The Best Trail Running Shoes for Men
How We Found the Best Trail Running Shoes for Men
10 Shoes tested
3 trails run
3 top picks
The Best Trail Running Shoes for Men
Trail running is fast becoming one of the most popular endurance sports in the world. But like all outdoor activities, you’ll go a lot further (and be a lot happier) with the right gear. Investing in the best possible shoes is hands-down the most important decision you’ll make before hitting the trail, so we conducted four weeks of market and field research — including trail runs in three different states, on several different trail types — before picking our favorites.
How We Chose the Best Trail Running Shoes for Men in 2019
Discerning trail runners have literally hundreds of shoes to choose from. To figure out which shoes are the best choice for most people, we started by considering every pair from the 22 most popular and trusted brands.
How we narrowed down the field
We couldn’t personally test 300 pairs of shoes, so we developed the following guidelines to rule out shoes we didn’t think would fit the new or average trail runner. If you’re an advanced trail runner who wants top-of-the-line “barefoot” models — or if you like running in extreme weather conditions — our review won’t suit your needs.
- No shoes more than $150, because you can find a solid trail running shoe beneath this threshold. You can certainly spend more than that amount, but unless you need special features like waterproofing, you generally won’t need to.
- No shoes weighing more than 11 ounces or less than 8 ounces (per shoe), since heavier shoes are either poorly made from cheaper, bulkier materials, or specifically designed for maximum stability over the toughest terrain, and anything lighter is designed for “barefoot” runners who want virtually nothing between them and the trail.
- No waterproofing, since it’s a luxury add-on that increases the price of a shoe by $30-$50 and increases the weight by 2-3 ounces. Most trail runners don’t need that add-on. If waterproofing is important to you, most of our picks are available in a waterproof version. Look for model name extensions like GTX (for Gore-Tex).
- No hybrid shoes meant for both road and trail running, since they always involve some compromises in design.
- Adidas Terrex Tracerocker
- Brooks Caldera 2
- Hoka One One Speedgoat 2
- La Sportiva Bushido
- New Balance Fresh Foam Gobi v2
- Nike Terra Kiger 4
- Salomon Sense Ride
- Salomon Speedcross 4
- Saucony Peregrine 8
- Topo Ultraventure
- Flat Branch Nature Preserve in North Carolina — a modestly sloped gravel trail with plenty of mud thanks to surrounding wetlands.
- Anne Springs Close Greenway in South Carolina — 40 miles of winding dirt trails through rolling hills.
- Lake Nottley Reservoir in Georgia, a wooded loop with rugged terrain, including tree roots and boulders.
These criteria still left us with several dozen models, so we researched thousands of user reviews on Amazon and running sites like RunRepeat.com, then narrowed those down to the 10 shoes with the best consumer ratings for comfort, stability, and other factors. Then, we tested the remaining contenders ourselves.
The 10 models we tested
Where we tested
We tested all 10 models on dirt and gravel trails in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia — including steep terrain in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
What we tested for
Testing a trail running shoe is more subjective than, say, testing a treadmill — after all, everyone’s feet are different. Still, during our field tests, we measured seven factors on all 10 models to see which shoes came out on top.
Basically, do the shoes run true-to-size? Most of the models we tested felt just fine, with two minor exceptions: the La Sportiva Bushido and Nike Terra Kiger 4 both felt a little tight, so consider trying on a pair first, or ordering a half-size larger than you usually wear.
The most subjective factor, since one person’s fluffy cloud is another person’s bed of nails. We measured how comfortable our soles, heels, arches, and toes felt in each shoe, on flat trails and steep slopes. Note: Our testers all have relatively flat, neutrally pronated feet, so your own experience may vary if you have high arches or major pronation/supination.
A stable shoe has a firm foundation that keeps you from rolling your ankles or losing your balance. It’s especially important for beginning trail runners and those who tackle rugged terrain full of debris. However, stability usually adds weight to the shoe by increasing the “stack height” of the midsole.
A shoe’s traction is what keeps you from slipping on wet, rough, and sloped surfaces. Shoemakers use a variety of technologies to achieve it — “sticky rubber” to create extra friction, lug patterns to handle slopes in every direction, and lug height depending upon how adventurous you want to be.
5. Cushioning / underfoot protection
Trail running shoes come in a huge spectrum of cushion levels. At one end are “cloud running” shoes like the Hoka One One Speedgoat 2, where the midsole is stacked high off the ground and filled with pillowy cushioning. At the other end are “barefoot running” shoes for minimalists who want to feel the trail beneath their feet, like the Merrell Trail Glove. (We didn’t test any of these shoes, since they’re mostly used by advanced trail runners and offer little-to-no protection.)
When you run, your feet sweat just like the rest of your body. If your feet sweat a lot, you’ll want a breathable shoe that can carry moisture away. All of the shoes we tested were designed to breathe, but generally speaking, the more protection they offer, they less they breathe.
7. Toe protection
Stubbing your toe on a rock is a great way to ruin your run. Most trail running shoes include some kind of extra protection at the front of the toe box, sometimes by extending the outsole upward.
The 3 Best Trail Running Shoes for Men in 2019
Brooks Caldera 2
Why we chose it
Balanced, thoughtful design
Back in the early 2000s, Brooks partnered with ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek to create new trail running shoes from scratch. Their first two collaborations were the Cascadia (more cushioned) and the Mazama (more minimalist). The Caldera is a newer “neutral” model meant to be a midpoint between the two, and it strikes a perfect balance. The upper is extremely light thanks to double-layered mesh, and the midsole is well-cushioned without adding too much weight.
The Brooks Caldera 2 was hands-down the most comfortable trail running shoe we tested. Honestly, we’d wear them around the office all day. Sitting still, they feel like pillows — in motion, they feel like a foot massage. Some advanced “barefoot runners” will prefer shoes with less cushioning, since they’re lighter. And runners who enjoy rugged, rock-and-root-strewn trails may want something with larger lugs on the outsole, like the Salomon Speedcross below. But most trail runners need something in the middle of all these design spectrums, and the Brooks Caldera 2 is your best bet.
Points to consider
A newer model
Last year, Brooks released a Caldera 3 with a few new features: an updated “lace garage” on the upper and a second gaiter attachment point at the toe. But unless you’re hankering for those upgrades, the shoes are functionally identical, and the Caldera 2 is less expensive, so it remains our top choice.
Limited style options
Unlike most of the shoes we tested, the Brooks Caldera 2 (and 3, for that matter), only come in one color/style — and it’s a polarizing one! If you like fluorescent yellow, you’re in luck, but there are no options for runners who prefer earth tones or matte black.
Salomon Speedcross 4
Why we chose it
Built for adventure
At 10.6 ounces, the Salomon Speedcross 4 is the heaviest shoe we tested, but that’s because it packs the stability, traction, and protection of much heavier models into something that falls (barely) within our weight limit. The upper is firm thanks to “anti-debris mesh” and the midsole is surrounded by a wrap-around mud guard, but the real stunner is the outsole. Just look at those lugs, pointed in every direction to grip any surface, uphill or down.
The Salomon Speedcross 4 has an interesting lacing mechanism — instead of tying, you pull a tab to tighten the laces, then tuck it into a lace pocket embedded in the shoe’s tongue. It’s a nice way to keep the laces out of the way and ensure they never come untied. Also, the outsole lugs actually extend all the way up to the front of the toe box, which comes in handy when you’re running down steep hills.
Points to consider
Not very breathable
Because the upper is constructed out of firm, water-resistant, “anti-debris” mesh, the Salomon Speedcross 4 isn’t as breathable as shoes made out of more traditional mesh. If your feet tend to sweat a lot, or if you run long-distance routes, you may want to consider alternatives.
Borderline excessive traction
If you mainly run on flat, smooth, dry trails, the Salomon Speedcross 4 might be overkill. Those intense lugs could slow you down, and you might enjoy a more responsive midsole since your feet won’t need as much protection.
Saucony Peregrine 8
Why we chose it
The Saucony Peregrine 8 is the Swiss army knife of trail running shoes — light and breathable enough for long distances, cushioned enough for protection, and equipped with sharp lugs to keep your footing on soft and slippery surfaces. It’s the ultimate “middle ground” between a light trail shoe and a rugged trail shoe, making it perfect for figuring out what kind of runs you prefer before investing in something more specialized (like our previous two picks).
Best of all, the Saucony Peregrine 8 is one of the most affordable trail running shoes we tested. Anything cheaper — like the Adidas Terrex Tracerocker — probably won’t have the same quality of materials or design.
Points to consider
The Saucony Peregrine 8’s upper almost completely constructed out of mesh, without much reinforcement. That’s not unusual — the Nike Terra Kiger 4 and New Balance Fresh Foam Gobi v2 were built similarly — and it keeps your feet light and well-ventilated. But it also shortens the shoe’s lifespan, particularly on rougher trails.
Guide to Trail Running Shoes
Parts of a Shoe
- Upper: The upper-most part of the shoe that covers the top of your foot, usually made from a light, breathable material.
- Midsole: The cushion-y “meat” of a shoe sandwich between the upper and the outsole, usually made from polyurethane or EVA foam.
- Outsole: The bottom or “tire” of the shoe that makes direct contact with the ground, usually made out of carbon or blown rubber for traction. Shoes designed for rugged surfaces will have larger “lugs” for a stronger grip.
- Insole: The inner surface of the shoe where your foot sits, just above the midsole.
- Toe box: The front of the shoe where your toes sit, usually protected by a rubber “bumper”.
- Shank: A metal plate sometimes embedded within a shoe’s midsole to increase stability and support. Also called a rock plate.
Types of Trail Running Shoes
- Light trail shoes: For relatively flat, smooth, and soft trail surfaces like dirt, gravel, or sand.
- Rugged trail shoes: For steep and/or debris-filled trails, where the runner has to navigate roots, rocks, and mud.
- Waterproof shoes: Both light and rugged trail shoes come in waterproof versions, but the added layer always increases the weight (and cost) of the shoe.
- Barefoot shoes: Extremely light shoes with almost no cushioning in the midsole and no structure on the upper. Preferred by many advanced trail runners for their lightness and “feel” for the trail, but not the best option for most people because they increase your risk of injury.
- Cloud running shoes: Heavily cushioned shoes that feel like “running on a cloud,” offering maximum support and stability, but at the cost of weight and almost zero “trail feel.”
Trail Running Shoe FAQ
What's a heel-to-toe drop?
Also known as "HTT drop," "the drop," and "the differential," it’s the height difference between the heel of the shoe and the toe of the shoe. Advanced runners usually prefer a 0mm drop, but most people benefit from a 4-10mm drop, because it helps train your body to land on the middle or front part of your foot instead of your heel.
How much cushioning do I need?
One of the key differentiators between trail running shoes is the amount of cushioning between your feet and the ground. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the ideal level of cushioning — it depends on your feet, your stride, and your typical trail type. On one end of the spectrum are “cloud running” shoes with maximum cushioning. These are usually best for beginners, runners with high arches, over-pronation, over-supination, or those with a higher risk of injury. On the other end of the spectrum, “barefoot running” shoes are extremely minimalist with a very thin layer of cushioning. Advanced trail runners often prefer these shoes because they’re lighter and allow for more “trail feel,” since your feet are in closer contact with the ground.
As you can see below, most of the shoes we tested lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.