"Hearst Magazines and Yahoo may earn commission or revenue on some items through the links below."
Editor’s Note: We reviewed our shoe selections on July 29, 2022 and have updated our recommendations. The below models now include the top-performing shoes from our most recent rounds of testing.
Ready to hit the trails for your runs this summer? While there’s no bad time to explore off-road, it’s especially fun to escape the baking pavement and retreat to cool and shady singletrack during the hottest months of the year. Of course, if you’re going to conquer mud and technical terrain, it helps to have dedicated trail shoes that bite into dirt and cushion your feet against rocks on your runs. See some of our top-rated trail options below, or scroll down for full reviews of these trail shoes and more of our test team’s favorites—plus buying info on how to choose your next pair.
The 12 Best Trail Running Shoes
Why Trail Running?
What trail running means to each of us is as varied and unique as the off-road terrain that we cover. To some, it’s a spiritual, transformative experience. But you don’t have to have a transcendentalist mindset or nirvana to qualify as a trail runner. To lots of us, running a short trail adjacent to a local park is simply an easy way to add extra miles onto a regular neighborhood loop. These benefits are equally legitimate, and they’re what inspire ultrarunners and weekend warriors alike to spend more time outside.
What to Look for in a Trail Running Shoe
Whatever your preference or personal ideology, we think everyone can be a trail runner, especially with the help of a good pair of shoes. The two main things to consider before purchasing trail running shoes are what type your feet need (think stiff or pliable, neutral or stable, wide or narrow, high or low heel-to-toe drop) and what type of shoes the terrain demands. With the latter, try to think about whether the trails you encounter are technical or smooth, flat or steep, have loose or firm footing, and whether or not you cross water.
Rigid shoes with deep lugs (5mm+) are best on technical trails with poor footing, but they’ll also be far less forgiving, even uncomfortable, on road runs. These shoes will serve you better the more rugged the terrain and may work for day hiking as well. Hybrid shoes have shorter lugs (2mm to 4mm) and a softer on-road feel than their burly siblings, and are well-suited for soft singletrack and local wooded trails that don’t make you slow to a walk due to unsure footing.
How We Tested These Trail Shoes
Runner’s World has the most comprehensive shoe testing process in the industry. We work with more than 250 local runners of all abilities, ages, and sizes for real-world wear-testing on paved roads, dirt paths, and rocky singletrack trails. After a month of running more than 100 miles, our testers report their findings on features like fit, comfort, performance, and ride. While our wear-testers are putting miles on their shoes, the same models undergo a battery of mechanical tests in our RW Shoe Lab, to objectively measure the cushioning, flexibility, sole thickness, and weight of each. Our gear editors combine their own experience in the shoe with data from the lab and feedback from our wear-testers to create reliable, useful reviews of every shoe we test.
The following are trail shoes that we think deserve special recognition because of their value and overall performance both on foot and in the lab. These 12 shoes were tested by us, and at least one will likely offer the fit and function you need.
―BEST PLATED TRAIL SHOE―
Salomon Pulsar Trail
Salomon’s Sense Ride has been a cult favorite among both beginners and longtime trail racers. Its firm, durable cushioning handles daily jogs and long runs comfortably, and the moderate heel-toe offset feels accessible to low-drop and high-drop runners alike. The new Pulsar Trail has similar traits, but adds an energy-return boosting perk—a propulsive TPU plate that Salomon calls “Energy Blade”—for just a $10 price bump. Testers said the Pulsar feels slightly softer and more responsive than the Sense Ride, and praised its reliable traction and secure inner fit sleeve. “The cushioning is protective and bouncy, but not super plush. I didn’t feel sharp rocks underfoot and my turnover still felt fast,” said one tester who logs about 50 miles of road-to-trail running per week. “There’s a slick and mossy flat rock on the Warren Highlands trail that I test every trail shoe on. I’ve bit the dirt many times on it, but not while wearing the Pulsar. I felt super confident bombing down the descent.”
Saucony Peregrine 12
Saucony’s Peregrine line has long been a speedy trail shoe that works well for many types of runners in a wide variety of conditions. It’s just as suited for newbies’ first footprints on a muddy trail as it is for shielding vert-chasers’ toes on rock-strewn singletrack. And, it’s earned multiple awards from our team for its versatility—across terrains, foot shapes, and distances—at a price that didn’t break the bank. It still does all of those things well, though underwent a big change: Saucony shaved over an ounce compared to last year’s Peregrine. Most of that weight savings comes from the upper and topsole. A more durable, sleek mesh keeps the same level of protection without the need for more layered overlays. Underfoot, Saucony peeled off the TPU bead-based topsole and instead used it for the sockliner. The midsole itself still uses less responsive Pwrrun foam, but embedded in it is a new rock plate tuned to be slightly more flexible.
―BEST ROAD-TO-TRAIL HYBRID―
Topo Athletic MT-4
If you’re new to trail running or want to try a lower-drop shoe without fully committing to zero millimeters, the MT-4 is your entry point. Two layers of foam provide all the comfort and protection you’ll need for most off-road excursions. It features a dual-density midsole with a top layer that’s 10 percent softer than the bottom layer. Instead of a rock plate, this denser foam acts as a buffer against hard ground. Still, the overall tester consensus was that, like the MT-3, the shoe lacked enough cushioning for long runs. “As a runner who mostly sticks to the groomed path, I found the MT-4 had nice ground feel with protection from stray rocks and roots over shorter distances,” said gear editor Amanda Furrer.
Saucony Xodus Ultra
Previous versions of the Xodus were rugged trail tanks that we’d grab for truly gnarly terrain. That capability and protection in deep mud and muck allowed us to pardon the shoe’s cumbersome and fairly heavy ride, but it still didn’t make for an especially fun shoe for tired legs at the end of a long run. The new Ultra model remedies the issue with a cushioning overhaul—the core of the midsole and entire sockliner are now Saucony’s premium Pwrrun PB foam. Though the lugs aren’t quite as long as earlier Xodus versions, the outsole retains a solid grip on both wet and dry terrain with durability that impressed us over 100 miles of testing. “Through shin-deep water, rocks, and mud, I can’t even find a thread loose on these shoes. The lugs provide excellent traction in all conditions, and the decent spacing between them prevents mud from getting caked on and pebbles from getting stuck. Even on the steepest, slickest trails, they held their own,” one tester who races a couple 50Ks per year said. “What impressed me the most, though, was the overall comfort and fit. I’ve always found the Endorphin line slightly too narrow for my foot. The Xodus Ultra has a wider platform that also adds stability.”
—SPRINGY WITH GROUND FEEL —
Inov-8 Trailfly G 270
The previous version of this shoe (originally called the TerraUltra G 260) had a firmer ride that our wear-testers liked for short runs. However, the cushioning felt pretty harsh and “a little dead” for covering ultra distances. Their impressions were in line with our mechanical tests at the RW Shoe Lab, where the 260 scored “very hard” in both the heel and forefoot cushioning and ranked in the lowest percentile for energy return. For the 270’s midsole, Inov-8 switched to a new iteration of its Powerflow foam that incorporates more TPU in the mix, which both returns more energy and feels more forgiving. Sitting on top of that new midsole is a fresh footbed to match. (Made from tiny compressed TPU beads, it’s more responsive than a regular foam or gel insole.) Together, those two elements combine for a ride that feels like a firm Salomon with some subtle bouncy Adidas Boost undertones—without losing good connection to the trail.
―BEST FOR LONG RUNS ON WET TERRAIN―
Hoka Speedgoat 5
The Speedgoat 5 builds on its predecessor’s legacy as a fast and furious trail monster known for sticky lugs and soft landings. This time around, Hoka upgraded to Vibram’s MegaGrip Traction Lug outsole for a better hold on loose dirt and gravel, and ventilated the durable mesh upper for more air flow. Some of our testers found the 4’s cushioning too pillowy and less reactive, so Hoka also switched to a new midsole compound—the change helped the shoe drop about half an ounce in weight. Overall, the latest ’Goat is a protective trail runner that feels much lighter and comfier than its ruggedness would suggest. “The new mesh combines just the right amount of structure and stretch. I felt as though the shoe wrapped my foot softly and securely, rather than restrict my motion as the Speedgoat 4 did,” one tester said. “The redesigned tongue in the Speedgoat 5 is very forgiving, unlike the 4’s tongue, which dug into my ankle.”
—BEST FOR LONG RUNS ON DRY TERRAIN—
Salomon Ultra Glide
The Ultra Glide is among Salomon’s most cushioned trail shoes, but don’t be fooled—it’s not a super squishy-soft ride. It is, however, plush and forgiving enough to impress the Hoka fanatics on our wear-test team, thanks to a lightweight midsole made from a blend of EVA and Olefin. This combo of compounds makes the durable foam feel springy yet predictable underfoot. Many tall-stack shoes can feel unstable on technical terrain, but the Ultra Glide feels incredibly planted. The only complaints we had were in regard to wet surface grip. We found the shoe held firm on runnable ground and while climbing over boulders, but the traction didn’t inspire confidence on slick, flat slabs of rock.
―BEST FOR UNEVEN TERRAIN―
La Sportiva Bushido II
The Bushido has been around for awhile, but it continues to earn a spot on this list. Why? This burly trail crusher brings plenty of structure and support to a responsive platform. But the outsole is what we like most—sticky, aggressive lugs line the perimeter and bottom of the shoe, making it easy to virtually grab hold of uneven terrain. We also appreciated the heavy-duty toe cap, which protects the foot, should you kick into rocks. A breathable mesh upper and just the right amount of cushion in the midsole make this standout shoe versatile enough to manage long, slow mileage as well as speed workouts.
Merrell Moab Flight
Over the years, the Moab model has become the most popular and most sold boot in the world, and has evolved over several different iterations. Among the most recent is the Flight, a low pared-down version of the original that gives trail runners a taste of the Moab action. A taller drop and stout build preserve some of that “fast hiker” feel, but also make the Flight more accessible to runners coming from high-offset road trainers like Brooks’s Ghost or Asics’s Kayano. But, the Flight uses none of the dense EVA foam found on the original Moab, and instead recruits Merrell’s new FloatPro midsole. The material feels lighter and softer, and relies on its thickness rather than a rock plate to add protection underfoot. It results in a burlier ride, but offers a seriously appealing amount of cush per dollar. Testers only felt stones poking through the softer midsole on more rugged technical trails.
―BEST TRACTION OVERALL―
VJ Ultra 2
While VJ models like the Maxx and the XTRM are specifically built for obstacle course racing and trail running, the Ultra is specifically designed for mega-distance. It adds considerably more cushioning underfoot, which feels lightweight yet ample for spending hours to days on the trail. But, the best part of VJ shoes is still the traction, and the Ultra lives up to the brand’s hashtag #BestGripOnThePlanet. The butyl-rubber outsole is studded with 4mm, chevron-shaped lugs, which give the Ultra a really tacky hold on wet, jagged surfaces. “The traction this shoe had in all conditions was insane,” said one tester. “I ran these shoes through everything from bone-dry trails to monsoon summer rainstorms and was blown away—definitely the most grip I’ve had on a trail shoe, hands down. On short road stretches, the feeling is like walking across a dirty dive bar floor on a hot summer day—sticky.”
―BEST FOR WIDE FEET―
Altra Lone Peak 6
Our testers loved the Lone Peak 5 for its perfect positioning on a spectrum between minimalism and ultra-cush comfort. Like the Superior, the Lone Peak has a MaxTrac outsole with angled chevron-shaped TrailClaw lugs that can practically stick to the wall. But it’s a bit heavier than that more minimalist model and has more cushion in its new Ego midsole, with better underfoot protection from rocks and roots. Testers definitely noticed. “The midsole provides many happy miles of running on technical trails,” said one, “but it’s not over-cushioned where it adds unnecessary bulk, making the shoe feel heavy or clumsy underfoot.” Altra removed overlays from the quick-drying mesh upper to increase flexibility, and reconfigured the lacing, which gives the 6 a more secure fit. “I try to avoid using ‘slipper-like’ to describe a shoe’s fit, but the Lone Peak 6 feels as comfortable as a pair of moccasins, with a wide toebox for extra wiggle room,” said gear editor Amanda Furrer.
―FIRM AND FAST―
One of Brooks’s speediest trail shoes, the Catamount borrows some road-racing technology introduced in the Tempo and Hyperion Elite 2. The midsole is “DNA Flash,” a compound created by infusing the brand’s ultra-lightweight DNA foam with nitrogen. The process results in a bouncier midsole that also saves weight. Much like the Hyperion Elite 2, the Catamount feels super-fast and firm. From the moment these are on your feet, you’ll want to drop into race pace and surge uphill, thanks to the smooth and nimble ride. The sticky TrailTack outsole and stone guard handle rocky technical terrain well, but still don’t feel too clunky if you transition to stretches of pavement or fire roads. On steep and muddy descents, however, you’ll want a shoe with more aggressive lugs.
You Might Also Like