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How to Choose the Best Trail Running Shoes for Women

By Amber King ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Thursday May 25, 2017

Are you a runner that likes to run in unconventional places like the backcountry? Do you love the idea of exploring the world by running trails as opposed to running pavement streets? Then trail running may be right up your alley. Trailheads are gateways to wild adventure. Tackling miles via a single track trail can be an elevating experience - leaving you feeling inspired and enamoured. What's even more exciting is planning out your journey - pulling out maps, seeing where the trails link up and seeing if you can carry out your ideas.

Even though all this planning can lead to a successful and unforgettable running adventure, proper equipment is key…and trail running shoes are the most important piece of gear you should consider. On the trail, you will encounter paths littered with large and small obstacles. Rocks, roots, mud, snow, downed trees, and slippery surfaces. You don't want these obstacles to turn that elevating experience into a one that leaves you limping - or even worse - stranded.

Since trail running has you running on uneven terrain, a good trail running shoe typically has protective features, better traction, and better lateral stability than regular running shoes. Even though a trail running shoe can't protect you from all the hazards out there, a good shoe will do its job to prevent slips and falls where it's unnecessary. In addition to your own running technique, this can help ensure a good trail running experience.

As the shoe market becomes inundated with a plethora of different types of women's trail running shoes, it's no wonder that people have no idea where to start! New models are coming out faster than we can test them! How do you choose the best women's trail shoe? To guide you through this process, we have summed up some key points to ponder while you peruse the possibilities! Though before you start diving into all the trail shoe possibilities out there (because there are a lot!), you need to consider a few key points to narrow down your options. First, what is the difference between a trail and road shoe? Second, what are the different categories of trail shoes? Third, what surfaces are you going to encounter? And finally (and most importantly), does the shoe fit? Whether you're new to trail runner or a seasoned veteran, this article will provide insight on what to consider in a great pair of trail shoes!

If you plan on taking it to the trail  you best get a shoe that will keep you charging for miles!
If you plan on taking it to the trail, you best get a shoe that will keep you charging for miles!

Trail vs. Road Shoes


Shoes for trail running are designed to stand up to a variety of surfaces while keeping feet protected and comfortable. When comparing trail running shoes to road running shoes, there are a few key differences that set the two apart.

Protective Materials and Better Stability Control
Uneven and technical running surfaces demand additional foot protection and stability control to prevent rolled ankles and forefoot sized blisters. Your shoes shouldn't be the reason your stop your fun run. Trail running shoes generally feature stabilizing materials such as double or triple layers of EVA or open-celled foam, shanks, and/or rock plates. This protects the foot from sharp rocks or other potential hazards on the trails. Shoes without these features are typically less protective and not the best option for long distances (unless you've trained your foot to withstand these surfaces) These materials are inserted into the midfoot of the shoe to provide better rigidity and comfort.

While the X provides decent stability  the stability of this shoe is not nearly as good as other contenders that perform above and beyond.
While the X provides decent stability, the stability of this shoe is not nearly as good as other contenders that perform above and beyond.

The uppers on trail running shoes tend to be more sturdy, responsive, and less breathable (in comparison to road runners) to ensure that the foot does not move around and that pesky debris does not penetrate the outer layer. In addition, they incorporate some sort of lateral support system that works with the lacing system to help prevent rolled ankles while navigating uneven surfaces.

Better Traction
Encountering sloppy and uneven surfaces including mud, snow, sand, rocks, roots, and more is guaranteed on the trail. As a result, trail shoes require better traction to avoid slipping and falling. Expect to find a complex tread design and deeper multi-directional lugs. These aid in ascending, descending, and traversing trail systems through a variety of terrain. Shoes specific for softer surfaces will have longer lugs, spaced further apart for better 'mud shed' abilities. While shoes that are more versatile will have more lugs closely spaced together and not quite as long.

The outsole of the Brooks Cascadia 12 is an aggressive trail shoe.
The outsole of the Brooks Cascadia 12 is an aggressive trail shoe.

Wider Toe Box
Wider toe boxes are also common in some trail shoes. The wider design accommodates foot swelling that may occur after long runs on technical terrain. In fact, lots of ultra-distance runners will buy shoes half a size too big to accommodate for swelling. So don't be deterred by a wider or bigger fitting shoe. It may be the ticket to avoiding blisters and keeping your little pigs happy all day long.

A footbox comparison. On the left is Our Top Pick for Wide Feet and on the right is our Top Pick for Sloppy Surfaces. The left is much wider while the shoe on the right is streamlined and narrow. Both are a little wider than you'd find in a trail shoe.
A footbox comparison. On the left is Our Top Pick for Wide Feet and on the right is our Top Pick for Sloppy Surfaces. The left is much wider while the shoe on the right is streamlined and narrow. Both are a little wider than you'd find in a trail shoe.

Types of Women's Trail Running Shoes


If you've ever typed in 'trail running shoes' into the Google machine, you've probably experienced the breadth and spectrum of the trail runners out there. When looking for your perfect trail runner, you need to know the types of trail runners out there, while considering what is best for you. Trail running shoes fit into three broad categories that we will discuss individually below. This grouping is based on the type of trail you are likely to encounter.

Light Trail Runners


A light trail runner is perfect for those looking to run on fairly consistent surfaces. Think of well-groomed trails, dirt roads, and cross-over to asphalt every now and then. This category of shoe typically looks like a road running shoe with minimal protective features. In general, it features a lighter weight with shallow lugs. It hosts moderate protection from sharp rocks and roots, and a stiff design. It is not a good option for those looking to tromp through streams or to tackle super technical trails.

The Terra Kiger 4 is a  wonderful lightweight and low-profile trail shoe.
The Terra Kiger 4 is a wonderful lightweight and low-profile trail shoe.

Example: Nike Terra Kiger 4 - Women's

Rugged Trail Runners


Designed with versatility and technical trails in mind, this category of shoe does best when the trail is littered with rocks, roots, and steep terrain. This category of shoe fits a wide variety of terrain to include both hard and soft surfaces. Some of the protective features you'll find include toe caps, rock guards, cushioning, supportive uppers, and a diversity of lug shapes and patterns. In addition, some shoes will have longer lugs to perform better in softer surfaces, while others may have a hard vibram sole to protect on rocky trails. Most of the shoes we reviewed fit into this category.

The Bushido is a great rugged trail running shoe.
The Bushido is a great rugged trail running shoe.

Some include: Salomon Speedcross 4 - Women's, Salming Elements - Women's, Saucony Peregrine 7 - Women's, Altra Lone Peak 3 - Women's, La Sportiva Bushido

Off-Trail Runners


If you're in search of a shoe that doubles as a hiker, and keeps feet protected when you decide to go off-trail, this is the category you need to consider. In addition to all the features of a rugged trail shoe, this category of shoe offers a few enhancements. In general, this type of shoe offers better durability and water protection. Some shoes have added gore-tex inserts to increase waterproofing, in addition to polyurethane foams (instead of EVA foam) that is firmer and more durable. In addition, you will find better torsional rigidity that keeps the shoe from twisting in wacky ways on the trail. Overall - this category of shoe is completely bomber and best for those looking to get way into the backcountry where you don't know what you'll encounter.

Sporting uber amounts of protection  this shoe is an off-road trail runner.
Sporting uber amounts of protection, this shoe is an off-road trail runner.

Example: inov-8 Roclite 305 GTX - Women's

If you intend on buying a pair of trail running shoes as through hikers, consider an off-trail runner. It offers better durability and protection from water and other trail hazards. Also, be ready to replace your trail runners far more often then you would a Hiking Boot.

Categories of Trail Running Shoes


While we talk about the different types of trail shoes for each type of environment, there is further categorization based on the heel-toe drop and level of cushioning. Take a gander at the different categories of shoes below to help aid you in your selection.

Traditional


The classic shoe we all know the best. This shoe type typically boasts extra cushion in the heel with a heel-toe drop of 8mm or greater. These shoes are also typically designed to accommodate both heel and midfoot strikers. They provide additional cushioning to also absorb shock. Examples that fall into this category include the Brooks Cascadia 12, ASICS GEL-Kahana 8, Salomon Speedcross 4, Pearl iZUMI Trail N2 v3, New Balance Leadville v3.

The Cascadia 12 is a traditional trail runner with a higher heel-toe drop.
The Cascadia 12 is a traditional trail runner with a higher heel-toe drop.

Barefoot & Minimalist


Barefoot shoes are designed to mimic running barefoot. Running barefoot means, well, running barefoot. No added comfort or stability components. The philosophy goes that after proper training, the stabilizing muscles in your feet and legs will become stronger, and your body will fall into a more natural running position. This running position means striking with your midfoot as opposed to your heel. Also, with your toes free to wiggle, they can splay out to give you better balance and stability on the trail.

Maximalist


The maximalist shoe is packed with cushion to provide you with the most comfortable ride you could ever imagine on the trail. The extra cushion is said to help protect joints and is said to help endurance by absorbing shock that your knees or hips would normally absorb. That said, maximalist shoes can come with a variety of heel to toe drop ranges.

Pros: Super comfortable cushioning, less overall joint pain on trail (in our experience)
Cons: Less stable than other types of shoes (due to high stack height), not the most attractive shoes out there.

Example: HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 3 - Women's

Heather enjoys the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 3 in the desert.
Heather enjoys the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 3 in the desert.

Low Profile


This shoe type features a low to the ground feel, moderate to minimal cushioning, and lightweight protective components. This type of shoe features a heel-toe drop of 0 to 6 mm and offers better stability than traditional and maximalist shoes.

Examples: Saucony Peregrine 7 (4mm), Altra Lone Peak 3 (zero drop), La Sportiva Bushido (4 mm), Salming Elements (4 mm)

The Saucony Peregrine 7 is a great low-profile option with nice cushioning underfoot.
The Saucony Peregrine 7 is a great low-profile option with nice cushioning underfoot.

Crossover Options


Trail shoes are made for the trail, but some are great to crossover to the pavement as well. It's important to know that on pavement, tread design wears down quickly and the uppers are not as breathable (since they are designed to keep little particles like sand from getting into your shoe). If you're looking for a shoe that can cross over from pavement to trail, take a gander at the Pearl iZUMI Trail N2 v3, ASICS GEL-Kahana 8 and the New Balance Leadville v3. Even though they are made for the trail, these shoes performed well on both dirt and pavement roads.

The traction on the ASICS Kahana 8 shoe is best for moderate terrain. That said  it's perfect for running the road due to its smooth outsole.
The traction on the ASICS Kahana 8 shoe is best for moderate terrain. That said, it's perfect for running the road due to its smooth outsole.

Where do you Run?


Now that you've learned more about all the different types of trail running shoes, you may have an idea of the type of shoe that might work for you. Now it is time to consider a few other things. Where do you run? What surfaces do you run on? What's the weather like? And most importantly…what type of shoe fits your foot the best?

We like to run through the High Peruvian Andes. Where do you go?
We like to run through the High Peruvian Andes. Where do you go?

Terrain, Surfaces, & Climate


Knowing the types of terrain, surfaces, and climate you will typically encounter on a run will help greatly when choosing a trail runner. If you like to get out in the mountains and run technical trail, encountering everything from snow, streams, gravel, and sharp rocks, you should consider a shoe like the Salomon Speedcross 4, La Sportiva Bushido, or the Saucony Peregrine 7. All offer fantastic foot protection, stability, and traction and will keep your feet happy. If you just like to run roads with an occasional romp to nicely groomed trails, you won't need all the fancy bells and whistles of a high-end trail runner. Instead, consider a less expensive crossover shoe like the ASICS Kahana 8 or the higher performing New Balance Leadville shoe. Both models feature breathable uppers with less aggressive lugs to help you move quickly on easy terrain.

Technical terrain? Snow? Mountains? Sand? Rain? Hot  dry weather? These are all considerations you have to make when thinking about what you demand from a trail runner. Here our the main editor of this review tests a pair of Altras during a 30-mile day with over 6 000 feet of elevation gain at elevations over 13  000 feet.
Technical terrain? Snow? Mountains? Sand? Rain? Hot, dry weather? These are all considerations you have to make when thinking about what you demand from a trail runner. Here our the main editor of this review tests a pair of Altras during a 30-mile day with over 6,000 feet of elevation gain at elevations over 13, 000 feet.

After looking at where you will be running, determine what kind of weather you'll encounter. Are you running in hot dry deserts, cold snowy environments, or wet and humid rainforests? If you're running in hot temperatures, you will want a running shoe that is breathable like the Saucony Peregrine 6. If you're in a cold area, a more protective shoe with a less breathable mesh like the Salomon Speedcross 4 - Women's will keep your feet warm. If you're in wet areas, consider checking out a shoe with a waterproof textile that can wick water well.

The bottom line - decide where you will be running and the surfaces you will encounter. Next, identify the weather that you will see on a daily basis. After you've taken these variables into consideration, identify what set of requirements you need for your ultimate trail running shoe.

Fit


This is the absolute most important factor when it comes to choosing shoes. Every single person has a different foot. Some people have narrow feet, while others are wide. Some folks have arches that are high, others are low. When running, each person runs a little differently. Some folks pronate, while others underpronate. Some people heel strike, others midfoot strike. If you have injuries, visit an orthopedist to determine which shoe is best for you.

As a result of these differences, it is important to identify how you run and your foot type. A shoe that works well for your best friend may not work for you. Going to a performance footwear shop will be beneficial. Some of these shops will look at your feet and have you run on treadmill to identify how you run, although this is more important for road running shoes than for trail running shoes. They will analyze your running and suggest a type of shoe conducive to your foot design and style.

Lastly - try shoes on! After trying on an array of shoes, be sure to choose a pair that fits snugly, but is not noticeably tight and leaves you with room to wiggle your toes. If possible, walk down an incline and be sure your toes don't touch the front of the shoe and walk up the incline to check that your heel isn't slipping in and out of place. As you walk or jog around the store or your living room, focus on the overall comfort. Make sure the shoe doesn't rub or constrict in any odd places. A good fit truly is the best fit!

If you like ordering online, order all shoes you are interested and send back the ones that just didn't work. Make sure the provider has a great return policy that doesn't require you to pay postage upon return.

What is the difference between Heel and Midfoot Strike?
Your foot strike refers to the pattern that your foot falls into when naturally running. The two most common types of striking patterns include heel and midfoot strike.

Heel Strike: When running, your heel makes the initial contact with the surface and you roll up onto your midfoot and toes to push off.

Heel strikin'!
Heel strikin'!

Midfoot Strike: When running, your midfoot makes the initial contact with the surface and you roll up onto your toes to push off.

Midfoot strikin'!
Midfoot strikin'!

Defining Heel-to-Toe Drop & Introducing Zero Drop Technology


Heel-to-toe drop, also known as "heel-toe drop," "heel-to-toe offset," or "heel-to-toe differential" is the difference between the heel (midsole + outsole) and forefoot (midsole + outsole) height.

Happy trails!
Happy trails!

Amber King
About the Author
Amber hails from cold North of Canada. After finishing up her B.Sc and B.Ed in 2009, she opted for a transient life exploring the mountains and deserts of the US on foot and rock. She is an avid rock climber, trail runner, hiker, and splitboarder. When she's not tromping around in the woods, you can find her planning experiential science-based trips as a middle and high school teacher in the foothills of the San Juan mountains

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