The Best Men's Trail Running Shoes of 2017 - Side-by-Side Tests
Intimidated by the hundreds of trail running shoe options? We were, too. That's why we researched 90 top models and bought 14 for testing. After over 150 hours on trail, we have recommendations, whether you want maximum cushion, minimal heel-rise, or a good value. Our testing team ran single track, fire roads, and talus to find the best option for varying surfaces. Whether you need the most comfort for runs after work or want the ultra traction for, well, ultras, we have an award winner that meets your needs. Lace up and hold on, here we go.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Updated March 2017
This spring, our top shoe by Pearl iZUMI was discontinued. Expect a new Editor's Choice by early summer after our major tests and review update. Until then, you can still find the EM N2 V3 from some retailers, often at a discount. Also, we confirmed the availability of our other top-scoring shoes. We added new charts to help you find shoes that perform best for the metrics you care about.
Best Overall Trail Running Shoes
Pearl iZUMi Trail EM N2 V3
While the Pearl iZUMi Trail EM N2 V3 wins again, it has been discontinued. Luckily there are many other great shoes below. How did the Trail EM N2 V3 win top honors two years in a row? We love the balance of comfort, foot protection, sensitivity, and stability. There is nothing about this shoe that disappoints. We reached for long runs and short jaunts along the local trails and took it scrambling on peak-bagging missions, finding that it climbs wonderfully.
Good underfoot protection
More expensive than previous years
Runs slightly long
Read full review: Pearl iZUMi Trail EM N2 V3
Best Bang for the Buck
The North Face Ultra Endurance
With its wide and stable platform and fantastic underfoot protection provided by the snakeplate rock plate, The North Face Ultra Endurance runs remarkably like our Editors' Choice award winner. The suede overlays on the upper, solid plastic toe bumper and single piece Vibram outsole ensure that durability is upheld. This shoe lasts and keeps your feet healthy and fresh. Not only that, but it costs less than all the other favorites from this year's review, which is why we give it our Best Buy award! This trail running shoe is also available in a waterproof version; check out the The North Face Ultra Endurance GORE-TEX.
A bit heavy
Not very sensitive
Read full review: The North Face Ultra Endurance
Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning
HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2
Some people demand lots of cushioning underfoot to protect their bodies from abusive daily running impact. Others aren't aware that they can have extra cushioning without sacrificing weight or performance. For both types of people, we recommend the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2. With a stack height of 29mm, it offers more underfoot protection than any other shoe reviewed, which is reason enough to be interested. This shoe was stable, sensitive, and at only 20.4 ounces for a pair of men's size 11, among the lightest tested. Gone are the days of compromised performance or ankle-breaking instability while wearing HOKAs.
Superior foot protection
Not very durable outsole
Read full review: HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2
Top Pick for Light and Fast
Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 3
The Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 3 have a winning combination of low profile, light weight, and underfoot protection that makes them our Top Pick for running light and fast. Where other light, minimal shoes compromise protection for increased sensitivity, this shoe instead sports the hardest and stiffest rock plate tested, ensuring that you can stomp over anything without feeling a thing. We loved it for pushing our speed through rocky terrain. With such a hard platform, we didn't need to mince steps because we were afraid of damaging our feet. This shoe takes the opposite approach than most, where extra cushioning is added but performs as well if not better.
Upper lacks much abrasion resistance
Read full review: Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 3
Analysis and Test Results
The only essential piece of gear for trail running is a good pair of shoes. Trail running shoes tackle the specific demands of off-road environments, whether that means rocks, roots, mud, loose dirt and gravel, grass, or steep scrambling. They have more durable outsoles than road running shoes, featuring sticky rubber and large, grippy lugs to help you gain purchase. They also tend to have a rock plate or extra foam cushioning to protect your feet from obstacles not found on the road. The toe bumpers and protective overlays found on the uppers of these shoes protect the sides and tops of your feet from sticks or the sides of jagged rocks while protecting the mesh material that is designed to let your foot breathe and the shoe shed water.
Testing trail running shoes involves more than going out for runs while wearing different pairs of shoes (although there is a whole lot of that). We pride ourselves on making the best comparisons between products to help differentiate which shoes are better. To help us and you, we have rated each shoe based on six different metrics, giving a grade of 1 to 10 on how well each shoe performed. We weighted each metric based on how important we felt it was to a shoe's overall performance. The table above shows where each shoe ranked in overall performance score.
One of the most important criteria for a trail running shoe is how well it protects your foot. If it doesn't protect your foot, why would you wear it? The largest components of protection are the sole and whether or not the shoe has a rock plate in it. A rock plate is a hard metal, plastic, or composite material plate or rod that lives in the midsole and is designed to protect the bottom of your foot from sharp things. The rock plate typically runs from under your heel to just past your arch, as the sole still needs flexibility to bend in the forefoot. There are exceptions to this, and some shoes feature forefoot rock plates as well.
A rock plate is not the only method of underfoot protection. Some models, like the HOKA Challenger ATR 2, forego the rock plate in favor of different thicknesses of EVA foam in their midsole. Shoes that only use foam tend to be thicker and more cushioned, but are also more sensitive to rocks underfoot, and tend to be more flexible.
A lesser component to protection is how well the upper protects the top and sides of your foot from protrusions. Many manufacturers skimp on the upper to save weight and offer greater breathability and water drainage, while some have uppers that are very strong. An interesting component of foot protection is that it often comes at the expense of sensitivity, and vice versa, which is why we graded for both.
Some products manage to strike a perfect balance of great protection and a sensitive feel for the trail, like the Saucony Peregrine 6 or ASICS GEL-FujiTrabuco 4 Neutral. The most protective model was the HOKA Challenger ATR 2 with its bounty of soft cushioning foam underfoot. Other high scorers were our Best Buy award-winning North Face Ultra Endurance, as well as the Brooks Cascadia 11. The lowest scorers on the foot protection scale were the Mizuno Wave Hayate 2 and the La Sportiva Helios 2.0, shoes that offered far more sensitivity than most of their counterparts.
Mud, snow, grass, slippery rocks, tree roots, logs, talus, scree, loose dirt — all of these surfaces are encountered along the trail, so you need a shoe that won't slip. To tackle these surfaces, manufacturers have introduced diverse solutions through sole material and design. Many models had large arrow-shaped lugs, most of them employed rubber stickier than your average road shoe, and most incorporated spaced out traction lugs to shed mud easier.
Overall, we were impressed with the creativity and materials that manufacturers used to create traction, awarding few low scores. In the end, the highest ranking models were the ones that could tackle it all and never left us doubting whether we could firmly land and push off on any surface. They also shed mud off the sole quickly and effectively, an underrated attribute that is welcome compared to the added weight of mud clod-hoppers.
The Salomon Speedcross 4 had the most aggressive lugs while sticking to harder surfaces. It was improved this year to be more durable while not losing any of its sticky feel. We loved this shoe when traction was tough, in the mud or snow. Our lowest performer, the ASICS GEL-FujiTrabuco 4 Neutral, had the smallest profile lugs, but with its sticky rubber still wasn't a poor performer.
Anytime you wear something on your foot, you are modifying your body's natural ability to stand and move. Landing on the ground and pushing off for each stride from a stable platform is a fundamental aspect of running, and one that is affected by the type of surface you run on. When testing for stability, we looked for how easy it was to maintain our normal running mechanics over variable terrain. We found that some shoes would bend and morph to the running surface, forcing us to adjust our landing and push-off. While running in others, we felt that the shape of the shoe required us to change our stride to ensure a stable platform.
Generally, the lower to the ground the model rode, or the smaller the stack height, the more stable it felt, giving us the confidence to push our speed without rolling ankles. Another way to ensure a stable platform is to make the shoe wider and flatter, especially in the forefoot, as many of the most stable shoes did. In general, narrow shoes with high stack heights or large heel-toe drop felt the least stable underfoot and were most prone to ankle rolls or awkward landings.
The zero drop, low to the ground Altra Superior 2.0 was once again the most stable feeling shoe that we tested. Many of our top scorers also performed well, including our Editors' Choice winner Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2 v3, with its very flat and wide platform, as well as the Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3, which also had a wide forefoot and rode very low to the ground. The least stable shoes were the Salomon Speedcross 4 and the La Sportiva Wildcat, featuring 11mm and 12mm of heel-toe drop, respectively, the two largest in the review. The Speedcross 4 was also among the narrowest shoe tested, which limits the ability of the forefoot to splay out upon landing. While many people appreciate the extra cushion in the heel that comes with a high heel-toe drop, in our experience, especially when running downhill, stability is compromised by this.
Comfort is subjective. Everyone's foot is different, so what feels amazing to one person is totally unwearable to another. Some products are wide in the toe box while narrow in the heel, and some are narrow (or wide) throughout. Some fit "to size," while others run big or small. We have described how each model fits in individual reviews. While, in theory, comfort is probably the single most important characteristic of shoes, we chose to only rate it 20%, like many of the other attributes, due to this subjective nature of trying on shoes. We didn't want to penalize a shoe that felt uncomfortable to our head tester when many people will naturally end up loving it. However, we did find some universal factors that could be compared and rated.
Craftsmanship played a large part in how comfortable a model is. The most comfortable pairs used a seamless construction that made them easy to wear sockless. Some shoes, like the Mizuno Wave Hayate 2, used stiff upper materials that creased and pinched during push-off. We also took into account whether the shoe breathed well or whether it tended to hold in heat. Lastly, we performed our Water Drainage Test and accounted for it in our ratings. Overall, we rated the Pearl iZUMi Trail EM N2 V3, HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 2, and Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 3 as our top three highest scoring shoes in comfort.
The Water Drainage Test
The idea behind this test was to test which products absorbed the least water and then shed it the quickest, making them suited for runs or races where your feet are guaranteed to get wet. Running in Colorado's mountains on a daily basis, our feet are always wet. We either have to ford streams and creeks or end up tromping through swamps and no matter how careful we are, our feet get wet. If we don't have these problems, they still get wet from morning dew on the grass, afternoon rainstorms or simply from sweat.
To conduct this test, we weighed each pair dry, then dunked them in a bucket of water for 20 seconds to give them a chance to absorb water. We held them toe down to drain for another 20 seconds and then weighed them to see how much water weight they had absorbed. We then put them on without socks and jogged around the block for five minutes, took them off, and weighed them a third time to see how much water weight they shed while running. For each model, we calculated as a percentage of their dry weight how much water they absorbed while being dunked for 20 seconds and how much water they still retained after a five-minute run compared to when they were dry.
The Altra Superior 2.0 and the New Balance Leadville v3 absorbed the least water. This was an improvement for the new Leadville because last year's model absorbed the most water! While the Altra and New Balance shoes were the closest to their dry weight after the run, they were joined by the Brooks Cascadia 11 in showcasing their water shedding abilities. Many other models fared well in this test, like the Saucony Peregrine 6, Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2 v3, and the Salomon Speedcross 4. We found that the Mizuno Wave Hayate 2 absorbed the most water compared to its dry weight and the La Sportiva Helios 2.0, despite its claims to be a breathable shoe, retained the largest percentage of water weight after the five-minute long run.
Weight proved to be a fairly easy criterion to judge. Fresh out of the box, we weighed each trail running shoe individually and as a pair, ignoring what the manufacturer claimed the weight was. For reference, every product that we received was a U.S. men's size 11. We then paid attention to how heavy the shoe felt while running in them. A few were light, and the math was backed up while out wearing them.
When running in the La Sportiva Helios 2.0, the HOKA Challenger ATR 2s, or the Altra Superior 2.0s, the added agility and nimbleness made us feel like we were dancing along the trail. Most of the models fell into the category of "didn't really notice the weight as a good or bad thing," while out running, while at least one, the La Sportiva Wildcat 3.0, was far off the charts in terms of heaviness, especially compared to the other test pieces.
When grading for sensitivity, we tried to notice how well we could feel the trail in each shoe. Sensitivity often comes at the expense of foot protection, and vice versa. We tried our best not to be judgmental about whether feeling the trail is a good or bad thing, or what amount of sensitivity we preferred but rather graded the most sensitive to the highest. It's easy to decide which were the most and least sensitive, but it is a preference in terms of how sensitive you want your trail running shoe to be.
Some people like to be intimately connected to the ground, while others prefer to have more protection for their foot, which often comes at the expense of sensitivity. The least cushioned products tested, the Mizuno Wave Hayate 2 and the La Sportiva Helios 2.0, were the most sensitive. Surprisingly, our Top Pick for Fast and Light, the Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3, was one of the least sensitive shoes reviewed, instead featuring a bombproof hard rock plate through the entire sole.
Paying Close Attention to Individual Metrics
While all of the scores that we assess combine to form the shoe's overall score, it is important to delve into the individual metrics to find the shoe that best fits your needs. For instance, you may not be interested in our top rated shoe if it got that rating due to its foot protection because sensitivity is your most important criteria. In particular, the metrics of foot protection, comfort, weight, and sensitivity, can all be deciding factors in what shoe to choose, depending on your preferences. So don't write off a shoe because it isn't the highest scoring shoe in the review. Delve deeper into the numbers that we have provided and read the individual reviews!
There are hundreds of choices for a person looking to buy trail running shoes today, making selecting the right product difficult. Some important things to consider when trying to pare down the selection is your experience running as well as a personal or anatomical preference for added protection and cushioning or for greater sensitivity. For most people, a traditional style shoe will last the longest and make them happiest. Of course, choosing the one that feels most comfortable to you is usually the best way to go. We hope that our comparison testing, descriptions, and analysis has helped you to choose a trail running shoe that will make you happy and have you tearing up the trails. We also invite you to check out our Buying Advice article for even more insight into choosing the right trail running shoe. Happy Trails!
— Andy Wellman
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