How We Tested Trail Running Shoes

By:
Andy Wellman
Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Tuesday

Traversing wildflower filled basins with blue skies and beckoning peaks like Potosi in the background  this is why we love trail and mountain running! The Peregrine 7 was so comfortable we felt like we could go on like this for days!
Traversing wildflower filled basins with blue skies and beckoning peaks like Potosi in the background, this is why we love trail and mountain running! The Peregrine 7 was so comfortable we felt like we could go on like this for days!

For the fourth year in a row, we culled down a field of over 90 top men's trail running shoes and selected the ten best and most popular to test in a mecca of trail running, Colorado's San Juan Mountains. We added in four of the best shoes from last year's review that are still available on the market today and spent four summer months running on the best trails the state of Colorado has to offer, all to bring you the very best recommendations. While we primarily tested these 14 shoes on wilderness long runs, short and steep trails close to home, or off-trail scrambling missions to the tops of nearby 13- and 14,000 foot peaks, we also took them on adventures in a variety of places around the United States. These places included the Sangre de Cristo and the Ten Mile Ranges in Colorado, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, the Dark Canyon Wilderness, Bears Ears National Monument, and Canyonlands National Park in Utah, and even on flat dirt trails in northern Minnesota.

While the foundation of our testing happens on trail runs and adventures in the wild places that we love, we wanted to add further accuracy to our testing by devising a series of controlled tests that we repeated with each shoe, comparing them to each other back-to-back. Those tests, and how we tested for each metric that we assessed for, are described below.

Foot Protection


While running over the variable landscapes in the mountains subjects us to plenty of nice buff trails, alpine tundra and grass, sloppy mud, creek crossings, talus fields, steep and loose scree, and high altitude technical scrambling, we wanted to be sure that we knew exactly how each shoe compared to each other when it came to underfoot protection. To do so, we found a gnarly patch of sharp rocks and talus and spent an entire afternoon running back and forth in each pair of shoes, comparing them to each other, and taking copious notes. There is no doubt we have a firm grasp on the level of underfoot protection after such a test.

We chose this section of sharp and jumbled talus to run back and forth on multiple times in each shoe  one after the other  to closely compare how much underfoot protection each shoe offered  as well as how sensitive they were.
We chose this section of sharp and jumbled talus to run back and forth on multiple times in each shoe, one after the other, to closely compare how much underfoot protection each shoe offered, as well as how sensitive they were.

Traction


Our initial opinions of the performance of the traction on these trail runners were formed out on adventures and everyday runs, but we also subjected each shoe to a variety of different surfaces to compare their own traction.

As part of our comparative traction testing  we ran back and forth over various surfaces  including a steep and very muddy trail immediately after a strong deluge.
As part of our comparative traction testing, we ran back and forth over various surfaces, including a steep and very muddy trail immediately after a strong deluge.

To do this, we found areas of steep dirt trail, steep grass, dry rock talus, wet rock, and steep muddy trail, and again ran back and forth in every shoe on every type of terrain, keeping notes on how well they performed.

These Inov-8 shoes were the stickiest soles when it came to gripping rock. We tested each shoe side-by-side on this steep slab to see how well they gripped rock. Immediately after it began raining and we tested them all again on this now wet slab as well.
These Inov-8 shoes were the stickiest soles when it came to gripping rock. We tested each shoe side-by-side on this steep slab to see how well they gripped rock. Immediately after it began raining and we tested them all again on this now wet slab as well.

We also wanted to test them on snow, but poor planning meant the snow was all melted by the time we performed our testing, but we will be sure to include this aspect next year.

On this section of steep  semi-slippery dirt trail  we ran up and especially down in each shoe to compare traction on dirt trails.
On this section of steep, semi-slippery dirt trail, we ran up and especially down in each shoe to compare traction on dirt trails.

Stability


To better compare stability head-to-head, we located a steep grassy slope and ran back and forth across it, side-hilling incessantly to see which shoes induced our ankles to want to roll over more frequently. We also ran down this slope repeatedly, comparing relative stability in a very real-world test ¬– running down steep hills is an integral part of trail and mountain running.

We chose this steep grassy hill to run across sideways (Side-hilling) to better understand how well each shoe hugged our foot snugly in place  as well as whether they were prone to rolling laterally in such terrain. We used this information to help with our ratings for Stability.
We chose this steep grassy hill to run across sideways (Side-hilling) to better understand how well each shoe hugged our foot snugly in place, as well as whether they were prone to rolling laterally in such terrain. We used this information to help with our ratings for Stability.

Comfort


There is no doubt that comfort is the most subjective metric that we tested for, and we found it very difficult to devise controlled tests that could accurately rate comfort in a way that will apply to everyone. The majority of our findings simply came from our everyday experiences, but we also conducted the water drainage test to shed light on this one aspect of trail running shoe performance and comfort.

The water bucket test begins by dunking each pair of shoes for exactly 20 seconds to give them a chance to absorb water. We then held them upside down above the bucket for another 20 seconds to let them drain before weighing them.
The water bucket test begins by dunking each pair of shoes for exactly 20 seconds to give them a chance to absorb water. We then held them upside down above the bucket for another 20 seconds to let them drain before weighing them.

The test is described in detail in our Best Trail Running Shoes for Men Review. Since it is only a tiny aspect of overall comfort, we only used this data to slightly modify the satisfaction scores for the very best and worst performers at this test and left most shoe's scores unaltered. Due to the subjectivity of this metric, we did not penalize any shoes with super low scores, and we also did our best to describe in detail in the individual reviews exactly how a shoe fit.

After dunking the shoes  letting them drain for 20 seconds  and weighing them  we put them on for a sockless 5 minute run around the neighborhood to give them a chance to shed some water and dry out.
After dunking the shoes, letting them drain for 20 seconds, and weighing them, we put them on for a sockless 5 minute run around the neighborhood to give them a chance to shed some water and dry out.

Weight


This one was easy. We weighed these shoes straight out of the box, and wrote down their collective weight, completely ignoring the figures on manufacturers' websites. The lightest shoes received the best score, and we went on down the list from there.

Weighing Hokas on our independent scale.
Weighing Hokas on our independent scale.

Sensitivity


Similar to how we assessed for foot protection, we already had a pretty good idea of the relative sensitivity of each shoe after months of field testing but devised a controlled head-to-head test anyway. We again ran back and forth over the same patch of sharp rocks that we used to test foot protection and kept detailed notes as we did so. Shoes that allowed our feet to feel more of these protrusions through the outsole and midsole we considered more sensitive than those that allowed little to no feeling and graded accordingly.
 

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