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Fall 2012 Trail Running Shoe Review

Check out these excellent off-road options!

Whether trails are your track of choice or it’s time to give road weary legs a change of scenery, hitting the dirt has the power to transform a run from one more task in a day, to an if-you-need-me-I’ll-be-running experience. To make the run more fun, shoe companies are turning out trail shoes with a focus on technology, design and color that will make your road shoes jealous. Burly trail thrashers and barely-there running slippers now bookend a wide, runner-friendly middle ground of offerings within the moderate to minimal amounts of cushioning and protection.

RELATED: Fall 2012 Running Shoe Review

Competitor wear-test team: Zeke Tiernan, Jeremy Duncan, Rob Loeb, Jane Ogden, Anthony Cullwick, Allison Pattillo, John Pattillo, Casey Blaine, Amy Allison, Jim Conaghan, Brian Metzler

** Weights listed are for men’s size 9.0 and women’s size 7.0.

adidas Adizero XT 4, $100

9.9 oz. (unisex shoe)

Fit: The Adizero XT 4 has a narrow, secure fit through the heel and mid foot, and opens up in the toebox for some wiggle room.

Feel: A combination of firm foam in the midsole and a firm rubber outsole provides protection and durability, but can also feel hard at first. The breathable mesh upper has stitched and welded overlays for increased support.

Ride: Although it feels firm out of the box, the XT 4 is a responsive dream on the trail. The Continental rubber outsole (yes, just like the tires) feels secure on damp rock and soft dirt trails, while the firm sole construction makes for a clean, energetic ride on varied terrain. This shoe (which has a low-slung 6mm heel-toe drop) offers good feel for the trail, but our testers felt it is a model best enjoyed on softer or semi-technical trails.

ALTRA ZeroDrop Superior, $95 [Editor’s Pick: Best Ride]

8.9 oz. (m), 8.2 oz. (w)

Fit: The Superior has a comfortably snug fit through heel and midfoot, and opens into a wider toebox, meant to mimic the shape of the foot, for a roomy, not sloppy, fit.

Feel: With just enough cushion and Altra’s zero heel-to-toe drop, these trail runners felt sublime (with no bulkiness or added weight) from the moment we laced them up. They had a semi-firm feel underfoot, which was just fine with our testers—even on short stretches of pavement.

Ride: Remember when you got new shoes as a kid and they inspired you to run far and fast? That’s what it’s like hitting the trail in these responsive runners. From technical steeps to rolling cruisers, low-profile, multi-directional lugs provide great traction without compromising ground feel or flexibility. The rounded toebox allows for natural foot spread and enhanced maneuverability.

ASICS GEL-Scout, $120

11.9 oz. (m), 9.8 oz. (w)

Fit: With a comfortable heel pocket, snug-lacing midfoot and roomy toebox, the GEL-Scout has a familiar feel. “This fit is why I’ve worn ASICS for 15-years,” one tester said.

Feel: Cushy comes to mind when lacing up the GEL-Scouts–from a cushioned tongue to a generous in-step and plenty of under-foot GEL protection, with a durable, exoskeleton overlay to enhance support without bogging down your run.

Ride: ASICS describes the GEL-Scout as a full-ground shoe—heel-strikers rejoice! Testers found the 10mm drop of this neutral cruiser to transition well from road to trail. The Scout offers good traction on gnarly roots and rocks and damp conditions. For such a plush ride, the forefoot has a surprising amount of flexibility, resulting in a performance-focused mix of increased responsiveness and enhanced foot-to-ground insulation.

Avia Avi Bolt XZR II, $100

9.5 oz. (m), 8.0 oz. (w)

Fit: The quick-pull lacing system, tightened laces over the entire foot for a consistent, no-slip fit that was secure through the heel and midfoot, with some forefoot wiggle room.

Feel: One tester claimed this medium drop shoe (8mm) had, “a robust feel for the weight,” with enough cushion and sole protection to feel great, even after several hours on the trail. The Bolt has a memory foam heel cushion, which felt a bit awkward initially, but was comfortable a few miles into our first test run. Open mesh upper construction helped to keep feet dry, unless you experience a water crossing, then you get wet, but dry quickly.

Ride: A segmented sole provided increased flexibility on obstacles and uneven trail. Testers experienced secure traction going both up and downhill, but had some slippage on smooth rocks, despite the multi-directional lugs.

Brooks Adrenaline ASR 9, $120

11.3 oz. (m), 9.5 oz. (w)

Fit: A roomy feel from heel to toe makes the Adrenaline ideal for wider feet, but a higher volume heel cup makes for sloppy downhill running if not properly cinched. Elastic on the midfoot eyestays allow laces to give a little, which adds to the shoe’s long-wearing comfort for full-volume feet.

Feel: Going with the “more is more” theory, Brooks has endowed these easy-ride, road-to-trail cruisers with enough posting, arch support and cushion in a lighter weight, traditional 12mm drop package to help die-hard roadies get dirty.

Ride: Our testers logging 50+ miles on trails a week generally said they didn’t get the responsiveness or trail feel they were after, but runners who ran a mix of road and trail reported loving its cushy rebound and ability to perform well from pavement, to grass and dirt roads.

Dynafit Feline Superlight GTX, $160 [Editor’s Pick: Best Traction]

9.5 oz. (only available in men’s sizes. 

Fit: The Feline Superlight is equipped with a secure heel cup and snug-fitting forefoot. While the toebox width is generous, some testers felt it ran a little short.

Feel: The Feline is secure and sturdy, with a stable, yet unobtrusive platform (11mm heel-toe drop) and good trail feel. The most unique feature is the 17 noble metals submerged in the midsole, which are supposed to positively influence a runner’s energy flow, balance, strength and performance. The weatherproof GTX version that we reviewed can be hot in warm conditions.

Ride: A mountain runner designed to tackle rocks and mixed terrain, this shoe serves up a quick and responsive ride and amazing traction. The grip, stout toe bumper and forefoot flex are overkill for crushed cinders but rank beyond compare on loose rock, chalky trails, steep climbs and technical descents.

ECCO Biom Trail GTX, $200

13.6 oz. (m), 9.4 oz. (w)

Fit: A more narrow design from heel to forefoot gives the upper of the Biom Trail somewhat of a road shoe fit, making them a good transition shoe for road runners.

Feel: The Biom Trail has a firm and secure underfoot feel with a bomber tough upper, which meant rocks, brambles and the weather weren’t a bother.

Ride: ECCO designs the Biom Trail for a heel-striking stride, and, heel-striding testers appreciated the moderate drop and cushioning on a variety of trail surfaces. But non heel-strikers, said the stride felt a bit forced. The rugged, multi-directional outsole provided good traction.

Helly Hansen Rabbora Trail, $110

12.0 oz. (m), 10.0 oz. (w)

Fit: Testers liked how their heels fit snugly in the deep heel pocket, while the overall fit was generous and best suited to wider feet.

Feel: “Like a foul weather jacket for your feet – crazy waterproof” according to one tester, who also appreciated the higher than traditional ankle collar for its additional abrasion protection and support.

Ride: Given the relative stoutness of the Rabbora, testers found the medium drop ride to be surprisingly nimble, with decent trail feel, forefoot flexion and responsiveness. Heel strikers appreciated the rounded heel and full-foot support, while all testers enjoyed the good under foot protection and sturdy toe bumper.

Inov-8 Trailroc 255, $120 [Editor’s Pick: Best New Model]

9.0 oz. (unisex shoe)

Fit: The 255’s have a secure heel and snug instep fit (the lacing system truly locks down the support overlays) and an ample toebox with room to move.

Feel: The platform (which includes a 6mm heel-toe drop) feels neither too hard nor too soft and has a good trail feel, with solid traction and a superior connection to the ground. (The Trailroc 245 is a similar shoe with a 3mm drop and the Trailroc 235 is designed with a zero-drop profile.)

Ride: This is Inov-8’s first trail-specific shoe built for the U.S., and they’ve put together a fun mix of protection and performance. One of our high-mileage, mountain-running testers reported the 255’s are light and nimble enough for short distances on smoother paths, yet rugged enough with ample foot protection to go the distance on rough terrain.

Karhu Forward 3 Trail WP, $140

11.6 oz. (m), 10.3 oz. (w)

Fit: Plenty of volume throughout the shoe makes them a good fit for wider feet, but testers appreciated the fact that midfoot overlay panels could be cinched down for a more secure fit. Narrow-footed testers experienced some fabric bunching in the spacious toe area.

Feel: From under foot softness to a padded ankle collar and tongue, the Forward 3 Trail has a cushy feel. At 14mm, these have the highest drop of any of the shoes in the review, but that drop is designed to work with the stiff midsole, fulcrum plate to put runners in a forward leaning position. Due to the forward lean, testers said secure lacing was important to prevent toe bang.

Ride: According to Karhu, the fulcrum plate is designed to make any sort of stride more efficient. While heel-to-toe transition was smooth, the ride wasn’t as dynamic as our test team was expecting, although testers reported having better responsiveness when running with a forefoot strike. With such a high-volume shoe, those with slimmer feet experienced a fair amount of foot movement and some inward heel roll. Knobby rubber lugs provided good traction on variable trails.

Merrell Mix Master Aeroblock, $120

8.5 oz. (only available in men’s sizes)

(The Mix Master Glide is a similar women’s shoe with a mesh upper.)

Fit: The Mix Master has a roomy fit from the heel, through the midfoot, to a generously proportioned toebox.

Feel: This is the weatherized version of the Men’s Mix Master 2, with the same 4mm drop, thin layer of cushion underfoot and superior feel for the ground. The upper’s fabric blocks wind and helps shed moisture for a warmer ride in winter conditions.

Ride: A low-profile tread provides a smooth, although not exceptionally energetic ride, and oval-shaped lugs offer plenty of traction on smooth dirt and slick rock trails without collecting gravel debris. A flexible forefoot shock pad provides some rock stinger protection, and stubbed toes weren’t a worry, thanks to the beefy toe bumper.

Mizuno Wave Ascend 7, $105

11.2 oz. (m), 9.5 oz. (w)

Fit: Like previous incarnations, the new version of the Wave Ascend features a solid locked-down heel and midfoot fit, with a medium-volume toebox.

Feel: With plenty of cushion and a 12mm heel drop, the Ascend feels like a soft, old-school running shoe, but the relatively lightweight package also features some pronation control (without excessive arch support), reasonable toe protection and the structural flexibility to please any gait style.

Ride: The Ascend is stable for the amount of cushion it has and provides a responsive rebound on roads and trails. (This is a good sneaker to grab when you have a few road miles to cover on your way to the trailhead.) The traction is decent, but the shoe is so soft and flexible our testers felt rocks on more technical terrain–especially under the forefoot, and preferred it for less gnarly trails.

New Balance 1010, $110

7.7 oz. (m), 6.5 oz. (w)

Fit: The 1010 runs true to size and has a secure, yet non-restrictive fit through the heel and midfoot, with a wide toebox design to enable the foot to transition through a forefoot landing to big toe push-off.

Feel: The 1010 expands on the appeal of New Balance’s Minimus line by marrying a 4mm drop with a slightly thicker layer of cushioning and a more supportive and durable upper for a slipper-like fit. With a deeply stitched, gusseted tongue to keep grit at bay and no removable insole, there is nothing to think about—except for running, of course.

Ride: The forefoot rock shield of this sprightly trainer provides welcome protection from rock shots, as well as extra confidence to tackle the trails. It performed extremely well on loose dirt and gliding over larger obstacles. Some runners felt the design pushed them toward overpronation.

Patagonia Forerunner RS, $125 [Editor’s Pick: Most Versatile] 

9.3 oz. (m), 7.8 oz. (w)

Fit: The Forerunner RS has an average fit throughout the shoe, with just enough extra toebox space for an uninhibited stride.

Feel: This version of the Forerunner has morphed into a more moderate shoe with a heel-toe drop slightly under 7mm (as compared to a 4mm drop in the earlier, more minimally constructed Forerunner), a firmer foam midsole, a protective forefoot rock plate and a bit of arch support. However, it’s still fairly responsive for a trail shoe.

Ride: Our testers found this shoe to be “light, nimble and fast,” with low-profile, smooth-riding lugs. While traction isn’t overly aggressive, it provides good ground feel on cinder and soft dirt jaunts and performs well when scrambling through boulder fields. The durable, microfiber upper isn’t the most flexible and it can get warm on hot days, but did well at shedding wind and drizzle.

Saucony Kinvara TR, $100

8.8 oz. (m), 7.3 oz. (w)

Fit: With a narrow fit throughout the shoe, most testers preferred to size up half a size, even if they were running without socks. The heel pocket is shallower than some, but holds well due to two, snug fitting, foam heel pods.

Feel: Yes, it’s a minimal shoe with a 4mm drop, but the keenly agile Kinvara TR also has a thin rock plate, a moderately thick midsole cushion—a unique package that adds up to dialed foot feel and a wicked ride—as long as your aren’t an overpronator.

Ride: This shoe is an energetic kick on the trail. A grippy and flexible outsole equates to a floating sensation over debris and low-profile, multi-directional lugs don’t interfere with the smooth glide. The forefoot rock plate offers surprisingly good protection for such a streamlined package.

Salomon XT Wings 3, $140

12.5 oz. (m), 10.5 oz. (w)

Fit: The XT Wings cinch down securely in the midfoot, thanks to Salomon’s quick-pull lacing system, and offer comfortable width and volume in the toe box. Narrow-footed testers might find the heel to be a bit too roomy.

Feel: This shoe has a relatively firm feel underfoot, with plenty of heel and forefoot cushion to keep feet comfortable. It feels like a serious shoe for aggressive mountain running instead of an early morning road-to-trail workout. Its pronation control mechanisms, 10.5mm heel-toe drop and solid undercarriage aid in stability but hinder flexibility.

Ride: Multi-directional lugs afford good traction for uphill and downhill running, while a stout toe-bumper keeps tootsies safe. This durable shoe has a burly amount of protection for the weight, which means rocks, roots and branches along the trail aren’t a problem.

Scarpa Tempo, $115

10.5 oz. (m), 9.3 oz. (w)

Fit: These have a comfortable fit throughout the shoe, with a secure heel cup and just enough extra room in the toe box to keep tootsies happy. Welded overlays cinch down with the laces for extra support and a comfortable fit.

Feel: The Tempo is a low-slung shoe with a fairly neutral (6mm drop) feel – not too high, not too low.

Ride: Think of these as the ‘daily’ shoe in your quiver. They don’ t change your stride, but offer a neutral platform for whatever you bring, providing a smooth heel to toe ride and responsiveness with a forefoot strike. Multi-directional lugs provide good traction in varying conditions, while a flexible rock plate and reinforced toe give extra protection when needed.