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2017 Running Gear Guide: Trail Shoes

From burly and protective to flexible and fast, this season’s trail shoes run the gamut.

From burly and protective to flexible and fast, this season’s trail shoes run the gamut. The key is finding a shoe that works on the type of off-road surfaces you run on most often. We tested the latest trail footwear on all types of terrain and home in on the best kicks for whatever type of runner you are—and whatever type of trails you run—to help you find the perfect mate.

Note: Shoe weights are listed for men’s size 9.0 and women’s size 7.0.

Special thanks to our Spring wear-test team: Amy Allison, Casey Blaine, David Benjes, Denise Benjes, Jim Conaghan, Wendy Drake, Mark Eller, Jennifer Fawcett, Allison Glass, Adam Heaney, Gretchen Hein, Steve Hughes, Stephanie Jackman, Terri Kazajian, Todd Kube, Jorge Rufat-Latre, Brian Metzler, Chris Smith, Jason Smith and Michelle Stoll

$110, altrarunning.com

Highlight: A natural-riding, zero-drop shoe trail shoe with loads of traction

Altra knew it was on to something when it debuted this shoe a few years ago, but, as with most trail shoes, it took a few years to work out some of the design kinks. A new, much more durable upper material reinforced with subtle but strong thermoplastic urethane adds structure and stability, while a small lateral flare on the outsole adds a twinge of stability. Other trail-specific features include an updated, aggressively lugged outsole, a removable rock plate and the ability to add an optional gaiter. Our wear-testers raved about the smart-fitting, foot-shaped toe box, sufficient cushioning, reliable traction and burly protection this shoe offers, plus the versatility of being able to run dirt paths, gravel roads or rugged, rocky trails. It’s moderately light, sufficiently durable and eminently runnable. With all that this shoe offers, we believe it’s one of the best trail running shoes ever made.

Weights: 9.2 ounces (men), 8.0 ounces (women)
Heel-to-Toe Offset: 0mm; 21mm (heel), 21mm (forefoot)

$140, brooksrunning.com

Highlight: Supremely cushioned and plush, with great low-profile grip

Brooks continues to add to its trail running line, this time unveiling the thickly cushioned and very responsive Caldera. The shoe is high off the ground, but not at all unstable, thanks to the ability of the dual-density foam midsole package to adapt and absorb impacts. There is no need for a rock plate in the midsole, as the Caldera is akin to a monster truck rambling over rugged terrain. With a plush interior, the fit is naturally snug and comfortable. Our wear-testers praised the low-profile lugs, which adhere to most wet and dry obstacles and do a good job shedding mud. But most of our testers were disappointed with the relatively stiff flex pattern.

Weights: 9.9 oz. (men), 9.0 oz. (women)
Heel-to-Toe Offset: 4mm; 28mm (heel), 24mm (forefoot)

$130, hokaoneone.com

Highlight: A maximally cushioned trail shoe with reliable traction and long-haul comfort

An amazingly versatile performer, this award-winning trail shoe is cushioned enough for ultra-distance trail runs, but it’s light and nimble enough for fast running over shorter distances too. The third edition has been tweaked ever so slightly—a new upper, a roomier toe box and a better array of outsole lugs make this version the best yet. It still features Hoka’s rocker profile that crates a smooth-rolling ride no matter where the foot strikes the ground. Our wear-testers loved the soft (but not sloppy) sensation served up by the thick, moderately foam midsole and the improved fit of this updated model.

Weights: 9.5 oz. (men), 7.9 oz. (women)
Heel-to-Toe Offset: 5mm; 29mm (heel), 24mm (forefoot)

$130, inov-8.com

Highlight: Exceptional feel for the trail and traction on all types of terrain

This well-cushioned and protective trail runner offers the best traction of any shoe in this review. The shoe offers reliable purchase on wet and dry terrain alike, but the array of relatively large outsole lugs are well-spaced so they don’t carry sticky mud. Additional protection comes from the flexible rock plate, sturdy toe bumper and reinforced breathable upper. Despite all of that protection, we loved the cushy ride on all types of milder terrain, including gravel roads and smooth dirt paths. The fit is comfortable and snug, although several of our wear-testers remarked that the forefoot fit a bit snug and they might prefer going up a half-size.

Weights: 10.6 oz. (men), 8.5 oz. (women)
Heel-to-Toe Offset: 8mm; 24mm (heel), 16mm (forefoot)

$120, mizunousa.com

Highlight: A light, agile and technical, built for speed and fast cornering over short distances

When you’re running fast on trails, you need sufficient cushioning, reliable traction and subtle protection features to keep your feet out of harm’s way. The Hyate 3 has all of those features in spades, highlighted by the extra-grippy Michelin rubber outsole. It’s a low-slung, easy-flexing shoe that serves up such a natural, uninhibited ride that our wear-testers didn’t notice the thin, flexible rock plate in the forefoot. This shoe inspires speed, especially on smooth dirt paths and moderately technical singletrack trails, but it’s versatile and protective enough to run on extremely gnarly terrain too. We loved the traction and light, nimble feel: It allows for aggressive, attack-style trail running.

Weights: 8.8 oz. (men), 7.6 oz. (women)
Heel-to-Toe Offset: 9mm; 25.5 mm (heel), 16.5mm (forefoot)

$125, newbalance.com

Highlight: A smooth-riding, well-cushioned shoe with long-wearing comfort

This maximally cushioned trail runner serves up the plush comfort and easy-riding flow more akin to a road running shoe. The thick Fresh Foam midsole serves up a resilient ride while keeping minor trail obstacles at bay without the need for a rock plate. While our wear-testers felt it was best for smooth to moderately technical trails, it can also handle concrete bike paths and gravel roads in a pinch. Although its sticky rubber outsole adheres to just about everything, it doesn’t have the trail-specific protection (think rock plates and reinforced toe boxes) for super-gnarly terrain. But we loved this shoe for comfortable cruising through the woods.

Weights: 10.8 oz. (men) 8.7 oz. (women)
Heel-to-Toe Offset: 4mm; 26mm (heel), 22mm (forefoot)

$100, newbalance.com

Highlight: A lightweight, low-to-the-ground trail runner with exceptional traction

How do you improve a trail shoe that was so well-received when it debuted last year? New Balance kept the outsole and thin midsole foam chassis of this shoe identical to last year’s model—including the rock plate sandwiched in the middle—but revised the upper and added a interior bootie system to help create a snug, sock-like fit. Those subtle changes give this shoe a more synergistic connectivity that adds to the performance feel. Our wear-testers liked this shoe a lot, but most admitted that it required a runner to possess a good amount of lower leg and foot strength and agility to get the most out of it.

Weights: 8.8 oz. (men), 7.6 oz. (women)
Heel-to-Toe Offset: 10mm; 27mm (heel), 17mm (forefoot)

$120, saucony.com

Highlight: An aggressively lugged shoe for sloppy, wet terrain

If you run on slippery, sloppy trails a lot, then this shoe is for you. The amazing array of outsole lugs give it the most reliable traction on wet terrain or loose dirt of any shoe we tested. It has a moderate amount of cushioning, enough to help dull the feel for the ground and keep sharp, pointy obstacles and trail debris at bay. Our wear-testers liked running over muddy trails, wet grass and messy, sloppy terrain in this shoe. The only drawbacks to this shoe are that it’s a bit narrow in the toe box, which limits toe splay on the lateral side, and it doesn’t offer enough foot protection to charge super gnarly, technical trails.

Weights: 9.4 oz. (men), 8.4 oz. (women)
Heel-to-Toe Offset: 4mm; 21.5mm (heel), 17.5mm (forefoot)

$130, scarpa.com

Highlight: A modern minimalist trail runner with exceptional traction that demands agility

The Spin is proof that minimalism isn’t dead out on the trails. This low-to-the-ground model serves up an uninhibited ride, but the truth is that it’s not very plush or accommodating. The modest layer of semi-firm cushioning and embedded forefoot rock plate combine to serve up a responsive and protective ride. The outsole is made from the Vibram Genetic Lite rubber compound, giving it superb traction on rock, roots and other obstacles encountered on dry trails and a decent amount of grip on wet surfaces too. Our wear-test team gave this modest praise, mostly because of the stark, minimalist sensation it evoked is meant for a very specific type of trail runner.

Weights: 8.9 oz. (men), 7.5 oz. (women)
Heel-to-Toe Offset: 4mm; 18mm (heel), 14mm (forefoot)

$150, scott-sports.com

Highlight: A minimalist model with superior traction and ground connection

Scott has made some of the best trail running shoes in recent years, but as a small brand it hasn’t gotten the distribution or fanfare of some of its bigger counterparts. We liked the Supertrac RC—a lightweight, low-to-the-ground speedster with superior traction and feel for the ground—and think it’s worthy of recognition as one of the best new shoes this spring. The sturdy upper materials keep sidewall abrasions at bay, although a few of our wear-testers said they would have liked a rock plate underfoot and a sturdier toe bumper. But the point of this energetic, semi-firm cruiser is that it’s meant to run fast and it demands a nimble type of running. The only other detractor is that it fits a bit narrow.

Weights: 9.5 oz. (men); 7.8 oz. (women)
Heel-to-Toe Offset: 5mm; 22mm (heel), 17mm (forefoot)

$130, thenorthface.com

Highlight: Durable and surprisingly smooth for the most rugged routes

Out of all the trail shoes we tested, this is the most robust and best one for tackling more technical trails. But it also offers enough soft cushioning and a plush interior to keep it from being too burly or overbearing. Built on a wide, stable platform, it serves up confidence-instilling traction from a low-profile sticky rubber Vibram outsole that sticks to off-camber terrain yet rides pretty smoothly on flat, feature-less terrain too. (We also found it to be one of the most accommodating shoes for high-volume feet that we tested.) Although it’s not a shoe that will inspire speed or amazing agility, it’s a great choice if you run a rugged terrain most of the time.

Weights: 11.1 oz. (men), 9.0 oz. (women)
Heel-to-Toe Offset: 6mm; 20mm (heel), 14mm (forefoot)

$110, topoathletic.com

Highlight: A sturdy trail runner built with modern minimalist stylings

This durable, well-balanced all-terrain shoe has loads of cushioning, sticky rubber traction and an accommodating fit in the forefoot. Although it has a thickly cushioned midsole, it was built with a low heel-toe offset to deliver a more natural and fluid ride. Although it has the appearance of a light hiking shoe, looks can be deceiving. It’s one of the best shoes we reviewed for being able to tackle all types of terrain, from smooth dirt paths to rugged rocky routes and everything in between. We appreciated the protection of the reinforced upper on rougher routes, but we were equally pleased with the smooth ride and the lightweight feel on milder terrain.

Weights: 9.9oz. (men) 8.4 oz. (women)
Heel-to-Toe Offset: 3mm; 21mm (heel), 18mm (forefoot)

$120, vasque.com

Highlight: A well-cushioned do-everything shoe geared for all types of trails

This new model is a versatile jack-of-all-trails, offering a good mix of comfort, protection and traction for mild, moderate and technical terrain. It’s smooth riding and well-cushioned in the heel, but the forefoot tapers down closer to the ground, allowing for superior proprioceptive feel for the trail. It’s comfy like a well-proportioned road shoe with wiggle room in the toe box, but durable and protective too. (A rock plate, abrasion-resistant upper and reinforced toe bumper offer sufficient protection against rocks, roots and other trail debris.) Based on the overwhelmingly positive wear-tester feedback, this was one of the pleasant surprises of our test.

Weights: 11.0 oz. (men), 8.7 oz. (women)
Heel-to-Toe Offset: 8mm; 24mm (heel), 16mm (forefoot)