The Best Trail Running Shoes for Every Terrain

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Johanna Flashman

The Best Trail Running Shoes for Every Terrain

It is a great time to be a trail runner. Today’s smart shoe designers are using advanced materials, new geometries, and creative combinations of foams, plates, fabrics, outsole rubber, and lug depths to create models that are more capable on a variety of terrain than ever before.

We’re wildly impressed with the Adidas Terrex Agravic Speed Ultra, our Editors’ Choice, for its ridiculously smooth roll that made us feel faster than we ever believed we could be. Other debuts rank so high on comfort and agility that we look forward to every trail experience—so we can play in great shoes. And the updates to previous models? They’ve pulled the best features from the past and utilized versatile, technology-forward materials and designs to deliver improved performance and comfort.

So go ahead and take your pick. We’ve tested more than 150 trail shoes in the past couple years to make these picks.

At a Glance​

All gear in this guide was tested by multiple reviewers. When you buy through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission. This supports our mission to get more people active and outside. Learn more.

Adidas TERREX Agravic Speed Ultra

(Photo: Courtesy Adidas Terrex)

Editors Choice: Best Trail Super Shoe​

Adidas Terrex Agravic Speed Ultra

$220 at REI $220 at Adidas

Weight: 9.5 oz (men), 8.1 oz (women)
Stack Height: 38–30 mm
Drop: 8 mm
Sizing: 6-13, 14 (men’s), 5-11 (women’s)

Pros and Cons
Fast, smooth, and lively ride
Adaptive stability
Not great in really rocky terrain

Plated road shoes are widely recognized for enhancing running efficiency and promoting better recovery in most runners. Yet, despite the success of their road running counterparts, plated trail shoes have regrettably not achieved the same level of success. In the process of adapting technologies that work on the road to models designed for the trail, shoes have either lacked the ability to effectively handle variable terrain or fallen short in providing the efficiency and recovery benefits seen in road super shoes.

The Agravic Speed Ultra changes that. Every tester was in awe of how easily faster paces came to them when wearing this shoe. “I consistently ran about 30 seconds/mile faster while running in these shoes than what the effort felt like,” said tester Jonathan Beverly of western Nebraska. Adidas has skillfully taken every element that makes super shoes super and put them together in a trail shoe, like a five-star chief meticulously crafting the ingredients of their best-selling dish.

Underfoot, the main ingredients are a bouncy but not-too-soft TPEE-based midsole working harmoniously with an embedded, trail-specific “plate.” Instead of a solid, rigid plate, Adidas uses semi-flexible rods that react independently to variations in the terrain. Made of Pebax in its hard plastic form as often found in track spike plates, the four prongs in the forefoot and two in the heel are splayed wider and closer to the edges than those in Adidas’s road shoes, to enhance stability. The resulting ride “provided a lively pop without being tippy on variable surfaces or prescribing a set, rigid roll,” Jonathan said. Deep sculpted sidewalls surround a beveled heel, delivering smooth, secure landings, and a narrow midfoot waist widens to a generous, flared forefoot, providing an agile and stable stance. The aggressively rockered geometry from heel to toe delivers what one tester described as “a balanced ride that makes it easy to stay forward on my feet and drive backward with each stride, creating a quick, powerful push-off.”

For the outsole, Adidas uses the same trustworthy, grippy Continental rubber found on most of the brand’s running shoes. This trail-specific version features variable 2.5 to 3-millimeter lugs for a surefooted, no-stress grip. As one might expect in a high-level racing shoe, the upper is kept to a minimum for weight reduction. Made with a non-stretch, breathable, quick-drying, woven material, we found it offered a secure, snug lockdown while providing a touch of abrasion protection.

Given the tall stack height, testers had to cautiously check their foot placements through technical rocky terrain. But wherever the terrain smoothed out and allowed for full strides, the Agravic Speed Ultra came alive and delivered a ride that testers said felt like flying. If you’ve been holding out for a plated trail racing shoe that gets most everything right, the wait is over.

Read our full review to learn more

Nike Ultrafly

(Photo: Courtesy Nike)

Best For Ultra Running​

Nike Ultrafly

$260 at Running Warehouse (Men’s) $260 at Running Warehouse (Women’s)

Weight: 10.6 oz (men’s), 8.8 oz (women’s)
Stack Height: 38.5–30 mm
Drop: 8.5 mm
Sizing: Men’s 6–15, Women’s 5–12

Pros and Cons
Ultra-cush and powerful rebound without instability
Long-haul comfort
Height and plate separate foot from the ground, reducing agility

The Ultrafly borrows the successful energy-saving, speed-enhancing tech from Nike’s speedster Alphafly and Vaporfly road shoes, with some smart tweaks to make it excel on trails. A super-responsive midsole of Pebax ZoomX foam (the same foam found in Nike’s road supershoes) is encased in a textile wrap, which slightly limits its squishy tippiness and harnesses its energy, creating a controlled rebound effect. Sandwiched within the foam sits a carbon-fiber plate that’s shorter than the road version and shaped like a two-pronged fork, allowing the Ultrafly to flex with varying terrain while providing side-to-side stability. The combination of foam and plate made every step as plush as it was lively and had testers raving that these shoes “feel super dynamic” and are “flat-out fun to run in.”

For traction, the Vibram Litebase outsole with Megagrip lugs grabs rocky surfaces better than any Nike trail shoe to date and outperformed every shoe we tested this season. One tester gushed that the sole gave him “best-in-class grip in all sorts of conditions—from rocky slabs to loose dirt.” The semi-low lugs, just 3.5 millimeters deep, also kept the Ultrafly from clunking noisily or uncomfortably on smooth terrain and even sections of road.

To add to the shoe’s “ultra” capabilities, a nicely padded heel cup and a fabric wrap at the arch supported our feet and reduced excessive lateral movement, while an ever-so-slightly padded tongue felt racy but comfortable.

Encasing the foot is a stark white upper made of lightweight, uber-breathable “Vaporweave”—a sheer textile reinforced with a grid pattern—that holds securely and takes on dirt and grime with pride. We dug the battle scars.

After being first to create a road supershoe, Nike took its time adapting the tech to tackle trails. The Ultrafly, with its unique, versatile ride that’s as ready to race as it is to log long, slow mountain miles, was worth waiting for, and earned our Editors’ Choice award in our fall trail shoe guide.

Hoka Tecton X 2

(Photo: Courtesy Hoka)

Most Nimble Plated Trail Shoe​

Hoka Tecton X 2

$225 at REI (Men’s) $225 at REI (Women’s)

Weight: 8.8 oz (men), 7.4 oz (women)
Stack Height: 32–27 mm (men’s); 30–25 mm (women’s)
Drop: 5 mm
Sizing: Men’s 7–14, Women’s 5–11

Pros and Cons
High energy ride
Adaptable plates
Durable upper
Toe box tight for some

When we first tested the Hoka Tecton X, we loved how it delivered supershoe benefits to runners of all levels, from elite FKT chasers to weekend warriors. With its second iteration, the Tecton X 2 maintains that versatility, but now has a slightly less voluminous upper for a more secure foothold. “It’s hard to go wrong when combining a grippy outsole, bouncy midsole, and lightweight construction,” said one mountain runner.

In terms of the midsole and outsole, nothing has changed from the first version, which is a good thing. You still get the same fast, forward roll and high-energy ride with a four-millimeter-lugged Vibram Megagrip Litebase sole. Parallel carbon-fiber plates keep the foam stable and the push-off lively, without creating tippy levers on technical terrain.

Testers noticed the snugger fit and applauded the more tuned feel on training and race days alike. To achieve this performance-capable upper, Hoka introduced a brand-new Kevlar-reinforced fabric that one tester described as “super lightweight, durable, and supportive while absorbing almost no water.” Another tester, who felt the first Tecton X’s ride was too sloppy, found that the more precise upper let the midsole magic shine and won him over to the fan club.

Salomon Genesis

(Photo: Courtesy Salomon)

Best Daily Workhorse​

Salomon Genesis

$150 at REI (Men’s) $150 at REI (Women’s)

Weight: 9.5 oz (men), 8.5 oz (women)
Stack Height: 34–26mm
Drop: 8 mm
Sizing: 7-13, 14 (men’s), 5-11 (women’s)

Pros and Cons
Supportive and stable
Nimble ride
Excellent in technical rocky terrain
Narrow toe box

Designed after the renowned racing shoe, the S/LAB Genesis—worn by Courtney Dauwalter when she won Western States, Hardrock, and UTMB in the same year—the Salomon Genesis is a more approachable trail shoe that blends the performance characteristics of the S/LAB racer with the durability of an everyday trainer.

Testers all agreed the moderate midsole stack delivered just the right amount of underfoot cushioning while not being too tall and tipsy and still retaining great ground feel. The balanced ride “made it easy to flow through your run without thinking about too much besides the enjoyment of your surroundings,” said Devan Schwartz of Santa Barbara, California. A firm TPU support chassis is built into the lateral side of the responsive EVA-Olefin blended midsole for added stability through mixed and rocky terrain, while a high raised sidewall on the arch side keeps the foot centered. Salomon’s Quicklace system cinches the foot down tight, and the extra durable Matryx upper, made with Kevlar yarns, adds additional support and guards against trail abrasions. Several testers appreciated the security of the snug fit; a few noted issues with the narrow toe box and unforgiving non-stretchy mesh.

One might think such a stable trail shoe would feel overbuilt and clunky, but at 9.4 ounces for men and 8.5 ounces for women, the Genesis is as perfectly suitable as a race-day shoe as it is an everyday trainer. It feels “fast for a stable shoe,” said Schwartz. “A reliable, nimble shoe for technical trails,” noted Nick Presniakov, a Santa Barbara, California-based trail runner and Western States finisher, who added, “These are my favorite Salomon trail shoes to date.”

Altra Timp 5

(Photo: Courtesy Altra)

Best Balanced, Zero-Drop Ride​

Altra Timp 5

$155 at REI (Men’s) $155 at REI (Women’s)

Weight: 9.8 oz (men’s), 8.6 oz (men’s)
Stack Height: 29–29mm
Drop: 0 mm
Sizing: 7-15 (men’s), 5.5-12 (women’s)

Pros and Cons
Great traction
Ultra-comfortable, anatomical fit
Zero-drop, natural ride
Upper can feel a bit stiff

Like all Altras, the shape of the Timp 5’s toe box gives the forefoot room to flex and splay, enhancing both comfort and toe activation. Testers noted that this new model dialed that fit: the instep wrap and heel cup held securely, allowing minimal slippage on even the gnarliest terrain, while the short eyelet row kept the laces from interfering with forefoot flex and splay.

Fans of past iterations of this shoe will be thrilled to find a Vibram Megagrip outsole on the Timp 5. The update boosts traction on rocky surfaces in particular, while the four-millimeter lugs are low profile enough to not clunk annoyingly on flat, hard dirt or even road sections. The new Timp 5 also loses an ounce in overall weight, and no longer has drainage holes.

The midsole—made of an updated version of Altra’s EGO Max, a soft, resilient, compression-molded EVA blend—feels bouncy underfoot and is well-balanced, with an even amount under the heel and the forefoot and a moderate thickness that is neither overly squishy nor close-to-the-ground firm. “I felt both connected to and protected from the ground,” Nebraska tester Jonathan Beverly said. The lined mesh upper and reinforced toe box proved both rugged and breathable.

This is a shoe that can settle in for long, slow, rugged miles and also feel energetic when picking up the pace. Andy Paterson of Carpinteria, California, wore it on a 26-mile, backcountry trail run (straight from the box) and reported that they “absolutely cruised the fire-road section, stabilized my strike on loose scree climbs, and remained utterly comfortable and secure to the last, fast six miles where we bombed the fire road.”

Brooks Caldera 7

(Photo: Courtesy Brooks)

Best Max Cushion​

Brooks Caldera 7

$150 at REI (Men’s) $150 at REI (Women’s)

Weight: 10.6oz (men), 9.4oz (women)
Stack Height: 38.5–32.5mm
Drop: 6 mm
Sizing: 7-15 (men’s), 5-12 (women’s)

Pros and Cons
Well cushioned while still stable
Great fitting, protective upper
Challenging in really rocky terrain

For those who believe big and bold are better traits for trail shoes, look no further than the maximum cushioned Brooks Caldera 7. This monster of a shoe is best suited for ultra-long outings, shorter recovery runs, or road-to-trail jaunts when underfoot comfort and protection are a priority. “Brooks nailed the sweet spot for cushioning,” said Michael Heimes of West Reading, Pennsylvania, noting that while comfortably soft, the midsole was not so squishy that instability and energy loss became a factor. To complement the smooth cushioning, Brooks extends the nitrogen-injected EVA-rubber blend midsole up into sidewalls that raise high around the heel, creating a cupping effect to secure it in place, then dip lower along the forefoot to improve flexibility and deliver a smooth ride. The sidewalls, coupled with an extra-wide footprint, make the Caldera 7 one of the more stable rides we tested.

One might think this highly-cushioned, wide platform would make it challenging to tackle undulating terrain, yet testers found the opposite. “Despite the maximal protection and high stack height, the ride still has plenty of ground feel,” tester Louis Brenner of Montana found. Short of extremely rocky, sloped, technical trails, the wide, oversized profile rolls over rough terrain like an offroad 4×4, comfortably absorbing every little bump and groove. Beneath the thick midsole is a full-coverage outsole, thickly studded with four-millimeter lugs, that instills a grip and rip-it, confidence-inspiring attitude on most terrain, including roads. While not designed to be speedy, testers found the improved flex grooves made the toe roll smoother and the shoe feel faster and more agile than previous versions. For the upper, Brooks used a new TPEE air mesh with a firm-toe bumper guard and an external cage to further beef up protection and hold your foot firmly. We welcomed the protective armor the upper provided, but some of our narrow-footed testers found it fit a little too wide and roomy for their liking.

La Sportiva Prodigo

(Photo: Courtesy La Sportiva)

Best Cushioned Performance​

La Sportiva Prodigo

$155 at REI (Men’s) $155 at REI (Women’s)

Weight: 9.5 oz (men), 8.1 oz (women)
Stack Height: 34–28mm
Drop: 6mm
Sizing: 6-15.5 (men’s), 5.5-11 (women’s)

Pros and Cons
Balance of cushioned comfort and agility-enabling ground feel
Superior outsole grip
Runs small

La Sportiva shoes are known for being rigid, firm, and best-suited for the demands of technical mountain running. The all-new Prodigo breaks free of that mold, introducing a softer, more approachable La Sportiva underfoot experience with comfort a priority, thanks to a generous layer of a new nitrogen-infused EVA-based midsole. Testers universally welcomed this gentler ride. Nick Presniakov of Montecito, California reported that the new foam was “soft but had great energy return,” while “still maintaining great ground feel.” The ride is enhanced by a thin PU-coated film embedded in the midsole, that adds both stability and rock protection.

Underfoot, you’d be hard-pressed to find a grippier outsole, especially on rocks. The dense, proprietary dual compound rubber with four-millimeter lugs sticks to rock like a climbing shoe while also digging in on the dirt. Testers applauded the high-tenacity engineered knit upper with a plush heel collar for its comfort, breathability, protection, and snug fit. However, runners with wide feet may want to steer clear.

The Prodigo is the quintessential one-shoe quiver. “Comfortable enough to wear on a casual trail run but ready to go the distance on mountain trails,” said Nick, while another tester called it, “Your go-anywhere trail shoe.”

The North Face Altamesa 500

(Photo: Courtesy The North Face)

Best For Unpredictable Trails​

The North Face Altamesa 500

$155 at REI (Men’s) $155 at REI (Women’s)

Weight: 10.4 oz (men’s), 8.5 oz (women’s)
Stack Height: 36–30mm
Drop: 6mm
Sizing: 7-14 (men’s), 5-11 (women’s)

Pros and Cons
Stable underfoot protection
Swallows rugged terrain
Not a speedy ride

It was love-at-first-run for our team with this cushioned trail shoe from The North Face. Put to the test on rutted cattle trails, loose sandhills, rocky steeps, and swoopy singletrack, the Altamesa 500 excelled across the board. Stable footing in a wide range of conditions stemmed from a combination of traction, foothold, and geometry. The outsole, made of the company’s proprietary grippy rubber compound, is studded with multidirectional, four-millimeter lugs—some with small channels to help disperse water on wet surfaces—and handled all surfaces surefootedly. Stretchy material connecting the tongue to the upper provided a secure (and comfortable) hold around the midfoot, while the midsole on both sides of the rearfoot extends slightly above where the foot sits, creating sidewalls that act like a supportive cradle. A wide base that flares out from the sleeker upper and a reinforced heel counter add to the stable ride.

This is no stiff stability shoe, however. A thick stack of cushy and forgiving “Dream” foam (a gas-infused EVA) underfoot and a nicely padded tongue and heel collar create a comfy ride, while a flexible forefoot allows engagement with the trail. “These have an interesting mix of cushioning and proprioceptive feel,” said one tester, who noted that the feeling of forward propulsion wasn’t as extreme as in a plated super shoe, but the rockered shape seemed to encourage a smooth stride. “I felt very supported, and like I bounced forward with every step,” said Maia Tozzi of Boulder, Colorado, who raved about how well the shoes coddled her legs. “They were so easy on my joints I could run forever,” she said.

Merrell MTL Long Sky 2 Matryx

(Photo: Courtesy Merrell)

Best For Speedy Scrambles​

Merrell MTL Long Sky 2 Matryx

$160 at REI (Men’s) $160 at REI (Women’s)

Weight: 8.3 oz (men’s), 6.9 oz (women’s)
Stack Height: 23.5–19.5mm
Drop: 4mm
Sizing: 7-15 (men’s), 5-11 (women’s)

Pros and Cons
Lightweight, low-profile
Secure foothold
Nimble over rough terrain
Cushioning can feel slight under toes

If you’re in need of an amazingly agile shoe to scale mountain trails like a bighorn sheep, the Long Sky 2 Matryx is here for it. The new upper, made out of Matryx—a thin, breathable, quick-drying synthetic fabric reinforced with super-durable Kevlar threads—secures the foot, with a half-booty tongue adding extra hold. Cutouts in the Vibram Megagrip outsole save weight between the tacky, grippy-rubber, five-millimeter lugs. The flexible, compression-molded EVA midsole is on the slight end, enabling confidence-inspiring proprioception and secure footplants on tricky terrain, and firm-but-adequate cushioning on hard-surface trails. The upper and sole combination locks each stride to the ground. “It is such a lightweight shoe, with great traction and fit, that moving your feet over terrain is easier than in a more bulky, highly-cushioned shoe,” said Lousiville, Colorado-based tester Terri Kazanjian.

This was our go-to shoe for any fast-effort trail runs, or days we craved a highly nimble shoe that felt like an extension of our body. Kanzanjian summed up: “This shoe makes you feel nimble and peppy on technical terrain, like you can run up those hills and bomb those descents faster than normal.”

Brooks Catamount 3

(Photo: Courtesy Brooks)

Best For Fast All-Terrain Runs​

Brooks Catamount 3

$170 at REI (Men’s) $170 at REI (Women’s)

Weight: 9.4 oz (men), 8.4 oz (women)
Stack Height: 32–26mm
Drop: 6 mm
Sizing: 7-13, 14, 15 (men’s), 5-12 (women’s)

Pros and Cons
Lightweight, peppy ride
Comfortable fitting, secure upper
Outstanding traction
Not cushioned enough for some

Testers unanimously praised the Brooks Catamount 3 as the ultimate jack-of-all-trades choice —a versatile trail runner that excels in various terrains. While designed for speed and agility, the Catamount 3 proved remarkably adaptable, with an impressive range. Tester Michael Heimes of West Reading, Pennsylvania, called it “a perfect daily hybrid door-to-trail shoe, agile racer for ultra distances, or a light and responsive daily trainer on mixed trails.” Testers struggled to find ground in which it didn’t excel.

Embedded in the responsive, nitrogen-infused midsole is a pliable, multi-pronged plate made of Pebax RNew that’s anything but rigid and prescriptive. The forefoot still retains ample flexibility in both side-to-side and forefoot-to-rearfoot movements, ensuring a seamless and natural transition and adaptability to tricky terrain underfoot, while still delivering a touch of that lively, snappy sensation associated with plated shoes.

To help you stay well-connected with the ground, the Catamount 3 incorporates a new, eco-friendly rubber outsole made with 25 percent recycled content. Heimes found it “light and quite tacky,” while Lou Brenner of Polson Montana noted that the outsole “created lots of confidence on technical terrain where agility is a necessity.” Tester Jonathan Beverly said he felt connected and never slipped on a western Nebraska run with a 2-inch layer of snow beneath his feet and more coming down fast.

Testers across the board loved how well-fitting and supportive the recycled mesh upper felt. Those familiar with the Catamount 2 will find the upper a tad bit thinner, but not to the detriment of comfort and security. In fact, we found just the opposite: The single-layer, more breathable, and more flexible upper has a better foothold—thanks to strategic TPU overlays and sawtooth laces (studded with little nodules with to cinch down easily and prevent slipping and untying). “The upper is form-fitting, cradles my foot perfectly, and does so with ample but not excessive padding around the ankle and a minimally padded tongue,” said one tester. Another raved, “I felt like the upper held my foot so effectively and the sole reacted to my stride so naturally that all of my force was being translated to the ground, as in a racing shoe, yet without ever feeling cramped, controlled or beat up.”

Salomon Thundercross

(Photo: Courtesy Salomon)

Most Versatile​

Salomon Thundercross

$140 at REI (Men’s) $140 at REI (Women’s)

Weight: 10.2 oz (men’s), 9.0 oz (women’s)
Stack Height: 31–27mm
Drop: 4 mm drop
Sizing: Men’s 7–14, Women’s 5–11

Pros and Cons
Grippy outsole
Responsive midsole
Versatile ride
Not the most cushioned

This new model combines the all-purpose versatility of the brand’s Sense Ride with the grippy, ruggedness of the Speedcross, making it even more terrain-adaptable than either of its siblings. Featuring the same softly responsive, EVA+Olefin midsole as the Sense Ride 5, but with slightly thicker stack height and half the heel-toe drop, the Thundercross delivers a smooth and agile ride. “The shoe offers a great balance of ground feel with protection and responsiveness,” said one tester.

Generously spaced, five-millimeter chevron lugs dig into loose dirt, mud, snow, and sand like a pitchfork, while still maintaining a pleasant ride on firm surfaces. Those seeking an all-around, all-terrain trail shoe for short to medium-length runs, with an excellent grip and a comfortable, well-padded upper need look no further. “The best Salomon I’ve tested to date,” raved one tester.

Dynafit Ultra 100

(Photo: Courtesy Dynafit)

Most Agile​

Dynafit Ultra 100

$180 at Backcountry (Men’s) $180 at Backcountry (Women’s)

Weight: 10.5 oz (men’s), 9.5 oz (women’s)
Stack Height: 32–26mm
Drop: 6mm
Sizing: Men’s 7.5–13, Women’s 6–11

Pros and Cons
Locked-in fit
Protective upper
Superior ground connection
Not much cushion

While some trail shoes roll over obstacles like a monster truck, the Ultra 100 delivers an agile, catlike ride over tricky terrain, so connected that it feels as if the bottom of your feet had sprouted traction. Even the narrowest-footed testers raved about the precision fit, with no pressure points when cinching the laces down snug. An internal webbing system covered by thin mesh and protective TPU on the sidewalls wrapped comfortably around our feet while a diagonal band of TPU on the exterior secured our feet in place while guiding a natural, stable stride.

Underfoot, four-millimeter, widely-spaced hexagon-shaped lugs, made of Pomoca (a grippy rubber compound), create top-of-class traction on wet, dry, loose and tacky surfaces alike. The shoes combination of confident fit and grip, flexible agility, and responsive ride made it one tester’s pick while going for broke on the rugged, rooty, wild terrain of the storied 7.4-mile Dipsea trail race in the woods of Northern California.

Topo Athletic MT-5

(Photo: Courtesy Topo Athletic)

Most Natural Ride​

Topo Athletic MT-5

$130 at REI (Men’s) $130 at REI (Women’s)

Weight: 9.3 oz (men), 7.7 oz (women)
Stack Height: 28–23mm
Drop: 5 mm
Sizing: 8-13, 14, 15 (men’s), 6-11, 12 (women’s)

Pros and Cons
Improved cushioning
Supreme traction
Comfortable anatomical fit
Can lack agility for narrow-footed testers

The MT-5 is a significant evolution from the MT-4, with a higher stack height (three millimeters more foam under the heel, one millimeter more in the forefoot), a different foam (softer and bouncier), and an updated Vibram XS Trek EVO outsole (grippier when wet). The comfortable fit remains distinctly Topo—with a secure-fitting heel and arch giving way to a roomy, rounded toebox. The updates nudge the shoe from a borderline minimal model to a more mainstream, lightly cushioned, nimble daily trainer. We dig it.

Tester Lindsay Clark of Lafayette, Colorado, said, “This is a perfect choice for a trail sneaker that offers cushion in the heel, but allows you to feel the earth under the toes.” And, although Clark often runs in zero-drop shoes, she said of the MT-5’s five-millimeter offset: “You don’t notice the drop as it feels very proportionate.”

Topo positions the shoe as a beginner’s trail shoe, or a road-to-trail shoe, but we found it won high marks on a variety of terrain even from our more seasoned trail runners. Because of the Vibram outsole, it seems much more at home on the dirt—even in “deep-ass, Belgium-style mud,” said Shelby Katz, of Boulder, Colorado—than on concrete or pavement, but can work as a one-quiver shoe. “I’ll add this shoe to my Goldilocks pile,” added Katz.

On Running Cloudsurfer Trail

(Photo: Courtesy On Running)

Best For Groomed Trails​

On Running Cloudsurfer Trail

$160 at REI (Men’s) $160 at REI (Women’s)

Weight: 9.5 oz (men), 8.2 oz (women)
Stack Height: 32.5–25.5mm
Drop: 7 mm
Sizing: 7-13, 14 (men’s), 5-11 (women’s)

Pros and Cons
Comfortable fit
Smooth cushioning
Transitions smoothly from road to trail
Chops on rugged terrain

We took the Cloudsurfer Trail on paved roads that lead to technical singletrack, on urban gravel paths, and on moderate mountain trails. It showed off on all but the most rugged surfaces—there, we craved more traction, foothold, and protection. But on the terrain it is designed for—routes that combine roads and tame-to-moderate trails—the shoe “gets the job done without complaints,” as one tester reported.

It’s comfortable upon first step-in, with the lightly padded tongue and heel collar encasing our feet nicely. Ample cushioning from strategically angled, oval-shaped open spaces within the midsole—called “CloudTec Phase” and found in the brand’s recent road running shoes—delivered a soft, smooth-rolling ride on hard surfaces. On the trail, the 2.5mm lugs made out of a proprietary rubber compound made us feel secure on rocky dirt, both uphill and down. Given their low profile, the lugs didn’t interfere with smooth turnover on groomed trails or roads, where toothier traction tends to feel clunky.

A soft and flexible upper that utilizes embroidered overlays for abrasion resistance proved comfortable on long runs. “This shoe is comfy and accommodating for everyday fitness trail running,” said one tester. Another said he’s “reached for them often for daily runs, particularly when I’m feeling a bit beat up and wanting some coddling.”

Craft Nordlite Ultra

(Photo: Courtesy Craft)

Best For Road-To-Trail​

Craft Nordlite Ultra

$160 at REI (Men’s) $160 at REI (Women’s)

Weight: 9.3 oz (men’s), 8.1 oz (women’s)
Stack Height: 40–34mm (men’s), 38–32mm (women’s)
Drop: 6mm
Sizing: Men’s 8–13, Women’s 7–10

Pros and Cons
Versatile cushioning and traction
Agility from flexible sole
Comfortable fit
Upper could be more secure

For runners who alternate day-to-day between roads and trails, or combine sections of road and trail every time they head out the door, the Nordlite Ultra is one of the smoothest, most comfortable one-quiver shoes we’ve ever worn. We love how the high and wide stack of nitrogen-infused midsole foam absorbs impact on hard surfaces, like concrete and pavement, yet doesn’t mush, squish, or bounce us off of rocks on trails.

In addition to the wide base and resilient foam, what helps this shoe transition so well to trails is the segmented outsole and cut-away middle of the midsole. The break decouples the front and back of the shoe, which means the heel and forefoot cushioning move more independently from one another than with traditional outsole/midsole combinations, creating a nicely adaptive ride (similar to but not quite as extremely decoupled as the Brooks Aurora BL). The large, varied, multi-directional traction lugs handled all but the most rugged trail terrain as well. We found the one-piece mesh upper extremely comfortable, but it does lack security against lateral movements and protection on overgrown or rocky, rooty trails. Note: the fit is full-volume; some testers sized down.

New Balance Fresh Foam x Hierro v8

(Photo: Courtesy New Balance)

Best For Beginner Trail Runners​

New Balance Fresh Foam x Hierro v8

$150 at REI (Men’s) $150 at REI (Women’s)

Weight: 11.2 oz (men), 8.9 oz (women)
Stack Height: 37.9–29.9mm
Drop: 6mm
Sizing: 7-17 (men’s), 5-12 (women’s) in three widths

Pros and Cons
Soft, comfortable upper
Balance of cushion and ground sensitivity
All-terrain adaptability
Poor underfoot rock protection

The Fresh Foam Hierro v8 earns its place among our favorites thanks to its lightweight feel, cushy underfoot comfort, and tactile agility. Whether navigating singletrack or pounding pavement to get to the trails, it effortlessly transitions across a variety of terrain, making it an excellent all-around light trail choice for beginners and intermediate trail runners.

Out of the box, the Hierro v8 is as comfortable of a shoe as you’ll find. Like the Hierro v7 it features the lighter and softer version of New Balance’s proprietary Fresh Foam EVA blended midsole, now made from approximately 40 percent bio-based materials. Shelby Katz of Boulder, Colorado, described the midsole cushioning as “super supple,” while fellow Boulderite Molly Bockmann noted it felt soft enough to be comfy and protective but not so much that it was unresponsive or marshmallowy.

Despite its ample cushioning, the Hierro v8 offers a remarkably sensitive ride, almost akin to a minimalist shoe, allowing runners to feel every bump and contour of the trail. While this ground feedback appealed to some, the soft midsole, lacking an embedded rock plate, permits runners to feel even the smallest rocks underfoot, for better or worse. One pleased tester noted, “The proprioceptive connection to the trail, along with raised sidewalls surrounding the heel and a flared forefoot under the big toe, make the ride much more stable and nimble than expected for a shoe this soft and cushioned.”

Apart from one thick muddy run where a tester experienced severe clumping, testers all agreed the Vibram outsole with 4.5mm lugs offered exceptional traction and grip without feeling bumpy or harsh on hardpack or road. All enjoyed how the engineered mesh upper—made of 100 percent recycled materials and print died for less pollution—felt airy while providing a superb foothold from the smooth-syncing lacing system. The protective, extra-firm, reinforced toe bumper was also a welcome addition for durability and safety.

The Hierro v8 is an excellent choice if you only want to buy one trail shoe, or if you’re going on a trip and only want to pack one pair. Molly called it a perfect “explorer” shoe: “You could go out without a plan and not regret wearing these.”

Allbirds Tree Flyer 2

(Photo: Courtesy Allbirds)

Best Eco-Friendly Ride​

Allbirds Tree Flyer 2

$160 at Allbirds (Men’s) $160 at Allbirds (Women’s)

Weight: 10.6 oz (men), 8.3 oz (women)
Stack Height: 30.5–22mm
Drop: 8.5 mm
Sizing: Men’s 8–14, Women’s 5–11

Pros and Cons
Responsive ride
Stretchy, secure fit
Eco-friendly construction
Low volume fit
Relatively heavy

Better known for environmentally friendly, comfortable, casual wear shoes, Allbirds breaks into the performance trail running world with the Tree Flyer 2. This clean-looking shoe with sharp lines and angles balances form with function. The midsole, made with a bio-based Pebax foam, is remarkably responsive, and forgiving enough to hop on the road when needed. Horizontal lugs on the natural rubber tread—not the typical chevron pattern seen on most trail outsoles—gripped the trail adequately on most terrain: we felt sure-footed on smoother surfaces, though we wished for more bite when the footing got loose and granular.

The surprisingly secure fit inspired a full-throttle, hard-charging attitude down rocky trails. Testers loved how the knit upper, made of eucalyptus tree fibers, delivered a relatively tight fit through the midfoot, contrasted with a looser, stretchier feel in the toes and top. Heel lockdown was rated among the best we’ve tested in recent years. “[The Tree Flyer 2] managed to be snug and confident without irritating the back of my heel,” reported one tester.

Read our full Allbirds Tree Flyer 2 review

Topo Terraventure 4 WP

(Photo: Courtesy Topo)

Best For Damp Backcountry​

Topo Terraventure 4 WP

$150 at REI (Men’s) $150 at Amazon (Women’s)

Weight: 12 oz (men), 10.1 oz (women)
Stack Height: 25–22mm
Drop: 3mm
Sizing: Men’s 7–15, Women’s 6–12

Pros and Cons
Rugged and durable
Excellent waterproofing
Grippy traction
Stiff, lacks bounciness

Big mountain running can be relentless. Between the shifty, unpredictable weather and rocky, technical footing, you need a shoe as tough as the mountain itself, but not so rugged it grinds up your feet. Enter the Topo Terraventure 4 WP. One tester described the shoe as a “burly mountain machine,” citing its aggressive outsole, highly durable construction, and secure foothold. Those seeking a high-cushioned, bouncy trail running shoe should look elsewhere— this protective, waterproof running or hiking shoe keeps you stable and connected to the ground with its firm, low-profile sole that delivers just a hint of responsive cushioning.

What the shoe lacks in softness, however, it makes up for in fit. Designed with Topo’s signature wide, anatomical toe box to allow for natural toe splay, combined with a tailored trim through the midfoot and heel, the hold is secure without compromising mobility. “This shoe fit my foot like a glove,” gushed one tester. Underfoot, a full-coverage, large-lugged Vibram Megagrip outsole tackles any trail surface with aplomb, and a flexible forefoot rock plate adds phenomenal poke-through protection, increasing its big mountain prowess. Testers enjoyed the eVent upper’s ability to prevent water from seeping in but warned it severely lacked breathability, making it best suited for fall and wet wintery conditions. The Terraventure 4 WP is a bargain, too. You’d be hard-pressed to find any other waterproof trail/mountain running shoe for anything near the $150 price point.

How to Choose a Trail Shoe​

If you’re in the market for a trail shoe, first consider the type of trails you run on regularly: do you tackle rugged, mountainous terrain, or stick to mellow dirt paths? Some trail shoes can handle both adequately, while others are specialized and excel in one or the other. Shoes with smaller lugs are generally better on smoother, firmer terrain, whereas shoes with deeper, more aggressive outsoles are optimized for steep, muddy, or rocky trails. If you like to feel the trail and dance around rocks and roots, you’ll likely prefer a light, more minimal shoe, but if you’d rather let the shoe roll over trail variations, cushioning and protecting while you zone out, you should look for a shoe with a thicker midsole.

Once you’ve narrowed the search to a certain type of trail shoe, you need to find a pair that complements your unique body and stride. Every runner’s body, gait, speed, experience, and ride preferences are different, so every runner will interact differently with each trail shoe. The shoe that your best friend or your sister-in-law loves may be uncomfortable for you and make running feel slow, sluggish, or even painful. Finding the perfect pair of trail running shoes is a seriously personal affair.

The process for choosing the best running shoes is a matter of finding the models that both fit your foot and also feel best when you’re running. To determine fit and feel, there’s no substitute for trying the shoes on and running in them.

Fit: Match Your Foot Shape

When assessing fit, first pay attention to length. You need room at the end of your toes as your feet lengthen during their dynamic movements on the run. A rule of thumb is to allow a thumb’s width between your longest toe and the end of the shoe. Runners often wear a running shoe a half or full size bigger than their street shoes.

Ensure that the shape of the sole and the upper matches your foot shape. The sole should be as wide or wider than your foot for the whole length, and match the curve of your arch comfortably. The shoe should hold your foot securely over the instep, while allowing the ball of the foot and the toes to splay and flex when you roll forward onto them. Your heel shouldn’t slip when you lift it, and the arch should be able to dome and lengthen naturally. Nothing should bind or rub as you roll through the stride.

Feel: Match Your Movement Path

If the shoe fits, it’s time to take them on a short run on a treadmill, around the store, or, ideally, down the block and back. Every running shoe has a unique ride created by the type and density of foam in the midsole and the geometry of that foam: its thickness, width, heel-to-toe drop, molded sidewalls or flares, and forefoot flexibility or rocker shape (plus, in an increasing number of models, the presence of and type of embedded plate). Each of these elements interact with each other and your stride to determine how the shoe reacts on landing, how much it cushions, how stably it supports, how smoothly it transitions from landing to toe off, and how quickly and powerfully it rebounds.

The best way to choose the shoes that complement your body and stride is to find the ones that feel right on the run. Benno Nigg, the world-leading biomechanics professor who proposed this method of shoe selection, calls it the “comfort filter,” but makes clear it is far more than how plush the shoe feels when you step into it. What you want to assess is whether the shoe allows and supports the way your feet want to move, what Nigg calls your “preferred movement path.” In the right shoe, while running at your normal pace, you will touch down where you expect to land, roll smoothly and stably through the stride without noticing the shoe, feel both cushioned from and connected to the ground, and push off naturally, quickly, and powerfully. When this comes together you’ll know that you’ve found your pair.

It’s likely that several shoes will feel good on your feet. To find the most comfortable, it helps to compare them back to back, like an eye doctor will do with corrective lenses: flipping between “A” or “B,” “1” or “2.” You may also find that different shoes feel better at different paces or level of fatigue, and you may want more than one pair. In fact, research shows that wearing a variety of different shoes is one of the few proven ways to reduce injury risk as it appears to vary the stresses on your feet and joints.

What About Injury Prevention?

Running shoes have long been marketed and sold as prescriptive devices to help runners stay healthy, but there is little scientific evidence correlating shoes, or any specific shoe properties—like cushioning or pronation control—with running injuries. Medical professionals say that it is highly difficult to determine whether a runner needs a certain type of shoe, and studies have shown that prescribing shoes using traditional methods like treadmill gait analyses or wet-foot arch height tests don’t consistently reduce injuries.

Don’t assume that you need more cushioning or more stability if you have sore joints, or if you’re a heavier runner, or if you’re a beginner—evidence doesn’t support many common beliefs. The best way prevent injury is find two or three different pairs that feel right on the run, ease into using them, and vary your shoes, your running surface and your pace regularly (plus avoid rapid increases in your training load and work on improving your mechanics).

How We Test​

  • Number of testers: 27
  • Number of shoes tested: 157
  • Number of miles: 22,000+ over a year
  • Most Memorable Trail Run: Being stalked by a mountain lion on an evening run in an open space near Boulder

To test running shoes, we begin by researching every brand’s upcoming offerings for the coming season. We wind up with dozens of samples of the models (72 this season) that are most promising—not just for us, but for 25 testers that range in age, ability, running form, geographical location, terrain, and preferred shoe types. We try to put each tester in models from within the same category (all rugged, backcountry trail shoes, or all road-to-trail crossovers) so everyone can test apples-to-apples.

After three to six months of running in each model on varied terrain and in all conditions, our crew members report back with their assessments of fit, comfort, traction, cushioning, flexibility, stiffness, pop, what type of running the model is best used for, how the shoe compares to other models, and more. We also run in every shoe ourselves, and, combining all the tester feedback with years of personal experience, hone in on the best.

Meet Our Lead Testers​

Lisa Jhung

Freelance journalist, editor, and author Lisa Jhung has researched, tested, and written about running shoes for the past decade and a half, much of that time for Outside and Outside Buyer’s Guides. She coordinates a fleet of female shoe testers out of Boulder, Colorado, and says her home office is a perpetual obstacle course of cardboard boxes and piles of running shoes. Lisa’s written about gear of all kinds for numerous national magazines as both an editor and freelancer, including a stint as the Shoes & Gear blogger and trail running microsite editor for Runner’s World.

A high school jumper and occasional sprinter/hurdler, she started running—really running—after walking off the collegiate volleyball team, and moved on to road and trail races of any distance, triathlons, adventure races, and mountain running. She’s happiest testing rugged trail shoes on gnarly terrain, and also loves a good neighborhood jaunt…but is almost always looking for ribbons of dirt. Lisa is the author of “Running That Doesn’t Suck: How to Love Running (Even If You Think You Hate It)” (2019) and “Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running” (2015).

Cory Smith

Cory’s passion for running started over 30 years ago in high school when he became the number six ranked runner in the nation at 3000 meters his senior year. After high school, he competed at Villanova University, earning two NCAA Division I Championship showings. Today, he’s determined not to let age slow him down and competes on the national master’s circuit, running a 4:12 (4:30 mile pace)) 1500 meters and 9:04 (4:52 mile pace) 3000 meters in 2021 at age 43. He prefers a hard track workout or tempo run over an easy long run any day but also appreciates a challenging trail or mountain run.

His obsession with running shoes started in 2014 when he wrote his first shoe review for Gear Institute. Since then, he’s tested and reviewed hundreds of running shoes, clothing, and gear for Outside, Runner’s World, Footwear News, and other outlets. He has a soft spot for speedy shoes over heavy trainers but loves dissecting all shoes equally and thinking like a product engineer to explain the why behind every design detail. Cory is the Founder of Run Your Personal Best, an online running coaching business, and since its inception in 2014, has coached runners’ to over 100 Boston Marathon Qualifying times.

One of Cory Smith’s go-to routes for testing trail running shoes:

Jonathan Beverly

Jonathan fell in love with running his freshman year of high school and quickly became fascinated with finding the perfect pair of running shoes. That quest got a boost when he became editor of Running Times in 2000 and started receiving every new model as they were released. The parade of shoes continued while he served as shoe editor for Runner’s World, then editor of PodiumRunner, and currently fitness gear editor at Outside. Having now worn nearly every running shoe created in this century—and a fair amount of those dating back to the early models of the ’70s—he’s given up on finding the one best and now relishes the wide variety of excellent options.

Once a 2:46 marathoner regularly doing 50+ mile weeks, recent injuries and his age have reduced his volume by about half and slowed his easy training pace to around nine-minute miles—but he says he still enjoys an uptempo workout or two each week. Beverly is the author of the book Your Best Stride which explores how each individual’s gait—and thus shoe preference—is unique. He enjoys getting scientists’ take on new shoe trends and trying to describe the nuances of each shoe’s ride.

One of Jonathan Beverly’s go-to routes for testing trail running shoes:

The post The Best Trail Running Shoes for Every Terrain appeared first on Outside Online.

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