How to Buy Trail Running Shoes

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We love trail running and spend several days a week on the trails. While the gear requirements are nearly the same for road running, trail shoes are one thing that’s different – and also something you’ll want to invest in.

If you’ve already been running on roads, you might assume the shoe-buying process is similar. But shopping for trail shoes can be a little more complicated.

The biggest key to understanding how to buy trail running shoes is to have a really good idea of your needs. Do you want something firm with a protective rock plate? A soft, cushy shoe? Traction to stick to rocks like Spiderman? Big lugs for soft, muddy trails?

Drilling down into the specifics will ensure you get shoes that protect your feet while keeping you comfy throughout your run. Here’s what you need to know!

When Should You Get Trail Running Shoes?

Whether you need trail running shoes or not depends on several factors. It’s safe to say that trail running shoes are a good buy for you if:

  • You’re going off-road multiple times a week
  • You spend a lot of time on muddy or rocky trails
  • The shoes you’re wearing now have minimal traction

When Shouldn’t You Get Trail Running Shoes?

There’s no need for you to invest in trail running shoes if you’re running on flat, easy terrain, even if it is a trail. In these cases, most road running shoes can handle the surface fairly easily with minimal wear and tear.

You can also stick to your road running shoes if your usual route includes short sections of trail terrain but is mostly on road surfaces.

The Different Types of Trail Running Shoes

Once you’ve decided you need a pair of trail runners, the next step is determining which type of trail running shoe is right for you. Here’s an overview of the various types.

All-Purpose

Sometimes called generalist trail shoes, these trail runners are the most in-between type, suitable for various terrain but not specific to a certain type of trail.

They often have a moderate stack height, an average upper, and a mild- to moderately-lugged outsole that can work in an average to above-average manner on different types of trails.

If you’re running on technical, muddy, or rocky trails, you can do so with these… however, a more specialized trail shoe will give you more traction and keep you steady on your feet.

A good example of an all-purpose trail shoe is the Brooks Cascadia.

Soft Ground

Soft-ground trail shoes are designed for muddy conditions. They usually have deep, aggressive lugs in the outsoles that are well-spaced to prevent mud from packing onto the sole.

They also often have lower stack heights to maximize stability. You will likely find a robust upper with extra protection against muddy, watery conditions.

Soft-ground shoes are quite specialized, so you won’t be able to take these from the trail to the road, thanks to those monster lugs.

A good example of this kind of shoe is the Salomon Speedcross.

Rocky and Technical Terrain

Trail shoes created specifically for technical terrain or rocky surfaces, so they tend to prioritize grip and traction. They have a softer, tackier rubber on the outsole to stick to rocks.

If you see a shoe with Vibram soles, these tend to offer sticky rubber; however, other brands – Salomon and VJ come to mind – also have their own high-traction outsoles.

A technical shoe is also likely to have a built-in rock plate, which adds an extra layer of protection on hard, stony surfaces. This thin piece of plastic adds a firm layer to protect your feet from jagged rocks and other sharp things you’ll find on a trail.

You may also find welded overlays, and the shoe might be on the heavier side, thanks to the integrated tech.

The Terrex Agravic Pro is a good example of a technical terrain shoe.

Waterproof

Weatherproof shoes are great in wet weather or snowy and icy conditions. They typically feature a Gore-Tex membrane or something similar, which prevents moisture from passing its barrier.

They’re great for keeping water out but do tend to run hot if you use them in warmer weather. Weatherproof shoes are better kept for actual wet or snowy weather, as they’ll feel hot and heavy in any other conditions.

The Saucony Excursion GTX is a good example of this kind of shoe.

Winter Shoes

If you like to run the trails in the snow or icy conditions, you might want shoes with built-in spikes for extra traction. They’re very specialized and won’t be suitable for any other conditions.

The La Sportiva Blizzard GTX is an excellent example of winter trail running shoes.

Other Types of Trail Shoes

Barefoot Shoes

These trail runners are designed for those who specifically want a close-to-the-ground feeling. They feature thin cushioning and a low-profile design, so you get minimal protection and support.

Barefoot shoes are designed to recreate the most natural stride possible. The idea is that you’ll be running almost barefoot, which is exactly how humans were created to run.

Maximalist Shoes

The opposite of barefoot shoes, maximalist trail running shoes have a lot of cushioning and usually provide a bit of support. Don’t be surprised if extra padding and plushness are in the upper and under the foot.

They’re great for shock absorption, so people with joint problems might enjoy wearing them.

It’s important to note that both “minimalist” and “maximalist” refer more to the cushioning and less to the actual type of shoe. Most trail running shoes fall somewhere between minimalist and maximalist regarding their cushioning.

Figuring Out Your Needs

To find your perfect trail shoe, you’ll need to assess your individual needs to match it to the type of shoe.

Take a look at these factors that will impact which trail running shoes you should buy to help you get stared.

The Type of Terrain You’ll Be Running On

This is usually the big decider of what type of shoe you should choose because it focuses mainly on the external features of the shoe. Most trail runners will prefer a specific type of trail, so here’s a quick overview.

  • Soft, less stable ground: More aggressive lugs with wider spacing, extra support so you don’t turn an ankle.
  • Hard ground: Flatter, lower lugs more closely-spaced.
  • Muddy: Longer and more widely-spaced lugs will prevent mud from packing into the outsole.
  • Rocky: Sticky rubber on the outsole will help you grip better on smooth rocks. A stiff outsole will protect against rocks and a reinforced upper will protect your feet from all sides.
  • Wet: If you’re likely to be running on wet trails, opt for a shoe with a sticky rubber outsole and a waterproof upper.

How Far Will You Be Running?

If you’re doing shorter trails, you can choose lightweight shoes with less cushioning. For moderate to longer trail runs, more cushioning is preferable to take on the shock as your feet fatigue.

This factor is less about the external features and more about the cushioning and comfort of the shoe.

How Much Cushioning Do You Need?

Aside from the distance you’ll be running, you’ll also need to assess your cushioning needs based on your current joint and foot health state.

If you have joint issues in your foot, knee, hip, or lower back, you’d be better off with a more cushioned shoe to take on most of the vibration of your foot strike.

What to Look For in Trail Running Shoes: A Checklist

Here’s a checklist of what you should consider before buying trail shoes.

Traction and Grip

The outsole of your trail runners can come in many different designs. Some feature many small lugs, while others use fewer, larger lugs.

If you’re running on trails with soft, unstable, muddy, or snowy ground, aggressive, chunky lugs are your best choice. They’ll grip it well and prevent falls.

But if you’re more likely to spend time on hard, packed ground or rocky terrain, then you need something with flatter lugs and stickier rubber to prevent sliding.

Rock Plate

Not all trail runners have a rock plate. If you’re hitting light trails that are mostly dirt, you might not need this extra protection. But if you’re on rocky and rooty trails, it’s a great feature to have.

Generally, they won’t make your shoes feel hard or stiff underfoot. They’re usually made of carbon fiber or plastic, so they don’t add much weight and remain flexible so your foot can move naturally.

Toe Caps

Toe caps—sometimes called toe bumpers—are thick reinforced pieces of rubber or synthetic material around the toe of the shoe.

They shield your toes from harm inflicted by rocks, branches, or other hazards lurking on the ground. A toe bumper is worth having if you plan on running rocky or technical trails.

Cushioning

Cushioning refers specifically to the amount of foam in the midsole. Trail shoes can range from minimal to maximalist, and what you choose depends on your comfort levels and your shock absorption needs.

If you’re new to trails, we recommend a more cushioned shoe rather than a less padded one. While minimalist shoes can strengthen the feet and legs, they’re best for more experienced runners.

Heel-To-Toe Drop

This is the difference between the height of the midsole in the forefoot and in the heel. The standard is 12 mm, but they can be anything from zero up to 12. It’s a good idea to choose a shoe with a similar drop to what your regular running shoes are.

A higher heel-to-toe drop takes strain off the Achilles, and provides more padding under the heel, so it’s a good choice for heel strikers.

Zero-drop shoes or low-drop shoes (up to 4 mm) encourage a more natural gait, but they take time to get used to and require you to pay close attention to your form. They’re not recommended for new runners.

Secure Lacing

Trail running shoes generally feature longer laces and differently-placed eyelets. These are designed to allow for a tighter lockdown, so your foot fits snugly into the shoe.

Keep this in mind when shopping because when it comes to replacing shoelaces, you’ll need to buy longer ones to keep benefiting from this feature.

Most trail running shoes also feature a lace pocket, so you can tuck away the laces during your run and not worry about them getting in the way or tripping you up.

Breathability and Waterproofing

Waterproof shoes tend to be less breathable, while more breathable shoes are going to be less effective at keeping water out. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find footwear that offers both, so consider the terrain and conditions carefully before buying.

If you’re likely to be running through streams or in rainy weather, waterproofing will be a worthwhile feature for you. On the other hand, if you’re more likely to be powering through in dry, hot conditions, then breathability will probably win.

Weight

Lighter shoes often allow for more agility on the trails, while heavier ones tend to offer more protection. More cushioning usually equals a higher weight, but other added features also add to it.

Weight shouldn’t be the main factor you focus on when choosing a trail shoe, but it does play a role if you want to boost your performance.

Comfortable Fit

Secure lacing will help with a close and comfortable fit, and the fit of your trail shoes will be a little tighter than your running shoes. You might want a bit more space in the toe box to allow for stability on tough terrain.

Most trail running shoes are neutral shoes, and finding a pair of support shoes for trails is hard. However, it’s not often needed—trail shoes are generally more supportive than road shoes anyway. You’re also less likely to overpronate when the ground is uneven.

A number of different factors go into finding your perfect fit:

  • Your shoe size: Measure it in inches—don’t rely on your regular shoe size.
  • Remember, your feet swell: Measure your feet in the afternoon or evening when they’re at their biggest.
  • Find out your arch height: The cushioning needs to match your arch for comfort. If it doesn’t, you may be able to use an orthotic instead.
  • Consider the shoe last: A “last” is the skeleton the shoe is built around. Most brands are built on a specific last, so shop around to find one that suits your foot.
  • Your socks: You’re likely to be wearing thicker socks on the trail, so you might need to go up half a size from your usual.

Durability

Most trail running shoes are built to last, but double-check the materials and read reviews to find out what real people say about how long the shoes last.

Each brand has technologies that contribute to durability, from overlays on the upper, support features in the midsole, to unique tech in the outsole material.

How Should Trail Running Shoes Fit?

Trail running shoes should cup the heel and fit snugly in the arch. While your toes should be able to wiggle freely, there should be just a finger’s width of space between your toes and the front of the shoe.

It’s best to get your foot professionally measured and your arch analyzed before choosing a shoe. Don’t settle for something that feels wrong—comfort can make or break your performance and enjoyment.

How Many Pairs of Trail Running Shoes Do I Need?

This comes down to personal preference, but certain things make deciding what would work for you easier. If you’re planning on running the trails every day or on back-to-back days, you may want two or more pairs to give each one a break in between runs.

As you alternate shoes, the resting pair will have time to “bounce back” so the foam lasts longer. It’ll also help them to dry out properly between runs, reducing the chance of developing bad odors.

If you’re only going to be running a few days a week, then you should be able to get by with a single pair of trail running shoes. But if you’re going to be running the trails a lot, more than one pair is good—you might want to invest in a few different pairs for different terrain or conditions, to keep you performing at your best.

Tips on How to Buy Trail Running Shoes

Ready to buy the perfect pair of trail running shoes? Keep these things in mind as you shop, and you’ll be able to find a pair that works for your needs.

Know Your Feet

Understand your own foot before shopping for shoes. Know your foot measurements so you can choose the right size, your arch height so you can get the most comfortable fit, and your pronation type so you can get the right support.

Size and Fit

Choose a half-size bigger than you’d usually wear to account for stiffness in the upper. Trail shoes don’t “break in” like road running shoes, as the uppers are usually less flexible than road shoes for protective purposes.

With a tight fit, you might be more prone to chafing or simply restricted movement, which will hamper your performance.

Consider the Type of Socks You’ll Wear for Trail Running

Most runners use slightly thicker socks for trails than for the road. Consider this when shopping—you’ll need a few extra millimeters in the shoe for a snug but comfortable fit.

If you’re trying shoes on in the store, wear the socks you’ll be running in. This will give you the most accurate indication of the fit.

Pay Attention to the Tread Patterns on the Outsole

The tread needs to match the terrain you will be running on most often. Don’t neglect this feature—it has an impact on both your performance and your safety on the trails. If a shoe catches your attention but doesn’t possess the right tread for your needs, move on.

Consider Shoe Volume

If you use orthotics, the volume of space inside the shoe will be an important consideration. Make sure to choose a shoe with a removable insole, which will free up space inside so you can insert an orthotic with ease.

Keep in mind that placing a high-profile orthotic device in low-volume shoes will significantly fill up the volume, so you may not be able to fit your feet in the shoes.

Choose shoes that can easily accommodate your existing orthotics without placing extra strain on your feet.

Barefoot and Minimalist Trail Running Shoes

Take it slowly if you’re considering transitioning to zero-drop or minimalist trail shoes. Your feet will take time to adapt to their new position, and you’ll be at a higher risk of developing an injury if you push yourself too hard too fast.

Start with short runs and increase your mileage gradually. Focus on your form and make sure you’re keeping it right even on rougher terrain.

We only recommend transitioning to barefoot shoes for experienced runners. If you’re less experienced but want to switch to a lower drop to improve your form or strengthen your feet, move down the drops slowly.

For example, if you’re used to running in shoes with a 12 mm drop, buy trail running shoes with a 10 mm drop next. When you have to replace those—if your feet have sufficiently adjusted to them—you can shift down to an 8 mm drop.

Your next pair can be a 5 or 6 mm drop, then a 4 mm drop, then down to a zero-drop shoe. You may need to switch brands as you go, but this is the best way to transition safely.

The same can be done with cushioning, if you want to move to a barefoot shoe. It’s also important to note that barefoot shoes are usually zero-drop, but not all zero-drop shoes are barefoot shoes—you can get max-cushioning shoes with a zero-drop too!

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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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