Editor's Note: Products featured on Wide Open Spaces are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.
Trail-running shoes are one of my favorite things to talk about, and they are also one of the hardest categories to recommend. Shoe choice — especially for something as impact-driven as trail running — is contingent on individual stride, intended use, foot shape, and some magical combination I can't quite figure out. The best trail-running shoes are different for everyone, though some models perform better than others on different types of terrain. I personally wear a few pairs consistently each season. I love Altra's Lone Peak for thru-hiking, but I wear the Brooks Cascadia for local runs. I wear La Sportiva's Akasha shoes for steep trails, and mid-range Saucony Peregrines for combination runs and hikes. This year I discovered the Merrell Long Sky II, and it became my go-to shoe. I'm lucky in the sense that my feet aren't super picky, which means I can wear a variety of shoes and recommend different pairs without wrecking my feet.
If you've been trail-running long enough, chances are you know the kind of shoe that works for you, and I recommend sticking with that to avoid discomfort or injury. However, if you're looking to get into trail running, or trying out new types of terrain or longer runs, I've listed a variety of shoe models here that I've worn myself for hundreds (or thousands) of miles. Chances are there's something here that'll work for you, whether you find yourself on local trails, all-day runs, or alpine excursions.
1. The Best Option All-Around
These new shoes from Merrell's lightweight, performance-oriented line (Merrell Test Lab) have been the MVP of any new shoe I tested this season. I ended up wearing them a lot. These shoes don't feel too bulky or overengineered for in-town runs on smooth, wide trails, but they can hold their own on steep, rugged terrain. They have a moderate fit through the upper — they're not as narrow as the Hoka Speedgoats, but are more secure than the looser feel of the Altra Lone Peaks. They have grippy zoned Vibram rubber and reverse-facing lug patterning for equally good traction on slippery rocks and mud going up and downhill. I did punch a hole through the mesh upper during a miserable bushwhack, but I think this is partially due to my navigational errors. The shoe will be fine as long as you don't lose the trail in an inconvenient spot. Snag the men's option HERE.
2. The Best Trail-Running Shoes For Long Distances
These are the shoes I go for when I need a shoe that won't give me any issues with foot pain or blisters. The Altra Lone Peaks have been my go-to trail runners for anything long-distance — whether it's hiking or running— since 2015. The Lone Peak is the star of Altra's trail running line, known for their zero-drop design and wide toe box. These shoes have just enough cushioning to feel protective without losing efficiency, and the wide toe box helps your toes splay and grip on steep inclines and descents. My one gripe with these shoes is that they aren't as durable as many other comparable trail runners. I like to get at least 500 miles out of a pair of shoes, and these shoes start failing in the upper and toe cap around 300 miles, and the outsoles lose tread depth faster than other models. But for comfort and foot happiness, they can't be beat. The women's model is available HERE.
3. The Most Versatile Option
The Cascadias (now in their 16th iteration!) have been around for a long time. These are my go-anywhere shoes thanks to the stellar package of durability, comfort, lightness, and all-day wear. I find these shoes perform best on moderate trails — they have a less aggressive lug patterning than other shoes on this list, which means they don't get stuck in the mud or dig up the trails, but they also don't grip quite as well on steep or slick rocks. These are a fairly lightweight, flexible shoe that don't sacrifice protection against rocks and roots. They have a rock plate and the EVA foam-based midsole, which feels super springy and helps maintain a flexible, natural stride. Check out the women's model HERE.
4. An Option That Works for Almost Any Type of Runner
This heritage shoe from Saucony's trail-running line performs equally well on moderate local trails as it does on more mountainous terrain, and it's comfortable for all-day hikes as well. For people who oscillate between short runs and longer, more remote outings, this is the shoe I recommend. It does All The Things equally well, and feels stable just about anywhere. I wear these on road runs and sandy hikes, short trail runs and all-day adventures. They have a rock plate and a moderate fit (think similar to the Cascadia and Long Sky II), with a recent redesign that eliminated some of the overlays for a sleeker design with more flexibility through the upper. Women's version HERE.
5. The Best Ultra-Cushioned Trail-Running Shoe
Hoka is the most popular option for fans of the maximalist style shoes, which offer a taller stack height through the midsole for extra cushion and a "cloud-like" feel. The Speedgoats have a whopping 34-millimeter stack in the heel and 28 millimeters in the toe— for comparison, most standard trail runners have around a 24-millimeter stack height. This extra cushion does an impeccable job protecting from the ground, but if this style is new to you, I recommend moderate runs to get used to the taller design. My first few runs in these felt a bit wobbly and unstable coming from a more standard midsole. Otherwise, these shoes have some of the best traction of any trail runners I've tested, with a grippy Vibram and zoned rubber to increase grip and traction on both wet and dry ground. The women's Speedgoat 5's can be found HERE.
6. The Best Option for Steep Trails
The updated Akasha from La Sportiva is my consistent choice for steep runs with off-trail segments, or when I know I'm going to encounter some gnarly sidehills. These have the most secure fit through the upper and a rugged outsole with excellent midsole rebound, though they will feel stiffer than others on this list. They fit tighter than other shoes, which helps with security, but does mean I don't often wear them on all-day outings. These also have a taller stack height than more moderate shoes, which helps with cushioning on the rugged terrain these shoes excel at. The multidirectional lugs and stabilizing construction along the length of the midsole also help in stabilization, and I can run confidently on rugged terrain knowing my feet won't slide around in these. Find the men's model HERE.
READ MORE: The 6 Best Lightweight Hiking Shoes
Enjoy the outdoors?
Sign up for daily stories delivered straight to your inbox.