The best trail running shoes 2021 | Durable, stable sneakers for off-roading

Choosing shoes for the trails can mean a new relationship with running
The best trail running shoes 2021

When runners get bored of the road they head for the trails – but that means a different set of trainers for when things get wild.

Leaving the civilised, asphalt-covered world behind and heading out into nature, and with that its uneven, hilly terrain. So it also means the chance to change your shoes, and with that your relationship with terra firma, for a whole new running experience.

Essential reading: How to choose the perfect running shoes

That uneven terrain is also less demanding on your body than the repetitive impact of the road. This means some of the characteristics you look out for in road running shoes, like massive chunks of foam cushioning, aren’t so important in a trail shoe.

Lug length is key

What is definitely important is grip. For muddy trails and fell running you need shoes with deep lugs or studs of around 6-8mm in length on the bottom to avoid slipping over.

However, these kind of lugs aren’t ideal on hard ground, where they will feel uncomfortable, wear down quickly, and give you less traction than shallower options.

If you’re sticking to hard trails then you want 2-4mm lugs, a little extra cushioning and a rock plate on the shoe that protects your feet from the impact of sharp rocks. In between those options you’ll find all-rounder trail shoes that have 4-6mm deep lugs that work on a variety of terrains.

The best trail-running shoes for muddy ground

Salomon Speedcross 5

A buyer’s guide to the best trail running shoes

The Speedcross line has always been designed to provide exceptional grip on slippery surfaces, so when Salomon promised even more grip in the fifth edition of the shoe we were desperate to put that to the test on the boggiest ground we could find. The Speedcross 5 passed that test with flying colours, finding grip even when charging through a mini swamp in a forest.

Key to the Speedcross’s success are the deep lugs on the sole, which have been spaced slightly wider apart than in its predecessors and positioned to be especially good at finding grip when pushing off or trying to slow down on a slippery hill or at a sharp turn.

The upper of the shoe fits snugly to the foot but doesn’t rub, while the plastic heel counter provides stability on uneven terrain while also protecting the back of your foot from stray rocks.

While the outsole of the Speedcross is durable enough to handle short sections on the road, the lugs will wear down if repeatedly subjected to hard surfaces, so save this shoe for softer ground.

Inov-8 X-Talon G 235

The best trail running shoes 2020: Durable, stable sneakers for off-roading

Inov-8's range of off-road running shoes has something for everyone when it comes to the trails. The X-Talon G 235 is the one you're looking when hitting the toughest, wettest terrain where you want a high level of protection but don't want to skimp on speed.

Coming in at 235 grams per shoe (men), it's an impressively lightweight piece of kit that doesn't lack when it comes to durability or technical ground handling. The Graphene enhanced rubber soles – Inov-8's incredibly tough and grippy rubber material – mixed with the 'talon'-like 8mm studs make for one of the best options you'll find when hitting the fells in touch conditions.

When it comes to water, the hard-wearing upper is designed to protect from moisture without adding additional weight. When used with the Inov-8 Debri-Gaiter, you'll struggle to find something the offers the same level of protection from the wettest, muddiest races.

By far one of our favorite options when you're focussed on speed over long mileage but you want a shoe that can tackle rocks and mud without losing speed.


The best trail running shoes 2019: Durable, stable sneakers for off-roading

Finnish brand VJ knows a thing or two when it comes to tough, muddy terrain and all that knowledge, along with some help from OCR champ Jon Albon, has gone into creating the XTRM shoe.

The main feature that makes the shoe stand out is the lugs. 6mm thick and widely spread out across the outsole, they offer outstanding grip when tackling soft, muddy terrain. That same spread out design also means that mud and debris won't stick to the sole as you move.

In order to maintain that strong grip, the outsole is extremely tough and rigid, incorporating a firm layer of foam and as well as a full-length rock plate. In addition, the upper includes a high level of Kevlar to help strap your foot in as you tackle uneven terrain. The result is an incredibly tough shoe that will keep your feet in place across some of the most varied terrain you'll come across.

That stiff design does have a downside though. Where the XTRM excels on difficult surfaces, on flats the lack of cushioning and softness is extremely noticeable.

The best all-terrain trail-running shoes


A buyer’s guide to the best trail running shoes

This really is the ultimate all-rounder trail shoe, because it’s not only capable of finding a grip on all sorts of terrains, but also has a great cushioning-to-weight ratio that means it’s suitable for fast and slow runs of any distance. There really aren’t many shoes we’d feel comfortable using for a five-mile cross-country race and a 100-mile ultramarathon, but the Torrent is one of them.

The ride of the shoe is smooth and fast thanks to the dual-density PROFLY midsole, which is designed to provide more support at the heel to cushion your landings, and then has a more responsive feel in the forefoot to propel you on your way. That means the Torrent is always ready to crank up the speed when the terrain allows.

Multi-direction lugs on the sole provide decent grip on soft ground – we wore the Torrent when running (very slowly) down several steep grass slopes in the Highlands without falling over, which is all you can ask for – though the sticky rubber is best-suited to firmer, technical terrain. The extra cushioning you find in all HOKA trail shoes is also welcome on firm ground, and it means the Torrent will protect your body even over ultra distances.

Saucony Peregrine ISO

A buyer’s guide to the best trail running shoes

If the Torrent is an all-rounder shoe that's at its best on harder terrain, the Peregrine ISO is one that makes hay when the sun doesn’t shine and the ground beneath your feet gets boggy. The aggressive 6mm lugs on the sole mean you can take it to the most treacherous of muddy trails and expect to come through unscathed, but the PWRTRAC outsole is also durable and grips well when subjected to long stretches of running on firm ground.

That outsole is the same as the one that's been relied upon by runners over several generations of the Peregrine, with the main update to the latest version being the ISOFIT upper, designed to adapt to your foot and move with it to provide a comfortable fit that holds the foot in place even as you negotiate uneven and rocky terrain.

Saucony has used its bouncy Everun foam for the topsole of the Peregrine ISO, which provides a responsive, energy-returning ride that adds some pep to your step over long distances in particular, while the PWRFOAM midsole is known for its durability.

Salming Trail 5

The best trail running shoes 2019: Durable, stable sneakers for off-roading

The star feature on the Trail 5 shoe is the outsole, which has an almost uncanny ability to find grip on pretty much whatever terrain you’re set to run on. The Vibrams Megagrip rubber used is sticky and can find purchase when you’re scampering over wet rocks, while the 4mm lugs will keep you upright when on grass and mud. On top of providing all that grip, the rubber is also impressively durable, so you can rely on the Trail 5 to cover all terrains for many hundreds of miles.

At 286g (men’s US 9, 235g for UK women’s 5.5) It’s also an impressively light shoe considering how much rubber is underfoot. The mesh upper used is breathable and light, and although it doesn’t offer a huge amount of protection, with just a thin overlay at the front to deflect pebbles, it does allow water to drain easily so the shoe will dry quickly after a wet run.

The midsole of the shoe is made with Salming’s RECOIL+SoftFOAM materials, which again are nice and light to keep the shoe under 300g, and offer plenty of energy return to keep you bouncing along mile after mile.

Merrell MTL Skyfire

The best trail running shoes 2020 | Durable, stable sneakers for off-roading

The MTL Skyfire has a lot going for it when it comes to hitting the shorter trails, offering a great all-round shoe that's both comfortable and durable – all at an affordable price.

AT 242 grams, they're not the lightest shoe out there but they're still a fast option if you want to hit the trails for some shorter speedy sessions. The MTL Skyfire isn't a shoe designed solely for quick miles, though, and Merrell has done a great job creating a balanced trail option that ticks off a lot of boxes when it comes to technical runs.

The sole features an EVA foam midsole, which offers an adequate level of cushioning for anything up to about 20km, whilst the outsole layer is made with a durable Quantum Grip rubber and features 5mm lugs. There's also a rock plate in there to protect against the hard objects. For deep mud or wet technical climbs we've found it does struggle, but where it really excels is the lighter trails.

The upper is roomy and comfortable, especially for a trail shoe, without losing any support or stability, and there's also reflective detailing for running in low light.

The best road-to-trail running shoe

On Cloudventure

A buyer’s guide to the best trail running shoes

One shoe to rule both the road and the trail, for those who have to run along the former to reach the latter, or just don’t have the space or inclination to buy a pair of shoes for each. The signature On pods on the base of the Cloudventure might not have the grip of lugged or studded shoes, but they do make it very comfortable on hard surfaces and are capable of handling extended stretches of road running without suffering from extensive wear and tear.

That’s also not to say the Cloudventure is out of its depth on the trails though. The grip from the outsole comes from the patterns on the base of the pods, which run in multiple directions to provide sure footing on slippery rocks in particular. The outsole is also well designed to find grip in the forefoot when running downhill at speed, when an untimely tumble can prove disastrous.

The holes in the pods do have a slightly annoying habit of collecting mud and small pebbles, the latter of which need to be removed post haste to avoid discomfort while running. But aside from that, the Cloudventure is a great shoe that manages the rare feat of being as at home on the road as it is on the trail.

Merrell Agility Synthesis Flex

The best trail running shoes 2019: Durable, stable sneakers for off-roading

Unlike some of the shoes on this list where the focus is the toughest of trails, the Agility Synthesis Flex excels for those runners that frequent less demanding terrains – the kind of runner that might do a few kilometers on road then dip off into a field to mix up the route.

It's a shoe designed to offer an enjoyable level of balance, managing to be lightweight and flexible whilst still incorporating enough cushioning and protection to remove it from the realms of minimal trail shoes.

On road and tracks it's a punchy piece of kit, but there are noticeable limits. On tough terrain, whether that's wet, icy or technical, the Agility Synthesis Flex is noticeably out of its depth, with the outsole lacking the grip to compete with a more technically focussed trail shoe.

An aspect of the shoe worth mentioning is that many people that use it mention how comfortable it is out of the box, which is rare for a trail shoe. There's also an impressively breathable upper, which makes it a great option for all year round running.

The best trail-running shoes for ultra marathons

HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 5

A buyer’s guide to the best trail running shoes

When you’re looking to run really long distances then you need a shoe that’s exceptionally comfortable and well-cushioned, and it also needs to have an outsole that can grip in a variety of conditions, because you’re probably going to come across a lot of different terrain in the course of training for and running an ultramarathon.

The HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 5 excels on all of these fronts. It has reasonably deep lugs at 4mm, but they’re positioned close together around the heel of the foot for a cushioned landing on hard surfaces, then spread a little wider in the forefoot for extra grip when pushing off from soft ground.

Then there’s HOKA ONE ONE’s signature stack of oversized cushioning, which helps you roll through long runs unperturbed by the impact of whatever ground you’re covering. That the Challenger ATR 5 only weighs 254g (men’s) is also appreciated on any kind of terrain over runs of any distance, as is the Meta-Rocker in the sole that helps ensure a smooth transition from heel-to-toe.

Although the Challenger doesn’t quite live up to the ATR in in its name due to the fact it will come unstuck in deep mud, it has more than enough traction for most types of trail and can handle long stints on hard ground without feeling uncomfortable or wearing down.


A buyer’s guide to the best trail running shoes

We’ve already talked about how important comfortable cushioning is in an ultramarathon shoe, but another key feature to look out for is durability. If you’re taking part in races of 30 miles and above you’re also going to be logging some serious distance in your training, so you need a shoe that can stand up to that constant pounding.

The Inov-8 TERRAULTRA G 260 is that shoe. Its star feature is a graphene-enhanced rubber outsole that’s lightweight, provides excellent traction, and is so durable that it should last you 1,000 miles of running.

That durability in the sole is matched by the Kevlar used in the distinctive bright green upper. If you’re wondering where you’ve heard the word Kevlar before, it’s the stuff used to make bulletproof vests, so this is made to last.

The 4mm lugs provide grip on a range of surfaces and excel on softer ground despite not being as deep as on a shoe built for bogs. If your ultra is set to take place purely on hard ground you might be better served by the maximal cushioning of a HOKA shoe, but the TERRAULTRA does have enough support in the sole that you can rely on it to keep you in good shape over extreme distances. As good a shape as you can expect to be in when running an ultramarathon, at any rate.

Nike Air Zoom Pegasus Trail 36

The best trail running shoes 2019: Durable, stable sneakers for off-roading

The trail version of Nike’s popular Pegasus running shoe takes the comfort of a road shoe off-road, with Zoom Air units in the midsole to provide cushioning that will be particularly appreciated on rocky tracks. That extra cushioning also means the Pegasus Trail 36 is also a great option for those who split their time between light trails and the road, with the wide, relatively shallow lugs providing grip without being uncomfortable on hard ground.

We’re also going to go ahead and toss Nike some credit for making one of the better-looking trail shoes out there, with the range of colourways of the Pegasus Trail offering both understated and slightly more out-there options to suit all-comers. The upper also has reinforced sections around the toes and heel to protect your feet from stray rocks and twigs as well as increasing the durability of the shoe.

Although the Pegasus Trail is best-suited to harder trails, we found the lugs have gripped pretty well in muddy conditions too, though if your run is going to be exclusively on boggy ground it’s wise to opt for something with longer studs on the bottom.

HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 3

The best trail running shoes 2019: Durable, stable sneakers for off-roading

As you'd expect from HOKA ONE ONE, the Speedgoat 3 offers some of the chunkiest cushioning you'll find in a trail shoe. But don't let the comfort factor lure you into the idea that it's not up to the task when it comes to technical terrain.

As well as feeling lightweight for its size (290g for men and 257g for women), the Speedgoat 3 has a host of features designed to tackle the tougher aspects of trail running. The deep lugs offer a high level of traction and grip on wet and gravelly ground and the waterproof design means that they'll stand up to whatever the weather can throw at you.

On top of that, there's also a reinforced TPU midfoot which adds an impressive level of support that balances out the comfortable, flexible fit of the shoe.

If you prefer a minimal shoe where you can feel the ground below, the Speedgoat 3 is going to be a long way from your usual trainers. However, if you want comfort and durability over long distances that offers a high level of protection against impact and whatever pointy objects are underfoot, it's a great option at an affordable price.

The best trail-running shoes for rocky ground

Brooks Cascadia 14

The best trail running shoes 2019: Durable, stable sneakers for off-roading

The Cascadia has been a popular pick with runners heading for rocky ground for many years, but Brooks has outdone itself with the 14th iteration of the shoe, which is an impressive upgrade on the previous model.

That starts with knocking more than 30g off the weight of the shoe, which now tips the scales at 303.3g/ 0.7lbs (men’s). In the past the Cascadia line has worn its heft with pride, but the 14 is just as stable and comfortable to wear as its predecessors thanks to the internal saddle your foot sits in, while also being a little more nimble and lightweight when you fancy upping the pace.
The shoe also provides plenty in the way of protection when it comes to rocky tracks. There is a rock plate underfoot to protect you from landings on jagged edges, plus a toe bumper as well as a mud guard that runs around the bottom of the upper to increase durability.
Brooks has also upgraded the outsole of the shoe to provide more traction on wet ground and although the Cascadia 14 shouldn’t be your first choice for runs in deep mud, it can handle pretty much whatever conditions you throw at it.
The Cascadia also comes in a waterproof version, the Cascadia 14 GTX, though this is heavier and pricier, and the low ankle means that you run the risk of water getting in the top of the shoe and then being trapped around your foot.

The best lightweight trail shoe

Altra Superior 4

The best trail running shoes 2019: Durable, stable sneakers for off-roading

Altra's Superior 4 is our go-to option for the minimalist trail runner. At 247g (0.6lbs) it's one of the lightest options on the list, combining a zero drop with an impressive level of responsiveness.

The midsole, made with Altra's Quantic foam, is the source of that surprising bounciness and works perfectly with how lightweight the shoe is, allowing for an impressive level of control and energy return as you leap across tough terrain. In addition, there's a nice secure fit that adds a noticeable level of confidence as you move.

The MaxTrac outsole does a sterling job at handling wet and slippery surfaces and Altra also supply removable stone guard inserts that help when tackling tougher technical terrain. There's even some little water holes at the front for when you're dealing with extremely wet conditions.

The best budget trail-running shoe

Kalenji Kiprun MT

Buy now: Decathlon (US) / Decathlon (UK) | $60

A buyer’s guide to the best trail running shoes

Trail running is tough on shoes, and even just a few long runs over especially inhospitable terrain can knacker a premium pair. This means you have to be careful when hunting out a bargain that you’re not just picking up something that will fall apart after one run.

The Kalenji Kiprun MT is one budget trail shoe that is proven to last, with Decathlon describing it as an ultra-capable shoe, in that it’s built to handle 100-mile events. Central to that durability is the hardwearing rubber used in the outsole, which features 5mm lugs for solid grip across a range of terrains, even if the Kiprun is better used on lighter trails than sodden ground.

The cushioning isn’t as soft or responsive as you’ll find on a premium shoe, and your feet might feel more beaten up after a long run as a result, but the Kiprun MT is undoubtedly a worthy option for any runner unimpressed by the increasingly high prices of flagship trail shoes.

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