Photo by Saucony

How to choose the right trail running shoes

With trail running booming, and more attention being paid to the trail running space, there is now a comprehensive trail shoe offering for every type of trail, and runner, and a greater choice of shoe than ever before. 

Whilst all these shoe models are placed in our trail running shoes category, you will notice that there can be quite large design differences between different trail shoe models. Add in the technical jargon from rivalling shoe brands, the sheer amount of options available these days can make the process of picking out what trail shoe is best for you all the more confusing, and almost daunting.

In this article we set out to clarify how to pick the best trail running shoe for your needs, to ensure you have the best running experience.

Photo by Saucony

Why are there so many different types of trail running shoes?

There is such a variety of trail running shoes out there because the terrain and conditions you will encounter whilst out on the trail can be highly variable, with each surface requiring subtly different shoe characteristics for optimal performance and feel.

As such, the leading brands use a variety of methods and design philosophies to give you the best underfoot experience depending on the trail.

Below we will get into the specifics of each part of the shoe.

Part 1: The grip/outsole

The outsole is the most strikingly varied shoe component that you will notice between trail shoes. Some have very aggressive, spaced out lugs, whereas others will have outsoles not too dissimilar from a road shoe.

All trail shoes do however use different outsole rubber/materials compared to road shoes, and usually more of it too. This is often the main factor that increases weight in a trail shoe, and is important to consider.

This outsole material is usually tackier/grippier than conventional rubber to allow for better grip on wet surfaces. Examples include Vibram Megagrip (used across various brands), PWRTRAC from Saucony, Sticky Grip from Inov8, Contragrip from Salomon and Missiongrip from On, to name a few. Brands try to strike a balance between enhanced grip and durability. However, very often stickier/grippier rubber compounds abrase more readily to provide that grip, meaning it isn’t as durable as traditional outsole rubbers. Some brands have tried to mitigate this by reinforcing the rubber, such as with Graphene Grip (G-Grip) from Inov8.

The lug design and pattern of trail shoes can also be manipulated to give you the best grip and comfort for the surface conditions they are designed for.

Aggressive grip for technical terrain

Shoes designed for soft and loose underfoot conditions have aggressive, spaced out lugs to give you better traction and stop mud/debris from collecting between lugs. Often, these lugs will be strategically placed in multiple directions (multi directional) on the outsole, to give you enhanced grip as you climb and descend, and will be coated with an anti-stick layer to further prevent mud from clogging between lugs.

The grip/outsole of the Salomon Speedcross

The outsole is the most strikingly varied shoe component that you will notice between trail shoes … Some have very aggressive, spaced out lugs, whereas others will have outsoles not too dissimilar from a road shoe.

Substantial grip for varied terrain

Trail shoes designed for more varied trail surfaces also have substantial lugs, however these are often less aggressive, have a greater surface area, and placed closer together to improve underfoot comfort and ‘ride’ on firmer or smoother sections of trail. The lugs will often be textured in such a way to still give you great grip on wetter surfaces. However, expect more slipping on saturated and loose ground compared to a fell shoe.

The grip/outsole of the Inov8 Terraultra G 270

Moderate grip for smooth terrain

Hybrid or road-to-trail shoes have less aggressive grip again, as these are designed to work optimally on a combination of road and hard-packed trail. They still offer better grip than road shoes on these surfaces, but don’t expect too much on slippy single paths and open hillside by way of grip, particularly in the winter.

The grip/outsole of the HOKA Challenger ATR

Part 2: The midsole

As discussed in our previous article, differences between road and trail running shoes, trail shoes tend to use firmer cushioning than road models, and often contain rock plates, to protect your foot from roots and rocks on the trail. Some also have features to improve lateral stability, making some trail shoes inherently very stable and improving your confidence underfoot.

You will see various stack heights and heel-to-toe drop or offset differences between different trail shoes. Whilst these are partially dependent on terrain, the right midsole stack and drop is also dependent on your gait characteristics and preferences.

Shoes designed for technical and softer terrain are often lower stacked (less midsole material). This gives you better proprioception on steep descents/ascents and technical terrain, making it easier for you to apply force efficiently to the ground and control your gait. In turn, this reduces your chance of slipping, falling and risking injury. Shoes designed for technical terrain are also a little narrower across the shank (midfoot) and heel to allow them to be more nimble. You can also expect to find extra forefoot protection such as rock plates in shoes designed to tackle rocky and rooted trails.

trail shoes tend to use firmer cushioning than road models, and often contain rock plates, to protect your foot from roots and rocks on the trail.

For shoes designed to tackle more gentle trails and harder packed tracks, the midsole stack usually becomes more conventional and similar to other road shoe models, although the shape of the shoe remains to provide you with greater lateral support.

Shoes designed for long distances often have design features to help keep your gait stable from prolonged pounding on the trails. This usually includes a thicker midsole that offers a wider base net and rockered midsole geometries, all features which are frequently used to evenly distribute running load across your foot, stabilise your gait as you fatigue and help you maintain momentum.

Part 3: The upper

Similar to the midsole design, the upper and fit of the shoe will also vary depending on what terrain it is designed for.

Shoes designed for steep inclines and technical terrain are designed to fit more snugly to ensure movement within the shoe is minimal as you run over cambered and loose terrain. Shoes designed for technical rocky conditions also have added reinforcements around the shoe, such as raised midsole sidewalls, to protect your feet from rocks and debris.

choosing the right trail running shoe is about finding the one that’s the right balance for the running you do.

Trail shoes designed to tackle wetter climes will also usually use more hydrophobic and aerated materials to improve water drainage, and ensure that the shoe doesn’t become saturated and heavy with water during your run.

You can also expect a more generous fit in shoes designed for long distance trail running, to accommodate expanding feet after prolonged periods of running.

Photo by Saucony

Which models are best for me?

When considering getting a new pair of trail running shoes, the key questions you should ask yourself are:

  • What surface am I running on most regularly? Or what surface do I intend to use this shoe on?
  • How long will I be on my feet during these runs?
  • What sensation do I like to feel underfoot?

Please note, as mentioned above, it is difficult to label trail running shoes as “best for” only one specific type of terrain or distance. The categorisation below will give you an idea of what each model has been designed for but, most of the time, choosing the right trail running shoe is about finding the one that’s the right balance for the running you do. Adding a second trail shoe to your rotation can be beneficial and help choose the most appropriate footwear for the terrain you’ll tackle on the day and/or weather conditions. 

Hybrid trail running shoes

Also known as door-to-trail shoes, these shoes are designed to be able to tackle road and milder trail surfaces with relative ease. They will usually have the silhouette of a road shoe, but with reinforced areas in the upper for better lateral stability, a wider footbed, and a more substantial outsole, using tackier (grippier) rubber to help you grip looser, wet surfaces. The outsole lugs on these will usually be 4mm or less, and flattened to ensure a smooth ride on more even surfaces (road/ fire road).

The one thing to note with these shoes is they will often not be quite as good as either a pure road shoe for ride smoothness, or a pure trail shoe for grip, but will offer the flexibility to allow you to mix up your running surface within a run.

For long distance trail races with limited technical sections, these are very often a good choice!

Hybrid options for mild trails

These are essentially road shoes with a bit more grip and a more durable upper.

Hybrid options for a mix of trails

They will offer good protection on the road too but will feature more aggressive grip, making them more versatile for trail running. 

Long distance trail running shoes

These tend to be quite similar to hybrid shoes, however often use superior grip compounds and have a few added support features to ensure you can tackle a variety of terrain comfortably. 

Fell/hill running shoes

The gnarliest in terms of grip, these shoes offer fantastic grip over saturated and sloppy terrain. If you are largely going over open moorland, hillsides and slippy single-track in densely forested areas, these types will likely be the best option for you:

However, if you find yourself fairly unstable in minimally structured shoes, or are going much longer over technical, loose terrain and want a bit more protection underfoot, there are some notable options out there that offer deeper lugs, with additional support and cushioning, such as: 

Trail racing shoes

These are stripped back versions of usually longer trail equivalents. They should be used for trail or hill races and faster sessions almost exclusively and are usually not designed to handle the same amount of mileage as most trail shoes. 

Looking for advice on how to tackle the trails? Check out these Trail running tips.

Photo by Saucony