The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2021

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 off-road game.

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 this article focuses on trail running shoes for men and women. 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.

Scroll through to see all of our recommended buys or jump to the category you’re looking for:

The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2021

Best Overall: HOKA ONE ONE Torrent 2 — Men’s & Women’s

Hoka_Torrent2

The HOKA ONE ONE Torrent 2 ($120) hits the mark between a cushioned ride you’d expect from the name and the aggressive ride of a lower-profile trail shoe. If you’re familiar with the HOKA Challenger ATR, the Torrent 2 has a similar shape. However, it takes on purely trail traits from there.

HOKA is synonymous with plush cushioning, but this shoe keeps it to a minimum under the toe. That leads to responsiveness and bite on uphills for a speedier, snappier feel than other HOKA trail shoes.

That said, it’s not so minimal that you’ll feel the slap of lower-profile shoes. The back of the shoe has more cushion to protect the heel and midfoot on downhills or sloppy foot placement.

The outsole spreads its multidirectional 5mm lugs to provide great traction on dirt and rocky trails without creating the feel of running solely on them. Larger lugs around the edge of the sole added stability in corners and on uneven terrain.

For more information on the Torrent 2, you can read our deep review.

  • Weight (per shoe): 9.4 oz. (men’s); 7.6 oz. (women’s)
  • Drop: 5 mm
  • Lugs: 5 mm
  • Best For: Goldilocks trail runner or anyone who has wanted a lower, firmer ride from HOKA or a bit more cushioning than their current shoe. The Torrent 2 is a great all-around dry trail shoe.

Check Men’s Price at BackcountryCheck Women’s Price at Backcountry

Fastest Trail Shoe: Adidas Terrex Speed Ultra — Men’s & Women’s

Adidas Terrex Speed Ultra

We’ve seen a few brands launch a dedicated ultra trail shoe this year. TNF’s VECTIV and Craft’s CTM Ultra come to mind. These shoes are meant to go long and fast.

Adidas Terrex Speed Ultra ($160) entered the field with their own ultra whip, designed with help of their sponsored athlete and Western States podium finisher, Tom Evans.

Adidas trend narrower, and the Terrex Speed fits like a glove. The soft heel locks the ankle to the durable mesh upper. The collar and tongue are minimally padded.

TPU banding is woven into the design, adding structural support and added durability. The chassis rides over a low, 2.5mm tread. The functional minimalism shouts speed.

While it’s tagged as an ultra shoe, we found it too narrow and unforgiving on our long runs, leading to tired feet after about 6 or 7 miles. But on shorter runs, boy oh boy, did the Terrex crush it. The slim design stands ahead of the pack and capably negotiates tricky trails with fantastic proprioception and precise foot placement.

For short runs, or those with technical, tricky sections, this is a stellar shoe.

  • Weight: 10 oz. (men’s); 8.6 oz. (women’s)
  • Drop: 8 mm
  • Best For: Crushing your Strava time

Check Men’s Price at BackcountryCheck Women’s Price at Backcountry

Best Road-to-Trail: HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6 — Men’s & Women’s

hoka one one challenger atr 6

The original max-cushion shoe, HOKA’s ATR 6 ($130) 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 tackle mild 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.

Like the 5, the ATR 6 feels a tad wide. Paired with the shallow (4mm) traction, it’s not a high-performance trail shoe, and it’s going to feel squirrelly on sand. A lot of that can be attributed to the fat pads that sit under the middle of the sole.

They are soft and pillowy and connect the shoe to hardpack and pavement. HOKA designed it for the runner who wants to run door to trail.

The ATR 6 shines on gravel roads or maintained trails 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 double track for hours.

  • Weight (per shoe): 9.8 oz. (men’s); 8.1 oz. (women’s)
  • Drop: 5 mm
  • Best For: Neutral runners who want max cushion; great for road-to-trailhead and gravel roads

Check Men’s Price at BackcountryCheck Women’s Price at Backcountry

Best Zero Drop Shoe: Altra Lone Peak 5 — Men’s & Women’s

Altra Lone Peak 5

The godfather of “foot-shaped” running shoes with a wider toebox and zero-drop platform, Altra has built a legion of followers through its unique design.

The Lone Peak 5 ($130) is 4 mm lower to the ground than the more plushy Timp. But, we found the midfoot volume to be more comfortable than the Timp and generally a better shoe for long runs.

It provides just enough cushion to protect feet on rough, rocky terrain and a better sense of the ground. Traction is fabulous, the wide forefoot is Altra standard, and the tongue and upper are nice and comfortable. For one of our reviewers, it’s become their “it’s drizzling on a Saturday and I need to quick get coffee” go-to shoe.

The one piece we’re not unanimously sold on is the size. Some testers found the LP 5 ran large this year, while others found the stock size a perfect fit. This is a matter of foot shape and preference, but it’s worth noting.

That said, like most Altra models, it’s probably not a good choice for those with narrow feet. And the Lone Peak 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 shoe): 11.1 oz. (men’s); 9.2 oz. (women’s)
  • Drop: Zero (stack: 25 mm)
  • Best For: Wide-footed runners who want to feel the ground

Check Men’s Price at REICheck Women’s Price at REI

Best Mountain Runner: La Sportiva Karacal — Men’s & Women’s

La Sportiva Karacal

Mountain running requires the stars to align around comfort, durability, and protection. But its north star will always be stability. You can’t risk an ankle twist above the tree line.

To meet the demands of alpine running, La Sportiva released the Karacal ($130), a precise trail runner that’s confident on erratic terrain.

Slip into the shoe, and you feel ample arch support. A robust cushion under the heels allows you to tap the brakes without jarring the chassis. The cushion tapers toward the toes and flexes under the metatarsals to bite down on the climbs.

In contrast to many trail shoes, the platform is narrow. It’s noticeably slender, especially under the heel.

To add stability, the fit is precise and the stack is low. The winning combination connects you to the terrain and gives you a slimmer profile so as not to catch on rocks and roots.

But don’t think this slender shoe takes away from its protection. Underfoot, a hardened EVA rock plate shields you from underlying talus.

The breathable mesh knit is heavily guarded by a lightweight structural TPU. Out front, a stout rubber bumper deflects direct hits.

La Sportiva is known for its snug, sporty fit. They’ve bucked that trend with a wide toebox in the Karacal. There’s room to spread out the toes for stability on long runs, and it gives the feet some extra “wrap” around terrain.

But the brand made a change to the length last year. The Jackal ran about a size small when it released. While not as egregious, the Karacal’s length still feels short.

We always recommend trying before you buy, but especially with La Sportiva.

  • Weight (per shoe): 10.2 oz. (men’s); 9.4 oz. (women’s)
  • Drop: 7 mm (29/22 mm)
  • Best For: For mountain runners or shorter technical runs who need precision and stability. For runners looking at longer distances, we’d recommend sizing up one full size.

Check Men’s Price at REICheck Women’s Price at REI

Best Max Cushion: inov-8 Trailfly Ultra G 300 Max — Men’s & Women’s

inov-8 Trailfly Ultra G 300 Max

Like many max cushion shoes, the story here is indeed the plush midsole. Not that inov-8 finally adopted a fat cushion midsole — rather, what they did to make it better. The Trailfly Ultra G300 ($190) infuses the foam with superhero-strong graphene particles.

Inov-8 has been using graphene in their outsoles since 2018. We found the graphite-infused knuckle-lugs capable of clawing up slick trails like crampons with very little show of wear and tear over the years.

The Trailfly still uses a durable graphene outsole, and they’ve mixed the same carbon structure into the midsole. Early tests by inov-8 have shown the shoes can clock upward of 800 miles and give you better rebound underfoot.

We haven’t put 800 miles in ours yet, but chances are we will. The shoe is quickly becoming our go-to for recovery and long runs.

To test the shoe, we spent a good amount of time in our Trailflys outside of Park City. The terrain is rocky and blocky and seems to endlessly amble up toward the sky.

We found there’s more room in the toebox than other max cushion shoes. And with a 30-24 heel-to-toe, the shoe does trend more rebound than cushion. The shoe’s drop and slightly lower stack helped stabilize the off-camber.

Some will scoff at the price. And we can’t argue — this is nearly a $200 shoe. But given the predicted trail-life, mile per dollar, the Trailfly could be the best value.

Our only gripe might be the color scheme. You can have any choice you like, as long as it’s ectoplasmic green. But if you can get past that, the green machine is a fantastic choice for long runs.

  • Weight (per shoe): 13 oz. (300 g) for both men and women (366 g on our scales for a men’s 10)
  • Drop: 6 mm (30/24 mm)
  • Best For: The runner who wants a higher volume cushion shoe for long miles

Check Men’s Price at inov-8Check Women’s Price at inov-8

Minimal Trail Shoe: Arc’teryx Norvan SL 2 — Men’s & Women’s

Arc'teryx Norvan SL 2

The most minimal trail shoe on our list (or most maximal minimal shoe), the SL 2 ($160) is Arc’teryx’s approach trail shoe for climbers hiking off the backside of routes. But it works great for runners who want a racy shoe with a low profile.

If you’re looking for cushion, padding, and support, you can look elsewhere. The SL 2 is stripped down to the basics. Other than the midsole and a pair of pads on the heel counter, there’s no padding.

The upper is a durable mesh embedded with TPU layups for support. There are no gussets around the tongue or pull-loop in back. The slot on the medial collar clips the pair to your harness.

Incredibly airy, the SL 2 vents very well, but things tend to cool off quickly. We wore this shoe on a winter run through hardpacked snow, and the heat poured off the foot. In summer, trail dust seems to pour in just as freely.

The footprint is narrow and small and doesn’t provide robust stability. It lacks the midsole support you’ll see on stouter trail runners. You notice this more on technical trails that demand attention to where you plant your feet. This plays well with climbers who inherently like to hone their footwork.

But it also has a way of reigniting a fire under those trails you tend to run over and over again. The vapor minimalism gives you fresh eyes to see those overworked go-to routes.

Price-to-shoe ratio, the SL 2 can be off-putting. But, it follows the trend for weight-weeny gear, where lighter materials, durability, and niche application typically cost more.

Given this is such a specific shoe, we wouldn’t recommend the SL 2 for runners looking for a daily trainer. It’s going to be your third or fourth pair, for those specific days with unique weight requirements.

  • Weight (per shoe): 6 oz. (men’s); 5.2 oz. (women’s)
  • Drop: 7 mm (19/12 mm)
  • Best For: Neutral runners who want a minimal trail shoe for run-to-scramble adventures

Check Men’s Price at BackcountryCheck Women’s Price at Backcountry

Best of the Rest

Salomon Sense Ride 4 — Men’s & Women’s

Salomon Sense Ride 4

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 fourth version closer to home.

The Sense Ride 4 ($120) was built to be familiar to those crossing over from the road. It does this by adopting the same antivibration 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 4 is more durable and predictable with more room for tired dogs hunting far-flung trails.

Last year, we awarded the Sense Ride 3 our overall best trail shoe. Upgrades this year include a more breathable mesh upper, which trims some of the fat off the 3. But the firm midsole chassis remains the same.

The Sense Ride strikes a balance of cushion and rebound but sits more toward the firmer side of the spectrum. This adds to the underfoot protection, but those looking for a more plush ride will be better served with a cushioned shoe.

  • Weight (per shoe): 10.2 oz. (men’s); 8.3 oz. (women’s)
  • Drop: 8 mm (32/24 mm)
  • Best For: Neutral runner; great all-around trail shoe

Check Men’s Price at REICheck Women’s Price at REI

Brooks Caldara 5 — Men’s & Women’s

Brooks Caldara 5

The Caldara 5 ($140) is Brooks’ high-cushion counterpoint to their venerable mile-monster, the Cascadia. Standing over a 32-28mm stack, the shoe has a relaxed 4mm drop that performs well as a trainer or on long runs.

If you’ve run in HOKA’s Speedgoat, the shoe feels familiar. It’s got a touch more rebound (compared to HOKA’s bias for cushion), but the midfoot volume is snugger and will fit narrow feet better.

While the high stack is supported by a fat platform, the foundation isn’t as wide as some max cushion shoes we tested this year. Cutting or traversing technical terrain can feel a little tippy, particularly under the heel.

But it has a wonderful combination of cushion and rebound that, when tied with the snug fit, is a winning combination that feels snappy underfoot, excelling on long, easy runs.

Centered with help of the liner wings, the tongue stays pinned under the laces. Oddly, if you run your laces to the top hole, those laces run short. If you like to double knot your shoes, you’ll likely need to buy a longer pair or skip the final eyelet all together.

The chassis rides over 4mm lugs. Sure, it lacks traction in muddy conditions, but we felt it went toe-to-toe on dry, sandy hardpack against shoes with more bite.

For those far-flung runs, the Caldara is trimmed with a durable rand for protection and a mid-tongue and heel hook-and-loop catch to secure a gaiter.

  • Weight: 10.6 oz. (men’s); 9.4 oz. (women’s)
  • Drop: 4 mm (32/28 mm)
  • Best For: For low-volume foot runners looking for cushion. The low lug pattern also makes the Caldara a good choice for road-to-trail runners

Check Men’s Price at REICheck Women’s Price at REI

HOKA ONE ONE EVO Mafate 2 — Men’s & Women’s 

HOKA ONE ONE EVO Mafate 2 

The EVO Mafate 2 ($170) 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-cushioned 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 lb. 4.6 oz. (size 10)
  • Drop: 4 mm
  • Best For: Long distances on less technical trails where cushion is king

Check Men’s Price at HOKA ONE ONECheck Women’s Price at HOKA ONE ONE

Buyer’s Guide: 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.

Roadrunner 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.

Identify Your Running Gait

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 most important thing you can do is buy a cushioned shoe.

Stack and Drop

Unless you’re running barefoot, every shoe has a stack. Measured in millimeters (mm), 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.

hoka-one-one-evo-mafate

Cushion

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 damp 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

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.

Waterproofing

For most trail running, you don’t want a waterproof shoe. Waterproofing can be great for hiking, but for running, your feet will sweat too much for a waterproof membrane to keep up.

Obvious exceptions include really muddy or snowy trails at ultra lengths and possibly cold, wet weather. Generally, though, stick with highly breathable shoes.

Lugs & Traction

Compared to road running shoes, trail runners will want grippy soles to navigate the slick, uneven, rocky, and muddy terrain. Look carefully at the trails you plan to run. If they’re mostly covered with stones and hard dirt, a short lug pattern will be great.

Those who run on lots of muddy or soft surfaces should look to a deeper lug pattern.

Weight

Running shoes should be as light as possible while still offering the protection you desire. Anything over about 12 ounces (for a men’s size 9) is just too heavy. Lighter is better if possible.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 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, and tears or notice a decrease in footbed comfort, it’s probably time to grab a new pair of sneakers.

Can You Run on the Road With Trail Shoes?

You can certainly run anywhere in your trail shoes. That said, most find the aggressive lug pattern of a trail shoe is uncomfortable on pavement. Hard surfaces like cement or pavement also quickly wear down the sole of a trail running shoe.

If you’re running on the road to get to your trail, you’ll be fine. If you plan to run mostly on roads, it would be better to get a dedicated road running shoe.

Can I Use Running Shoes for Hiking?

We have seen a big shift on the trail from hiking boots to lighter-weight shoes, including trail running shoes for hiking. Trail running shoes offer up excellent traction in a lighter, more nimble package.

While many backpackers still prefer a boot, we know thru-hikers who make major miles in trail running shoes. If you’re looking for something in between, it’s worth considering a hiking shoe.

Other Expert Picks

For additional expert opinions on best trail running shoes, check out the advice in iRunFar’s Best Trail Running Shoes and Switchback Travel’s Best Trail Running Shoes of 2021.


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