For trail running, particularly in the mountains, it’s essential to have something on your feet that will help you feel confident enough to take that muddy corner quickly, to skip down a wet, rocky path, climb scree and jump logs. There are a lot of different options out there, however, and finding the right pair that can handle such a variety of conditions can be quite tricky. For this reason, we’ve compiled our selection of the best trail running shoes out there for 2021 along with a buyer’s guide to help you make the right shoe choice for your needs. So here goes…
The first thing to be looking out for on a trail shoe is the grip. In many cases, particularly in places where it’s muddy and wet, you’ll want as near to football boots as you can find. That being said, if you’re trail running on dry and dusty paths, overly aggressive lugs might be a hindrance.
Another issue can be when the lugs on an outsole are so deep and so close together that they hold onto mud and become clogged. This then affects the amount of traction you’ll get. The trail shoes in this list are made by reputable trail running brands and all of them will be designed to shed mud, though we’d argue that some will be better than others on slippery fells.
Some trail shoe outsoles look aggressive but are made of tough rubber, meaning they’re great on muddy paths, but they’ll be like ice skates on wet, steep roads or chalk.
When running, your feet and toes are constantly making tiny adjustments to help your balance. If there’s a hard sole, and one that doesn’t twist torsionally, then the effect of your toes on your balance could be quite negligible. Somehow, the result can be a feeling of instability, making you lose that much-needed confidence.
Compare, for example, your walking boots. Apart from being uncomfortable for running, they’d also feel unstable. Good trail running shoes should allow you to feel the ground and have enough space to let your toes work. Some of the examples here will enable the foot to be very close to the ground meaning the foot can balance well. The negative is that you’ll feel more of the stones and roots.
What Does ‘Stack Height’ Mean On Trail Running Shoes?
It’s easy for trail running brands to throw ‘stack height’ and ‘drop’ numbers at you, without explanation of what they influence, so we’re here to put that straight.
Firstly, stack height represents the thickness of the midsole at both the toe and heel. With the modern-day polarisation between highly cushioned and barefoot running shoes, this number is becoming an increasingly important stat that’ll show how the shoe will likely behave. Put simply, shoes with high stack heights will be more cushioned, but less responsive due to little underfoot feel. Low height shoes will be less cushioned, but will have greater stability and feel underfoot.
The amount of stack height you choose is of course all down to personal preference.
What Does ‘Drop’ Mean On Trail Running Shoes?
The difference in stack height between the heel and toe is what’s known as ‘the drop’. A 0mm drop, for example, would have the heel and the ball at the same level – as you would barefoot. In recent years, ‘barefoot running’, where people run in shoes with a very low stack height, has become extremely popular. The drop can be anything between 12mm and 0mm. Anything below 5mm would be considered a ‘low-drop’ trail running shoe.
“High drop shoes promote a heel strike… while low-mid drop promote a mid-forefoot strike”
The drop of the shoe affects how your foot strikes the ground whilst running. High drop (8 mm+) shoes promote a heel strike (due to the cushioning in the heel), while low-mid drop (- 8mm) promote a mid-forefoot strike.
It’s important to remember that stack height and drop are independent of each other. Depending on your preferred gait, you could find high stack height trail shoes that still have a zero or low heel-to-toe drop.
The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2021
In this test of a surprisingly diverse range of off-road running footwear, we’ve addressed all of the key areas mentioned above and suggested where each pair will be best placed. They’re all great, but in different ways and we’d recommend them for different uses. There are three overriding questions to consider when you’re looking to buy a pair of trail shoes: 1) Where are you most likely to be using them? What kind of terrain is it? 2) Do they fit? Is there room for your toes to wriggle? Do they pull tight? And 3) What is the end use? Are they for mountain marathons or a soggy parkrun?
- Arc’teryx Norvan LD – Best Trail Running Shoe Tested
- Altra Timp 1.5
- Dynafit Feline Up Pro
- CimAlp Drop Control
- New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro V6
- Inov-8 Trailroc G280
- Adidas Terrex Speed Ultra
- Icebug Acceleritas7 RB9X
- ON Cloud Ultra
- Vibram Five Fingers
- Saucony 11
BEST BUY: Arc’teryx Norvan LD 2
Best for: Long training runs, orienteering races
Key attributes: Breathable, lightweight, good traction
This is a trail shoe built for long runs, the kind of thing that’s designed for those mountain excursions where you’re taking on a mix of sustained climbs and long, loping descents, over all kinds of terrain and over the course of a few hours as well. It’s a good option for orienteering challenges or longer fell races.