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Fall 2013 Trail Running Shoe Buyer’s Guide

We tested and rated 18 pairs of trail running shoes on the market. Which one is right for you?

A breakdown of the latest trail running shoes available on the market.

Lightweight performance has become the name of the game in the trail running category, with a sweet spot falling between the recent minimalist running trend and the beefier run/hike hybrids of yore. The latest offerings let you have your cake and eat it too with aggressive treads, extra cushion and proprioception to the max — and even the burliest models weigh less than 11.5 ounces.

RELATED: Fall 2013 Road Running Shoe Buyer’s Guide

Merrell Ascend Glove, $120

Category: Lightweight Dirt Dancers

Weights: 8.0 oz. (men’s), 6.8 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 10.5mm (heel), 10.5mm (forefoot)

Fit: The Ascend Glove holds a foot securely while giving toes plenty of room to move.

Feel: Light and low to the ground, the Ascend Glove oozes a sense of agility. These feel like low-profile running moccasins with just enough underfoot cushion to keep feet happy. They’re light and have somewhat of a “barely there” feeling, but there’s enough technical detail to keep feet from feeling vulnerable.

Ride: These shoes definitely put your feet close to the ground, but the heel and forefoot rock plates soften the impact against rocks, roots and other terrain features. The lower-profile tread is surprisingly grippy, even on wet pavement. Wear-testers with different strides and strike patterns were able to enjoy this minimalist-styled shoe for various types of runs, due in part to the full-contact sole design.

New Balance Minimus 1010v2 Trail, $110

Category: Lightweight Dirt Dancers

Weights: 8.5 oz. (men’s), 6.4 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 15mm (heel), 11mm (forefoot)

Fit: The fit of these is snug in the heel and medium in the midfoot, with room to move in the toe box.

Feel: An initial feeling of firmness while standing gave way to smooth striding once testers got moving. While there is a lightweight, minimalist-inspired feeling, these don’t feel like the “barely there” models in the New Balance Minimus line.

Ride: Wear-testers with a neutral stride felt the ride of the 1010v2 Trail was natural and smooth, but testers who overpronate and need stability didn’t think this shoe offered enough underfoot support. Grippy lugs and a forefoot rock plate made for fun running on slightly technical trails, and slight outer-tread flares kept slippage to a minimum on undulating paths.

Nike Free Hyperfeel Trail, $150

Category: Lightweight Dirt Dancers

Weights: 7.1 oz. (men’s), 5.6 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 21mm (heel), 18mm (forefoot)

Fit: Like all shoes in the Free line, the Hyperfeel Trail fits most feet snug as a bug, especially in the heel and midfoot.

Feel: Super light and infinitely flexible, this shoe feels low to the ground and amazingly agile, but with enough cushion to avoid the harsh impacts of most minimally designed shoes. After a few miles on the trail, it feels like it’s an extension of your feet, hugging the contours of your feet and flexing precise how your feet flex.

Ride: In a word: uninhibited. With modest cushioning and an easy-flexing demeanor, the Hyperfeel Trail is as nimble as you want it to be. This shoe is smooth and sublime on hard-packed dirt trails and gravel roads, which is where this low-to-the-ground model excels. The unique high-wrapping rubber outsole offers a bit of abrasion resistance, but the low-profile lugs (and lack of a rock plate) leave your feet a bit vulnerable on craggy technical terrain unless you’re a super agile runner.

Inov-8 X-Talon 212, $120

Category: Lightweight Dirt Dancers

Weights: 7.5 oz. (men’s), 6.3 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 11mm (heel), 5mm (forefoot)

Fit: The X-Talon 212 runs narrow and snug from heel to toe. Testers suggested sizing up for the best fit.

Feel: Low slung and close to the ground, these feel fast, firm and ready to tackle the trail. There’s not much between your foot and the ground — and that was just fine with the testers, given that they’re designed to be light and fast — but the knobby outsole offers a bit of protection in the absence of a rock plate.

Ride: Testers equated these to grippy trail cleats that allow you to run rocks, roots, gravel and dirt with the non-slip ease of a mountain goat. The quick-and-nimble race-ready ride, paired with a durable upper, made them the shoe of choice for our mountain-based wear-testers. The lack of cushion and aggressive lugs made the ride rough on roads and hard-packed dirt trails, but the 212 will tackle just about anything else with confidence.

Hoka One One Rapa Nui Trail (men’s)

Kailua Trail (women’s), $130

Category: Cushioned Cruisers

Weights: 10.2oz. (men’s), 9.0 oz.

Heights: 32mm (heel), 27mm (forefoot)

Fit: The Rapa Nui Trail and Kailua Trail (pictured) sport a medium fit from heel to toe.

Feel: Stepping into the highly cushioned comfort of a Hoka shoe is an experience like no other. This model has less cushioning than some of the brand’s beefier styles, giving it better ground feel and responsiveness and better road-to-trail versatility.

Ride: Like all Hoka models, there is a unique high-off-the-ground sensation, but there’s less getting used to it in the Rapa Nui Trail/Kailua Trail. There’s also the slightly rockered profile of the undercarriage, which our wear-testers especially loved on longer runs on smooth cinder trails and fire roads. The tread has subdued lugs, and they were small enough to be comfortable on the road. Wear-testers were impressed (and surprised) by the relative stability and agility of this shoe. Said one tester: “The ride is much more responsive than I was expecting for such a cushioned shoe.”

ASICS GT2000 Trail, $120

Category: Cushioned Cruisers

Weights: 11.2 oz. (men’s), 9.3 (women’s)

Heights: 27mm (heel), 17mm (forefoot)

Fit: Like other ASICS road and trail shoes, the fit of the GT2000 is lusciously snug in the heel and midfoot with a smidge of extra room in the toe box.

Feel: This pair feels comfy, snug and soft the moment you step in and lace them up. The upper is breathable and flexible, while the interior is silky smooth. But all of that comfort tends to hide the stable and sturdy sensation you feel while running on all types of terrain.

Ride: As expected, this model runs just as smoothly as the ASICS 2000-series roads shoes. It has a similar construction with some added trail tooling (a trail-oriented outsole with low-profile lugs and a slightly reinforce toe box), which makes it an ideal road-to-trail hybrid shoe. Our wear-testers found that it excels on gravel roads, paved roads, dirt paths and semi-technical terrain. It runs pretty well on more rugged terrain for, too, but our testers thought the protection and traction were designed for milder types of terrain.

Brooks Adrenaline ASR 10, $125

Category: Cushioned Cruisers

Weights: 10.9 oz. (men’s), 9.4 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 30mm (heel), 19mm (forefoot)

Fit: “Dialed-in fit” was an apt description for the supremely comfortable, snug and secure fit from heel to toe.

Feel: Testers found the updated Adrenaline ASR to be supportive without being clunky. It’s well-cushioned yet responsive relative to its size. Although it still has plenty of support and protection, this version feels lighter and more agile than the previous incarnation.

Ride: The stable ride, smooth transition and protective sole helped this shoe perform well on some of the gnarliest terrain our wear-testers could find, including wet and rocky conditions with thousands of feet of elevation change. It’s not as nimble as some wear-testers would have liked, but most raved about this shoe for its long-wearing comfort on multi-hour runs and its ability to do double-duty on the pavement.

Newton Boco AT, $129

Category: Cushioned Cruisers

Weights: 9.6 oz. (men’s), 8.2 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 24mm (heel), 18mm (forefoot)

Fit: The Boco AT has a medium fit from the heel through the midfoot and opens into a comfortably roomy (both in terms of height and width) toe box.

Feel: The Boco AT feels protective without being burly. The smooth, synthetic suede heel interior has a no-slip grip and feels great without socks. While the forefoot lugs that protude from the outsole are not as pronounced as on many Newton models, you do notice them at first.

Ride: Testers loved the responsiveness of the Boco AT for less technical trails and smoother dirt/gravel roads. Although the stout toe box keeps tootsies protected against roots and rocks, one tester suggested the forefoot side rails have too much energy return for rocky conditions. It excels in road-to-trail types of runs, partially because padding at the first and fifth toes provides welcome relief from downhill pounding.

Nike Zoom Terra Wildhorse, $110

Category: Cushioned Cruisers

Weights: 9.6 oz. (men’s), 7.8 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 23mm (heel), 19mm (forefoot)

Fit: The Zoom Terra Wildhorse’s fit — narrow throughout, with just enough room in the toe box — made converts out of runners used to feeling locked down in Nike road shoes.

Feel: With a stable and secure upper and well-cushioned undercarriage, Nike’s latest offering feels a lot like a comfortable road shoe. Testers raved about “good stability and cushion without bulk and weight.” Aside from the copious amount of cushioning, there’s little trail-specific protection to keep your feet (and most notably your toes) out of harm’s way. The soft foam and lack of a rock plate means you can feel every pebble, rock or root on the trail.

Ride: With sublime smoothness from touchdown to toe-off, this shoe offers the supreme flexibility of a neutral road shoe in a lightweight, cushioned package. Most testers loved the soft, natural ride of this shoe, with the only concern being some wear and tear, evident on the outsole and upper mesh, before reaching the 100-mile mark.

Patagonia Fore Runner Evo, $120

Category: Cushioned Cruisers

Weights: 9.1 oz. (men’s), 7.5 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 20mm (heel), 16mm (forefoot)

Fit: Testers found the Fore Runner Evo’s fit to be true to size, with no sliding in the heel and enough space in the medium-width toe box to give some room without being sloppy.

Feel: A soft (but not squishy) feel and an airy mesh upper meet in a lightweight trail model with superior flexibility that left testers’ feet feeling secure with the lace lock-down support webbing. Runners beware: There is little protection between foot and sharp objects on the ground.

Ride: The sticky rubber outsole had a secure grip in varying terrain, and the mesh upper drained well after a couple of shallow water crossings. With regard to the purposely minimal support, pronating testers left wanting more, but neutral runners liked being able to run their natural stride, preferring the Fore Runner Evo for fast cruisers — and noting there was enough cushion to run door to trail.

Skechers All-Weather GObionic Trail, $85

Category: Cushioned Cruisers

Weights: 6.8 oz. (men’s), 8.1 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 16mm (heel), 8 mm (forefoot)

Fit: The heel has a snug fit, even without the two heel collar foam pods in the GObionic trail, with a medium fit through the forefoot and toe.

Feel: Moderate cushioning and maximum flexibility had testers grabbing these fun cruisers for road to trail and less-technical runs.

Ride: A distinct rocker profile makes for smooth heel-to-toe transitions and the de-coupled lugs gave testers natural feeling flexibility for navigating trail trash, although testers did feel some rock pops despite the rock diffusion plate. The All-Weather model has a breathable waterproof membrane added to the upper for added comfort in wet running conditions.

ON Cloudrunner, $150

Category: Cushioned Cruisers

Weight: 9.5 oz. (men’s), 11 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 25mm (heel), 18mm (forefoot)

Fit: The Cloudrunner has more of a traditional road shoe fit with a narrow heel, but with the addition of some extra volume in the midfoot and toe box.

Feel: Our wear-testers labeled these as light, firm and uniquely bouncy, thanks to a soft layer of foam and an array of innovative “high-profile clouds” that protrude from the outsole. The skinny flat laces were effective in cinching up the extra volume in the midfoot to create a supportive synergy between foot and shoe.

Ride: The innovative cushioning creates a unique sensation on paved roads, but it melts away into soft cushioning on smooth trails. Our wear-testers thought it wasn’t quite as flexibility as some of the others models in the category, but it has good traction works well in road-to-trail running and is a treat for cruising on cinder paths. It has plenty of underfoot protection, but the toe box and sidewalls can leave feet vulnerable on technical terrain.

The North Face Single-Track Hayasa II, $110

Category: Cushioned Cruisers

Weights: 9.1 oz. (men’s), 7.6 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 15mm (heel), 7mm (forefoot)

Fit: A medium fit through the heel and midfoot yields to a high-volume toe box.

Feel: The second edition of this shoe is improved with an additional layer of soft foam in the heel and forefoot, something our wear-testers very much appreciated. The upper was also updated with a smooth, comfortable moisture-wicking mesh that secures the foot and aids in agility.

Ride: Neutral testers lauded this shoe’s smooth heel-to-toe roll and light, foamy ride over varied terrain. Its low-profile tread and flexible demeanor promote good trail feel and absorb the impact of pokey rocks and sticks, while also giving a smooth transition from road to trail.

Salomon Fellraiser, $110

Category: Rugged Mountain Runners

Weights: 10.2 oz. (men’s), 8.5 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 12mm (heel), 6mm (forefoot)

Fit: These have a medium fit from heel to midfoot and a wider toe box with just enough room to move.

Feel: With the easy-to-use one-pull lacing system, the Fellraiser cinches down as tight as you want for a secure feel. The lugs, while aggressive, are soft enough not to feel hard underfoot. The shoe feels agile and low to the ground, with enough outsole and cushion to not be dangerously so.

Ride: Like a tree frog glued to a branch, this agile shoe tackled rocks, roots and mud without slipping, making for a fun and responsive ride. The flexibility of the sole allowed for good trail feel and wear-testers said the cinched-down fit made for no toe banging on rapid descents.

Mizuno Wave Ascend 8, $110

Category: Cushioned Cruisers/Rugged Mountain Runners

Weights: 11.4 oz. (men’s), 9.6 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 29mm (heel), 18mm (forefoot)

Fit: These have a medium fit from heel to toe and run true to size. The firm heel counter and pronounced heel cup keep your foot locked in place.

Feel: The Ascend 8 feels soft and cushioned underfoot with a secure, enveloping upper. Mizuno has continued to refine this shoe, and the revamped upper and improved foot-to-ground connectivity mean a more agile sensation with every stride.

Ride: These delivered an easy ride with enough cushion and flexibility to deliver a slick experience on both the road and trails. They also had the lateral stability and multi-directional lugs needed to maintain secure footing when routes presented off-camber surprises. This shoe straddles the line between being a cushy cruiser and a shoe more adept for mountain running. It definitely has the cushion for all types of surfaces (and is high enough off the ground to protect from obstacles under your feet), and its outsole lugs are both grippy and low-profile. Most wear-testers felt it could use more toe box and sidewall protection against bumps and abrasions.

Saucony Xodus 4.0, $110

Category: Rugged Mountain Runners

Weights: 11.2 oz. (men’s), 10.1 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 23.5mm (heel), 19.5mm (forefoot)

Fit: The fit is snug and secure throughout, with just enough wiggle room in the toe box.

Feel: The Xodus 4.0 feels stable yet comfortable and is firm under foot without being rigid, providing a more stable running platform than other shoes in this review. It’s not quite as nimble as many runners are used to, but it more than makes up for it in stability, support and traction.

Ride: Although probably overkill for your standard rails-to-trails pathways and smooth dirt roads, these rock fiends tackle technical terrain. Wear-testers rated these as being “able to stand up to any trail, no matter how tough” and “legitimate rock-hoppers.” A beefy outsole grips well in conditions ranging from sand and scree to mud, with flared lugs around the perimeter to help keep you upright in any conditions.

ECCO BIOM Ultra, $160

Category: Rugged Mountain Runners

Weights: 12.0 oz. (men’s), 10.0 oz. (women’s)

Men’s heights: 26mm (heel), 16mm (forefoot)

Women’s heights: 24mm (heel), 15mm (forefoot)

Fit: Women found the fit to be narrow throughout, but true to size. Men found them to run large. Try them on for the best fit.

Feel: Runners looking for more support will appreciate the firm, stable and protected feel of this new model with a more traditional stack height.

Ride: Your foot nestles down in this shoe for a secure ride as you fly up and down trails full of rocks and roots — the strong suit of this grippy, durable runner. A stout overlay strip runs from behind the arch, around the toe, to the outside of the foot, for impressive abrasion protection, both for the shoe and your foot. The ride was smooth, but less energetic on flat paths and road transitions.

Reebok Outdoor Wild, $85

Category: Rugged Mountain Runners

Weights: 8.4 oz. (men’s), 9.1 oz. (women’s)

Heights: 12mm (heel), 8mm (forefoot)

Fit: The Outdoor Wild has a medium fit from heel to toe, but the midfoot can cinch down for those seeking a tighter hold.

Feel: Testers found these to be cushioned and comfortable, with some support, and appreciated being able to get a sturdier with moderate stability.

Ride: Says one tester, “this is the monster truck of trail running shoes!” A rugged outsole allowed testers to tackle a full spectrum of trail conditions with confidence and gusto. But the increased underfoot security meant less agility with fleet footed runners finding the ride somewhat clunky, especially on technical trails.