Dirty Dozen: 12 of the Best Trail Runners for Fall
By Brian Metzler
When you hit the trails, the shoes you wear should match the surface of the terrain you run on most of the time. If you run in a pair that’s geared for a different type of terrain, it’s bound to be an awkward, unstable and potentially painful experience. While it’s easy enough to wear your favorite road running shoes on smooth, dirt trails or unpaved roads, there are plenty of subtle and significant reasons a pair of trail running shoes will do the job much more effectively.
All trail running shoes can pretty much be fit into four categories: road-to-trail shoes, do-everything, all-terrain shoes, technical trail shoes and race-ready speedsters that can handle just about any kind of surface.
Road-to-Trail Crossover Shoes
These hybrid shoes feel a lot like your cushioned road running shoes and have a little bit of added traction and a few trail-specific features. These shoes are relatively light, flex easily and don’t inhibit your stride whatsoever, allowing you to run on mild dirt trails, gravel routes and paved roads with aplomb.
HOKA One One Challenger ATR 5
Weight: 9.7 oz. (men’s size 9); 8.5 oz. (women’s size 7)
Heel-Toe Offset: 5mm (31mm heel, 26mm forefoot)
The Challenger ATR 5 is a lightweight, well-cushioned trail cruiser with a super soft midsole and just enough outsole traction for secure footing while running over rocks, roots and mud. It has the smooth, comfortable fit, flex and feel of your favorite road running shoes and is light and agile enough to climb hills or run twisty-turning trials. The only downside is that it doesn’t offer much protection for more rugged trails.
Weight: 10.4 ounces (men’s size 9.0); 8.1 oz. (women’s size 7.0)
Heel-Toe Offset: 6mm (25mm heel, 19mm forefoot)
The Cloudventure is a midweight road-to-trail shoe with plush cushioning and sturdy support that serves up a semi-soft and secure ride. It’s ideal for smooth, flowy trails but its sticky rubber outsole allow it to handle sections of mildly technical terrain. Its unique Cloud cushioning pods create a near-custom ride to match the specific flex, pressure movement patterns of your stride. It’s not agile enough for more technical terrain, but it’s a good road-to-trail crossover shoe.
Inov-8 TerraUltra G 270
Weight: 9.5 ounces (men’s size 9); 8.2 oz. (women’s size 7)
Heel-Toe Offset: 4mm (32mm heel, 28mm forefoot)
The TerraUltra G 270 is a comfy cruiser with perhaps the best traction of any trail running shoe ever made. It’s built on an energetic, well-cushioned, zero-drop (or level) platform to allow optimal, natural running form. The low-profile Graphene-Grip rubber outsole provides unparalleled traction on wet, dry and loose terrain, allowing it to tackle a wide range of surfaces. It doesn’t have a lot of protection, but it excels on multi-hour runs over smooth, rolling terrain.
Do-Everything, All-Terrain Shoes
These versatile models are the most popular types of trail running shoes because they can tackle most types of terrain well, including sections with rocks, roots, gravel, mud or smooth dirt. They’re typically soft and comfortable like road running shoes, but they also offer some sort of trail-specific protection and enhanced traction.
Saucony Peregrine 10
Weight: 10.6 ounces (men’s size 9); 9.3 oz. (women’s size 7)
Heel-Toe Offset: 4mm (21mm heel, 17mm forefoot)
The Peregrine is a versatile, all-around trail shoe with the comfort and smoothness of a road running shoe with a low-to-the-ground feel and just the right mix of cushioning, traction and protection. It’s ideal for smooth, rolling dirt paths, moderately technical routes with some rocks, roots, gravel and other obstacles, as well as sloppy trails with a lot of mud and moisture. It lacks sufficient protection and girth for long, gnarly, rugged routes but it is agile enough to handle shorter segments of rocky trails. The Saucony Peregrine 10 GTX is a similar waterproof version for running in wet and cold conditions.
Nike Pegasus Trail 2
Weight: 11.1 ounces (men’s size 9.0); 9.4 oz. (women’s size 7.0)
Heel-Toe Offset: 10mm (31mm heel, 21mm forefoot)
The Pegasus Trail 2 replaces last year’s Pegasus 36 Trail but it’s more of an overhaul than an update thanks to the new, extremely responsive React foam midsole cushioning. It’s a mid-range, do-everything trail shoe with a soft feel and springy ride and an ideal mix of cushion, support, stability, traction and freedom. It’s durable enough to run on rugged trails and smooth enough to cover miles of mild terrain, but its most at home on constantly changing moderate terrain with a blend of dirt, gravel and rocks.
Topo MTN Racer
Weight: 9.8 ounces (men’s size 9.0); 7.7 oz. (women’s size 7.0)
Heel-Toe Offset: 5mm (30mm heel, 25mm forefoot)
Although it has a name that exudes speed, the midweight MTN Racer excels as a well-cushioned all-around performer. It has a semi-firm, stabilizing midsole that provides stability on undulating terrain and guides the foot through the gait cycle. Topo shoes are built on a low-offset geometry with a slightly roomier forefoot that reduce “toe bang” and allow the toes to flex and play for optimal push-off performance. A reliable Vibram MegaGrip outsole offers steadfast traction, while the reinforced mesh upper adds protection and breathability.
Technical Trail Shoes
These are built for the rougher, tougher terrain elements you’ll encounter in various regions: dry, rocky surfaces, soft, wet and muddy terrain, sandy desert trails or some combination of all of the above. These shoes typically are typically more burly and have protective toe bumpers, durable, grippy outsoles and sometimes rock plates sandwiched in the midsoles.
Altra Lone Peak 4.5
Weight: 10.5 ounces (men’s size 9); 8.6 oz. (women’s size 7)
Heel-Toe Offset: 0mm (25mm heel, 25mm forefoot)
The Lone Peak is an amply cushioned shoe with a moderately aggressive outsole conducive to running on a wide range of trail surfaces. What sets it apart, like all Altra shoes, is that it’s built on a “zero-drop” platform (aka, flat or level, without a slightly raised heel like most shoes) and a wider toe box to allow your feet to move and flex naturally and uninhibitedly, just as they do when they’re barefoot. A flexible rock plate, reinforced sidewalls and durable toe bumper off all the protection you’ll ever need.
La Sportiva Bushido II
Weight: 12.0 oz. (men’s size 9); 9.6 oz. (women’s size 7)
Heel-Toe Offset: 6mm (28mm heel, 22mm forefoot)
This low-profile mountain running shoe serves up protection and performance on the gnarliest technical mountain terrain you’ll encounter. Ample cushioning, a flexible rock plate and a TPU-reinforced chassis give it a stable, secure and protective ride, while the FriXion XT sticky rubber outsole adheres to every type of surface out on the trails, wet or dry. It’s heavier than many trail shoes, but the extra girth provides stability on uneven terrain and defense against sharp rocks.
Weight: 10.2 ounces (men’s size 9); 8.9 oz. (women’s size 7)
Heel-Toe Offset: 8mm (25mm heel, 17mm forefoot)
The Wildcross is a midweight, low-to-the-ground shoe built for running over soft surfaces, competing in obstacle races and running in the mountains. The aggressively lugged ground-gripping Contragrip outsole chews up mud and sloppy terrain, while the midsole chassis offers a twinge of stability and comfort. It also features Salomon’s foot-securing one-pull lacing system and a reinforced mesh upper that keep the foot locked down, especially on unstable terrain.
These are built for shaving a few seconds over event the toughest, most technical trail conditions. They allow you to achieve more speed buy cutting down on weight and increasing stiffness for optimal energy return. If you're willing to sacrifice extra cushy comfort to cut down time when it matters most, these are the shoes for you.
Weight: 9.4 ounces (men’s size 9); 8.6 oz. (women’s size 7)
Heel-Toe Offset: 6mm (32mm heel, 26mm forefoot)
The Catamount is like your favorite long-distance road racing shoe with a grippy, trail running tread. It’s built around a thick layer of energetic DNA Flash midsole foam and a breathable, stretchy upper, giving it a light, fast and very agile vibe that’s ideal for running fast on mild to moderate terrain. It’s built for long-haul comfort and performance, the perfect tool for running 10K to ultra-distance races on the trails. It has just enough subtle protection to keep your feet safe and sound out in the wild.
Hoka One One Torrent 2
Weight: 9.3 ounces (men’s size 9); 7.6 oz. (women’s size 7)
Heel-Toe Offset: 5mm (21mm heel, 16mm forefoot)
The Torrent 2 is a minimally constructed, low-to-the-ground speed merchant with talon-like outsole lugs that claw at the ground. It has a slim but energetic layer of midsole cushioning foam that provides just enough protection from the ground while not inhibiting the natural flex of your foot and its proprioceptive connection to the ground. Your feet will be pretty exposed in the Torrent 2, but it’s ideal for hill repeats, tempo runs and shorter, faster races.
La Sportiva VK BOA
Weight: 6.3 ounces (men’s size 9); 5.2 oz. (women’s size 7)
Heel-Toe Offset: 4mm (16mm heel, 12mm forefoot)
One of the lightest, sleekest trail running shoes ever made, the VK BOA is designed for all-out speed on steep, uphill trails known as Vertical Kilometer courses. It feels like a cross between your bedroom slippers and a pair of track and field spikes, meaning that it’s comfortable, featherweight, performance-oriented shoe with minimal cushioning and protection. It’s incredibly flexible and agile, thanks in part to the form-fitting BOA dial closure system that secures the foot to the shoe with a sock-like fit.
Brian Metzler quite literally wrote the book on running shoes as the author of the very well-reviewed “Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture & Cool of Running Shoes.” He is a sports journalist who has tested more than 1,500 pairs of running shoes and has raced every distance from 50 yards to 100 miles. He was the founding editor of Trail Runner and Adventure Sports magazines, senior editor at Running Times, and Editor-in-Chief of Competitor magazine. He has also written for Outside, Runner’s World, Triathlete, Men’s Health, and Men’s Journal.