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Light, Fast & Free: 2014 Summer Trail Running Shoe Buyer’s Guide

Need a new pair of trail shoes? Here's a complete guide to what's on the market.


Trail running is evolving. On one hand, more recreational runners are venturing off-road than ever before. And with more fast track and road running speedsters testing their mettle on dirt, trail races from 5K to 100 miles are getting much faster. Not surprisingly, shoes are generally getting lighter, softer and more nimble at the expense of sacrificing protection and durability.

Many of this year’s models also reflect the trends in road running shoes, namely that they feature more resilient foams, more dynamic-fitting uppers and a less-is-more design ethos. While these shoes demand a runner be stronger, more agile or perhaps more careful, if you find the right shoe to match your preferred terrain, you’ll be able to float over smooth trails and fly over more rugged terrain. In this review, we highlight the best trail running shoes available at running stores this spring and summer in three categories: Lightweight Minimalists, Moderate Hybrids and Mountain Marauders. (However, a few shoes straddle the line between two categories.)

Competitor’s spring 2014 trail running shoe test team:

Amy Allison, Casey Blaine, Mark Bockmann, Dave Butler, Jim Conaghan, Wendy Drake, Mark Eller, Mario Fraioli, Kurt Hoy, Steve Hughes, Louisa Jenkins, Marianne Martin, Brian Metzler, Allison Pattillo, Greg Salvesen, Jason Smith and Michelle Smith.

INOV-8 Trail Roc 245

8.6 oz. (men’s), 7.9 oz. (women’s)

18 mm (heel), 15 mm forefoot

Category: LIGHTWEIGHT MINIMALIST

Fit: Ideal for runners with wider feet, this shoe fits slightly wider in the heel and moderately snug in the midfoot and toe box.

Feel: Soft, svelte and low to the ground, this shoe has just enough rubber and foam under foot to offer a twinge of cushioning, but not enough to inhibit the feel for the trail. It’s a minimally designed shoe with maximum flexibility that allows the foot to move naturally over the terrain.

Ride: There’s no two ways about it, this shoe offers a “barely there” ride. A thin, flexible forefoot plate provides a little bit of structure (and protection) to this otherwise soft and completely pliable shoe. The sticky rubber outsole offers great traction on rocky, rooty terrain and feels OK on smooth, flat trails, too. “If you want to feel the ground, this is definitely a shoe for you,” one wear-tester said. “I would like this shoe even more if it had more protection. My feet felt a bit vulnerable running in these,” said another.

Merrell All-Out Rush, $120

9.3 oz. (men’s), 7.2 oz. (women’s)

28 mm (heel), 17 mm forefoot

Category: LIGHTWEIGHT MINIMALIST

Fit: Like other Merrell shoes, the All-Out Rush fits snug in the heel and locked-down in the midfoot but has a bit of wiggle room in the toe box.

Feel: A slightly beefier offshoot of some of Merrell’s lower-slung shoes, the All Out Rush still feels rather light despite having a little bit more cushion under foot. It offers a happy medium between proprioceptive feel for the trail and cushioning and protection from rocks, roots and other trail debris from the durable rubber outsole.

Ride: Although it’s built with a minimalist-inspired, glove-like fit, the extra material under the foot makes it more versatile (and comfortable) for a wider variety of terrain. It climbs, descends and run at higher speeds with ease on smooth, moderate and harsh terrain, but its sweet spot is probably somewhere in the middle. “Minimalist but not painfully so,” remarked one wear-tester. “Finally, a minimalist shoe with some common sense,” said another.

New Balance NB Zero v2, $110

8.8 oz. (men’s), 7.1 oz. (women’s)

21 mm (heel), 21 mm forefoot

Category: LIGHTWEIGHT MINIMALIST

Fit: The fit is reliably secure from heel to toe, with a standard-sized toe box.

Feel: This low-to-the-ground model is light on cushioning, but it has a moderately reinforced upper and an aggressively lugged outsole that helps keep the foot slightly out of harm’s way. It’s fairly light and runs well on a lot of types of terrain, but the zero-drop profile and rather thin amount of material under the foot renders this shoe best for strong, agile runners.

Ride: With it’s fell-inspired knobby-lugged outsole, the Zero is right at home running over loose gravel and dirt, as well as wet, sloppy terrain. The lugs are grippy enough on rocky terrain, too, but the shoe’s lack of built-in stability and cushioning becomes pretty apparent on longer runs on technical terrain. The ride isn’t quite as smooth on hard-packed trails like some true hybrids, but it can still get the job done. “Amazing traction,” said one wear-tester. “I love the fit and the grip of this model,” said another tester.

Reebok All-Terrain Super, $120

7.8 oz. (men’s), 6.6 oz. (women’s)

12 mm (heel), 7 mm forefoot 

Category: LIGHTWEIGHT MINIMALIST

Fit: Built for mud obstacle racing, the All-Terrain Supper has the snug, performance-inspired fit of a pair of track spikes from heel to toe with just a smidge of wiggle room in the the toe box.

Feel: While it’s not overly protective, it does have a flexible rock plate and a durable reinforced upper. Obstacle racing features include built-in water drainage ports and grippy rubber cleats on the medial outsole geared for climbing ropes.

Ride: This shoe has plenty of snap for short-distance trail running. From the moment you slip it on, you sense the minimalist, race-ready vibe. But that’s a good thing if you like to feel the trail and the inherent agility it brings. (Reebok’s All Terrain Sprint is a lighter and an even more minimally designed trail shoe.) It’s fast, nimble and very flexible, plus it offers great traction in both wet and dry conditions. “This is a race car with rubber cleats,” said one wear-tester.

Saucony Peregrine 4, $110

9.4 oz. (men’s), 8.4 oz. (women’s)

26 mm (heel), 22 mm forefoot

Category: MODERATE HYBRID

Fit: The Peregrine has a snug, ready-inspired fit throughout with just a bit of extra room in the toe box.

Feel: The first impression of the Peregrine for many of our wear-testers was how much this shoe inspired fast running. Although it feels like it’s low to the ground, it actually has a slightly thicker layer of cushioning than its predecessors. The new upper design aids the locked-down fit and offers some durability.

Ride: The Peregrine corners like a sports car on all types of terrain and it has plenty of giddy-up to run fast. But it has enough cushioning to be an everyday trainer, too. Our wear-testers didn’t think it had quite enough protection to run on super-gnarly rocky terrain, but it excels at smooth to moderately technical trails. “This has everything you need in an everyday shoe for smooth and moderately rocky trails,” said one wear-tester. “Just like a Saucony road shoe, but with better traction,” said another.

Skechers GoRunBionic 2, $90

6.5 oz. (men’s), 5.3 oz. (women’s)

11.5 mm (heel), 11.5 mm forefoot

Category: MODERATE HYBRID

Fit: This shoe has a wide profile than many of its contemporaries, with plenty of wiggle room in the toe box. Our wear testers said they really had to torque down the laces to get a snug fit.

Feel: With a fit like a soft, snug and comfy fit, this shoe feels more like a bedroom slipper than a trail running shoe. There’s very little structure or protection in this model, aside from the modest slice of rubber on the foot. On the contrary, it’s extremely flexible and designed with a pliable structure to match the movements of the foot.

Ride: With so much flexibility and so little cushioning, this shoe feels just like a minimalist road shoe or low-slung racing flat. Because of that, it’s best for running on smooth trails (dirt, wood chips, concrete bike paths, crushed gravel, etc.) and not much more. The more debris and technical aspects to the trail, the more you can feel pushing through the sole to the bottom of your foot.  “Not much under your foot at all,” said one wear-tester. “This is a smooth-running minimalist shoe with some additional softness,” said another wear-tester.

Skechers GoRun Ultra, $90

8.7 oz. (men’s), 7.5 oz. (women’s)

27 mm (heel), 23 mm forefoot

Category: MODERATE HYBRID

Fit: Comfortably form-fitting in the heel and midfoot, but slightly more room in the toe box.

Feel: The soft, luxurious step-in feel comes to life with a soft sensation in every stride. Other than soft and comfortable, the shoe is noticeably light and slightly wider than many of the shoes in this review.

Ride: With a thick layer of very soft cushioning (that includes the array of soft knobby lugs), the neutral-oriented GoRun Ultra serves up long-haul comfort and performance on both smooth and semi-technical trails and gravel roads. (The traction is pretty good, but wear-testers found that the softness of the lugs sometimes lacked structure and tackiness to grip over wet or rocky features.) It’s not quite sturdy or protective enough to run on rugged trails and some rockier fire roads, but it’s fast, comfy and smooth on everything else. “Wow, this one was a surprise,” said one wear-tester.  “Definitely my favorite shoe for mellow and moderate trails.”

Altra Superior Trail 1.5, $105

11.1 oz. (men’s), 8.2 oz. (women’s)

15 mm (heel), 15 mm forefoot (men’s)

Category: MODERATE HYBRID

Fit: This has the most unique fit of any shoe in this review. It’s snug in the heel, semi-snug at the midfoot and decidedly spacious in the bulbous-shaped forefoot. (It’s shaped that way by design, giving ample room for the foot’s transverse arch to flex and allow the toes to splay upon impact.)

Feel: This shoe also has the most unique feel of any shoe in this review. First, the zero-drop (flat profile) and low-to-the-ground design are immediately evident, offering a “barely there” feeling that allows proprioceptive interaction with the ground. Secondly, although there isn’t much cushioning, it feels fairly soft—or at least softer than many of our testers expected.

Ride: The ride is natural and completely uninhibited. If you’re the type of runner who wants to feel the trail and rely on your foot sensing the ground to cue how the rest of your body moves, this might be the shoe for you. (It has a thin, flexible, full-length rock plate that can be removed when not running more rugged trails.) The directional lugs of the subtle outsole offer good traction on most kinds of terrain, but a few wear-testers said it felt slippery on loose gravel and dirt. “I love the flat, soft and very natural feeling of this shoe,” said one wear-tester.

ASICS Fuji Trainer 3, $100

9.6 oz. (men’s), 7.0 oz. (women’s)

26 mm (heel), 18 mm forefoot (men’s)

Category: MODERATE HYBRID

Fit: The Fuji Trainer 3 fits like all of ASICS’ road and trail shoes: snug in the heel, secure in the midfoot and snug but not tight in the forefoot.

Feel: The Fuji Trainer 3 feels pretty light and nimble when you first put it on and on most types of terrain. The easy-flexing demeanor, enhanced-fitting upper and protective toe box are a sublime combination—no matter how fast or slow you want to run.

Ride: With equal parts soft cushioning and trail-specific features, the neutral-oriented Fuji Trainer 3 is great example of a trail-road hybrid shoe that can cover a lot of terrain with long-wearing road-shoe comfort. It’s most at home on moderate to smooth trails, but it can hold its own on more rugged terrain too, although our wear-testers found it doesn’t have enough sidewall or toe box protection for the gnarliest of routes. Still, our wear-testers raved about this shoe for its versatility, its comfort and its agility. “This is my go-to shoe for my twice-a-week trail runs,” said one wear-tester.

Brooks Cascadia 9, $120

11.9 oz. (men’s), 9.3 oz. (women’s)

28 mm (heel), 18 mm forefoot

Category: MODERATE HYBRID

Fit: As with other versions, the new Cascadia fits reliably tight in the heel, snugged-down in the midfoot and fairly compact in the forefoot.

Feel: A shoe with a good balance of cushion and stability, this longtime favorite features a new upper that has more subtle support overlays than in previous editions, a slightly lower heel-toe drop, flat laces and a more subtle outsole lug pattern.

Ride: The Cascadia 9 has a great combination of stability, softness and agility, making it a great all-around shoe for experienced and novice trail runners who are looking for something slightly more than a typical road-to-trail hybrid. It has a stability-enhancing four-point pivot system built into the midsole, and with its lower-profile lug pattern (an update from a previous model), it is very versatile and more nimble than ever before. “Same old Cascadia, only better. I like the evolved version even better than the Cascadia 7 and 8,” one wear-tester said.

Hoka One One Rapa Nui 2 (men), Kailua Trail (women), $130

10.7 oz. (men’s), 8.9 oz. (women’s)

33 mm (heel), 28 mm (forefoot)

Category: MODERATE HYBRID

Fit: This shoe’s one-pull lacing system can give a snug fit from heel through the midfoot, but some wear-testers anguished at how much they had to torque on the system to customize their fit. (A pair of traditional laces is included in the box.) The fit in the forefoot is comfortably relaxed.

Feel: Maximalist running shoes are all the rage this year, but this is actually a toned-down version of some of Hoka’s thicker oversized cushioning shoes. But that said, it is still the most copiously cushioned shoe in this review, so it will feel higher off the ground than other shoes. However, the cushioning is not definitely marshmallowy like some previous Hoka models; instead, it straddles the line between soft and slightly firm.

Ride: Because of the lower profile, the Rapa Nui 2/Kailua Trail is a much more agile shoe than many previous Hoka models, a feature that makes it ideal for faster tempo running and a great entry point into maximalism. It runs like a comfy neutral shoe on smooth dirt terrain, gravel roads and moderately rocky singletrack trails, but most agreed it takes two or three runs to find a rhythm that meshes with the Hoka vibe. The lower-to-the-ground design and slightly firmer feeling give it great stability for a maximalist shoe, but most wear-testers said the girth and width kept it from being as nimble as some other models. “It feels like you’re floating,” one wear-tester said. “The big difference for me wasn’t the ride—which was still great—but that I felt less beat-up the day after a long run,” another wear-tester said.

Montrail Fluid Flex II, $90

8.0 oz. (men’s), 6.5 oz. (women’s)

22 mm (heel), 17 mm (forefoot)

Category: MODERATE HYBRID

Fit: It feels like just like a racing flat for the roads, with a snug fit in the heel and midfoot but slightly wider toe box.

Feel: Soft, sleek and low to the ground, the FluidFlex II feels light and runs light. Agile runners will love this shoes uninhibited liveliness, but less experienced runners might feel vulnerable on anything but smooth trails.

Ride: The underbelly of soft foam offers sufficient cushioning without getting in the way of the feel for the trail, allowing it to run like a neutral road shoe on smooth trails and even semi-rugged terrain. There’s little stability and not much protection built into this shoe (except for a reinforced toe cap), so it’s not ideal for rock-hopping on rugged routes. But that’s the trade-off for a super-agile shoe that feels like it’s part of your foot. “Like butter,” said one wear-tester, who loved the sublime smoothness to this shoe.

Scott T2 Kinabalu 2, $130

9.8 oz. (men’s), 8.5 oz. (women’s)

24 mm (heel), 16 mm forefoot

Category: MODERATE HYBRID

Fit: The Kinabalu 2 has road-shoe comfort and a snug fit in the heel and midfoot with just a twinge of extra room in the toe box.

Feel: Built on a midsole of one of the lightest and most resilient foams available, this shoe feels springy underfoot and actually runs lighter than it seems. It’s not quite a maximalist shoe, but it feels exceptionally cushioned and soft like some maximalist models. The big difference is that it offers great feel for the trail in the forefoot. “It felt quasi-maixmalist—soft, cushy and smooth, but not so much that I couldn’t feel the trail,” said one wear-tester.

Ride: This is an everyday cushioned trainer that road runners and experience trail runners will appreciate. The smoother the terrain, the smoother the ride. A reinforced toe box and an abrasion-resistant upper give it enough protection for semi-technical trails, while the low-profile lug pattern makes it versatile for running fast on smooth trails and gravel roads.

Under Armour Speedform XC, $100

8.5 oz. (men’s), 6.9 (women’s)

18 mm (heel), 10 mm forefoot

Category: LIGHTWEIGHT MINIMALIST

Fit: Modeled after Under Armour’s award-winning road shoe with a similar name, the XC version has a similar form-fitting snugness in the heel and midfoot but a slightly wider toe box.

Feel: Although it has a decent amount of soft cushioning under foot, this shoe has a low-to-the-ground nimbleness to it. It’s light and minimally constructed, without any extra features to get in the way. The water-resistant soft shell upper offers protection from the elements without sacrificing flexibility, although a few of our testers thought it made their feet a bit toasty in warmer conditions.

Ride: Like UA’s road running shoes, the Speedform XC has a decidedly natural ride—it lets the foot move how it needs to without interfering much. The easy-flexing construction, multi-density foam midsole and low-profile outsole are big reasons for that. Most testers appreciated the traction from the subtle lugs and a few said the shoe encouraged a high-cadence midfoot gait. Our wear-testers found this shoe surprisingly stable for such a low-to-the-ground shoe, likely because of its wide profile. “It has a solid, stable base, but it is very minimally built on top of the foot,” one wear-tester said.

New Balance 860v4 Trail, $120

12.4 oz. (men’s), 10.0 oz. (women’s)

26 mm (heel), 14 mm forefoot

Category: MODERATE HYBRID

Fit: This shoe fits like a comfortably cushioned road shoe, with equal cushion-enhanced snugness from heel to toe.

Feel: If you’re used to wearing traditionally cushioned stability shoes on the roads, you’ll know exactly how this shoe feels. It’s has a copious amount of semi-soft cushioning with a firm medial post for stability and a supportive upper reinforced with stitched-only overlays. (This is just like New Balance’s 860v4 road shoe, only with an outsole modified to offer traction on smooth dirt and gravel trails and a water-resistant mesh.)

Ride: Despite the built-up construction and slightly heavier weight, this shoe runs with a consistently smooth vibe on flat trails with a few extra features for paved roads and bike paths. That smoothness is semi-firm and supportive, which makes it ideal for bigger runners who want more shoe under foot. Our wear-testers liked this shoe for what it is supposed to be, but they unanimously agreed it wasn’t the right tool for more rugged terrain. “There’s a lot of material in this shoe, probably too much for my liking unless I’m just running on a flat dirt trail or gravel road,” one wear-tester said.

Patagonia Everlong, $110

8.3 oz. (men’s), 6.7 oz. (women’s)

24 mm (heel), 20 mm forefoot

Category: MODERATE HYBRID

Fit: The Everlong fits wider than most shoes in the heel and midfoot and is roomy fit in the forefoot.

Feel: The soft and spacious fit gives way to a luxuriously soft, infinitely flexible feeling on the run. Although it’s not quite a “barely there” minimalist model, this low-to-the-ground model barely feels like its there, just a soft sliver of foam and a slice of rubber between your foot and the ground below.

Ride: The soft ride of this minimally designed shoe feels more like a road running shoe than some road running shoes. It’s intended to be a road-to-trail crossover shoe—and it is—but it excels on smooth routes (dirt, crushed gravel, wood chips, pavement) without rugged obstacles or sharp objects. With little toe cap protection and no sidewall or underfoot protection, only the most agile and experienced runners will appreciate this shoe on technical trails. “One of the softest shoes I’ve ever run in,” said one tester.

Patagonia Tsali 3.0, $110

10.3 oz. (men’s), 8.5 oz. (women’s)

26 mm (heel), 16 mm forefoot

Category: MODERATE HYBRID/MOUNTAIN MARAUDER

Fit: The Tsali 3.0 has a similar fit to previous incarnations, with a cinched-down snug in the heel and midfoot and wiggle room for the toes in the forefoot.

Feel: This amazingly agile shoe has the unique mix of a lightweight construction and a fairly aggressive outsole. The flexible but durable (and very breathable) one-piece abrasion-resistant mesh upper enhances the locked-down fit and aiding the proprioceptive feeling that comes with natural foot movements.

Ride: This shoe is much more than a typical road-to-trail hybrid, thanks to a savvy combination of modern materials and a minimalist-inspired build-up. (Instead of stitched overlays, thin but supportive thermoplastic polyurethane support bands are welded to the mesh upper for reinforcement.) This shoe is most at home on technical rocky/rooty trails (thanks in part to a forefoot rock plate), but it also runs quite well on smooth dirt trails, gravel roads and even paved roads. A few wear-testers said they’d be more comfortable on the gnarliest terrain if it had a bit more toe box and sidewall protection. “This is one of the most versatile shoes in the test,” said one wear-tester. “It can do everything pretty well and doesn’t really have any major deficiencies.”

Scarpa TRU, $110

8.5 oz. (men’s), 7.6 oz. (women’s)

14 mm (heel), 8 mm forefoot

Category: LIGHTWEIGHT MINIMALIST

Fit: The TRU fits snug from heel to toe, with maybe just a smidge of wiggle room in the forefoot.

Feel: This race-inspired speed demon lets your feet feel and react to the specific details of surface of the trail with precision. It’s light and minimally constructed, but there is enough structure in the chassis to feel secure and stable on most types of terrain. The micromesh one-piece upper is minimally reinforced, but it wraps the foot in a flexible snugness that allows it to aid the locked-down fit and the inherent stability of the shoe.

Ride: While it runs like a minimalist shoe on soft smooth trails, it demands a runner to be inherently strong and agile on more gnarly terrain. The low-to-the-ground construction allows for great foot-to-trail proprioceptive interaction, but a reinforced fabric rock plate in the forefoot offers push-through protection without inhibiting flex. A small toe cap offers some straight-on protection for your toes, but there’s little sidewall protection. “This shoe makes me want to run fast,” one testers said.

Scarpa Ignite, $125

10.2 oz. (men’s), 9.0 oz. (women’s)

18 mm (heel), 10 mm forefoot

Category: MOUNTAIN MARAUDER

Fit: Although it’s snug in the heel and midfoot, it has more ample room in the forefoot.

Feel: A true rugged mountain runner, only without the extra weight or overbearing outsole lugs, the Ignite is the poster child of the modern technical trail runner. It has more technical capabilities than a moderate hybrid (namely protection and traction), but it’s flexible enough to offer consistent high-cadence performance on less rugged trails.

Ride: With a light, flexible and durable (but not overbuilt) construction, it can move as fast and agile as you want to go without sacrificing necessary protection (it has a full-length, flexible rock plate). The moderate outsole lugs offer aggressive traction for a variety of surfaces, but it’s still subtle enough to run on smoother surfaces (except for paved roads). “Reliable, safe and secure on harder, more challenging trails,” one tester said.

Dynafit Pantera, $140

11.7 oz. (men’s), 9.9 oz. (women’s)

34 mm (heel), 26 mm forefoot

Category: MOUNTAIN MARAUDER

Fit: It has a cushioned interior heel that aids the snugged-down fit in the rearfoot and arch area. The toebox is a happy medium between snug and roomy, offering enough room for toes to wiggle, splay and swell on long mountain runs.

Feel: It’s not the lightest shoe on the trail, but you’ll appreciate the extra girth, durability and protection while running over rocks, roots and any other obstacle you encounter out in the wild.

Ride: A durable, supportive but surprisingly agile mountain running shoe, the Pantera tears through rugged technical trails with a reassuring stability and a comfortable softness underfoot. “Very stable and a lot of protection,” one tester remarked. “This is a great shoe for running rugged mountain trails,” another tester said.

La Sportiva Bushido, $125

9.1 oz. (men’s), 8.0oz. (women’s)

19 mm (heel), 13 mm forefoot

Category: LIGHTWEIGHT MINIMALIST /MOUNTAIN MARAUDER

Fit: Contrary to the legacy of most La Sportiva shoes, the Bushido has a roomy, generous fit from heel to toe.

Feel: Two words: structure and protection. There is a lot of protective material in this shoe (which our testers appreciated), but the overall feel of the shoe is burly. However, even with a very firm toe box reinforcement, a plastic wrap around the medial and lateral sidewalls and a reinforced heel area, the shoe is relatively light and flexible.

Ride: If you’re looking for a protective ride, this mountain masher eats up the gnarliest terrain with ease. For all of the support, structure and protective material built into this shoe, they still manage to offer a smooth and natural foot movement on rugged terrain. (They tend to feel overbuilt on smooth dirt trails and pavement.) The deep knobby lugs offer reliable grippy traction on wet and dry surfaces and the full-length protective plate offers great poke-through protection, but foot-to-ground proprioception is a bit muffled compared to some other shoes. It’s light enough to be a racing shoe for very technical mountain courses, but our testers enjoyed it most as a rugged trail exploration trainer. “It’s light and fast like a lot of Sportiva shoes, but this one definitely have a lot more protection built into the mix,” said one wear-tester.

Oboz Helium

10.4 oz. (men’s), 8.9 oz. (women’s)

17 mm (heel), 7 mm forefoot

Category: LIGHTWEIGHT MINIMALIST/MOUNTAIN MARAUDER

Fit: The Helium has a slipper-like fit aided by an upper that envelops the foot and snugs it down to the midsole/outsole chassis.

Feel: It feels light and low to the ground like a trail racer, but it also feels sturdy and protective like a mountain shoe. A unique blend of new materials and construction techniques makes this an energetic outlier, a blending of two distinctly different worlds.

Ride: The Helium has some true minimalist qualities built into a versatile shoe capable of devouring up rugged trails. While it’s amazingly low to the ground and sparsely cushioned, a thin, flexible rock plate and a sturdy, low-profile rubber outsole offer great push-through protection against sharp trail debris. Its sweet spot (and it’s very sweet) is in the middle on semi-technical trails, but this is definitely not a middle-of-the-road hybrid. It’s one of the few shoes that runs very well on all types of terrain from hard-packed dirt trails to jagged-rock routes that are barely runnable. Said one wear-tester: “This might be the hidden gem in this review. It’s both deceptively fast and nimble and has loads of protection.”

Vasque Ultra SST, $170

10.6 oz. (men’s), 9.2 oz. (women’s)

28 mm (heel), 22 mm forefoot

Category: MOUNTAIN MARAUDER

Fit: It has a wide interior and runs a bit long (so consider sizing down by a half size), but the BOA dial-to-fit lacing system offers reassuring snugness and incremental adjustability.

Feel: When you first glance at this shoe you might wonder if you’re looking at one of those crazy carnival fun house mirrors. With a chunky, semi-firm EVA midsole and medial sidewall design of this shoe, its shape and dimensions look grossly distorted, even for a maximalist shoe.

Ride: The ride of the Ultra SST is definitely uniquely firm. While our testers were split on where this shoe performed best—some thought this shoe was great for very rugged terrain, while others preferred it only for semi-technical trails—most liked the protection it offers against everything out on the trail. Our testers (especially those with wider feet) liked it for both its protection and the cinched-down feeling of the Boa lacing system. Although it’s more at home on rugged terrain, it lacks agility for faster running on technical terrain. “By far the most unique shoe in this test session,” said one wear-tester. “I think it might be good for hike-a-run adventures and peak-bagging, but it’s not quite as nimble as it would need to be for an everyday training shoe.”

Salomon Sense Pro, $130

9.2 oz. (men’s), 8.1oz. (women’s)

22 mm (heel), 17 mm forefoot

Category: MODERATE HYBRID/MOUNTAIN MARAUDER

Fit: This shoe fits snug in the padded heel and fairly narrow in the forefoot, but a bit more spaciously in the wider midfoot region. The one-pull lace system helped snug in the arch area, but several wear-testers said it took some time and effort to dial in a custom fit.

Feel: With a good blend of cushy foam in the midsole and a low-profile but aggressive outsole, the Sense Pro serves up a nimble, race-ready feel. The shoe is fairly low to the ground, but the proprioceptive feel for the trail isn’t as sharp as with some other models in this review. Still, our wear-testers felt it is able to straddle the line between a true mountain running shoe and a moderate hybrid.

Ride: Like some other Salomon shoes, this shoe offers plenty of cushion and sturdiness in the heel area but a more agile sensation up front. That combination, along with the subtle-yet-grippy outsole lug configuration and lower heel-toe drop (just 5mm), allows it to be both a long-haul cruiser and a model that allows a runner to pick and poke through patches of rocky terrain. “The big, great surprise with this shoe, despite its rather hefty, layered midsole, is how it can feel so light and even nimble out on the trails,” one wear-tester said. “A great, technically sound trail runner with a surprising amount of versatility,” another wear-tester said.

Salomon Xscream, $110

10.9 oz. (men’s), 8.8 oz. (women’s)

26 mm (heel), 17 mm forefoot

Category: MODERATE HYBRID

Fit: This model fits very generously, much more spaciously than most other models. The flexible exo-skeleton of this shoe’s upper and the one-pull lacing system can create a wrap-like sensation around the midfoot to create a custom fit, but our wear-testers with narrower feet found it hard to dial in a snug fit.

Feel: A do-everything shoe built with the versatility of going from road to trail and back again, the Xscream has some of the cushioning, flexibility, stability and comfort of a road shoe with just enough trail-inspired features and an outsole to match. It has just enough softness and interior padding to be comfortable, but it lacks a nimble feeling for agile maneuvering.

Ride: Although it falls into the moderate hybrid category, it truly straddles the middle ground, meaning it’s best on semi-rough terrain but not great on either end of the spectrum—roads/smooth trails or super technical gnarly routes. As such, the ride received very moderate enthusiasm from our wear-testers, nothing that stuck out as being exceptional. But if you’re the type of runner that is new to trail running and wants to add a versatile shoe to your quiver of road shoes, this is still a good one to consider. “This seems like an entry-level trail shoe, made for someone who might only be running moderate trails,” one wear-tester summed up.

The North Face Ultra Trail, $110

8.9 oz. (men’s), 7.1 oz. (women’s)

21 mm (heel), 14 mm forefoot

Category: LIGHTWEIGHT MINIMALIST/MOUNTAIN MARAUDER

Fit: This shoe fits fairly spaciously and barren, a sensation that is accentuated by the fact that it doesn’t have a padded interior. Several of our wear-testers remarked how they needed to torque down on the laces to get a snug fit.

Feel: The shoe is super light and flexible, but it’s really geared toward more rugged terrain for nimble runners. It’s not a great road-to-trail crossover shoe as it has too little cushioning and a bit of an awkward “slappy” ride on hard surfaces. It’s not quite a “barely there” shoe, but it definitely lacks a plush sensation.

Ride: An energetic minimalist model for the technical terrain, the Ultra Trail is short on cushioning but long on agility (assuming the fit can get dialed in). For the seasoned trail runner with nimble running skills, it’s an ideal shoe for delicate dancing through rocky, rooty and undulating terrain but less of a model for striding out long miles on smoother, softer terrain (unless you’re OK with the bare-bones feeling). The low-profile durable rubber outsole got high marks from our testers, both because it offers sufficient protection and great traction (on everything except snow) and also because its very flexible. A sufficiently reinforced toe box and a full-length protection plate offer up additional trail-specific protection. “These might not be cushy enough for a long haul, but they are great for medium-length and medium-terrain trail runs,” one wear-tester said.