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Fall 2016 Trail Running Shoe Buyer’s Guide

The 11 best new shoes for running off-road this fall.

The 11 best new shoes for running off-road this fall.

Shoe weights listed in this review are based on men’s size 9.0 and women’s size 7.0.

Photos: Oliver Baker

RELATED: Fall 2016 Road Running Shoe Buyer’s Guide

Brooks Mazama, $140

For years, Brooks offered a couple of trail shoes aimed at training, but it didn’t have a true speed merchant intended for fast racing. That all changes with the Mazama, which is part trail shoe, part badass rally car. It’s a stable-riding shoe that serves up amazing proprioceptive “feel” for the trail while still having enough foam and protection (including a forefoot plate) against roots, rocks and other obstacles. An interior booty keeps the foot locked down and the tongue in place, while the exterior mesh is durable enough to handle the trails. It’s light, agile and energetic, yet it’s willing to be a true mountain mauler in short doses. The sticky rubber bi-directional outsole offers great traction and allows this shoe to be versatile enough to tackle just about any kind of terrain from roads to gnarly technical rocky routes. Overall, it was the hands-down favorite of our wear-testers.

Weights: 9.2 oz. (men’s), 7.7 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 6mm; 23mm (heel), 17mm (forefoot)

Montrail Rogue F.K.T., $110

Montrail was one of the original trail running brands back in the 1990s and after some corporate changes, it’s being reincarnated with the help of parent company Columbia. (Its shoes will be co-branded as Columbia-Montrail beginning in 2017.) The Rogue F.K.T. is a fairly lightweight, low-to-the-ground trail cruiser built off a one-piece mesh upper, one-piece FluidFoam midsole and one-piece aggressively lugged outsole. Although that might seem a bit simplistic, it’s how the pieces integrate that makes this shoe special. The multi-density midsole is the key—it offers slightly more softness in some areas and slightly more firmness in others, which allows for a harmonious, easy-flexing ride in which your feet are in control but are also subtly guided and stabilized by the shoe. It’s a narrow-fitting, performance-oriented shoe with great proprioceptive feel for the trail and just enough protection (a reinforced toe bumper and a rock plate) to make it viable for running on moderate to gnarly terrain.

Weights: 10.1 oz. (men’s), 8.2 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 10mm; 18mm (heel), 8mm (forefoot)

Skechers Performance GOTrail, $105

This maximally cushioned trail shoe is a comfortable cruiser that rides smooth and soft on mild to moderately technical terrain. Despite all of the cushioning, it’s very stable—largely because the midsole foam isn’t marshmallowy soft—and not prone to rolled ankles like some high-off-the-ground trail shoes. The plush interior and slightly wider toe box give it great long-haul comfort, and our wear-testers definitely liked it for long trail runs. While it doesn’t necessarily inspire all-out speed for short-distance racing, it’s agile and flexible enough to run at faster tempo paces. The segmented rubber outsole provides reliable traction on most surfaces and allows for greater flexibility. It doesn’t have a rock plate, but that’s mostly a non-issue because of the thick foam under the forefoot.

Weights: 9.4 oz. (men’s), 7.1 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 4mm; 24mm (heel), 20mm (forefoot)

New Balance Fresh Foam Gobi Trail, $95

New Balance has put out great, lightweight trail shoes for a long time. But it’s also found a lot of crossover cred to some of its performance-oriented shoes in recent years, too.This new model is a legit moderately cushioned trail shoe, but it also gained some buzz for its lifestyle appeal too, thanks to its one-piece gum-rubber outsole and sleek two-layer upper. It’s perhaps best understood as a close cousin of the New Balance Fresh Foam Zante 2 road shoe with a little bit more traction from a low-profile knobby outsole tread. While it can suffice for semi-technical singletrack trails, it’s most at home running smooth dirt trails, gravel roads and those types of runs that have a bit of trail and roads. Like the Zante 2, it has a snug, performance-oriented fit and a cushioning profile that feels low to the ground but in reality has a sensible amount of foam underfoot. It’s equally fast and light and can run at just about any speed.But given the snug fit and modest cushioning, its sweet spot is running mild to moderate terrain for an hour or less. And there’s no denying that it looks cool and passes the “looks good with jeans” test. Plus, you can’t beat the price—it’s under a hundred bucks!

Weights: 8.7 oz. (men’s), 7.2 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 6mm; 24mm (heel), 18mm (forefoot)

Altra Lone Peak 3.0, $120

Altra has continued to refine this well-cushioned trail running shoe with a new upper that offers more sidewall protection and greater durability for hardscrabble terrain. It also has a reconfigured dual-density rubber outsole that grips anything and everything out on the trails. It retains the full-length, flexible rock plate sandwiched between a layer of shock-absorbing foam and a layer of energy-returning foam. As with all Altra shoes, this one is built on a zero-drop (or level) platform and has a spacious foot-shaped toe box that allows toes to wiggle and splay while running. Our wear-testers loved the soft (but not mushy) cushion underfoot and the snugged-down fit provided by the cohesive saddle and lacing system. We found it to be a very versatile shoe that excels on all types of terrain from dirt roads to technical, craggy trails.

Weights: 9.7 oz. (men’s), 8.0 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 0mm; 25mm (heel), 25mm (forefoot)

Salewa Lite Train, $129

A light and fast trail running shoe built on minimalist design cues, the Lite Train is a nimble, low-to-the-ground speedster that serves up amazing traction on all types of terrain. It could be a racing flat for fast workouts and shorter-distance races or an everyday trainer for those who prefer a sleeker, uninhibited shoe on the trails. It fits a bit narrow, doesn’t have a rock plate and doesn’t offer much protection for running on technical, rocky terrain, but it’s a dream on smooth dirt trails, gravel roads and more moderate mountain trails, especially for those who typically run with a quick leg turnover. Our testers raved about the multi-direction outsole and the inherent energy this shoe seemed to produce.

Weights: 9.0 oz. (men’s), 7.7 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 5mm; 17mm (heel), 12mm (forefoot)

Salomon SpeedCross 4, $130

If you mostly run on surfaces other than smooth hardpacked trails—sloppy wet mud, slippery and unstable gravel and rock, loose dirt, slick grass, marshy singletrack, fire roads or anything else—this a shoe you should consider. The classic array of knobby outsole lugs offers reliable traction on a surprising number of surfaces, wet or dry. The only place it won’t seem great is on the roads, but that’s OK because you probably have plenty of shoes for pavement running. The SpeedCross 4 is nimble and fast enough that it could be an idea trail racer, but sturdy and cushioned enough to be the tool of choice for easy long runs too. Salomon’s speed lace system is a top-notch feature that offers a near-custom fit and keeps laces tucked in a pouch out of the way.

Weights: 10.5 oz. (men’s), 9.0 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 11mm; 33mm (heel), 22mm (forefoot)

The North Face Ultra MT Winter, $170

Yes, this is a high-top trail running shoe! It’s one of the first of many in this new category that have launched this past summer aimed at providing optimal weather protection and ankle support, no matter if you’re running mountain trails or snowy sidewalks. We liked the Ultra MT because it’s a legit trail running shoe at its core that is enhanced by a zip-up, all-weather bootie and an innovative Vibram IceTrek sticky rubber outsole designed specifically to adhere to cold, icy surfaces. The shoe under the bootie is essentially a low-top version of The North Face’s nimble Ultra MT trail runner, which has a forefoot rock plate for protection and a one-pull lacing system for a cinched-up fit. The zip-up shroud is mostly waterproof, except for the soft water-resistant collar secured above the ankle. Our wear-testers tried this out over the summer on wet and dry trails and slushy snowfields in the Rocky Mountains, and we’re confident it will be a protective dynamo later this winter.

Weights: 12.2 oz. (men’s), 10.3 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 8mm; 25mm (heel), 17mm (forefoot)

HOKA ONE ONE Speed Instinct, $130

Lightweight and low to the ground, this shoe takes a cue from Hoka’s new line of svelte and speedy road shoes. Unlike its more thickly cushioned trail models, the Speed Instinct serves up a fast and agile ride with a more acute proprioceptive feel for the trail. Our wear-test team found it to have just enough soft cushioning in the heel and appreciated the slightly firmer and very responsive forefoot. With a full-length knobby rubber outsole, it offers consistent traction over all types of terrain at all speeds. The ride is soft, flexible and nimble without any structure to get in the way of the natural movements of your foot, but that also means it’s not a very inherently stable shoe. Our wear-testers pegged this as a great short-distance to mid-range shoe, ideal for sub-ultra racing, hill repeats and tempo runs.

Weights: 8.4 oz. (men’s), 7.5 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 3mm; 22mm (heel), 19mm (forefoot)

ASICS GEL-Kahana 8, $85

As much as ASICS is known for its smooth riding stability shoes for the roads, it’s been pushing deeper into trail running for the past several years and the new edition of the Kahana is a reflection of that. Designed off the dimensions and shape of some of its road shoes, the Kahana is built on a robust undercarriage that is highlighted by a durable and luggy outsole. The shoe offers up a road-inspired performance-oriented fit, but it runs like a 4-wheel-drive vehicle over rugged terrain. It’s billed as an entry-level trail running shoe with only modest trail-specific protection, but it’s a great choice for a metropolitan runner who typically combines paved roads, concrete pathways and non-technical dirt trails. Although it’s not as light or agile as many of the shoes in this review, it has plenty of cushion for all types of running and the outsole can handle burly terrain as well as smooth trails and paved roads.

Weights: 11.9 oz. (men’s), 9.9 oz. (women’s)
Heel-Toe Offset: 10mm; 29mm (heel), 19mm (forefoot)

Saucony Xodus ISO$130

Saucony has overhauled its most rugged trail runner, and our testers loved nearly everything about it. This shoe is considerably lighter and more agile than the Xodus 6.0 that came out last year. It also serves up an enhanced fit, feel and ride. Part of the reason for that is the additional soft and responsive layer of foam called EverRun, which Saucony rolled out in its road shoes earlier this year. It’s also due to a new outsole lug system with a directional wave pattern that offers amazing stability and traction on rocks and steep terrain. Although this shoe is best for rugged trails, the improvements have made it great for mellow terrain too.

Weights: 10.3 oz. (men’s), 9.2 oz. (women’s)
Heel-to-toe offset: 4mm; 25mm (heel), 21mm (forefoot)