The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

How We Tested Trail Running Shoes

By Andy Wellman ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Thursday August 1, 2019

For the sixth year in a row, we culled down a field of over 100 top men's trail running shoes and selected the 13 best, most popular, and innovative to add to the seven pairs of shoes that are still the same as they were the last time we tested them. We then tested each of the shoes against each other over the course of many winter, spring, and summer months running in a variety of terrain. The home base for testing this year was the high desert of central Oregon, based around the outdoor-friendly town of Bend. Within a reasonable distance are lots of dry pinion/juniper forests and rocky canyons crisscrossed by trails that are run-able all winter, with the Ponderosa Pine forested trails of the east side of the Cascades also close at hand. A short drive away allows for testing in the wet and lush Cascade mountains, a completely different environment both psychologically and in terms of the demands placed on the feet and shoes, although waiting for the snow to melt in the spring requires patience. We also tested shoes on many road trips and travels around the world, including the San Juan Islands of Washington, the Coast Range of British Columbia, the Colorado Rockies, and on the dry trails surrounding our favorite limestone climbing areas in Catalunya, Spain.

Comparative testing trail running shoes on a large basalt talus field in Smith Rock State Park  OR. While we already had opinions about performance  we still tested each pair one after the other  taking notes as we did  about how they performed for the attributes of foot protection and sensitivity by running back and forth over these large sharp rocks.
Comparative testing trail running shoes on a large basalt talus field in Smith Rock State Park, OR. While we already had opinions about performance, we still tested each pair one after the other, taking notes as we did, about how they performed for the attributes of foot protection and sensitivity by running back and forth over these large sharp rocks.

While the foundation of our testing happens on trail runs and adventures in the wild places that we love, we wanted to add further accuracy to our testing by devising a series of controlled tests that we repeated with each shoe, comparing them to each other back-to-back. Those tests, and how we tested for each metric that we assessed for, are described below.

Foot Protection


While running over the variable landscapes in the mountains subjects us to plenty of nice buff trails, alpine tundra and grass, sloppy mud, creek crossings, talus fields, steep and loose scree, and high altitude technical scrambling, we wanted to be sure that we knew exactly how each shoe compared to each other when it came to underfoot protection. To do so, we found a gnarly patch of sharp rocks and talus and spent an entire afternoon running back and forth in each pair of shoes, comparing them to each other while taking copious notes. There is no doubt we have a firm grasp on the level of underfoot protection after such a test.

Running across any sort of rough  rocky terrain makes one appreciate the protection their shoe is providing for their foot  but crossing lava fields  like here in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness of Oregon  makes foot protection essential. This shoe is among the most protective that you can buy.
Running across any sort of rough, rocky terrain makes one appreciate the protection their shoe is providing for their foot, but crossing lava fields, like here in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness of Oregon, makes foot protection essential. This shoe is among the most protective that you can buy.

Traction


Our initial opinions of the performance of the traction on these trail runners were formed out on adventures and everyday runs, but we also subjected each shoe to a variety of different surfaces to compare their traction.

On slippery surfaces like this deep mud  having a shoe that is stable to land in is very important. This shoe is not the most stable landing platform of any we have tried  but we really appreciate how tightly it holds our foot in place  fusing the shoe to foot  which greatly helps stability.
On slippery surfaces like this deep mud, having a shoe that is stable to land in is very important. This shoe is not the most stable landing platform of any we have tried, but we really appreciate how tightly it holds our foot in place, fusing the shoe to foot, which greatly helps stability.

To do this, we found areas of steep dirt trail, steep grass, dry rock talus, wet rock, and steep muddy trail, and again ran back and forth in every shoe on every type of terrain, keeping notes on how well they performed.

Testing the grip of the G-grip traction on wet rock in the rain. While this shoe still has one of the most aggressive traction patterns  we find that the g-grip is firmer and not as sticky on rock as the previous versions of the Roclite 290.
Testing the grip of the G-grip traction on wet rock in the rain. While this shoe still has one of the most aggressive traction patterns, we find that the g-grip is firmer and not as sticky on rock as the previous versions of the Roclite 290.

Stability


To better compare stability head-to-head, we located a steep grassy slope and ran back and forth across it, side-hilling incessantly to see which shoes induced our ankles to want to roll over more frequently. We also ran down this slope repeatedly, comparing relative stability in a very real-world test - running down steep hills is an integral part of trail and mountain running.

Stability is important when running over loose or uneven terrain such as these small and unstable rocks. The Challenger ATR 5 performed far better than most Hokas we have tested over the years  and are not much of a liability on ground like this as they used to be.
Stability is important when running over loose or uneven terrain such as these small and unstable rocks. The Challenger ATR 5 performed far better than most Hokas we have tested over the years, and are not much of a liability on ground like this as they used to be.

Comfort


There is no doubt that comfort is the most subjective metric that we tested for, and we found it very difficult to devise controlled tests that could accurately rate comfort in a way that will apply to everyone. The majority of our findings simply came from our everyday experiences, but we also conducted the water drainage test to shed light on this one aspect of trail running shoe performance and comfort.

The water bucket test begins by dunking each pair of shoes for exactly 20 seconds to give them a chance to absorb water. We then held them upside down above the bucket for another 20 seconds to let them drain before weighing them.
The water bucket test begins by dunking each pair of shoes for exactly 20 seconds to give them a chance to absorb water. We then held them upside down above the bucket for another 20 seconds to let them drain before weighing them.

The test is described in detail in our Best Trail Running Shoes for Men Review. Since it is only a tiny aspect of overall comfort, we just used this data to slightly modify the satisfaction scores for the very best and worst performers at this test and left most shoe's scores unaltered. Due to the subjectivity of this metric, we did not penalize any shoes with super low ratings, and we also did our best to describe in detail in the individual reviews exactly how a shoe fit.

How well a shoe handles water absorption is a critical component of comfort. Here wearing the Scarpa Spin Ultra as we wade through one of 14 river crossings that we did on one eight mile trail run in the Ochoco Mountains of Oregon. These shoes unfortunately absorbed more than most.
How well a shoe handles water absorption is a critical component of comfort. Here wearing the Scarpa Spin Ultra as we wade through one of 14 river crossings that we did on one eight mile trail run in the Ochoco Mountains of Oregon. These shoes unfortunately absorbed more than most.

Weight


This one was easy. We weighed these shoes straight out of the box, and wrote down their collective weight, completely ignoring the figures on manufacturers' websites. The lightest shoes received the best score, and we went on down the list from there.

At a mere 19.4 ounces per pair for a size 11  these are indeed very light shoes  and can genuinely claim to be ultralight. For this weight you will sacrifice a bit of foot protection  however.
At a mere 19.4 ounces per pair for a size 11, these are indeed very light shoes, and can genuinely claim to be ultralight. For this weight you will sacrifice a bit of foot protection, however.

Sensitivity


Similar to how we assessed for foot protection, we already had a pretty good idea of the relative sensitivity of each shoe after months of field testing but devised a controlled head-to-head test anyway. We again ran back and forth over the same patch of sharp rocks that we used to test foot protection and kept detailed notes as we did so. Shoes that allowed our feet to feel more of these protrusions through the outsole and midsole we considered more sensitive than those that allowed little to no feeling and graded accordingly.

The foam cushioning underfoot allows a lot of sensation to make its way through to the foot  ensuring that these shoes are very sensitive  as we are testing here by hopping through talus fields.
The foam cushioning underfoot allows a lot of sensation to make its way through to the foot, ensuring that these shoes are very sensitive, as we are testing here by hopping through talus fields.