Trail shoes are designed for running over a variety of terrains, where you may encounter dry paths, mud, grass and gravel. To tackle this they have an outsole designed to bite into the ground, providing traction and confidence as you run. Unlike more aggressive fell shoes, most trail shoes tend to have a little more cushioning, as they tend to be used on firmer ground and shallower studs (also referred to as lugs, cleats, outsole or tread), allowing for greater surface area in contact with the ground, which means better grip on rockier/dry terrain and a higher degree of comfort on firm ground.
So if your runs take you mostly over tracks, paths and trails rather than steep, wet grass, mud and bog; then a trail shoe is a good option. You will still be able to tackle wetter sections but for sustained tracts of wet, steep ground a more aggressive fell shoe may be in order.
Grassy, level and pretty dry – Not much cushioning required and medium level tread to grip on the grass and any damp patches. Inov-8 Trail Talon 250
As with road shoes, there is a range of options available with different levels of cushioning. How much cushioning you want or need depends on the ground you are planning to run on and your personal preference. You will find many trail shoes have less cushioning (stack) than road shoes, as the ground you cover tends to have more give than tarmac.
Steeper, damp and muddy with some stony ground – Something with a little more grip, deeper lugs and some protection for the foot. La Sportiva Akasha
A greater degree of cushioning is suited to harder packed, dry trails (think forestry tracks and stony bridleways). If you are transitioning from road shoes, then this is often a good place to start.
Less cushioning puts you closer to the ground, improving sensitivity (feeling what’s under your feet, allowing you to run accordingly) and stability. Less cushioned trail shoes are ideal for racing and those lighter on their feet.
Very rocky and uneven but dry –While some grip may be needed on the lower, grassier slopes, the main consideration here is protection; rock plate and a good rand around the toe. A highly cushioned shoe may feel too unstable on this kind of ground. La Sportiva Bushido
Running over varied ground, including stony tracks, may require a greater degree of protection under your foot; this can come in the form of more cushioning or a rock plate. A rock plate is a thin film of stiffer material that sits between the outsole and the upper of the shoe.
You may also find trail shoes include a protective bumper or rand around the toe to protect from scuffs and stubbing.
Stony bridleway, fairly level with the odd puddle/muddy patch – A protective, cushioned shoe would be ideal, making the uneven surface of the bridleway feel a little smoother and shielding the foot from protruding rocks. If we were to carry on higher into the hills however, a deeper tread and lower cushioning level would be more appropriate. Inov-8 Roclite 290
The majority of trail shoes are neutral, meaning they do not have built-in support for over-pronators. As you are expected to be running over varied ground as opposed to flat road, your foot is striking the ground at different angles, meaning fixed support within the shoe is not always effective. Some off-road shoes do have support and are well suited to smoother trails with a more consistent foot strike.
Wet but otherwise pretty even and consistent – Reasonable grip from widely spaced lugs, not much cushioning needed as the ground is soft. Inov-8 Terraclaw 250
As with cushioning, the type of outsole or grip you need will depend on the ground you plan to run over and your personal preference.
A shoe with shallower tread will provide enough traction on loose stuff while keeping as much rubber in contact with the ground as possible, dissipating impact and providing plenty of grip. Ideal for dry paths and trails with little mud or soft ground.
Wet but no deep mud, mainly gravel and rock – More surface area in contact with the rock is going to be better than a deep tread here, some cushioning but not so much as to lose stability on the variable ground. Scott Supertrac RC
Whereas, deeper lugs, widely spaced to bite into the softer ground and shed mud easily are better suited to running up and down steeper slopes on softer ground, a more aggressive shoe will provide more confidence. A more aggressive outsole often (but not always) means less cushioning, putting you lower to the ground and better able to respond to slips and slides. If it gets any steeper or softer, you’re looking at Trail to Fell shoe; lower to the ground and more aggressive outsole.
Even, dry, consistent trail – This is the sweet spot, dry enough to not need much grip and smooth enough to not need much protection; you could wear your road shoes! If it was to bank down steeply or get looser, some additional grip may be required while if it was consistently dry and firm, more cushioning might make things more comfortable. Asics Trabuco 5
By the very nature of where we use trail shoes, they take a fair bit of abuse. Scuffed on rocks, against vegetation and over a variety of angled terrain; the uppers and outsole take a battering. To this end, manufacturers often use heavier weight materials than would be typically found on road shoes. The demand for lighter shoes has driven a shift to lighter materials in the off-road market but mainly in the stripped-back race shoes; though extremely light, their durability can be compromised.
Bone dry but loose and varied ground – No need for masses of tread as your on dry rock but underfoot protection from a rockplate or cushioning will be needed. Scott Kinabalu RC
Road vs Trail Shoes
Head out onto the trails on a dry day and you will no doubt see people wearing their road shoes. There are many summer days where you just don’t need the level of grip offered by a trail shoe and their heavier weight is a burden. There is of course, nothing wrong with this but sustained use of a road shoe on the trails will highlight the difference in durability discussed above (plus if you hit a muddy patch, things get very exciting very quickly).
Mostly dry but steep and varied – Underfoot protection will deal with the changes between soft pine needles and protruding rock while some grip will help with landings on the steep ground, biting into the dirt and leaf litter. Brooks Cascadia 12
N + 1
The above formula applies to almost any sport where N signifies how many pieces of a particular equipment you currently own and the plus one is how many you need. This formula can be used as irrefutable justification to solve arguments and save marriages.
A bit of everything, a dry trail with potential wet spots, uneven and varied with grass, rock and even scree – Deeper tread, some cushioning and a bit of rock protection. Salomon Speedtrak.
It has probably become clear that there is an almost infinite combination of features that can be found in the range of trail shoes available and while we would love for you to buy into a shoe for each possible eventuality, the reality is that you probably won’t.
So how do you choose? The key is to think about the predominant terrain over which you plan to run, if you come up against the odd patch of differing ground, whichever shoe you go for will more than likely handle it.
The other consideration, as ever, is fit: cramming your foot into a too-narrow shoe just because a review says it is the best, does not mean it is the best for you.
Open fell with indistinct paths and trods (faint paths created by runners and/or sheep), bog and mud – While a more aggressive trail shoe will handle this but if there were any sustained, steep descents or contouring off-path, a fell shoe would be better suited. Inov-8 X-Talon 212
Similarly, slopping around in a big cushy shoe just because it is soft and comfy, doesn’t mean you will be able to run safely over varied ground.
There are, however, a few options on the market that we think cover a wide range of terrains while still performing, namely the Inov-8 Roclite (290 & 305), the Salomon Speedtrak and the Scott Supertrac RC.
To the left is a broad, stony and gently descending path, to the right a grassy, steep descent with waterlogged areas. If your path takes you left, then a medium cushioned semi-aggressive trail shoe such as the La Sportiva Mutant. If your path takes you right, a fell shoe may be more appropriate, try the Walsh Elite Trainer.