From oversized, max-cushioned cruisers to svelte, speedy racers, this fall brings us innovative, stylish, supportive and protective kicks for getting off-road. Here are a few we enjoyed getting dirty:
Altra Olympus 4
Weight: M 11.6oz, W 9.6oz
The oversized Olympus 4 reminds us of the mallet in cartoons used to ring the bell in the county fair or bonk the villain on the head: a bit cartoonish, but the right tool for the job, if that job is going long over technical terrain in comfort. Our testers found these thick, highly-cushioned maximalist shoes were greatly improved over the version 3.5, particularly with better durability and traction from the Vibram Megagrip outsole. The updated upper and fit, with a gusseted tongue, is still very Altra, offering ample room in the toe box, enough that those with lower volume feet may struggle to secure the midfoot tightly enough to prevent impact against the front of the shoe on steep descents. Not the most nimble of trail shoes, testers said the Olympus made up for it with cushioning and the stability gained from the balanced geometry of the foundational midsole/outsole platform, giving them a ride that felt lighter than their size.
Brooks Cascadia 15
Weight: M 11.0oz W 10.0oz
Fifteen years ago Brooks came out with a rather burly trail shoe that ran remarkably smoothly despite its protective sole and uniquely stable stance. They excelled in a variety of trail contexts, from rough mountain backcountry to summer miles over Nebraska sandhills for a state-champion cross country runner I coached. Over the years Brooks has kept the great qualities of the Cascadia while refining the materials to lower the weight and improve the ride and fit. Last year saw one of the most significant modifications when they reduced the size of the pivot posts on the 4-corner “suspension” system, which smoothed the ride without losing the 360° stable feel, as one tester reported: “There are plenty of times where I’ve been able to rescue myself from twisting an ankle or fully stumbling on a rock or root.” This year Brooks simply tweaked the upper to increase breathability and drainage, which also worked, as a tester who wore them in the 46-mile Grand Traverse Mountain Run noted, “After several water crossings (some of them with water at mid-calf height), these shoes seem to drain quickly, which obviously helps minimize blisters and discomfort.” In sum, that tester said, “The Brooks Cascadia 15 shoe is remarkably sturdy and stable, while also having a real lightweight ‘trail racer’ type feel to it. It’s not often that a trail shoe this rugged and durable also feels nimble.”
Weight: M 9.6oz W 8.8oz
Built with the same bouncy DNA Flash foam that powers the Hyperion Tempo and Elite, the all-new Catamount is a performance model designed to let you go fast on the trails. It doesn’t skimp on protection underfoot, however, with full-coverage sticky rubber outsole and a ballistic rockplate blocking sharp things from poking through. Our testers said that plate makes the ride feel rather stiff on step-in and when starting out — but once on the run and picking up speed the shoes rolled along nicely and runners began to feel the lively rebound of the foam. The simple, breathable, stretchy (white!) mesh upper held comfortably but not as securely as other trail racers, making them feel more suited to slightly tamer trails. In fact, they hold their own on roads as well, despite the stiff underfoot protection, making them a great candidate for long runs where you cross over multiple terrains.
Inov-8 TerraUltra G-270
Weight: M 9.5oz W 8.2oz
It is always assuring to know that when you touch your foot down on the ground that it will stay there until lift off — even when you’re landing on slick mud or wet rock. That trail-experience-improving assurance is one of the calling cards of the TerraUltra G-270’s truly remarkable traction, enhanced by the 4mm outsole lugs’ Graphene compound, an additive to rubber to make it simultaneous more elastic and more durable. The new midsole foam isn’t the softest or most flexible, but it is plenty protective and with a responsive, proprioceptive connection to the ground that our testers found stood up well to hard, rocky trails. The fit, although slightly more generous than most Inov8 shoes, remains somewhat narrow in the midfoot, which, combined with the supportive and durable upper created a secure foot-hold that enhanced the assurance provided by the grippy sole. One tester raved how she, despite chronically floppy ankles, didn’t trip or roll her ankle once while wearing these on gnarly Colorado trails.
La Sportiva Jackal
Weight: M10.7oz, W9.3oz
La Sportiva goes wide! Many a mountain runner with bigger toes or the desire for toe splay has been waiting for the day they can run in these fine Italian shoes but has been stymied by the company’s signature narrowness. Now, with the Jackal, that option is open to all. Our test team found the ride delivered by the midsole’s compression-molded EVA with PU inserts dependable and steady. It’s not overly soft or flexible underfoot but, testers reported, “The firmness is evened out by the flexibility.” A dual-density rock guard with flex groove inserts helped balance the bottom unit with ample push-through protection and a stable stance. The upper, while durable and protective, has a smooth, near-seamless bootie-like interior with a gusseted, padded tongue. Even though there is more forefoot volume than most La Sportivas, be sure to go up a half or full size anyway because the shoe fits small in length.
La Sportiva VK BOA
Weight: M 6.3oz, W 5.2oz
The intended purpose of this shoe, as per its “VK” moniker, is running uphill in competition. A Vertical Kilometer is all about finding your anaerobic threshold and embracing it, along with lung-searing pain. A shoe designed for that endeavor is understandably extremely light, minimalist, flexible and fits securely while leaning flexibly forward. The BOA system gives these slipper-like ascension specialists a custom-like fit that is easily dialed up for a tighter hold on the descent, when you can dance delicately down the trail to avoid any hard impact due to the lack of forefoot cushioning. Not racing straight uphill? The VK Boa is for you if you like to feel fast and connected, with the ultra-secure hold of a sprint spike and a minimalist layer of foam over a flexible rock plate between you and the ground.
Merrell Agility Synthesis 2
Weight: M 9.0oz, W 7.0 oz
Price: $110 ($120 for Honey Stinger version)
The Synthesis 2 is a versatile “all surfaces” trail running shoe that also fares well as a light hiker and, if you get the Honey Stinger version, conversation starter. The shoe delivers moderately-firm cushioning with a commendable flex, providing a smooth ride, transitioning naturally from heel to toe. The toe box is seriously roomy inside the bootie upper that, while long, held comfortably and relatively securely — adequate for the tamer trails testers recommended you keep to in this shoe, due to the minimal push-through protection despite the presence of a rock plate. The Honey Stinger version is a fun collaboration, with much of the honey-comb-patterned upper constructed with recycled, vegan-friendly materials and the midsole mix incorporating 10% algae biomass.
NB Summit Unknown v2
Weight: M8.7oz, W7.7oz
New Balance tweaked the upper of this second round of its spry, flexible, race-ready trail shoe. The long, skinny fit may be too narrow for those with high-volume feet or runners who like a lot of room for toe splay, but the lightweight, breathable and supportive mesh upper has a secure hold so the foot won’t slip when aggressively attacking the trail. Underfoot, the protection was noticeable, due in part to the rock plate, but the Revlite midsole still allowed plenty of trail feel for confident foot placement even at the rapid pace the athletic feel of the shoe encourages. The outsole held up well and provided a strong hold, even on wet and smooth surfaces, enough that the shoe also fared well on the road to the pleasant surprise of the test team.
Saucony Switchback 2
Weight: M 8.8oz, W 7.8oz
With the refined BOA lacing system delivering a superior, predicable, dialed-in fit and allowing for on-the-fly adjustability and quick transitions in off-road trails, the Switchback 2 is an off-road wondershoe. The first Switchback was a favorite, and this version improves everything — from the asymmetrical wrap of the BOA closure system to the braided nylon rock plate. With a low stack height and only 4mm offset, the Switchback 2 is minimalist — and that close-to-ground trail feel allows for tremendous proprioception and capricious agility. The feel may be too close for comfort for heavier-footed trail runners, especially those taking on gnarly terrain, but the rock plate in the forefoot and Saucony’s proprietary, bouncy cushioning material provide more protection than one would think, impressing testers with the level of confidence they had even on technical descents. The flexible outsole with outstanding grip only helped boost an aggressive attack on the trails.
Saucony Mad River TR 2
Weight: M 10.6oz, W 9.4oz
The Mad River TR 2 is a crossover between cushioning and responsiveness; trail and road. It doesn’t fall squarely in any one category — and that is what makes it more versatile, even before you start customizing the lacing or the sole. This versatility, plus the bargain price, makes it more appealing to either newbie trail runners or those who mix up their runs on a variety of surfaces. The ride, with more cushion than in the original, is soft and flexible but felt a bit languid on technical terrain, where testers found them to be out of their league. The new, durable upper and tongue wards off trail debris and the lacing is secure, enhanced by allowing for different configurations to customize the fit, which was notably comfortable in the toe box. The sticky rubber outsole grips on soft or hard surfaces, and features designated locations where you can drill drainage holes, or if you need to add hex screws for the upcoming icy season.