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The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2024: Elevate Your Off-Road Game

CEO Tinh Phung
Venturing off-road can provide a mental lift to your weekly routine and reap huge fitness gains. While we’ve all taken our road shoes to the trail, having specific trail running shoes will elevate your off-road...

Venturing off-road can provide a mental lift to your weekly routine and reap huge fitness gains. While we’ve all taken our road shoes to the trail, having specific trail running shoes will elevate your off-road game. The perfect shoe is the calculus of individual fit and the type of trail you run on. To collect feedback, we had our team of testers from across the country run in diverse terrain.

Our Top Picks for 2024

  • Best Overall Trail Running Shoe: Nike Terra Kiger
  • Best Cushioned Trail Running Shoe: The North Face VECTIV Enduris 3
  • Fastest Trail Running Shoe: HOKA ONE ONE Tecton X 2
  • Best Road-to-Trail Running Shoe: Salomon Ultra Glide 2
  • Best Zero-Drop Trail Running Shoe: Altra Timp 4
  • Best Mountain Trail Running Shoe: La Sportiva Akasha II

GearJunkie_Best_Trail_running_shoes_2022_BuyersGuide Each of the shoes on this list was taken out on real-world tests on the trail; (photo/Steve Graepel)

How We Tested Trail Running Shoes

Steve Graepel, the primary author of this guide, has been running for 30 years. During his time on his feet, he’s clocked a sub-3-hour marathon, won the Superior Trail Ultra 50 miler, and made the first known rim-to-rim-to-rim of Hells Canyon — North America’s deepest canyon. Steve can be found lugging a backpack with a spare pair of shoes in and around the Boise foothills with his two dogs.

To complement Steve’s personal expertise, GearJunkie has a crew of five runners collecting miles and feedback throughout the year. A fitness-focused runner who logs miles for both cardio and agility, Adam Ruggiero run-commutes on pavement daily, and adds box jumps and stairs to his regular routine. Ruggiero logs 20-25 miles a week, with mid-distance trail runs at elevation on the weekends.

Fast is slow, and slow is M.T. Elliot. A recreational runner — and our resident Clydesdale runner — Elliot prefers the crunch of dirt over asphalt but runs on both.

Sean McCoy is a middle-of-the-pack ultra runner who, when not leading the Denver-based GearJunkie team, gets lost running and racing in the Colorado high country.

Chris Carter is an avid ultra runner and is coming out of a season of constant competing in trail races along the East Coast. He can’t quite find the gumption to get into road running, but is a trail hog through and through.

Matthew Medendorp is a trail runner constantly looking for an excuse to venture off the tarmac. He cut his trail running teeth while living in Flagstaff, exploring the high alpine desert’s steep and dusty trails. These days you can find him in the Midwest, grinding out weekly miles over gravel and behind a running stroller (a Thule Urban Glide 2 Double — since this is GearJunkie) and diligently sneaking pre-dawn trail miles.

Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose a Trail Running Shoe

GearJunkie_Best_trailrunning_shoes_2022_Where_run Finding the perfect trail running shoe for your foot shape and type of running will greatly improve comfort on the trail; (photo/Steve Graepel)

Staring at a wall of shoes or endlessly browsing an online retailer can be overwhelming. We’ve broken down some helpful tips to find the right shoe.

Consider Where You Run

These days, manufacturers have dialed shoes for nearly every niche of running. A quick way to hone in on the right shoe is to identify where you run.

  • Road running shoes are primarily suitable for hard surfaces, with breathable uppers and smooth traction for pavement, track, and treadmills. Cushion and stability can vary (we’ll cover that more below).
  • Trail running shoes have an aggressive lug pattern that bites into dirt, sand, and mud. But not all treads are the same. A blocky, cleat-like tread will shed mud in the Pacific Northwest but can feel clunky on hardpack found in the Southwest and can cause trips and falls.
  • Trail shoes also have a more durable upper, a robust toe bumper, and a firmer sole or even a rock plate — all to protect the feet from underlying roots and rocks.
  • Roadrunner or trail shoe? These aren’t hard-and-fast rules. All the editors at GearJunkie run to the trailhead on the road, and we are all guilty of taking a road shoe for a spin on the trail. If that sounds like you, we’ve indicated where a shoe can cross over effectively.

Identify Your Running Gait

A closeup view of trail running shoes Understanding your gait will help you narrow in on the perfect trail running shoe for your needs; (photo/Steve Graepel)

According to Dr. Michael Hahn, director of the Bowerman Sports Science Clinic at the University of Oregon and a specialist in neuromechanics and human locomotion, “Everybody has a natural gait, and it leaves a thumbprint on your shoes.”

To get an idea of how you run, flip your shoes over and take a look at the wear pattern on the soles.

  • Neutral pronation shows a wear pattern that scuffs the outside of the heel and the ball of the foot. A neutral shoe will probably be your best bet.
  • Overpronation shows wear along the inside edge of your shoe (meaning your feet are rolling off the big and middle toes). Hahn added that “people with low arches pronate and that can poorly load joints up the chain.” A stability shoe may help, “but don’t overdo it. Just find a comfortable shoe that feels good and naturally supports the foot,” adds Hahn. That is, learn to listen to your body and buy accordingly.
  • Supination, or underpronation, is identified by long wear patterns along the outside edge of your shoes (caused by the feet rolling out). It can also be caused by inflexible, rigid, or high arches. Typical wear patterns will show light wearing on the outside of the heel. Supination is more drastic rolling outward, cupping inward, and is less common. But the evidence is pretty clear. “It always comes down to cushioning,” shared Hahn. If you supinate, “the number one thing you can do is buy a cushion shoe.”

Stack and Drop in Trail Running Shoes

GearJunkie_Best_trailrunning_shoes_2022_stack_drop Trail running shoes vary in stack heights and drops for different runner’s preferences; (photo/Steve Graepel)

Unless you’re running barefoot, every shoe has a stack. Measured in millimeters (mm), the stack refers to how high the insole sits off the ground.

Shoes with more cushion inherently have a higher stack. Furthermore, most shoes have a “drop” in stack height from the heel to the toe. Zero drop refers to a shoe whose toe and heel stack are the same measurement. Zero-drop shoes mimic a more natural, “barefoot” running feel. Both Altra Lone Peak 7 and Timp 4 are zero-drop shoes, but have different stack, and thus a very different feel.

The lower the stack, the closer you are to the ground, and hence the lower your center of gravity. Lower stack shoes, like Nike’s Terra Kiger 9 or Topo Athletics MTN Racer 3, may feel more “racy,” faster, and better equipped to tackle technical terrain.

If you’re new to running or younger, experts recommend a lower heel drop. It builds a wider range of motion and strength, which makes you a healthier runner overall.

For experienced runners who grew up on a generation of high-drop shoes, your legs will appreciate a more judicious stack.

Cushion

Stepping into a high-cushion shoe can feel like walking on a cloud. Those running longer distances (or who supinate) will prefer more cushion to damp the repetitive pounding and provide support. But it can become a penalty. Extra foam adds extra weight.

So, is more cushion better? Not always. It’s about finding the right balance between speed and comfort. If you’re aiming for a new PR, look for a light, stiffer shoe with a harder cushion and minimal lug friction. Hoka’s Tecton X 2 provides a fantastic combination of cushion and weight.

Stability in Trail Running Shoes

GearJunkie_Best_trailrunning_shoes_2022_FAQ Certain shoes perform better over uneven terrain than others; (photo/Steve Graepel)

Stability has drastically changed over the last decade. Bob Coll, owner of the Eugene Running Company, ranked as the top running store in Oregon by Runner’s World, explained that “shoes have become more homogenous. Today’s neutral shoe is just as stable as the best ‘stability’ shoe from 10 years ago.”

The gap between neutral and stability has narrowed. “And the approaches to stability are different,” added Coll. “Max cushion shoes, like a Hoka, use more cushion to seat you deep in a saddle surrounded by foam.” And The North Face wraps its TPU plate outside the shoe to help serve as rails for a neutralizing stride.

Regardless of labeling or engineering, the best shoe is the one that feels natural to the N of one: you.

Rock Plate

To help buffer the feet from rough trails, some shoes embed a firm, protective, “rock plate” in the midsole. Made from plastic, or in more expensive models, carbon, the flexible plate protects the feet from getting banged up on sharp rocks and repetitive pounding on erratic terrain, while adding some spring to the step.

A good rock plate will work with the shoe without compromising flexibility or cushion. Our top pick, Nike’s Terra Kiger 9, uses a segmented plate that transitions from rigid to flexible and rides virtually unnoticeable underfoot.

Flexibility of Trail Running Shoes

GearJunkie_Best_trailrunning_shoes_2022_flexibility Some trail running shoes are way more flexible than others; (photo/Steve Graepel)

Flexibility is your friend on the trails. Trail running shoes need variability to match the variable terrain. Not all shoes are created equally flexible, and different runners prefer different degrees of flexion. Mountain runners who frequently find themselves bounding over loose scree or uneven, sludgy terrain may want a slightly stiffer shoe to instill more confidence, while those cruising over mellow singletrack or rolling backroads may lean towards greater flexibility for all-day comfort. If you’ve already developed a personal flexibility preference over many years and miles, it’s wise to stick to your guns.

Most trail runners prefer a shoe with a firm outsole and comparatively less cushion, with a firm toebox to push off. This allows you to feel more in tune with the undulations you come across on trail and affords a more stable, secure stride. Some flexibility and torsion can help the foot adapt to the trail and prevent injuries, like a rolled ankle.

Waterproofing

GearJunkie_Best_trailrunning_shoes_2022_waterproof Running in sludgy snow or mud? Waterproof trail running shoes may be the move; (photo/Steve Graepel)

For most trail running, we prefer a shoe that breathes well. Waterproof membranes will cause your feet to sweat faster than the waterproof membrane can keep up. This leaves your feet wet, clammy, and exposed to hot spots.

Obvious exceptions include really muddy or snowy trails at ultra lengths and cold, wet conditions. To see our pick for waterproof trail runners, give our winter running shoe buyer’s guide a look.

Breathability

In general, we prefer a breathable upper that allows cooling air to flow in, and hot sweat to move out. The compromise is keeping dirt and grime out of the shoe.

Porous mesh uppers, like those found on Nike’s Terra Kiger, will let more cheat grass and sand particles ingress. To minimize dirty toes, Nike sewed in an inner bootie that limits trail debris and doubles as a gusset for the tongue.

Materials

Man runs down trail with trail running shoes Trail running shoes must be made with durable, but breathable and light, materials for long days on rocky trails; (photo/Ethan Chen)

Most trail-ready shoes are constructed from a synthetic upper mesh. Materials can be simple weaves or complexly engineered, adding more durability and better breathability in different zones on the upper.

Added materials overlays and rubber rands (like those found on Salomon’s Pulsar) provide protection and deflection but will reduce airflow in a shoe. The best, like TNF’s VECTIV Enduris 3, apply overlays that strike a balance of support, breathability, and weight. The rougher the trail, the more protection you’ll need. For optimal protection, it’s tough to beat La Sportiva’s Akasha II.

Runners looking for a PR will likely want fewer materials. It’s a decision that cuts both ways. You drop the weight but have to open the wallet a little more. To keep the weight down, manufacturers start adding more expensive materials, like carbon plates. With minimal protective overlays, these welterweight trail runners may not last as long as a more robust shoe.

Lastly, dark-colored material will soak up more solar heat than lighter-colored shoes. We don’t mind this in winter, but it may sway your choice if you run in hot, sunny regions.

Lugs & Traction

GearJunkie_Best_trailrunning_shoes_2022_traction Thick, deep lugs are key for confidence and traction on uneven terrain; (photo/Steve Graepel)

Compared to road running shoes, trail runners will want grippy soles to navigate the slick, uneven, rocky, and muddy terrain. Look carefully at the trails you plan to run. If they’re mostly covered with stones and hard dirt, a short lug pattern will be great.

Those who run on lots of muddy or soft surfaces will appreciate a deeper lug pattern. 4-5mm lugs are best for most trail runners. The loamier the trail, the more you will appreciate deeper lugs. Anything more than 6 will start to feel cleat-like, making hard-pack less fun and road downright unbearable.

Lug patterns will vary across brands as well. Salomon’s Ultra Glide 2 and Pulsar use narrow, mud-shedding treads that dart toe to heel. Many shoes use a multidirectional patterned lug that provides breaking traction (under the heel) and gripping traction (under the toes).

Outsole compounds vary from soft to hard rubber. And choosing the right lug material depends on where you run. Softer blends will provide better grip and traction on harder surfaces, and run better on the road. But they will wear down more quickly. Harder lugs feel clanky on hardpack and can cause tripping hazards on rocks, but they bite down into mud like crampons.

The best traction on the list is Hoka’s Speedgoat 5. Made from Vibram Megagrip rubber, the multi-directional 5mm lugs are cut to create arrowhead-shaped barbs. The result gives the lug more gripping surface area and an impressive amount of traction.

Weight

GearJunkie_Best_trailrunning_shoes_2022_weight A lightweight shoe helps greatly with fatigue on trail; (photo/Steve Graepel)

Running shoes should be as light as possible while still offering the protection you desire. This matters both for the fast runner as well as the ultra-distance runner, where those added ounces add up over the day.

Anything over about 12 ounces (for a men’s size 9) is just too heavy. Lighter is better, but lightweight shoes tend to wear out more quickly than thicker, more overbuilt shoes.

Conclusion

Choosing the perfect trail running shoe is a personal journey. Consider your running style, foot shape, and the terrain you plan to conquer. Use our top picks as a starting point, and follow our buyer's guide to find the shoe that fits you like a glove. Happy trails!

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