This guide provides information on the best trail running shoes of every type, and also provides tips and advice to know before you buy.


The best thing about trail running is that, like road running, all you need is a good pair of shoes and you can hit the trails. The tricky part about trail running however, is that if your shoes can’t hold up to the trails, you can spend a lot of time and money slogging through miles. We pulled together a comprehensive list of the newest and best trail runners for spring and summer 2018. If you have never run trails before, or a seasoned expert, this is a great place to start.

How We Tested Them

We started with a list of 58 pairs of trail runners for all types of trails: from dirt roads to gravel paths, to loosely packed to hard rocks. We spoke with the Lance Olian a nationally recognized strength and conditioning coach and employee of JackRabbit Sports who has a decade of experience with running shoes, as well as Altra founder and trail running expert Golden Harper. To provide additional insight and gain a professional runner’s perspective, we also spoke with ultrarunner Scott Jurek. We spent hours researching, reading reviews and asking friends, then narrowed down our picks to the top 23, which we then took to the trails of Storm King Mountain, just north of New York City. On top of that, we’ve tested these runners on the trails of New Jersey and Central Park, down dirt roads in Greece, along the mountains outside of Denver and Aspen and across grassy, off-season ski slopes of Park City, UT and Lake Tahoe, CA.

Types of Trails

Golden Haper breaks down everything you need to know about the different types of trails that you’ll encounter in your exploration of trail running.

Mountain West: Fairly hard-packed trails, not a ton of mud filled with lots of undulation and vertical. You’ll hit a variety of conditions on your way to the mountaintop, but the ground is pretty hard-packed and rocky.
Midwest to South: Flat as a pancake, but mixed conditions depending on the weather and season. There’s not too many rocks underfoot, nor is there a ton of vertical. There’s more slip and grip to be dealt with here.
Upper Midwest, Northwest and Northeast: Floppy, and filled with mud. You’re running in mushy and soft terrain with lots of grass.
Southwest: Think mostly desert areas. San Diego, CA to Phoneix, AZ to San Antonio, TX to Santa Fe, NM. The dry, hard sand is tough on shoes. Sand and mud crystallize on shoes and are essentially sandpaper on the shoe when it gets wet.

What to Look for in a Trail Runner

Just like with road running and road running shoes, there are a variety of terms that every trail runner should know. While a shop like JackRabbit will be able to help you narrow down the variety, we talked with a range of experts from different aspects of trail running to help prime your initial research.

“You can run a road shoe on the trail, and a lot of elites will do it, especially as a newer trail runner,” Harper says. “The trail eats shoes for lunch, though, so it’s a good way to destroy your road shoes a bit quicker.” If only one pair of shoes is available at the moment, don’t let that stop you.

The first difference to note between road running shoes and trail runners is the rubber on the sole of the shoe. “You’ll notice it’s going to be a stickier, grippier compound than the rubber used on a road shoe, so it handles wet and slippery conditions better and grips on rock better. Trail shoes tend to skew toward the soft and sticky side,” Harper says. “The second thing is the lugs on the shoe. A road shoe is pretty flat, but a trail shoe is undulated. There’s more contour to the bottom and the lugs stick to as many surfaces as you might come upon.”

Another thing to notice between trail and road shoes is the heel height. Jurek calls this the heel differential. “The heel to toe ratio is lower than most road shoes, so I personally like something in that three to five-millimeter drop, that keeps the foot closer to the ground and the heel lower to provide a more stable platform to push off and land,” he says. “It also helps with stability in the ankle and hips.”

Cushioning is the same — go for more or less cushion depending on personal preference. “I tend to like a thinner midsole, and the trend now is a midsole where people prefer more cushion, but go with what feels comfortable to you,” Jurek says. The more cushion and padding you have between your feet and the roots, stones and dirt mean you won’t have as much trail feel, but you also might not want to have that much of a gap between you and the trail. Go with what feels best to you. “New trail runners might think ‘I want to protect myself completely from the trail,’ but having some sense of feeling is important,” Jurek says. Harper also adds that the midsole on a trail runner tends to be a hair firmer because the ground is softer (compared to the road). “Some sneakers also have a rock protection plate, or a stone guard, and it allows you to hit rocks and not injure your foot, so you can go faster,” Harper says.

The upper on a trail shoe tends to be a bit more supportive than a typical road shoe. It has a more protective toe so that as you’re kicking stones or climbing up intense rock formations, you don’t have to worry about abrasions. “It’s always a trick with the mesh to get something that’s breathable, but doesn’t let sand in and doesn’t wear out,” Harper says. You want sneakers to be breathable, durable and impenetrable to rocks, stones, twigs and the like. The worst feeling is having to stop on the trail and take off your shoes to kick out whatever tiny pebble made its way inside next to your toes.

Contrary to popular belief, Harper mentions that you don’t really need shoes to have a sock liner that comes up past your ankles. “Adding ankle support actually increases ankle rolls,” he says. “Take for example hiking boots, basketball shoes and trail running shoes — people roll their ankles more in high tops than in low tops. When your body senses there is support there, it turns off or turns down the defense system, so it’s late to respond to a roll.”

Lastly, one major thing to look for is how waterproof and quick-draining the sneaker is. If you’re spending a lot of time in a wet environment, it’s important that you can “cross a creek or step in a puddle and go above the collar of a shoe, and if you expel water in that upper, [having it be] hydrophobic is really critical,” Jurek says.

Depending on how hard you’re running, and how rough the trails are, you can put a decent amount of miles on a pair of trail running shoes. “If you run fairly tame trails, you can put thousands of miles on each pair of shoes,” Harper says. “When it comes to a trail shoe, the ground is softer so every step [you take] is different and you’re not nearly as concerned about cushioned running because it’s taken care of by the unevenness of the trail,” Harper says. For Jurek, his estimate is slightly more moderate. “I’ve put 500 to 700 miles on my shoes,” he says. “I like to test how they feel at certain points.”

Buying Guide

Buying Guide

Best for Dry Trails: Adidas Terrex Agravic Speed

These lightweight (and low-price) sneakers come in an all-white exterior so you can make your own mark on the trails, and bring back custom kicks after every run. The all-black look also doubles as an all-day walker, so you can fit in that 13-mile training run while you’re on vacation in Greece. The Continental Rubber outsole works well in all conditions — especially dry desert-like trails.

Weight: 8.9 ounces
Drop: 8mm

Best Deep Lugs: Under Armour Horizon RTT

Built for neutral runners who want something a bit heavier and more stable on their feet, this high traction trail runner has a thick and supportive upper. While it’s not super flexible, it does eliminate any water concerns and has intense lugs that will literally stomp over any root in its way. The camo is unique color way, but our testers leaned on the deep blue, which surprisingly didn’t show too much dirt.

Weight: 12 ounces
Drop: 7mm
Pronation: Neutral

Most Unique Trail Runners: Arc’Teryx Norvan LD

You’ll be hardpressed to find a trail runner that looks as sleek as this one. Arc’Teryx is known for its streamline-designed outerwear (and trail running gear, which our testers were big fans of), but the shoes are certainly unique. Built to tackle technical trails, you can take these out for steep climbs and down long dirt roads. The Vibram Megagrip outsole helps lock feet in place whether you’re running or hiking.

Weight: 1lb. 5.9 ounces
Drop: 9mm

Best for Wide Feet: Altra Lone Peak 3.5

Like all Altra footwear, these shoes are built to help improve your natural foot positioning and increase toe splay comfort. Ideal for both trail running and ultrarunning, the Lone Peak 3.5 offers a moderate amount of cushioning, so you can feel the bumps in the trail, but zoom right over them. The GaiterTrap eliminates any concern over dirt and rocks getting in, and the drainage holes usher water right out. A zero-drop platform means the distance between your heel and forefoot and the ground is the same. And a stone guard ricochets rocks away from the midsole while the MaxTrac rubber grips peaks and valleys of all surfaces. It was a tough decision between the Superior 3.5 and the Lone Peak, but both let you run “in the way your feet were born to,” Olian says.

Weight: 10.4 ounces
Stack Height: 25mm

Best All-Surface: Brooks Cascadia 12

The ‘V’ pattern on the upper matches the double ‘V’ lug system on the outsole of the shoe, meaning water, dirt and mud siphon through with zero issues. While this 12th iteration of the ever-popular trail shoe is just as durable as its predecessors, there have been some notes about a shallow heel cup — our testers didn’t notice it, but something to watch out for. All in all, though, Brooks continues to pump out supportive trail runners with beefy lugs that aren’t insanely heavy. Olian calls this shoe, “one of the most versatile trail shoes suitable for a variety of foot shapes and runner types.”

Weight: 12.1 ounces
Midsole Drop: 10mm
Pronation: Neutral

Most Affordable: Merrell All Out Crush 2

Created by the brand that works closely with Tough Mudders, the combo of the M-Select grip and ventilated upper means through wet and dry terrain, your feet feel like they can keep going for miles. Out testers found they ran slightly big with a wide toebox, but liked the fairly minimal design and light structure. If you want to really feel the trail underfoot, grab a pair of these.

Weight: 8 ounces
Heel Height:22.5mm
Forefoot Height: 16.5mm

Best Plush Cushioning: Outdoor Voices x Hoka One One Clifton 4

While these claim to be best for the road, we’re big fans of taking these out on the trails. If you don’t want to feel the trail underfoot, throw a pair of these on. It fits true to size, and comes in a much sleeker package than Hokas of the past, especially in the new Outdoor Voices colorway. The updated foam is supposed to help the shoes last longer than iterations of the past as well. While Olian recommended the Challenger ATR 4 (which we included in our best new running shoes of 2018), we liked the simplicity of the new OV x Hoka combo, especially for road to trail running.

Weight: 9.7 ounces
Heel Height: 37.5mm
Forefoot Height: 28.4mm
Pronation: Neutral

Best for Mountain West Trails: Inov-8 Parkclaw 275

Another sneaker that easily transitions from road to trails, the Inov-8 Parkclaw 275 is “lightweight and good-looking with a not-too-aggressive outsole, perfect for those transitioning into trail running from road running,” Olian says. We found the cushioning to be pretty minimal, so would be better for trails in the south or midwest.

Weight: 9.625 ounces
Heel Height: 20mm
Forefoot Height: 12mm

Best for Minimalist: La Sportiva Helios 2.0

This may have been the burliest sneaker we looked at, yet it was one of the lightest we tested. The medium fit worked well for toe splay. The draining and sweat-wicking mesh upper breathed well, and the quick-lacing system was easy to use. It took some getting used to, but once you set the laces, there’s no need to fiddle with them throughout the day. Also, it’s harder to get these laces stuck on a twig or other unknown objects while running, just be sure to tuck in the extra length if you pull the lacing really tight. Due to how lightweight these are, don’t expect to feel a lot of cushion underneath — you’ll definitely feel the rocks underfoot.

Weight: 8.35 ounces
Heel Height: 19mm
Forefoot Height: 15mm

Best for Speed: Saucony Peregrine 8

The PWRTRAC outsole works on a wide range of terrain, plus the EVERUN cushioning works just as well here as it does in the Liberty ISO (one of Saucony’s flagship road shoes), and the fit was true to size. The plush interior worked well for day hiking as well as sprints up and down the side of the mountain. “Named after the world’s fastest animal, these running shoes are built to burn up the trail and have a style that’s equally as hot,” Olian says. While it’s not waterproof or water-resistant, this shoe is great for grassy knolls and trails.

Weight: 10 ounces
Heel Height: 24.5mm
Forefoot Height: 20.5mm
Pronation: Neutral

Best for Water Climbs: New Balance Summit K.O.M.

The newest trail running release from New Balance is the K.O.M. and Q.O.M.— King of the Mountain and Queen of the Mountain. It fits true to size, and feels light on foot. With a Gore-Tex liner and Vibram MegaGrip outsole, water isn’t a concern as you storm through the trails. You’ll rule the field in this workhorse sneaker in a bright package. These will be available later this month.

Weight: 11.2 ounces
Drop: 8mm

Best for Agressive Climbs: Salomon Speed Cross 4

The fourth edition of this classic is a balance of breathability, durability and protection all wrapped into a lightweight package. The tank-like lugs swim through soft trails, and even saturated mud can’t them. The lacing system is unique (and a bit hard to tighten initially), but once you get it dialed, it’s a breeze. “The ultra-aggressive lugs are suitable for a trail running pro looking to tear through technical terrain,” Olian says.

Weight: 300 grams
Midsole Height: 30mm/20mm (10 mm drop)

Buying Guide

Everything You Need to Know Before Trail Running

We talked to Scott Jurek and Golden Harper — two experts in the trail running field — about the basics. Here, they share everything you wanted to know before stepping outside. Read the Story

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