An Expert Guide to Trail Running Shoes

Curious about making the switch to trail runners? Camping & Hiking Expert Jessica LaPolla introduces the popular shoe and explains who they're best for.

A man with a running vest jogs along a mountainside trail in trail runners.

Photo by Brian Erickson

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As hikers, selecting what type of footwear to sport on the trail is incredibly important—not just in terms of style, but also in functionality, safety, and comfort. Not all feet, or all hikers for that matter, are built the same. We all have different needs when it comes to support, flexibility, and overall performance when choosing a hiking shoe. In recent years, many hikers, especially ultralight backpackers, have made the switch from traditional hiking boots to lighter and more breathable trail runners. This minimalist approach has been a game-changer for many people, including myself. So what are trail runners or trail running shoes? They are built similarly to road running shoes, with a few key differences.

What Are Trail Running Shoes?

Trail running shoes, in comparison to road shoes, have thicker outsoles with large, soft lugs for increased traction. The lugs, or the grooves on the bottom of the shoe, can come in different shapes and sizes, depending on the specific variation of terrain the shoe is designed for. The rubber on the soles of trail running shoes tends to be softer so that it can bend around objects on the trail. Conversely, road running shoes have smooth, flat, and harder outsoles designed to perform well on pavement.

While road runners have a soft, cushion-like midsole to absorb the shock from hitting the pavement, trail runners usually have a more rigid midsole to create more stability while treading on uneven surfaces. The stiffer midsoles also offer more protection against rocks and other hard objects one might encounter on the trail. Some trail running shoes have rock plates in the midsole for additional protection.

Trail runners also sport reinforced uppers for added support and stability, unlike road running shoes. The upper portion of a trail running shoe is typically designed using breathable materials and is often reinforced with synthetic overlays to prevent abrasion and to protect the shoe from getting damaged by rocks, sticks, and other trail hazards. Some shoes have waterproofed overlays or coatings, which can offer more protection in wet environments. However, once those shoes become wet, they are more difficult to dry as there is less breathability in the shoe. Some trail running shoes offer extra features like gaiter attachments. While these reinforcements can make trail running shoes heavier than a road running shoe, they are still remarkably lighter than most hiking boots.

A man with a running vest jogs along a mountainside trail in trail runners. A snow-capped peak rises in the background.

Photo by Brian Erickson

Are Trail Running Shoes Right for Me?

Now that you’ve become intrigued by the illustrious trail running shoe, you might be wondering if they would support your needs on the trail. Here are some questions to ask yourself if considering purchasing a pair of trail runners:

What kind of terrain will I primarily be wearing them on?

Trail running shoes are obviously built for the trail, but some are geared toward more rocky terrain, while others perform better on soft dirt. If you have never tried hiking in trail runners before, it can be difficult to adjust to the lack of ankle support, specifically on steep or rocky terrain. It is always best to condition your body while wearing trail runners on mild surfaces and inclines before trying anything extravagant.

Have you had issues with rolling ankles or losing your footing in the past?

If you have a history of easily losing your footing or rolling your ankles on the trail, trail running shoes may not be the right choice for you, or you may require extra conditioning or practice on the trail before becoming safe and comfortable in trail runners. Hiking boots offer more ankle stability and can sometimes provide more traction, depending on the shoe.

What type of activities are you planning on doing in your trail running shoes?

Trail running shoes can be great for a variety of activities, from short day hikes or runs to weekend backpacking trips and even thru-hikes. The activity you are planning on engaging in most will determine what category of trail running shoes to buy from. It is important to consider the pros and cons of trail running shoes before engaging in any of these activities, especially if you’ll be stuck wearing them for days, weeks, or even months.

What season or climate are you going to be hiking in?

Trail running shoes offer little in terms of insulation, so avoid relying on them for long hikes or backpacking trips in colder weather.

Why do you want to try trail running shoes?

Maybe you are tired of stomping around in your heavy hiking boots, or maybe your boots got soaking wet in a bog on your last backpacking trip and remained wet for three whole days (I may be speaking from personal experience on this one). Whatever the reason, it doesn’t hurt to try something new to see if trail runners could be right for you.

Explore the differences between trail runners and hiking boots in Hiking Boots vs. Trail Runners: Which Is Right for You?

What to Look for in a Trail Running Shoe

Selecting a good pair of trail running shoes highly depends on your specific needs in terms of activity, terrain, and foot physiology. It is important to understand the shape and structure of your feet before purchasing shoes. Are your feet wide or narrow? What kind of toe drop would suit you? Do you have a flat midfoot or high arches? Does your heel need extra support, or perhaps your forefoot experiences pain on hikes? Some brands may be more suited to your type of feet than others, so do your research or reach out to a Curated Expert. Look for a shoe with a wide toe box if you need a little extra space and a gusseted tongue for increased flexibility. And again, consider the terrain you’ll be hiking or running on. Shoes with bigger lugs will perform better on trails with poor footing but will be uncomfortable to run in on pavement. If you are looking for a shoe that can perform well on both pavement and mild trails, consider looking for hybrid trail running shoes. You may recognize brand names like Adidas and New Balance, which have excelled in producing road runners. For trail runners that are ahead of the curve, check out La Sportiva, Salewa, and Soloman.

My Trail Running Shoe Recommendations

La Sportiva Bushido II

Product image of the La Sportiva Bushido II.

This shoe excels on uneven terrain and rocky inclines due to its deep lugs, excellent grip, and durability. The tread and stiff midsole keep you stable on technical terrain. I wouldn’t suggest running on the pavement with these, but for hiking and backpacking, it doesn’t get much better.

Columbia Trailstorm

Product image of the Columbia Trailstorm.

These lightweight trail shoes have shorter lugs, making them versatile and comfortable to wear around town and on the trail. With plenty of cushioning in the midsole, this shoe will keep your stride easy all day. These are not technical shoes, however, and are best used as light trail shoes or hybrid shoes for running on a variety of mild surfaces with good footing.

Salewa Dropline Hiking Shoes

Product image of the Salewa Dropline Hiking Shoes.

Designed for long days on the trail, these shoes are perfect for trail running or hiking. Made with a breathable mesh upper and rubber toe caps, the Dropline offers both comfort and practicality. They perform well on a variety of surfaces including mud, loose dirt, and rocks. Trail debris is no issue for this high performer.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference and what feels most comfortable for you. So get out there and try on some new shoes! If you’re not sure where to start, reach out to a Camping and Hiking Expert here on Curated and we’ll help you find the best trail running shoes to fit your needs.

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Camping & Hiking Expert Jessica LaPolla
Jessica LaPolla
Camping & Hiking Expert
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Written By
Jessica LaPolla
Jessica LaPolla
Camping & Hiking Expert
Hi there! I have always had a deep love for the outdoors, having grown up on my family's horse farm in New Jersey. I began hiking and camping at a young age and started backpacking as a young adult. I now enjoy taking weekend backpacking trips with my dogs and rock climbing with my partner. This yea...
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