Updated September 2017
Our expert testers have been pushing the boundaries of each model to bring you the best of the best, the Nike Terra Kiger 4, as well as our Best Bang for the Buck, the Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 4 ($110). We also searched high and low for unique Top Pick winners, like the Inov-8 Roclite 290, our Top Pick for Best Traction or the Hoka One One Challenger ATR 3, our Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning.
Best Overall Trail Running Shoe
Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4
Low to the ground means super stable
Extremely durable outsole
Runs slightly long
Slightly more expensive than in previous years
The Nike Terra Kiger 4
is the best overall model that we tested in 2017. As a former Top Pick Award winner for light and fast running, we feel that the newest version of this shoe is even more refined without losing any of the simultaneously protective, sensitive, and light feel that endeared it to our hearts and feet. This shoe is ideal for running your best on race day or for speedwork but is also featured enough to use as an every day, do anything kind of trail running shoe. We have worn it on desert trails and scrambles, for long days on dirt roads, on our favorite trails in the mountains, and off trail up mountain ridge lines, and were impressed with its performance every time. We especially love how the Phylon midsole, combined with the Nike Air cushioning pockets, provide a low to the ground ride that is supportive and protective without relying on overly thick EVA foam cushioning. Over time we have found the waffle pattern outsole to be very sticky and super durable, and the newly modified upper is simply the most comfortable foot-hugging design in our fleet. With a massive trail running bias, we were admittedly wary of Nikes when we first started testing them, but as the miles have racked up, we found that despite only offering two models of trail specific shoes, their designs and performance are simply outshining the competition. As the highest scoring shoe in this review, we think the Terra Kiger 4 is the first shoe you should check out when shopping for a new pair of speedy kicks.
Read review: Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4
Best Bang for the Buck
Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 4
Excellent performance for the money!
Relatively heavy for this review
Not as stable or as sensitive as the Nike Terra Kiger 4
The Wildhorse 4
is an everyday trainer style of shoe that is an absolute workhorse. Personal anecdotes abound online of how people have easily run in these shoes for 500 or even 1000 miles, and while we didn't have time to put that many miles on them, we can say that after about 150, they look as if they have barely been used. For comparison, many shoes these days suffer from torn tread or poorly compressed foam midsoles after only a few weeks of use by a dedicated trail runner; to find a pair that will last for an entire season or longer is a valuable find indeed! Besides their exemplary durability, we found these shoes to perform much the same as our overall best shoe, the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4, although with a bit more underfoot protection and a slight corresponding uptick in weight. For runners who prefer a moderate amount of heel-toe drop, this shoe's 8mm drop will have you feeling comfortably at home, and no doubt most athletes will find that the Wildhorse 4
will be more than capable of handling everything they encounter. Due to its incredible comfort and durability, not to mention fantastic foot protection, we also feel that this is an excellent choice for ultra distance races. At only $110, it is a hair cheaper than most in this review, but was a natural choice for our Best Bang for the Buck award.
Read review: Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 4
Top Pick for the Best Traction
Inov-8 Roclite 290
Best traction on all surfaces: trail, grass, mud, rock, wet rocks
Low to the ground profile is very stable
Very sensitive to the surface underfoot
Relatively thin midsole doesn't offer a ton of underfoot protection
Not as light as we would expect by looking at it
No shoe surprised us more this year than the Inov-8 Roclite 290
. Due to its superior traction, matched with excellent stability and sensitivity in a very comfortable package, this shoe tied our best overall award winner, the Nike Terra Kiger 4 as the highest scoring shoe in the review. Even more telling than its high score was simply the fact that this was a shoe we kept reaching for, time and again, on our way out the door - which says a lot. We chose to recognize it as a Top Pick for its incredible traction. Many years in a row the shoe with the best traction in our testing has been the Salomon Speedcross 4, but this year it was unseated by the Roclite 290. We found the Tri-C rubber compound to simply be the stickiest rubber on any shoe we tested, an attribute that we loved when scrambling across rocky talus, even when wet! Its super deep and well spaced out "cleats" also gripped grass and mud better than the rest, which is exactly what we would expect from a shoe born for fell running. If optimal traction is a priority, and you like a light and nimble shoe, we highly encourage you to check this one out.
Read review: Inov-8 Roclite 290
Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning
HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 3
Very light for so much shoe
Fantastic springy cushioning underfoot
Not very durable outsole
EVA midsole breaks down fairly quickly
Updated for 2017, the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 3
is even better than its predecessor, the ATR 2. While we mainly evaluated this shoe for trail running, it's also an excellent choice for hiking and everyday use, which is how we have found many people use it. Many folks demand a pillow of cushioning underfoot to protect their bodies from the abusive daily running impact. Others aren't aware that they can have extra cushioning without sacrificing weight or performance. For both types of people, we recommend the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 3. With a stack height of 29mm, it offers more underfoot protection than any other shoe reviewed, which is reason enough to be interested. This shoe was stable, sensitive, and at only 21.6 ounces for a pair of men's size 11, impressively light for how much you get. Gone are the days of compromised performance or ankle-breaking instability while wearing HOKAs. See our review for a full comparison between the old ATR 2 and the new ATR 3.
Read review: Hoka ONE ONE Challenger ATR 3
Analysis and Test Results
The only essential piece of gear for running on trails is a good pair of shoes. Trail running shoes tackle the specific demands of the off-road environment, whether that means rocks, roots, mud, loose dirt and gravel, grass, or even steep scrambling. They have more durable outsoles than road running shoes, featuring sticky rubber and large, grippy lugs to help you gain the purchase you need. They also tend to have a rock plate or extra foam cushioning to protect the bottom of your feet from obstacles not found on the road. To compile the results and information contained within this trail running shoe review, we extensively tested each of the 14 models of shoes described here over the course of four summer months in 2017. Even though four of the models found in this review are holdovers from last year, we again tested them side-by-side against the ten new pairs of shoes released this year, to be sure that all of the results and statements we make are congruent with the shoes in this year's crop.
The Lone Peak 3.5 has a healthy amount of underfoot cushioning, but despite this is still one of the most sensitive shoes we tested, here cruising the downhill on the Bear Creek Trail back home to Ouray, CO.
Testing involves a lot more than simply going out for runs while wearing different pairs of shoes (although there is a whole lot
of that). We pride ourselves on making the best comparisons among the various products to help differentiate which shoes are truly better. To help us, and you the reader, we have carefully rated each shoe based on six different metrics, giving a grade of 1 to 10 on how well each shoe performed. Furthermore, we weighted each of the metrics based on how important we felt it was to a shoe's overall performance. The table above shows where each shoe ranked in overall performance score. Scores were awarded in comparison to the fulfillment of each of the other shoes.
Below we describe each rating metric in detail, including what are the most important aspects of that metric, how we tested it, how much it was weighted toward the final score, and what were the best shoes for that particular purpose. We want to point out that we selected what we thought were the 14 best and most representative trail running shoes after assessing the entire market, so even if a shoe receives a low overall score here, we still think that it is an elite product.
Upper Weehawken Basin is one of the closest mountain basins to our home in Ouray, and is a mere 5 miles of pleasant uphill trail running to access. Somehow we had overlooked it and never made the journey before, but testing the Peregrine 7's gave us the excuse!
Paying Close Attention to Individual Metrics
While all of the metrics combine to form the shoe's overall score, it is important to delve into the individual metrics to find the shoe that best fits your needs. For instance, you may not be interested in our top rated shoe if it scores highly in a metric that is not important to you. For example, maybe the model got that rating due to its exemplary foot protection when you might define sensitivity as your primary criteria. Don't necessarily write off a shoe simply because it isn't the highest scoring shoe in the review. Delve deeper into the numbers that we have provided and carefully read the individual reviews!
In our opinion, the most important criteria for evaluating a trail running shoe is how well it protects your foot. After all, if it didn't offer your foot protection, why would you be wearing it? The largest component of protection is what is found underfoot — in short, the combination of the outsole and midsole. The soles of the feet are among the most sensitive areas of your body, so if you intend to run on rocky and uneven terrain, which is what we do when we trail run, then your shoe will need adequate underfoot protection. Forego this protection, and watch how your feet will dictate to you whether you can run on a trail or not, and how fast you can go.
Most underfoot protection comes in one of two forms: a rock plate made of a hard plastic or composite material that adds rigidity to the shoe and absorbs impacts, or in lieu of that, thick foam cushioning. The most common type of foam found in contenders is EVA foam, which not only protects the foot from protrusions but also absorbs a significant amount of the impact inherent to running before it travels upward into a runner's body. The third method of underfoot protection, found on the Nike shoes in this review, is trapped air pockets in the heel that also offer both protection and cushioning. An interesting component of foot protection is that it often comes at the expense of sensitivity
, and vice versa, which is why we graded for both.
The trail ended and the talus began. While the Challenger ATR 3's are not as stable as we would like for terrain like this, it was very evident that they did an awesome job protecting our feet from all the sharp edges.
A lesser component to foot protection is how well the upper does in protecting the top and sides of your foot from protrusions like sticks or abrasion by rocks. The ends of the toes are a common point of abuse, as we have all accidentally kicked a rock while bombing down the trail. Rigid toe bumpers go a long way to helping alleviate this pain, as does choosing a shoe that is not too tight on the toes. Many manufacturers skimp on upper materials to save weight and offer greater breathability and water drainage, while some have uppers that are as mighty as a Kevlar bulletproof vest.
Here you can see the large amount of midsole foam cushioning and the rockered shape of the Brooks Caldera. Also visible is the black rubberized overlay beneath the orange mesh fabric that does a good job protecting the side of the shoe and the foot, but also caused some rubbing on the inside of the ball of our foot.
In our testing, three shoes rose above the rest when it came to foot protection. The HOKA One One Challenger ATR 3, with its 29mm of EVA foam under the heel
, provided a wonderfully soft and cushy ride. The Brooks Caldera
and the New Balance Leadville v3 were significantly stiffer feeling underfoot
, but did equally as good a job of protecting our feet from anything that we stepped on. Since we think this is such a vital component to running your best anywhere off road, we weighted foot protection as 30% of a shoe's final score.
The Challenger ATR 3 is a shoe that you can really pour some miles into, and is well loved by ultra runners for its ability to absorb a significant portion of the cumulative impact that comes from trail running. Here in front of a waterfall along Cascade Creek, Yankee Boy Basin, CO.
Mud, snow, grass, slippery or wet rocks, tree roots, logs, talus, scree, loose dirt — all of these surfaces are commonly encountered along the trail, so you need a trail running shoe that will grip when it matters. To tackle these myriad surfaces, manufacturers have introduced many diverse solutions through sole material and design. Many of our test pieces had large arrow-shaped lugs, most of them employed a type of rubber stickier than your average road shoe, and most incorporated spaced out traction lugs to shed mud easier as well.
Trail running shoes typically feature very aggressive traction with deep, well spaced out lugs. This is one of the features that vastly differentiates them from their road running counterparts.
Overall, we were impressed with the creativity and different materials that manufacturers used to create traction. We weren't content to only rely on our running adventures to tell us which shoes had the best traction, and so devised some head-to-head traction tests. For this, we tested each shoe on the same stretches of steep loose dirt, steep grass, steep muddy trail, dry talus, and wet rock. In the end, the highest ranking models were the ones that could tackle it all and never left us doubting whether we could firmly land and push off on any given surface. The best shoes tended to have deep, multi-directional lugs that were well spaced apart to better shed mud, covered the entire sole from end to end and side to side and were made of sticky, durable rubber. Short lugs didn't grip grass and mud as well, while closely spaced lugs tended to collect mud; rubber compounds that were too firm didn't give us confidence on talus and wet rock.
Showing the three shoes with the best traction in this year's review. The Inov-8 Roclite 290, in the center, was our Top Pick for Traction, while the Salomon Speedcross 4 on the left, and Saucony Peregrine 7 on the right, were also very good.
After all of these tests, there was a clear winner, the Inov-8 Roclite 290
, which we recognized as a Top Pick for Traction. Its widely spaced, deep cleats were made of supremely sticky rubber, and handled every traction test with impressive ease, including wet rock! The insanely aggressive outsole of the Salomon Speedcross 4
also had gigantic, well-spaced lugs, but it didn't manage to grip wet rock quite as well as the Roclite 290
. Likewise, the gnarly spiked outsole of the Saucony Peregrine 7
, unchanged from the previous version, once again looked more like some medieval torture device than the sole of a shoe but gripped all surfaces very well. Since improved traction is one of the foremost reasons why you would choose to buy a trail running shoe instead of just any old regular running shoe, it accounted for 20% of a shoe's overall score.
The summit of Coxcomb Peak is well-known as one of the hardest 13ers in Colorado to access, with mandatory chossy 5.6 scrambling. Here is the author, about to reverse the crux section along the summit ridge, racing the impending lightning storm, while wearing our Top Pick for Traction, the Inov-8 Roclite 290. Photo by Stephen Eginoire.
Any time that you wear something on your foot, you are modifying your body's natural ability to stand and move from a stable platform. Landing on the ground and pushing off for each stride from a stable platform is a fundamental aspect of running, and one that is greatly affected by the type of surface you are running over. When testing for stability, we looked for how easy it was to maintain our normal running mechanics over variable terrain while wearing that shoe. We found that some shoes would bend and morph to the running surface, forcing us to adjust our landing and push-off. While running in some others, we felt that the shape of the shoe required us to change our stride to ensure a stable platform.
Generally speaking, the lower to the ground our foot was (represented by the "stack height" which can be found in our specs table), the more stable it felt, giving us the confidence to push our speed without rolling an ankle. Another way to ensure a stable platform is to make the shoe wider and flatter, especially in the forefoot, as many of the most stable shoes did, so that our foot could splay out naturally as it went through the incredibly complex motion of landing and then pushing off again. In general, narrow shoes with high stack heights or large heel-toe drop (the difference in height between the heel and toe, measured in millimeters, can also be found in the specs table) felt the least stable underfoot and were the most prone to rolling an ankle or landing awkwardly. While many people appreciate the extra cushioning in the heel that comes with a high heel-toe drop, in our experience, especially when running downhill and across a hill, stability is indeed compromised by this trait.
With a zero drop platform and low profile ride, the Superior 3.0 is naturally very stable, enabling top speed on steep and slippery descents like on the Richmond Trail in CO.
Most of our testing for stability was done while out on trail or adventure runs, but we also compared shoes in a more controlled setting by running in each of them one after the other both across a steep hillside and straight down a similarly steep slope. Three shoes stood out as the most stable, each receiving the highest score. With zero heel-toe drop and a low to the ground stack height of only 21 mm across the length of the sole, the Altra Superior 3.0
was certainly one of the shoes you were least likely to roll an ankle while running in. Likewise, the very low to the ground La Sportiva Helios 2.0
, with a stack height of only 19 mm in the heel and an intimate, slipper-like fit, was also supremely stable. Lastly, our best overall winner, the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4
had an incredibly broad and steady forefoot and also rode low to the ground. As a critical component of a trail running shoe's performance, but not the most
important, we assigned stability 15% of a shoe's final score.
The Nike Terra Kiger 4 is low profile but clearly has enough material underfoot to offer solid protection. It was easily one of the most stable shoes in the review, greatly aided by how well the upper locked our foot in place.
Comfort is probably the single most important criteria when it comes to selecting a running shoe, or any footwear at all for that matter, and is what we recommend you value above all other factors when selecting a pair of shoes for you. However, it is also the criteria most difficult to rate - because it is so subjective. Everyone's foot is different, so what feels amazing to one person could be un-wearable by another. Some products are wide in the toe box while narrow in the heel, and some are just really narrow (or wide) throughout. Some fit perfectly "to size," while others run slightly long or short. We have done our best to describe how each model fits in the individual reviews. Since the comfort level of each shoe will be different for each person, we chose only to rate it 15% of a product's final score. We didn't want to penalize a shoe that felt uncomfortable to our head tester too much when many other people will naturally end up loving it. However, we did find some universal factors that could be compared and rated.
Craftsmanship seemed to play a large part in how comfortable a given model is. The most comfortable pairs used a seamless construction that made them easy to wear sockless (although we don't commonly do so, except for comparison testing). Poorly sewn seams or out of place material overlaps inside a shoe tended to rub and wear against the foot over long distances, significantly decreasing their overall comfort. Likewise, shoes that didn't do a good job of naturally holding the foot in place meant that we needed to crank down the laces to provide a secure fit and often led to discomfort along the top of our feet or front of the ankle joint over long distances. Some shoes didn't breathe very well and left our feet excessively hot and sweaty, while others were a bit too short for the size, meaning our toes would hit the front of the shoe, especially while running downhill. Most of our findings for the Comfort metric were based on our anecdotal evidence from long runs on a variety of terrain. We also conducted the water drainage test
(described in detail below) to get a better grip on which shoes absorbed the least amount of water or sweat; our test also measured which contenders were the most efficient at drying out afterward, which we defined as another important component of comfort.
This section of high alpine trail running is part of both the Continental Divide Trail, as well as the Colorado Trail, as it traverses the Weminuche Wilderness. We thought the combination of comfort and durability found in the Wildhorse 4 made it the perfect long run shoe.
At the end of our testing period, it was clear that three shoes were more comfortable to us than the rest. We experienced no rubbing, pinching, or blisters when running long distances in these shoes, and honestly, we rarely noticed them at all, perhaps the best compliment that can be made about a shoe after a long run. At the top of this list was our best overall trail running shoe, the Nike Terra Kiger 4
, which we felt we could run in every day for the rest of our lives and be happy. The similar but more protective Nike Wildhorse 4
relied on many of the same design concepts to deliver unrivaled comfort. Lastly, the La Sportiva Helios 2.0
hugged our foot so well it reminded us of a slipper or moccasin. While these were the shoes we found to be a notch above the rest in terms of comfort, we still strongly recommend you try shoes on before committing to a purchase. If you decide to order online, do so from a company that will allow you to return them if they don't fit as well as you had hoped.
The Water Drainage Test
The black spandex inner liner of the New Balance Vazee Summit v2 stretched so comfortably around our feet, it felt like we were wearing another sock. We can't say enough about how comfortable this shoe was to wear.
The idea behind this test was to attempt to scientifically prove what products absorbed the least amount of water and then shed it quickest, making them well suited for runs or races where your feet are guaranteed to get wet. Running in the mountains of Colorado on a daily basis, it seems our feet are always wet. We either have to ford streams and creeks or end up tromping through muddy swamps, and no matter how careful we can be, our feet get wet. If we don't have these problems, it still seems like they get wet from morning dew on the bushes and grass, or from afternoon rainstorms, or simply by sweating because it's so hot. Whether you run in the mountains in summer like we do, or run trails on the East Coast or Pacific Northwest, we suspect that water management is a critical factor in the performance of a trail running shoe for nearly everyone.
Pretty much the moment we left the car on a 30 mile traverse of the Weminuche Wilderness we had no choice but to ford Cunningham Creek. This is a perfect example of why trail running shoes need to drain and dry well. Buried underwater are the Wildhorse 4's.
To conduct this test, we weighed each pair when dry. We then dunked each model in a bucket of water for 20 seconds to give them a chance to absorb water, then held them upside down to drain for another 20 seconds. Finally, we quickly weighed them again to see how much water weight they had absorbed into their material. We then put them on without socks and jogged around the block for exactly five minutes, took them off, and weighed them a third time to see how much water weight they had shed while running. For each model, we calculated as a percentage of their dry weight how much water they absorbed while being dunked for 20 seconds and how much water they still retained after a five-minute run compared to when they were dry.
The water bucket test begins by dunking each pair of shoes for exactly 20 seconds to give them a chance to absorb water. We then held them upside down above the bucket for another 20 seconds to let them drain before weighing them.
The New Balance Leadville v3
absorbed the least amount of water as a percentage of its dry weight, very closely followed by the Hoka Challenger ATR 3
and the Altra Superior 3.0
. These three shoes were also the driest three shoes after the five-minute run, meaning that if you need a shoe that will not absorb much water and will dry out quickly after it gets wet, these are your best bet. On the other end of the scale were the Inov-8 Roclite 290
and the Vasque Constant Velocity, which managed to absorb the most amount of water compared to their dry weight
, and also retained the most after five minutes of running as well.
These are our findings of the water bucket test, which we used to see what shoes handled water the best. On the left is how much weight they gained in water after the 20 second dunking and 20 second draining period, as a percentage of their dry weight. On the right is how much they still weighed after a 5 minute run, again as a percentage of their dry weight.
Weight proved to be a fairly easy criterion to judge. Fresh out of the box we weighed each trail running shoe individually and together as a pair, and completely ignored what the manufacturer claimed the weight was. For reference, every product that we received was a U.S. men's size 11. We then paid attention to how heavy the shoe felt while running in them daily. A few were startlingly light, and the math was easily backed up while out wearing them.
At a mere 17.0 ounces for a pair, the La Sportiva Helios 2.0
was far and away the lightest pair in this review, over three ounces lighter than second place. These numbers were backed up by their feel out on the trail, where it genuinely felt as if we were running with almost nothing at all on our feet. Next lightest was the New Balance Vazee Summit v2, which at 19.9 ounces for a pair
, combined a sock-like fit with considerably more cushioning and protection under the heel. A close third was the Altra Superior 3.0
, which weighed 20.9 ounces without the optional removable StoneGuard inserts, which is how we chose to run in them. In general this year, we found that trail running shoes were more tightly grouped at the lower end of the weight scale, while not being willing to cut out necessary features like protection to attain a low weight. As an important thing to consider, but not the be-all end-all in running shoe performance, we assigned weight 10% of a product's final score.
Weighing Hokas on our independent scale.
When grading for sensitivity, we tried to notice how well we could feel the trail while wearing any given shoe. Like we mentioned before, sensitivity often comes at the expense of foot protection, and vice versa. We tried our best not to be judgmental about whether feeling the trail is a good or bad thing, or what amount of sensitivity we preferred but rather graded the most sensitive the highest. While it is easy to decide which ones were the most and least sensitive, it is a preference thing regarding how sensitive you want your trail running shoe to be. Some people like to be intimately connected to the ground they are moving over, while others would prefer to have much more protection for their foot, which often comes at the expense of sensitivity.
We chose this section of sharp and jumbled talus to run back and forth on multiple times in each shoe, one after the other, to closely compare how much underfoot protection each shoe offered, as well as how sensitive they were.
We tested the sensitivity of shoes pretty much the same way that we tested for underfoot protection — by choosing an especially rocky and jagged patch of trail and running back and forth over it countless times in each shoe. We once again found the La Sportiva Helios 2.0
to be the most sensitive shoe in this review, which is not surprising considering it has a mere 15 mm of foam cushioning in the forefoot, no rock plate of any sort, and a minimal outsole.
Close behind was the Altra Superior 3.0
, a shoe that also relies on a scant amount of foam cushioning, but comes with an optional removable StoneGuard rock shield, which is a thin flexible insert that can be added underneath the insole for added protection, and naturally dampens the sensitivity a tad. However, we find that adding this protection reduces the volume of the shoe enough that it is no longer comfortable for us to run in, and after asking everyone we have seen with these shoes whether they use it, they all concur that they prefer to run without it in place. We graded the model based upon not having the rock shield, thus enhancing its natural sensitivity.
One of the best uses for a super sensitive shoe like the Vazee Summit v2 is running uphill, as its very light and nimble feel makes one feel automatically lighter on their feet.
Lastly, a whole group of shoes were also relatively sensitive, although less so than those already mentioned, including the Saucony Peregrine 7
, Inov-8 Roclite 290
, New Balance Vazee Summit Trail v2
, and Altra Lone Peak 3.5
. As a somewhat less important aspect of a shoe's performance, we only allowed sensitivity to account for 10% of a shoe's overall score.
Trapped in a cold rainstorm, waiting below treeline for over an hour for the lightning to stop, Stephen Eginoire captured this awesome photo of the fire he started to keep us warm. This day was a great test of all types of mountain terrain - trails to off-trail tundra to alpine scrambling, and then lots of trail running back to the car. The Roclite 290 was an ideal choice.
There are so many trail running shoes available on the market today that choosing the best pair can present a real challenge. Even after testing the very best shoes available for literally hundreds of hours, we still have a hard time choosing the one that we like best. We hope that the information that we have presented here has helped make your choice easier, and encourage you to delve deeper into the individual metrics and reviews to better understand which shoe will be optimal for your needs.