Essential men's trail running shoes 2021 | The best off-road options for the outdoors

Tackle the trails in comfort, safety and style
Essential men's trail running shoes 2021

There's nothing quite like lacing up a pair of shoes and heading out into the wilderness for some scenery and solitude. But when you're hitting the trails you need to know you've got the best trail running shoes for the job.

Picking up a pair of road shoes can be tricky – you need to get the right pair for the type of runner you are and how you're going to be training. With trail shoes, the range of choices becomes increasingly trickier as you need to understand the type of terrain you're going to be running on as well as the weather conditions you might stumble across.

Essential reading: How to choose the perfect running shoes

In general trail shoes need to be hard-wearing and protective against terrain and the elements. Not only do you want something durable that won't rip or wear down easily, but you need to make sure that the outsole can sufficiently grip the terrain you're running on so you don't slip and fall over.

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 road-to-trail running shoe

Saucony Peregrine 11

Saucony Peregrine 11

The Peregrine 11 is an all-rounder shoe that makes hay when the sun doesn’t shine and the ground beneath your feet gets boggy. The ample 4mm 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.

The balance of the tough outsole and rock plate, combined with the soft and responsive PWRRUN midsole cushioning makes for a versatile shoe that delivers across varied terrain. As well as being tough and hardwearing when you need it, the comfortable design makes high mileage efforts a joy, deadening the impact and protecting the legs so you can enjoy the trails.

The lightweight upper is also one of the most comfortable we've tested in a trail shoe and manages to feel secure whilst still offering a supportive and plush feel.

On Cloudventure

On Cloudventure

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.

The best trail-running shoes for muddy ground

Salomon Speedcross 5

Salomon Speedcross 5

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

Inov-8 X-Talon G 235

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 for 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.


VJ XTRM

VJ XTRM

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 lightweight trail shoes

The North Face Flight Series Vectiv

The North Face Flight Series Vectiv

The North Face turned heads when it released its carbon plate trail shoe, raising questions as to the benefits runners would get with a plate when used on varied terrain. And although comparisons with road shoe equivalents were inevitable, the Flight Series Vectiv highlighted a future where carbon plate technology wasn't solely for road runners.

The Flight Series Vectiv is an impressive shoe when used for its intended purpose – speed over harder trails. It's not a versatile shoe by any stretch of the imagination and when used on soft or muddy ground the addition of the carbon plate adds little to no value.

However, on hard surfaces, whether that's dry trails or technical terrain like mountain paths, the shoe works very much like its road counterparts. The carbon plate offers a noticeably responsive bounce that propels the runner forward and the subtle level of cushioning helps to promote a supportive toe-off.

Aside from the carbon plate the Flight Series Vectiv includes additional features to add durability and protection on the trails, that includes Kevlar and polyamide materials to increase strength and structure, a reinforced toe cap and a SurfacecCTRL rubber outsole.

The best trail-running shoes for ultra marathons

On Cloudultra

On Cloudultra

The On Cloudultra is an incredibly versatile trail shoe that combines a host of features into a shoe that delivers across a wide range of terrains. As well as offering a tough, hardwearing exterior it also incorporates a healthy level of cushioning to keep the legs protected over endurance efforts.

The outsole solves one of the biggest issues we've seen in On shoes over the years, replacing the wide central gap found across many of it's shoes with an updated closed channel design. Covering the outsole is an effective Missiongrip rubber that offers a high level of grip and traction across wet and dry trail surfaces.

The cushioning in the shoe comes from a double layer of Helion superfoam that delivers a subtle level of softness without losing the responsiveness needed on the trails.

Perhaps our favourite aspect of the On Cloudultra is the upper design. The TPU reinforced mesh material gives a secure and firm fit but still feels comfortable and socklike, thanks to a plush gusseted tongue that extends from the main upper material.

Inov-8 TERRAULTRA G 270

Inov-8 TERRAULTRA G 270

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 270 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 Pegasus Trail 3

Nike Pegasus Trail 3

The trail version of Nike’s popular Pegasus running shoe is 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.

The midsole is made from Nike React foam from heel to toe which offers a good balance between stability and responsiveness, whilst still feeling cushioned and comfortable when hitting hard terrain.

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 3 offering both understated and slightly more out-there options to suit all-comers.

Although the Pegasus Trail 3 is best-suited to hard dry 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. There are also better options out there if you're planning on hitting wet or slippy terrain.

The best trail-running shoes for rocky ground

Brooks Cascadia 16

Brooks Cascadia 16

The Cascadia has long been a popular pick with runners heading for rocky ground for many years, and Brooks has continued to develop the shoe across its iterations to ensure it's a winner for the trails.

That starts with knocking additional weight off the shoe, which now tips the scales at 298g/ 10.5oz (men’s). In the past, the Cascadia line has worn its heft with pride, but the latest versions of the shoe are just as stable and comfortable to wear as their 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 an updated rock plate underfoot to protect you from landings on jagged edges, plus a toe bumper to keep your tootsies safe.

Brooks has also upgraded the outsole of the shoe to provide more traction on wet ground and although the Cascadia 16 shouldn’t be your first choice for runs in deep mud, it can handle pretty much whatever conditions you throw at it.

The Cascadia 16 also features additional cushioning in the midsole, release grooves to promote greater flexibility and a TrailTack rubber outsole to provide better traction.

HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 4

HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 4

As you'd expect from HOKA ONE ONE, the Speedgoat 4 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 (306g for men), the Speedgoat 4 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.

If you prefer a minimal shoe where you can feel the ground below, the Speedgoat 4 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.

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