No matter what you’re trail-running goals are, picking the best shoe for you is an important step toward your perfect race or adventure day. There are dozens of options out there, made for every type of trail and foot imaginable, so what matters most is that you select shoes based on what you’re looking for, not what the internet or your running partner recommends.
We haven’t tried every shoe out there, but we take a lot of pride in putting every pair of shoes that comes across our desks through its paces. That means taking them up Colorado 14ers, running in snowstorms, traipsing around the sandy Moab desert and ripping flowing singletrack to see what shoes work best where.
What kind of trail will you typically be running? Steep? Loose? Muddy? Long?
All of those factors can guide what pair of shoes you pick.
Why do you need a trail shoe?
Trail shoes differ from road shoes in a few key ways. One of the biggest differences is the tread,or the grippy bottom part of the shoe. Trail shoes will often have sticker, heartier rubber and deeper, more aggressive lugs, which are small, strategically placed protrusions that work like little fingers to provide better grip on uneven and soft surfaces.
Trail shoes also tend to be built with burlier materials in the upper than road shoes for support and durability—if you take your road-racing flats up a 14er, don’t be surprised if they, and your feet, don’t survive the journey. To protect your feet from the rocky, rougher terrain of trails, many trail shoes feature a rock plate in the midsole, and some offer more plentiful cushioning than you’ll find in road shoes.
Probably not. Wearing trail shoes on the road will wear down the lugs and make them less effective when you hit the singletrack. Plus, many shoes have a firm, stiff rockplate which can make your feet sore when pounding the pavement. While that protection is great when you’re running over roots and rocks, it’s unnecessary and uncomfortable on the roads.
Trail shoes also tend to be burlier than road shoes, and if you take your racing flats up a 14er, don’t be surprised if they don’t survive the journey.
Bearing all that in mind, here are our favorite shoes we’ve tested.
The Pegasus Trail 36 features a breathable upper with minimal reinforcing, reducing overall weight and aligning this shoe well for warmer weather. The foot stays securely in place, partly due to the gusseted tongue. When sliding the foot in, the runner feels a seamless interior. Differing in feel from the Wild Horse and the Kiger, the Pegasus keeps its uber-cush midsole. It has a cloud-like feel, yet offers support.
Running laterally between the two sections is a break where the midsole peeks through. This offers torsional flexibility and trims weight. The lugs aren’t incredibly deep, another reason this shoes transitions so well from the trail to the road.The Pegasus provides just that—a great shoe that fits, rides smoothly and looks great.
The Salomon Ultra Pro is a do-it-all workhorse that’s built to go the distance. Burlier than other shoes in Salomon’s lineup, the moderately stiff midsole provides comfort deep into long runs and ultra-marathons.
Sufficiently deep lugs bite into dirt on lose terrain for excellent grip, and a durable and grippy Vibram sole performs well over varied terrain.
The standout-feature is the durable and flexible upper, with adjustable wings that flex when your foot swells after many miles. Salomon’s trademark quick lace system keeps your foot in place and won’t come untied on the run. This is a great shoe for moderately technical ultras where grip and comfort are key.
The trimmed-down Timp 2 is an update to an Altra favorite. The Timp 2 feels flexible and trail-ready right out of the box, with just enough cushioning for steep trails and jeep roads alike. Canted lugs under the metatarsals provide a claw-like grip on a variety of surfaces from packed-dirt roads to soggy and rocky trails.
Gridded grooves in the midsole allow the foot to flex naturally for an efficient and comfortable stride. This model is perfect for a 50K, but ultra-ultrarunners may prefer a bit more cushion for the long haul. Testers noted this model ran narrower through the heel as compared with other Altras, but still offers the roomy toebox that zero-drop devotees love.
The Salomon Sense Ride 3s are a stellar update that goes well beyond a face-lift. A decoupled sole that mimics the natural bends in feet allows for natural flexion still providing cushion and a rock plate for protection. These shoes feel speedy and sticky right out of the box, with a debris-proof upper and quick-lace closure that won’t stays tight over the miles.
The new Sense Ride’s feel sporty and ready to roll for speed and shorter distances, but may fit a bit snug as your feet swell over long miles. The shoes were light with just enough grip for technical terrain and tough surfaces, though testers felt the shoe ran a bit narrow.
The La Sportiva Jackal is an ultra-oriented shoe ready for mountain runs. At 8.8 ounces for the women’s edition and 10.5 for the men’s, it’s light enough to feel zippy without sacrificing the cushioning you need for long-distance adventures. A 25mm stack height gives this shoe substantial cushion and support without sacrificing too much trail feel. A 7mm drop feels supportive without being too aggressive, and it’s a pretty perfect sweet spot for runs 50K and up.
The upper is a mono-burr ripstop mesh, which is a great balance of breathability and durability. The structure is substantial enough to feel supportive but still feels light enough to be speedy. A thick, padded tongue protects the top of the foot, but felt a bit stiff, particularly on steep descents. The firm, unpadded ankle is where the Jackal has the biggest room for improvement, and multiple testers reported blisters. Otherwise, the narrower heel cup feels protective and supportive, with just enough heft to let you charge the downhills with confidence and agility.
The outsole has 3mm multi-directional lugs which function as a great brake system on descents. A mid-foot rockguard protects your foot on uneven and rocky terrain. The outsole is nimble enough for tough runs on rubbly and loose terrain. Check out this shoe for ultra-distance training and racing all summer long.
Buy the men’s version here. Women’s Here.
HOKA’s newest Speedgoat update is a go-to for distance junkies. The next-level cushioning provides a comfortable ride for miles and miles, and an improved outsole gives better grip than ever. The Speedgoat 4’s lugs are deeper and terraced [?] for better traction through the heel. Hoka shaved some weight off the midsole, and though this was the heaviest shoe we tested, it doesn’t feel it.
The new more-breathable-mesh, slightly widened upper fits up to medium-width feet well, and for those craving even more room up front, the shoe is available in wider sizes. The fit was comfy and testers found the shoe durable, making it perfect for testing your limits over distance. For all of its floaty cushion, the shoe has a stiff midsole, which some testers say added to its stability.
With a whopping heel stack height of 33 millimeters, Altra’s Olympus 4 gives the HOKA Speedgoat 4 (32mm heel stack height) a run for its cushioning money. The fit and feel are surprisingly light and nimble for the shoe’s overall height, and testers liked the natural running roll of the shoe.
Changes from the version 3.0 include a more durable upper material and slightly reduced stack height, as well as improved grip in varied terrain. Some testers felt the shoe lacked stability on gnarly steep sidehills. The Vibram Megagrip outsole gripped well on a variety of surfaces. If you’re looking for a max-cushion pillowy ride, this beast should be on your short list.
This sleek, and eye-catching shoe is performance-oriented, with a Boa® Fit System that lets you dial in a precision fit for your run. New Balance Fresh Foam is light and springy, a surprisingly plush combo that’s ready to rock the uphills, and is forgiving on the descents. A Vibram MegaGrip outside provides durable traction in almost any conditions. I’ve tested these shoes on desert single track and more technical mountain terrain, and their grip is consistently solid, even on looser descents. I’d recommend these for trails that aren’t exceedingly technical, but that do require some performance from your lugs.
The shallow lugs aren’t great for super steep scrambles, but shed mud easily, which makes the great for variable weather conditions. The lace’s positioning enables the pressure to be evenly distributed throughout the instep, thanks to three wide straps across the top of the shoe. This helps get rid of any pressure points on top of the foot. Heads up that this shoe runs a tad on the small size, try going up at least half a size. I’d recommend this shoe for any technical trail adventurer looking for a precision tool for single track exploring or desert rambling.
The Catamount is a departure from Brooks’ typical “do anything” trail shoes, in the best possible way. After years of producing it’s tried-and-true (though a tad heavy) Cascadias—the Cascadia 15 launched this summer—the Catamount is the company’s first foray into the world of speed on trail.
The stand out is the DNA Flash midsole, which is a firm but springy material found in Brooks’ newer elite road shoes. It’s incredibly light and responsive, and ready to rally in the singletrack. The TrailTak sticky sole performs well on dryer and less technical trails and fire roads.
A lower 6mm drop and rocker-like rolling feel make for an efficient stride and snappy toe off, and a solid heel pocket gives comforting stability. This shoe is all spark and pop with minimal weight (8.8 ounces for men’s 9), but has added protection from a ballistic rock plate.
The Catamount looks and feels fast. The all-white monomesh upper is slick and breathable, with no weak spots or blister points detected during testing. An integrated tongue makes for a comfy, sporty sock-like feel right out of the box. This is your go-to shoe for trail 10Ks and speed workouts in the dirt.
La Sportiva’s Kaptivas are light and fast adventure kicks that are ready to rumble. They feel like off-road runner that craves speed in the single track. Heads up – these don’t have an excess of cushioning and will take your skeleton for a wild ride should you choose to run on pavement.
They don’t feel overbuilt or sloppy, and are ready to roll for techy, or even scrambly adventure runs. Impact lugs make for efficient breaking on the descents, and a rock guard in the midsole helps protect the feet. The Kaptivas run a bit more on the minimal side of things, and are a better choice for a runner looking for speed over protection.
The Kaptivas have a powerful transition and toe-off that feels athletic and natural. Like many of La Sportivas models, they run a bit on the short and narrow side of things. These are great kicks for summer runs on packed trail and in the alpine – and even come in a winterized edition for particularly wet and icy runs.
In the flash color scheme we received, these babies looked almost too sporty and clean to take on our local red-dirt trails to test out. But we did. With an overall foot-hugging and low-profile-forefoot fit and relatively small drop, the Terra Kiger offers great trail feel and agility. A relatively firm midsole and cushioned heel, though, provide adequate stability and protection.
The moderately aggressive outsole lugs in the forefoot and heel areas gripped well on a variety of surfaces, and the forefoot offers plenty of forefoot splay. If you’re looking for a fast-and-light yet stable shoe, the Terra Kiger 6 is worth a look.
On’s Cloudventure 2.0 is a marvel of Swiss engineering. It feels like the Mercedes Benz of trail shoes, with plenty of support and cushion without sacrificing speed. The Cloudventures handle surprisingly well on off-camber trail, and provide more stability on uneven surfaces than their appearance leads one to believe.
The build of the shoe leads to a snappy toe off and strong uphill propulsion, and feels equally stable and ready to rip on steeper descents. This is a great shoe for tearing up a trail race that has a few more rocks and roots than just buttery single-track.
On’s signature pods do feel a bit heavier as compared to EVA-based cushioning, but the shoe carries so well on the foot that the extra weight felt negligible. The upper too may be a bit overbuilt for a speed shoe, but it hugs the foot nicely and is crazy durable. The only drawback was weight from a bit of over-engineering, but that’s easily negated by the shoe’s durability and comfort on the foot.
Zoë Rom is Assistant Editor at Trail Runner and producer and host of the DNF Podcast.