While some trail shoes are like tanks, designed to roll over and squish terrain underfoot, other are more dune-buggies, nimble enough to let you dance lightly through the obstacle course of a technical trail, barely touching the ground with each varied footfall. These shoes are the latter. Not necessarily racers—although most could be use for that—these lightweight trail running shoes are for the agile and fleet of feet who want to feel and interact with the trail.
Arc’teryx Norvan SL
Weight: 6.5 oz (M); 5.6 oz (W)
Drop: ~7 mm
What’s Unique: The first trail running shoe from Arc’teryx is ostentatiously light—intentionally so. Initially designed for climbers to speed between ascents, the shoes are not only light but packable; they even have a notched slit in the heel for hanging them off a carabiner clip. What you notice first is the thin, flexible, transparent, almost-crinkly upper made of a hydrophobic mesh that doesn’t absorb moisture. It wraps the foot closely and securely, like a track spike, with a few thin foam pads enhancing the fit around the Achilles and on the tongue.
How they ride: Despite the racing-flat weight, the Norvan SL has a nice layer (21mm heel/14mm forefoot) of firm, responsive foam underfoot, backed by a thin, full-coverage Vibram MegaGrip sole. The shape is narrow under the arch but widens adequately in the forefoot for a stable and comfortable footplant, splay and pushoff. In all, the ride feels like a fairly-well-cushioned road racing flat—with plenty of traction to make them excel off-road. The secure fit and light weight makes it hard not to go fast—or at least feel fast—in these. “I felt light and agile whether I was running fast or slow,” said a tester. They’re not enough shoe for very long runs (for most), but we found we kept reaching for them on any day we wanted to fly on the trail. One tester also noted, “They shed and drain water very well and would be great for mud runs, obstacle races, or swimruns.”
Inov-8 RocLite 275
Weight: 10.1 oz (M); 8.5 oz (W)
Drop: ~8 mm
What’s Unique: To fully appreciate the RocLite 275 you need to understand the context from which it springs. Inov-8 is based in the lake district of northern England where for century they have raced up and down “Fells,” their steep, grass-covered mountains. On these often muddy and boggy, sometimes rocky hills—where the trails are narrow or non-existent—traction and control are paramount, cushioning not so much. Thus, the RockLite 275 seems to be mostly tread: The full-coverage, graphene-enhanced rubber—which makes it stronger, stretchier and more durable—has 6mm deep, widely-spaced lugs from heel to toe. The upper is a flexible mesh that wraps and hold securely, covered with durable overlays to protect as you thrash through the gorse, or, on this side of the pond, cacti or underbrush as the case may be.
How they ride: Not surprisingly, the traction is what stands out on the ride. Not until you sink into an inch-deep mudhole or sand dune do you feel the effectiveness of the tread and the flexible ride as you power along without slipping—nor accruing any extra weight. The upper proved a bit finicky, as some testers found it roomy while other bumped on the pointed, fairly-rigid toe box. All agreed, however, on the excellent hold and control. Said one, “The midfoot provided a ton of support and guidance as my foot hit the ground.” There’s enough cushioning that testers felt you could take these on long runs, but the overall feel is light, quick and maneuverable. “When I needed to make a quick, agile movement I felt very nimble,” said one tester. “I never felt like the shoe could not keep-up with my movements.”
Merrell Trail Glove 5
Weight: 7 oz (M); 6 oz (W)
Drop: ~0 mm
What’s Unique: The now-venerable Trail Glove survived the fall of minimalism and is better than ever in this 5th edition. While the shoe is “barefoot,” in that it is zero-drop and über-flexible, it has enough cushioning underfoot that you can stride confidently on any surface, and provides subtle, contoured support under the arch and around the heel. Notably, the new shape of this version provides more room for the 5th metatarsal on the outside of your foot, allowing it to splay and support your footplant—improving stability and comfort. The breathable mesh upper holds the midfoot securely with thin reinforced overlays that tie into the laces.
How they ride: From the first step, the Trail Glove 5 has you speeding along with a light touch and quick turn-over—but not cringing and prancing as most would if going barefoot. The cushion is just enough to protect the bony parts of your foot while allowing you to feel all of the trail underneath—appreciated by some trail whisperers and too minimal for others. All our testers loved the fit, regardless of their cushioning preference or foot shape. “The fit was great for a narrow foot,” said one, while another with a wider foot especially appreciated the space for all their toes and the platform to support a fully-splayed ball of the foot. Anyone who enjoyed the ride of minimalist shoes but couldn’t handle zero-cushion, “barefoot” models will likely enjoy the smooth ride of these, and most runners should be able to run in them, if in moderation.
Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 5
Weight: 9.3 oz (M); 7.6 oz (W)
Drop: ~4 mm
What’s Unique: Completely redesigned from previous versions, the Terra Kiger 5 centers on light and responsive React foam, combined with a Zoom Air pod in the heel and a segmented rock plate in the forefoot. Large, firm lugs cover the heel, while equally deep but sticky-rubber lugs provide forefoot traction. Above the sole, the heel counter is higher, more substantial and more padded than in the past, and the toe box is shallow but relatively wide, and secured with a unique lacing system that extends farther down the foot.
How they ride: In a word, the Terra Kigers feel fast. The React foam shines in this context, providing just enough cushioning and a responsive bounce-back—particularly on toe-off, which seems enhanced by the flex-and-rebound of the rock plate. The resulting ride feels low-to-the-ground, fast and nimble, while still surprisingly smooth and comfortable. The fit is also surprising. “I thought the upper would be too restrictive, but they wrapped my feet securely while being flexible enough to let them move naturally,” said one tester. The result is a shoe that should work well on a variety of runners, trails, distances and paces.