy Trail
Trail runners will argue about what’s sketchier: mud or wintry slush and ice. But those who have fallen on both will attest that neither is pleasant. Mud is the more forgiving landing surface, but it makes laundering a challenge.
No matter the surface, outsole grip is key for gaining purchase when things get slick. Lug length matters, but you should also pay attention to the shape, placement, and design of the tread pattern, as well as sole flexibility and the supportiveness of the upper (particularly important in mud, which can pull a shoe right off your foot). For mud running, the ability to shed slop is also key. When facing snow and ice, look for compounds designed to flex, grip, and maintain their performance in subfreezing temperatures.
RELATED: Winter Trail Running: How to Tackle Mud, Snow, Ice, and More
Altra Lone Peak 5
$130, 9.2 oz (women’s)/11.1 oz (men’s); 0mm drop
Altra made its perennially popular Lone Peak more runner-friendly by updating the midsole to a soft and bouncy proprietary foam. It delivers better energy return and gives the shoe a livelier performance without obfuscating the low-profile, responsive, proprioceptive feel that allows it to excel on slippery terrain. The 25-millimeter stack height is 7 millimeters thicker than the previous version but doesn’t feel like it. Credit the foam, which compresses underfoot before firming up and bouncing back, even in cold temps. The stone guard has also been engineered to be lighter and more flexible, providing invisible poke-through protection, while 4-millimeter chevron-shaped canted lugs grab mud and snow. As expected from Altra, the toe box is wide enough for full splay and combines with the zero-drop geometry for a stable, natural, balanced platform.
Inov-8 Mudclaw G 260 V2
$145, 9.1 oz (unisex); 4mm drop
Inov-8’s shoes are traditionally designed for fell running—charging up and down the UK’s grassy, muddy hills—so they are all about performing in soft conditions. The Mudclaw G 260 exemplifies the genre. This flexible, lightweight, rugged moccasin features a graphene-enhanced rubber outsole and bombproof shank plate for cleat-like traction. The outstanding grip of the triangular 8-millimeter-deep lugs gives you the ability to rip through mud, snow, slush, and even soft ice. The midsole is only 8.5 millimeters thick in the heel and 4.5 millimeters under the forefoot and thus produces immediate underfoot feedback for an agile ride. The upper is nearly as burly as the bottom, featuring a new tightly woven rand material that wraps up the sides for extra durability and protection.
Honorable Mention: Kahtoola MICROspikes
$70, Buy Now
When it’s seriously icy, pull out these stainless-steel spikes that stretch over your running shoe for crampon-like traction.
Running is one of the best ways to explore a new place. When you’re traveling, however, you have to be flexible—and that means the ability to run on any surface or, often, many surfaces, even in the same run. A good travel outing might begin on cobblestone, transition to a dirt road, turn onto a singletrack trail, and then involve some rock scrambling to an overlook before a crazy descent back to a generous continental breakfast.
What shoes can handle such a smorgasbord? Look for a crossover all-surface shoe with a neutral ride, plenty of underfoot protection, and solid but not overly aggressive traction. These models are akin to the Cruiser Trail shoes mentioned above but trend lighter and are more adaptable to handle anything thrown at them, from urban walks to technical trails—at least in small doses. Shoes in this category have a low to medium stack height and firm midsole to fare well on variable footing, plus a simple secure yet flexible upper. It helps if they dry quickly and don’t clash with travel attire.
$160, 8.8 oz (women’s)/9.3 oz (men’s); 6mm drop
This performance model shines on and off trails thanks to Brooks’ nitrogen-infused midsole foam—the same cushy, bouncy material that powers the Hyperion Elite racer worn by Des Linden in her win at the 2018 Boston Marathon. Nitrogen infusion expands EVA foam and makes it lighter while enhancing its bounce-back resiliency, feeling simultaneously plush and nimble underfoot. Despite its smooth-rolling ride, this shoe doesn’t skimp on underfoot protection, layering that lively rebounding foam with a full-coverage sticky rubber outsole and a ballistic rock plate to block sharp things from poking through. The simple, breathable, stretchy mesh upper holds the foot with moderate security while presenting a clean and simple look that feels appropriate regardless of the setting. The Catamount can handle most any trail but doesn’t feel clunky on pavement or cobblestones, making this a great candidate for long runs that cover multiple kinds of terrain.
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Salomon Sense Ride 4
$120, 8.3 oz (women’s)/11 oz (men’s); 8mm drop
The fourth version of the versatile Sense Ride offers a responsive feel while providing adequate protection over whatever terrain you choose. Salomon’s proprietary sticky rubber outsole delivers a dependable grip on wet and dry surfaces without compromising durability. The moderately high midsole (24 millimeters in the forefoot, 32 millimeters in the heel) layers an insert of softer shock-absorbing, vibration-dampening foam into a somewhat firmer, more responsive foam frame. Embedded in the sole is a thin, flexible, woven, film-like TPU layer that protects from underfoot protrusions when running on sharp, rocky terrain—without feeling stiff or getting in the way on smooth surfaces—allowing you to cross over comfortably from road to trail. The Kevlar-enhanced pull-cord lacing system quickly secures flexible midfoot straps over an airy mesh upper, providing a snug hold that still allows your toes to breathe.
Honorable Mention: Skechers GOrun Razor Trail
$140, 6.8 oz (women’s)/8.3 oz (men’s); 4mm drop
These lightweight speedsters add a slightly knobby durable-rubber outsole to the brand’s popular ultralight, ultraresponsive Hyperburst midsole to take on anything and everything thrown at them—but check the finicky fit of the toe box.