If you’re looking for a shortlist of the best trail running shoes then you’ve come to the right place. We live and breathe trail running and have personally run thousands of miles in hundreds of different trail shoe brands and styles.
Choosing the best trail running shoes can be confusing when you factor in things like ‘type of terrain’, ‘elevation gain/loss’, ‘distances’, ‘weather conditions’, and even ‘running styles’.
I’m here to demystify the jargon and narrow down the wide range of options when it comes to finding the best trail shoes for you, not just provide you with a list of every trail running shoe currently available.
Whether you are a beginner trail runner and are looking for your first pair of all-round trail running shoes, or you already run trails (including 5km, 10km, marathons, 50k+ ultra marathons, Swim-run, or even OCR events like Spartan and Tough Mudder), I’ve shortlisted this year’s best trail shoes by type.
This trail running shoes buyer’s guide is made up of two parts:
PART 1: Best trail running shoes – this is a list of the best trail shoes for different styles of trail running, distances, and types of trails.
As there are so many great trail shoes out there, each category has a winner and some have one or two runners-up for you to also consider.
PART 2: Buyer’s Guide – this is a complete guide to choosing the best pair of trail shoes for you, including different types of trails you may run on, heel-to-toe drop, and whether or not waterproof trail shoes are a good idea.
I’ll also share the things to think about if you’re researching trail runners for hiking, rather than running in.
My Trail Running Shoe Top Picks
If you’re short on time and are not able to read my trail running shoe reviews for each model that made it onto this list, here are my top picks:
- Best all-rounders: HOKA Mafate Speed 4
- Best hybrid running shoes: HOKA Challenger ATR 7
- Best for racing (up to marathon distance): Salomon S/Lab Sense 8
- Best waterproof trail shoes: Nike Pegasus Trail 4 Gore-Tex
- Best for hard-packed trails: On Cloudventure Peak
- Best zero-drop: Altra Lone Peak 6
- Best trail running shoes for hiking: Salomon Speedcross 6
- Trail shoes for ultramarathon: HOKA Speedgoat 4
- Best for Tough Mudder & Spartan / OCR: Salomon Speedcross 6
- Best for Vertical Kilometer races: La Sportiva VK
Table of Contents
This post is split into two parts – Part 1 is our list of best trail running shoes, sorted under various headings that focus on the type of trail running our top picks are best suited for, so be sure to read the entire post.
Part 2 is our guide on how to choose the best trail running shoes for you. After reading Part 2, you’ll be an expert on trail running shoes.
The Best All-Round Men’s and Women’s Trail Shoes
The following are considered to be the best for all mountain/trails, mixed-use, or varied terrain trail running.
1. HOKA Mafate Speed 4
Drop: 4mm / Weight: 10.4oz (295g) / Support Type: Neutral.
To learn more about these great trail running shoes, read my HOKA Mofate Speed 4 review.
The HOKA Mafate Speed 4 is quite frankly, a masterpiece of trail running engineering.
Earlier this year the Nike Terra Kiger 8 had my heart but now I’ve given it away to HOKA’s Mafate Speed 4 trail running shoes.
The Mafate Speed 4 has that perfect 4mm drop from heel to toe and is extremely lightweight considering all the cushioning they have, weighing in at 10.4oz.
The tread on these best trail running shoes is incredibly sticky, and the lugs are deep enough to dig into wet mud and loose trail debris – this means total confidence on steep descents.
In case you hadn’t noticed from our previous content, I’m a trail runner who loves most kinds of trails but particularly love steep ascents and descents with technical terrain. That’s what really gets my heart racing! 🙂
It also means that during challenging climbs, the Mafate Speed 4 is able to dig into the trail and provide you with the traction required to ascend quickly.
Then there’s the midsole cushioning on these trail running shoes that has just the right amount of protection and comfort underfoot to give trail runners a smooth enjoyable ride when running on the road, and hard-packed trails, while maintaining a very responsive ride with total control.
The stack height is at the level where the cushioning is plentiful, yet there’s none of that lateral roll when running over technical terrain – it’s just a really damn great trail feel!
Expect lots of new HOKA running shoe reviews coming to Trail & Kale – I’m impressed HOKA, really impressed!
Now let’s address the elephant in the room – they’re $185 which is a lot for a pair of trail running shoes BUT believe me, when I say this, these do-it-all trail running shoes are well worth the hefty price tag and you will not be disappointed with this purchase, I promise.
If you’re a trail runner who wan’ts the best trail running shoes available right now, these are for you!
2. Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 8
Drop: 4mm / Weight: 10.4oz (295g) / Support Type: Neutral.
To learn more about these great trail running shoes, read my Nike Terra Kiger 8 review.
The Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 8 is an excellent all round Nike Trail running shoe for fast trail runs or races.
I was blown away by the performance of the Terra Kiger 8 while testing them on our most challenging local trails here in California.
These trail running shoes remind me a lot of the original Pegasus Trail (Peg 36 Trail) which was one of Nike’s best trail running shoes until now because the Terra Kiger 8 is something really special!
It’s not often I get so excited about a trail running shoe, generally every two years a brand will surprise me with a high performer, this year Nike has done it.
The Nike Terra Kiger 8’s hybrid Zoom / React foam midsole is so much better than the other running shoes in the Nike Trail range which only offer full React foam.
Zoom foam provides much better response and control when navigating technical terrain so trail runners who enjoy been fast and nimble on the trails will appreciate the feel of these trail running shoes.
This midsole on these trail running shoes gives a smooth and responsive ride on hard trail surfaces, and its forefoot rock plate gives just the right amount of protection from sharp rocks underfoot.
If you’re a Nike fan and like to run trails fast with a low heel-to-toe drop (4mm), the Terra Kiger 8 is a great pick for running anything up to trail marathon or 50k distances.
These running shoes also climb well and descend even better due to aggressive lugs and very sticky rubber which has been keeping me in total control of my local steep downhill trails.
This is something that many trail shoes out there do not do very well!
If you run fast and light-footed you could absolutely compete in longer ultra-marathons wearing these Nike trail shoes, too.
The $140 price point is also very reasonable for these do-it-all trail running shoes.
3. On Cloudultra
Drop: 8mm / Weight: 10.41oz (295g) / Support Type: Neutral.
To learn more about them, read my On Cloudultra review.
The On Cloudultra is On Running‘s best offering for off-road running, and a seriously worthy contribution to the trail running and ultrarunning arena.
I’m a big fan of On running due to their consistent ability to innovate when it comes to running shoes, and even apparel.
Yes, this running brand has a larger focus on road running, but On’s trail running shoes have been developing super-fast year on year.
The On Cloudultra has answered my calls for an On trail running shoe that can handle technical terrain extremely well and remain comfortable for many miles on trails or hard surfaces like concrete and tarmac.
When you wear them, regardless of whether on roads or trails, you get a firm yet responsive ride that is confidence-boosting and enjoyable.
These are great running shoes for distances up to and over the marathon and my current favorite On trail running shoe all-rounder.
If you’re a trail runner who loves the fit of the hugely popular On running shoes range, you’ll also love how these feel.
4. Salomon S-Lab Ultra 3
Drop: 8mm / Weight: 10.2oz (290g) / Support Type: Neutral.
The Salomon S-Lab Ultra 3 is one of those running shoes that’s so comfortable it feels like a road running shoe.
This is to some degree down to the very breathable, lightweight upper and the long-lasting foam that provides soft cushioning and protection for long-distance trail running whether 5k to ultra marathons.
The outsole of these unisex Salomon trail running shoes is built for a wide variety of surfaces, and it really does handle it all very well, whether wet, dry, hard or loose and offers long-term durability.
This shoe is expensive, but when you think about how durable the outsole is, you’re actually getting a great value for money when compared to other less-expensive trail shoes which can wear down more quickly.
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The Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3 haa a built-in gaiter to stop debris from getting in. It closes around your ankle very effectively, where some other brands fail to manage with with their built in gaters.
Assuming you’re not looking for a trail running shoe with loads of cushioning, these are excellent running shoes that will do it all.
5. Salomon Ultra Glide
Drop: 6mm / Weight: 9.2oz (260g) / Support Type: Neutral
To learn more, watch my Salomon Ultra Glide review on YouTube.
The Salomon Ultra Glide did a brilliant job of tackling pretty much any type of terrain I chucked at it.
On steep technical downhills, I had total control of my footing and felt very confident in my ability to run hard and fast knowing that the grip on these trail running shoes would keep me upright.
They’re comfortable out of the box, and fit true to size with Salomon, and other running shoe brands that we review here on Trail & Kale so if you’re a trail runner who is used to the brand, go with your usual sizing.
I love the Quicklace system for fast adjustments when you need to make them during a trail running adventure, and as mentioned earlier, the outsole provides formidable grip when you need it.
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6. La Sportiva Bushido 2
Drop: 6mm / Weight: 10.5oz (298g) / Support Type: Neutral.
For more, read our full La Sportiva Bushido 2 Review.
The La Sportiva Bushido 2 running shoes are great if you want a high-performing shoe with a combination of responsiveness, stability, and comfort with excellent protection and impressive traction.
The Bushido 2 style has been around a while, which is a testament to what a great, reliable, and all-round popular trail shoe La Sportiva has created.
These La Sportiva running shoes provide enhanced cushioning while also providing a stable, lightweight, sticky, and aggressive outsole – the performance and protection on technical terrain is impressive.
These would be a better pick than the Salomon trail shoes listed above if you need that extra protection and stability for running on harder, rockier terrain more frequently.
The La Sportiva Bushido 2 trail shoes are also in our opinion one of the best trail running shoes for hiking, that 6mm drop and support gives you lots of control no matter the speed at which you navigate the trails.
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7. Inov-8 Trailfly Ultra G300 MAX
Drop: 6mm / Weight: 10.5oz (300g) / Support Type: Neutral
We only have good things to say about these lightweight, rugged-yet-flexy running shoes from Inov-8.
The grip on these ultra-worthy running shoes is the best out there, and when you run in these you can really feel the spring and rebound provided by the graphene-enhanced foam midsole.
If you’re looking for some protective, test breathable trail shoes that will give you confidence running at speed over uneven and loose terrain, especially on gnarly descents, then these are a great choice.
The Best Hybrid Running Shoes (Road To Trail)
1. HOKA Challenger ATR 7 ($145) | Best Hybrid Running Shoes
Drop: 5mm / Weight: 8.9oz (252g)/ Support Type: Neutral.
For a more detailed look at them, read my HOKA Challenger ATR 7 review.
The HOKA Challenger ATR 7 is a seriously impressive all-terrain that actually does perform well on road surfaces and on a huge variety of trails.
I say “actually does” because so many hybrid running shoes out there just don’t cut it. They’re either road running shoes with a trail running-esq tread slapped on the outsole, or they’re trail running shoes with added cushioning in the midsole.
Hoka has been thoughtful with the Challenger 7 and have managed to pull off a really decent pair of hybrid running shoes that feel incredibly comfortable in the wet yet also perform on most trail surfaces I put them through (even in wet conditions).
The only area they didn’t perform was in deep sticky mud due to the closely packed 4mm lugs on the outsole which had reduced traction when clogged up. Having said that, they wouldn’t be great hybrid running shoes on road surfaces if the lugs were any deeper.
So all in all, for $145, the HOKA Challenger ATR 7 are fantastic hybrid running shoes for the beginner trail runner or experienced level trail runners who like to (or are required to) split their routes between road and trail surfaces but don’t want to compromise on ‘road comfort’, or ‘trail control’.
2. Nike Pegasus Trail 4 – Excellent for beginners!
Drop: 9mm / Weight: 10.2oz (290g) / Support Type: Neutral.
For a more detailed look at them, read my Nike Pegasus Trail 4 review.
The Nike Pegasus Trail 4 are high-performance trail running shoes for light, or buffed / hard-packed trails – OH, and also roads because this is a road to trail hybrid running shoe.
The 9mm drop forces a more forward-leaning stance which is typical of a running shoe for runners who want to run fast and keep that forward momentum pushing them forward.
The Pegasus Trail 4 is well suited to running fast downhill and they also pack a punch while running uphill due to the aggressive tread on the outsole and that super-cushioned React foam in the midsole.
The React foam midsole protects the bottom of your feet from spiky rocks extremely well too.
The Nike Pegasus Trail’s construction is very durable and personally, I think the design looks great.
Best For Racing (Up To And Including Marathon Distance)
Do you love to run trails FAST over distances spanning 5k to trail marathons?
If so then you need high-performance lightweight trail running shoes but may sacrifice a little in cushioning underfoot as a result.
These trail running shoes are for the speed junkies who like to fly over any type of trails!
SPEAKING OF RACING… if you haven’t read my ultimate 50k and trail marathon training plan/guide, and you’d like to improve your training and racing strategy for the 50k and trail marathon distances, then definitely go have a read!
There’s a lot of great information in there for people new to the 50k/marathon distances, and seasoned racers alike – information that many won’t talk about in order to give themselves the edge over other competitors but I’m a sharer, so go and have a read after absorbing this best trail running shoes buyer’s guide.
1. Salomon S/Lab Sense 8
Drop: 4mm / Weight: 6.87oz / Support Type: Neutral.
The second pair of Salomons to make this list, the Salomon S-Lab Sense 8 is my choice as the best for mixed distances of anything up to the trail marathon distance.
Top endurance runners demand lightweight, precision, and ground feel.
The Salomon S-Lab Sense 8 is approximately 6.87oz, which is an insanely lightweight trail shoe – much lighter than the Salomon S-Lab Ultra 3 included above.
Key features of the Sense 8 include an integrated sock liner and a welded stitch-free upper that fits like a sock, a minimal drop of 4mm, and softer cushioning under the front of the foot than in previous versions.
This is a unisex shoe so if you’re looking for the women’s version, it’s on the same link below.
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2. Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 8
Drop: 4mm / Weight: 10.4oz (295g) / Support Type: Neutral.
The Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 8 is an excellent all round Nike Trail running shoe hence why it wins the best all-round trail running shoes title.
I was blown away by how well the Terra Kiger 8 handle every type of trail I thrashed it on, and it felt so good I was able to smash my personal best times on many segments of my local trail running shoe test route.
These trail running shoes remind me a lot of the original Pegasus Trail (Peg 36 Trail) crossed with the Salomon S-Lab Sense 8 listed above!
The only reason this shoe sits in second place for racing is because it weighs more than the Sense 8. When you think about the fact it’s $40 cheaper than and performs astonishingly well in it’s own right, however, I’ll let you be the decider on which one is best for you.
3. HOKA ONE ONE Zinal
Drop: 4mm / Weight: 17oz (482g) / Support Type: Neutral
If shorter trail runs are your thang, then the HOKA Zinals could be your new best trail companions.
These breathable, 100% vegan trail shoes are a lightweight choice, offering a moderate level of cushioning for some great responsiveness when you’re pushing for speed, whether on singletrack or those punishing fire roads.
To help with responsiveness and to provide that feeling of being close to the ground, these HOKA trail shoes also feature a relatively low 4mm heel-to-toe drop.
Best Waterproof Trail Running Shoes
Looking for a shoe that will give you no excuses to go out running during the winter, even on rainy days?
If you need to keep your feet warm and dry, you may need a pair of waterproof trail running shoes, which feature technologies such as GORE-TEX to keep water out while you’re running in wet conditions.
But first – just to be sure – scroll down to our tips on choosing waterproof trail shoes in case you decide not to opt for a waterproof version once you’ve read them.
1. Nike Pegasus Trail 4 GORE-TEX (GTX Waterproof)
Drop: 10mm / Weight: 9oz / Support Type: Neutral.
Nike’s Pegasus Trail 4 GORE-TEX is an excellent waterproof Nike trail shoe and has earned my pick as the best Gore-Tex trail running shoes for wet and cold winter running.
The Pegasus Trail 4 Gore-Tex is a high-performance trail running shoe that feels just as comfortable on the road as it does on the trails, making it a great door-to-trail hybrid running shoe.
They’re great for running on light trails and even road surfaces, and I love how comfortable they are while running fast downhill due to the cushioning in the heel. They also dig in very well while climbing hills.
Nike React foam offers great protection and cushioning underfoot and they are generally a very comfortable fit, in my experience. They are also very reasonably priced for a waterproof trail shoe!
2. Salomon Speedcross 6 GTX
Drop: 10mm / Weight: 11.6 oz / Support Type: Neutral.
This guide would not be complete without the inclusion of this classic wet-weather trail shoe from Salomon.
The Salomon Speedcross 6 GTX is the latest waterproof (Gore-Tex) addition to an extremely popular shoe amongst runners who love to get dirty on the trails.
The Salomon Speedcross 6 GTX is a lightweight trail shoe, especially considering it’s waterproof and offers a very aggressive grip on technical, soft trails.
This Salomon trail shoe offers tons of support too, which makes it a popular choice for hikers who don’t want the bulk of a traditional hiking boot and would prefer to wear running shoes for hiking.
And finally, there’s the Quicklace adjustment system that so many people love as it’s so fast and easy to do up and doesn’t come loose as standard running shoelaces can.
3. On Cloudventure Waterproof
Drop: 6mm / Weight: 12.2oz / Support Type: Neutral.
To learn more read my On Cloudventure Waterproof Review
The On Cloudventure Waterproof trail shoes look so badass and offer excellent cushioning while thrashing the trails.
When wearing these to test for our more detailed review of these On running shoes, I was able to storm down the hills much faster than usual on harder terrain.
You get the same ‘run on clouds’ feeling wearing these running as you do with the On Cloudultra and On Running’s road running shoes range, but with a much more solid and, of course, waterproof trail shoe specifically designed for running in wet conditions.
Best For Hard Packed Trails
1. On Cloudventure Peak
Drop: 4mm / Weight: 9.2oz / Support Type: Neutral.
To learn more read my On Cloudventure Peak Review
The On Cloudventure Peak is another On trail running shoe, designed for moving fast in the mountains and it delivers, that’s why I have ranked it as the top choice for smooth buffed trail runs.
On has added some significant new design features to their 2nd Generation Cloudventure Peak!
The new Missiongrip outsole has been improved in terms of ‘trail-feel’, cushioning, grip and durability, all the while maintaining the same lightweight of 260g (9.2oz).
The breathable ripstop upper mesh is still there, albeit redesigned but still weighing next to nothing. The Cloudventure Peak is also a top contender for the Racing Trail Shoe Category above.
Best Zero Drop Trail Running Shoes (Also the Best Trail Shoes for Wide Feet)
If you’ve heard about barefoot running or the use of zero drop running shoes before, then you’ve probably also learned that they come with various benefits.
Click here to jump down to learn more about zero drop shoes or read on to see the shoes.
1. Altra Lone Peak 6
Drop: 0mm / Weight: 10.6oz (300g) / Support Type: Neutral.
The Altra Lone Peak 6 is ready to take on any terrain with Altras grippy MaxTrac outsole with TrailClaw canted lugs designed to keep you going without any slips.
The Lone Peak 6’s upper construction and customizable lacing system provides a more secure fit than previous versions, so you can take on the trails with even more confidence.
Altra’s signature FootShape toe boxes allow the toes to relax and spread out naturally and the big toe to remain in a straight position.
As well as being the best zero drop trail shoe on the market right now, these Altra trail runners are also a top pick if you’re looking for wide trail running shoes, as this model is known for having a wide toe box to allow your toes to splay out naturally when inside.
The Altra Lone Peak 6 is a highly popular shoe and deserves a place on this list, especially when considering how well they cater to people looking for trail shoes for wide feet.
It is also a great choice if you’re looking for rugged running shoes for hiking, especially as they also come in a ‘mid’ style which offers more ankle support than the regular low shoe option.
16 new from $84.00
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Best Trail Running Shoes for Hiking
If you’re looking for a pair of trail runners for hiking in then it’s worth considering what features are important to you in a pair of shoes when you’re hiking in them, and you can read more about that in our trail shoes buying guide below.
The best trail shoes for hiking on this list in our opinion are the ever-popular:
- Salomon Speedcross 6 / Waterproof version
- La Sportiva Bushido II
- Brooks Cascadia 15
- Altra Lone Peak 6
The latter of which are differentiated further from the other shoes on this list due to them also being available in a high-top version (‘mid’) that offers greater ankle protection if worn hiking and running on more rugged trails.
Best Ultra Running shoes
If you love to run huge distances from marathons up to 100-mile ultra marathons and beyond then it’s very important that you have running shoes that will keep your feet comfortable for many hours at a time.
See below for the top trail shoes for ultra running. These trail shoes can handle anything from 50ks to 100 miles and more.
1. Hoka One One Speedgoat 4
Drop: 4mm / Weight: 10.8oz / Support Type: Neutral.
Named for Karl Meltzer aka “The Speedgoat”, who holds the record for the most 100-mile ultra trail race wins and epitomizes the “go everywhere, run everything” attitude, these Hoka trail running shoes are designed to attack all kinds of technical trail.
The Hoka Speedgoat 4s have some chunky Vibram lugs which are designed to be able able to handle very rugged terrain and there’s extra heel support and midfoot lockdown in the upper, which helps provide comfort when run in for many hours at a time on hard trails.
The Speedgoat 4 are one of the fastest and toughest options out there and our top pick when it comes to the best ultra running shoes.
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2. Brooks Cascadia 15
Drop: 8mm / Weight: 12oz / Support Type: Neutral.
The Brooks Cascadia 15 are especially comfortable trail shoes for hard, rocky trails but will perform across most trail types on account of their excellent grip – some of the best grip out of all the running shoes in this buyer’s guide!
I find myself pushing harder on the downhill sections when wearing these trail shoes due to the extra cushioning, which makes such a difference how how your feet feel after a run on the more punishing, rocky trails, in particular.
The Brooks Cascadia 15 trail shoes also perform well when running on road sections, very handy when it’s hard to avoid roads during a run, such as when you have to run to a trailhead.
There are very good reasons why Brooks Cascadia trail shoes have been around for so many years and are so very popular among trail and ultra runners.
They also make a great choice if you’re looking for trail sneakers for hiking in, on account of the excellent cushioning and stability they offer.
In addition to the Hoka Speedgoats and the Brooks trail shoes listed above, Salomon’s S-Lab Ultra 3s are also great shoes for ultra running (they’re my top pick as an ‘all-rounder’ for good reason!).
Best For Obstacle Course Racing Like Tough Mudder & Spartan Events
The two most important things to think about when choosing a trail running shoe for mud run and OCR-type events are: “Will water pass through the shoe and will it dry off quickly?” and “Is the grip good enough for thick mud or the obstacles when the running shoes are wet?”.
These running shoes are in our opinion the best for OCR that meets these criteria.
1. Salomon Speedcross 6
Drop: 10mm / Weight: 10.5oz / Support Type: Neutral.
The Salomon Speedcross range has long been a popular shoe amongst runners who love to get dirty on the trails, but also for hikers who don’t want to wear heavy hiking boots.
To anyone looking for a lightweight trail running shoe for hiking in, as an alternative to a hiking boot, I always point them towards the Salomon Speedcross.
This is why I rate these Salomon trail shoes as the best for Spartan and Tough Mudder OCR courses.
They’re workhorse running shoes that will perform and endure pretty much anything your throw at them – and they LOVE mud.
The Salomon Speedcross 6 promises all the same features as the beloved Speedcross that came before it if you’ve ever worn its predecessors, with even more grip, even more stability and even more dynamic uppers.
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2. Salomon Amphib Bold 2
Notice a pattern? Salomon has the OCR trail shoe genre dialed. The Salomon Amphib Bold 2 is a true Swim-Run shoe.
This is a summer sneaker ready for water adventures AND also a water shoe you can run in.
I like how you can collapse the heel to wear it like a slide, or use the Quicklace system and take it for a run.
They are very lightweight (7.4oz), quick-drying, have a breathable mesh and lugs that drain well too. They’re basically your best choice right now if you love to play on land and in water, on the same day.
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Best For Vertical Kilometer (VK) races (uphill trail running)
A Vertical Kilometer trail race is an uphill mountain running race, which ascends approximately 1000 meters (3,300ft) while covering a distance of no more than 5km (3.3 miles).
The spelling is often referred to as a ‘VK’ or ‘VKM’. These are a popular category of mountain running race in Europe but anyone can get into uphill trail running as a hardcore niche!
1. La Sportiva VK Boa
The La Sportiva VK is a mountain running shoe created specifically for Vertical Kilometer endeavors and other uphill running challenges.
This shoe was designed in collaboration with the VK world record holder – La Sportiva Mountain Running athlete Urban Zemmer, who knows a thing or two about running uphill up the side of mountains.
This purpose-built lightweight shoe is specifically for short, steep trails and our top choice for Vertical Kilometer style running.
This La Sportiva trail shoe a snug-fitting shoe with seamless uppers to hug your feet as you go, although designed to be snug, it’s recommended that you go half a size up to get a better fit.
The toe cap and rock-guard at the forefoot offer rock protection while the lightweight rubber sole helps you conquer steep trails, quickly.
The versatile tread will help you get your footing on rocks and mud alike, two very common terrains on a VK.
Buyer’s Guide: Choosing Your Next Pair of Trail Shoes
Before you choose to buy a pair of trail runners, it’s worth learning about the key features of trail shoes, how they differ from road running shoes and which of those features are likely to be most important to you.
As trail and ultra runners we at Trail & Kale have personally tested many different brands and styles of running shoes.
We’ve run in everything from wide zero-drop trail shoes such as Altras to rugged and cushioned trails shoes such as Brooks Cascadia.
We’ve also tested countless pairs of Nike Trail and Salomon trail running shoes, including lightweight and minimal options through to waterproof gore-tex trail shoes designed for wet and slippery trail conditions.
Using this experience over many years of trail running, we have put together this buyer’s guide to help you find a pair you’ll love to run in – and if the guide doesn’t answer your question, ask us in the comments!
Buyer’s Guide contents
- Trail vs road running shoes
- Do I need waterproof running shoes (Gore-Tex)?
- Can you wear trail runners for hiking?
Trail vs road running shoes
The key difference between trail and road running shoes is that trail shoes are built to be more rugged and durable.
They have to be able to keep you on your feet when navigating uneven, often slippery and loose terrain, including steep inclines and descents.
The key features of trail shoes, as well as more on how they differ from road shoes are explained below.
Grip and traction in trail shoes
The most noticeable difference between trail and road running shoes is that trail shoes are designed to have varying degrees of textured grip and knobby lugs designed to help you achieve and maintain traction when running off-road.
The type of grip and traction varies between the different types of trail shoes depending on what terrain they are designed to be used on.
The all-round best on this list such as the Salomon S-Lab Ultra 3 and the La Sportiva Bushido 2s are designed to be good at all terrains other than the most extreme.
On the other hand, if you’re going to be running through slippery muddy conditions regularly, then a trail shoe with a more aggressive, sticky outsole like the Salomon Speedcross is going to be a better choice.
We find this style doesn’t hold up as well (or last as many miles) if worn to run regularly on hard, rocky terrain due to the softer rubber used to produce the grip on the outsole.
Trail shoe stability, rock plates, and cushioning
I mentioned above that these shoes are designed to help keep you upright!
What this means when it comes to design is that they generally have a wider, firmer base than road shoes to provide a more stable platform underfoot, reducing your chances of rolling an ankle or losing balance when stepping on uneven ground.
The ‘midsole’ of a pair of trail shoes is typically stiffer than road shoes, with less flex – and some trail shoes have a ‘rock plate’ built into this part of the shoe, which adds underfoot protection when running on rocky terrain.
When it comes to cushioning, trail shoes generally have less ‘soft’ cushioning than road running shoes.
Most people need that cushioning when running on roads, to protect from the repetitive punishment your body receives from running on harder, unnatural concrete and tarmac surfaces.
Cushioning is important but needs to be more ‘responsive’ so you can feel the ground underfoot and be able to remain light-footed and adaptable if it’s uneven or loose/slippery terrain.
Heel-to-toe drop is the height differential between where your heel and toe areas sit within your trail running shoes.
These generally range from between 0mm (zero drop trail shoes) to 10mm and we find that a mid-range heel-to-toe drop of 4-8mm on trail running shoes suits most trail runners by offering the sweet spot between cushioning on rugged trails and ground-feel so you can remain responsive to the terrain you’re running on.
I’m a trail runner who prefers a drop of around 4-6mm as it feels most natural when running up and down hill, and it’s always better to be running closer to your natural biomechanics as possible rather than raising your heel up to an un-natural height.
Before we talk about zero drop trail running shoes, let’s talk about barefoot running.
Sometimes referred to as minimal running, barefoot running is the art of re-aligning your running style to a more natural and efficient one, because people didn’t always wear cushioned shoes (or any shoes at all).
The difference between barefoot running and running in zero drop running shoes is that zero drop running shoes allow you to run with a zero drop (from heel to toe), whilst still providing protection from the trail or road surface underfoot.
Zero drop trail running shoes are not for everyone, but if you are looking for something different or really like that style of running without having your heel sit higher than your toes in the shoe, then these are definitely something to try out.
To learn more about barefoot running and how you can practice it, have a read of our easy-to-follow guide on how to try barefoot running.
Both types of running shoes are designed to be breathable, i.e. they should allow your feet to ‘breathe’ and moisture to escape.
That said, road running shoes are generally made of lighter, more open-knit fabrics as they are not required to be as durable to protect the tops of your feet from trail debris and obstacles as trail running shoes.
Trail running shoe durability
As mentioned above, trail shoes are designed to be more durable when it comes to the fabric and protection offered in the upper (the top of your feet), toe area (to protect your toes from kicking rocks and roots), and rock-plate underfoot.
The outsoles, being the grippy sole that hits the trail, are generally made out of softer, grippier rubber than road running shoes.
This means that trail running shoes’ outsoles may wear down quicker, especially if you wear them on roads, or if you wear trail running shoes designed to perform best in soft, wet conditions, on hard, rocky terrain.
Can you wear trail shoes on the roads and pavement?
As a general rule, because of the durability of the outsoles, we do not suggest you wear them for running on pavements for your normal runs if you don’t plan to run on a trail at all, however, most styles are perfectly fine and comfortable when worn on roads for short periods of time.
Wearing trail shoes on pavements is inevitable at some point because you may have to run on a road to get to a trail or on a route that is mixed terrain.
Running shoes described as being good ‘door to trail’, ‘hybrid’, or ‘road to trail running shoes’ are generally very comfortable for this type of running. Scroll up to our list see our favorite road to trail running shoes right now.
Do I need waterproof trail running shoes (Gore-Tex)?
If you’re going to be running on trails and getting your feet wet then you are best off buying Gore-Tex, waterproof trail running shoes like the On Cloudventure Waterproof or the Salomon Speedcross GTX version.
However, most trail running shoes that are waterproof are generally a little heavier, stiffer and less breathable than the non-Gore-Tex alternative, and this can mean that the shoes take longer to drain water if they get submerged.
Generally, we only wear waterproof styles for running in cold, exceptionally wet and/or snowy conditions where we need to keep our feet warm and we don’t want water getting into our shoes.
If we are running in warmer conditions then generally regular off-road running shoes that are more breathable and drain more quickly are a better choice.
Many trail races may have river crossings but OCR events like Tough Mudder and Spartan will most definitely have them.
Can you wear them for hiking?
Wearing trail running shoes for hiking is becoming a popular choice amongst people wanting to do faster, more lightweight hiking in particular, although people interested in thru-hiking and keeping overall weight to a minimum may favor trail runners over hiking shoes or boots especially if you are one of those people that likes to hike fast.
Off-road running shoes tend to be overall lighter and more breathable than chunkier hiking shoes and boots so they offer some comfort advantages, especially when worn hiking in summer months when wearing very breathable shoes helps keep your feet happy and dry.
The downside to wearing them for hiking is that by comparison, they’re likely to wear down quicker than a pair of hiking shoes or boots worn for the same distances, as their outsoles tend to be made of softer rubber.
For most people, the best running shoes for hiking are going to offer a good amount of cushioning and stability support, on the basis that your steps are going to each take all of your weight as well as the weight of whatever you are carrying in your hiking backpack, so in this case, minimal running shoes are probably not the best choice.
In addition to the cushioning and support, running shoes best suited to hiking tend to be the more durable, rugged trail shoes with features such as a solid rockplate underfoot and enhanced toe protection to protect your toes if you kick a rock or root (for example) when hiking.
Now you’ve read the full buyer’s guide, scroll back up and see the full list.