More people than ever are taking on trail-running as a sport, hobby, or way to stay fit. Over the course of the pandemic, people have reconnected with the outdoors. A lot of people that might have been considered full-time city dwellers before 2020 are now placing larger importance on surrounding themselves with nature.
Trail-running offers the perfect balance between exploring what nature has to offer and moving your body to stay physically fit and mentally sharp. You’re hitting two birds with one stone: getting outside and away from the city, while simultaneously using that time to work out. It’s no surprise, then, that people are looking to find the best trail running shoes for their level of activity.
Finding the right trail running sneakers — just like finding the right running sneakers or marathon training regime — isn’t as simple as it seems. There are a number of factors that contribute to determining what the best trail running sneakers are for you. Everything from the terrain to the distance, to your budget, to your skill level needs to be kept in mind when picking out trail running shoes.
That’s not to say you can’t just pick up any old shoes (providing they fit) and hit the trails. You can. But if you want to optimize your experience, you might want to make sure you get the best trail running shoes for you. Our short guide below, compiled through personal experience and resources online, was created to help you make an informed decision.
Read on to find out how to choose the best trail running sneakers for you.
How to choose the best trail-running shoes
To find the best trail running shoes for you, you need to know what you want to get out of the shoes. Good questions to ask yourself are how far you’re going to be running, what kind of terrain you’ll be running on, and in what kind of weather you’ll be outside. If you’re someone who runs on the track or on asphalt, you might already have preferences when it comes to the weight and composition of your running shoes. Some people prefer more stability and therefore a more rugged build. Other people want to be fast, regardless of where they’re running and will sacrifice some support for a more lightweight shoe.
At the end of the day, the best trail running shoe is the one that fits the best, you feel comfortable and — above all else — safe to run in, as well as one that fits into your budget. Don’t get too bogged down by brands or colors and, if you can, head to a store to try them out before buying them (I know, counter-intuitive on a post rounding up the best trail running shoes to buy right now).
Do my trail-running shoes need to be waterproof?
Again, this really depends on where you live, where you think you’ll be doing most of your running, and what your personal preferences are. As a general rule of thumb, no, your trail running shoes don’t need to be waterproof. Most trail runners are water and weather-resistant already, meaning you’ll be able to plow through small puddles and mud without having to worry too much about getting your feet wet. This is due to the materials typically used on trail-running shoes, where nylon and neoprene are sometimes favored over the mesh used on traditional running shoes.
That being said, many trail running sneakers (and sneakers in general) are now being constructed using different types of weatherproofing materials or technologies, such as GORE-TEX. If you think you’ll be running in inclement weather or through more muddy terrain, then waterproof shoes are definitely not a bad option to have.
How important is grip?
The name of the sport says it all. Grip is what sets trail running sneakers apart from normal running shoes. You’re running in the outdoors, on trails that may or may not have been traveled before you. The chance that your ride will be relatively flat and bump-free is close to zero. But that’s why people go trail-running. It’s a much more intense workout that requires just as much focus as it does balance, speed, and timing. Trail running shoes with grip obviously are a big help. That’s why a lot of brands will use outsoles with a heavy tread, to avoid slips and falls, and will often team up with specialists such as Vibram, ContraGrip, and Continental to construct said sole units.
How should trail-running shoes fit?
Trail running sneakers should be comfortable, first and foremost. Generally, it’s said that the sneakers should be snug around your midfoot and arch area. This avoids you slipping back and forth in the shoe and gives you extra support so you don’t twist an ankle unnecessarily. It also locks down your heel, which is very important regardless of what type of running you’re doing. Important to note, is that you should leave at least a thumb-width of space at your toes. When trail running, you’re running up- and down-hill, as well as over uneven terrain. This means your toes need a lot of space, otherwise they will be hitting the front of your shoe, which can cause pain and, in some cases, injury.
Scroll on for a selection of the best trail-running shoes to buy right now.
Ciele x Norda 001
Norda is a relative newcomer to the sportswear scene, as it was born during the early stages of the pandemic. Founded by TK and TK, the brand sets out to offer an ultra-tough trail running shoe that takes absolutely no BS, irrespective of where you choose to run. A Dyneema ripstop nylon upper — one of the strongest materials known to man — ensures that you won’t need to worry about thorns, rocks, or any other obstacles you may find in your way. A Vibram outsole also ensures supreme grip on all surfaces. This collaboration with Ciele looks as good as it is tough.
Salomon XT-6 ADV
The Salomon XT-6 ADV is an absolutely classic in the trail running game, although it’s been appropriated more by the fashion crowd in recent years. It’s been around for quite some time (nearly ten years), so it’s not the newest piece of footwear technology on the market. Nevertheless, the extremely treaded outsole ensures you won’t be caught slipping on your runs, while Salomon’s signature quick-toggle lacing adds another performance element that we love.
Nike Pegasus Trail 3
HOKA ONE ONE Kaha Low GTX
The HOKA ONE ONE Kaha Low GTX is not a traditional trail running sneaker, as it’s more of a low-cut day hiker. That makes the Kaha Low GTX extremely stable and a good option for those that think they’ll be starting out at a slower pace. As the shoe’s name suggests, the Kaha Low GTX is GORE-TEX equipped, making it completely water proof. The Vibram outsole, as is the case on most of the trail running sneakers on this list, is extremely grippy.
ASICS Fuji Lite 2
The ASICS Fuji Lite 2 is a mid-level trail running shoe. This means that it’s not quite the lightest in the range, but also not the most cushioned, making it a good fit for people who are looking for versatility and who will be running mid-level distances. The sneaker features ASICS’ super comfy FLYTEFOAM cushioning, as well as a pocket on the tongue, where wearers can tuck their laces to avoid them getting untied or hooked on obstacles. The Fuji Lite 2 is not waterproof, featuring an engineered mesh upper, making it a lightweight option for when it’s dry out.
On, the Swiss running brand taking the sneaker world by storm, is as performance-focused as it gets. The brand’s running DNA has meant that its sneakers are considered to be some of the best on the market. This includes its offering of trail running shoes. One look at the On Cloudventure, and you’ll see that it was made for the outdoors. The intense sole unit combines On’s proprietary CloudTec cushioning system with a rugged design that finely balances comfort and stability.
adidas Terrex Agavic TR GORE-TEX
GORE-TEX upper. Continental grip outsole. Boost midsole. Those are music to every runner’s (and sneakerhead’s) ears. With adidas Terrex’s Agravic TR GTX you’ll stay dry, have an unparalleled grip on wet surfaces, and have one of the best cushioned rides you’ll ever experience. It’s basically the best of all worlds wrapped into one trail running shoe.
Merrell Nova 2 X See America
Merrell is another one of those outdoor brands that is just good at what it does and, until recently, has stayed in its lane. Over the last few seasons, however, the brand has pushed into the lifestyle sector with some of its offerings. That doesn’t mean it’s taken its eye off the ball when it comes to its performance gear. The Nova 2 X See America is described by many as a good tradeoff between comfort and stability. You’ve got a relatively cushioned ride thanks to the thick midsole, but the Vibram outsole ensures you’ve got grip. The shoe’s upper is relatively lightweight, while not skimping on the materials to ensure your foot stays locked in and stable.
New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro V6
New Balance’s Fresh Foam Hierro v6 is another mid-level shoe that has both its pros and its cons. The Vibram outsole has great traction, while the outsole design itself doesn’t have the largest lugs. The Fresh Foam cushioning is comfortable, however, the overall sneaker is definitely on the heavier side when compared with some of the other options on this list. All in all, the Hierr0 v6 is a solid shoe that knows its limits, though those probably won’t be tested very regularly if you’re not a pro.
La Sportiva Jackal GTX
The La Sportiva Jackal GTX is, as the name suggests, a fully waterproof runner that is designed for long distances. In addition to a relatively sticky outsole — a La Sportiva special — the sneaker also features a midsole that combines cushioning with a rock guard. That combination ensures you’ll be comfortable and cushioned while you run, as well as protected from a beating by any rocks underfoot.
If you’re looking to go fast, look no further than the Brooks Catamount. The sneaker is made for races, which is underlined by its ultra-sticky outsole, which allows you to push the pace even in wet conditions. A rock guard similar to that in the La Sportiva Jackal GTX means you shouldn't feel many if any of the rocks underneath.
Saucony Peregrine 11 GTX
The Saucony Peregrine 11 GTX, like the New Balance Hierrov6, is a little on the heavy side for trail running sneakers, but that doesn’t make it a slouch. What it lacks in speed, the sneaker makes up for in stability and comfort. The GORE-TEX weatherproofing only adds to the versatility of the sneaker.
Salomon XA Alpine ADV Mid
Your feet are definitely not getting wet in Salomon’s XA Alpine ADV Mid, thanks to the sneaker’s shroud that wraps around the upper. As the name suggests, the sneaker was designed with alpine trail running in mind. The rugged outsole will grip almost any surface, while your laces stay neatly tucked in under the aforementioned shroud.
Nike ACG Air Nasu 2
The Nike ACG seal of approval is applied to the Air Nasu 2, which is a mashup of and nod to iconic ACG sneakers of yesteryear. The rugged outsole and cushioned sole deliver a one-two punch of comfort and stability.
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