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No Bull: How To Choose Trail Running Shoes

“Which running shoes should I buy?” As a gear tester who runs regularly and tests dozens of pairs a year, I get asked this often. Here’s my advice to choosing a trail running shoe, without the BS.

Trail Running

More than any other equipment in the outdoors, running shoes are an extremely personal choice. A shoe loved by one may be loathed by another. And with so many options, it can be hard to know where to begin. Here are some guidelines and ways to make shoe buying easier.

1. Try On Several Pairs

This is the most important thing you can do when buying running shoes. Everyone’s foot is different, and the only way to know if they really fit is to get them on your foot. If you can’t try on many shoes, at least read as many reviews as possible, from various sources, about shoes you are considering.

With this in mind, if you find a shoe you REALLY love and have used for significant miles, consider buying a couple pairs up front. Brands are under constant pressure to evolve, so the shoe you fell in love with this season may not be around the next.

Buying online? Double check the return policy and consider ordering the two pairs closest to your size with the plan to return one.

2. Set Realistic Trail Running Goals

Before buying shoes, ask yourself one question: “What will I actually use these for?” If you dream of running a 100-miler one day, but realistically will use the shoes for five-mile training loops around your local park, buy shoes for the latter usage first.

3. Consider Stack Height

minimalism dead

The “stack height,” or amount of material under your feet, is one of the fundamental differences between shoes. Some people think less material is good, resulting in a more natural feel that leads to good biomechanics (minimal shoes). Others think thicker, more protective shoes lead to fewer injuries and more comfortable running. Even after tons of research, there is no conclusive answer to which style is better, so do some homework and decide how much cushioning you’d like. It will help narrow your field dramatically.

If you do decide to run in minimal shoes, be sure to start gradually, with short runs, and build up very slowly to help avoid injury.

4. Usually, Waterproof Is Bad

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.

5. Lug Length: Long For Soft Surfaces, Short For Hardpack

Aggressive outsole with more than two-dozen V-shape knobs
Aggressive outsole with more than three-dozen V-shape knobs means “mud shoe”

Compared with 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 are 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 to gain purchase.

6. Foam Or Rock Plate?

If you run over rocky terrain, you may want a shoe that helps protect your foot from hard edges. Two schools of engineering are thick foam or rock plates (thin, hard plastic plates in the shoe). Both have good and bad points, but generally, foam absorbs more shock, while plates provide a more natural feel of the ground and precise foot placement.

7. Shoe Width

Some shoes are designed with a wide forefoot. 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 and can be a little more clumsy, and won’t fit well on people with narrow feet. (See No. 1).

8. Trail Running Shoe 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 (the weight of the super-plush Hoka One One Stinson) is just too heavy. Lighter is better if possible.

Trail Running Shoes Checklist

  • Fit: Thumb’s width empty space at toe, with snug heel and mid-foot. Some space around forefoot can be good. Wear shoes for as long as possible before buying. Any small annoyance felt in the shop will be magnified dramatically miles down the trail.
  • Drop: How many millimeters drop from heel to toe? Depending on running form and preference, you may want anywhere from a flat 0mm drop, to 12mm or more. Investigate this before shopping.
  • Tongue: Does it fit comfortably? Will it keep rocks out of your shoe?
  • Outsole: Chose big lugs for soft soil and mud, small lugs for hard soil and rock.
  • Weight: The lighter, the better. We consider 12 ounces the maximum for a men’s size 9.
  • Price: More expensive doesn’t mean better. Judge the shoe by its attributes, not its price.
tagged: #trailrunning

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Editor-in-Chief Sean McCoy is a life-long outdoorsman who grew up hunting and fishing central Wisconsin forests and lakes. He joined GearJunkie after a 10-year stint as a newspaperman in the Caribbean, where he learned sailing and wooden-boat repair. Based in GearJunkie's Denver office, McCoy is an avid trail runner, camper, hunter, angler, mountain biker, skier, and beer tester.