Trail Running Shoes: The Key Characteristics


Dedicated runners will readily let you know how important shoe choice is to hitting your goals. Even if you aren’t setting running goals, the right pair of shoes is critical to comfort. And comfort is critical to enjoying your run. Nowhere is this more important than when you leave the blacktop behind and head for the trails.

If you just bought your first pair of dedicated running shoes, you might not be aware of the various types of shoes available. One such division is between road running shoes and trail running shoes. Road shoes are designed to go fast, be light, and go fast. Trail shoes are designed to be rugged, take a beating, provide fail-safe grip on off-road surfaces…and be light and go fast, of course.

The Right Shoes for the Right Terrain

If you’re the woodsy type, the mountain type, the type whose heart thrills when the GPS directs you to turn off the paved road, then you need to know the ins and outs of trail shoes. If you have been running on natural surfaces with road shoes, switching to trail shoes will be an epiphany. But even within the category of trail shoes, there is a wide variety of styles, each with its own dedicated tribe of evangelists.

So why do trail runners get so misty-eyed when thinking about their trail shoes? What’s so special about them? And are they a necessary piece of gear for those wishing to be transported (under their own leg power, of course) to idyllic landscapes of woodland trails, roots, rocks, and pulse-spiking, lung-searing alpine vertical gain? (For the TL/DR crowd: Yes. Yes they are)

Trail Running: What Is It?

Easy answer: “Trail running” can loosely be defined as running on any natural surface. 

Real answer: “Trail running” is off-road running of any variety, from grass and smooth packed dirt (some might prefer to call this “cross-country”), to woodland trails pocked by roots and rocks, to the technical challenges of mountain running, and on to the sometimes-bizarre world of ultra-endurance racing featuring terrain too difficult to actually run, sometimes avoiding trails altogether. If you are on a road or some other man-made surface, you are not trail running. Everything else can be called trail.

Embracing a New Challenge

Trail runners revel in the challenges of the terrain. Jumping over logs and branches, scrambling over boulders, ascending insane inclines and descending those paths your mother yelled you’d better stay away from, high altitude, mud, bad weather. It’s all common and welcome to trail runners, and the inherent difficulty is part of the allure. You could safely say, in fact, that trail runners are more prone to undertaking Stupid Human Tricks than other runners. If that sentence needs clarification, go watch The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young or find some YouTube clips from Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). See?

Now that marathoning has become, amazingly, a fairly pedestrian accomplishment, runners of all varieties are seeking new thrills. The trail running community (and the closely linked ultra-running world) is welcoming them with open arms. On the coattails of The Race That Eats Its Young and the legendary finish-line heartbreak of the 2017 Barkley, as well as the exploits of cult endurance heroes such as Dean Karnazes, Killian Jornet and others, trail running is enjoying a surge in popularity. That means that shoe companies are responding by providing more, and better, trail running options.

Why Can’t You Use Regular Road Shoes?

On certain off-road surfaces, such as grass, packed dirt, gravel, and fire roads, you can get by with road shoes. But trail runners need to be ready for trails to go from easy to challenging in the blink of an eye. Trail shoes can handle this. Road shoes quickly become inadequate once the going gets rough.

First off, road shoes’ priority on weight and speed means they are not meant to tackle the toughest terrain. The uppers especially can be susceptible to damage from abrasion. The soles, meant to glide effortlessly over asphalt, simply do not provide enough grip to be safe on rugged trails where one step might be in mud and the next might be on wet rock.

Shoe design today is highly scientific and specialized; trust the manufacturer when they say you’re much better off with a trail shoe.

What Are Trail Running Shoes?

Trail shoes are specifically designed for the needs of rugged off-road running. As with road shoes, there is much variation within the category. But in general, trail shoes differ from road shoes in tread, construction of the upper, support, and foot protection. Other than that, there are minimal trail shoes and maximal trail shoes; zero-drop shoes and 12mm-drop shoes; light trail shoes and heavy shoes, snug shoes and roomy shoes. All the variables you would expect when buying other running shoes.

Some Top Characteristics of Trail Running Shoes

The build of a trail running shoe is far more extensive than a regular running shoe. A few things to consider:

  • Soles

A trail running shoe’s sole is typically designed to offer the runner with higher grip levels. Since the traction on trails can vary literally step to step, trail shoes err on the side of caution. Whereas road shoe soles are usually designed around grooves, trail shoes more often than not feature lugs, which dig into mud just as well as they provide useful friction when scrambling across exposed rock.

Some trail shoes use thickness of the sole to protect your feet from rocks and other types of trail hazards. Others prioritize a minimal, natural feel that relies on your ability to see and respond to trail dangers in exchange for a better sense of contact with the surface.

  • Cushioning

Cushioning is a matter of preference, and you can find just about any level of cushioning in a trail shoe. Vibram Five Fingers offer zero cushioning, and just a thin layer of runner for traction and protection–they are the epitome of “barefoot” shoes. On the other end of the spectrum, Hoka One One is famous for providing extremely plush (and tall) shoes that easily absorb the shocks, impacts, and roughness of just about any trail.

Beyond comfort, cushioning can play a safety role, as well. If the sole of the shoe is not designed to protect the foot from sharp objects, then it will fall to the midsole cushioning to protect you. Some trail shoes will actually include a rock plate, separate from the sole and midsole, that provides protection from trail hazards.

  • Weight

Weight is not usually the top concern when buying trail shoes, because ruggedness and traction take priority. Still, these shoes do their best not to be heavy and clunky. Given the challenges of trail terrain, heavy shoes would be that much more of a drain on your legs.

The upper one area where weight is added. Because trail shoes need to withstand more scraping and abrasion, they are commonly reinforced with additional material. This makes them last longer and shrug off frequent encounters with rocks, but there is a small price to pay in heft.

You’ll also find that unlike hiking boots, trail shoes are low cut like running shoes. This sheds weight and allows for more freedom of movement. 

Having a light trail running shoe would be great. But it’s much more important to have a comfortable fit and great grip along with the cushioning you prefer. Having these qualities may add a few extra ounces to the shoe, but it will be completely worth it.

  • Weather Protection

It goes without saying that trail running will definitely get you involved with mud, puddles, and the occasional river crossing. Many trail running shoes have laminates such as a GORE-Tex membrane or a durable water repellent to keep water and mud out.

The materials used on the shoe may vary, as each shoe is made to offer the runner different features. However, almost every shoe is designed with synthetics, as opposed to natural fabrics, as they offer very high levels of breathability and water resistance.


The mountains are calling! The wind in the trees is whispering your mile splits! If you have not explored trail running yet, do it. It can help diversify your running routine if you are a dedicated road runner, and it’s just a great excuse to get out in nature. Trail running offers a plethora of challenges to new and experienced runners alike.

The right pair of trail shoes will help you enjoy this increasingly popular type of running.

Photo of author


Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.

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