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Finding the perfect pair of running shoes is a seriously personal affair. Every runner’s feet, gait, leg length, hip angles, weight, speed, terrain choice, and ride-feel preferences are different. So while we can’t tell you the single best shoe, we can steer you toward models that impressed us with their comfort, support, traction, protection, and ride, and tell you where they excel.
How We Test
To test running shoes, we begin by researching every brand’s upcoming offerings for the season. We wind up with samples of the models 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 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.
Number of testers: 25
Number of shoes tested: 49
Number of miles: 2000+
Meet Our Testers
Cory’s passion for running started over 25 years ago in high school when he became the number six ranked runner in the nation in the 3km his senior year. Ever since then, Cory’s been addicted to competitive running in every distance, from one mile to the marathon on the track, roads, and trails. His obsession with running shoes started in 2014 when he wrote his first shoe review. Since then, he’s tested and reviewed hundreds of running shoes, clothing, and gear for Outside and other outlets. He loves dissecting gear and thinking like a product engineer to explain the why behind every design and little detail of running shoes. Today, he’s an online running coach in addition to reviewing running gear.
Boulder, Colorado-based journalist, editor, and author Lisa Jhung has researched, tested, and written about running shoes for the past decade and a half and regularly writes about running, other endurance sports, and anything adventure-related. She’s been an editor at Trail Runner Magazine, a contributing editor to Runner’s World, co-founded the now defunct Adventure Sports Magazine (2002-2005), and freelances as an editor, copywriter, and journalist. She’s 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). In previous lives, she was an adventure racer, triathlete, and off-road triathlete. She
Reviews: The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2023
Saucony Endorphin Edge ($200)
Best for Bouncing Over Trails
Weight: 9 oz (men) / 7.8 oz (women)
Stack Height: 36 – 30 mm
Drop: 6 mm
- Fast, cushioned, responsive super-foam ride
- Stable, propulsive, and terrain-adaptive
- The thin upper is questionable on highly technical trails
The Saucony Endorphin Edge is the latest trail shoe attempting to harness carbon fiber’s snappy ride for the off-road runner—and one of the most successful to date. It delivers a super shoe’s bouncy, energetic ride, without sacrificing its ability to tackle tricky terrain.
Rather than employing a standard stiff, full-foot plate, Saucony enlisted the expertise of carbon-fiber wizards at Carbitex to create a custom, three-quarter length, y-shaped plate that bends in one direction but not the other. The plate flexes upward but not downward. This engages the toes and allows each side of the Y to adapt to uneven terrain underfoot upon landing, while providing a stiff, curved lever when it’s time for propulsive push-offs. Surrounding this custom carbon plate is a thick layer of ultra-light, soft, and responsive PEBA (polyether block amide) foam. This duo gives the shoe a fast, lively ride that one tester described as, “a compelling combination of anti-fatigue cushion, with snappy propulsion on the toe-roll.” Another reported that the shoe had “noticeable energy return and recoil that doesn’t detract from trail sensitivity.”
The Edge shares much of the same materials, geometry and ride as Saucony’s popular Endorphin Speed road shoe—including that PEBA midsole foam. But it delivers a more sure-footed trail stance due to the custom plate, a lower, six-millimeter heel-toe drop, a wider base, and a slightly later rocker that waits until you’re stably planted before rolling you forward. Adding to its trail creds, a full-length, light, flexible rock guard made of carbon-poly mesh lies between the midsole and outsole, providing additional protection without adding much weight or reducing flexibility. Where the shoe meets the trail, the widely-spaced four-millimeter lugs were noticeably grippy on loose and wet footing but weren’t distracting over hard, smoothed-out trails.
The upper—an airy, lightweight mesh with subtle reinforcing overlays—got mixed reviews. On the one hand, testers appreciated the rather voluminous fit for its comfort and natural toe-splay. On the other, they felt the thin construction lacked the secure hold they would expect in such a fast trail shoe. “The Endorphin Edge froths at the mouth to go fast,” one tester raved, but, given its iffy foothold, most will only let it fly on easy-going or slightly technical terrain.
Salomon Pulsar Trail ($130)
Best for Charging Up Mountains
Weight: 9.8 oz (men’s) / 8.5 oz (women’s)
Stack Height: 33 – 27 mm
Drop: 6 mm
- Secure, snappy ride
- Grippy yet versatile traction
- Firm forefoot cushioning
- Relatively narrow toe box
The Pulsar Trail is a solid choice for a range of mountainous trail conditions. The outsole, made from a proprietary grippy rubber compound with sharp-edged, 3.5-millimeter lugs, had us feeling surefooted on everything from dusty, sandy trails strewn with sharp lava rocks in Hawaii to tacky, rooty singletrack in Colorado. But those lugs are also low, long, and flat enough to handle hard dirt and even sections of pavement without too much clunk.
The one-pull Kevlar laces snug the upper securely around the foot. Combined with contoured foam around the heel, this had us feeling locked and loaded on technical terrain or when picking up the pace on packed trails. This shoe runs smoothly and “delivers noticeable snap and verve,” said one tester. We chalk the spry vibe up to a light, flexible TPU plate surrounded by two layers of a cushy-and-peppy EVA and Olefin-blend foam—softer on top and firmer on the bottom. This flexible plate also delivers a bit more ground feel than the rigid carbon plates in some other models.
Brooks Caldera 6 ($150)
Best for Zoning Out and Escaping
Weight: 11.0 oz (men’s) / 9.8 oz (women’s)
Stack Height: 39 – 33 mm
- Highly cushioned yet stable platform
- Strong cushioning to weight ratio
- Not a lot of ground-feel
- Runs a tad stiff
With a generous amount of cushioning from soft, lightweight DNA Loft v3—a combination of EVA, rubber, air, and nitrogen—the Caldera is meant for comfort over speed. We love it for both short and long runs when we need a shoe to let us zone out and run mindlessly, like when sneaking in some miles during end-of-day youth sports practices or hitting the trail before dawn (and coffee). Its wide base flares out slightly from the top of the midsole, where it surrounds the foot like a bucket seat. The result is a forgiving shoe that enables you to roll over rocky, varied terrain without having to focus too hard on foot placement. “The wide, boat-like fit added to my sense of comfort because I feel like it gives me confidence on the trails,” said tester Sara Yoder. “I don’t feel like I’m going to fall or twist an ankle in this baby.”
A combination of a gusseted tongue and lacing eyelets that wrap all the way down to the midsole add up to what a tester called a “locked-down ride”—there’s no sloshing around or slipping. The mesh upper stays light and dries quickly after the occasional creek splash or rainstorm, while the outsole’s small, tightly-packed lugs made us feel secure on loose dirt, gravel descents and rocky uphills, as well as rolling smoothly over roads. While the foam provides a pleasant bounce-back, this isn’t a speedy-feeling shoe, nor is it necessarily nimble. But for runs where you want to think about anything but your shoes, the Caldera 6 has your back.
Topo Pursuit ($140)
Best for Rocky Terrain
Weight: 10.8 oz (men’s) / 8.6 oz (women’s)
Stack Height: 28 – 28 mm
Drop: 0 mm
- Zero-drop design and foot-friendy fit with plush midsole cushioning
- Superior traction and toe protection
- Outsole rubber is overkill on all but rugged terrain
The Pursuit delivers for zero-drop fans who run rugged terrain and don’t want to bang the snot out of their feet in minimally cushioned shoes. It is by far the most cushioned zero-drop offering from Topo to date, with twenty-eight millimeters of a responsive EVA-blend midsole protecting from impact forces and underfoot jabs. “The overriding feeling is plushness,” stated one tester who went on to call the Pursuit “a very comfortable trail ranger.”
What really stands out on this shoe is the traction. Vibram MegaGrip rubber in a toothy lug pattern grabbed Boulder, Colorado’s rock slabs with aplomb, and gave us confidence on steep, dusty descents. The sole, however, is overkill on smooth, flat trails, and is noisy and clunky on pavement. It also comes at a price—the heavy-duty rubber makes the shoe feel a little bottom-heavy. But testers said this is a decent trade-off for feeling surefooted on technical terrains. And with a PU toe cap adding protection against kicking rocks and roots, the shoe is bomber and ready for mountain adventures.
All but the most narrow-footed testers raved about a perfect fit. Our slim-footed runners noted a touch of slipping toward the front of the shoe on steep descents. There’s plenty of wiggle room, however, for runners whose feet tend to swell during long runs or those who just like a wide toebox.
Asics Fuji Lite 3 ($120)
Best For Fast, Nimble Miles
Weight: 9.0 oz (men’s) / 7.2 oz (women’s)
Stack Height: 18 – 14 mm (men’s) / 16 – 12 mm (women’s)
Drop: 4 mm drop
- Superb ground sensitivity and trail feel
- Can crossover from trail to road
- Upper lacks a strong side-to-side hold
- Scant cushioning
In a world where most trail running shoes seem to be getting thicker-soled and more highly cushioned, the Asics Fuji Lite 3 is a refreshing change for those that enjoy a more minimalist and sensitive trail running shoe that keeps you in touch with the terrain underfoot. The relatively low stack heights and light weight give the Fuji Lite 3 a nimble, quick-footed quality that begs for fast, fun trail running while still providing comfort at slower paces. “They have enough protection to keep you from getting banged up from the trail,” said one tester, “but also allow you to feel the trail and react.”.
Large, multi-directional, five-millimeter-deep lugs enhanced our testers’ confidence off road, while their flat top surfaces and tight spacing let the shoes also transition smoothly to roads. The engineered mesh upper is comfortable and secure for straight-ahead running, but provides inadequate lockdown to anchor the foot when dancing over gnarly rocks and roots or bombing down steep, technical terrain. For the moderate, easily runnable trails the majority of runners do most of their miles on, however, this shoe is an absolute bargain and a delightful ride. One tester described it as “a throwback to a simpler running experience.”
On Cloudvista ($140)
Best for Road to Trail Runs
Weight: 9.9 oz (men’s), 8.3 oz (women’s)
Stack Height: 30 – 23 mm
Drop: 7 mm
- Lightweight, fast-rolling ride
- Flexible forefoot yields smooth toe-offs
- Thin laces plus thin tongue can cause top-of-foot discomfort
- Manages mellow terrain only
Not all trail runs are up mountains or down dramatic canyons. Most are more gentle rambles on packed dirt or crushed gravel. A shoe made for mellow terrain is all you need for such runs. It’s also a much wiser choice, providing a smoother, more comfortable ride on tame trails—and the roads you use to get to them—than a luggy, rugged technical trail crusher.
The On Cloudvista flexes at the forefoot like a road shoe. Its open midsole pods and proprietary, high-energy foam provide responsive cushioning, like a road shoe. It has light, fast-rolling, flexible-plated ride, like a road shoe. But, unlike a road shoe, the Cloudvista has underfoot traction. The full-coverage, grippy-rubber sole with two millimeter-deep, square, flat-topped lugs provided just enough traction that we weren’t slipping on loose gravel, but maintained a smooth-rolling momentum even on pavement.
The Cloudvista’s upper is also well-suited for gravelly, dusty terrain. Recycled polyester covered in a thin TPU film keeps junk from infiltrating the shoe and helps it stay clean. (As if trail runners care. If you do, c’mon.) The flexible fabric wraps and holds snugly enough for speedy strides on level ground, but not enough to hold the foot securely on ankle-twisting terrain or downhill switchbacks. Testers also reported that the super-thin, racer-like tongue combined with equally-thin laces can create pressure on the top of the foot if you’re wearing thin socks.
Hoka Mafate Speed 4 ($185)
Best for Fast, Rugged Trail Runs
Weight: 10.4 oz (men’s); 8.5 oz (women’s)
Stack Height: 33 – 29 mm (men’s) / 31 – 27 mm (women’s)
Drop: 4 mm
- Phenomenal outsole grip
- Great cushioning to performance ratio
- Heavy for a trail racing shoe
Imagine a trail shoe with a tank’s toughness, a four-wheeler’s grip, and a Ferrari’s engine, and you’ve got a good picture of the Hoka Mafate Speed 4. Earlier versions delivered hard-charging, all-terrain prowess; the all-new Mafate Speed 4 improves on that heritage with a top-to-bottom makeover featuring a new outsole, midsole, and upper.
Underfoot, the new dual-density EVA foam midsole has a soft layer on top of a firmer one to create a balance between a cushioned and responsive ride. Testers felt the new midsole was a touch softer than the Mafate Speed 3 (but much firmer than Hoka’s max-cushioned Speedgoat 5 trail shoe). The more forgiving ride was largely appreciated. “The flexible, cushier outsole made downhill running great,” said one tester. “I loved cruising technical, gravelly trails with the feeling of ‘absorbing’ the inconsistencies of the trail.”
The strongest attribute of the Mafate Speed 4 is undoubtedly its ground-biting traction. The sole employs multi-directional, textured, five-millimeter lugs separated by flex grooves to clench into tricky and treacherous terrain, whether soft, loose, or rocky. Testers also raved about the new single-layer woven jacquard mesh upper, which secures the foot much more effectively than its predecessor, providing a flexible, slightly stretchy hug.
Even minor details are done right: One tester praised the contoured Achilles tab for allowing a “quick and comfy heel entry.” In sum, the improved Mafate Speed 4 holds no peer as the best rugged, technical mountain running shoe in Hoka’s lineup, and isn’t far behind the brand’s carbon-fiber plated Tecton X as a top-notch uptempo training and racing trail shoe.
How to Buy
All the shoes in this round-up made the cut because they’re solid performers. So how do you choose the right pair for you? First, consider what kind of running you do: mostly road, or mostly trail? (And, we hate to break it to your bank account, but if you do both, you’ll need both.)
If you’re looking for a road shoe, do you want a speedster or something that feels good on long, slow jogs? If you train and race, and want to maximize your racing efforts: again, you might need both. Do you like the feel of a soft, forgiving ride, a more bouncy, energetic sensation underfoot, or a firmer platform that provides more groundfeel? The primary differences between various road shoes boil down to the foam material, volume and geometry of the midsole, which has the biggest influence on how a shoe feels on the run.
If you’re looking for trail shoes, do you run rugged, mountainous terrain, or 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 less technical terrain, whereas shoes with deeper, more aggressive outsoles are optimized for steep, rocky, or muddy trails. Do you like to feel the trail and pick your way around rocks and roots, or would you rather let the shoe cushion and protect you from trail variations while you zone out? Your answer here will determine whether you should look for a shoe with a minimal or maximal midsole.
Deciding what you’re looking for is a big first step. From there, you’ll want to go to a store and try on a few different shoes from within the niche you’ve chosen. Lace up. Run a few steps. Run a few more. Do they fit your foot shape, holding your heel and instep securely while letting your toes move naturally—without binding or rubbing anywhere? Do you land softly and comfortably? Do you feel stable and smooth as you roll through your stride, the shoe so in sync with your feet that you forget they’re there? Do you feel protected, supported and connected to the ground? Do the shoes make you want to run? If you can answer yes to all of those questions, you’ve found your pair.