Outdoors gear is made for out there. As trends take wilderness apparel from the summits to the streets, Highsnobiety is recasting a seminal part of the outdoors for its new home. Trail Mix is a wear-test series where, instead of climbing mountains, we put gear through tests that ring closer to home. Will camp shorts work for lounging around? Is a trail runner too much for a jog in the park? Each month, we’ll take on a new category, testing five pieces in the wilds of New York City to answer questions just like these. 

This time, we’re tackling trail runners straight-on.

Runners made for mountain sports are built around grip and stability. But in fashion, they’ve found traction of a different kind.

Decades before organiclab, brands like Saucony designed function-first trail runners for niche athletes, and niche athletes alone. The archetypal trail shoe is a trainer shoe with horns. Take a sleek, low-slung road racer. Dial up the outsole. Then, add in the footwear equivalent of a four-link suspension. If Nike’s Next% is an F1 car, the Hoka TenNine is a Ford Raptor. Forget land speed records – how about speed over land?

Overbuilt and underexposed, trail runners were long ignored by those outside mountain towns. Then, in 2014, influential boutique The Broken Arm decided to stock trail-model Salomons because, quote, “the design is still completely avant-garde and special.” This was the peak of the Common Projects l – and suddenly, a bulbous, even gauche shoe had a place alongside brands like Prada and Raf. As menswear gave way to athleisure, the aesthetics of function took center stage. Now, trail runners are a bonafide fashion sneaker – with cleats like Hoka’s Tor Ultra WP as likely to be seen on a runway as a mountain path.

While everyone from Balenciaga to Under Armour is now slinging their own pumped-up kicks as “trail runners,” there’s no replacement for the pure function (and insane looks) of the real thing. We laced up dozens of trail shoes, putting them through the paces to find out what actually delivers on both performance and style. Here’s our picks for the best stylish trail runners:

La Sportiva Ultra Raptor ($130)

Italy’s La Sportiva has made shoes for mountain-dwellers since 1928. Most of their models (the TC Pro climber; the Trango Tech GORE boot) are built to help you go up things. The Ultra Raptor, however, has other plans.

A muscled-out trail runner with talons for legs, the Ultra Raptor is La Sportiva’s rocky ground cleat. In case you thought it a sprint shoe: this thing is stiff. In the mountains, that sturdiness equates to protection and control. A wraparound rock guard keeps your feet safe. A heavy rubber toecap keeps your piggies in the market. Underfoot, the brand’s proprietary FriXion XF rubber compound and Impact Brake System provide unmatched control, no matter the incline. All that armor plating amounts to a hefty 12oz weight, but on softer trail surfaces, that weight sinks away into a smooth – if firm – total ride.

For those at sea level, the real highlight of the Ultra Raptor is its soaring good looks. A multi-textured mashup in the brand’s sleek red-yellow-black, La Sportiva’s mountain hawk is tech-fashion at its finest. Organic shapes in synthetic fabrics loop and twirl, sometimes three layers deep. Most impressively: the shoe packs all of its function-first craziness – the shark-tooth midsole! the inset tongue! – into a silhouette that wears like any other sneaker. It’s mountain man in civilian clothes; the trail runner equivalent of Honnold’s North Face tux. It boggles my mind how these aren’t better known. If you’re interested in trail runners as a style piece (or only plan to run in them off pavement), give the Ultra Raptor a go. Paired with a black tee and statement shorts, Sportiva’s sneaker sings.

Altra Timp 2 ($140)

Look at the starting line of any distance trail race. Where people run ultras, you’re bound to find Altras.

Altra (founded 2009) is a newer name with a decidedly-modern catch: all of its shoes feature a perfectly flat “Zero Drop” footbed. Instead of the slight heel-to-toe slope found in most running shoes, Altras keep the whole foot on one plane, mimicking the dynamics of a barefoot run. The company claims this enables a more natural running technique. An athlete wearing Altras claimed the 100 mile world record.

And the Altra Timp 2 – the latest version of the brand’s premier trail shoe – claims a spot on our list.

Simple and slender, the Timp 2 is a versatile trail runner with an aggressive take on core outdoors styling. A multi-directional mesh upper is pointed towards toebox with crosshatched polymer overlays. On the midsole, a swooping chevron design follows those angles while bleeding top into bottom. Underfoot, the brand’s signature “TrailClaw” outsole pattern helps every step stick.

This is a core trail runner to the bones. While it may lack the crossover of its more conscientious cousins, in Red/Orange, it’s different enough to catch eyeballs if worn right.

Suicoke x Vibram NIN-LO-M ($300 CAD, approx. $215 USD)

If you toe, you toe.

Before the Tor Ultra, before the XT-6, only one trail shoe made a true cultural breakthrough. Vibram’s FiveFingers running shoes made waves for their sheer silliness. Gloves? For your feet? Originally launched in 2007 (the same year as Radiohead’s “In Rainbows”), these walking podiatry exams were named a TIME Magazine “Invention of the Year.” In those fanciful days pre-Recession, truly anything was possible.

Over a decade later, the FiveFingers still cause a scene. Designed to mimic the barefoot running experience, the standard Vibram trail sock is a thin piece rubber outsole with a stretchy polyester/hemp upper. And that’s about it. This special edition (made with sandal savants Suicoke) sees the FiveFinger tech join a paneled mid-top upper, giving the shoe a technical tabi aesthetic with more versatility than the standard model.

In full disclosure: I did not like running in these. Even on grass, it was just too, well, weird for this writer. Like my toes while wearing these: “To each their own.”

HOKA TenNine ($250)

It’s fitting that a cruise missile is named after a countdown.

HOKA’s TenNine is the HOKA of HOKAs: a cushed-out, leaned-out, super stacked trail runner built for high speed levitation. There are just three numbers you need to know about the TenNine.

33: millimeter stack height, aka, you’re 1.3inches off the ground.

12.7: ounces, aka, surprisingly just a tad heavier than the Ultra Raptor.

250: dollars, aka, twice as much as HOKA’s best “regular” trail shoe, the tame-by-comparison Challenger ATR.

What do those numbers add up to? An unquantifiable run experience that’s as ridiculous as it is ridiculous.

With a caboose extending 3 inches from your heel, the TenNine is a functioned-out TripleS designed to give trail runners the ultimate stability on downhill bombs. The full TenNine experience was lost on me in a city park, but on trail and pavement alike, the ride must be felt to be believed. Plush like a pillow. Stable like your grandparents’ marriage. Forget Ford Raptor – this is the Range Rover SVR.

Stylewise, the TenNine is an absurdist technical sneaker in true #dadshoe tradition. I felt fucking silly doing anything but actively running in them, but you know what? They actually looked pretty decent. Worn with wide trousers and a Patagonia jacket, the sheer proportionality of it all just worked. In some ways, the TenNine styles like an exaggerated Rickdidas. A monochrome colorway (triple black? triple pink?) is just one Bloody Osiris post from true sleeper hit.

ROA Hiking Lhakpa Sneaker ($440)

Milan-based ROA is the Common Projects of hiking boots. While CP reinterprets heritage sports shoes, ROA mines the great outdoors to produce their own take on stylized substance. The results are typically stunning: I put their Andreas high-top boot through the paces last winter and walked away impressed, so when looking for a fashion-first trail runner, the brand’s Lhakpa sneaker was a must-try.

First, a word: like the Andreas, the Lhakpa is not meant for athletic activity. While made of the same bits as proper trail runners (nylon, suede, Vibram rubber, etc.), those bits surround what’s more or less a dress shoe construction. These are luxury sneakers in mountain runner clothing. And you know what? As daily drivers, they’re really rather sharp.

The Lhakpa is trail runner styling as a Platonic ideal. While pricy and hard to break in, from an aesthetic perspective, the Lhakpa’s gorgeous lines and sophisticated palette show the true potential of outdoors sneakers. Keep an eye on ROA. As outdoors gear continues influencing streetwear, their sophisticated takes on functionwear will only grow in relevance.

 

Special thanks to Suunto for sending over their new Suunto 7 run watch to aid in testing.  

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