Running on trails brings some unique challenges.
The ground is uneven and keeping your footing can be difficult. Not only that but there are hazards that you won’t find on the road, like sharp rocks.
If you’re serious about trail running and you run on rocky, rooty terrain, we recommend choosing a pair of the best trail running shoes with a rock plate. They’ll protect your feet and prevent injury that could sideline you for weeks.
The Brooks Catamount is our top choice. It uses a segmented rock plate for protection and comfort, has a TrailTack sticky rubber outsole for excellent traction, and a responsive DNA Flash midsole.
Keep reading for our other top picks and find the ideal shoe to protect your feet on the trails!
Top 3 Best and Favorites
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Saucony Peregrine 11
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Salomon Sense Ride 4
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1. Brooks Catamount
The Brooks Catamount is a sleek-looking trail shoe.
Featuring a breathable mesh upper to keep your feet cool on the trails, it has light reinforcements around the toe and midfoot for protection. A subtly padded tongue and ankle collar provide a better fit.
Its minimalist upper makes it nice and lightweight, at 10 ounces for the men’s and 9 ounces for the women’s.
For shock absorption on rough terrain, Brooks’ DNA Flash midsole offers balanced cushioning with a heel-to-toe drop of 6mm. This suits both midfoot and heel strikers, reducing vibration and protecting the joints.
The midsole is also nitrogen-infused and offers excellent energy return, for a bit of bounce on the trails.
This shoe features a Ballistic Rock Shield. It’s a segmented thermoplastic EVA layer between the midsole and the outsole, delivering effective protection against sharp rocks and stones.
Underfoot, TrailTak rubber sticks to the terrain and keeps you safe on loose ground. Multidirectional lugs deliver nice grip on a variety of surfaces.
- Breathable, mesh upper
- Responsive DNA Flash midsole
- Segmented rock plate
- railTack sticky rubber
- Run slightly large, especially in the length
2. Saucony Peregrine 11
With the Saucony Peregrine 11, you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck.
It’s a decent weight for a trail shoe with a rock plate, at 11 ounces for the men’s and 10 ounces for the women’s.
An air mesh bootie-style upper is streamlined and sleek, protecting the foot from snagging on anything as you run. It’s tightly woven and fairly stiff, which provides stability but may compromise slightly on breathability.
It also features Saucony’s traditional wide toe box, which offers space for the toes to splay comfortably. A 4mm heel-to-toe drop makes the shoe feel pretty stable, although it may take some getting used to if you aren’t used to it.
PWRRUN cushioning offers protection against shock on every step of the trail. It’s also surprisingly responsive, providing a nice spring.
Underneath the PWRRUN layer, a rock plate provides an extra layer of protection against foot pain and damage, while remaining flexible enough to feel natural.
The PWRTRAC outsole features sticky rubber laid out in chunky, multi-directional 5mm lugs for excellent grip on rough terrain.
- Air mesh bootie
- Flexible rock plate
- PWRRUN midsole cushioning
- Widely spaced, 5mm multi-directional lugs
- Narrow fit
Best Grip On Rocks
3. Salomon Sense Ride 4
Salomon is a well-known name in the trail shoe world, and for good reason. They feature excellent traction on a wide range of surfaces, but this pair especially does well on rocks.
The Sense Ride 4 has a comfortable and flexible mesh upper, which provides light breathability as well as stability. It’s on the narrower side, so those with wide feet may struggle to find a good fit. There’s also a TPU overlay to protect the toes from bumps on rocks.
The traditional Salomon QuickLace system features on this shoe too, which is convenient and easy to use. You’re also almost guaranteed to never have a shoelace come untied while you’re on the trail.
With 27mm of foam in the heel, it’s an excellent choice for heel strikers. The midsole is made up of double-layered Optivibe EVA foam, blended to offer the ideal mix of cushioning and responsiveness.
Instead of a full rock plate, this shoe features Salomon’s ProFeel Film, which serves the same purpose. It’s a thin TPU layer, designed to provide protection from bumps and foot bruising.
As well as the light protection against damage from rocks, this shoe offers excellent grip on rocks and slippery surfaces. Sporting 4mm deep, diamond-shaped lugs on its underside, the Sense Ride 4 can easily handle maud, gravel, or rocky ground.
Contagrip rubber provides exceptional grip on smooth surfaces, making it easy to run over rock surfaces.
- Flexible, anti-debris mesh upper
- Dual-layered Optivibe EVA foam cushioning
- Quick-lace system
- Deep, 4mm diamond-shaped lugs
- Runs a ½ size big
Top Wide Toe Box
4. Topo Ultraventure Pro
The Topo Ultraventure Pro is an ideal choice for trail runners who struggle to find shoes that fit their wide feet.
It has a wonderfully spacious toe box, offering plenty of space for the toes to spread out comfortably.
The engineered mesh uppers are nice and breathable, as well as being abrasion-resistant, which is an excellent property for a trail running shoe. There are also built-in “gills” or small holes that allow for quick drainage if you happen to run through a puddle.
To stabilize the foot on rocky terrain, there’s a TPU heel counter. Despite this, some users report heel slippage in this shoe. But the cushioned ankle collar and tongue should help keep the foot stable when laced up firmly.
Three-piece ZipFoam midsoles provide shock-absorbing padding and comfort. But counteracting that is the built-in ESS rock plate, which is designed to stop rocks, thorns, and other trail hazards from injuring your feet.
The rock plate is an excellent addition for protection, but it does make the shoe unusually stiff. Running on the road or for more than 50k will be a chore in these shoes.
They will keep you perfectly safe on wet, slippery, or rough surfaces thanks to the Vibram Megagrip outsoles. They’re extremely grippy and feature aggressive lugs in a variety of shapes, for the best traction on any terrain.
- Spacious toe box
- Flexible ESS rock plate
- Built-in drainage gills
- Excellent traction outsole
- There may be heel slippage
Best Nike Trail Shoe
5. Nike Wildhorse 7
There’s no denying that Nike makes top-notch running shoes, for both road and trail. The Wildhorse 7 is the newest version of their rugged trail shoe, and it’s a favorite.
Not much has changed since the 6, with the exception of a few minor tweaks to the upper. Large-perforation mesh paired with strategically-placed synthetic uppers and a protective toe bumper manages to be both breathable and structurally supportive.
It has a pleasingly roomy toe box, which will surprise those who know Nike as being a shoe for narrow footers.
In the midsole, Nike’s firm favorite, React foam, is present. It’s a bouncy and fun ride, but still comfortable and decently soft underfoot.
The rock plate is less apparent than in the 6, but it’s there. Unfortunately, the Wildhorse is already a heavy shoe, hitting 11 ounces for a men’s and a 9.4 ounces for a women’s, so the thin rock plate prevents more weight from being added.
The outsole loses the air pod that came in previous versions. This isn’t really an issue, as the React foam provides a nice spring.
High-abrasion rubber and multi-directional lugs offer incredible grip, and there’s a lateral saddle that offers light lateral stability.
- Textured toe bumper
- Roomy toe box
- Light, thin rock plate
- React midsole cushioning
- A little heavier than many others
Top Zero Drop
6. Altra Lone Peak 5
Altra is known for two things: their comfortable, foot-shaped toe box, and their zero-drop platform.
This shoe features both, so it’s ideal for those who need extra toe space and want a balanced, flat ride. This combination of features offers a stable platform that feels safe on rough terrain.
Take note that they may not be the best choice for runners who have narrow feet. The fit may be sloppy, causing discomfort and chafing.
Altra calls their zero-drop platform “balanced cushioning”. The midsole features 25mm of Altra EGO foam, offering enough padding to adequately absorb shock as you pound through the trails.
A rock plate is inserted just below this layer of foam to provide the best protection against whatever may jump out at your feet while you’re running. It’s thin and flexible enough to allow you to still get a good ground feel.
A tight mesh upper provides excellent protection against the elements and hazards on the trail, and strong synthetic overlays stabilize much of the rearfoot, helping to provide a great heel lockdown. It also features a decent toe bumper.
On the upper, you’ll also find attachment points for a gaiter if you want to use one to provide extra protection from debris.
The Trailclaw design on the outsole is designed to match the position of the metatarsals, to provide both support and traction where you need it and can use it most.
MaxTrac rubber does well on gravel, loose ground, and when running through mud. It may be a little slippery on smooth surfaces, so be careful.
- Balanced cushioning platform
- Tightly-woven mesh upper
- Responsive Altra EGO midsole cushioning
- Strategically-placed canted lugs
- May be slippery on smooth surfaces
Best For Ultras
7. Salomon S-Lab Ultra 3
Running an ultra is no small feat. If that’s one of your goals, you need the best of the best shoes on your feet, and you’ve got to be sure they can handle anything you throw at them.
The Salomon S-Lab Ultra 3 is made for the challenge of an ultra, as you can tell by its name. It’s made to run more than 100 miles in one go, and it’s designed to provide comfort and effectiveness.
The TPU mesh upper is both durable and breathable, the perfect combination. The sock-like upper covers the tongue and the ankle collar is thin and clings to the foot, so there’s very little chance of debris entering the shoe.
Kevlar laces are thin and can get a really great lockdown using the QuickLace system. They’re kept out of the way in a lace pouch once they’ve been tied, with little chance of coming undone.
In the midsole, you’ll find Energy Cell+ foam, PU foam with high rebound properties. Underneath that, a thin TPU rock plate, called ProFeel film, provides effective shielding from rocks and other sharp or dangerous debris on the trail.
A Contagrip rubber outsole allows the wearer to run with confidence over rocky, mixed, or technical terrain.
- Durable and breathable upper
- Dual-foam midsole cushioning
- Thin TPU film in the midsole
- Contagrip rubber outsole
- May be hard to get onto the foot with the sock-like upper
8. Brooks Cascadia 16
The Brooks Cascadia 16 is a great choice if you want to run a variety of different trail surfaces.
One of the biggest reasons they’re so versatile is that they feature shallow lugs. TrailTack rubber offers great traction on both rocky terrain and dirt.
No matter what surface you’re running on, the nylon rock plate offers protection for the underside of the feet. Unlike most rock plates, this one features vertical flex grooves, allowing it to flex naturally with the foot so it doesn’t feel so rigid.
A wide toe box makes it comfortable for those with wide feet or who need extra toe space.
You’ll find DNA LOFT foam in the midsole, which is lusciously soft and lightweight. It has 2mm more cushion than the previous version, increasing the plushness and comfort.
Other features we like are the drainage ports in the upper, a gaiter tab on the heel, and release grooves in the midsole for extra adaptability and flexibility.
- Wide toe box
- Updated nylon rock plate
- DNA LOFT v2 midsole cushioning
- Extra release grooves in the midsole
- There may be a break-in period
Best Custom Fit
9. Saucony Switchback 2
When you’re tackling rough ground, your shoe needs to fit you like a glove. The Saucony Switchback does just that. A BOA dial Fit System offers you the best possible fit you can get, and with absolute precision.
Saucony’s FormFit upper is designed to cradle the foot and keep it in place on rough terrain. It has a sock-like fit, contouring to the foot for a close-to-custom fit.
A PWRRUN+ midsole is lightweight and has a dash of bounce to it. Note that it’s by no means plush – it’s more responsive than it is soft. Thankfully, the foot doesn’t need much padding for protection as there’s a rock plate to keep your feet safe from beneath.
The lugs on the PWRTRAC grippy rubber outsole are low-profile and can easily handle wet and loose ground.
- BOA Fit System
- Trail-specific FORMFIT upper
- Rock guard nylon plate
- PWRTRAC tacky rubber lugs
- May be difficult to get the shoe on
Top Lightweight Shoe
10. Arc’teryx Norvan VT 2
The Arc’teryx Norvan VT 2 is a stylish-looking shoe.
Tight mesh uppers offer the best of both breathability and protection. TPU overlays protect against abrasion and provide light support. A robust toe cap keeps your most sensitive parts safe.
A 4mm thick Ortholite insert offers comfort, while an EVA and polyolefin midsole absorbs shock on the trail and reduces vibration. Beneath this, a TPU film (rock plate) in the forefoot offers extended protection against the terrain.
Run confidently with the Vibram Megagrip rubber outsoles, complete with aggressive 4mm lugs for the best grip.
- Breathable mesh upper with TPU film overlay
- 3D-molded OrthoLite inserts
- High-abrasion climbing zone
- EVA/polyolefin midsole cushioning
- The laces are shorter than average
Wondering why you should consider buying one of the best trail running shoes with a rock plate?
Here’s some more information to help you decide if they’re the right choice for you or not.
What is a Rock Plate in Trail Running Shoes?
A rock plate is a rigid layer within the midsole, made of either plastic or a carbon fiber composite material. It’s designed to protect the feet from sharp stones and harsh hazards on rough ground.
It’s found between the midsole and the outsole of the shoe. That way, the wearer still gets the full benefit of the midsole foam and the traction of the outsole, but has a subtle extra layer of protection.
They vary in thickness and rigidity, often depending on the brand of shoe you choose. What you choose depends on you, your comfort, and the surface you run on!
What are the Benefits of a Rock Plate?
Aside from being protective and keeping you from being injured (which could sideline you for weeks), rock plates are unobtrusive underfoot, they don’t add much weight at all to the shoe.
They can actually help to provide a little support for the foot, preventing or reducing foot pain and muscle fatigue.
What Other Features are Important in Trail Running Shoes?
The rock plate isn’t the only thing you should be looking for in trail running shoes. Here are some of the other essential boxes to tick when shopping for them:
Trails can be uneven, bumpy places, so you need good tread underfoot to keep you safe on your feet. Just like a 4×4, if you have smooth “tires”, you’ll find it much more difficult to move fast and effectively.
If you’re likely to be running in muddy spots or on loose-packed or gravelly trails, choose a shoe with wider, deeper lugs.
On the other hand, if you’re more likely to be running on hard-packed trails, or on a combination of roads and trails, less aggressive lugs would suffice. Densely-packed lugs of 2 to 4mm in size would be happy medium.
Cushioning is important but it’s a personal thing. Some of us need more plush, soft cushion, while others prefer more dense, energetic cushion. Either way, the cushioning is what absorbs shock when your foot hits the ground.
Although it is a personal thing, there are some rules of thumb you can follow to figure out what would be best for you.
If you’re planning on running on hard-packed trails, long distances, or splitting your training between trails and roads, then a more cushioned shoe may be the better choice.
But if you spend more time on smooth and soft trail landscapes, run short distances, or like a shoe in which you can feel the ground more easily, a less cushioned shoe will do.
Between 10 and 12mm is the general traditional drop, and it’s an excellent choice for heel strikers due to the cushion in the heel area. If you’re a heel striker, this is a good heel-to-toe drop to go for. The lower the drop becomes, the more it promotes a midfoot strike.
Take note that the lower the heel-to-toe drop, the more strain is placed on the Achilles. If you’re switching from a 10 or 12mm shoe to a 4mm drop or even zero-drop, it will definitely require a break-in period.
You may need to wear them in short bursts or for shorter distances until your feet get used to the feeling and your Achilles adjusts so you can run without risk of injury.
Trail running shoes often have waterproof properties that protect against rain, snow, puddles, and, to a certain extent, mud.
Not all of them do, though, so if this is something you’d like, you’ll need to double-check your shoe of choice. Here are some of the Gore-Tex shoes we recommend!
What Shoes Do Ultra Trail Runners Wear?
Ultra runners’ shoes take a beating! Because of this, they often go for lightweight shoes that still offer good cushioning and are known for durability.
Some popular shoe brands among ultra runners are Hoka One One (for their excellent, plush cushioning), Altra (for their generous foot-shaped toe box), and Salomon (exceptional traction).
Is It Bad to Wear Trail Running Shoes on the Road?
While it’s not necessarily bad to wear trail shoes on the road, it’s going to damage the trail shoes. They’re designed with (usually) aggressive lugs underneath, made to grip dirt, mud, rocks, and uneven, loose terrain.
On the road, there’s none of that. Your lugs will wear out fast on the road, and if you do choose to hit the trail at some point later on, they won’t be effective.
If you do both trail and road running and want a shoe that can handle both, check out our article here to find a shoe for you!