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The best trail running shoes: footwear to tackle the toughest trails on the planet

Included in this guide:

best trail running shoes: trail running shoe and Matterhorn
Enjoying a trail run in the Swiss Valais (Image credit: Getty)

The best trail running shoes can take you to inspiring places. But to get there, you’ve got to put your faith in them. They are your direct connection to the forest tracks, the hill trails, the coastal paths and the mountain ridges; they need to keep you tethered as you bound along, speeding above the crashing waves or the valley below.

You’ve got to trust them on river crossings, muddy descents, nerve-shredding ridges, steep scrambles and eroded paths. As you jump from boulder to boulder or leap across a mountain stream, the best trail running shoes are there with you every step of the way. You know you’ve got a pair of the best trail running shoes when you reach that magical rhythm, where you’re almost dancing with the terrain and each foot placement is an absolute joy. A trail runner needs shoes they can trust in this way.

best trail running shoes

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

Which of the best trail running shoes suits you best will depend on your preferences. The best women’s trail running shoes are designed to fit female feet more precisely than those listed in this guide. Do you value cushioning when you’re running, or do you prefer to feel the trail beneath your feet? The best trail running shoes sit somewhere on the spectrum between highly-cushioned and minimal soles.

All of the 11 pairs listed here are included on merit, the crème de la crème of trail running shoes. From the maximalist design of Hoka’s One One Torrent 2 and the superb grip offered by inov-8’s Trail Fly Ultra G 300 Max, to the ever-popular Saucony Peregrine 11 and the minimalist Xero Shoes Mesa Trail, there’s a pair out there for every type of runner.

How we tested these shoes

Advnture has been getting down and dirty with all the best trail running shoe offerings available right now, putting them through their paces on Colorado mountain trails, the moors and tors of Southwest England, and even the arid deserts and verdant rainforests of Central and Southern Australia. During testing, we made sure to put in plenty of mileage and covered a diverse array of terrain types – rock, mud, boggy trails, gravelly trails, and well-maintained, easy-breezy trails – to get a feel for how each shoe performed in different conditions.

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 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: 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
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.

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

(Image credit: Saucony)

Eleventh generation of a perennially popular trail-chomper with ultra aggressive grip and a go-hard-or-go-home attitude

Specifications
RRP: $120 (US) / £115 (UK)
Weight (per shoe): Men’s: 310g/11oz; Women’s 270g/9.5oz
Materials: Synthetic upper, PWRRUN cushioning, PWRTRAC rubber lugs
Drop: 4mm
Colors: Men’s Gravel & black / Storm & gravel / Black & future (with orange & green flourishes); Women’s Zinc, sky & loom / Black & future (with orange & pink flourishes)
Compatibility: The rougher and tougher the trails, the more you will love these grippy beasts
Reasons to buy
+Protective upper+Savage grip+Available in regular & wide fit (U.S. only)
Reasons to avoid
-Very little trail feel-Relatively heavy-Quite stiff

The Peregrine has been a very successful dynasty for the house of Saucony, and the continued popularity of this trail running shoe pays credit to the brand’s willingness to keep updating and evolving it, presumably listening to the feedback of runner and reviewers. 

In this, the eleventh iteration of the Peregrine, there are perhaps fewer genuinely new elements than were introduced in the Peregrine 10, but the synthetic textile upper has once again been overhauled to provide extra protection while – Saucony claim – retaining the shoes relatively low weight (in fact, the weight has crept up by a few grams by our reckoning, and this shoe is among the heaviest we have on test at the moment). But, it is built big to blast along tough trails, and that will suit plenty of trail runners down to the ground. The heavily armoured Peregrine offers a pretty smooth ride across the rough stuff, and the PWRTRAC outsole is armed with a formidable set of 6mm lugs, shaped like chevrons and intelligently arranged on the forefoot and heel to provide propulsion traction on the one hand and excellent braking control on the other. 

With a near-neutral drop of just 4mm, this is a shoe that exudes confidence on muddy, rocky and otherwise technical terrain, but doesn’t feel quite so great on sealed surfaces (which isn’t what it was made for, to be fair). There is a reasonable amount of cushioning in the PWRRUN midsole – in fact, between this, the protective rockplate and the aggressiveness of the outsole, you can’t really read the ground at all, so it’s not one for tactile runners who like lots of trail feel, but it will please those who just want to go hard over seriously challenging landscapes. The big thick tongue, integrated bootie, extensive cushioning around the heel and cuff, and formfit insole all supply excellent levels of comfort.

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.

Arcteryx Norvan LD2

(Image credit: Arcteryx)

Fleet-footed as a greyhound, with the bite of a Rottweiler, these attractive, high-performing trail shoes are extremely versatile

Specifications
RRP: $160 (US) £140 (UK)
Weight (per shoe): 260g/9.2oz
Materials: EVA/Polyolefin midsole; Vibram outer sole; Polyester mesh and thermoplastic polyurethane film upper
Drop: 9mm
Colours: Pytheas and trail blaze/Exosphere and Yukon/Pulse and paradigm
Compatibility: long-distance runs on tracks and technical trails up to lower level mountain tracks.
Reasons to buy
+Versatile and comfortable+Super grippy+Lightweight
Reasons to avoid
-Not waterproof (GTX version also available)-Low thermal qualities for cold conditions-Potential durability issues after heavy use

Lighter and tougher than the original Norvan LDs, these trail shoes immediately impress with their luxurious straight-out-the-box comfort levels, high-end construction and well-considered stylish looks. This shoe’s most impressive feature is easily the  ‘all-season Vibram Megagrip’ outsole, which features little lugs, but has a mighty grip on even the most slippery of surfaces. The small studs don’t collect dirt, and they’re comfortable to run on, even on sealed surfaces.

The LD stands for Long Distance, and much emphasis has been placed on keeping weight down, while maintaining high comfort and performance levels. To this end, a mesh material is used in the upper, which also helps with airflow and drainage, but does mean they’re not particularly warm in wintery conditions. A pocket on the outside of the tongue swallows the laces, once tied, preventing them coming undone mid run.

The tongue is also fully integrated to the chassis, connected right down to the midsole by elasticated wings that create an inner sock, which very effectively prevents the ingress of grit and gravel. There’s a re-enforced rand around the footplate, which provides some protection to both the runner’s toes and the lighter material used in the upper, and an internal rockplate is in place to prevent punctures.

In a small-but-positive nod to sustainability, the insoles are made with recycled EVA. The midsole strikes a good balance between offering adequate cushioning and trail feedback. Some trail runners might find the 9mm drop a tad excessive, but we didn’t note any stability issues. 

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).

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.

Choosing the best trail running shoes for you

Working out how to choose trail running shoes that are right for you is a fairly involved process, but only because the range is so rich. Of course, the best trail running shoes for you 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. 

Pat Kinsella

Writer, editor and enthusiast of anything involving boots, bikes, boats, beers and bruises, Pat has spent 20 years pursuing adventure stories. En route he’s canoed Canada’s Yukon River, climbed Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro, skied and mountain biked through the Norwegian Alps, run an ultra across the roof of Mauritius, and set short-lived records for trail-running Australia’s highest peaks and New Zealand’s Great Walks. He’s authored walking guides to Devon and Dorset, and once wrote a whole book about Toilets for Lonely Planet. Follow Pat’s escapades here.