Editor-in-chief Brian Metzler helps you find the best shoe for your needs.
In the past 15 years — since the advent of specialized trail running shoes — I’ve heard many runners ask whether or not they really need trail running shoes or how they can find the best shoe for their needs. Truth be told, it’s not as easy as finding an ideal road running shoe. Do I need a waterproof shoe? What’s a rock plate? Why can’t I use my road shoes on the trails? What are one-pull laces? Factors such as trail conditions, type of running, steepness of terrain and even climate play as much of a role in selecting the correct shoe as the typical variables of fit, comfort, cushioning and ride.
Here are 13 points to consider when looking for your next trail running shoe. There is no right answer, but if you feel uncomfortable in a pair of shoes — either for a few strides or over a few hours — chances are you’re probably not in the right shoe. If they feel clunky, heavy, too low to the ground, etc., you’re probably in the wrong shoe for the terrain you’re on and your style of running. Bottom line? Go to a specialty running store and try on several pairs to understand how these variables differ from shoe to shoe.
1. Fit (Brooks Adrenaline ASR 10)
The most important aspect of any running shoe — for the trails, roads or track — is how well it fits your foot. It should fit snug in the heel and midfoot with room for your toes to wiggle in the forefoot. Keep in mind your feet will swell during longer runs and races, especially in the heat. Try on several brands to find a good fit and then consider the other variables of each shoe. Photo: Allison Pattillo | Competitor.com
2. Weight (Skechers All-Weather GObionic Trail)
The weight of a shoe is a relative factor and lighter is usually better, but not always. A featherweight trail shoe won't have much support or structure at all, so you either have to be strong and agile or you need to limit yourself to smoother trails. Photo: Allison Pattillo | Competitor.com
3. Waterproof Membranes (Montrail Bajada OutDry)
Do you need a waterproof shoe? It depends on the conditions of the trails and, to some extent, where you live. Shoes with Gore-Tex, eVent or OutDry membranes are great for keeping cold and moisture at bay while running in cold, snowy conditions and also on trails full of muddy puddles. But waterproof shoes are typically much warmer than typical trail shoes. Keep in mind if moisture enters your foot from your sock, the chances of it escaping or evaporating are rather minimal. Photo: Brian Metzler | Competitor.com
4. Traction (Saucony Xodus 4.0)
How much traction you need from your shoes depends on what kind of terrain you're running on and how nimble of a runner you are. You don't need much on flat, smooth trails or dirt roads, but you tend to need more on loose, rocky and technical terrain. Photo: Brian Metzler | Competitor.com
5. Toe Box (The North Face Single-Track Hayasa II
There are two key aspects you should consider about a trail shoe's toe box. The first is how much room you have for your transverse arch to flex and your toes to move when your feet swell or you stub your foot on a rock. Secondly, is there protection against rocks and other obstacles on the trails? Photo: Allison Pattillo | Competitor.com
6. Innovative Features (ON Cloudrunner)
A lot of trail shoes have debuted in recent years with innovative features for cushioning, protection and agility. Make sure you understand how those features can enhance or detract from your experience on various types of trails. Photo: Allison Pattillo | Competitor.com
7. Lacing Systems (Salomon SpikeCross 3)
Some shoes have basic laces, others have innovative one-pull systems that snug a foot down to a shoe from several points. Photo: Courtesy of Salomon
8. Mesh Uppers (Patagonia Fore Runner Evo)
Most running shoes have mesh uppers for breathability and drainage, but some trail shoes have micromesh uppers that keep sand, silt and fine particles of dirt from entering the shoe. Photo: Allison Pattillo | Competitor.com
9. Support & Secureness (Newton Boco AT)
Having a shoe fit snugly in the heel and midfoot area are very important out on the trails, but so too is lateral and medial support the shoe provides. Some trail shoes are reinforced and feel very structured for technical mountain running, while others are completely pliable and slipper-like for smooth trails and racing. Photo: Allison Pattillo | Competitor.com
The ride of a trail shoe depends on the terrain you're running on and also how fast you're running. If you're on smooth dirt trails or gravel roads, it's important to have a smooth heel-to-toe transition. But if you're tip-toeing over technical terrain, it's more important for a shoe to be nimble, which often means less cushion. Photo: Courtesy of ASICS.
11. Height Off The Ground (New Balance Minimus 1010v2 Trail)
Yes, there are plenty of great minimalist trail running shoes that provide great agility and feel for the ground. Whether you prefer that sensation or a shoe with more cushion, support and protection comes down to the type of terrain you run on and how agile you are. Photo: Allison Pattillo | Competitor.com
12. Cushioning (Hoka One One Kailua Trail)
Cushioning varies greatly between trail shoes, especially since the advanced of maximally cushioned shoes and minimally constructed shoes. Do you like the comfort of a cushy ride or the bare-bones feel of a minimalist model? Photo: Allison Pattillo | Competitor.com
13. Feel For The Trail (Nike Free Hyperfeel Trail)
Feel for the trail is related to how low a shoe is to the ground, but also how well you can feel the trail. Sometimes you want to feel a lot — it can greatly aid in your agility — but other times you want to avoid feeling the trail (and the sharp rocks, roots and other obstacles that lurk). Finding the right mix has to do with finding a balance between cushion and underfoot protection for the type of running you're doing. Photo: Courtesy of Nike