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Best New Light and Nimble Trail Shoes

Reviews of four top trail shoes that let you connect with the trail and dance over any terrain.

Some trail shoes try to swallow or crush the terrain underfoot. Others help you flit lightly over it, dancing around obstacles and speeding across the top of rough terrain. These are the latter: Thin, flexible and feather-weight, with uppers that hold without binding and soles that enhance proprioception and quick turn-over.

Brooks Pure Grit 8 review
Brooks Pure Grit 8 / photo: Landis Beverly @lbs_gallery

Review: Brooks Pure Grit 8

Weight: 9.3 oz (M); 8.2 oz (W)
Drop: ~4mm
Price: $120
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At a glance: A minimalist model that keeps you firmly connected with the trail, now with a more relaxed woven upper.

Back when minimalism swept the industry, Brooks took their time creating the Pure line, so that their models ended up what might be called “second-generation” minimalist, preserving key elements that let the foot land and move naturally, but suitable for 21st century runners who grew up wearing shoes—which is one reason the Pure line has survived even when the movement waned. The Pure Grit is a prime example of a low-drop, close-to-the-ground, rounded-heel model that still provides a good—if firm—layer of underfoot cushioning.

Previous models, however, had the drawback of a too-narrow upper that didn’t allow for much splay and cramped the forefoot of many. This new model changes that, with a stretch-woven upper from heel to toe that gently wraps without constricting. While this relaxed, breathable upper created comfort for some, unfortunately it provided inadequate structure and support for others who felt the fit was sloppy, particularly around the heel and instep.

The imbedded rock plate also brought mixed reviews, adding protection but reducing the flex and cushioning. One tester noted, “These aren’t cushy, and are better suited for softer trails or harder runners.” Another relegated them quickly to casual shoes, a place where they shine in styling while providing low-drop adaptation in a safe setting. Another tester found them suitable for multi-sport use: “I also enjoyed using them for at the gym for lifting, given the lower-profile feel.”

Merrell Bare Access XTR Sweeper review
Merrell Bare Access XTR Sweeper / photo: Landis Beverly @lbs_gallery

Review: Merrell Bare Access XTR Sweeper

Weight: 8 oz (M); 6 oz (W)
Drop: ~0mm
Price: $110
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At a glance: An eco-friendly, cushioned-minimalist shoe that wraps and moves with your foot, letting you flit naturally over tame trails.

The top story on Merrell’s Bare Access XTR Sweeper is an environmental one: every component has some percentage of recycled material, from the 100% recycled-material laces and heel counter to 40% recycled-material mesh upper. The midsole is even made from 10% algae biomass. So you can feel a bit better on the trail knowing you’re encouraging efforts to preserve the nature you’re enjoying.

You’ll also feel better on the run due to the “All I Need” design philosophy that produced the light, flexible fit and close-to-the-ground proprioceptive ride of the Bare Access XTR. Made with a similar shape as Merrell’s famous Trail Glove, the shoe surrounds your foot above and below, with a contoured heel, sculpted arch and a stretch wrap inner layer around the instep that connects from sole to tongue. The upper is unstructured but durable, with flexible (recycled material) TPU overlays holding you securely but not interfering with foot movement. Speaking of movement, the sole, while thicker and more cushioned than Merrell’s pure minimalist offerings, moves freely with the foot, thanks to multiple grooves in the sticky and durable Vibram outsole—grooves which allow the sole to flex and adapt heel-to-toe and side-to-side.

Testers appreciated most how the shoe let them dance over the trail. “This shoe is light, nimble, responsive and able to move through different surfaces and around obstacles,” said one, who added, “It made me feel like a deer running over rocks and hills.” Another noted how quietly and softly he ran in them, easily navigating trails that presented a variety of surfaces and angles underfoot. Several mentioned, however, that the cushioning and protection felt inadequate on particularly pokey surfaces, making them best for softer, somewhat tamer trails.

On Cloudventure Peak review
On Cloudventure Peak / photo: Landis Beverly @lbs_gallery

Review: On Cloudventure Peak

Weight: 9.2 oz (M); 7.4 oz (W)
Drop: ~4mm
Price: $150
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At a glance: A superb-fitting, flexible, fast-feel trail racer that provides enough comfort and confidence you’ll want to wear them every day.

Runners who love the new Cloudventure Peak are passionate about it. “Best fitting shoe ever,” raved one. “Incredibly flexible and nimble,” said another, adding: “These are my favorite trail shoes: I want to wear these every day.”

The Cloudventure Peak is On’s second generation of trail shoe, and they made some solid improvements while retaining the exceptional fit and ride. To start, the designers gave the sole a radical makeover. On’s original thin, rubber “clouds”—the outsole cushioning pods that compress then bottom out for push off—have been traded for square EVA pods that provide responsive cushioning under the ball and heel while doubling as aggressive traction lugs. Multiple sticky-rubber lugs covering the perimeter and toe further enhance the shoe’s traction.

Hidden in the midsole is On’s flexible “Speedboard” that distributes forces and provides a pop to your stride. In the Peak, the speedboard is split in the forefoot and narrow-waisted, both improving adaptability over technical trail surfaces. Testers said the ride felt fast and agile, while surprisingly supportive and confidence-inspiring, particularly on softer trails. The tread gripped well on all but slick surfaces, where the lack of surface area allowed some slippage.

As much as they liked the sole, the upper got the biggest raves. An inner, soft-mesh booty surrounds the foot, while, on the outside, a stretchy, rip-stop layer protects and strategic elastic taping secures without interfering with foot movement. Testers said it was remarkably comfortable without being at all sloppy. “You don’t feel any pressure spots, yet you always feel connected to the sole and the ground,” said one. “Feels like an extension of my foot, as if I grew lugs on my soles.”

Skechers GOrun Speed TRL Hyper review
Skechers GOrun Speed TRL Hyper / photo: Landis Beverly @lbs_gallery

Review: Skechers GOrun Speed TRL Hyper

Weight: 8 oz (unisex)
Drop: ~8mm
Price: $135
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At a glance: A fast-rolling, sure-footed, ultra-light trail racer that lets you fly without sacrificing protection.

Skechers continues to impress with their performance shoe designs, despite the brand’s reputation as primarily a casual-shoe maker. Even with high expectations, however, the GOrun Speed TRL Hyper doesn’t disappoint. One of the lightest trail shoes on the market, it doesn’t skimp on cushioning—with Skechers’ bouncy Hyperburst foam in the heel—nor on protection—with a curved nylon plate in the forefoot that triples as a penetration-preventing rock plate, a stability platform, and a flexible, bounce-back propulsion plate. What you feel underfoot is a light, quick-rolling ride with thin-but-effective protection that floats over the trail.

The upper fabric is a thin, flexible, but non-stretchy monomesh that is highly breathable and doesn’t absorb water. A burrito tongue wraps over the foot from the arch side, tying down over the instep to hold securely with help from a suede-like internal liner. The heel is held snugly in place with strategic foam pads, a knitted collar and an external heel-lock lacing system. The resulting fit is secure and speedy, anchoring you to the sole and the ground while providing a flexible, rather roomy forefoot. The only complaint testers had was that the shoe’s shape pushed their big toe into the side of the toe cap, creating some irritation.

While the full-coverage rubber outsole is thin with relatively small lugs, testers found it worked well. “The outsole is just the right amount of sticky/grippy, without being overkill,” said one. Another commented, “The traction of the outsole has a nice amount of bite to it and the Goodyear rubber held up well on road and trail.” As to overall performance, testers were universally enthusiastic. One said, “The general performance was top notch.” Another, who called it his new favorite trail shoe, said, “This trail shoe is so badass, and just well thought out.”