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Fall 2014 Trail Running Shoe Guide

We put 16 new trail shoes through the grind and offer insights on how to find the right model for you.

We put 16 new trail shoes through the grind and offer insights on how to find the right model for you.

Like colorful autumn leaves and microbrews, no two trails are alike. And that’s a good thing. However, it can make choosing the appropriate trail shoe rather difficult.

The type of terrain you encounter on the trails you regularly run might be quite diverse—ranging from smooth rolling dirt paths to steep technical routes strewn with boulders and jagged-edge rocks.

So how should you pick a shoe? Consider the type of trails you run most often and how you run on those trails. There are generally three types of trail shoes: lightweight, low-to-the-ground shoes, hybrid crossover shoes that can handle a mixture of both roads and mild to moderate trails, and protective mountain shoes.

While each of the 16 shoes in this review generally fall into those three categories, you’ll still need to adapt to the natural features and obstacles you encounter on the trails.

Having a shoe that matches the terrain—as well as your running style and personal preferences—will allow you to be best prepared for the constantly changing terrain. If protection from technical features is one of your most important criteria, you’ll want to chose a shoe with more cushion, a built-in rock plate and a reinforced toebox and sidewalls. If you’re a more experienced, nimble runner who can dance around technical features and prefers to feel the trail more, then you’ll probably want a lighter, lower-to-the-ground shoe that offers more agility. If versatility is what you need, then a do-everything crossover shoe is what you want.

But just like admiring those colorful autumn leaves and sampling microbrews, it’s the variety that makes trail running so compelling.

New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail

Fit-Feel-Ride: When a brand tries to convert one of its leading road running shoes into a trail shoe, it’s typically suitable for basic smooth trails and gravel roads. But the Fresh Foam Trail—a modified replica of the award-winning Fresh Foam 980 road shoe—is a dynamic and versatile shoe that excels on many different types of terrain. Like its road shoe cousin, it has a snug, athletic fit, copious amounts of cushioning and a smooth, soft ride. Although New Balance says the foam configuration is the same as that in the original Fresh Foam road shoe, our wear-testers thought the ride of the trail shoe was considerably softer. It’s likely because the outsole lugs are semi-soft and enhance the plushness of the ride. Those directional lugs conform and grip to the variable surfaces (both wet and dry) and provide some degree of underfoot protection. This shoe excels on all types of terrain from paved roads to semi-technical trails with rough surfaces. This shoe lacks a rock plate and other protection necessary for extremely technical trails, something that even our most agile and experience trail runners said limited the shoe to more moderate terrain. Plus, a few of our wear-testers thought the forefoot fit was too snug and unprotected, leaving toes prone to stubbing. (Several wear-testers suggested they would have preferred a shoe a half-size larger. Those who did try a larger size loved it.) Despite those concerns, most of our testers loved this shoe for its “cruise-ability” on soft to mildly rugged terrain. “I loved the soft ride and versatility of this shoe,” one wear-tester said. “Despite the thick cushioning, you can feel the trail surprisingly well.”

This shoe is for you if … you like the soft comfort of a road shoe and run on mild to moderately technical trails.

Price: $110
Weight: 10.3 oz. (men’s), 8.1 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 4mm; 29mm (heel), 25mm (forefoot)

Salomon Sense Pro

Fit-Feel-Ride: A shoe designed to be versatile enough to cover both trails and roads with equal effectiveness, the Sense Pro is built on a sleek, lightweight package that offers great proprioceptive interaction with the ground and a good blend of lightweight cushion and low-profile outsole lugs. Because it’s meant to be a do-almost-everything shoe, it’s best for runs that mix smooth dirt trails, paved streets, gravel roads, concrete bike paths and some mildly technical terrain. It has just enough protective features to keep minor trail debris from becoming a nuisance, but it’s hefty and shielded enough (including a flexible rock plate) to tackle really rocky trails too. If you only want to add one versatile shoe to your quiver (or your budget requires it), this is a good one to consider. This shoe’s versatility lends itself to racing too; it’s one of the few shoes that could be used for a trail race or a road race. Some testers liked Salomon’s quick-pull laces (several suggested that they were more effective than speed-lacing systems on other shoes) but most said they preferred traditional laces.

This shoe is for you if … you want a versatile shoe for running on a mixture of roads and mild to moderate trails.

Price: $130
Weights: 8.8 oz. (men’s), 7.9 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 6mm; 20mm (heel), 14mm (forefoot)

Brooks PureGrit 3

Fit-Feel-Ride: A light, sleek and low-to-the-ground shoe intended for a variety of trail surfaces, the PureGrit 3 is slightly stiffer and offers better feel for the ground than previous versions, with just enough cushion and protection to keep your feet out of harm’s way on technical surfaces. The snug, wrap-like fit is enhanced by a wide interior arch band and a revised lacing system that keeps the foot secure in the heel and midfoot. Like the paw of a cougar, the array of hex-shaped lugs in the updated outsole reliably grips rocky, gravelly and dusty terrain with equal purchase. It has a flexible full-length rock plate, offering protection and confidence for natural foot movements in a low-to-the-ground package. For strong, nimble runners, this shoe is versatile enough to cover soft, smooth trails and more rugged technical routes too. With less cushy foam than the previous versions of this model, this shoe is lower to the ground and offers much more agility. Although it doesn’t give off a bare-bones or “barely there” sensation, there isn’t much cushioning compared to many other trail shoes. “Light, low and fast! This is an ideal model for running fast or racing over any type of trail,” says one tester.

This shoe is for you if…you want a speed-oriented shoe with exceptional “feel” for the trail on mild to very technical routes.

Price: $120
Weights: 9.9 oz. (men’s), 8.1 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 4mm; 26mm (heel), 22mm (forefoot)

Altra Lone Peak 2

Fit-Feel-Ride: The moment you step into this shoe, you feel the luxurious cushioning created by two layers of midsole foam, a super soft layer underneath a semi-firm layer directly under the foot. But moments into any trail run, you also sense the agility, easy flex and natural stride features. It’s a unique mountain running shoe that serves up an amazingly smooth and comfortable ride with numerous technical attributes that allow it to run over both flat and jagged trail features with ease. A flexible rock plate keeps sharp objects from poking the bottom of the foot, while aggressive directional lugs offer great traction and a reinforced toe bumper reduces the chance of stubbed toes. (It also has a Velcro gaiter attachment and a piece of extended rubber known as a Trail Rudder for downhill running control.) As with all Altra shoes, the Lone Peak 2 maintains the brand’s zero-drop profile mantra—meaning the foot sits on a level platform with no heel-toe slope—as well as its wide foot-shaped forefoot. While each of those features can take some getting used to, our wear-testers didn’t report residual soreness from the zero-drop profile or a sloppy ride from the very spacious toebox. In fact, they just gushed about the combination of soft cushioning and underfoot protection. The lightweight upper of the Lone Peak 2 offers abrasion resistance while also helping enhance the snugged-down fit.

This shoe is for you if… you want a softly cushioned, protective shoe with a flat, “zero-drop” profile.

Price: $120
Weights: 10.5 oz. (men’s), 8.5 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 0mm; 26mm (heel), 26mm (forefoot)

Newton BoCol Sol

Fit-Feel-Ride: This is Newton’s best trail shoe yet. With an ideal blend of moderate cushioning, modest protection and superior feel for the trail, it runs light, has the easy-flexing qualities of a road shoe and offers up an uninhibited ride. It has a sufficient amount of semi-soft cushioning and offers exceptional sensory interaction between the foot and the trail surface like the Boco AT, but the Boco Sol’s lightweight, breathable upper evokes a feeling of being footloose and fancy-free. Like all Newton shoes, it has the brand’s Action/Reaction Technology lugs that compress an elastic film into a hollow chamber in the midsole to aid forward propulsion. The lugs are segmented and bordered by static lugs on the outside edges of the shoe. In sum, the Boco Sol serves up dynamic flexibility, great traction and reliable stability on smooth to moderate terrain. The durable, double-reinforced toe bumper offers considerable front-end protection, but it lacks a rock plate for gnarly terrain. A couple of wear-testers felt the shoes were a bit long and/or that the toe box was a bit too roomy.

This shoe is for you if …  you want a lightweight, flexible shoe with moderate cushioning and exceptional “feel” for the trail.

Price: $129
Weight: 9.6 oz. (men’s), 7.7 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 3mm; 23mm (heel), 20mm (forefoot)

Skechers GoRun Ultra Extreme

Fit-Feel-Ride: Built for running through inclement weather, this is a weatherized version of the award-winning GoRun Ultra trail shoe that debuted in the spring. Like that model, the GoRun Ultra Extreme has copious amounts of super soft cushioning, a rockered profile, a plush interior and an easy-flexing demeanor. Although it is maximally cushioned and higher off the ground than many shoes, it’s super light and nimble, and serves up a smooth, completely uninhibited ride. The water-resistant upper stops moisture from soaking through and keeps feet warm, making this shoe ideal for splashing through puddles, sloppy trails and wet roads. Thanks to its soft cushioning and lightweight, pliable design, this shoe runs just as well on roads as it does on trails. This shoe has only modest toe box and sidewall protection, and it lacks an underfoot rock plate. The thick, soft midsole helps keep some (but certainly not all) sharp trail obstacles at bay.

This shoe is for you if … you want a soft, maximally cushioned shoe for running mild to moderate trails in wet, sloppy conditions.

Price: $85
Weight: 9.3 oz. (men’s), 7.3 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 4mm; 27mm (heel), 23mm (forefoot)

Topo Athletic MT

Fit-Feel-Ride: Topo is a new brand built on the premise that the foot should move as uninhibitedly as possible through the gait cycle. With the MT, it has designed a versatile trail shoe that offers both exceptional feel for the ground and minimal cushioning for running on all types of terrain. It lacks a rock plate, but the rubber outsole and moderate midsole thickness tend to keep sharp rocks, knobby roots and other pointy obstacles at bay. The fit is snug in the heel and midfoot, but decidedly roomy in the anatomically shaped toe box. Most of our wear-testers liked the minimalist, nimble feel of this shoe on milder terrain, but they also appreciated the wider toe box, easy-flexing ride and reliable traction. The interior is soft, plush and seamless, making barefoot running a realistic option in this shoe. Several wear-testers used to more cushion or protection weren’t as fond of this shoe’s modern minimalist design.

This shoe is for you if … you want a low-profile, natural/minimalist trail shoe with exceptional “feel” for the trail and modest cushioning.

Price: $100
Weight: 8.2 oz. (men’s), 6.8 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 2mm; 19mm (heel), 17 mm (forefoot)

Inov-8 Race Ultra 290

Fit-Feel-Ride: The first thing our wear-test team noticed about the Race Ultra 290 is that it’s definitely “more shoe” than the lithe and lightweight models the Inov-8 brand is known for. But our testers also remarked about the combination of moderately soft cushioning, ample flexibility and supportive (but not overbearing) structure while still maintaining a distinct feel for the trail. It runs lighter than it feels when first pulled out of the box and is actually quite nimble for a shoe in this category. With its grippy and stabilizing outsole lugs (made from three types of rubber) and protective features (including a rock plate), this shoe is most at home on semi-technical or really rocky terrain. It’s light and agile enough to maintain natural foot movement and rhythmic running on smooth, flat trails too, but our wear-testers definitely liked it best on more rugged trails. Other features include a gaiter attachment (gaiter sold separately) and an X-Static silver-lined antimicrobial footbed, which helps keep bacteria at bay. Although not constricting, the toe box is a bit narrower than a few of our wear-testers would have liked.

This shoe is for you if … you want a good mix of comfort, stability and protection for long runs on moderately technical to very technical mountain trails.

Price: $130
Weight: 10.0 oz. (men’s), 8.9 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 8mm; 24mm (heel), 16mm (forefoot)

Saucony Xodus 5

Fit-Feel-Ride: The latest version of the Xodus blends cushioning, aggressive outsole lugs and a form-fitting upper into a shoe capable of tackling the gnarliest terrain out there. The first thing you notice when you lace it up is a new upper that’s lighter, more form-fitting and more supportive—features that help give the shoe a twinge of agility on more rugged terrain. But the most obvious thing about this shoe is its top-end protection from big and small obstacles out on the trail. A full-length rock plate, a modestly reinforced toe bumper and the robust Vibram outsole—with jagged directional lugs throughout the heel, midfoot and forefoot—do an excellent job of keeping a runner’s feet out of harm’s way. But those protective features, combined with the thick, double layer of cushioning (one softer layer, one firmer layer), create a decidedly stiff sensation. It’s a burly shoe that can tackle very rugged terrain, but it really only has one speed. The traction is exceptional on all types of terrain, from large rocks to small pebbles, wet, muddy or dry. (However, a few testers did report the outsole collecting sticky mud on occasion.) It’s not light or particularly agile, which is fine on the rocky, root-strewn trails it was designed to tackle. But our wear-testers unanimously agreed it was too much shoe on smooth trails.

This shoe is for you if … you want a durable, protective shoe with aggressive traction for sloppy terrain or semi-technical to very rugged trails.

Price: $120
Weight: 10.8 oz. (men’s), 9.3 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 4mm; 23.5mm (heel), 19.5mm (forefoot)

Hoka Mafate Speed

Fit-Feel-Ride: This Mafate Speed is true maximalism at its best. Yes, it has a ginormous midsole, putting your foot more than 30mm off the ground. But after a run or two getting used to it, it doesn’t feel overly large or clunky. The tradeoff for all of that cushioning is that there is less proprioceptive “feel” for the ground, so it depends what you really want from a shoeThe Mafate Speed has a very soft ride, plus it flexes, twists and stretches to meet the features on the surface of the trail. It definitely runs better on mildly technical to very technical terrain, but it’s not too shabby on featureless, rolling dirt paths and gravel roads either. Our wear-test team considered it an expert-level shoe, meaning if you’ve never worn Hokas before or run on technical terrain, you’ll need a period of adaptation in less maximally cushioned shoes and on milder terrain. But if you’ve worn Hokas previously on trails, you’ll totally get what the Mafate Speed is all about. Like all Hoka shoes, the Mafate Speed includes a slightly rockered profile, a convex underfoot design that smoothly carries momentum through the gait cycle no matter your footstrike pattern. Runner beware, though: this is a lot of shoe. Compared to other trail shoes in this review (and compared to other Hoka models) the Mafate Speed isn’t light, but our wear-testers said it’s less of an issue on rocky terrain. Also, the samples we received were about a half size large compared to our wear-testers typical sizes. Be sure to try on both your typical size and a size a half size smaller to ensure you’re getting an optimal-fitting shoe.

This shoe is for you if … you want a maximally cushioned shoe capable of tackling mild to very technical terrain.

Price: $170
Weight: 12.0 oz. (men’s), 10.3 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 4mm; 35mm (heel), 31mm (forefoot)

Nike Terra Kiger 2

Fit-Feel-Ride: Lightweight, snug-fitting and low to the ground, the Terra Kiger 2 excels on smooth dirt trails and semi-technical terrain with smaller obstacles. With thicker soft cushioning in the heel but slightly less in the front of the shoe, this updated go-fast model offers a blend of crash-pad softness and proprioceptive forefoot engagement on impact. It has a collection of low-profile knobby outsole lugs from heel to toe for good traction on a variety of trails, plus a wide, full-contact footprint that creates inherent stability. The quick-flexing behavior and uninhibited ride inspire both speed and versatility. It can be a casual trail cruiser, a nimble mountain goat or an ideal trail racing shoe (up to about marathon distances for stronger, more agile runners), but it’s also capable of running any speed or distance on the roads too. The half-gusseted wrap-like tongue provides a very secure fit that helps keep the foot stable on off-camber terrain. A few wear-testers suggested the Terra Kiger 2 was too snug in the forefoot, and would have preferred running in a shoe a half-size larger. It offers minimal protection and lacks a rock plate, but our nimble wear-testers didn’t seem to mind given the tradeoff for the light-and-fast demeanor this shoe offers.

This shoe is for you if … you want a low-slung, natural/minimalist trail shoe with exceptional “feel” for the trail and modest cushioning.

Price: $125
Weight: 8.4 oz. (men’s), 7.0 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 5mm; 21mm (heel), 16mm (forefoot)

Mizuno Wave Kazan

Fit-Feel-Ride: Mizuno said goodbye to its Ascend trail shoe last year, a longtime cushy favorite that was really just a road shoe with a knobby outsole. In its place is the Kazan, a more flexible, moderately cushioned and very agile shoe that is less beefy than the Ascend but considerably better across the board. The Kazan is a versatile shoe that does a little bit of everything pretty well, running dirt roads and smooth trails with ease but also holding its own on semi-technical terrain. Although it’s purely a neutral shoe and lacks a rock plate, the wide profile and built-in structure from the thermoplastic “Wave” insert offer a bit of inherent stability and rearfoot protection. The Kazan’s directional flex grooves and widely spaced star-shaped outsole lugs allow for exceptional traction, foot flex and the ability to adapt to constantly changing terrain. The name of the shoe is derived from the Samurai battle standard of “Furin Kazan,” meaning “moving as swift as the wind, staying as silent as the forest, attacking as fierce as fire, and being as undefeatable as the mountain,” or at least that’s what Mizuno says. A few of our wear-testers suggested the forefoot was a bit too spacious, taking the shoe’s agility down a notch from what it could be. If you’re looking for a lighter, lower-to-the-ground trail shoe, check out the nimble, race-ready Mizuno Wave Hayate, which came out earlier this year when the Kazan was released.

This shoe is for you if … you want a versatile, softly cushioned shoe for running on mild to semi-technical trails.

Price: $120
Weights: 9.8 oz. (men’s), 7.9 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 12mm; 29mm (heel), 17mm (forefoot)

Mizuno Wave Hayate

Fit-Feel-Ride: Light, agile, flexible and fast, the Wave Hayate is built for strong, experienced trail runners who like to aggressively attack all sorts of trails. With a low-to-the-ground profile (but not a barefoot sensation), it offers of superior “feel” of the trail, which allows nimble trail runners to control both mild and semi-technical terrain. It has a moderate amount of cushioning and a scant amount of protection to tackle technical trails (but no rock plate), but the more rugged and aggressive you run, the more you’ll realize how relatively little there is between your feet and the ground . (And that’s great, if that’s what you’re looking for.) According to Mizuno, “Hayate” means “swift, like a whirlwind,” and that seems to be an apt name for this shoe, which has plenty of giddy-up and is ideal for short-distance races, hill repeats or trail fartlek sessions. However, if you’re not a nimble runner and tend to want more protection, you might feel like this shoe puts your feet in harm’s way a bit too often.

 This shoe is for you if … you want a nimble, low-to-the-ground trail shoe suitable for a variety of trails and short-distance racing.

Price: $120
Weights: 8.8 oz. (men’s), 7.2 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 9mm; 25mm (heel), 16mm (forefoot)

Altra Olympus

Fit-Feel-Ride: This maximally cushioned shoe offers an unfathomably soft ride. It’s easily one of the cushiest shoes we’ve ever tested. With a 36mm stack height (meaning the height of the ground a runner’s foot is while wearing this shoe), it’s one of the highest running shoes ever made. That might take some getting used to for runners who haven’t worn maximalist shoes much, but that typically only takes one or two long runs. As with all Altra shoes, the Olympus has a zero-drop platform (level from heel to toe) and that, too, can take some adjustment, especially for runners who have mostly worn shoes with heel-toe offsets from 4mm to 12mm. The Olympus also features Altra’s roomy foot-shaped toe box, with plenty of room for the toes to splay and wiggle. Some of our wear-testers raved about these shoes for all types of terrain—including more technical routes—but most felt its low-profile outsole is ideal for running long miles on hard-packed trails, gravel roads and pavement. With its durable rubber outsole, reinforced toe cap, thick cushioning and flexible rock plate, there is plenty of protection for more rugged trails, but the tradeoff is less agility and “feel” for the trail.

This shoe is for you if … you want a very softly cushioned shoe for running on mild to semi-technical trails.

Price: $130
Weights: 11.0 oz. (men’s), 9.9 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 0mm; 36mm (heel), 36mm (forefoot)

New Balance MT 110v2

Fit-Feel-Ride: New Balance successfully retooled the original 110 trail shoe—which had more of a “barely there” barefoot sensation yet offered little protection from rocks, roots and other common trail obstacles—into a slightly more moderate and versatile shoe. The updated 110 still provides a low-to-the-ground sensation with great “feel” for the trail, but it doesn’t entirely compromise protection. A sticky rubber outsole with a more aggressive lug pattern provides much better traction, agility and control, while an updated midsole (which includes a flexible rock plate) offers slightly more cushioning and protection than the original incarnation. A revamped upper offers better support, a more secure fit and a touch of durability. The main thing the 110 retains from its predecessor is the 4mm heel-toe offset between the heel and forefoot.

This shoe is for you if … you want a low-to-the-ground, moderately cushioned shoe for running on mild to semi-technical trails.

Price: $90
Weights: 9.1 oz. (men’s), 7.7 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 4mm; 20mm (heel), 16mm (forefoot)

Brooks Cascadia 9

Fit-Feel-Ride: Brooks has continued the evolution of its flagship trail shoe and, after eight pretty good versions, it found a way to improve it once again in version No. 9. The biggest change is a new upper with soft but durable, synthetic suede overlays that help keep the foot secure to the base. As with previous versions, the Cascadia 9 has a fairly low-profile outsole, with a mix of both aggressive and moderate lugs for various types of terrain. As such, the Cascadia remains a versatile shoe, one of the few that our wear-testers suggested could run on virtually any type of off-road terrain—from smooth dirt trails to gravel roads to mildly technical terrain to extremely rugged and rocky routes. It’s definitely one of the heavier shoes in the trail category, but it doesn’t seem to affect its performance as a high-mileage cruiser that offers loads of protection (including a forefoot rock plate) and comfort.

This shoe is for you if … you want a versatile, well-cushioned shoe for running on all types of terrain.

Price: $120
Weights: 12.1 oz. (men’s), 9.3 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 12mm; 28mm (heel), 16mm (forefoot)