The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2019
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|Pros||Great protection for the foot, snug fit makes for very stable and responsive ride, durable, drains water extremely well||Light, low profile, great traction, comfortable fit, great balance of sensitivity and underfoot protection||The most durable outsole, zero drop, amazing balance between foot protection and sensitivity, high volume fit||G-grip graphene enhanced outsole is very durable, super comfortable, low to the ground and responsive||Comfortable, light weight, performs well in wet conditions, relatively affordable|
|Cons||High price, narrow fit, slightly heavy||No rock plate, minimal upper foot protection, hard outsole rubber isn’t super sticky on rocks||Very little interior padding, could be more comfortable, pricey||Not as sticky as previous versions, not super protective underfoot or in the upper||Not much underfoot protection, a tad narrow|
|Bottom Line||An incredibly fine tuned shoe that comes with a correspondingly high price tag.||This sleek, supremely comfortable shoe was our favorite trail runner and a no-brainer selection as our Editors’ Choice Award winner.||The most unique and innovative trail running shoe we have seen hit the market in many years.||A very comfortable, low riding shoe that has excellent and durable traction.||A great all around running shoe for peak bagging and trail running.|
|Rating Categories||S/Lab Ultra||Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4||Inov-8 Terraultra G 260||Inov-8 Roclite 290||Summit Unknown|
|Foot Protection (30%)|
|Specs||S/Lab Ultra||Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4||Inov-8 Terraultra G 260||Inov-8 Roclite 290||Summit Unknown|
|Weight (per pair, size 11)||23.5 oz.||21.1 oz.||22.2 oz.||21.6 oz.||20.0 oz.|
|Heel-to-Toe Drop||8 mm||4 mm||0 mm||4 mm||10 mm|
|Stack Height (Heel, Forefoot)||26 mm, 18 mm||24 mm, 20 mm||9 mm, 9 mm||23 mm, 19 mm||26 mm, 16 mm|
Best Overall Trail Running Shoe
Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4
The 2018 version of the Nike Terra Kiger 4 remains largely unchanged, except for color schemes, after the very successful update last year. Since it is one of the most comfortable shoes we have ever run in, we are happy that Nike chose to just leave it exactly as is. It rides much lower to the ground than your average everyday trainer, but that doesn't stop it from offering great underfoot protection, grippy and durable traction, and a super comfortable fit. This shoe has a foot-cradling elastic sleeve inside that easily locks the foot in place while also keeping the tongue positioned correctly to keep out debris. It also features a Phylon midsole combined with Nike Air cushioning pockets that give it better than average foot protection, despite its minimalist feel. There is no doubt this shoe can help you run faster and is equipped to stand up to the abuse of trying to do so.
The Nike Terra Kiger 5 was released in April 2019. We have pairs of these shoes on hand and are currently testing them before publishing our findings. Check back soon for a full review, and look for great closeout deals on the Terra Kiger 4!
While we love nearly everything about this shoe, there is still room for minor improvements. In particular, the upper does little to protect the foot from trail obstacles like jagged rocks, and is itself a bit fragile, being made of only very thin mesh fabric. At the same time, we were surprised this shoe didn't weigh even less, considering it was one of the lowest profile designs we have encountered in the trail running world. Neither of these minor complaints detracts from the experience of lightness while out running, and we feel this shoe delivers as a perfect choice for any type of on or off trail running. We used it on adventures that ranged from peak scrambles to talus slopes to gentle alpine tundra and smooth single track and loved it for all these types of terrain. If you want the best trail running kick available today, we recommend making the Terra Kiger 4 your first choice.
Read review: Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4
Best Overall Shoe for Narrow Feet
Salomon S/Lab Ultra
After another season of intensive shoe testing, we have a new top scorer! If it wasn't for the narrow fit in the forefoot and arch areas, a trait very common in Salomon shoes, we would happily anoint the Salomon S/Lab Ultra as the best overall trail running shoe. As it is, we still think it is the best as long as you have the average to narrower than average foot shape that will allow for a perfect fit. We love this shoe because its combination of dual density EVA foam underfoot is supportive while also providing a relatively firm and responsive ride, in contrast to the bouncy foams found in some competing shoes that compress out very quickly. Combined with the mesh upper that is completely covered in rubberized welded overlays, this shoe is far and away the most protective one you can buy, a critically important component for running gnarly trails, especially long ones. This shoe also does a great job of cradling your foot "like a glove," eliminating any movement or slop of the foot while running.
Salomon has released an updated version of this shoe, the S/Lab Ultra 2. Both pairs are available for sale, with good deals to be found on the one described here. We are currently testing the S/Lab Ultra 2 before publishing our findings, check back soon!
Despite incredible foot protection, durability, and stability while running, we found a few complaints to point out to discerning readers. At 23.5 ounces for a pair of men's size 11, these weren't exactly super light shoes (although they are a far cry from some of the clunkers or stompers we have tested over the years). They are also the same price as two pairs of New Balance Fresh Foam Gobi v3, the least expensive shoes in this review. However, these shoes offer the fine-tuned performance and fit to make up for the price tag and are a fantastic shoe for ultra distance races and runs, as well as for everyday training. If they comfortably fit your (narrow) feet, we think they are the best trail running shoes you can buy!
Read review: Salomon S/Lab Ultra
Best Bang for the Buck
Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 4
When assessing a product's value, many people fail to look beyond the price tag. However, when judging the value of a trail running shoe, measuring the number of miles run before the shoe completely disintegrates seems to be the norm. From our testing, there is no shoe in this review more durable than the Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 4 (although the Salomon S/Lab Ultra is close), making it our choice for the Best Bang for your Buck award. Despite over a year of testing and abuse, our pair is still going strong with no damage that would make us even consider retiring them. Stories abound in online user reviews of runners who have put these shoes through the trials of 500 or even 1000 miles before relegating them to the trash bin, suggesting that the workmanship is top notch. Compared to most of the shoes in this review, whose torn treads, ripped uppers, and easily compressed foam cushioning start to reveal themselves after perhaps less than 100 miles, the Wildhorse 4 is a true workhorse.
In April of 2019, Nike released the newest update of this shoe, the Wildhorse 5. We have pairs of this shoe on hand and are currently conducting comparative testing before publishing our findings. Check back soon! In the meantime, great closeout deals can be found for the Wildhorse 4!
There is little to complain about the performance of the Wildhorse 4, which closely mimics that of the Terra Kiger 4, except with a fair bit of extra underfoot protection. While these shoes can pound out the miles, they are also pretty heavy compared to their competition, weighing in at just over 12 ounces per size 11 shoe. For this reason, they are best used by runners who appreciate foot protection over top speed. They are perfect for use as everyday trail runners, or as ultra distance race shoes. At $110 retail, these shoes are slightly cheaper than average, but the real value comes from their longevity.
Read review: Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 4
Top Pick for the Best Traction
Salomon Speedcross 5
The Salomon Speedcross has long been known for its insanely aggressive outsole, a design feature that has literally forced, and inspired, almost every competing shoe brand to imitate it. With its newest update to the Speedcross 5, Salomon has improved this already popular shoe by making the rubber on the sole even stickier than it was before so that it acts like glue to rock and even wet rock. Even more significantly, they widened the forefoot of this notoriously narrow shoe by a significant margin, drastically increasing both the comfort and wearability for those of us without narrow feet, while at the same time adding to the stability by offering 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, locking the foot securely in place with Salomon's quicklace system, and feels supremely comfortable right out of the box. We have been running in these shoes for over eight years now, but have seen our love for them diminish as they got narrower and tighter as time went on. Well, this newest version has won us back over.
While we feel like this is a shoe that we once again love to run in, it still retains some of the longtime 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 that we not only find to be 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 trail shoes these days, especially as most pairs continue to get lighter and lighter, and it retains its reputation for running a bit warm and lacking breathability. This just means that these shoes are better used for higher altitude mountain runs where the air is cool, which is what they are designed for anyway. While we are psyched that Inov-8 expanded the selection of Graphene infused rubber soles to another favorite of ours, the Inov-8 Roclite 290, our side-by-side testing showed that the Speedcross simply gripped better. 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, offering traction unrivaled by any other shoe.
Read review: Salomon Speedcross 5
Top Pick for Zero Drop
Inov-8 Terraultra G 260
Zero-drop diehards have long been accustomed to buying shoes from one specific company — Altra — and indeed we have recommended countless pairs of these for those aficionados over the years. This year we jump ship, going in a different direction to recommend the Inov-8 TerraUltra G260 as our Top Pick for Zero Drop. While we acknowledge that the Altra Superior 4 is significantly improved from the last three or four versions which all suffered from major flaws, we point toward the TerraUltra G260 instead because they're really burly and will last you far longer than your compressible foam Altras. Not only is this shoe zero-drop, but its designed to last you as long as possible, made with Inov-8's new graphene enhanced G-grip rubber outsole and Kevlar upper. G-grip, released at the end of 2018 is a revolutionary rubber outsole made with Graphene, a single-atom-thick layer of Graphite which is not only the single strongest material ever tested in a lab, but is so fresh and revolutionary that its discovery won a Nobel Prize in Physics as recently as 2010. How this material, proven to be ten times stronger than steel, combines with rubber to make up the lugged outsole of this shoe is a secret that Inov-8 will not soon be disclosing, but which provides durability far greater than any outsole we have tested in years. We took it on numerous runs over sharp pumice lava fields that lasted for miles on the PCT in Oregon, and while we commonly saw little colored pieces of torn off shoe rubber littering the trail as we ran by, our shoes looked pretty much unscarred by the experience.
As one would expect, this shoe feels significantly different from your average pair of Altra Lone Peak 4's. They are relatively firm underfoot, without the squishy foam bounce you may expect. That said, their firm cushioning doesn't squash down and flatten out after only a couple hundred miles. They are also pricey, but once again, you are getting so much more life from your shoe for the increase in price, so in our mind, the trade-off is certainly worth it. If you love the ergonomics of a zero-drop platform and an even balance between underfoot protection and sensitivity, then we encourage you to check out the highly durable and innovative TerraUltra G260.
Read review: Inov-8 TerraUltra G 260
Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning
HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 5
Maximally cushioned shoes have an inordinate amount of foam padding underneath the foot which helps to dampen the effects of the repetitive impacts of running, especially over long distances, while also protecting the sole of the foot from objects that may be encountered along the way. No longer a quirky novelty, pretty much every runner at this point has heard about Hokas, tried them out, and formed an opinion on whether they help one stay healthy on the trail or are likely to be the cause of the next injury. This year, Hoka updated their popular Challenger ATR 5, keeping the simple, water shedding upper and the dampened, stiffer EVA foam underfoot, while finally adding a sticky rubber outsole with lugs that grip both rock and dirt, and won't tear off in a heartbeat. They also expanded the sizing offerings to include EE wide, which is an awesome accommodation considering these shoes tend to fit narrow in the forefoot to begin with. These additions induced us to recognize them as our Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning.
Of course, Hokas have always had a few drawbacks that scare people away (besides just their looks) — most notably their lack of stability on uneven terrain. These shoes exhibit that hindrance less than any others we have tested, mostly due to employing a firmer, denser feeling foam that doesn't rock as much from side to side or bounce back with a springy action while you run. While this does change the trail feel a bit compared to older Hokas, we think it improves stability and overall performance. For our head tester, the fit remains a little wide in the heel and narrow in the forefoot, but everyone has different shaped feet, and this shouldn't dissuade you from trying them out. These shoes are light, relatively affordable compared to other Hokas, and have become exceedingly refined, making them the ideal choice for Hoka lovers and those who are curious to test the benefits for themselves.
Read review: Hoka Challenger ATR 5
Top Pick for Hiking
Altra Lone Peak 4.0
The Altra Lone Peak 4 is one of the most popular trail running shoes in North America, in large part because of its zero drop platform combined with enough underfoot protection to enable long-distance adventures without trashing one's feet. But runners are not the only ones who love this shoe — hikers, and particularly thru-hikers — have also adopted it as a must-have piece of gear for long-haul adventures. While hiking boots and even hiking shoes have long been the most commonly recommended footwear for most trail users, many of us have realized that trail running shoes are also an ideal choice for simple hiking and even backpacking. Just because you intend to spend the day walking instead of running doesn't mean that you don't want the lightest, nimblest, and highest performing footwear, which without doubt are trail running shoes. The Lone Peak 4s are particularly good for hiking because of their zero drop platform, meaning your heel is the same height above the ground as your toes. This is the way human bodies were designed to walk, and is an important structural consideration, especially if you intend to walk, say, the entire Appalachian Trail in one go. They also fit fairly loose but stay responsive, are quite comfortable, and drain water well.
On the downside, trail running shoes will not last as long as a pair of hiking boots before needing to be replaced, so long distance hikers may need to budget for a few pairs on one adventure. Altras, in particular, are not known for their exemplary durability, although our test pair withstood all we put them through just fine. Backpackers and thru-hikers with well-adapted musculature and light packs will greatly appreciate the increased efficiency of walking in light, responsive footwear as opposed to stomping out long miles in clunkier boots or heavier shoes. When it comes to choosing the best trail runner for hiking and backpacking, we agree with the thru-hikers and have thus awarded the Lone Peak 4 as our Top Pick for Hiking.
Read review: Altra Lone Peak 4
Why You Should Trust Us
This review was led by Andy Wellman, a senior reviewer at OutdoorGearLab who has been testing running shoes since 2014. Andy has been running his entire life, ever since he was the fastest (and smallest) kid on his youth soccer team. While running through the mountains for simple fitness and due to impatience on long mountain approaches and descents has always been his norm, in 2011 he was bit by the competitive running bug. He took to it in earnest, and along the way managed to win or podium at mountain races from 10k to half marathon, as well as marathon, 50k, 50 mile, and the Mustang Trail Race, a nine-day stage race through the Himalayas. In 2014 he quit his job to live a nomadic, dirtbag lifestyle of mountain running, traveling the world and the American West to explore wild trails. Those adventures led him to settle in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, a modern-day mountain running mecca and home to the iconic Hardrock Hundred trail race, where he began reviewing trail running shoes and other running apparel for OutdoorGearLab. He now bases himself out of another running hotspot — Bend, Oregon — where the air is a little thicker and the trails a bit faster, but with access to just as many epic adventures.
Testing of trail running shoes never really ends, as companies now release new models 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 130 different pairs of trail running shoes over the past six 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 (it does happen), 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, but if you want to know even more about our testing process, check out the How We Test article.
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 better results, and having more fun, and trail running is no exception.
Testing new pairs of shoes and updating this review is a year-round process. We add in intriguing new shoes and the latest updates as they become available and we have a chance to test them fully. There are currently 15 of the most popular and best trail running shoe available covered in this review, but look for our massive spring update, including many updates to award winners, as well as some really cool new shoes, by the end of May. Our testing involves lots of running on trails and even off-trail adventures in every pair of shoes you see here, as well as a whole host of different controlled tests to see which shoes perform well, or not, at specific tasks like side-hilling (a stability test), absorbing blows to the bottom of the feet (running over jagged rocks, a test of foot protection and sensitivity), and the water test (one of many factors that help us assess for comfort). When testing an updated version of a shoe, we have on hand all of the older models that we have tested, so we can closely compare both the feel on our feet and the trail, as well as cosmetic changes that have taken place.
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.
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, and delve deeper into the individual product pages to find out whether a particular shoe perfectly matches your needs.
A significant critical 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, and thus more expensive products are also the highest performing, years of testing has proven to us that this isn't always the case. We don't grade each product specifically for value, but we do talk about the value in each review, so look there if you are curious about our thoughts.
When considering the value of a trail running shoe, three aspects are critical 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 is also critical to ascertaining that shoe's value. Unfortunately, not only does every runner put a different amount of strain on their shoes, but we didn't have the time or energy to completely trash 17 pairs 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. While we don't want to succumb to speculation, we have pointed out issues we have found in a shoe's individual review.
In our opinion, the most important criteria for evaluating a trail running shoe is how well it protects your foot. After all, if it didn'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 graded 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.
Three shoes, in particular, offered the best of the best in foot protection. Our Editors' Choice award-winning Salomon S/Lab Ultra 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 back. Offering an even greater amount of underfoot protection, but without a hugely protective upper, are both of the maximally cushioned Hokas that we tested — the Speedgoat 2 as well as the Hoka Challenger ATR 5. These shoes have tons of absorptive foam cushioning that not only absorbs impact from rocks, but also from the ground in general. 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 wasn'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. Check out the table below to see how the various models compared when it came to this critical metric.
To come up with these scores, we devised a number of 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. So the scores above are an amalgamation of a shoe's performance on all of these separate metrics, and the higher the score, the more surfaces that the shoe would be capable of sticking easily to with a high level of confidence that it wouldn't slip.
Two main factors contribute to a shoes 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 much easier, 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 a lot longer but doesn't bite into 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, newly updated in the winter of 2019, 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 has the propensity to wear down quicker if used too often on hard surfaces. The graphene infused G-grip rubber found on the bottoms of the Inov-8 Roclite 290 and the TerraUltra G260 is not quite as sticky on rock as the Speedcross, but 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. Lastly, the outsole of the Saucony Peregrine looks like something you might use to tenderize aged meat. In this case, you can use it to tenderize the soft, slippery trail beneath your feet. As one of the most important aspects of a trail running shoes repertoire, we weighted traction as 20% of a product's final score.
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 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 higher 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 (these numbers can be found in the specs table at the top of this page). 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 4-6mm. 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 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 are sloppy shoes that don't hold the foot in place through the stride, which are inherently less stable.
Most of our testing for stability was done while out on trail or adventure runs, but we also compared 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. Two shoes in particular feel significantly more stable than their competition, giving us increased confidence to push our speed on all types of terrain. The Altra Superior 4, a very light and low-riding zero-drop shoe, is 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 4 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. Two other shoes, the Inov-8 TerraUltra G260, as well as the Scarpa Spin 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. We have done our best to describe how each model fits in the individual reviews. 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 didn't want to penalize a shoe that felt uncomfortable to our head tester too much when many other people will naturally end up loving it. However, we did find some universal factors that could 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 make 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 meant that we needed 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 left our feet excessively hot and sweaty, while others are a bit too short for the size, meaning our toes would hit the front of the shoe, especially while running downhill. Most of our findings for the Comfort metric were based on our anecdotal evidence from long runs on a variety of terrain. We also conducted the water drainage test (described in detail below) to get a better grip on which shoes absorb the least amount of water or sweat; our test also measured which contenders are the most efficient at drying out afterward, which we defined as another essential component of comfort.
At the end of our testing period, it was clear that one company, Nike, is making shoes that are more comfortable to us than the rest. We experienced no rubbing, pinching, or blisters when running long distances in these shoes, and honestly, we rarely noticed them at all, perhaps the best compliment that can be made about a shoe after a long run. At the top of this list was our best overall trail running shoe, the Nike Terra Kiger 4, which we felt we could run in every day for the rest of our lives and be happy. The similar but more protective Nike Wildhorse 4 relied on many of the same design concepts to deliver unrivaled comfort. Both of these shoes have been updated to the newest version (5), which we are currently testing and will update in this review very soon, so check back! Most of the other pairs of shoes tested are also very 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 in 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 still 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. Finally, we put the wet shoes on while sockless, and ran around the block for exactly five minutes, before weighing the shoes one last time to see what percentage of water they managed to shed in a short period, shown on the right in the table below.
The Salomon S/Lab Ultra are almost an outlier when considering water absorption immediately after dunking. Made largely of synthetic mesh and felt-like materials, these shoes absorb less than 20% of their weight in water, making them by far the best choice if you want a shoe for running in the pool, or a similar environment. The North Face Ultra Vertical is another top choice, as is the impressively resistant, despite their size, Hoka Challenger ATR 5. If you gave all the shoes the benefit of the doubt and allowed them five minutes of running to shed any water that was absorbed while dunking, these three still had the least increase in water weight, but were also joined by the Topo Athletic Runventure 2, which managed to shed the water pretty efficiently.
Here at OutdoorGearLab, weight is one of our favorite metrics for judging the benefits of a product or piece of gear. Not only is it extremely easy to quantify and measure, but literally thousands of hours testing every sort of gear imaginable, by hundreds of different people, has always confirmed the same assumption: Light is Right! Weight used to be one of those things you would only consider when buying a tent or stove for backpacking, but didn't think mattered enough to consider for precious outdoor items like clothing, backpacks, climbing ropes, sleeping pads, or running shoes. However, we've come to realize that in virtually every situation, carrying less weight in clothing and equipment makes your sport or activity easier to perform, which in turn makes it more fun. Trail running is no exception, and while the weight of a simple pair of shoes may not seem noticeable to you on your daily run, trust us when we say that it is very noticeable to us as we test pair after pair after pair in quick succession. To have the most fun, you want the lightest pair of shoes that you can get away with while still meeting the basic needs of your body and objectives.
Of course, weight typically comes at the cost of something. Often this something is the rockplate or other mode of underfoot protection. Trimming materials from the upper is another common way of shaving off the grams. However, with the continual evolution of new material choices, shoe companies can do a lot more with less, and are doing so by using lighter weight mesh uppers strengthened with TPU overlays rather than plastic support, and EVA foam in place of hard rock plates in the midsole. It's true that the very lightest shoes reviewed here are certainly the least supportive, and are only fit for certain uses, such as short races or speedwork. However, whether your desires and objectives require a zero-drop shoe or a maximally cushioned beast, you will be happier if that shoe weighs less. To assess for weight, we took each pair of shoes out of the box and immediately weighed them on our independent scale before they had a chance to collect any dirt. All weights listed are for US men's size 11, but the weights should accurately represent their comparative position no matter what size you happen to be.
Trail running shoes are more tightly grouped at the lower end of the weight scale than they used to be, while not being willing to cut out necessary features like protection to attain a low weight. However, at a mere 16 ounces per pair, the Hoka Evo Jawz blew every other shoe out of the water, weighing three ounces less than the next closest competitor. This shoe is reminiscent of a racing flat but designed with mountain running in mind. The second lightest shoe is the newly redesigned Altra Superior 4, which managed to shed a couple of ounces over its previous version and drop the overall weight down to 18.8 ounces per pair. Numerous other shoes weighed in right around 20 ounces, but perhaps the most remarkable of these is the New Balance Fresh Foam Gobi v3 due to its low cost, as well as the fact that it provides more protection than its weight would suggest. As an essential thing to consider, but not the be-all-end-all in running shoe performance, we assigned weight 10% of a product's final score.
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 easier when our ancestral connections to the earth are, even minimally, maintained.
Unquestionably, we now run differently that 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, in our estimation.
The Altra Superior 4, relying on a scant amount of foam cushioning, 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. However, we find that adding this protection reduces the volume of the shoe enough that it is no longer comfortable for us to run in, and after asking everyone we have seen with these shoes whether they use it, they all concur that they prefer to run without it in place. We graded the model based on not having the rock shield, thus enhancing its natural sensitivity. Very light shoes are usually the most sensitive as well. The Hoka Evo Jawz is also one of the lightest on underfoot protection, a reliable indicator of sensitivity, and should be among the first shoes considered for someone who values trail feel more than protection. As a somewhat less important aspect of a shoe's performance, we only allowed sensitivity to account for 10% of a shoe's overall score.
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 individual metrics and reviews to better understand which shoe will be optimal for your needs.
— Andy Wellman