Trail Running Shoes Buying Guide

Buying new shoes can be stressful, especially when you're trusting those shoes to get you through a trail run on different types of terrain. The shoes not only have to be comfortable, but they need to have enough grip to grab the earth below you and prevent slips and slides down a trail. Grab some popcorn and read up on how to choose some trusty trail runners.

A trail shoe like the best-selling Salomon Speedcross series are ideal for soft trails.
A trail shoe like the best-selling Salomon Speedcross series are ideal for soft trails.

Ground Surface and Outsole

Get a grip, you guys

DIFFERENT SURFACES CALL FOR DIFFERENT OUTSOLES

Trail running can actually mean different things to different people. Before you pick up a pair of shoes, seriously consider the type of terrain you'll be running on most often. Softer terrain versus a hard packed trail can dictate what shoe will work best for you. When you head to the shop (or are looking online), take a look at the outsole. Some will feature large, deep lugs (the little nubby things) while others will have shorter, more durable lugs. Check out this chart to get an idea of what type of outsole you'll need for the terrain you'll see most often to maximize the effectiveness of the shoe.

Terrain Lug Type Rubber
Soft/Muddy Deep Durable
Hard Pack Dirt Short Durable
Rocky Short Sticky
Get footwear that works best with your natural pronation.
Get footwear that works best with your natural pronation.

Pronation

Everybody pronation!

PRONATION = THE NATURAL MOVEMENT OF THE FOOT

Pronation is the inward movement of the foot, which distributes the force of impact on the ground. Your foot totally knows what to do to keep you happy and comfortable. Unfortunately, everybody is built differently and this can cause some people to react differently and need a different shoe. With the correct support at the arch and pronation, you can find a shoe that works best for you on the trails.

Normal: Those that have a normal arch, typically pronate normally. You shouldn't need much pronation control out of a shoe here. Normal pronators should look for a neutral shoe.

Overpronation: This typically occurs in flat footed people. Without much of an arch, your foot will roll inward too much, causing the big toe and second toe to do all the work when pushing off the ground. Motion-control or stability shoes will feature firmer midsoles to limit the additional pronation of your foot. You can also look for orthotics or arch supports and add them into your shoe separately.

Supination (underpronation): This occurs when your foot doesn't rotate much at all. All the impact is on the outside of the foot and your push off is done by your small toes. Check out your old pair of running shoes, the outer edge of the shoe will probably be worn much faster in underpronators. Those with a high arch are more likely to have this issue. A lighter weight shoe with a more flexible interior edge will help your foot move more.

The amount of cushion in your shoe can also be specific to the trails and terrain you will be running on.
The amount of cushion in your shoe can also be specific to the trails and terrain you will be running on.

Cushion

Squishy foot pillows

SOFT, REGULAR, or FIRM

The cushion and midsole are right underfoot, and can vary greatly from shoe to shoe. Check out the profile view of a shoe and you can see the thickness in the midsole easily. There are 3 options you can go with:

Minimal: Also referred to as barefoot, these feature the least amount of cushion and midsole. An example would be the Merrell Vapor Glove 3, where there is an insole and outsole and no midsole at all. You're super close to the ground and you're going to feel every step. It is very important if you've never used a minimalist shoe to ease into it. Don't go out and tear it up for miles on the trail. Try using them just for a short warm up or cool down for limited periods of time.

Regular: The traditional running shoe has a visible amount of cushion, but won't have you elevated upon a big cloud of foam. They're probably what you're most used to seeing on feet and in shops.

Maximal: The maximal shoe features the most amount of cushion available. It's thick, it's noticeable, and your feet will either love it or hate it. Just depends. The brand Hoka One One specializes in maximum cushion.

Protective Plates: Just because you have cushion (or don't) doesn't mean the sticks and stones can't hurt the bottom of your foot. Trail running shoes often feature a protective plate, hidden between the midsole and outsole. Typically, they're placed in the forefoot, where you'll need the most protection against the sharp rocks along the trail. If you're running on especially rocky trails, search out a pair of trail runners such as the La Sportiva Bushido, which has this protective plate.

Heel-to-Toe Drop: If you've ever overheard a runner talk about "heel drop", "drop", "offset" or "ramp angle", they're referring to the difference between the height of the heel to the height of the forefoot. It's measured in millimeters and will range from 0mm to 16mm. Just remember, a zero drop shoe doesn't always mean zero cushion, it all depends on the math. I love charts today so here's another:

Measurement Strike Type
0mm Forefoot to Midfoot
4mm - 6mm Midfoot
6mm - 10mm Midfoot to Light Heel
10mm - 12mm Moderate Heel
12mm+ Heel

A mesh upper provides great breathability and also help reduce weight.
A mesh upper provides great breathability and also help reduce weight.

Uppers

Without 'em, your shoes will fall off

FUNCTION OVER COLOR

The upper is the part of the shoe that covers your foot. While there are color options available from the full spectrum of the rainbow, the material options are quite less. There are two options to choose from:

Mesh: You don't have to be an Olympic marathoner to know your feet get really hot and sweaty when you run. For this reason, budding trail runners and seasoned vets alike will probably want to go with a mesh upper. They're breathable, allowing your foot to get some air as you're working along the trails. They also dry quickly, so if you splash through a creek or come across unexpected rain, it won't be long before they're dry again.

Waterproof: The alternative to mesh uppers are waterproof. Definitely not ideal in the warm months of trail running, but they do have advantages. Super wet days, muddy trails and snow. You may want to go up a half or full size with waterproof trail runners however, as they're a lot more confining and your sweaty feet will swell during a trail run, cold day or not.

Poor fit will be uncomfortable and possibly lead to injury. In short, it would ruin everything about trail running.
Poor fit will be uncomfortable and possibly lead to injury. In short, it would ruin everything about trail running.

Try. Them. On.

Go ahead, Cinderella

COMFORT IS KEY.

If you're not trying the shoes on in the store or around the house before you go out on your first big trail run, you're making a mistake. First things first, get yourself a pair of socks! It may seem insignificant, but if you don't have a pair of good socks, then the shoes just won't be as comfortable. Skip the cotton and get yourself a pair of merino wool or synthetic socks, they'll wick moisture away from your sweaty foot and keep it all happy inside the shoe.

Okay, back to trying the actual shoe on. Put it on, walk around the house where it's nice and clean. Take a few stairs if you have 'em, maybe even a little jog down the hallway. If the fit is comfortable, and you experience no pain, you've probably found a winner.

If the fit is terrible, return them and pick something else! Every foot is different, so be picky and find that perfect fit for you. Moosejaw has an awesome Return/Exchange policy, so get something you love.

Just Run on a Trail Already

Running trail can be an exhilarating experience and a welcomed adventure compared to your usual road running route. Heck, you may even see a deer or a big horned sheep. That really depends on where you're located. Grab some shoes that fit your feet and will help you propel along dirt, rock, mud and more and the adventure will be all the easier.

Salomon Trail Running Shoes Montrail Trail Running Shoes Merrell Trail Running Shoes La Sportiva Trail Running Shoes Salewa Trail Running Shoes Inov8 Trail Running Shoes Altra Trail Running Shoes