The most personal choice adventurers make is what they put on their feet. Choosing trail runners, like any shoe, can be a difficult and very individual task. What works for you certainly won’t work for everyone.
But to help you make the right decision on your next pair, let us arm you with all you need to know.
From shoe types to features and tips, this is our guide to how to choose the best trail running shoes.
What are Trail Running Shoes?
Trail running shoes continue to rise in popularity as more and more people venture off the paved paths and into the woods.
Trail shoes are essentially a hybrid between standard running shoes and light hiking boots.
They combine the running ability of the former with the grip and sturdiness of the latter, allowing you to tackle more unfamiliar terrain.
The aggressive tread patterns on a trail running shoe will provide even more grip than road runners.
The tread is tough and won’t tear away as quickly as you travel over rock and roots that are commonplace on hiking trails.
The shoe’s stiff and tougher soles will protect the bottom of the feet, especially on uneven ground.
Additionally, toe plates are common and will mitigate problems arising from toes hitting debris along the trail.
Although trail running shoes don’t offer the same ankle protection and are lighter than traditional hiking boots, they’re becoming more popular among long-distance hikers who prefer their weight and maneuverability.
Questions to Ask Yourself
In order to make the most of your experiences on the trail, there are several important questions to ask yourself before making a purchase.
Answering these questions will not only solidify your goals but help you choose what kind of trail running shoe is best.
What am I going to be doing?
Knowing your goals will help you and the store attendant pick out the right shoe.
Are you training to complete a long run, such as a marathon or triathlon?
Or are you sticking to short runs? Secondly, how often per week will you be using the shoes?
For newer runners, or those venturing out a few times per month, then a versatile and lightweight trail runner may be your answer. These offer the necessary comfort and simplicity.
Experienced runners who want to take things up a notch will need to seek trail running shoes with sturdy protection and ample support.
The kind of shoes that can withstand running multiple days a week.
Where will I be running?
Perhaps even more important is knowing the type of terrain that will be underfoot.
Although it can be hard to predict, it’s best to choose a shoe that suits terrain that’s a little tougher than what you may find.
This gives you room to grow, along with extra comfort on your chosen trails.
A lightweight trail running shoe will be great for hard-packed terrain, one that balances speed and grip.
But muddy trails are common, so an aggressive tread along with a supported instep is a standard choice among new runners.
If you know you’ll be doing some rock hopping, then a shoe with reinforced uppers and a stiff outsole will protect your foot from pointy rocks.
What are my physical characteristics?
We are all aware of our shoe sizes, but with trail running shoes, a lot of that goes out the window.
As you narrow down the type of shoe you want, you’ll also have to ask yourself two things.
What sort of build do I have? Along with, what shape are my feet?
These characteristics will influence what shoe works for you in the long term.
If you’re a heavier build, you may need extra cushioning to lessen the load on your knees. This extra cushioning may lead to you needing a bigger shoe size.
As for our feet, well, they all come in different shapes and sizes.
You may like the design and features of a certain shoe, but those very features could spend time rubbing against your feet.
This will turn a strength into a weakness. Don’t fixate on a certain shoe. You’ll regret it once you’re in the mountains.
For longer journeys, find a light trail shoe with large midsole cushioning so you can run in comfort for longer.
Depart packed dirt terrain and say hello to hiking trails. Rugged terrain shoes will help you tackle all marked trails in your area, interstate and overseas.
Thus, the shoe covers a wide range of terrain and is a great option for beginner and intermediate runners.
Rugged trail running shoes have the toes pointing up with the addition of guard plates to protect from tough terrain.
The shoe is stiffer to keep your ankles sturdy. While the additional grip will help in wet conditions, especially as you come down the mountain.
The final trail running type is for the next step beyond hiking trails.
This is the shoe for those who don’t know what they’ll come across.
A shoe that is prepared for all conditions. Off-trail shoes are heavier and provide additional foot protection.
You’ll find even more grip and sturdiness, with less of a chance to roll your ankle.
While we don’t recommend waterproof trail runners, you’ll find this feature to be more common among off-trail shoes.
Rugged and off-trail options are popular among long-distance hikers, like those on the Appalachian Trail or the Camino.
They’re beloved due to their lightweight, but hikers should be aware that they’ll have to replace them often.
This could be as much as 3 or 4 times on a trail like the AT or PCT.
Features of Trail Running Shoes
Now that you’ve narrowed down the type and style of your next trail running shoes, let’s look a little deeper.
Each type of shoe has many of the same features, but some take it further than others. Such as more cushion in the rugged compared to light trail shoes.
Tread is arguably the biggest difference between trail runners and traditional running shoes.
An aggressive tread will allow you to grip the surface on almost all types of terrain. But it’s important to know the effect of the shoe’s “lug”.
The lug is a rubber sole with indentations. A short lug pattern is perfect for light trail shoes. But those on tougher terrain will need a deeper lug pattern in order to maintain grip.
Foot Protection and Support
It’s standard for trail running shoes to have some level of protection and padding. For light trail shoes, this might be as simple as extra support in the insoles.
However, if you’re something who gets sore feet easily or has had injuries in the past, it will be worth pursuing a shoe with extra protection.
Rugged and off-trail shoes have thicker material while providing more stability for your ankles.
They’ll have additional protection for your toes against rocks and roots.
Though stiffer, those venturing deep into the mountains will appreciate the confidence and room for error afforded by these “heavier” shoes.
Heel to Toe Drop
This feature shows the drop from the back to the front of the shoe. The drop is more common among regular running shoes compared to trail runners.
This is because, in such varied environments, those running on trails need to have a greater feel for the surface.
Changing your heel to drop can take time to adjust, as you may be used to running with your feet tilted further down.
It’s important to test out the drop before embarking on your first run.
Testing your shoes
With the rise of internet shopping, it’s only becoming easier to get your new trail running shoes online.
While this is a simple option, it helps to know and have confidence in your shoe before heading out onto the trails.
Even if you do purchase online, it will help to have a foot assessment prior to handing over your hard-earned money.
This is when a specialist will look over the shape of your foot and help navigate you to the right shoe that fits your running style.
This will alleviate future issues like bunions or event plantar fasciitis.
Now, with your shoe chosen, it’s time to find out if it’s right for you. Follow these tips:
Bring thicker socks
You won’t wear your garden variety socks when trail running, so bring thicker socks to help determine accurate shoe size. A larger size will also help if your feet swell.
Roll your ankles
Well, not literally. But try to see how the shoe reacts will a slow-motion twist.
Do you feel supported but not controlled by the shoe?
Walk a few steps on the side of your feet to find out.
Check out the grip
Some shoes may advertise micro grip, which also looks fashionable. But at the end of the day, the grip you see is the grip you have. Bigger is better in this case.
Run back and forth
Finally, try your best to simulate the real world. Engage different parts of your foot and even run backward. This will help show you what the shoe feels like running uphill.