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The best trail running shoes: footwear to take on the world's most rugged trails

best trail running shoes
Is there anything as liberating as a quality trail run? (Image credit: Getty)

Our selection of the best trail running shoes features quite a wide range of designs and innovations. This is because every trail type is different. From muddy forest paths and sandy coastal trails to rocky mountain ridge lines and vast moorland terrain, the ground beneath your feet will determine what the best trail running shoes are for you.

What all these surfaces have in common, is that they demand footwear that's wholly different to a road running shoe. The best trail running shoes are designed to deal with soft, uneven terrain, to grip where a road runner would slip and allow you soar high on a skyrun. 

best trail running shoes: man running in the mountains

Sky high with the best trail running shoes (Image credit: Getty)

Some are more speciailized than others, designed for a specific type of trail, or even a specific type of foot. For example, the best women's trail running shoes are crafted to provide the optimum fit for the female foot. Whereas a road running shoe is designed for compacted and consistently hard surfaces. They're designed with high levels of cushioning for repetitive tarmac pounding and lack the grip boasted by the best trail running shoes.

So, before you decide to opt for a pair of trail runners, consider what kind of terrain you usually seek out and find the shoes to match. All eleven pairs featured here are top quality models and, if chosen correctly, won't let you down on the backcountry trails.

How we test the best trail running shoes

Our reviewers test trail-running shoes on varied terrain, including technical singletrack and mud, in a range of conditions, on training outings and during competitive events. Specific features (including grip, foot support, toe and heel protection, cushioning, waterproofing, breathability, materials used and general comfort) are tested against claims made by the brand, and we assess factors such as durability, environmental impact and value for money.

The best trail running shoes you can buy: inov-8 Trail Fly Ultra G 300 Max

best trail running shoes; inov-8 Trail Fly Ultra G 300 Max

(Image credit: inov-8)
Long-lasting, hard-wearing trail shoe offering high comfort and performance levels, and excellent grip on rocky terrain

Specifications

RRP: $190 (US) / £170 (UK)
Weight (per shoe): 300g / 10.6oz
Materials: Synthetic upper; G-fly mid sole; Graphene outsole
Drop: 6mm
Colors: Green and black
Compatibility: Ultra running, all-distance trail running on hard and rocky terrain, and some road running

Reasons to buy

+
Very durable outsole
+
Excellent grip
+
Comfortable

Reasons to avoid

-
Very little trail feel
-
Expensive

In April 2021, inov-8 unveiled the TrailFly Ultra G 300 Max, featuring the world’s first graphene-enhanced midsole compound (called G-fly foam). Combined with the extreme durability of the graphene-enhanced rubber outsole the brand introduced in 2018, this shoe is taking trail running footwear into a whole new realm. Graphene has been reported to be the world’s strongest material, but as a nanotechnology it is also one of the thinnest. When inov-8 included the two-dimensional honeycomb lattice carbon allotrope (say that 10 times fast while running over rocks!) into a proprietary foam compound with help of scientists at the University of Manchester, it resulted in 25 percent more energy return and vastly enhance durability compared to other midsole. Cue: loads of awards, including the prize for Best Trail Running shoe in this year’s Advnture Awards.

As trail runners, we want long-haul comfort from soft cushioning, rugged durability, grippy traction and energy propulsion that puts a spring in our steps, and the TrailFly Ultra G 300 Max offers all of that and more. Also, it doesn’t have the unyieldingly firm sensation as many new trail shoes do, with carbon-fiber propulsion plates embedded in their midsoles – instead, with these there’s a soft, flexible and resilient sensation that will pay dividends deep into a long training run or a 50K or 100-mile trail running race. On the downside, if you’re a tactile runner and you like a bit of trail feel, you’re not going to get any of that with these shoes, which have a chunky, almost maximist midsole with a rocker, which performs well in terms of transference of energy, but completely cuts out any feedback from the terrain below your feet.

Best trail running shoes for lightweight adventures

best trail running shoes: Saucony Peregrine 12

(Image credit: Saucony)

Saucony Peregrine 12

A fast and nimble lightweight running shoe offering excellent grip and good cushioning

Specifications

RRP: $130 (US) / £130 (UK) / €150 (EU)
Weight (per shoe): Men’s: 275g/9.7oz; Women’s: 235g/8.3oz
Drop: 4mm
Materials: Lightweight synthetic upper, PWRRUN midsole, EVA sockliner, PWRTRAC outsole
Colors: Men’s: Blue ray & acid / Campfire story / Viz Gold & red; Women’s: Cool mint & acid / Campfire story / Viz Gold & red
Compatibility: Trail running across a wide variety of terrain, up to ultra distance

Reasons to buy

+
Super light
+
Good grip
+
Breathable uppers
+
Some recycled material

Reasons to avoid

-
Minimal toe protection

The fact that we’re running in the 12th iteration of the Peregrines is testimony to the enduring quality and popularity of this trail-running shoe. For the latest version, Saucony have shaved several grams off the weight of the shoe, making an already speed orientated trail hoof even more nifty. The size of the lugs has also been reduced slightly (by 1mm), and the PWRTRAC outsole has been redesigned with a densely concentrated tread and smartly placed chevrons providing traction and braking control where it’s needed. 

The minimalist 4mm heel-to-toe drop remains, which facilitates low centre of gravity and good balance on technical trails. There is a new sockliner, which entirely envelopes your foot, prevents the ingress of grit and adds to comfort levels. Despite its lightweight construction, there is a new rockplate beneath the cushioned PWRRUN midsole of the Peregrine 12, which offers good underfoot protection from sharp stones and sticks, and yet we feel the trail feedback is also better on this new shoe. Saucony have also use some recycled material in the construction of the lightweight, minimalist upper (available in three super bright colors for men and women), although they don’t specify how much.

Best trail running shoes for skyrunning

La Sportiva Bushido II

(Image credit: La Sportiva)
A full-on mountain-fit trail running shoe, ideal for skyracing, with its feet firmly on the ground and its head in the clouds

Specifications

RRP: $130 (US) / £130 (UK) / €170.50 (EU)
Weight (per shoe): 305g/10.75oz
Materials used: TPU skeleton and synthetic mesh upper, compressed EVA midsole, Frixion Red rubber compound sole
Drop: 6mm
Colours: Black and yellow / Opal and apple green / Carbon and tangerine / Black and tropic blue / Neptune and kiwi / Pine and kiwi
Compatibility: mountain paths and technical singletrack trails

Reasons to buy

+
Superb grip on a highly technical sole 
+
Very stable ride
+
Robust but lightweight upper

Reasons to avoid

-
Slightly stiff collar
-
Not waterproof

The Bushido II means business as soon as it bounces out of the box. These shoes are intended for running technical trails on pointy shaped hills. The design and fit is aggressive, with a big emphasis on stability in the lateral way the upper connects to the sole, so you can really drop the hammer and go for it on technical trails, while the style and layout of the lugs helps you stay comfortably in control during descents, putting faith in the ‘impact brake system’. 

There’s a lot going on in the dual-compound ‘FriXion Red’ sole: the outer lugs rise up and wrap around the midsole, which inspires confidence when cornering and provides extra protection against sharp sticks and stones on the paths, while the studs on the central section supply extra traction and support. There’s a reasonable amount of cushioning in the midsole, and the upper is constructed from a tough TPU skeleton combined with mesh, to keep the weight down. 

The lace loops are strongly stitched to the chassis, and there are two higher eyelets so you can lace them up good and tight, for a better connection and less chance of losing a shoe in deep mud. It’s not waterproof, but the mesh means water quickly exits the shoe, and it has an integrated tongue, to prevent grit getting in. 

There’s a modest 6mm drop between heel and toe, which is a compromise height, meaning the shoe will be comfortable for the majority of people, regardless of whether their forefoot, midfoot or heel hits the ground first. If you’re a purist barefoot runner, however, this drop might be a tad too much for your liking. You don’t have to be an elite skyrunner to get a lot of enjoyment out of using the Bushidos, but their competitive design and technical capability will push you to take on more technical trails, and you’ll feel more comfortable doing so while shod in such a trusty pair of hooves.

Best trail running shoes for versatility

best trail running shoes: Inov-8 Parkclaw G 280

(Image credit: inov-8)

Inov-8 Parkclaw G 280

A versatile road-to-trail running shoe, with a new Graphene-enhanced midsole, for people who want to run from their front door into the wilds and back again

Specifications

RRP: $180 (US) / £160 (UK)
Weight (per shoe): 280g / 9.8oz
Drop: 8mm
Materials: Synthetic mesh upper, G-FLY foam midsole, Graphene outsole
Colors: Men’s: Black & white / Blue & grey / Nectar & navy; Women’s: Navy & teal / Sangria & red
Compatibility: Road and trail, up to ultra distance

Reasons to buy

+
Versatile
+
Quick drying

Reasons to avoid

-
Expensive
-
Synthetic feel

Brand new from inov-8, these multi-terrain tackling shoes are designed so you can literally run out of your front door and hit the streets, woods, beach or park, without skipping a beat. As with almost all inov-8 shoes, the soles feature Graphene – the much-lauded hard-as-diamond-headed-nails substance reckoned to be the planet’s toughest material (which is included in both the outsole and the midsole in the Parkclaw). 

The secret to the all-terrain capability of this shoe is in the design of the G-GRIP rubber outsole. There are 98 cleats per shoe, but these lugs are only 4mm in length and are so densely distributed they deliver good grip without pushing through the sole of the shoe and making it feel like you’re running in football boots when you’re on the tarmac or road (as can be the case with more aggressive treads, such as on the Mudclaw). Instead, you experience a pretty smooth ride, no matter what the conditions underfoot. There’s an 8mm drop on this model, as there is on the Parkclaw 260, but the difference with this model is in the Graphene-enhanced G-FLY foam midsole, which despite having a lower stack, provides more propulsion and energy return on each stride (inov-8 say 25% more), while supplying a comfortable and cushioned ride. 

The metaflex feature in the sole means the shoes responds well to technical terrain, the Boomerang footbed cushions footfall and supplies some bounce, and trail feedback remains pretty good when you do go off road. The mostly mesh upper allows your feet to breath easily, reduces the weight of the shoe and means the material allows water to escape after river and stream crossings, and dries quickly. The fit is wide, for extra comfort over long distances, and these shoes felt comfy straight out of the box.

Best trail running shoes for technical trails

Best trail running shoes: On Cloudventure Peak

(Image credit: On)
For fast, furious, technical trail or fell racing

Specifications

RRP: $150 (US)/£135 (UK)
Weight (per shoe): 260g/9.1oz
Materials: Missiongrip rubber, Zero gravity heel clouds, ripstop upper
Drop: 4mm
Compatibility: technical trails, mountains, steep terrain, racing

Reasons to buy

+
Lightweight and fast
+
Uber-grippy
+
Great trail feel 

Reasons to avoid

-
Thin last 
-
Harsher ride 
-
Fiddly laces

Where the aim is to move light and ridiculously fast through mountains, and where grip and confident footing are the preferred currency, On Cloudventure Peaks are pinnacle performers. These shoes are for intense, shorter-format racing on technical mountain trails where nimble footedness is key. 

These are no door-to-trail shoe: they want the good dirt from the get-go. An initially stiff ride transforms as soon as you get off the buff and onto the rough. The more technical the better. A lowered drop of 4mm means they favour good running mechanics and a natural footfall. The sock-like inner and good tensioning through laces and welded skeleton gives a sublime fit with zero hotspots. 

At the rear, a rigid heel holds your foot in place and reduces lateral roll, translating to more confidence and running fast over technical, rocky terrain. On’s signature cloud pods do feature, although to a diminished degree compared to some of their other shoes, with the front pods closed-in, while the ones on the rear grip zone do all the hard work, providing cushioning during downhill landings. Ground bite is as vice-like as you can get. Running up hill, it’s like you have teeth on the front; while downhill is like cloudsurfing. 

Fast, lightweight, comfortable out of the box, and made for speedy missions in the mountains or racing on gnarly technical singletrack, we really do like these shoes, but that white duco colour scheme… well, let’s say the sooner you dirty them up the better.

Best trail running shoes: Nike Wildhorse 6

(Image credit: Nike)
If you run a mix of mild to rugged trails on a weekly basis, the Wildhorse could become your new workhorse

Specifications

RRP: $130 (US)/£ 110 (UK)
Weight (per shoe): 298g/10.5oz
Materials: React Foam midsole, Segmented Rock Plate, Dynamic Flywire lacing system
Drop: 8mm drop (30mm to 22mm)
Compatibility: 3-season trail running shoe for moderate to rugged, low-alpine, high-alpine and fell terrain; available for men and women

Reasons to buy

+
Exceptional traction
+
Soft, energetic cushioning
+
Rock-plate protection
+
Sock-like fit

Reasons to avoid

-
Runners with narrow feet may find these too wide 
-
Average agility
-
Traction isn't as good on wet terrain
-
Relatively heavy

A shoe designed to run wild on gnarly trails, the thickly cushioned Wildhorse 6 combines a protective rock plate and an aggressively lugged outsole with a subtly reinforced upper and a padded tongue that secure a runner’s feet with a wrap-like fit. It feels durable, secure and protective on rugged terrain, but it serves up a soft, springy ride on smooth surfaces. 

This edition of the Wildhorse features an interior bootie construction with a gusseted tongue that, combined with the FlyWire lacing system, creates a snug, performance-oriented fit for every foot size and shape. It’s finished off with a lightweight and very breathable durable mesh upper, a sock-like collar and a lacing system that effectively locks down the midfoot. Although it’s built for technical terrain, it runs well on smooth surfaces, too, thanks to the responsive React Foam midsole. 

Designed to provide maximum grip on challenging terrain, the Nike Wildhorse 6 has been updated with a better fit, more breathability and greater stability. The result is an outstanding trail running shoe with the ideal blend of comfort, protection, traction and durability. It fits well, looks cool and runs great. 

Salomon Wildcross

(Image credit: Salomon)
A howling, growling wildthing of shoe, raring to go and ready for anything, no matter how horrendous the conditions underfoot are

Specifications

RRP: $130 (US) /£120 (UK)
Weight (per shoe): 290g/10.2oz
Materials used: Full rubber Contagrip outsole, synthetic upper with Gore-tex SensiFit wings and water-repellent TUP mesh
Drop: 8mm
Colours: Red Ochre / Fjord blue / Green / Black / Denim
Compatibility: Superb for technical trails and tough terrain in all conditions

Reasons to buy

+
Excellent grip and extremely stable 
+
Intelligent lacing system
+
Comfortable wide fit
+
Water repellant but breathable

Reasons to avoid

-
Tongue not integrated, which can allow ingress of grit
-
No rockplate

The Wildcross is a fit-for-anything shoe armed with an aggressive fang-filled full-rubber Contagrip outsole, with multi-dimensional 6mm lugs designed to grip the path like a wild dog no matter how bad conditions get. Born to battle elements head on and cope with sodden, sludgy trails, the Wildcross are effectively water repellant to the top of the tongue, and quick to dry when breached. They allow feet to breath fairly well, too, although they might run hot in mid summer. The Contagrip outsoles bite down on technical terrain and cling to surfaces superbly, but shed mud quickly. This level of traction is excellent during slippery climbs, and it provides superlative confidence-giving control on steep descents.

There’s no protective rockplate, but the generous ‘EnergyCell’ high-rebound midsole absorbs plenty of impact and recycles the energy by putting a big bounce in your upward step. There’s a plush amount of cushioning where the cuff meets the ankle, and Salomon have left more room in the inner and toe box than usual, making this a running shoe you can wear with thicker socks in colder months, and ideal for those with wider feet, or bunions. A rugged upper chassis features water-repellent TPU mesh, cloaked by Gore-Tex–armed ‘Sensifit Wings’ that provide protection, stability and security, all secured snuggly to the foot by a quicklace system (pull tight, lock the toggle  and tuck it into the pocket provided in the tongue, and you’re good to hit the trails, with zero chance of your laces coming undone and tripping you up).

The best trail running shoes for cushioning

Best trail running shoes: Hoka One One Torrent 2

(Image credit: Hoka)
For people seeking class-leading comfort and gritty grip on long rugged runs, the Torrent 2 features a winning mix of cushioning and responsiveness

Specifications

RRP: $120 (US) / £110 (UK)
Weight (per shoe): 264g / 9.3oz
Materials: ProFly midsole, Unify REPREVE recycled plastic yarn
Drop: 5mm
Compatibility: Technical and buffed singletrack; ultra distances

Reasons to buy

+
Grippy 
+
Lightweight
+
Comfy

Reasons to avoid

-
Question mark on durability
-
No rock plate
-
Foot lockdown can be sloppy

If you’re not familiar with the brand, Hoka One One produce trail running shoes with mega-thick soles and a pronounced rocker, which means instead of the bottom of the shoe being flat, it’s curved – like the bottom of a rocking chair. (It feels strange when you’re standing around, but is perfect when you’re running, especially for heel and mid-foot strikers, rolling you forward from footfall to lift off). 

Despite the maximalist soles, there’s not much drop in the shoe between heel and toe – it’s all about the cushioning, which people either love (it helps with sore knees) or hate (because you can’t feel the trail). The Hoka One One Torrent V1.0 was a classy performer: a lightweight running shoe offering sumptuous plushness without sacrificing agility. And fortunately, Hoka hasn’t messed around with it too much for the reboot. The Torrent 2 still treads a perfect balance, where max cushioning doesn’t completely deaden the trail experience. Indeed, these shoes afford a pleasing amount of agility with more intuitive trail feedback than you’d expect from a maximalist design on technical ground. 

Hoka have added a reconfigured grip, specifically at the rear, offering more sticky control on big descents – a welcome addition. A new, recycled-yarn derived from post-consumer waste plastic (environmental kudos) also delivers what seems to be a more durable upper. This is a killer shoe for those tasting the Hoka elixir for the first time, or for runners considering stepping up to ultra-distances on trail.

best trail running shoes: Merrell Agility Peak 4 trail running shoe

(Image credit: Merrell)
Highly cushioned, comfortable shoe for medium to long distance trail running

Specifications

RRP: $130 (US) / £120 (UK)
Weight (per shoe): 290g / 10.2oz
Materials: Jacquard upper, breathable mesh lining, EVA insole, FloatPro Foam midsole, Vibram MegaGrip outsole
Drop: 6mm
Colors: Men’s: Exuberance / Tahoe / black; Women’s: Atoll / black
Compatibility: Trail running escapades over a variety of distances – better on hard packed and rocky surfaces

Reasons to buy

+
Very cushioned
+
Comfortable uppers
+
Good price

Reasons to avoid

-
Feel too much like slippers
-
Limited color choice for women

This is Version 4 of Merrell’s Agility Peak trail-running shoe, and the new version has been updated with a slightly thicker midsole made of the lighter-weight FloatPro foam. The outsoles now feature a new Vibram Megagrip traction, offering good grip on slippery surfaces, and there is a rock plate for protection against sharp stones and sticks. FLEXconnect dual-directional flex-grooves in the midsole claim to provide ‘enhanced ground connection’.

The uppers offer extra comfort – for example there is an integrated lacing system ‘for a glove-like fit’ and padded collar. Extra features include a large fabric loop at the heel, to aid pulling on and taking off the shoe, and a D-ring at the base of the laces for attaching a gaiter. The shoes also have a breathable mesh lining and a protective toe cap.  

The very well-cushioned Agility Peak is squarely aimed at runners who want a lot of protection on rugged trails. The insole and sole of the shoe feel spongy, which our tester found to be energy consuming.

The soles are good for trails and some mud (perhaps not hill running on steep, muddy slopes, though) but the cushioning really comes into its own on hard-packed and rocky surfaces. The traction is pretty good for both wet and dry trails. The soles are protective against under-foot debris and this makes them a good choice if you are running on rugged surfaces.

The best trail running shoes for customizing your run

best trail running shoes: CimAlp 864 Drop Evolution

(Image credit: CimAlp)

CimAlp 864 Drop Evolution

A trail running shoe with a choice of three insoles for different heel-to-toe drop options

Specifications

RRP: £170 (UK)
Weight (per shoe): 275g/9.7oz (without insole)
Materials: Synthetic R-mesh upper, Chromosome midsole, EVA insole, Vibram Megagrip outsole
Drop: 8mm / 6mm / 4mm
Colors: Red / Grey / Blue
Compatibility: Trail running over various distances and a variety of terrain

Reasons to buy

+
Choice of insoles
+
Durable Vibram sole
+
Comfort tongue 
+
Great traction on trails
+
Unique insoles

Reasons to avoid

-
Basic upper 
-
Only available for men

Uniquely, the CimAlp 864 Drop Evolution trail shoe comes with three different insoles to allow runners to adjust the amount of heel-to-toe drop from 8mm to 6mm to 4mm. The idea is that you use different insoles for different types of trail runs: an 8mm drop insole for extra comfort during long runs, the 6mm drop insole for medium distance runs and for a ‘balance of dynamism and comfort’, and the 4mm drop insole – which helps you to land on your midfoot or forefoot for a natural stride – when you want a bit more speed and performance. 

Other features include a Chromosome midsole for an effective stride and improved proprioception and a hollow structure called R-Speed in the forefoot for better comfort. There’s a dual-density insole with EVA rubber sections to boost propulsion. The outsole is Vibram with ‘self-adaptive lugs’, which are diamond and triangle shaped and made of a softer, grippy rubber for good traction in dry and wet conditions on the trails. The upper is designed with seamless and very breathable R-mesh material for greater comfort, and to reduce pressure points and irritations. The tongue is long and lightly padded. Additionally, the upper has a reinforced rubber toe and heel area to reduce the wear and tear of the trails.

Best trail running shoes for trail feel

Best trail running shoes: Xero Shoes Mesa Trail

(Image credit: Xero)
A barefoot beauty, that allows you to truly feel the trail you’re running on

Specifications

RRP: $120 (US)/£105 (UK)
Weight (per shoe): 215g/7.6oz
Materials used: Durable rubber outsole, engineered mesh upper, moisture-wicking interior lining
Drop: 0mm
Compatibility: A 3-season minimally designed barefoot-style trail running shoe ideal for a variety of types of terrain

Reasons to buy

+
Superior traction
+
Featherweight design
+
Exceptional feel for the trail

Reasons to avoid

-
Minimal protection
-
Only for experienced barefoot-style runners

The hyper-agile Mesa Trail is the most footloose and fancy free trail-running shoe ever made by this American brand, who continue to evolve the category of minimally designed products with zero drop for dedicated barefoot enthusiasts. Xero Shoes bases all its products on the principles of natural running, allowing a runner’s feet to uninhibitedly interact with the ground. 

The Mesa Trail has been designed for light, fast and agile running on a variety of trail surfaces, from smooth dirt to technical, rocky routes. It has a low-to-the-ground construction that is essentially a 5mm flexible rubber outsole, an interior 3mm foam layer and a 2mm insole that’s cushy, breathable and removable. The interior feel is bolstered by a thin breathable, moisture-wicking lining. The chassis is decidedly thin but, still offers ‘just enough’ protection from rocks, roots, gravel and other obstacles on the trail, while the outsole is made from durable rubber with 3.5mm lugs that serves up great traction and a tad more protection, and the reinforced toe bumper provides security against stubbed toes. 

The Mesa Trail is exquisitely comfortable for such a sparsely cushioned shoe, but it still provides exceptional feel for the trail, which, depending on your experience with barefoot shoes and the surface you’re running on, could be a good thing or a bit of a challenge. Remember, running in minimally designed shoes takes know-how and experience, and initially you’re bound to endure some awkward landings and get some ‘stingers’ from pointed rocks and roots. (And avoid hard and sealed surfaces, otherwise your calves will be screaming.) But, if you’re a barefoot fan and like the concept of feeling the ground beneath your feet, you’ll love the comfort and agility of this shoe.

Best trail running shoes comparison table
Trail running shoeRRPWeightDropBest use
inov-8 Trail Fly Ultra G 300 Max$190 (US) / £170 (UK)300g / 10.6oz6mmUltra running, all-distance trail running on hard and rocky terrain, and some road running
Saucony Peregrine 12$130 (US) / £130 (UK) / €150 (EU)Men’s: 275g / 9.7oz; Women’s: 235g / 8.3oz4mmTrail running across a wide variety of terrain, up to ultra distance
La Sportiva Bushido II$130 (US) / £130 (UK) / €170.50 (EU)305g / 10.75oz6mmmountain paths and technical singletrack trails
inov-8 Parkclaw G 280$180 (US) / £160 (UK)280g / 9.8oz8mmRoad and trail, up to ultra distance
On Cloudventure Peak$150 (US) / £135 (UK)260g / 9.1oz4mmtechnical trails, mountains, steep terrain, racing
Nike Wildhorse 6$130 (US) / £110 (UK)298g / 10.5oz8mm drop (30mm to 22mm)3-season trail running shoe for moderate to rugged, low-alpine, high-alpine and fell terrain
Salomon Wildcross$130 (US) /£120 (UK)290g/10.2oz8mmSuperb for technical trails and tough terrain in all conditions
Hoka One One Torrent 2$120 (US) / £110 (UK)264g / 9.3oz5mmTechnical and buffed singletrack; ultra distances
Merrell Agility Peak 4 trail running shoe$130 (US) / £120 (UK)290g / 10.2oz6mmTrail running escapades over a variety of distances – better on hard packed and rocky surfaces
CimAlp 864 Drop Evolution£170 (UK)275g / 9.7oz (without insole)8mm / 6mm / 4mmTrail running over various distances and a variety of terrain
Xero Shoes Mesa Trail$120 (US) / £105 (UK)215g / 7.6oz0mmA 3-season minimally designed barefoot-style trail running shoe ideal for a variety of types of terrain

Choosing the best trail running shoes for you

Working out which of the best trail running shoes are right for you is a fairly involved process, but only because the range is so rich. Of course, it all depends on when and where you intend to run, and your personal preferences in terms of how much or little you like to ‘feel’ the trail.

If you're just working out how to start trail running, it's important to invest in quality footwear, first and foremost. From there, all you need to do is start to find good trails to run, kit yourself out with things like running gloves and trail running sunglasses, and you're good to go. 

The only thing that will stop you now is a trail running injury. You can significantly reduce the risk by matching your ambitions with the best trail running shoe for you. If your local trails are steep, rocky and often wet, then prioritise a shoe with good lugs offering great grip. If you’re going to be doing a bit of road running en route to your nearest trails, perhaps choose a shoe with a less aggressive outsole that can cope well with both sealed and unsealed surfaces.

So, before you buy, consider the following...

Comfort and fit

Striking a balance between weight and comfort is always an important consideration when choosing the best trail running shoes. You need footwear that will remain comfortable (and light, ideally) when wet, because trail running often involves legging it through mud, puddles, bogs, wet undergrowth and foliage, and tackling stream crossings. Try before you buy – make sure you have enough room in the toe box, and that the collar, tongue and lacing system won’t rub or cause you discomfort or hotspots.

If you’re doing any technical running at all, especially on tight twisty singletrack, it’s important to get your shoe as tightly cinched to your foot as possible, to avoid internal slippage. People’s feet vary enormously – if you have a wide foot or suffer from bunions, some brands (Salomon, for example) might be a bit tight. Other brands allow too much room in the toe box for runners with narrow feet. Often people have subtle differences between their left and right feet – try both shoes on (with running socks on) to make sure they’re comfortable and don’t have immediate rubbing concerns.

best trail running shoes

Salomons can be tight, so always check the next size up for the best fit (Image credit: Getty)

Protection

Unlike names, sticks and stones definitely can hurt you, and you will encounter plenty of both while trail running – and lots more besides. The wilderness is ungroomed – that’s why we love it. Inevitably, a trail running shoe won’t offer you as much protection from trippy roots, knobbly rocks and other natural obstacles as a hiking boot or trekking shoe, but look carefully at how substantial the outersole is, and check to see is there is a rockplate in the midsole, which will prevent the worst foot injuries (punctures) should you run over something seriously sharp. An integrated tongue will help keep grit out. 

best trail running shoes: inov-8 Trail Fly Ultra G 300 Max promo shot

inov-8's award winning Trail Fly Ultra G 300 Max trail running shoes offer excellent grip on rugged terrain (Image credit: inov-8)

Grip

Arguably the most important job the best trail running shoes need to perform is to keep you the right way up. Check out the configuration of the lugs on the outersole of the shoe you’re looking at, to see how aggressive they are. Think about it like the tread on the tyre of your car or mountain bike – simplistically put, the chunkier the tread the better grip and traction you will have on rough terrain, but the slower you’ll be in smoother conditions. 

Very aggressive lugs can make it feel like you’re walking around in football boots when you’re on sealed surfaces or rockhard ground. Rear-facing lugs on the heel can help you stay in control during steep descents. Materials are important too, softer rubbers provide a better, more bitey grip, but they’re not as hardwearing and will rub away relatively quickly.

Waterproofing and breathability

There is a tendency for outdoorsy types to automatically gravitate towards footwear with Gore-Tex (or equivalent) membranes in the uppers, but often this is overkill in a trail running shoe, making them run unnecessarily hot and pushing the price up. Trail running shoes tend to have a low cut cuff, well below the ankle, so it doesn’t take much for water to get in over the top – and if that happens then no amount of waterproofing will keep your socks dry. It’s often better to go with a shoe that incorporates lightweight mesh or materials that will drain and dry quicker, and allow your foot to breathe much better.

best trail running shoes

More often than not, you're going to come across water on a trail run (Image credit: Getty)

Durability

While you can’t expect to get the same lifespan out of a pair of trail running shoes as you would hiking boots or walking shoes (because they’re made from lighter materials and get subjected to more sustained and intense treatment), a degree of robustness should be sought. Check out materials, stitching and seam sealing, and look carefully at lacing systems for any signs that they might be vulnerable to failure. Harder outsoles are more longlasting, but softer rubbers supply better grip. Inov8’s graphene outersoles claim – with a fair amount of justification – to offer both.

best trail running shoes

The best trail running shoes should last you long enough to justify the price tag (Image credit: Getty)

Performance

While we often spend a lot of time inspecting the design of the upper or analyzing how well an outersole will perform, much of the magic in the best trail running shoes happens in the typically hidden midsole. Do your research or inspect the shoe to see how much cushioning it offers, and what the rebound is like. Pick a pair of shoes with a high lace eyelet – most do have at least one on either side of the shoe, higher up than the standard  lacing system goes – which is useful for preventing shoe loss during bog crossings.

best trail running shoes

With a variety of terrain in store, you want trail running shoes that will perform no matter what's beneath them (Image credit: Getty)

Drop, cushioning and rockers

Traditionally, running shoes were typically made with a ‘drop’ (which refers to the difference between the height of the heel and the toe) of around 12mm. In more recent years, the best trail running shoes have trended towards reducing that drop to 8mm or less, to better tune into the human bodies inherent, natural running style and because trails are much more forgiving on joints than roads are. 

Minimalist shoes have a very small drop, and true ‘barefoot’ shoes have none at all – taking a very tactile approach to the trail, where you fully engage with and can feel the terrain you’re running over, and have to think carefully about foot placement. Confusingly, you can get shoes with loads of cushioning in the sole, often called ‘maximalist’, that also claim to be minimalist because of their small drop. It’s better to think about the two things separately: how much drop do you prefer, and how much cushioning do you like? 

Some maximalist shoes have a ‘rocker’, which means instead of being flat to the floor, the bottom of the sole curves like the legs of a rocking chair, helping (it’s claimed) with forward propulsion from foot strike to lift off. Whether you love or hate these options is very subjective, and often comes down to your running style (whether you’re a heel, midfoot of forefoot striker). Try them on the trails and see what suits you best. 

best trail running shoes

Saucony's Peregrine 11s boast a savage grip for technical trails (Image credit: Saucony)

Value

We’ve all got budgets limits we need to stay within, and trail running shoes aren’t cheap, but if you find a hardwearing trail running shoe that’s suitable for all your off-road running needs, then it’s worth shelling out a bit more for it. Better to buy a shoe made with robust materials, than to go cheap and end up needing to replace more often. 

Brian is an award-winning journalist, photographer and podcaster who has written for Runner’s World, The Times, Outside, Men’s Journal, Trail Runner, Triathlete and Red Bulletin. He's also the author of several books, including Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and loves to run, bike, hike, camp, ski and climb mountains. He has wear-tested more than 1,500 pairs of running shoes, completed four Ironman triathlons, as well as numerous marathons and ultra-distance running races.