Feel like you’re in a running rut? Keep getting injured? Trail running could be the solution to these problems, and more—as long as you have the right trail running shoes. Thankfully advanced materials and novel thinking have led to a new category of trail running shoes—highly cushioned models designed for the long trail. These shoes, available from every brand, now dominate the trail market. All of these models have features designed to distance you from the vagaries of the path beneath your feet and smooth out the miles, while remaining remarkably light and runnable.
Altra Timp 1.5
Trail Running Shoe Weight: 10.5 oz (M); 8.7 oz (W)
Drop: 0 mm
What’s Unique: Altra’s Timp combines the relaxed flexibility, foot-shaped toe box and zero-drop of a minimalist shoe with 29mm of cushioning, a protective upper, and teeth that would make a crocodile proud (although note, while long, these teeth are more sticky than sharp). The shape is perhaps most unique, with a narrow heel and strong hold around the instep, opening up to voluminous forefoot that provides comfortable room and splay-footed stability.
How They Ride: Overall, the ride is one of smooth adaptability. One tester described it well: “When I hit the dirt, I didn’t hesitate on where to step or as to whether or not I would feel every little rock—the shoes and I pushed right through…it doesn’t resist where it lands, the shoe commits and keeps on going.” The feel isn’t particularly speedy, but it’s not overly mushy either—a nice, middle-ground, cushioned roll that you appreciate more the farther you go in them.
Brooks Caldera 3
Weight: 9.3 oz (M); 8.5 oz (W)
Drop: ~4 mm
What’s Unique: Brooks gave the 3rd version of the Caldera a proprietary sticky rubber outsole with low lugs designed to grip more than bite (think “more pad, less claw”). Combined with a thick midsole of cushy BioMoGo DNA and a well-padded upper, the shoe makes a nice road/trail crossover. A gusseted tongue that wraps down to the sole enhances midfoot fit and comfort.
How They Ride: The Caldera’s thick stack height (28mm in the heel) and cushioned midsole give your foot ample protection from the ground. That said, the low heel-toe drop and responsiveness of the foam ensure the shoe doesn’t wallow. “I felt it made good contact with the ground and was easy to push off with,” said one tester. All appreciated the comfortable fit of the flexible, breathable mesh upper which is free of overlays on the top of the shoe, but with a protective band around the perimeter and a sturdy toe bumper.
HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 5
Trail Running Shoe Weight: 9.4 oz (M); 7.7 oz (W)
Drop: ~5 mm
What’s Unique: The Challenger ATR 5 is classic HOKA, the brand that created the max cushion category. Nearly 30mm of soft-but-light foam lies between your heel and the ground and wraps up around the sides to cradle your foot and provide stability. Meanwhile, an early toe rocker rolls you quickly off the front of the wide, straight platform and speeds you along your stride. Improved in this 5th version is the fit—which provides more toe room while snugging the heel and midfoot—and the sole, with closer-packed lugs in the heel for smooth-landing stability and wider-spaced lugs in the forefoot for traction.
How They Ride: Cushioning is the primary characteristic of the Challenger ATR 5. “I was actually shocked at how bouncy and squishy they were,” said one tester, who added, “I felt like I could connect with the ground but was also protected.” The cushioning in the 5 returned to the softer feel of earlier Challenger models, pleasing most, while the new, more accommodating upper was universally lauded. The low heel-toe drop and rocker shape rewards a forward-weighted posture and quick stride, and keeps the cushioning from feeling excessive. Despite the light weight, our testers still felt these shoes are most suited to long runs on moderate trails—where they shine if you like a highly-cushioned ride.
New Balance Hierro v4
Trail Running Shoe Weight: 11.4 oz (M); 9.4 oz (W)
Drop: ~8 mm
What’s Unique: The upper of the Hierro v4 catches the eye first, particularly the unique, gaiter-like exterior wrap made of stretchy “Hyposkin.” Inside, a mesh booty hugs the foot from ankle to instep, keeping debris out and providing a smooth inner wrap against your foot. In contrast to this rugged, off-road upper, the thick Fresh Foam midsole with an 8mm drop and no rock-plate seems a bit like a road shoe, but the full-coverage, aggressively-lugged Vibram outsole completes the back-country package well.
How They Ride: Despite the high stack height, the Hierro runs surprisingly fast and smoothly. “The shoes were more responsive than I expected them to be,” said one tester. “At no point during any of the running in these shoes did they feel heavy on my feet or clunky to wear.” The Fresh Foam, which always feels firmly responsive compared to other new foams, excels in this off-road context. On uphills and flats it rebounds and rolls quickly off the flexible forefoot; on downhills it swallows rocks and roots underfoot while maintaining enough stiffness to provide solid proprioception as you navigate over technical terrain. We found the tall heels sometimes caught on a rock unexpectedly, but overall the shoe delivered a nice combination of protection and nimbleness.
Trail Running Shoe Weight: 12.3 oz (M); 10.0 oz (W)
What’s Unique: 361’s Yushan is a bit like a classic SUV—a rugged, truck-based vehicle that can handle anything. It’s the lowest and firmest shoe in this review, but the multi-layer midsole is still substantial, smoothing and swallowing the terrain underfoot. The upper is thickly knitted and supportive, with a large, scree-blocking toe cap and a well-padded tongue. The tread is gnarly, deep and durable, with a rock plate providing further protection in the forefoot.
How They Ride: The Yushan should appeal to runners who want their shoe to take charge. The underfoot feel is firm and supportive, and the upper wraps and holds comfortably but securely, letting you know it has your back—or ankles, as the case may be. This comforting, classic trail-shoe ride is updated and enhanced by the soft, high-rebound QU!CKFOAM under the forefoot. One tester commented that even though the cushioning was on the firm side, “the shoes are noticeably responsive and have solid energy return.” Overall, testers felt the shoe was best suited for mid- to long-distance trails. “It is comfortable to wear for long periods of time and seems like it’s built to take a beating,” summarized one tester.
Topo Athletic Ultraventure
Trail Running Shoe Weight: 10.4 oz (M); 8.0 oz (W)
Drop: 5~ mm
What’s Unique: The Ultraventure is a max-cushioned shoe inspired by minimalist priorities. If that seems like an oxymoron, that’s part of the nature of this brand started by Tony Post—who made the Vibram 5-Fingers mainstream before founding his own running shoe company. Every Topo model is lightweight and flexible, has a low heel-toe drop and a shape that fits feet. But the Ultraventure also has 30mm of high-rebound, cushioned foam and a three-density midsole providing a supportive ride.
How They Ride: Testers all praised the fit of the upper first. “The best aspect is the comfort at the toe-box for trail-running,” said one tester. “My toes never felt crammed which is usually happens on a steep descent during a trail-run.” Credit that to the midfoot as well, which is well padded and reinforced with sturdy-but-flexible overlays, providing a secure and comfortable fit. The feeling underfoot is soft, almost squishy, but it firms up under weight and rolls forward nicely. It’s not a fast-feeling ride, but it’s comfortable and supportive. “It provided enough cushion to soften the strike and feel comfortable around my foot/ankle, but it wasn’t so soft that there wasn’t support around my foot,” said a tester. The traction of the deeply-lugged Vibram sole also drew accolades, particularly how the shoe handled mud.