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The Best Trail Running Shoes for Enjoying the Great Outdoors

Apr 07, 2023

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Take your training with a side of adventure when you lace up these trail-ready kicks.

Try as we might, we’ve all felt that "stuck in a rut" feeling when it comes to our running regimen. Those twists and turns through the neighborhood or mundane laps around the track just won't cut it anymore, so what's an athlete to do? Take the road (err, trail) less traveled, of course.

Trail running can be an excellent way to tally up your daily miles while also getting a taste of the wild outdoors. The rugged terrain and varying elevations also give each training session a unique sense of challenge. In our experience, though, we’re too busy taking in the adventure to realize we’re actually putting down some serious exercise.

Much like your dedicated running kit, though, there is some specialization that comes with trail running — namely in the footwear you decide to lace up in. To get the most out of your afternoons in the mud and hills, you need the proper sneakers for the tasks at hand.

While we’re fans of hitting the pavement laced up in the latest road running shoes, we’re still wild at heart and never miss an opportunity to hit our local trails and pathways for a few miles. No matter the terrain or forecast, we’re constantly traversing the hills in search of that perfect trail running silhouette.

We’ve run all through the nation, too, to get a full glance at how each profile below performed in terms of underfoot comfort and responsiveness. Those miles have also allowed us to examine each kick's durability and traction through varied conditions, as well as protective features and weather-oriented treatments.

Lastly, while trail running may see you disappear into the wilderness for training, it always helps when a shoe silhouette has some standout style to it. So we’re keeping wise to sneakers that bring some vibrancy to our outdoor wardrobes as well.

Think you’re ready for the adventures ahead? Let's lace up, choose a line and get right into the best trail running shoes on the market.

For that "just right" blend of support and cushioning, look no further than the fan-favorite Speedgoat 5s from Hoka. The compression-molded foam midsole provides excellent comfort underfoot that's ready to take on the trails no matter the intended distance. We also love the improved Vibram Megagrip outsole with Traction Lugs, as we felt no sense of slipping or sliding across loose gravel or muddy bogs.

Despite the ample coziness across this standout silhouette, the Speedgoat 5s remain surprisingly lightweight at 10.3 ounces. This can lend itself to less taxing pickups when climbing a nearby hill or picking up the pace along straightaways. That foam underfoot can lead to some disconnect between your landings and the ground, though, which we fell victim to across more technical terrain. For the weekend jaunts and adventurous evenings, though, it's hard to beat the GOAT of trail running sneakers.

There's a lot to like about this unique silhouette from Speedland. Sure, you could hone in on the dual-direction Li2 BOA dials that help create an unmatched lockdown across the top of your foot. You could also admire the beaded Pebax external midsole that brings excellent cushioning to each wild stride. For us, though, it's hard to ignore the GS:TAM's compatibility with Carbitex Gear Plates that allow you to customize how rigid and responsive your trail rides are.

In testing, we also enjoyed how breathable the updated mesh upper felt, especially when compared to hot yet durable Dyneema offerings of previous iterations. This kept conditions cool and cozy, so we suspect there's plenty of summertime trail runs ahead in these sleek, vibrant sneakers. We do caution, though, that these may be less ideal for athletes with arch issues. There's a lack of medial support across this profile, and the GS:TAMs aren't compatible with drop-in insoles, so there's no way to really enhance this silhouette for a more stable ride.

If you’re looking to keep your trail running ensemble cost-effective, then give these revamped kicks a shot at the outdoors. We really enjoy the updated upper across this Nova 3 silhouette which improves durability and over-the-foot protection. Taking these puppies through some overgrown pathways was an afterthought, and the shoes appear to be holding up nicely. Additionally, Merrell's decision to add FloatPro Foam pods to both the heel and toe box help create a nice, plush experience during landings and toe-offs alike.

Unfortunately, that plush does sort of drift away toward the middle of the shoe. The rock plate does little at preventing exaggerated ground feel, so if you’re trekking across loose gravel, expect to feel those particularly protruding pebbles. Also, while we view this as a daily trail runner, we do recommend saving those "daily miles" for warmer, clearer weather. The 4mm lugs across the outsole did see some traction compromise in wet conditions. Still, though, for an affordable trail running silhouette that looks good, too? It's worth the thought.

Have access to nearby pathways day in and day out? You’ll need a sneaker that's responsive enough for pushing through your weekly load while still remaining comfortable to keep your interest in the discipline. For these scenarios, we highly recommend the Peregrine 13 from Saucony thanks to its lightweight yet energetic PWWRUN midsole foam. Plus, we also enjoy the integrated rock plate across the underfoot frame that helps protect you from those pesky pebbles and protruding tree roots that always find a way to, well, get in the way.

The Peregrine 13s are another legacy silhouette in the trail running scene, and running in them easily showcases why. With that said, however, these trail runners showcase an all-too-common dilemma amongst the category — slim toe boxes. You definitely get that snug, locked-in feel from the tight profile, but naturally, this may be too much to overcome for some athletes. Additionally, we found the tongue's thin nature to do little in terms of comfort if the laces were tied taut over the top of the foot. There's simply too much pressure for the fabric to overcome, so you may want to wear these a little looser for those afternoon jogs through the hills.

Sure, trail running is all about finding that ideal ground connection to traverse intricate lines, but that doesn't mean each step can't have a heaping dose of coziness with it. It doesn't take long to realize that the Caldera 6 aims to make this notion a definite reality thanks to its hefty DNA Loft v3 midsole presence and mile-high stack height. Despite this slab of underfoot foam, we still felt a good sense of ground contact and control in our adventurous strides, and easily enjoyed the bounce and softness along the way as well.

There's also no shortage of grip and traction thanks to the Trailtac outsole … indeed, there's almost too much. We took these sneakers through some muddy bogs on a few occasions and found that the lugs didn't want to let go of the terrain. This created a slick sensation underfoot at times, and definitely called for some shake-off before hopping in our car post-training. Additionally, the larger profile of the Caldera 6 feels fine at typical running paces, but any slower speed can feel clunky at times.

Have an itch to tackle those multi-mile trailways through your local park or mountainside? These kicks from TOPO Athletic are prime for those long-distance jaunts. We appreciate the noticeable toe spring that makes for smooth, intuitive transitions, and there's plenty to love about the soft ZipFoam midsole, too. The abundance of underfoot comfort makes tackling those longer excursions more approachable, which is a definite plus considering the heightened intensity of trail running's varying elevations and uneven terrain.

Now, you might experience this bounce and plush and want to pick up the pace out of sheer enthusiasm, but trust us when we say these are not the profiles for high-paced strides. For one, the 10.2-ounce frame can make for hefty pickups that may leave you tired after a few bursts of speed. Additionally, the ZipFoam is great for managed paces but doesn't deliver the same snap as others in this list. Think of these as your adventure-ready cruisers that are more about taking in the view of longer treks than simply blazing through the courses.

Having a new iteration of such an innovative trail running shoe so quickly may deter some athletes, but after logging a few miles in the all-new Tecton X 2s, we think Hoka still has its fastball when it comes to race-ready profiles. For one, this new iteration answered any previous notes about the upper, and in testing, we enjoyed how breathable and lightweight the Matryx fast-dry fabric felt along our routes.

As comfortable and impressive this new upper is, however, the independent carbon plate setup is what gives these kicks the race-ready moniker. After all, it's what made us fall head over heels for the original, and we’re happy Hoka stuck to its innovative makeup in this latest iteration. Finding that snap and responsiveness regardless of terrain is still fun and easy, providing just the right amount of energy return that's prime for the starting line. Sure, the lugs could be longer to help improve traction through muddy terrain, but this isn't a daily trainer. You’re only supposed to break these literal trailblazers out when earning the pole position is your ultimate goal.

The Brooks Catamount 2 is a fun and featherweight profile that's ideal for those training days where fast is the only option. We admire the attention to detail across this silhouette, such as the gusseted tongue that doesn't move or jostle as you pick up the pace across numerous agents and descents. Plus, the TrailTack outsole gives each step enough traction without grabbing too much terrain to make getting out of the muck a complicated endeavor.

Another key feature of this lightweight Brooks offering is the SkyVault propulsion plate. This integrated component definitely made for a more rigid midsole that was great for toe-offs, but if you’re looking for a snappier setup similar to something like the aforementioned Tecton X 2, you’ll likely be left wanting more. Still, though, the Skyvault plate has enough fun and performance baked into its design, which we especially felt on hill climbs. The more rigid experience allowed us to maintain stability and continue to drive uphill without any excessive attention or heightened effort, so if your normal trails feature a lot of ascents, these could be a worthwhile option.

Naturally, not every trail run involves vast mountainscapes or wild fields that look peeled from the cover of your grandfather's old Field & Stream archives. There's plenty of paved pathways that have a slight sense of adventure to them, yet still remain tame enough to not warrant a heavily-lugged sneaker. For these scenarios, we enjoy pacing along in the Nike Pegasus Trail 4s thanks to their comfortable React foam midsole and improved traction without that rumble you’d experience across more aggressive tread. While multiple iterations of this shoe exist, we tend to favor the GTX version shown here, as the partially waterproof makeup gives us better confidence when trekking through small puddles and even allows for the occasional creek crossing, too.

It is important to note the "partial" callout above, though, as the Gore-Tex membrane only travels halfway up the shoe's profile. This means that any moisture or wetness above that line can lead to some soaked interior sensations, but let's face it — these Nike kicks are more in-line with the gorpcore trend than other trail running silhouettes. Are you really that worried if you can't get these sneakers wet from ankle to toe?

Thanks to the brand's signature FootShape fit, the Altra Lone Peak 7s are a premium option for athletes with wider digits. The rounded toe box provides ample room for natural toe splaying through your strides, which helps promote heightened foot health, according to the brand. The stitch-less upper is also uber comfortable, which is why many athletes favor these as worthwhile daily trainers as well.

Despite the Lone Peak 7s being suitable for wide feet, we still found the midfoot to provide a good sense of snugness across the fit. This not only kept our digits in place better, but also lent itself to more confident strides through a variety of terrain conditions. Just be sure to mind your step when pacing downhill, however. We noticed some bottoming out at the heel when descending certain trails, which is understandable given the zero-drop nature of the Ego foam midsole.

The Agravic Flow 2 was developed with help from professional ultrarunner Abby Hall, and her input helped bring this stiff, nimble trail running silhouette to life. Built with Adidas's pro-moderator technology and a Lightstrike EVA foam midsole, the Agravic Flow 2 provides runners with stability and comfort on all types of terrain over longer distances. The Continental outsole gives it outstanding grip in variable conditions, while the breathable Gore-Tex membrane seals out moisture as well. Made with 50 percent recycled materials and featuring an engineered mesh upper with a mudguard and suede tongue, Adidas Terrex says its new shoe is built to go the distance, and our tester agreed.

While the Agravic Flow 2s proved their worth on the trails with our tester, the experience wasn't a full win. When running in her pair, our tester quickly noticed how snug the ankle collar was, which eventually led to a hot spot that caused some mild irritation. For wider-ankled athletes, it may be worth looking at other options, but for those that struggle to fill a collar out properly, Adidas has you covered.

La Sportiva is no stranger to crafting a high-octane shoe, and the Jackall II is no different than the rest of the brand's lineup. From the first time lacing these puppies up, our tester was struck by the comfort and bombproof construction of the shoe. The laces are thick enough to tie barehanded or with gloves on in cooler conditions, yet strong enough to cinch down for a secure and unmoving fit. The upper is made with no-sew, thermo-adhesive TPU reinforcements, which minimize itchy seams and provide protection from rocks and obstacles on the trail.

Although these ran large on our tester (she could easily have sized a half size down) after her mid-to-long range runs, the extra room helped accommodate any swelling she experienced. If you're racing technical trails or simply want a shoe that can stand up to plenty of abuse and use, our tester says this is the shoe to pick. If you can try one on first though, we'd highly recommend it.

Often trek through bogs and pathways that seemingly never dry out? Consider tackling those sloshed lines with these grippy behemoths from Inov-8. The 8mm (you read that correctly) lugs easily sink into any apparent muck to find traction, and the Powerflow Max foam midsole showcases some added density that ensure's you’re pushing out of the slop rather than fighting through foam and mud simultaneously. If there was ever a footwear-illustration of a mud tire, the X-Talon Ultra 260 v2 is it.

For anyone that's driven on pavement with mud tires, though, you know the aggressive tread is not the best on hard ground. The same can be said for these Inov-8 silhouettes, as there's simply too much tooth for the tamer tasks. Plus, the denser midsole may be great for creating that mud-ready platform, but when you hit the concrete or packed trailway, you can quickly notice a lack of support across the underfoot. Oh well, mud bogging is fun and all, but it's better to be equipped for the scenario itself rather than exposing yourself to that level of dirt and grime on a daily basis.

Have that one trail full of roots, climbs and loose gravel you wouldn't dare take on unless the conditions were absolutely perfect? Well, these grippy sneakers from La Sportiva are the perfect equalizer. We cannot get enough of the FriXion XT V-Groove 2 outsole and have yet to find a technical or muddied trail that's proven a worthy adversary to its traction. Plus, the lugs wrap up along the midsole, which helps maintain grip and stability even during those off-kilter steps.

Despite its burly, aggressive presence the Bushido IIs still have a soft spot, i.e., a comfortable compression-molded EVA midsole, so there's no fear of sacrificing cushioning for the sake of improved on-trail security and grip. Even the upper is well-defined for protection via microfiber overlays and welded ripstop fabric. All that textile can be prone to running hot, though, so be sure to check the forecasts prior to your outdoor sessions. Any extended mileage under clear skies could leave your socks soaked in sweat.

While we’re fans of all the profiles shown in this trail running roundup, admittedly, there are some that cater to a wider variety of tastes and wardrobes. For our money, there's few trail-specific sneakers that can touch the aesthetics of this impressive silhouette from Arc'teryx. The minimalist-minded hues accentuate every running kit rather than pulling attention from it, and the best thing of all? These puppies have some performance to go along with that pretty face, too. A Vibram Megagrip outsole and slew of 4mm lugs ensures ample grip across soft and hard terrain alike, and the lightweight build does a ton for simple, intuitive pickups once mileage enters the double digits.

The one caveat of note before you add the Norman LD 3s to your online cart is that there's little arch support underfoot which could spell issues for pronators. Additionally, we found the laces to untie more often than not, so it helps to throw a double knot across the setup before taking on your next outdoor adventure.

Thanks to its unique Dyneema upper, the Norda 001 quickly caught the eyes of many (us included) wanting to see how the Canadian export fared in the field. Well, after a successful coming out party, the brand is back with its second silhouette, the aptly-named 002, and we’re happy to say that the tough-as-nails aesthetic has not gone away, but rather been improved upon thanks to key upgrades across the profile. The all-new sneaker boasts a lower stack height which aims to help improve ground feel, while a slim 8.78-ounce weight is ideal for pickups and quick feet, even when the trails leave your legs tired and exhausted.

As was the case with its predecessor, however, that durable Dyneema upper is not the best material for breathability's sake, which can lead to some unwanted excess sweat between the toes. Plus, that protection and stability isn't free — this is one of the most expensive trail running shoes on the market. If you’re willing to make the investment, though, you’ll likely run out of trailways to conquer before the sneaker shows any signs of slowing down.

Trail running shoes are specialized sneakers designed to perform on rugged and obstacle-filled trails. Telltale signs that your shoe is engineered for trail running lie in its midsole and outsole construction. Most trail running silhouettes feature a stiffer midsole to combat the hard impact across hills and gravel as well as a grippy, lug-filled outsole prime for keeping traction through the muck and mud. You’re also likely to see durability- and protection-minded components in trail running shoes such as toe caps, rock plates and waterproofing treatments across the upper.

The first thing you'll want to consider is feel — do you want something light and flexible, or could you stand a few extra ounces in exchange for extra cushioning? Opinions vary from athlete to athlete due to the wide array of gaits, experience levels and tastes, so ultimately, a shoe that feels right to you is the best choice, period.

With that said, there are some pretty standard features on a trail runner you'll want to make sure your next pair has before clicking "Purchase." You'll want a protective toe box since you're inevitably going to encounter rocks and tree roots on your path. A grippy outsole is a must along with a durable upper — bonus points if your upper is weatherized or waterproof. Make sure your sneaker's outsole features at least 3mm lugs so you can really dig into the trail, too. Finally, read up on the midsole construction — some shoes will prioritize responsiveness, while others will lead with cushioning. Choose the makeup that fits your personality and typical trailways best.

Like all specialized footwear, trail running shoes, hiking shoes and hiking boots are purpose-specific silhouettes. While you can certainly get away with inter-changing them in a pinch, for the best performance and feel, you'll want to keep your trail running shoes solely for trail running endeavors. Leave the slower-paced hikes for the more rugged and adventure-minded profiles.

Ankle support is a tricky subject in the world of trail running and hiking. Proponents of low-profile hikers and trail runners will tell you the height and rigidity of the ankles on boots actually promotes twisted and sprained ankles, while fans of boots will insist the opposite. In our experience, however, we've found no true difference between the two. What really matters is a secure fit, finding the footwear that matches your foot shape and making sure you're paying attention as you run or hike. At the end of the day, the battle between boots and low-profile runners on the trail is entirely subjective.

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