After a long day stuck in the office or boardroom, sometimes pounding pavement just doesn’t cut it. Maybe you’ve been craving a change in scenery — have you seen the backcountry in the spring and fall? Regardless of your motivation to trade pavement for dirt, the right shoes make the difference between enjoying the boulder field at 10,000 feet and calling it a day at the first stream crossing. Whether you’re training for the Sky Running Race of Champions or just looking to trade your tried and true 5k evening run in for some time on gravel and dirt, GP’s testers have a shoe for every off-road run.
How do I pick my trail running shoes?
The first thing you'll want to consider is feel — do you want something light and flexible, or could you stand a few extra ounces in exchange for extra cushioning? There are varied opinions on what's best on the trail for obvious reason: there are varied gaits, level of experience and foot shape. What you ultimately choose should depend on what's best for you, and you alone.
With that said, there are some pretty standard features on a trail runner you'll want to make sure your next pair has before clicking "Purchase". You'll want a protective toe box, since you're inevitably going to encounter rocks and tree roots on your path. A grippy outsole is a must, and weatherized, waterproof uppers never hurt either. Make sure lugs are at least 3mm, so you can really dig into the trail. And finally, read up on the midsole: some shoes will prioritize responsiveness, while others will lead with cushioning. Depending on where you're running and what you're used to, it pays to read up on these features.
Pursuing the ideal balance of cushion and support can be tricky when it comes to a trail running shoe — unlike your road running kicks, you want a little more connection to the ground. Hoka's Speedgoat has been renowned in the trail running space since its original launch, and the fifth version is no different. Featuring an outsole made with Vibram Megagrip with Traction Lug, alongside a molded EVA sockliner and cushioning that's neutral and balanced, the Speedgoat maintains just the right amount of support, and nothing more.
Weight: 10.30 ounces
Designed for long distance comfort and performance, the Ultra 3 features a breathable mesh liner and balanced cushioning to deliver consistent feel on the trail. Wet and slippery conditions are no match for the grippy Contagrip outsole, while the high-rebound midsole design maximizes energy return and durability. At $180, they’re a little pricier than other options, but come race day, these sturdy, nimble shoes will leave your opponents seeing red.
Weight: 10.3 ounces
Drop: 8 mm
If you’re looking for more connection to the trail, the Trail Glove 6 from Merrell provides the perfect minimalist platform with zero drop and only 6mm of cushioning. Version six of Merrell's popular shoe sees updates in improved fit and increased abrasion-resistance: compared to past versions, the Glove 6 features a slightly thicker sole and a little more support, while maintaining the human foot shape that made it so popular in the first place. With a Vibram Ecostep outsole and Merrell’s TrailProtect padding at critical points, the Trail Glove 6 will be ready to go long after your feet are screaming for a break.
Weight: 15 ounces
Drop: 0 mm
The latest version of the Lone Peak sees updates in fit and performance. With a customizable lacing system, grippy outsole and canted lugs, and a weight of just over 10 ounces, this is the trail shoe for all day adventures.
Weight: 10 ounces
Stack: 25 mm
The sixteenth edition of the Cascadia holds up Brooks’s strong trail tradition — it's a smoother, lighter version of the shoe we've come to know and love. The new midsole and outsole construction let the shoe essentially mold to the ground, while still protecting from trail obstacles. This is the comfort shoe your feet have been asking for.
Weight: 10.5 ounces
Drop: 8 mm
Don’t mistake the Helios III for a lightweight, even if it does come in at just under 8 ounces. This hard charger is perfect for everything from short tempo runs to full-blown trail half-marathons. The toe and heel caps protect you on the rough trails, and the over-lugged sole sticks to everything. Go ahead and turn the speed up to eleven.
Weight: 7.7 ounces
Drop: 4 mm
We've written about the Flight Vectiv before, and it's plain to see why we can't stop: the innovative introduction of carbon into a trail shoe has propelled the footwear game forward in a big way. TNF's Flight Vectiv has a stable, balanced feel underfoot thanks to responsive cushioning, and the 3D carbon-fiber plate was designed to maximize energy return on the trail. Apart from the shoe's technical accolades, it also boasts the clean and style-forward aesthetic The North Face is known for.
Weight: 10.05 ounces
Offset: 6 mm
New Balance says its shoe provides a soft landing on rough terrain, and with tech specs like a new foam midsole, Vibram outsole and TPU threads woven into the upper, we'd have to agree. They're on the heavier side by a few ounces, but make up for the extra weight with superior comfort. The Fresh Foam Hierro 6 is the balance between a cushiony daily runner and highly-capable trail shoe, with a snug and breathable fit that makes it hard to take them off, even when you've finished your run.
Weight: 12 ounces
Offset: 8 mm
You may not recognize the name Norda yet, but don't be surprised if you start to see it with the same frequency as Nike, New Balance and Reebok. The relative newcomer's 001 shoe is an impressive feat: it mixes innovative materials like Bio-Dyneema and recycled polyester with industry stalwarts like Vibram to deliver a trail runner that is light, abrasion-resistant and performance oriented. The shoe is designed to provide the highest energy return possible, while prioritizing sustainability. If you're looking for a mix of form and function that's a little more unique than the average runner, try these on for size.
Weight: 8.71 ounces
Drop: 5 mm
Whether it's rain or shine, Newton's Boco AT 6 is designed to support your training goals. The newest version of the shoe sees a weatherized upper and new insole added to the mix, as well as durable and recycled materials including "Newtonium" foam. The resulting ride is cushiony and breathable, with just enough ruggedness to handle any trail condition you throw its way.
Weight: 10.6 ounces
Drop: 3 mm