By Brian Metzler
Picking your next trail running shoe is no easy task. Not quite as hard as running fast up that steep section of your favorite local trail, but it can still be intimidating.
That’s because no two trails are alike. With terrain always changing under your feet, it means your best bet is to choose a shoe with features that will benefit you on the various surfaces you run most often. Start by considering which of these four shoe categories match the terrain in your region. It’s not an exact science because many shoes overlap categories, but you can get an idea of what will work best from the descriptions below. 1. Road to Trail Shoes
Road-to-trail crossover shoes that are similar in construction to road running shoes with improved outsole traction. These shoes are typically lighter with an easy-flexing ride and a tad more grip than road running shoes but with a very low-profile outsole.
2. Jack of All Trails Shoes These are do-everything trail shoes that can handle most types of surfaces well, but with some limitations. These shoes typically have enhanced traction and some protective features, plus they’re nimble and – most importantly – versatile enough to conquer anything you might encounter out on the trails.
3. Technical Trail Shoes Durable, protective and more robust, these types of trail shoes have specific features and protection for running on more rugged, technical surfaces and consistent obstacles, including rocks, roots, loose scree, water crossings and big boulders. These shoes are often quite a bit burlier (and yes, a little heavier), but you’ll appreciate the protective features and durability when you’re running over jagged roots and sharp rocks – especially on long mountain runs.
4. Wet Trail Shoes These shoes have deep outsole lugs made of grippy rubber designed for secure footing over soft, wet, muddy and sloppy terrain. Although you might opt for a waterproof shoe with a Gore-Tex lining, the key feature in this category is the deeper outsole lugs that can grip on slippery terrain. (These shoes are also great for running in wintry conditions.)
Fit Matters Most Just as with road running shoes, the most important aspect of a trail running shoe is how it fits the size and shape of your feet and, to some extent, how it works with your gait style. It’s always a good idea to try on several shoes with the features you deem most important for your local trails. You’ll want a locked down fit in the heel and midfoot, but try to make sure you have ample room in the toe box. No matter what kinds of trails you run on most, you’re inevitably going to stub your toes on rocks and roots so having more space up front will reduce the painful “toe bang” effect.
Four New Trail Running Models for Fall 2022
1. Road to Trail: Atreyu Base Trail
Weights: 8.4 oz. (women’s 8.0); 10.0 oz. (men’s 9.0)
Heel-toe offset: 6mm (31.5mm/25.5mm)
Atreyu isn’t your typical running shoe brand. A small disruptive start-up based in Austin, Texas, it’s the brainchild of former hot dog restaurant entrepreneur and avid runner/triathlete Michael Krajicek. The gist of the company is creating well-built, smooth-riding shoes that are affordable but not overbuilt. They started with a light and fast base model trainer, then added a carbon-fiber racer. They keep it simple, but they also are known to vary the color motifs of those shoes several times throughout the calendar year.
Atreyu’s new Base Trail is a midweight, well-cushioned cruiser that transitions well between paved roads and bike paths to dirt paths, gravel roads and semi-technical trails. Its thick, supercritical EVA foam midsole and thick, comfy footbed serve up loads of cushioning that produces a soft, smooth road shoe ride, while its full-length rubber outsole and low-profile lugs provide traction on dirt trails and semi-technical routes. If you want a light, snappy ride and the capability of running off road on mild to moderate trails, the Base Trail is an affordable model to consider putting in your quiver.
2. Jack of All Trails: Altra Outroad
Weights: 8.8 oz. (women’s 8.0); 10.7 oz. (men’s 9.0)
Heel-toe offset: 0mm (27mm/27mm)
Building shoes with its unique balanced cushioning and wider toe box design specs, Altra has made big advances in both trail and road running shoes since its inception in 2011. The new Outroad is a happy medium for any surface, with the step-in feel and smooth ride of a road running shoe and sufficient traction and protection for rambling on a variety of trails. It features Altra’s narrowest foot profile, one of the many ways it will feel like a spry road shoe with some added traction. The light and springy Altra EGO Pro midsole material feels light, airy and responsive when you first lace them up and start running, but especially so late in a long run.
It also features Altra’s balanced or level platform that allows a runner’s heel and forefoot to always be an equal distance from the ground for optimal foot alignment and low-impact footstrikes. The array of low-profile, multi-directional outsole lugs provides stability and traction on moderate trails, while maintaining a smooth ride on sections of smooth dirt trails, gravel roads, concrete bike paths and pavement. Bottom line: the Outroad is one of the most versatile (and comfortable) trail shoes available at stores this fall.
3. Technical Trails: Hoka Mafate Speed 4
Weights: 8.5 oz. (women’s 8.0); 10.4 oz. (men’s 9.0)
Heel-toe offset: 4mm (31mm/27mm for women; 33mm/29mm for men)
The Mafate Speed is a durable, cushy and protective long-distance rambler, ideal for lengthy trail runs and races in the mountains. It’s not quite a maximally cushioned shoe like a lot of models Hoka is known for, but instead it’s a combination of ample cushioning and lightweight agility for optimal maneuverability on technical trails. Its premium two-level Profly midsole serves up shock absorption and energy return for long-haul comfort and performance, while its low-profile Vibram Megagrip Litebase outsole provides reassuring grip on dirt, rocks and wet surfaces without feeling clunky.
What makes the latest edition of the Mafate Speed special is that it’s slightly improved in several ways. It's lighter, more comfortable and more agile. It’s been updated with a new single-layer jacquard mesh that is not only more durable, but it’s also more breathable than the previous incarnation. Other refinements include a rubber toe cap for support and protection, a new lay-flat gusseted tongue construction and a more robust heel collar construction. If you’re running moderate to extremely technical terrain for 5 miles or 105 miles, the Mafate Speed 4 is a technical mountain marauder built for comfort, control and functionality.
4. Wet Trails: Merrell MTL Long Sky 2
Price: $140 Weights: 7.8 oz. (women’s 8.0); 9.4 oz. (men’s 9.0) Heel-toe offset: 4mm (23.5mm/19.5mm)
Merrell is back on the scene with a strong trail running focus in 2022 and the MTL Long Sky 2 is the first premium off-road model to emerge from the brand’s new Merrell Test Lab initiative. It’s a lightweight, versatile, do-everything shoe, but one of the things that makes this shoe extraordinary is the combination of a comfortable and flexible chassis combined with a super-grippy Vibram Megagrip outsole. With 5mm directional lugs made from carbon rubber, these shoes will adhere to just about anything you’ll encounter on the trails, wet or dry, no matter if your foot lands flat or at a precarious angle. Running on muddy, slippery trails? No problem. Running over wet rocks or dewy grass? This shoe has got you covered. Plus the quick-drying and water-evacuating mesh/fabric upper will help keep your feet comfortable on long runs.
The MTL Long Sky 2 is just as sublime on routes that are entirely dry, too. The smooth and comfortable ride is enhanced by a new shock-absorbing and responsive FloatPro Foam compound and a thick EVA sockliner footbed. While many trail shoes have a gusseted tongue, Merrell took it a step further by including a soft, stretchy tongue integrated with an internal bootie for a semi-custom locked-in fit that will keep your foot in place on variable terrain. While it’s best on mild to moderate terrain, the MTL Long Sky 2 has enough protection from a reinforced toe bumper and sidewall abrasion guards to run just about any route out in the wild.
Brian Metzler has been running trails and wear-testing running shoes for more than 25 years in Colorado. He literally wrote the book on running shoes: “Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes.”