There are many different factors to consider when buying a pair of trail running shoes. Some road shoes and trail shoes can be used on either surface, but it depends on the conditions of the trails you are running.
Trail running shoes have four specific design elements to consider when determining which pair will best suit your style. The AFM team composed a list of our favorite trail shoes in 2019 after evaluating the following characteristics:
Drop: Heel-to-toe drop, or drop, is the difference in millimeters of cushioning and height in the heel versus the toe. A 10mm–12mm drop is typically the most common and is best for runners who tend to heel strike. A lower drop will encourage a more desired mid-foot strike and make the Achilles work harder. Lower drop shoes (0mm-4mm) will often require a learning curve after using higher drop shoes.
Thick soles and cushion or flexible rock plates built into the midsole of trail shoes are used to protect against sharp rocks and technical terrain. On rocky trails and uneven surfaces, it’s important for trail shoes to have midsole and outsole protection in order to keep the foot safe and the shoe intact. A strong mesh upper is also desired for trail shoes, so that if rocks or roots poke at the top of the shoe, the mesh holds strong and protects the foot from these obstacles.
Cushion is desired in trail shoes for many reasons. More cushion is ideal for runners who want to run on tails and roads, run for hours at a time or run on hard-packed trails. Less cushion is usually ideal for runners who run on smooth and soft trails, run for shorter amounts of time or prefer a more natural and responsive feel to the terrain.
Tread is the biggest characteristic that differentiates trail shoes from road shoes. The tread on trail shoes are called lugs. Deep lugs of 5mm or longer are best for tough terrain that requires better footing. The deeper the lugs and the more spread out they are, the better the traction is for mud and wet surfaces. Deep lugs of 5mm-7mm do not make for comfortable running shoes on the road or firm trails. Trail shoes for hard-packed trails should have 2mm–4mm lugs that are more closely spaced.
HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 3
This trail shoe by Hoka allows for runners to be light and fast while receiving maximum cushion. The traction is perfect for tackling uneven surfaces, wet or dry. This newest version of the Speedgoat has a variety of improvements including a wider midsole and toe box, enhanced heel support, 5mm lugs for gripping and traction and a “seatbelt” on either side of the midfoot in order to provide a more snug and supportive fit for uneven surfaces. The Speedgoat 3 is perfect for neutral runners who need plenty of cushion with a minimalist feel.
Weight: 10.3 ounces (M), 9.1 ounces (W)
Drop: 4-5 millimeters
Saucony Peregrine ISO
The Peregrine is a trail shoe designed for the muddy and technical trails. The shoe features the signature Everun midsole, which allows for just enough cushion while still having a responsive ground feel. The 6mm lugs on the outsole provide great traction and are best suited for wet, loose and slippery trails. The shoe also allows for a custom fit through the ISOFit upper. The wings on each side of the shoe attach to the laces, so as the foot swells during a longer run, the upper can accommodate them.
Weight: 10.5 ounces (M), 8.9 ounces (W)
Drop: 4 millimeters
HOKA ONE ONE Challenger 5
The Hoka One One Challenger ATR 5 is a lightweight trail-version of their well-cushioned Clifton. This Challenger model has a wide and roomy toe box, a strong arch support and the lightweight foam cushioning of the Clifton. The shoe features 4mm lugs that are spread out for better grip at the forefoot and crowded together at the heel in order to improve the shoe’s ride. The lugs provide enough traction and support for muddy trails, but can also make for a comfortable road shoe. The Challenger is a great neutral, all-terrain trail shoe.
Weight: 7.7 ounces (M), 9.4 ounces (W)
Drop: 5 millimeters
Nike Air Zoom Pegasus Trail 36
Nike recently remodeled one of their popular Air Zoom Pegasus into a trail shoe. The Pegasus Trail 36 uses the same soft, neutral cushioning of the classic Pegasus and adds supportive lugs for grip on varying terrain. A redesigned full mesh upper and added support in the forefoot and heel create extra durability and protection against trail obstacles. The outsole features flat-top lugs that are designed to grip into the dirt without feeling too clunky on road runs. This shoe is designed to take runners from the road and beyond where the road ends. The Pegasus Trail is a lighter trail shoe, but can be supportive enough to make for a great shoe for the gym as well.
Weight: 10.3 ounces (M), 8.2 ounces (W)
Drop: 10 millimeters
Altra Superior 4
This is the lightest trail shoe from Altra. The Superior 4 has a softer and more cushioned midsole than the previous models, but still provides the same responsive feel. The shoe features the traditional 0mm drop and wide toe box design of the Altra brand. Removable stone guards (rock plates) are also included for more protection when tackling rocky and technical trails. The outsole has shallow yet aggressive claw-like lugs that are proven to provide a solid grip and tackle slick surfaces.
Weight: 8.7 ounces (M), 8.3 ounces (W)
Drop: 0 millimeters
Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 2
This model is Salomon’s best quality of shoe. It features premium materials that are geared toward competitive runners and professionals. The shoe is designed to hold up for extremely long distances and is designed for ultrarunners. The cushioning of the shoe is impressive, especially in the forefoot, which allows for comfort on prolonged runs. There is a set of wings on the upper of the shoe that provides adaptability over the arch and mid-foot, so the shoe can adjust after the foot begins to swell on long runs. Premium Wet Traction Contagrip is used on the outsole of the shoe to provide traction and durability, while the rock plate in the midsole provides protection. The Contagrip is used to provide traction on wet, dry or rocky surfaces with minimal lugging.
Weight: 11 ounces (M), 9.7 ounces (W)
Drop: 8 millimeters (unisex shoe, measured in men’s sizes)