Gear

2012 Trail Running Shoe Review

Find the best Fit, Feel and Ride for the trails you run and how you run them.

Find the best Fit, Feel and Ride for the trails you run and how you run them. 

Trail running shoes have finally evolved.

Gone are the days of settling for heavy, overbuilt models or wearing ineffective road shoes. Trail runners can now choose from a bevy of lighter, more flexible and more agile trail-specific sneaks.

The models made for off-road running have become dynamic trail tools possibly influenced by a number of factors, including the huarache sandals worn by the Tarahumara in “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, the lighter, stronger and more resilient materials available to shoe manufacturers, or by the fact that more people are running fast over hill and dale.

Although trail shoes generally fall into three categories—barely-there minimalist models, middleweight hybrid/crossover shoes and burly mountain runners—those lines are blurred by the types of trails you run and how you run on them.

For example, do you mostly run on smooth, flat trails with a consistent stride? Or do you run rocky, hilly routes in which no two footsteps are the same? Do you prefer a thickly cushioned shoe or one that offers protection against the various obstacles your feet encounter out on the trails? Are you an agile runner who likes to run nimbly in minimalist shoes no matter what the terrain is? Or would you rather wear a burlier model and bulldoze over rocks, roots and other trail debris?

To find the right shoe for you, consider those questions as you read about the 14 new shoes we’ve reviewed here, as well as additional reviews we’ve posted on Competitor.com.

Editor’s Pick (Most Innovative): Altra Lone Peak, $110

www.altrazerdrop.com

Weight — M: 9.9 oz.; W: 8.9 oz.

FIT: The forefoot of the Lone Peak has a unique, bulbous shape that gives a runner’s toes and forefoot arch room to spread out upon impact with the ground. Otherwise, the shoe fits semi-snug in the heel and locked-down tight at the midfoot.

FEEL: With two thin layers of firm and semi-soft foam cushioning under foot, it’s understandable the Lone Peak feels a bit firm. But that firmness leads to responsiveness out on the trails, allowing a more direct connection between the foot and the ground without losing energy to midsole compression. The most distinct aspect you feel is the shoe’s “zero-drop” platform, meaning the foot sits precisely level inside the shoe.

RIDE: The Lone Peak flexes easily and rides smooth, stable and securely on most terrain, though it borders on being too firm when running on harder surfaces. Otherwise, the shoe generally doesn’t get in the way of the foot, except, of course, when it keeps sharp objects at bay. (A flexible rock plate is sandwiched between the two layers of midsole foam).

adidas adizero XT4, $100

www.adidasrunning.com

Weight — M: 10.2 oz.; W: 9.0 oz.

Fit: The adiZero XT4 is roomy in the toebox and midfoot and snug in the heel. A soft, breathable mesh tongue and padding in the heel collar round out the secure fit, and it provides comfort in areas that can chafe during long runs on rugged terrain.

Feel: A lightweight low-profile model with an aggressive tread and a 6mm heel-toe drop, the adiZero XT4 is geared toward running and racing over rocky, rooty technical trails. It runs nimbly on very technical trails, but is flexible enough to run with a consistent gait on smooth trails and fire roads. (Runners beware: Aside from durable outsole rubber, it doesn’t offer much in the way of protection).

Ride: The soft foam midsole and the relatively soft rubber outsole create a resilient and somewhat bouncy ride giving a runner the sensation of gliding over trails. Uniquely designed directional outsole lugs and a slightly wider outsole provide exceptional balance and traction, particularly when pounding down rocky descents.

M: 10.2 oz.; W: 9.0 oz.

ASICS GT-2170 Trail, $110

www.asicsamerica.com

Weight — M: 12.0 oz.; W: 10.3 oz.

FIT: This shoe mimics the fit of the GT-2170 road shoe: a locked-down heel, snug at the midfoot and rather compact in the forefoot.

FEEL: Although there are plush interior features, it feels firm. That’s largely because it has a traditional medial post construction—a firm wedge of foam inserted under the arch to stiffen the otherwise soft and resilient midsole foam—and a hard plastic support bridge to stabilize runners who tend to overpronate. It also has a traditionally built-up dual-density heel (and a 10mm heel-toe drop), which contributes to the heavy weight of the shoe.

RIDE: Given this shoe is a road/trail crossover, it’s not surprising this GT-2170 rides just like the GT-2170 road model—consistently firm and supportive. It’s considerably less flexible and agile than most other trail models and doesn’t offer great traction on more rugged terrain, but it does provide protection against stubbed toes, sidewall abrasions and pointy trail obstacles.

Editor’s Pick (Best Ride): Brooks Pure Grit, $100

www.brooksrunning.com

Weight — M: 8.7 oz.; W: 7.7 oz.

FIT: The Pure Grit has a wrap-like fit at the midfoot and a secure snugness at the heel, but a more generous cut in the forefoot.

FEEL: Combined with the snug fit and soft, pliable upper, this shoe feels like it’s an extension of your foot. A unique balance of soft cushioning and a low-to-the-ground design (plus a 5mm heel-toe drop), the lightweight Pure Grit allows a runner to feel the trail and run nimbly on a variety of surfaces.

RIDE: With a soft layer of foam from heel to toe and an easy-flexing demeanor, the Pure Grit serves up a cushy (but not marshmallowy) ride. A curved heel promotes an uninhibited heel-to-toe transition, while the split toebox, designed to let the big toe work independently, increases balance and encourages the feet to function more naturally—particularly when cornering. It has enough cushion to soften the impact of hard surfaces, even without a midsole protection plate.

Columbia Ravenous Lite, $80

www.columbia.com

Weight — M: 6.5 oz.; W: 5.1 oz.

FIT: A low-volume model with a race-ready feel, the Ravenous Lite fits snug from heel to toe.

FEEL: There’s not much to this shoe, and that’s what makes it a good one. A thin sliver of soft midsole foam and a thin layer of durable outsole rubber are all that sits between the foot and the ground. That leads to a superior proprioception (the ability to feel the ground) and agility, but it can leave the bottom of the feet exposed to sharp objects.

RIDE: With its minimalist design and low-to-the-trail design, the Ravenous Lite inspires fast, nimble running, no matter if the trail is flat and soft, covered in gravel or strewn with boulders. But because it offers almost no protection or support, it’s only appropriate for dexterous runners with efficient, neutral gaits.

Hoka OneOne Stinson Evo, $170

www.hokaoneone.com

Weight — M: 10.4 oz.; W: 9.7 oz.

FIT: The maximally cushioned Stinson Evo fits snugly throughout, thanks in part to an upper that comprehensively envelops the foot and cinches it into the base of the shoe with a one-pull lacing system.

FEEL: The Stinson Evo evokes a unique springiness the moment you lace them up. Despite the girth of this shoe—it has twice the midsole foam and considerably wider outsole footprint than any other shoe—it’s fairly light and maintains a near-level platform (4mm). It doesn’t flex as easily as minimally constructed models do, but that’s not an issue because the unique rocker profile (it has a convex design from heel to toe) encourages forward momentum.

RIDE: Soft, bouncy and yet surprisingly stable, the Stinson Evo serves up a one-of-a-kind sensation that smooths out trail rubble by absorbing small and large obstacles as its oversized midsole compresses. The added midsole height takes some getting used to, but the bounciness quickly turns into a consistent lively rhythm on all surfaces.

Merrell Lithe Glove, $125

www.merrell.com

Weight — M: 6.5 oz.; W: 8.3 oz.

FIT: While the Lithe Glove (and men’s Sonic Glove) offers reliably tight heel-hold and midfoot connectivity, the toebox is wide and roomy.

FEEL: With a thin layer of outsole rubber and a miniscule layer of cushioning and a flat, zero-drop profile, these minimalist mites will put you as close to the ground as you ever want to be. A durable rubber outsole and thin protection plate offer sufficient underfoot protection against protruding pebbles, but the lightly reinforced toebox and sidewalls can leave toes in harm’s way.

RIDE: Because there’s almost no cushioning, these flexible flyers ride free and firm, requiring a runner to have advanced lower-leg strength and the ability to run nimbly. On smooth terrain and dirt roads, they demand efficient form devoid of heavy heel striking, while more technical routes necessitate careful agility.

Montrail Bajada, $110

www.montrail.com

Weight — M: 10.3 oz.; W: 8.5 oz.

FIT: The Bajada features a snug fit from front to back, particularly in the toebox, which doesn’t leave much wiggle room for your piggies.

FEEL: This shoe has somewhat of a split personality, as it feels both supportive and burly yet moderately soft. It has a thin flexible protection plate built into the midsole, allowing it to maintain the agility of a cushioned road trainer while also offering the toughness of a long-distance mountain runner.

RIDE: Despite having a fairly steep heel-toe differential (10mm) and an aggressively lugged outsole, its soft chassis and easy-flexing demeanor allow it to hold its own on mountain trails strewn with rocks and debris, as well as fire roads and smooth dirt paths.

New Balance Minimus Zero Trail, $110

www.newbalance.com

Weight — M: 4.4 oz.; W: 3.5 oz.

FIT: These featherweight minimalists fit similar to ballet shoes in the heel and arch/midfoot—with a snug, wrap-like connectivity—but like open-toe sandals in the forefoot. The outsole and the upper are both extremely pliable, creating a dynamic fit that remains reliably snug as the foot flexes through various phases of a stride.

FEEL: This is the essence of modern minimalism in a nutshell: über-light and supremely flexible with low-to-the-ground construction. Although the durable outsole pods offer a bit of protection, there’s nothing to inhibit the natural movement of your foot or interfere with your stride whatsoever.

RIDE: The near-barefoot sensation promotes and demands an agile style of running and gait with soft landings. Even though its thin yet durable rubber outsole offers some protection against most trail clutter, you still have to run nimbly and avoid hard heel-striking and pointy rocks.

Editor’s Pick (Best Value): Puma Faas 250 Trail, $85

www.puma.com

FIT: The low-volume one-piece seamless upper, combined with a pair of strategically placed off-center lace eyelets, does a good job of cinching in the forefoot, arch and heel in one fell swoop.

FEEL: The Faas 250 Trail is light and close to the ground yet sufficiently cushioned for comfort on hard and soft surfaces. The array of aggressive yet low-profile lugs are conducive to running on a variety of trails from mild to rugged, but it doesn’t suffer on stretches of flat, smooth dirt trails.

RIDE: An ample amount of semi-firm foam cushioning gives this shoe a fast and agile vibe. The snug fit, sleek profile and moderate heel-toe drop (8mm) give it a performance-oriented feel that makes it ideal for a short-distance racer, an up-tempo trainer or a technical climber.

Salomon XR Mission, $110

www.salomon.com

Weight — M: 11.5 oz.; W: 9.9 oz.

Fit: A crossover shoe made for runners who are used to running in road shoes or who are just starting to run more trails, the XR Mission fits snug in the heel and the midfoot, but slightly loose in the toebox. Thin cord laces and friction-free eyelets allow you freedom to easily customize your fit with one pull.

Feel: Stepping into the soft, cushy interior and cinching down the laces of the XR Mission creates a distinctly supportive base. It has a thick single-density midsole and extra-wide base, and winds up on the heavier side of the trail shoe spectrum, which translates to stability on the trails.

Ride: The Mission is copiously cushioned, but instead of being mushy, it feels slightly firm and responsive. While it’s not a good choice for steep craggy mountain trails, it runs well on mild dirt and gravel trails, moderately rocky terrain and paved surfaces with equal zest.

Skechers GoTrail, $80

www.skechersusa.com

Weight — M: 7.8 oz.; W: 6 oz.

FIT: The lacing system and an external heel clip offer a locked-down security in the rearfoot and midfoot, while the stretchy upper offers a roomy forefoot fit without inhibiting toe movement.

FEEL: Like the GoRun road shoe Skechers debuted last year, the GoTrail is very light and extremely soft, has a minimal heel-toe drop (4mm) and allows the foot to move without inhibition. It has the agility to run up-tempo workouts and is cushioned enough for long slow distance runs on roads and hard-packed dirt trails.

RIDE: The ride is very soft and forgiving, and will appeal to efficient runners who appreciate a well-cushioned ride. At high-cadence up-tempo paces, this shoe floats over smooth trails, dirt roads and pavement, but it is a bit frail and unprotected for technical trails strewn with rocks, roots and other obstacles.

Saucony Peregrine 2, $100

www.saucony.com

Weight — M: 9.9 oz.; W: 8.7 oz.

FIT: Like the first incarnation of this shoe, the Peregrine 2 has a snug fit from heel to toe. The low-volume toebox feels a bit cramped, offering just enough room for the toes to wiggle a bit, but the narrow fit contributes to the shoe’s agility.

FEEL: This shoe has a firm but agile feel with enough cushioning to maintain comfort on longer runs or rugged trails. It’s not super-light, but it does have a low heel-toe drop (4mm) conducive to good running form and fast running. A gusseted tongue helps keep dirt and debris out.

RIDE: The Peregrine 2 offers a stable, reassuring ride on all types of terrain, but excels on more technical trails. The firm feel gives this shoe a zesty responsiveness, and combined with a low-profile forefoot, makes this shoe a good option for short-distance racing. A moderately aggressive outsole tread offers up secure traction on a variety of surfaces but isn’t too overbearing for smoother trails.

NorthFace Singletrack Hayasa, $110

www.thenorthface.com

Weight — M: 8.9 oz.; W: 7.02 oz.

Fit: The Hayasa offers superior heel hold, but the fit gets roomier as it goes forward, with a somewhat loose feeling in the arch/midfoot and plenty of wiggle room in the forefoot. To ensure a reliably snug fit, the laces have to be cinched to the max.

Feel: The Hayasa offers pillow-y cushioning in its stabilizing heel unit, and plenty of wiggle room in the toebox. It has the semi-soft feel of a low-profile road shoe, so it should come as no surprise that it transitions well between smooth trails, gravel roads and asphalt. The ventilated, flexible mesh upper rests snugly yet softly over the foot without rubbing.

Ride: With a semi-soft midsole that absorbs impacts without inhibiting flexibility, the Hayasa rides steady like low-to-the-ground road shoe. The low-profile lugs make it adept at handling terrain that isn’t terribly technical, although a thin flexible protection plate in the forefoot and a reinforced toe cap help keep moderate obstacles at bay.

La Sportiva Vertical K, $115

Weight – M: 7.0 oz.; W: (unisex shoe; women’s weight approximately 5.9 oz.)

Fit: The Vertical K fits super-snug throughout, to the point that some runners preferred a shoe a half-size larger than what they normally wear. That snugness does add to the agility, but it can also put your toes in harm’s way on technical trails strewn with rocks and other debris.

Feel: These definitely feel like racing flats for the trails. They’re super-light and have the narrow, low-volume fit and low-to-the-ground feel of a road racer. The snug heel and midfoot area and the sticky rubber outsole contribute to the shoe’s outstanding handling on all types of trails, as does a relatively flat heel-toe drop (4mm). These bad boys definitely make you want to run fast.

Ride: Fast and free sum up the ride of this shoe. It has an ample amount of soft foam cushioning, but not so much that it inhibits the feel for the trail. It doesn’t have much structure at all, so any stability has to come from a runner’s strength, agility and balance. One of the only downfalls of this shoe is that it doesn’t have a rockplate built into the midsole, which means, on more technical trails with jagged rocks, you can feel every sharp rock under foot. 

Scarpa Spark, $115

Weight – M: 9.5 oz; W: 8.2 oz. 

Fit: The Spark has a snug heel and midfoot fit and a slightly wider toe box that allows for the inevitable toe-stubbing and foot swelling on rugged mountain routes.

Feel: The Spark is a surprisingly light and agile shoe built for technical mountain trails, one that offers both a good amount of protection and durability without sacrificing the flexibility needed for nimble movements and precise footsteps on craggy trails. One of the keys to the Spark’s agility is its moderate heel-forefoot drop (only 6mm), which helps ensure flat, stable foot placements on unstable terrain.

Ride: The Spark is a departure of sorts, both for Scrapa and for a true mountain running shoe, in that it offers sufficient flexibility and agility while still offering plenty of stability, protection and cushioning. It’s most at home on more technical or very rugged terrain, but it will start to feel like a bit too much shoe on smooth terrain or roads. The low-profile outsole lugs offer good traction on a variety of surfaces and, combined with a flexible nylon protection plate buried in the midfoot, keep sharp objects from painfully poking the bottom of your feet.

Tecnica Inferno X-Lite, $110

Weight – M: 10.4 oz; W: 8.8 oz.

Fit: The wide toe box is this shoe’s most remarkable fit feature. They fit snug in the heel and semi-snug in the midfoot/arch area, though the speed-lace system isn’t quite as simple (nor reliably snugging) as it is intended to be.

Feel: The Inferno X-Lite uses a unique oversized cushioned and has a rockered geometry. Combined, those two elements provide exceptional cushioning and forward momentum, but they also detract from the ability to feel the trail and the agility that comes from such proprioception. That said, once you get used to the forward-rolling sensation these shoes encourage, running in them becomes much easier.

Ride: Unlike minimalist trail shoes that require a runner to do a delicate dance through technical features, the Inferno X-Lite plows right over rocks, roots and other sharp and uneven obstacles. The ride is relatively soft and disarming, but one devoid of nimbleness, thanks in part to a fairly stiff demeanor in the forefoot. Although Inferno X-Lite shoes don’t feel heavy or bulky on rugged terrain, they tend to feel a bit bulkier on flat, smooth trails.

TrekSta Edict, $135

Weight – M: 10.9 oz; W: 10.1 oz. 

Fit: The Edict has an exceptional, cradling fit that snugs up the heel and arch/midfoot area of the foot while a wider-than-normal forefoot gives ample room for toes to move and expand upon impact with the ground.

Feel: This shoe is somewhat of a ‘tweener; kind of a mix between a lightweight trail running shoe and a durable mountain runner. As such, it’s a semi-versatile do-everything shoe (even as a light hiker) for a casual trail runner, although it lacks the chops to be a long-distance mountain runner or a light-and-fast agile trail speedster. The forefoot feels low to the ground, but heel feels quite built-up. The Edict isn’t heavy, but its relative lack of agility doesn’t make it feel that light, either.

Ride: For what it is, the Edict runs pretty smoothly on flat and less-technical trails. It’s sufficiently cushioned and has a flexible rockplate to keep away “stingers” from sharp objects on the trail. But it doesn’t run as nimble some of the other models in this review, and, combined with the built-up cushioning in the heel, it’s difficult to find a consistent sweet spot on smooth to more-technical trails. The outsole’s low-profile lugs offer good grip while still allowing the shoes to run smoothly on flatter terrain.