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What to Look for in Trail Running Shoes: A Buyer’s Guide

When you are out at the store looking for regular running shoes, the criteria are quite simple: weight, stability, and cushioning. You know exactly what to look out for. There are countless choices too, helping you dial-in your preferences exactly. However, when it comes to trail running shoes, the choices can be more complicated. For this reason, knowing what to look for in trail running shoes is important, especially if you are new to trail running.

Trail running involves running on any natural surface. From gripping packed dirt fire roads and wildly uneven and rocky single-track paths, to hazards and obstacles such as sharp rocks, sharp inclines and declines, puddles, rivers, mud, and more, trail shoes need to be able to absorb abuse while still giving a comfortable ride. It becomes imperative to have shoes that do an excellent job in protecting your feet, keeping you on the trail, and helping you hit your goals.

If this describes you, then our detailed trail shoe guide will get you to your first off-road pair.

What to Look for in Trail Running Shoes: A Checklist

Other than choosing a pair that has a perfect fit, there are a couple key considerations for selecting trail shoes:

  • Tread

The tread on a trail running shoe is far more aggressive than a regular running shoe. In fact, this is one of the biggest differentiating factors between them. When the lugs, or “cleats,” on the outsole are deeper and are spaced wider, they offer the runner better traction. This is essential if you are running on a path that is muddy or rocky, or more challenging, both.

That being said, deep lugs–ones that are 5 to 7 millimeters in height–tend to be quite uncomfortable if you are running on pavement or packed dirt.

So, if you intend to run mostly on trails that are hard-packed, look out for shoes with a shorter lug. Around 2 to 4 millimeters seems to be a sweet spot. The lugs should be spaced more closely, too.

On the other hand, if you intend to run on a pebble or rocky path, look for a pair of trail running shoes that has the phrase “sticky rubber” in its description. This is a special kind of rubber that offers an improved grip on rock.

  • Rock Plate

You will find that quite a few trail running shoes feature a nylon shank or a rock plate built into the midsole of the shoe. This helps protect your feet against any rock bruising.

Wearing this kind of trail running shoes makes sense if you intend to run on rocky, gravel, and technical trails, as it provides you with built-in protection. However, do note that rock plates often will add weight to the shoe. If you are keen on protection, the rock plate is an obvious and safe choice. If you are worried less about the occasionally uncomfortable step, you could look to a shoe that has enough cushioning to provide protection from trail hazards. Speaking of cushioning….

  • Cushioning

Cushioning is an important aspect of any kind of shoe. The right kind of cushioning ensures comfort. In recent years, cushioning of all kinds has seen quite a bit of change, and there are many options.

Trail running shoes have different kinds of cushioning based on the kind of trail running. Ideally, choosing a shoe with more cushioning makes sense if you plan on using the same shoes for trails and roads (once again, don’t. But…). Packed trails and routine long distances also point most runners toward cushioned shoes.

If you are on the heavier side, or if you struggle with joint or knee pain, then opt for a pair of trail running shoes with more cushioning, as they will do a good job reducing impact.

Trail running shoes with less cushioning are ideal if you will be running on softer and smoother trails, primarily running shorter distances, or simply prefer a shoe that is nimble and offers a closer-to-the-ground feel.

If you are someone who does nothing in half-measures, there are also “barefoot” shoes. These are built with zero drop and zero cushioning, only providing a thin rubber layer for protection and traction.

  • Heel-to-Toe Drop

This aspect of shoes has become the topic of hot debate over the last decade. The heel-to-toe drop, sometimes referred to as just “drop,” will describe how elevated the heel of the shoe is in comparison to the toe.

A standard running shoe drops about 10-12mm from heel to toe. This offers more than enough cushioning to the heel, which makes this ideal for runners who tend to heel strike. Heel striking is when you land on your heels first when running, a stride that is common but not ideal.

If the drop is lower, the shoe will promote midfoot striking. This could cause problems for natural heel-strikers. A mid-foot strike is a lower-impact stride that calls on your foot’s own ability to absorb shock. Do note that if the drop goes even lower, i.e. between 0-4 millimeters, then your Achilles tendon will have to work more. There are those who prefer this configuration, but a newbie will need an adjustment period, especially when running downhill.

  • Waterproofing

Certain trail running shoes are available with waterproof features. This is a little bit misleading. Every shoe has a giant hole at the top (for your foot!). Water can always get in. But that should not stop you from considering this feature. There will be plenty of times you step in shallow puddles or dip a toe in a stream as you are rock-hopping across it.

Waterproofed shoes will often be demarcated by the letters “GTX”, which stands for Gore-Tex. Other trail shoes will have features such as integrated gaiters, which will help fend off snow, rain, and mud higher up the leg.

Ideally, waterproof shoes are perfect if you live in an area with cold or wet weather, where it consistently snows or rains. In any other situations, these waterproof features can be superfluous.

Waterproof membranes, even if they are labeled as “breathable,” greatly reduce ventilation. So, if you live in a hot, dry climate, go with airy shoes made from quick-drying mesh.

Note that if water does manage to enter a waterproof shoe, some will stay trapped inside the membrane. If this happens often enough to be a problem, consider adding gaiters. This will prevent the water or the snow from seeping in at the shoe’s collar.


This five-point checklist of features will get you well on your way to your ideal pair of trail shoes. Talk to someone at your local running store, or to other trail runners. And be sure to try on a few different pairs. As you may have figured, there is as much, if not more, variety in trail running shoes as in road shoes. The right pair will get you the smooth and comfortable run you are craving.

Ben Drew

Ben Drew

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.

The Wired Runner