Looking for the best trail running shoes of 2020? To help you, we have bought and tested over 80 pairs in the last 6 years. This year, we evaluate 18 top contenders side-by-side and subject them to our tough series of tests. Our testers took them up mountains, across deserts, along challenging single track and even did stints of off-trail scrambling. The result is solid knowledge on what's best, whether you seek the best shoes no matter the price or want a pair of affordable mud-busters.
The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2020
Best Overall Trail Running Shoe
Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2
Francois D'Haene may not be a familiar name to most people, but in the world of ultra-running, he is pretty much unbeatable at gnarly mountain 100-mile races. He has the course record at the largest and most iconic mountain 100 in the world, the UTMB in Chamonix, and also owns countless long FKTs, such as the 210-mile-long John Muir Trail in California's Sierra Nevada. He put this knowledge to use in the development of the Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2, his signature shoe for a company that is known for listening seriously to the advice of their sponsored athletes. The S/Lab Ultra 2 uses a polyurethane injected upper mesh and Kevlar quick lace system, combined with a dense high-mileage EnergyCell EVA midsole, to offer the most protective shoe of any that we have tested. For running on difficult, rocky terrain, or for going extra-long distances, foot protection is the single most valuable attribute for a trail running shoe. In this department, the S/Lab Ultra 2 blows away the competition. This updated version is fairly similar to the original, but Salomon shaved off a few grams to lighten it slightly. Also, our head tester feels it is slightly less narrow in the toe box.
The biggest downside to this shoe is the exorbitant price tag. We believe that you are getting what you pay for but concede that this is a lot of money to pay for a temporary piece of equipment. Also, runners with wide feet may find the forefoot a bit too restrictive. If this sounds like you, try checking out another very protective offering, with a much wider toe-box — the Scarpa Spin Ultra. Plus, biomechanics nerds may not be thrilled with the 8mm heel-toe drop.
Salomon calls this a "racing only" shoe, but we found it far more durable than their other racing-only offerings such as the Sense line of shoes (which are equally expensive!). Our lead tester enjoys wearing it as a daily trainer. If long-distance trail running and racing is your jam, or you appreciate the most fine-tuned engineering regardless of price, check out the S/Lab Ultra 2.
Read review: Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2
Salomon Speedcross 5
The Salomon Speedcross 5 has long been known for its insanely aggressive outsole, a feature that forced almost every competing shoe brand to imitate it. Salomon has improved this by making the rubber on the sole even stickier so that it acts like glue to rock and even wet rock. More significantly, they widened the forefoot of this notoriously narrow shoe by a significant margin. This increased both comfort and wearability for those without narrow feet, while adding to stability with a larger landing platform. These changes, in addition to making the arrow-shaped lugs larger and farther apart for easier mud shedding, and increasing the durability of the already beefy upper, make this the best version of the Speedcross in at least the last six years. The shoe still fits like a glove, with the foot securely locked in place with Salomon's quick lace system; it feels supremely comfortable right out of the box. We've been running in these shoes for more than eight years now and saw our love for them diminish as they got narrower and tighter as time went on. Well, this newest version has won us back over.
This is a shoe that we once again love to run in but it still has some features that seem a bit outdated. Our biggest gripe is the 10mm heel-toe drop, combined with the very thick and high-off-the-ground heel counter. It is not only unstable, especially when running downhill, but a bit of a relic of a bygone era in shoe design. It's also pretty heavy on the spectrum of ever-lighter trail shoes these days, and it retains its reputation for running a bit warm and short on breathability. This means these shoes are better used for higher altitude mountain runs where the air is cool, which is what they are designed for anyway. While a lot of other companies have put serious effort into improving the traction on their shoes, our side-by-side testing shows that the Speedcross simply grips the best. If you enjoy running off-trail or in the mountains where the ground is often wet, snowy, muddy, rocky, and steep, the Speedcross 5 is an ideal choice, with traction unrivaled by any other shoe.
Read review: Salomon Speedcross 5
Best for Zero Drop
Inov-8 Terraultra G 260
In 2018, Inov-8 introduced their first shoes using a revolutionary new rubber compound they call G-grip, featuring a graphene-infused outsole that is among the strongest and most durable that we have ever tested. Recently, the Terraultra G260 received its first updates and remains one of the very best trail running shoes you can buy. Not only is it protective enough for long ultras, with Kevlar fabric overlays on the upper and G-grip rubber in the outsole, but it's also zero-drop! Simply put, no other zero-drop shoe can offer the advantages of this shoe. We've tested these shoes intensively on pumice fields of sharp and jagged lava rock along the PCT in Oregon and they remained virtually unscarred after miles of rubber tearing terrain. We've also put them to the test in scrambling situations in the Rockies of Colorado, and found that the rubber is not only durable but also impressively sticky. Combining this outsole performance with a solid and highly absorptive, but not flimsy, foam midsole ensures that they offer far more protection for the long haul than any other zero drop shoe.
The biggest downside is the price, although there are plenty of other shoes even more pricey that will not perform the same or last as long. It isn't the absolute most comfortable shoe, but slight improvements have been made to the comfort of the upper, so this isn't a major concern. Some runners may think a zero drop shoe should offer more sensitivity, but while it doesn't ride as low to the ground as the Merrell Bare Access XTR (see below), it does have a decent amount of trail feel. Runners new to zero drop shoes may experience calf or plantar fascia tightness at first start, so they should transition slowly away from larger drop platforms. This is one of the best and most durable trail running shoes you can buy, and also happens to have the added bonus of a zero drop platform.
Read review: Inov-8 TerraUltra G 260
Best Affordable Zero Drop Trail Shoe
Merrell Bare Access XTR
The Inov-8 Terraultra G260 is currently the best zero-drop running shoe on the market but it has two elements that some zero-drop runners will not love — the heavy underfoot cushioning and the high price. For those runners, we recommend the Merrell Bare Access XTR. It's among the most affordable trail runners that we have reviewed, and at a time when the price of shoes seems to jump every year, these shoes have retained a price tag that was the norm about 10 years ago. That helps budget-minded runners reel in the costs of their increasingly pricey sport. Many zero drop runners originally fell in love with these shoes because of the intimate trail feel they afford, something being lost as thicker platforms of foam cushioning are added onto the majority of zero-drop shoes. The Bare Access XTR is an exception, employing Merrell's "all you need" philosophy, which has been fine-tuned over years of making amazing barefoot shoes like the Merrell Trail Glove. Think of this shoe as embracing the ethos of a barefoot shoe, but with enough protection underfoot to enable running on non-technical trails at a full running cadence without the fear of wrecking your feet.
They still lack the cushioning or rockplate needed for bombing through boulder fields and over the rockiest trails. They also offer a significant under-arch support that may feel nice with the zero-drop platform or may annoy you to no end. Unfortunately, the insole is "integrated," meaning it's sewn in place and cannot be removed or traded out for an after-market option. And while the outsole handles fine on smooth trails and even road surfaces, it doesn't offer much bite on slippery mud, snow, or loose dirt. The result is a shoe you may want to add to your quiver, but probably won't expect to run in it exclusively day in and day out. For those who like the sensitivity of running in barefoot shoes but want more protection, or those zero-drop aficionados who want to save a cash, check out the Bare Access XTR.
Read review: Merrell Bare Access XTR
Best for Maximum Cushioning
HOKA Speedgoat 4
In just over a decade, maximally cushioned Hoka One One shoes have gone from laughably silly to completely normal and mainstream. These shoes offer significant advantages over regular trail runners in the form of drastically increased underfoot protection due to the huge amount of midsole EVA foam cushioning, and also greatly increased shock absorption. Our favorite Maximally Cushioned shoe for trail running is the Hoka Speedgoat 4, the newest version of the shoes designed by Karl Meltzer, the "Speedgoat." These shoes improve on the already fantastic previous version by widening the toe box slightly, and offering a wide EE shoe for those who simply can't squeeze their feet into a regular width. The underfoot foam compound has been changed slightly to purportedly be a bit more springy, although our testers had a hard time telling the difference when wearing one new shoe and one Speedgoat 3 on comparative runs. The Vibram Megagrip outsole offers fantastic traction, on all types of terrain, and is, without doubt, the grippiest outsole on any of the many Hoka shoes that we have tested over the years.
While the positives far outweigh the negatives, we will still point out that we are slightly disappointed that this shoe gained about half an ounce of weight, per shoe, compared to the last version. And while we like the new durable mesh upper material that feels thinner, lighter, and simultaneously more burly than what we have become used to, our water bucket test also revealed that it absorbs more water than the last version, and doesn't shed it as quickly. Due to their increased shock absorption, Hoka's have become the most popular shoe for ultra races, and with good reason. We also love how they allow us to bomb down steep hills with a bit more impunity than your average trail runners, and acknowledge that as we age and our bodies lose some of their natural built-in cushioning, the appeal of Hokas continues to grow. Runners who fit into any of the above categories should consider Hokas as a viable choice, and for trail running, look no further than the Speedgoat 4.
Read review: Hoka Speedgoat 4
Best Crossover Shoe
Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 36 Trail
Nike's third trail-specific running shoe, the Pegasus 36 Trail, is a modified version of the Pegasus 36, one of their oldest and most popular road running shoes. The shoe fits nicely into their lineup as a hybrid crossover shoe, ideal for running on either pavement or moderate, non-technical trails like those commonly found in urban parks, or dirt roads. What we really love about it is that it's easily one of the most comfortable running shoes we've ever worn. It's a bit more snug, form-fitting, and comfortable than the road version of the shoe. The shoes are relatively light while offering a considerable amount of underfoot cushioning, and the move to a thin, unpadded tongue feels more natural in this shoe than it does in the Wildhorse 5, which fails to pad against the pressure of the laces over the top of the foot. This is literally a shoe that we had a hard time taking off, preferring it for any sort of outdoor activity, from hiking to walking or running errands, not to mention evening runs on the well packed and groomed dirt trails at Smith Rock State Park near our home.
As with any crossover shoe, this one is not the best fit for the gnarly mud, snow, grass, or rocky mountain terrain that many people associate with "trail" running. Its 10mm of heel-toe drop and generous Nike Air cushioning more closely fits the mold of a road running shoe than one that will thrive in off-camber, off-trail terrain. That said, this shoe doesn't claim to be made for those situations (check out the Nike Terra Kiger 5 instead if technical terrain is your jam), and is fantastically comfortable when running on the type of mellower trails that most of us typically frequent. If you are looking for a very comfortable shoe that is equally at home on all the surfaces found on an urban run, then we highly recommend the Pegasus 36 Trail.
Read review: Nike Pegasus 36 Trail
Why You Should Trust Us
This review is led by Andy Wellman, a senior reviewer at OutdoorGearLab who has been testing running shoes since 2014. As a young boy growing up in Colorado, Andy's parents took him for a hike up the popular 14er, Quandary Peak. After huffing and puffing to the summit, he remembers being blown away by seeing a man running down the mountain. Andy soon gave chase, picked up a few pointers from the nice man along the way, and has been a trail runner ever since. He has participated in trail races all over the world, and for a period of time even lived as a nomadic dirt bag so that he could run in the mountains each day. Some of his most memorable runs have taken place in the Himalayas of Nepal, the Pyranees of Spain, and in the Grand Canyon, but his favorite places to run are the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo ranges of southern Colorado. He currently resides in central Oregon, where you will find him exploring the myriad trails of the Cascades.
Testing of trail running shoes never really ends, as companies now release new models all throughout the calendar year. These shoes are tested in all seasons, on road trips all over the country, and are continuously compared against the other newest shoes available, as well as against previous versions of the same shoe (you should see all the shoes in Andy's closet!). As a bit of a Luddite, he doesn't wear a watch or log his miles and time spent running, but has run in and tested over 120 different pairs of trail running shoes over the past seven years, so feels he has a pretty informed idea about what works and what doesn't out on the trail. That said, since it can sometimes be hard to find people with the same size foot to help him test shoes, he also chats with pretty much every runner he meets to get their opinions of the shoes on their feet. You can rest assured that what you read in this review is knowledge hard-won through time actually spent out on the trail.
Related: How We Tested Trail Running Shoes
Analysis and Test Results
Trail running shoes differ drastically from their road running counterparts by offering more protection for your feet, both in the midsole and in the upper, while also having far more aggressive traction that can handle difficult and rugged terrain. While many of the companies that make trail running shoes are also famous for their road running shoe selections, there are also a few players in this market that focus only on the trail and off-road side of things. If you are new to trail running, we highly recommend purchasing a pair of trail running shoes, rather than go it in your normal road running shoes. The advantages are considerable and are more than worth it when considering slips and injuries in wild and remote terrain, or even on an urban trail, are both more likely and also harder to manage than on the side of a road or bike path. Choosing the right equipment for the job virtually always leads to having more fun, and trail running is no exception.
In all cases, our testing and assessments are done in comparison to the other shoes described here. If one shoe receives a poor score, that doesn't mean it is a poor shoe, but simply that it doesn't perform as well as the other excellent shoes we compared it to. Since we aim to test only the best and most innovative trail running shoes, we think all of these shoes are pretty solid. We strive to keep this review as up to date as possible, so check back again as we continue to add in the newest additions to the market.
Below you will find descriptions of the six metrics that we test and assess for to come up with a shoe's overall score: foot protection, traction, stability, comfort, weight, and sensitivity. A score of 1-10 is awarded for each metric, and then the metrics are weighted as a percentage of the final score based upon their relative importance to the overall performance of a shoe. Worth noting is that the highest overall scorers may not be the best shoes for you. Carefully decide which metrics matter most to you and your intended goals, desires, and adventures to find out whether a particular shoe perfectly matches your needs.
A significant consideration when selecting a pair of trail running shoes is the value of the purchase. While one could simply assume that you get what you pay for, years of testing has proven to us that this isn't always the case.
When considering the value of a trail running shoe, three aspects are important to consider: price, performance, and longevity. Two of these, price and performance, are easily quantifiable and can be compared effectively.
The third aspect of value for a trail running shoe is longevity, something that is not at all easy to quantify. Since all pairs of shoes wear out in a finite period and need to be replaced, finding shoes that can withstand more miles of abuse before disintegrating helps ascertain that shoe's value. Unfortunately, not only does every runner put a different amount of strain on their shoes, but we don't have the time or energy to completely trash every pair of shoes before publishing our findings! That said, after many years of testing literally hundreds of pairs of shoes, we have noticed some areas of shoes that tend to be the first points of failure, as well as certain design features that tend to wear out quicker than desired.
In our opinion, the most important criteria for evaluating a trail running shoe is how well it protects your foot. After all, if it doesn't offer your foot protection, why would you be wearing it? The largest component of protection is what is found underfoot — in short, the combination of the outsole and midsole. The soles of the feet are among the most sensitive areas of your body, so if you intend to run on rocky and uneven terrain, which is what we do when we trail run, then your shoe will need adequate underfoot protection. Forego this protection, and watch how your feet will dictate to you whether you can run on a trail or not, and how fast you can go.
Most underfoot protection comes in one of two forms: a rock plate made of a hard plastic or composite material that adds rigidity to the shoe and absorbs impacts, or in lieu of that, thick foam cushioning. The most common type of foam found in contenders is EVA foam, which not only protects the foot from protrusions but also absorbs a significant amount of the impact inherent to running before it travels upward into a runner's body. The third method of underfoot protection, found on the Nike shoes in this review, is trapped air pockets in the heel that also offer both protection and cushioning. An interesting component of foot protection is that it often comes at the expense of sensitivity, and vice versa, which is why we grade for both.
A lesser component of foot protection is how well the upper does in protecting the top and sides of your foot from protrusions like sticks or abrasion by rocks. The ends of the toes are a common point of abuse, as we have all accidentally kicked a rock while bombing down the trail. Rigid toe bumpers go a long way in helping to alleviate this pain, as does choosing a shoe that is not too tight on the toes. Many manufacturers skimp on upper materials to save weight and offer greater breathability and water drainage, while some have uppers that are as mighty as a Kevlar bulletproof vest.
There are a handful of shoes that offer foot protection that is better than the rest. Our Editors' Choice award-winning Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2 does a great job of protecting the undersides of our feet with its dual-density EVA foam, while also providing far more upper protection than any other shoe we tested. The combination left us smiling, and ensured we could run down a trail as out of control as we wanted, knowing that our shoes had our feet covered. Another shoe that doesn't skimp on protection is our Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning, the Hoka Speedgoat 4. This shoe, as well as the other Hokas we have tested, has foam that's denser and more absorptive than we would expect. The Scarpa Spin Ultra and Nike Wildhorse 5 are also top shoes that offer an exemplary amount of foot protection. Since we think this is such a vital component to running your best anywhere off-road, we weighted foot protection as 30% of a shoe's final score.
If it weren't for the drastically increased performance when it comes to traction, there would be only a minimal amount of incentive to purchase trail running shoes instead of simple road running shoes. Based on this assessment, one could certainly make the argument that traction is the single most important aspect of a trail running shoe, and is certainly one of the very first things you should check out when trying on a new pair of trail shoes.
To come up with these scores, we devised several controlled tests where we tested each pair of shoes one at a time and rated them based on how well they did on that surface. The different surfaces were steep dirt, steep grass, mud, snow, dry rock, and wet rock. The scores above are an amalgamation of a shoe's performance on all of these separate surfaces; the higher the score, the more surfaces that the shoe would be capable of easily sticking to, with a high level of confidence that it wouldn't slip.
Two main factors contribute to a shoe's ability to grip a variety of surfaces well: the type and spacing of lugs, and the performance of the rubber used. In general, deeper, more aggressive lugs will grip most surfaces better, especially steep dirt, grass, mud, and snow. More and more trail running shoes are reflecting this with the aggressiveness of lugs growing across the board in recent years. Lugs that are spaced closely together tend to do a better job of gripping well on rock and hard dirt surfaces, while lugs that are further apart tend to do the best job of shedding mud without allowing it to build up into a huge, heavy pancake on the bottom of the shoe.
The hardness of rubber also plays a large part in the traction performance of a shoe. Softer rubber tends to be stickier and does a far better job gripping rock, both wet and dry. The downside of soft rubber is that it wears out, or in some cases rips off, often shortening the life of the shoe if you wear them too much on pavement or hard surfaces. In contrast, firmer rubber tends to be more durable and last longer but doesn't stick to rock nearly as well. Firm rubber is preferable for shoes that will mostly be used on firm surfaces, like hardpacked dirt trails.
While all of the shoes we test offer pretty solid traction, especially on your standard dirt trail, a few are particularly noteworthy for their excellent grip. The Salomon Speedcross 5 has gigantic protruding rubber lugs spaced far apart for the absolute best grip on mud, grass, and snow. With a change in rubber compounds, it is also now softer and by far the stickiest of any we tested on rock and wet rock as well, although the lugs have a propensity for wearing down quicker if used too often on hard surfaces. The similarly lugged Salomon Supercross is a more affordable version with many of the same attributes as the Speedcross 5, if large lugged traction is a primary desire. The graphene infused G-grip rubber found on the bottoms of the Inov-8 Roclite G 290 and the TerraUltra G260 is also impressively sticky on rock, and is far more durable. In fact, with the addition of graphene, the strongest textile substance ever lab tested by man, these shoes have the most durable outsoles of any we tested, adding significantly to their long term value.
Trail running takes place over uneven ground, and being able to land and push off from a stable platform is a critical feature of how well a shoe performs. Failure to maintain stability through the running stride will lead to either losing traction and slipping, or even worse, rolling an ankle, often leading to injury.
Through our extensive testing over many years, we have found that stability is largely impacted by the following four factors: stack height, heel-toe drop, landing platform, and fit of the upper. The stack height represents how much material rests between the ground and your foot, and is measured in millimeters. In most cases, the larger the stack height, the greater the chance for a rolled ankle, although this threat can be mitigated by having a wider landing platform. The landing platform is the shape of the bottom of the shoe. Wider typically ensures greater stability, while a narrower platform is less stable. Heel-toe drop measures the difference in stack height between the heel and the toes, once again measured in millimeters.
Over the last many years, shoe companies, largely in response to customer demand, have been slowly lowering the average heel-toe drop, which today rests around 4-6 mm. Shoes with a substantial drop are considerably less stable on uneven terrain, especially going downhill. Shoes with 0mm of drop, known as zero-drop, are usually the most stable. Finally, a shoe with an upper that holds your foot firmly in place allows you to land squarely on top of the footbed, minimizing foot movement within the shoe. The opposite of this is sloppy shoes that don't hold the foot in place through the stride, which are inherently less stable.
Another key factor when considering foot stability is the firmness of the midsole under your foot. Very stiff shoes tend to be more stable than very soft and pliable ones. A flexible shoe that can easily bend in any direction is more sensitive and allows your foot to take the shape of what it lands upon, but this is not generally the most stable design. When walking, your foot is used to pushing off of a flat, even surface, and so a shoe that provides this for you, even if you are stepping on a very uneven surface like rocks, feels more stable. Of course, stiffness leads to a clunkier feel, which isn't nearly as sensitive and tends to be a bit heavier, so there are trade-offs, and personal preference plays a roll in what will feel better for you.
Most of our testing for stability is done while out on trail or adventure runs, but we also compare shoes in a more controlled setting by running in each of them one after the other both across a steep hillside and straight down a similarly steep slope. The Altra Superior 4, a very light and low-riding zero-drop shoe, is one of the most stable that we tested. The combination of a completely flat footbed without any heel rise, and a super-wide platform that allows one's feet to splay out fully when landing, ensures that stability is never compromised with this shoe. Despite having a 4mm heel-toe drop, the Nike Terra Kiger 5 feels equally as stable when running on varied terrain. This is due once again to the wide toe box and forefoot area of the shoe and the very low to the ground ride. The Inov-8 TerraUltra G260 and Scarpa Spin Ultra scored similarly well in our head-to-head stability testing. As a critical component of a trail running shoe's performance, but not the most important, we assigned stability 15% of a shoe's final score.
Comfort is probably the single most important criteria when it comes to selecting a running shoe, or any footwear at all for that matter, and is what we recommend you value above all other factors when selecting a pair of shoes for you. However, it is also the criteria most difficult to rate - because it is so subjective. Everyone's foot is different, so what feels amazing to one person could be un-wearable by another. Some products are wide in the toe box while narrow in the heel, and some are just really narrow (or wide) throughout. Some fit perfectly "to size," while others run slightly long or short. Since the comfort level of each shoe will be different for each person, we chose only to rate it 15% of a product's final score. We don't want to penalize a shoe that feels uncomfortable to our head tester too much when many other people will naturally end up loving it. However, we have found some universal factors that can be compared and rated.
Craftsmanship seems to play a large role in how comfortable a given model is. The most comfortable pairs use a seamless construction that makes them easy to wear sockless (although we don't commonly do so, except for comparison testing). Poorly sewn seams or out of place material overlaps inside a shoe tend to rub and wear against the foot over long distances, significantly decreasing their overall comfort. Likewise, shoes that don't do a good job of naturally holding the foot in place mean that we need to crank down the laces to provide a secure fit, often leading to discomfort along the top of our feet or front of the ankle joint over long distances. Some shoes don't breathe very well and leave our feet excessively hot and sweaty, while others are a bit too short for the size, meaning our toes will hit the front of the shoe, especially while running downhill. Most of our findings for the Comfort metric are based on our anecdotal evidence from long runs on a variety of terrain. We also conduct the water drainage test to get a better grip on which shoes absorb the least amount of water or sweat; the test also measures which contenders are the most efficient at drying out afterward, which we define as another essential component of comfort.
The most comfortable shoe tested, the Nike Pegasus 36 Trail, is an ideal cross-over shoe that is simply as comfortable as shoes can get. Also featuring very comfortable and plush padding that makes the foot feel more like they are ensconced in slippers than shoes is the Scarpa Spin Ultra. In years past we have lauded the comfort of the two other trail running shoes made by Nike, but after recent testing, we feel that the recent releases of the Wildhorse 5 and Terra Kiger 5 are not quite as comfortable as their predecessors, at least to our head tester. Most of the other pairs of shoes tested are also comfortable, and to some degree, it is impossible to eliminate user bias when grading for this metric. With that in mind, we still strongly recommend you try shoes on before committing to a purchase. If you decide to order online, do so from a company that will allow you to return them if they don't fit as well as you had hoped.
The Water Drainage Test
Whether you live and run on the East Coast, in the Pacific Northwest, or the Rockies, it is a common phenomenon while trail running to end up with wet feet. Even if you don't typically encounter rain, snow, dew, or creek crossings on your runs, your shoes will likely be exposed to water in the form of sweat issuing from your feet. In an attempt to figure out which shoes absorb the least amount of water, and then manage to shed it the quickest once wet, we devised the water drainage test. Our results are for your benefit most of all, but we also integrated them into how we assessed scores for comfort.
To start, we weighed the pair of shoes clean and dry, then dunked them completely in a bucket of water for 20 seconds. This was immediately followed by a 20 second draining period, where we held them whichever way we could to drain excess water quickest. We then weighed the shoes to see how much water they absorbed and turned this amount into a percentage. We then put the wet shoes on while sockless, and ran around the block for exactly five minutes, before weighing the shoes a final time to see what percentage of water they managed to shed in a short period.
The Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2 top the chart when it comes to absorbing the least amount of water, and also managed to be among the lightest compared to dry weight after the five-minute run. Made largely of synthetic mesh and felt-like materials, these shoes are the best choice if you want a shoe for running in the pool or a similar environment. Two pairs of Hokas — the Mafate Speed 2 and Challenger ATR 5, also have impressive performance in this test, along with the La Sportiva Kaptiva. Shoes with lower percentages are better performers where water is concerned, and those with higher percentages tended to be more towel-like, sucking up the water they came in contact with.
If you peruse this site much you will notice that we love to use weight as a grading metric. One of the reasons is that it's so easily quantifiable and provides a very simple mathematical tool for comparison. But the far more important reason is that all of life, and virtually every outdoor sport, is a battle against gravity, and the less weight we have encumbering us, the more free we are to move around, which makes our sports more fun. When running, we repetitively pick our feet up in order to move them forward, so how heavy the shoes on our feet are does matter. This fact is perhaps best summed up by the old backpacking adage: "A pound on the feet equals five on the back."
An ounce or three of weight difference might not seem like much, but if you consider the fact that you will lift that weight on your foot every time you stride, that means you could be lifting literally thousands of pounds of weight with your feet on even an average length run, which clearly plays a role in accumulating muscle fatigue. Running uphill or for ultra distances only multiplies the potential advantages to be gained from lightweight shoes.
However, when it comes to trail running shoes, features that are added onto a shoe that contribute to a higher weight also usually contribute to better performance. For instance, thicker and burlier midsoles with rockplates are heavier, but also protect the feet a lot better. Same with upper materials, and even the amount of rubber lugs on the outsole. Cut out too much of this protection and you will surely end up with a super light shoe, but will also have to moderate your speed significantly to avoid damaging your feet. The takeaway is that lighter is better, but only if it doesn't compromise protection. The shoes described here naturally fall within a spectrum when considering these two factors, and which end of the spectrum is ideal is up to you. With this in mind, we only factor weight as 10% of a product's final score.
The Merrell Bare Access XTR is the lightest shoe at a mere 18.2 ounces per pair for size 11, but naturally provides minimal underfoot cushioning, and an enlightening amount of trail feel. A close second is the Altra Superior 4, which has a bit more underfoot cushioning in the form of lightweight, springy foam, but also comes with an optional and removable StoneGuard insert that adds a little bit to the weight, but quite a bit to the foot protection. Some of the other lightest options come from Inov-8 in the form of their TerraUltra G260 as well as their Roclite 290, where the numbers in the name is meant to represent grams of weight, and translated into ounces basically means, "quite light!"
We define sensitivity by how easy it is to feel the trail beneath your feet. While trail running shoes are designed to protect your feet from abrasion, direct blows from the pointy sides of rocks, or from repeated impacts inherent in the motion of running itself, they need to balance this protection with the fact that to run effectively, our brains demand feedback from our feet. The shoes that allow for greater feedback were awarded more points for sensitivity.
The soles of the feet are one of the most sensitive areas of our entire body, which makes intuitive sense if you consider how much it hurts to cut your foot, or how inordinately ticklish many people's feet are. Much like our hands, our feet evolved to be super sensitive because they are one of our primary sources of interaction with the world. In the ages before humans started wearing shoes, the feet were a critical link, via the sense of touch, with the world that we lived in. Honoring this evolutionary history, many runners have found that not only are they better runners when the sensitive link between the feet and ground is maintained, but also more satisfied runners. Perhaps the primal activity of running touches the heart a bit deeper when our ancestral connections to the earth are, even minimally, maintained.
Unquestionably, we now run differently than we did in the past or would be if we had no shoes on our feet. The fact that running is largely competitive, either with others or ourselves, means that we demand more protection to be able to run faster and further, and are willing to sacrifice sensitivity as a trade-off. Since trail running shoe designs tend to reflect this, we weighted sensitivity as only 10% of a shoe's overall score, while foot protection is weighted as 30%. However, we tested these two metrics pretty much the same way, by repeatedly running back and forth over the most jagged patches of rocks we could find, and noticing the relative differences in the how our feet felt in different shoes. Sensitivity, then, tends to be somewhat in opposition to foot protection, although a few well-balanced designs afford roughly equal amounts of each.
Relying on a scant amount of foam cushioning, the Altra Superior 4 is perhaps the most sensitive of this group, but also comes with an optional removable StoneGuard rock shield, which is a thin, flexible insert that can be added underneath the insole for added protection, and naturally dampens the sensitivity a tad. Another exceedingly sensitive option is the Saucony Peregrine 10, which does claim to have a rockplate sandwiched inside the midsole of the shoe, but one that leaves maximal feel of the trail intact. The low to the ground and zero-drop Merrell Bare Access XTR is not surprisingly also one of the most sensitive options.
There are so many trail running shoes available on the market today that choosing the best pair can present a real challenge. Even after testing the very best shoes available for literally hundreds of hours, we still have a hard time choosing the one that we like best, and indeed prefer to have a quiver to choose from based upon the run planned for each day. We hope that the information that we have presented here has helped make your choice easier, and encourage you to delve deeper into the metrics to better understand which shoe will be optimal for your needs.
— Andy Wellman