An Expert Guide to Trail Running Shoes

Published on 03/22/2023 · 17 min readHaving the right trail running shoes makes running more fun and can help prevent injury! Camping and Hiking Expert Hunter Reed talks all about trail running shoes.
Hunter Reed, Camping Expert
By Camping Expert Hunter Reed

A desert run in the red rocks with my pup and Altra Lone Peak 6's. Photo courtesy of Hunter Reed

Tl;dr: Trail running shoes come in a wide range of options from different levels of cushioning, traction, and fits. Most trail running shoes are geared towards a specific type of runner, such as a new runner who needs more cushioning, an experienced runner who wants more minimalism, or an advanced runner who is always on very technical trails. Assess the type of running you do prior to purchasing a pair of trail runners to ensure they are a good match for you.

I got into trail running kind of by accident in 2017 because I was looking for a way to get my one-year-old border collie enough exercise. I had gotten bored with hiking and felt I would give her and myself more exercise if I started running. It quickly became something I was passionate about, one of my favorite ways to spend time outside. Unfortunately, since starting trail running, I have had a few minor injuries ranging from foot to hip to knee pain. I have had countless visits to the physical therapist for these issues, several gait assessments, and many conversations with professionals (both in the health world, such as my physical therapists and professional runners) regarding running shoes.

Running shoes are a bit of a loaded topic since every runner has different preferences, priorities, and goals. But at this point, I have acquired a good amount of knowledge about particular things to look for in a trail running shoe and specific features that are better for certain runners. So I’ll do my best to explain those below so you can make an informed decision when looking for your next trail running shoes.

Okay, let’s get into it!

What Is a Trail Running Shoe?

A trail running shoe is specifically designed for running on off-road terrains, such as dirt paths, rocky trails, and uneven terrain. Trail running shoes provide more stability, support, traction, and protection to feet than regular running shoes, as they are built to handle the rough and varied terrain encountered during trail running.

What to Consider When Buying a Trail Running Shoe

When deciding on a pair of trail running shoes, consider the following:

What Is Your Experience With Running?

Running experience can play a significant role in choosing a trail running shoe. Newer runners should prioritize comfort and ease of use when choosing a trail running shoe. Since their leg and foot muscles aren’t built up yet (as they would be in a more consistent, veteran runner) they will also want to choose a shoe with more cushioning and support to reduce the risk of injury.

Experienced runners will better understand the type of terrain they typically run on and may want to choose a shoe tailored to that terrain. They may also want to consider features like rock plates or reinforced toe caps for added protection. For experienced runners with a good basis of foot and leg muscles, a minimalist shoe with less cushioning will help them avoid injury more and make their feet and legs stronger. Advanced, ultra-serious runners will likely want a lightweight, more minimalist shoe which will help them go faster thanks to the low weight.

What Is Your Running Style and Foot Shape?

Your running style, foot shape, and biomechanics can affect the fit and comfort of a trail running shoe. Consider getting a gait analysis and trying on different shoes to find one that accommodates your unique needs. For example, if you have a narrow or wide fit foot, seek a shoe with a narrow or wide option for a better fit width-wise.

What Is the Terrain Like?

A rocky run close to home where I was glad to have some extra cushioning! Wore my Salomon Sense Ride 4's for this run. Photo by Hunter Reed

Different trail running shoes are designed for different terrains, such as rocky, muddy, or steep. Consider the trails you'll be running on and choose a shoe with the appropriate features, such as aggressive tread, rock plates, or waterproofing.

What Is the Level of Cushioning and Support You Need?

This question will be a combination of the terrain type you're in and your experience running. Rockier, rougher terrain typically warrants more cushioning than well-kept dirt trails, and more experienced runners typically want less cushioning. In contrast, newer runners should opt for something with more cushioning and support. If you have a history of foot or knee pain, you may benefit from a shoe with more cushioning and support. Trail running shoes come with varying degrees of cushioning and support, depending on your needs.

What Is Your Budget?

Trail running shoes come in a range of prices, depending on the shoe's brand, materials, and features, so consider how much you're willing to spend. Keep in mind that a higher price tag often correlates with more advanced features and better durability, but there are also good options at a lower price point.

Less expensive trail running shoes are typically made with basic materials such as synthetic leather or mesh uppers and midsoles made of standard EVA foam, which provides moderate cushioning and durability but may not be as responsive or durable as more advanced materials. They may also have less aggressive traction and less durable outsoles.

More expensive trail running shoes often have features such as GORE-TEX or eVent waterproof membranes, Vibram outsoles, and more advanced midsole foams. These materials are often more durable and responsive and provide better support and foot protection, making them a better choice for longer runs or more technical terrain.

Still, it’s not always the case that more expensive running shoes are “better.” For example, I have used several $200+ pairs of trail running shoes, but my favorite trail shoes were only $140, and I think they perform much better than the more expensive ones for my specific running type and style.

What Are the Different Types of Trail Running Shoes?

All-Terrain Running Shoes

The most versatile, all-terrain running shoes are designed to handle various terrains, from road to trail to off-trail. In addition, they often feature a versatile design that combines elements of road and trail running shoes. Benefits:

  • Handles different terrain types, making them a good choice for runners who like to switch things up.
  • Often features a durable design that can hold up well to wear and tear.

Be Aware:

  • Not made to excel in one area, so not a great choice if you’re typically running in one type of terrain.
  • Can be heavier or bulkier than more specialized trail shoes.
  • May not offer enough support or protection for some runners on technical terrain.

Minimalist Running Shoes

These shoes are designed with minimal cushioning and support, focusing on a more natural running experience. They often have a low heel-to-toe drop and a more minimalist design. Benefits:

  • Promotes a natural running gait and foot strike
  • Lightweight design can improve speed and agility.
  • Helps improve foot and lower leg strength.

Be Aware:

  • May not offer enough support or protection for newer runners, increasing the chance of injury.
  • Can be uncomfortable for runners not used to a minimalist design or who frequently run in very rocky terrain.

Maximalist Running Shoes

The opposite of minimalist running shoes are maximalist running shoes. These are designed with a high level of cushioning and support, focusing on shock absorption and comfort. They often have a thick midsole and extra cushioning in the heel and forefoot.

It’s worth noting that some trail running shoes fall in the middle of the spectrum between maximalist and minimalist. Still, we will talk about that later. Understanding both sides of the spectrum will give you a good understanding of the basics. Benefits:

  • Maximum cushioning can reduce the risk of impact-related injuries, particularly for new runners.
  • More comfortable for runners who need extra cushioning and support.
  • May be a good choice for runners with conditions like plantar fasciitis or knee pain.

Be Aware:

  • Heavier weight can reduce speed and agility.
  • Does not promote a natural running gait, so for those putting in long miles, this type of shoe will increase the risk of injury.

Features to Look for in Trail Running Shoes

A nice fall run with my housemate, who is a die-hard Altra Lone Peak fan. Photo by Hunter Reed

Cushioning

As mentioned above, cushioning is one of the main features to consider when deciding which trail running shoe to purchase. Regarding cushioning, I'm referring to the amount of padding or shock-absorbing material in the shoe's midsole. Trail running shoes can range from highly cushioned to minimal cushioning, and a runner's cushioning level should be based on both their running style and preferences.

For runners who prefer a more natural feel, a minimally cushioned shoe may be the best choice, as it allows for a more natural foot strike and greater ground feel. It’s also a good choice for runners who aren’t new to the sport and have strong leg and foot muscles. A minimally cushioned trail running shoe can help strengthen these muscles since it promotes a more natural gait and foot strike when running. On the other hand, minimal cushioning may not be suitable for runners who require extra support, suffer from impact-related injuries, or are newer to the sport and are still building up their foot and leg muscles.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, highly cushioned shoes are great for runners who require extra support and impact protection, such as those with plantar fasciitis or other foot conditions. Highly cushioned shoes also provide greater comfort and shock absorption for runs on more technical terrain.

Suppose you’re looking to be a long-distance runner. In that case, the general goal is to eventually move to a minimalist shoe since they are the best for injury prevention (for those strong enough and ready for less cushioning) and the lightest and most efficient for running. But it’s a bit of a balance for those starting, as you want to start slow with a shoe that has some cushioning as your leg and foot muscles get used to this new sport, and then slowly move into less cushioned shoes until you’re ready for a minimalist shoe.

Breathability and Waterproofing

Breathability and waterproofing are two features that go hand in hand when considering which trail running shoe to purchase.

Breathability refers to the shoe's ability to allow air to circulate through the shoe, which can help to regulate temperature and reduce sweat buildup. There are different levels of breathability. Some shoes may have mesh or perforated uppers for maximum breathability.

On the other hand, waterproofing refers to the shoe's ability to keep water out. This can be achieved through various materials and technologies, such as GORE-TEX or other waterproof membranes. Waterproof trail shoes can be a good option for runners frequently encountering wet or muddy conditions. Still, this waterproofing can also impact breathability and add weight to the shoe, which may not be desirable for some runners. You can tell if a trail running shoe is waterproof as it will have GTX in the name, like the Salomon Sense Ride 4 versus the Salomon Sense Ride 4 GTX. They are the same shoe, but the latter has GORE-TEX making it waterproof.

The decision to prioritize either breathability or waterproofing features will depend on the runner's preferences, how prone they are to blisters, and the terrain they plan to run on. For example, a runner in a hot, dry area will prioritize breathability over waterproofing, while a runner who lives in a wet or snowy area climate may prioritize waterproofing. In addition, runners more prone to blisters will likely want to prioritize breathability since a waterproof shoe won't let as much sweat and air out, making their feet more prone to blisters.

Traction

Another critical consideration when choosing a trail running shoe is traction. Traction can affect a runner's stability, balance, and overall performance on various terrains.

Trail running shoes can feature various types of traction, depending on the design of the outsole and the shoe's intended use.

Every trail running shoe manufacturer has their type of traction, but here are some examples to give you an idea of the available options:

  • Aggressive lugs: Shoes with aggressive, deep lugs can provide excellent grip and traction on loose or uneven terrain, such as mud, rocks, and loose gravel.
  • Sticky rubber: Shoes with sticky rubber outsoles can provide superior traction on wet or slick surfaces, such as wet rocks or roots.
  • Vibram outsoles: Vibram is a popular rubber outsole commonly used in trail running shoes to provide durable, multi-directional traction on various surfaces.

It's also important to consider that some shoes may have a mix of different types of traction or may prioritize certain types of traction over others. For example, the Salomon XA Pro 3D V8 features a Contagrip MA outsole with multi-directional lugs for grip and durability. In addition, the Hoka One One Torrent 2 has a mix of Vibram Megagrip and sticky rubber for optimal traction on wet or dry surfaces.

Heel-to-Toe Drop

A less commonly known feature to look for in running shoes is the heel-to-toe drop. The heel-to-toe drop refers to the difference in height between the heel and forefoot of the shoe (measured in millimeters). A higher heel-to-toe drop means that the heel of the shoe is elevated more than the forefoot, creating a steeper angle, while a lower drop means that the heel and forefoot are closer to the same height.

The heel-to-toe drop can affect a trail runner's biomechanics because it can influence the degree of ankle dorsiflexion (flexing the ankle upwards) and plantar flexion (flexing the ankle downwards) during foot strike. A higher drop can promote heel striking, while a lower drop encourages a more natural midfoot or forefoot strike.

Choosing the right heel-to-toe drop can depend on several factors, including the runner's gait, running style, and foot anatomy. For example, some runners may prefer a higher drop if they are accustomed to heel striking or require more cushioning and shock absorption. Others may prefer a lower drop if they prefer a more natural, minimalist feel or have a midfoot or forefoot strike.

On the lowest end of this spectrum are zero-drop shoes, which have no height difference between the heel and forefoot and are generally preferred by more experienced and long-distance runners.

Weight

Also often overlooked is the weight of a trail running shoe. Weight can significantly impact a runner's performance, with a lighter shoe allowing for faster, more efficient running and a heavier shoe providing more stability and protection on rugged terrain.

Most trail running shoes weigh between 8 and 12 ounces in men's shoes and 6 to 10 ounces in women's shoes. However, some shoes can be much lighter or heavier than this range, depending on their intended use and features.

Many factors play into weight, the two biggest being the amount of cushioning in the shoe and the shoe materials. Most shoe uppers are made out of synthetic material or mesh. Added GORE-TEX for waterproofing will make a shoe heavier, as will more heavy-duty lugs on the bottom for traction.

Fit

Fit is the most important factor to consider when choosing a trail running shoe. A poorly fitting shoe can cause discomfort, pain, and even injury, so choosing a shoe that fits well is essential. There are a few factors that play in when it comes to fit:

  1. Size: It should feel snug but not tight. Measuring your foot to determine your correct size and consider any swelling that may occur during long runs is important. (It is fairly common for your feet will swell, so plan for that.)
  2. Width: It should be comfortable around the widest part of your foot without feeling too loose or tight. Some shoes come in wide or narrow fits to accommodate different foot shapes.
  3. Toe box: Your toes should be able to move and wiggle comfortably without feeling cramped or squeezed.
  4. Heel cup: Your heel should fit securely without slipping or rubbing. A good heel cup can help prevent blisters and provide stability on uneven terrain.
  5. Arch support: The shoe should adequately support your arches without feeling too high or too low. This can help prevent foot fatigue and pain over long runs. If this is something you have struggled with in the past, it would be worth looking into arch support insoles to alleviate any arch issues!
  6. Other needs: It's also important to consider any specific foot issues or conditions you may have, such as high arches, flat feet, or bunions, and look for shoes that can accommodate these needs.

If you have a specific foot issue and aren’t sure how that should play into the fit of your trail running shoes, talk to a Camping and Hiking Expert here at Curated. We would be happy to offer a more personalized fit strategy to accommodate your particular foot issue!

How to Choose the Right Trail Running Shoe for You

With all these features and considerations, knowing what kind of trail running shoe would be best for you can still be hard! Below I provide examples of four different Curated customers I have helped in the past who were searching for the perfect trail running shoe. Each customer embodies a common type of runner who’s shopping for trail running shoes. I’ll explain some features they should look for and recommend the best trail running shoes for each customer.

Georgia: Experienced Road Runner Looking to Switch to Trails

Georgia is an experienced road runner who has recently decided to get off the pavement and take up trail running. She does not have any major foot issues. She wants to do trail running races and is looking for a shoe that can handle technical terrain and long distances. Features Georgia should look for:

  • Excellent traction
  • Stability
  • Medium level cushioning
  • A durable outsole

Recommended shoes for Georgia: Salomon Speedcross 5, Brooks Cascadia 15, and Hoka One One Challenger ATR 6.

Sarah: New Trail Runner Looking to Start Slow

Sarah is a new trail runner who has flat feet. She has experienced foot pain and discomfort in the past, so she is looking for a shoe that provides good stability and support. In addition, Sarah prefers to run on easy to moderate terrain and wants a comfortable and breathable shoe. Features Sarah should look for:

  • Supportive midsole
  • Good traction
  • Breathable upper
  • Good support and cushioning

Recommended shoes for Sarah: Nike Pegasus Trail 4, Saucony Peregrine 10 ST, and Hoka Speedgoat 4 Trail Shoe.

Jake: Ultrarunner Looking for a Comfy, Versatile Trail Shoe

Jake is an ultra runner who does long distances on technical terrain. He experiences blistering on longer runs and wants a breathable and comfortable shoe. In addition, he is looking for a shoe that can handle different types of terrain, from steep climbs to rocky descents. Features Jake should look for:

  • A durable outsole
  • Breathable upper
  • Wider toe box
  • Lightweight, minimalist, zero-drop design

Recommended Shoes for Jake: Altra Lone Peak 4, Altra Olympus 4.0, and Salomon S-Lab Ultra 3.

Conclusion

On a mixed rocky and dirt trail in Jackson, WY with my Altra Lone Peaks. Photo by Hunter Reed

Every set of feet is different, and every runner is different. There are tons of shoes to suit several types of runners and terrain. Running is a sport that can be really hard on your body when done wrong and with the wrong gear. But if you have the right running gear, take your time easing into the sport, and listen to your body. It can be really fun, rewarding, and a great way to see new trails, mountains, and peaks.

Hopefully, this guide gave you a good starting point when looking for your next set of running shoes, but if you want to chat things over more, you can reach out to a Camping and Hiking Expert here on Curated at any time. Good luck, and stay safe!

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