Trail running and trail running shoes have exploded in recent years into a new market segment and almost a new sport.
With major global events such as the UTMB gaining more and more attention, the call of the trails has never been greater.
When I started running seriously in the 1980s, trail running shoes were simply road running models with slightly more grip or bigger, deeper studs on the sole.
One of the more aggressively soled shoes of the time was the original Saucony Jazz. With its deep triangular-shaped lugs it naturally lended itself to more grip in the mud.
Of course, trail running doesn’t have to be just running through mud. Depending on your location the trails may be dirt tracks, grass or gravel or rocks and roots.
With this in mind, I’ve selected shoes for the various conditions I think you might encounter on the trail near where you are.
The 7 Best Trail Running Shoes
- Best Shoe for Muddy Conditions: Saucony Peregrine 13 ST
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- Best Shoe for Mixed Surfaces: VJ Ultra 2
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- Best Shoe On A Budget: Puma Fast Trac Nitro
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- Best Shoe For Ultras: HOKA Stinson 7
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- Best Shoe for Wet Conditions: Merrell Agility Peak 5 GTX
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- Best Shoe for Trail Racing: ASICS Fujispeed 2
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- Most Affordable: Saucony Cohesion 16
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- Best Shoe for Everyday Runs: Brooks Adrenaline GTS 23
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The Best Trail Running Shoes
Best Shoe for Muddy Conditions: Saucony Peregrine 13 ST
Weight:275g/9.7oz; Heel Stack:30mm; Toe stack: 26mm(drop 4mm)
In the mud and on soft terrain, the Saucony Peregrine 13 ST provides great cushioning, traction and all-around protection to the feet.
With the hi-top styling, first impressions are those that inspire protection in the worst of conditions.
The stretch, bootie construction of the upper provides a snug fit around the ankle which helps keep debris at bay.
The shoe’s upper uses a close-knit mesh construction that helps keep your feet relatively dry when negotiating wet undergrowth, although they aren’t waterproof.
There are durable rubber overlays around the toe and rand of the shoe to provide additional protection and increase the durability of the mesh.
The traditional lace has been replaced with a drawstring fastening with a plastic slide lock.
It works well and once fastened the excess lace can be tucked neatly away inside a ‘lace pocket’ located at the top of the tongue. This can prove a little fiddly, but it’s worth taking the time as, if you do encounter deep mud, it keeps the lace lock clean and easy to undo.
A PWRRUN midsole provides the cushioning and it is the same as that found on the brand’s Ride and Guide shoes, so it’s perfectly capable and works well with this combination of outsole traction.
The aggressive lugs measure around 5mm deep and while that doesn’t sound very deep, the shape and rubber used allow them to bite into the soft ground like teeth, inspiring confidence with every stride.
Mud sheds easily from the sole thanks to good spacing between the lugs, making this my favourite choice for soft, muddy terrain.
Best Shoe for Mixed Surfaces: VJ Ultra 2
Weight: 275g/9.7oz; Heel Stack:22mm; Toe stack: 16mm (drop 6mm)
While the Saucony may be great for down-and-dirty, sticky mud, you’ll more than likely encounter a mixture of surfaces on your trail running adventures. That’s where the VJ Ultra 2 comes in.
The brand markets itself as having the ‘best grip on the planet’ and after using the first version of this shoe, the VJ Ultra I immediately understood why.
The butyl rubber sole provides a grip unlike anything else. Its limpet-like traction provides a non-slip footing anywhere. Wet rock, dirt tracks and forest trails, it just sticks!
It’s the upper that has changed a little on this second-generation model. Now it is a little lighter and a little more flexible in its overall fit and feel.
The tightly woven mesh upper uses Aramid fibres, a super-strong yarn that provides an extremely durable material capable of withstanding the demands of the trails.
The Fitlock system is a midfoot support strap on the medial side of the shoe’s upper.
This strong brand hugs the arch and midfoot and provides additional control over what is a lightweight shoe.
The Ultra 2 has a minimal design and construction feel to it yet its performance outweighs this.
The cushioning, at 22mm deep appears to be a little on the low side, but on the move, you appreciate its nimble feel and when mixing surfaces it’s a good balance with a suitable responsive feel. Ok, it’s not bouncy soft, but it’s bang on the money for fast trail running.
Four-millimetre-deep lugs of butyl rubber provide the grip and from the word go they just feel a little different. Almost sticky to the touch your footing gains a little confidence, safe in the knowledge of the non-slip performance.
For a shoe that can take you anywhere with an unrivaled grip, the VJ Ultra 2 is the choice.
Best Shoe On A Budget: Puma Fast Trac Nitro
Weight: 255g/9oz; Heel Stack: 29mm; Toe stack: 21mm (drop 8mm)
This shoe may have slipped under the radar a little.
While Puma has been making waves in the running market in the last year or so with models such as the Deviate Nitro, they are still sitting at the back of the pack behind some of the big names such as Nike, New Balance and Brooks.
In terms of the endorsement of global track and field superstars, the brand has always been a big player. Think Usain Bolt and now Karsten Warholm and Armand Duplantis.
But road running athletes are a little less well known and trail runners (unfortunately) sit a little lower down the priority list when it comes to big brand endorsements.
All that said, the brand and making massive inroads in terms of the performance of its running shoes and the Fast Trac Nitro is a testament to that.
The popular Nitro foam plays an important role here and it’s that soft and responsive feel that brings this shoe to life.
A soft-on-impact feel and smooth ride with an energised toe-off make it a shoe that soaks up the trails and energises your run.
Clever drainage holes in the forefoot are a thoughtful touch and help the shoe drain any water that may come onboard on those wetter adventures.
The upper is a tough yet comfortable construction that simply does the job of holding the foot in place while protecting it from the terrain.
Pumagrip rubber is used on the sole, here in the ATR version (all-terrain). This a rubber compound that has gained popularity with fans of the brand’s recent road models. It’s a tacky rubber that gives great traction in any conditions and proves to be very durable.
In summary, the price. At $110 the Puma Fast Trac Nitro represents great value for money in a trail shoe that gives a great performance in any conditions.
Best Shoe For Ultras: HOKA Stinson 7
Weight: 365g/12.9oz; Heel Stack: 42mm; Toe stack: 37mm (drop 5mm)
Okay, so I am not an ultra-runner. That said I speak to many ultra-runners every week and need to recommend shoes to them. With this in mind, I also discuss the training those taking on an ultra-distance event do during a typical week.
You see, the thing is, unlike a marathon, where the weekly long run might be about 20 miles, that’s usually the same for ultra-distance athletes. Or at least the non-professional kind. With that in mind, you simply need a well-cushioned, comfortable shoe to go the distance.
All things considered, if I were to be tackling a trail ultra tomorrow, I’d probably choose the Stinson 7.
With a 42mm stack of cushioning and the new H-frame support system, it would tick all the boxes on my requirements list.
Of course, I am assuming that the ultra in question would be run on ‘light trails’ when choosing the Stinson. Its trail outsole and 4mm lugs offer a good degree of traction in these conditions.
More aggressively shaped lugs form the outer edge of the sole and bite into the ground, while in the centre large (surface area) lugs help spread your weight evenly across the shoe.
Support comes from a new H-Frame structure within the shoe. A dual-density construction forms the H, with firmer lateral edges and a centrepiece. Sat with the H is slightly softer foam.
The idea here is that your weight naturally sinks into the softer midsole and is stabilised by the H frame.
The whole construction of the midsole works well, feels very natural and most importantly for an ultra-shoe, it remains comfortable for long periods of time on the feet.
The upper of the Stinson is one of the nicest I have worn on a Hoka shoe. The engineered mesh has a premium feel to it, there are nice overlays for protection in the toe and the general padding is spot on.
A neat ankle collar and tongue are soft and plush and the heel tab flares away from the Achilles.
The Hoka Stinson 7 is a maximally cushioned trail shoe that’s built to go the distance and is one of the best trail shoes around right now.
Best Shoe for Wet Conditions: Merrell Agility Peak 5 GTX
Weight:300g/10.6oz; Heel Stack:31mm; Toe Stack: 25mm (drop 6mm)
The Merrell Agility Peak 5 GTX (Gore-Tex) is another of my selections that may come as a bit of a surprise. Whilst Merrell is a known ‘outdoor’ brand, their running shoes are somewhat lesser known.
Many brands offer Gore-Tex versions of their shoes and being a fan of Gore-Tex models, I’ve chosen the Merrell as I simply think this shoe deserves a little more recognition.
I’ve worn previous versions of the Agility Peak and have always been surprised by its performance. It’s always been a comfortable and durable trail shoe that I’ve had in the cupboard during the winter months ready to call to action.
Its combination of cushioning and grip proved to suit my needs during my autumn and winter trail running excursions.
I’m a fan of Gore-Tex too. I simply like the added protection it affords me and I just don’t like to get my feet wet when I’m running!
I don’t cross streams or entertain deep water crossings; I simply need to splash through the occasional puddle or through wet grass and Gore-Tex proves to be the ideal solution to my needs.
The midsole cushioning has been improved in this 5th generation model and now has a softer and slightly more responsive ride. It is a trail shoe remember, so it’s not going to be supershoe bouncy, but the Floatpro midsole offers a smooth ride that works well on the trails.
A rockplate is situated between the sole and midsole and provides protection from sharp rocks and the outsole itself is a Vibram Metagrip design. It has a pretty aggressive design and the studs are approximately 4mm in depth.
Evenly spread across the whole width of the shoe, the studs ensure great grip without penetrating the cushioning when on firmer ground.
Best Shoe for Trail Racing: ASICS Fujispeed 2
Weight: 257g/9oz; Heel Stack: 24mm; Toe Stack: 19mm (drop 5mm)
Trail racing shoes have now got carbon! With Nike’s Ultrafly as well as offerings from The North Face, adidas Terrex and Saucony the list goes on and it’s sure to grow season after season.
The ASICS Fujispeed 2 sees the brand update the original with a carbon plate to give it a little extra pop, in much the same way as they have recently done with the Magic Speed 3, the road-going equivalent.
With an FF Blast+ foam in the midsole, we get the same cushioning as in the Magic Speed (although not the brand’s range-topping super foam from the Metaspeed) and it’s a great choice for the trail shoe.
It is soft and responsive and suits uneven terrain. It’s also a durable material so can handle the harsher terrain.
The carbon plate is dialled in to great effect here. Again, like the foam it proves to hit the sweet spot in terms of providing an effective propulsive feel suitable for the trails. It’s neither too rigid nor too flexible. It also serves to add protection from sharp rocks, so it’s a winner all around.
The price of the Fujispeed 2 is great too. By that, I mean it’s not a $200+ carbon-plated shoe, so it’s more sensibly priced, and once again leads me to question the price of carbon road racing shoes.
The upper is light and comfortable, like a road shoe with touches of rubberised overlays to add a little protection and durability.
Three-pointed star-shaped studs provide effective traction and despite not being very deep worked well on even the wetter ground that I tried them on.
In summary, the Fujispeed 2 is a fast-riding, light and responsive trail shoe that makes the most of the latest technologies available in a relatively reasonably priced trail shoe package.
Best Shoe for Light Trails: Nike Ultrafly
Weight: 300g / 10.5oz; Heel Stack: 38.5mm; Toe Stack: 30mm; Drop: 8.5mm
In the excitement before its release, many expected the Ultrafly simply to be a Vaporfly with a Vibram outsole. A lightweight, super responsive shoe capable of off-roading thanks to that famous grip; what more could we want?
What Nike provided was to many a little bit disappointing and many dismissed the shoe because it wasn’t simply an off-road Vaporfly.
In fact, the Ultrafly is much more, putting that sole on the road shoe would have been an easy option, but the overall design makes the Ultrafly a very capable trail shoe.
On its own, ZoomX was never going to be good on the trails, it’s too soft and not durable enough. So here, it’s shrouded in a fabric covering to provide protection. As well as protection, the fabric adds a touch of stability, almost preventing the ZoomX from deforming too much.
A feature of carbon supershoes is, of course, the carbon plate. The plate combines with the responsive foam to stabilise it and create that energy return and highly responsive feel.
The Ultrafly’s carbon plate is flatter and sits lower to the ground in this trail model. This instantly creates more stability and adds to the protection, an important consideration.
With this combination of foam and plate, the shoe offers a soft and welcoming ride. It’s not the same level of response as the Vaporfly but it is bang on the money for the trails and perfect for mile after mile of off-road running.
The Vibram outsole is more for general trails than soft, wet ground but again it’s perfect for the kind of paths that this shoe is intended for. It’s not a shoe for technical terrain.
A ripstop fabric forms the upper and provides a good fit that’s snug and close around the midfoot but broader in the forefoot. This allows the feet to splay naturally and creates some natural stability.
The Nike Ultrafly trail is an everyday trail option that’s exceptionally comfortable thanks to that smooth riding ZoomX. To me, the carbon plate offers more general stability and protection than energy return, but that’s fine. For my longer, steady, off-road runs it’s become my shoe of choice.