From rocky mountain runs to muddy spring trails, we tested the best trail running shoes for every use and budget.
Venturing off road can provide a mental lift to your weekly routine and reap huge fitness gains. While we’ve all taken our street runners to the trail, having the right trail-specific kicks can elevate your trail runs.
Our team tested shoes on all manner of runs. From rocky scrambles to mellow hikes to the Leadville 100, we’ve worn these trail shoes through rain, summer heat, and everything in between. And while there isn’t a single perfect shoe for everyone, we’ve categorized our top picks to help you find the best fit.
It’s also worth noting that this article focuses on trail running shoes. You can find separate articles for the best road running shoes for men, the best road running shoes for women, the best winter running shoes, and the best trail running shoes for women.
The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2020
Best Overall: Salomon Sense Ride 3 ($120)
We were first introduced to the Sense Ride trail running in Chamonix. It’s safe to say everything is better in Chamonix, but we’re happy to step back into the familiar feel of the shoe’s third version closer to home.
The Sense Ride was built to be familiar to those crossing over from the road. It does this by adopting the same “anti-vibration” foam insert we see in the Sonic, but with more trail specificity. With aggressive lugs, a rock guard under the midfoot, a durable mesh upper, and a bombproof QuickLace system, the Sense Ride 3 is more durable and predictable with plenty of room for tired dogs hunting far-flung trails.
The ride has plenty of cushion but doesn’t compromise firmness. This makes the Sense Ride 3 a favorite for trail newbies and veterans alike.
Weight (per pair): 22 ounces
Drop: 8 mm
Best for: Neutral runner; great all-around trail shoe
Runner-Up: Saucony Peregrine ISO ($90 on Sale)
The Peregrine is a perennial favorite, and for good reason. These tick all the major boxes for comfort, durability, traction, and weight. The cushion provides comfort for long days on the trail, and the reinforced sole protects against sharp rocks and debris. We found them plenty responsive on the uphill and pleasantly forgiving on the down.
The ISOFit lace system has been lauded for providing a custom fit. And while we can’t promise it’s anything revolutionary, we did find these snug-fitting — an important factor when navigating technical terrain. We mostly used these for trail runs but know many people who choose the Peregrine as their go-to hiking shoe.
The one piece we’re not unanimously sold on is the extra-cushioned heel collar. Some testers found it helpful in providing a snug fit whereas others hate how bulky it is. This is a matter of foot shape and preference, but it’s worth noting.
Weight: 18.4 ounces
Drop: 4 mm
Best for: Regular use and variable terrain
Best Road-to-Trail Shoe: 361˚ Taroko 2 ($110)
The Taroko 2 is a nod to Taiwan’s gorgeous eastern slope. Steep, verdant cliffs, pouring with water, but never far from civilization, the Taroko is for the trail runner who starts and ends their runs in town.
We brought the Taroko on an 18-mile trail run that started on the road, climbed up hardpack, and crossed several miles of deep snow and bushwhacking before connecting back to the car. We were pleasantly surprised with how well the traction rose to each challenge along the way.
The narrow upper has distinct road pedigree riding with a robust amount of padding to round out the cockpit. A center groove runs down the the soft lugged outsole, providing that lateral torsion trail runners need to negotiate unstable surfaces. The ride feels soft yet supportive over the long haul.
The Taroko 2 follows the 80/20 rule (80% trail, 20% road). For those who run parks, hunting dirt trails at the end, this will be a great option. And everyone can appreciate that the $110 price point doesn’t break the bank.
Weight (per pair): 24 ounces (size 10)
Drop: 9 mm
Best for: Neutral runner with stability bias; great for city-dwelling trail runners who run to the trailhead
Max Cushion: HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 5 ($130)
No shoe review would be complete without considering a pair of HOKAs. The original max-cushion shoe, the ATR falls in line, and amazingly does it under 10 ounces. It cuts weight by using a single-panel mesh upper that’s both durable enough to deflect rough trails and allows breathability for hot summer days. A thin rubber rand protects the toes and is surprisingly stiff where you want it — right out front.
The tongue is centered by two mesh wings that wrap fluidly under the foot. Overall, the cockpit is minimally padded but feels natural and comfortable.
The ATR 5 feels a tad wide. Paired with the shallow (4mm) traction, it’s not a high-performance trail shoe, and it’s going to feel squirrely on sand. Billed as a road-to-trail shoe, HOKA designed it for the runner who wants to run to the trail.
The ATR 5 shines on gravel roads or hardpack where cushion and comfort take priority, but you want some snap in the step to keep it quick. The slight rocker and cushy midsole will keep you comfortably pointed down the doubletrack for hours.
Bonus: There are enough color options to support nearly every alma mater.
Weight (per pair): 18.8 ounces
Drop: 5 mm
Best for: Neutral runners who want max cushion; great for road-to-trailhead and gravel roads
Best Zero-Drop Shoe: Topo Athletic RunVenture 3 ($120)
If you like all the qualities of the Magnifly on the road, you’ll love Topo Athletic’s RunVenture. Firm but flexible, it has a low, smooth ride, with room for the toes. The RunVenture 3 feels plush and fast.
There’s not a lot of shoe here. The shoe is firm, but the cushion is thin. A rockplate helps buff out the rough, but you’ll feel it when the trail turns extra-rocky. Still, the ride feels very playful and a delight to run in, injecting fun and smiles on those familiar trails where you’ve memorized the line and want to dance through the obstacles.
Weight (per pair): 18 ounces (size 10)
Best for: Neutral runners who dance down the trail
Best for Narrow Feet and Sandy Trails: Dynafit Ultra 100 ($140)
Distinctively Euro, the sleek one-piece upper of the Dynafit Ultra 100 imbues nordic skiing heritage. The laces are tidily tucked under a mesh lace garage and the TPU heel clip slings from midsole around the heel. The shoe locks around the foot and feels like an extension of the foot.
The cushy midsole rides over a blocky tread that mimics gravel and an aggressive rocker rolls the foot through the miles. We found that the tread locked into loose substrate better than any other shoe in the field. Tied with its tight fit, the runner can really crank through the turns, making this shoe a lot of fun at speed on the dry and loose.
Tying into the Ultra 100 gives the foot confidence, like buckling into a ski boot. And while it’s not that narrow, we don’t recommend this shoe for those with wide feet. But if the shoe fits, it’s a pleaser.
Weight (per pair): 22 ounces
Drop: 6 mm
Best for: Neutral runners with narrow feet; sandy trails and long distances
Best for Technical Terrain: Arc’teryx Norvan VT 2 ($170)
To slot within the required terrain, the shoe runs narrow and firm while reserving proper length for the toes. The lacing starts lower than most trail shoes, allowing you to really dial in the fit as terrain bends vertical.
To protect the shoe, the vamp is sveltely wrapped with protective overlays that disappear into the upper, allowing you to jam, smear, toe the shoe up with confidence that it won’t blow out. The chassis rides over a fantastic outsole, which our testers gave the highest marks for wet and wild terrain.
The Achilles heel in this shoe is its specificity, sacrificing flexibility and “trail sense.” It’s just not that cushiony. But for those hellbent on heading off trail and upwards, we feel it’s worth the compromise.
If you’re gobsmacked by sticker shock, the VT 2 is extremely durable and can pull double duty as a lightweight hiker. These would be a fantastic shoe for a “Teton-in-a-day” type adventure.
View the full Arc’teryx Norvan VT 2 review for more.
Weight (per pair): 23 ounces (size 10)
Drop: 8 mm
Best for: Neutral runners; run-to-scramble
Best for Mud: inov-8 X-Talon G 235 ($170)
If you’re pulling Gs on mud, traction is clutch. And there is no brand that understands slaying brown pow better than inov-8. While inov-8 has a stable of capable steeds for running the fells, we found the X-Talon an absolute joy in the slop.
The shoe fits like a slipper, inspiring supreme confidence at speed. And 8mm carbon-infused knuckle-lugs cleat the sole, clawing up slick ground like crampons.
The seamless ballistic nylon upper is wrapped by a thin rubber rand that stretches from the toe to the midfoot. And it’s totally bombproof. A thin bootie tongue sits under linguini-thin laces to keep the mud from slipping inside the shoe.
It’s superlight, the torsion is great, and the midsole is firm. If you’re looking for inspiration to get out on those wet, muddy days, the X-Talon is a fantastic choice.
Weight (per pair): 16.4 ounces (size 10)
Drop: 6 mm
Best for: Neutral runner with narrow feet; mud and soft surfaces
Leadville 100 Tested: HOKA ONE ONE EVO Mafate 2 ($170)
The EVO Mafate grabbed editor Sean McCoy’s attention after Jim Walmsley wore it in his Western States victory in 2018. He figured if it was fast enough for Walmsley, burly enough for Western States, and protective enough for his wimpy feet (the men’s shoe has a 33mm heel stack), they might get him across the Leadville 100 finish line.
Well, they did (with some help from the HOKA ONE ONE Torrent, which he also wore in Leadville’s more technical portions). He finished well under the cutoff time. And in running hundreds of miles on the EVO Mafate, he came to love this well-cushoioned shoe that nonetheless gives runners reasonable proprioception for modestly technical trails.
While it managed moderately technical trails and easy trails well, it’s a little too tall for more “black diamond” terrain, where a shorter-stack shoe gives more precise foot placement. Even with this caveat, it remains one of his favorite trail running shoes. Read the full review here.
Weight (per pair): 1 pound 4.6 ounces (size 10)
Drop: 4 mm
Best for: Long distances on less technical trails where cushion is king
Best for Wide Feet: Altra Timp 2 ($140)
Altra is well-known for its “foot-shape” running shoes. With a wider toebox and zero-drop platform, the brand has built a legion of followers with a slightly unique design.
The Timp 2 is something of a Goldilocks shoe to GearJunkie testers. It falls in the center of the brand’s stack heights. It provides just enough cushion to protect feet well on rough, rocky terrain but is still nimble enough to place pretty precisely among rocks and obstacles.
That said, like most Altra models, it’s probably not a good choice for those with narrow feet. And the Timp 2 is a little wide for super-precise or technical terrain. But it’s a strong contender for anyone who likes the zero-drop platform and a wide toebox.
Weight (per pair): 1 pound 3.8 ounces
Best for: Wide-footed runners looking for mid-level cushion and aggressive traction
How to Choose a Trail Running Shoe
Staring at a wall of shoes or endlessly browsing an online retailer can be overwhelming. We’ve broken down some helpful tips to find the right shoe.
Consider Where You Run
These days, manufacturers have dialed shoes for nearly every niche of running. A quick way to hone in on the right shoe is to identify where you run.
Road running shoes are primarily suitable for hard surfaces, with breathable uppers and smooth traction for pavement, track, and treadmills. Cushion and stability can vary (we’ll cover that more below).
Trail running shoes have an aggressive lug pattern that bites into dirt, sand, and mud. But not all treads are the same. A blocky, cleat-like tread will shed mud in the Pacific Northwest but can feel clunky on hardpack found in the Southwest and can cause trips and falls.
Trail shoes also have a more durable upper, a robust toe bumper, and a firmer sole or even a rock plate — all to protect the feet from underlying roots and rocks.
Road runner or trail shoe? These aren’t hard-and-fast rules. All the editors at GearJunkie run to the trailhead on the road, and we’re all guilty of taking a road shoe for a spin on the trail. If that sounds like you, we’ve indicated where a shoe can cross over effectively.
How Do You Run?
Everybody has a natural gait. And it leaves a thumbprint on your shoes. To get an idea of how you run, flip your shoes over and take a look at the wear pattern on the soles.
- Neutral pronation shows a wear pattern that scuffs the outside of the heel and the ball of the foot. A neutral shoe will probably be your best bet.
- Overpronation shows wear along the inside edge of your shoe (meaning your feet are rolling off the big and middle toes). People with low arches will certainly pronate, and that can poorly load joints up the chain. A stability shoe may help, but don’t overdo it. Just find a comfortable shoe that feels good and naturally supports the foot.
- Supination, or underpronation, is identified by long wear patterns along the outside edge of your shoes (caused by the feet rolling out). It can also be caused by inflexible, rigid, or high arches. Supination is less common, but the evidence is pretty clear here. The No. 1 thing you can do is buy a cushioned shoe.
Trail Running Shoe FAQ
Break through the overwhelming number of options and get some guidance with the answers to frequently asked questions.
Which Trail Running Shoes Should I Buy?
With so many options to choose from, it can be challenging to choose the right trail shoes. Here are three things to consider as you shop:
- Set realistic running goals. If you dream of running a 100-miler one day but realistically will use the shoes for 5-mile training loops around your local park, buy shoes for the latter use first.
- Consider shoe width. For folks with wide feet, or those running very long distances, a wide forefoot can be a bonus that lets toes splay. The downside is that wider shoes are less precise, can be a little more clumsy, and won’t fit well on people with narrow feet.
- Test out the tongue. Does it fit comfortably? Will it keep rocks out of your shoe?
For more help choosing, check out the complete guide to choosing a trail running shoe.
How Should Trail Running Shoes Fit?
Stack and Drop
Unless you’re running barefoot, every shoe has a stack. Measured in millimeters, the stack refers to how high the insole sits off the ground. Shoes with more cushion inherently have a higher stack. Furthermore, most shoes have a “drop” in stack height from the heel to the toe.
If you’re new to running, experts recommend a lower heel drop; it builds a wider range of motion and strength, which makes you a healthier runner.
Stepping into a high-cushion shoe can feel like walking on a cloud. Those running longer distances (or who supinate) will prefer more cushion to dampen the repetitive pounding and provide support. But it can become a penalty. Extra foam adds extra weight.
So, is more cushion better? Not always. It’s about finding the right balance between speed and comfort. If you’re aiming for a new PR, look for a light, stiffer shoe with a harder cushion and minimal lug friction.
Flexibility is your friend on the trails. You need variability to match the variable terrain. Trail runners will prefer a shoe with a firm outsole and less cushion but a firm toebox to push off of. Flexibility and torsion can help the foot adapt to the trail and prevent injuries.
How Long Do Running Shoes Last?
The life of a shoe depends on a variety of factors, including running style, weight, and how often they’re used. But in general, 300 to 500 miles is a good rule of thumb.
So if you run 10 miles per week, your shoes could last 8 months to a year. If you’re logging 20 miles per week, plan on replacing your running shoes every 4 to 6 months.
And if you see excessive wear patterns, holes, tears, or notice a decrease in footbed comfort, it’s probably time to grab a new pair of sneakers.
Have a favorite trail running shoe we didn’t include? Let us know in the comments for future updates to this article.