The Best Trail Running Shoes for Men and Women

April 19, 2016

  • by
  • Peter Reese
  • Wendy Ewing

As we head deeper into winter and then on to spring, don’t let the weather keep you inside and off those muddy trails. We’ve corralled pairs of men’s and women’s trail running shoes to carry you through the stormy season. Tested in Northern California and Golden, Colorado, these shoes have seen miles of the toughest trails the region of the state has to offer.

We were pleasantly surprised this testing season as we found that many of the women’s trail running shoes we ran in did well in a variety of conditions, which means companies are getting better at building shoes for multiple types of terrain. But for those of who run specific types of trails and want specific shoes, we have you covered.

Shoe Brands Evaluated

 Men's Trail Running Shoes  Women's Trail Running Shoes
 Adidas  Brooks
 Altra  Columbia
 Icebug  Dynafit
 Salomon  Hoka One One
 Scarpa  La Sportiva
 Topo Atheletic  Merrell
   Pearl Izumi

How We Tested

We subjected each shoe to either a test course on one of Shasta County’s most versatile trails in Northern Cali, or to a test course on the mesas above Golden, Colorado over a six-week period. Our shoes needed to experience rolling terrain, steep uphills, both hard- and loose-packed ground, and of course, a litany of obstacles. We ran courses in wet and dry weather, on warm and cold days. 

We found that some shoes were amazing to wear the whole course, and some outperformed others on specific sections. As you move towards selecting the best trail running shoe for yourself, be aware of what style of terrain you’ll be running on and for how long. While some of the following models lend themselves to being the “one quiver” shoe, we found that others were built to thrive in specific conditions.

Universal Attributes

Each trail running shoe was evaluated against five major, universal attributes. We then selected one key attribute in which each shoe excelled, and listed it below each review.

Assess the trail running shoe’s ability to confidently navigate varying trail conditions at speed

Ranges from materials selection to solid construction and a well-considered lacing system

Carries practical considerations including resisting abrasion, incursion of debris and eliminating foot-abrading seams

Not an isolated attribute, rewards the brand’s past and current investment in the other key attributes

In trail running, connects most closely with the trail shoe’s expected useful life at a worthwhile performance level – including multi-sport potential

Pearl Izumi N2 V3 Trail Running Shoe – Women’s

Pearl izumi n2 v3 main Pearl Izumi N2 V3 $52.86 - $97.00

Editor’s Pick for Best Women’s Trail Running Shoe

Pearl Izumi’s Trail N2 V3 are the go anywhere and do anything – for any distance – women’s trail running shoe. A footbed built for natural foot splay and incidental swelling is one of the features that makes this shoe ultra-run approved. Protection underfoot and a rubber tread means this shoe can handle tough trails while providing superb traction. These shoes will keep your feet happy at the end of a long training day.

Tester Comments: “It’s not often we find a shoe that we want to wear for more than just running. We’d spend all day in these Pearls if we could. We actually look forward to running long miles, even on gnarly trails.”

Key Attribute: Value

Best for: Mixed terrain in mixed conditions over long distances and even cruising around town

Salewa Lite Train Trail Running Shoe – Women’s

Salewa lite train main Salewa Lite Train $79.12 - $91.96

Best Performance Women’s Trail Running Shoe

For those training in the mountains and for the mountains, the Salewa Lite Train moves at full force. The highly technical design and sleek look to boot gives you the feel and performance of a total badass. The aggressive lugs create a responsive feel on a variety of terrain and perfect traction. Inspired by mountain bike tires, the tread grips every surface at every angle, making this the ideal shoe for serious training this winter. 

Tester Comments: “We’re stoked every time we get to put these shoes on — they just make you feel like you can conquer any trail in any kind of condition. The minimal upper shoe fits snug so they respond quickly and confidently on the trail.”

Key Attribute: Design

Best for: Tackling both soft- and hard-packed alpine trails over medium distances

Topo Athletic Hydroventure Trail Running Shoe – Men’s

Topohydroventure Topo Athletic Hydroventure Trail Running Shoe - Men's Starting at: $87.72

Editor’s Pick for Best Men’s Trail Running Shoe

This new offering from Topo Athletic doesn’t like getting stuck, whether bogged down in sticky mud or pigeon-holed as a minor player in the running game. Active Junky, already a student of the brand since its early split-toe design days, grabbed and laced this one with high expectations. Claiming the crown as the “lightest fully waterproof trail running shoe on the market,” testers first scored it high for all-day comfort with a flexible rock plate underfoot. At 9.7oz, Hydro flew fast on flats with a minimal 3mm drop (stack height of 23mm x 20mm) combined with a competent 4.5mm rubber outsole as trails turned skyward. When splashing puddles turned into churning through deeper muck, this eVent-based Topo Athletic model paddled hard, fast – and stayed dry inside. Lacing eyelets and tongue loops locked in fit with little shifting and no foot or ankle abrasion even in wetter scenarios.

Tester Comments: “Hydroventure is an anomaly. With an easy-walking stack height and subdued colorway, it strolls through town sporting casual style when paired with shorts or even jeans. On the trail, the lightweight design pounds into nearly any scenario imaginable with enough EVA midsole-generated stability and outsole width to stay on course. Uppers conjured from single-layer laminate are pure genius.”

Key Attribute: Performance

Best for: Training, travel and daily wear configured to given even beginner trail runners confidence from the start

Brooks Mazama Trail Running Shoe – Women’s 

Brooks mazama trail main Brooks Mazama Trail Running Shoes $88.17 - $120.36

The new Mazamas have the long-loved Brooks Cascadias looking over their shoulder, and they’re coming up fast. A trail shoe built for speed on technical terrain, you may as well be dancing over dirt and rock than running. With a focus on fit, protection, and tread, these trail women’s trail running shoes are feathery light without compromising performance. Trail ladies will love how much you can get out of one stride. 

Tester Comments: “The stiff feeling of this shoe was surprising, but the moment we stepped on the trail that stiffness played a key role in flying down the trail.”

Key Attribute: Performance

Best for: Leaving all your running partners in the dust cruising over technical terrain

Columbia Montrail Caldorado II Trail Running Shoe – Women’s 

Columbia montrail caldorado ii main Columbia Montrail Caldorado II $64.78 - $67.66

Columbia has been making quality outdoor gear for years, including footwear. This year Columbia along with its sub brand Montrail has made a trail running shoe friendly to all levels of female runners. The Montrail Caldorado II is a full-fledged trail shoe allowing first time trail runners and experienced trail nuts alike to enjoy their training. Both the FluidGuide and Foam technologies provide cushion and comfort while TrailShield offers total under foot protection, factors both parties can appreciate. 

Tester Comments: “There were no hot spots at all, which is an important factor for women just getting into trail running. And our tester suffers from plantar fasciitis, so the fact she didn’t need a special insole means Columbia gets a double thumbs up from the Active Junky testing team.”

Key Attribute: Value

Best for: An all-around running shoe, whether first trail shoe or favorite pick for mixed trail conditions

Dynafit MS Feline Vertical Trail Running Shoe – Women’s

Dynafit ms feline vertical main Dynafit MS Feline Vertical

While maybe not everyone’s first guess at a trail runner, the Dynafit Feline Vertical is our first pick for steep terrain. Ultra tractiony soles and a minimal, secure fit to the foot makes this trail shoe an asset to those long steep training runs. The performance-to-weight ratio is a key components to what makes the Feline Vertical so popular among serious athletes. The 4mm drop on the ultra-light vertical midsole makes this shoe ideal for both training and steep alpine races. 

Tester Comments: “We loved these shoes for hill repeats on old dirt power line roads or runs up to the top of local peaks. They feel quick under foot and responsive in nearly all terrain we ran on.”

Key Attribute: Performance

Best for: Running or fast-packing up trails with steep and technical terrain

Hoka One One Challenger ATR 2 Trail Running Shoe – Women’s

Hoka one one challenger atr 2 Hoka One One Challenger ATR 2 Starting at: $116.96

After running the same course in minimalistic shoes, running it in the Challenger ATR 2 felt like a dream. The unbeatable cushion from Hoka One One actually rejuvenates the runner in every step. Take these running shoes on road and trail for uncompromised comfort and support. The Ortholite insole and oversized EVA midsole helps make these trail shoes perfect for anyone looking for a little extra love for their joints and running pains. 

Tester Comments: “We gravitate towards these Hoka trail running shoes if given the option for hard packed trails or pavement. Feet can often become unnecessarily or prematurely exhausted, and the Challengers kept our feet live and kickin’.”

Key Attribute: Value

Best for: Running on mixed terrain (including asphalt) and smoother trails over ultra-long distances

La Sportiva Akasha Trail Running Shoe – Women’s

La sportiva akasha main La Sportiva Akasha Women's $94.50 - $134.40

Whenever someone talks about La Sportiva, mountainous terrain and miles of ridgelines with epic views immediately come to mind. The Akashas give off that vibe the minute they’re pulled out of the box. Aggressive tread, serious rock protection, and cushion enough for long miles make these the perfect shoe for distance running in alpine terrain. The strategic protection of this shoe under the arch, in the heel and over the toe is what makes the La Sportiva Akasha one of the beefiest but most graceful women’s running shoe on the trail. 

Tester Comments: “The upper shoe helps the foot feel stable and secure in these shoes as you run over uneven terrain. While a bit on the narrow side, this seemed to help a lot with responsiveness and control during training.”

Key Attribute: Quality 

Best for: Any mileage on gnarly trails and rocky, alpine terrain

Merrell All Out Crush Shield Trail Running Shoe – Women’s

Merrell all out crush shield main Merrell All Out Crush Shield Starting at: $104.50

While winter brings bad weather, the Merrell All Out Crush Shield brings weather protection. The TPU coated mesh on the upper shoe keeps water out despite all the rain and snow you’re running in. The 5mm lugs plus super grippy tread on the outer sole make this shoe a weapon on the trail. A light cushioning in the midsole gives you just enough comfort on rocky trails while remaining in the minimalist trail running shoe family. 

Tester Comments: “If you’re not used to minimal cushioning, these will suit you best on softer trails. They have excellent grip even in the muddiest of conditions. The arch support is also much more noticeable in these shoes than in others we’ve tested.”

Key Attribute: Innovation

Best for: Minimalist trail runners who need a shoe with more cushion, or runners looking for a taste of minimalism

Adidas Terrex Boost GTX Trail Running Shoe – Men’s

Adidas terrex boost gtx1 Adidas Terrex Boost GTX

Not merely a marketing mechanism to assert the brand, Adidas Terrex Boost’s energy return is real, reliable and turns a superior shoe into an exceptional performer. Even without the not-hot, breathable GORE-TEX membrane and ravenous Continental Rubber outsole, Boost would have won testers over with a low-profile fast cruising design. Speed laces handle hard yanks, locking securing before being tamed by the durable elastic keeper. Inside, medial support keeps 12.5oz Boost GTX on the straight and narrow while midsole EVA delivers enhanced foot comfort. If out of the box fit isn’t perfect, spring for insoles to prepare for a personalize launch.

Tester Comments: “Mountain running is simply the start here. I’ve been riding them on platform pedals, fast-packing Boost with moderate weight as well as approach hiking with total freedom and worry-free foot protection. If there’s an all-rounder than still earns its keep for trail running, this is the one.”

Key Attribute: Value

Best for: Hard pushes in uncertain terrain, three-season running in addition to credible multisport use, adventure travel

Altra Lone Peak Trail Running Shoe – Men’s

Altra lone peak Altra Lone Peak – Men’s $82.56 - $139.46

Somehow, Altra has crammed powerful Neoshell breathe-and-repel moisture technology into a slipper-like package replete with life-saving, crud-shedding traction. It would be easy to walk by this one unless you’d heard – from serious runners – how reliable and efficient Altra builds performance footwear. A 25mm stack height doesn’t force an altered stride except where it excels on climbs and descents. Altra’s FootShape toebox means natural spread without negative consequences even for narrow feet. The net result of this 11.9oz model? Fun from confident TrailClaw outsole control, meaningful efficiency and a sense of well-being landing in the middle of whatever suits you.

Tester Comments: “First time with the brand after hearing a good friend and ultrarunning machine speak up Altra time after time. The grey colorway under test is so subdued it makes the shoe’s well-conceived design disappear, adding to the sensation of floating through obstacles like an armored cloud.”

Key Attribute: Value

Best for: Moderate to high mileage in most weather and trail conditions, training to recreational to racing scenarios

Icebug Zeal RB9X Trail Running Shoe – Men’s

Zeal2rb9xeclipsedeepocean 1 Icebug Zeal RB9X $83.42 - $139.46

Icebug’s Nordic roots mean uncompromising design with a level of intentionality no lookalike model can ever emulate. Previous Zeal versions nailed it for traction and personalized fit. Now the brand screams in with an updated upper rooted in Kevlar fabric technology. High mileage runners who won’t let abrasive rocks, trip-wire roots and unconsolidated trails dissuade them will appreciate Zeal’s upgraded control and newly-extended longevity. More like world-class competitive track footwear, Zeal trades separate insole construction for a tailored, foot-friendly midsole. Quick-dry mesh flows through part of shoe that’s lined – sans seams – to increase the comfort quotient. Did we mention 8.8oz? As in, what’s missing is significant even though the price stays south of the $170 mark. An Active Junky advisory is warranted here as other Icebug models are better suited for mellower base miles, ramped up training plans and less tortuous terrain.

Tester Comments: “European sensibilities prevail here, including the shoe’s recommended use for orienteering. Closer to home, obstacle course racing and point-to-point mountain events more than justify the model’s price. And a bias toward competition explains the attention to detail (like an enhanced heel cradle) blended with on-trail durability. I recommend running them fast and often.”

Key Attribute: Innovation

Best for: Challenges on which others pass, trails that even hikers find daunting in addition to courses with high mental concentration coefficients

Salomon Speedcross Pro Trail Running Shoe – Men’s

Salomon speedcross pro1 Salomon Speedcross Pro Trail Running Shoe - Men's $100.47 - $139.46

Decision. And not to be elitist about it. Are you out to run some trails or be a trail runner? Speedcross calls the question as it commands Earth, wind and water to do its bidding. Not an overstatement as Active Junky found unstable steeps, broken breezy ridges and mud holes were causes for – acceleration: Walk past this 30mm/20mm midsole height Salomon model if leisurely miles are the goal. Pro plants the flag with every step in marginal conditions while making easy trails, well, boring. More cushioned than expected, the shoe’s tendency to heat up is notable even in cooler conditions. The antidote is simple. Find some water and plow through it. Bonus points awarded to this Contagrip-outsoled model for smooth-cruising welded seams, friction-free eyelets and one of the smartest lace tensioning toggles we’ve seen (aka quicklace).

Tester Comments: “It was hard to stick to the test course and evaluation protocol. Any time the trail got flatter or more consolidated, the temptation was to go (Speed)cross-country. Rubble, seep-fed mud and off-camber trails were like candy to the oatmeal of ordinary trails. Advise you run another shoe for base miles, then start out with hill sprints on this one.”

Key Attribute: Design

Best for: Apocalyptic conditions, building power and agility, first mountain running races

Scarpa Neutron Trail Running Shoe – Men’s

Neutron mens Scarpa Neutron Trail Running Shoe - Men's $81.25 - $86.66

Even if you know the Scarpa name from winter alpine pursuits, Neutron further extends the brand’s credibility across four seasons. Easy lacing and a padded tongue top off the solid construction built on a dual-density midsole. With superlative ground feel while it cushions every step, 6mm-drop Neutron increases foot and joint protection minus the pillows-strapped-to-feet sensation. To up the adventure quotient, pushing toward midfoot strike accelerates the shoe into tougher terrain without concern for stability or traction (thanks, Vibram). Weight under 10oz. will please another group that 3) wants to fast-pack. If needed, pick a favorite aftermarket insole to complete the transformation to get even more joy out of this new model as overnight sorties enter the mix.

Tester Comments: “The unique combination of agility and stability made running Neutron a refreshing experience as did the uppers’ breathability. Vibram treads seemed to be nearly gyroscope-controlled in recovering from rolling stones – without a need to look down at the electric-colored shoes. Even after I pounded them into thick mud, the outsoles retained enough traction to negotiate quick switchbacks on unconsolidated trails.”

Key Attribute: Quality

Best for: Multi-sport training in tandem with injury recovery and prevention, fast-and-light outings attached to variable (and marginal) terrain

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