The Best Trail-Running Shoes of 2020 Tested

Run into the wild or explore close-to-home trails with our testers’ favorite shoes for beginner voyages, technical jaunts and everything in between.

33 reviews with an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars
Two trail runners in Carbondale, Colorado

Take your favorite parts about hiking and your favorite parts about jogging and, boom, trail running. That’s perhaps oversimplified, but true enough: When you go running on trails, you score scenery and cool terrain, but can cover more ground than when you’re walking. The activity is surging and for good reason: With a little water, some dirt and a quality pair of sneakers, most anyone can head for the hills.

But which shoes are best for you? We evaluated heel-to-toe drop, cushion and traction before enlisting 16 testers around the country to log major miles on this year’s crop of trail-running shoes. They slogged up mountains, hopped over streams and even took a few diggers on the downhills in an effort to bring you the nine best trail-running shoes available at REI this season.

 

Salomon Sense Ride 3

Best All-Around Trail-Running Shoe

Score: 97

Salomon Sense Ride 3

  • Versions: Women’s, Men’s
  • Weight (pair): 1 lb. 4 oz. (m’s 9)
  • Drop: Moderate (8 mm)
  • Cushion: Moderate (27 mm stack height)
  • Price: $120

Test Results: Runners are a tough crowd, but the latest iteration of Salomon’s venerable Sense Ride continues to please beginners and ultrarunners alike. The secret sauce is in a dual-density midsole with a cushy, soft foam and a denser rubberized heel insert. The result: a plush ride for the newbies in the group and a snappy turnover for the experienced crowd. “My daily runs are anywhere from 3 to 5 miles, but I wore these on a recent 20-miler and my feet felt great,” said one Colorado tester after a day in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. A moderate, 8 mm heel-to-toe drop (learn more) feels like a happy medium for most runners, too.

The Sense Ride 3 received high marks for traction from our testers. The outsole is made with Salomon’s proprietary Contagrip—a versatile rubber compound that stuck like glue to sandstone and dusty granite and, paired with 4 mm lugs, easily bit into dirt and gravel in our testing. “My favorite run climbs 1,000 feet in a mile, and I never slid out on the descent,” says our Colorado tester. A thin rock plate, or nylon shank in the midsole, helps protect your foot from bruising and adds just enough stiffness so the shoe doesn’t fold over on you.

Beyond that, the Sense Ride 3 has everything you might want for a daily driver: a breathable mesh upper; a socklike sleeve that keeps debris out; and quick, one-pull laces for an even, precise fit. Note: The Sense Ride 3 is a bit long, but our testers didn’t find it clumsy, crediting the way the shoe cradles the foot and snugs it with the one-pull laces. Buy here.

 

Bottom Line: The featherlight Salomon Sense Ride 3 fits most feet and has top-notch traction, making it an all-around trail shoe equally happy in the alpine, desert or forest.

 

Testing stats:

  • Mileage: 127
  • Testing states: Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Utah
  • Best testing story: “I jumped over three piles of bear poop so fresh that I could smell it 100 yards away,” said our Colorado tester after a run in prime black bear country.

 

Topo Athletic Ultraventure

Best Shoe for Long Runs

Score: 95

Topo Athletic Ultraventure

  • Versions: Men’s, Women’s
  • Weight (pair): 1 lb. 5 oz. (m’s 9)
  • Drop: Low (5 mm)
  • Cushion: Maximum (30 mm stack height)
  • Price: $130

Test Results: Ultrarunners chew up mileage, so it’s important that the terrain doesn’t chew up their feet. Almost an inch and a half of cushioning will help—the Topo Athletic Ultraventure boasts a massive, 30 mm stack height in the heel (and 25 mm in the forefoot). That makes this trail runner one of the cushiest in our round-robin test, perfect for long-haul runs. “I haven’t run that far in years and my feet barely noticed the uptick in mileage,” said one Colorado tester after a 20-mile day on the Avalanche Creek Trail outside Aspen.

The multi-density EVA midsole ups the ante with a springy foam in the forefoot for rebound, a soft foam on the lateral heel for downhills and a firm foam on the interior that serves as a light guide rail to keep you from overpronating through the running stride. (Best part? All that cushion and support don’t come at the expense of weight: The Ultraventure is just 1 pound, 5 ounces for a men’s 9, on par with more minimalist shoes in this lineup.) Like the Altra Timp 2 below, the Topo Athletic Ultraventure has an anatomical toe box, which gives your foot space to splay and swell without affecting fit through the midfoot and heel.

A sticky Vibram outsole peppered with 6 mm lugs helps the Ultraventure grip and rip on sandy uphills and slick downhills. It doesn’t have a rock plate though, so ultrarunners traversing high-alpine and rooty terrain may need more protection. Buy here.

 

Bottom Line: Maximalist cushioning and a friendly heel-to-toe drop make the Topo Athletic Ultraventure a top pick for runners going the distance.

 

Testing stats:

  • Mileage: 89
  • Testing states: Colorado, Utah
  • Best testing story: “I saw sunshine, hail and rain all while lapping a 9-mile loop filled with singletrack, rocks, forest and flower-filled meadows,” our Colorado tester gushes. “Does trail running get any better than that?” From the editor: Could do without the hail (ouch).

 

Saucony Peregrine 10

Best Shoe for Technical Runs

Score: 94

Saucony Peregrine 10

  • Versions: Women’s, Men’s
  • Weight (pair): 1 lb. 5 oz. (m’s 9)
  • Drop: Low (4 mm)
  • Cushion: Moderate (27 mm stack height)
  • Price: $120

Test Results: Ridge runners, it’s time to party. Saucony’s proprietary PWRTRAC outsole received our testers’ only perfect score for traction. The ultrasticky rubber is studded with chevron-shaped lugs for cleatlike grip; the forward arrows on the mid- and forefoot help you toe off on a variety of surfaces, while the backward arrows on the heel help with braking. “I couldn’t believe how great these held up on loose talus fields,” one Utah-based tester affirmed after 75 total miles in the Peregine 10. “I swapped these in for my normal approach shoes and they gripped like a dream on the West Slabs of Mount Olympus.”

But traction isn’t the only reason our runners loved the Peregrine 10 on technical trails. This shoe has a reinforced toe and 3D-printed overlays across the upper to protect it—and your foot—from typical wear and tear from rough terrain. The toe bumper guards your toes from rogue rocks, and one tester even noted that the plastic exoskeleton provided a “locked-down fit” for enhanced agility and precise movements.

The 27 mm stack height in the heel (and 23 mm in the forefoot) of the Peregrine 10 adds cushion to the ride, too. “These hit my sweet spot: nimble enough for technical rocks but cushioned enough for all-day protection,” one Colorado tester wrote on her feedback form after running up the Second Flatiron in Boulder, Colorado.

Fit note: The toe box is relatively trim and doesn’t allow much room for splay or swelling on longer runs. Some testers experienced hot spots around their toes, but had no problems after a dozen miles of wear. Buy here.

 

Bottom Line: The Saucony Peregrine 10 has a snug, precise fit and durable makeup, perfect for quick-and-scrambly missions through uneven terrain.

 

Testing stats:

  • Mileage: 120
  • Testing states: Colorado, Utah
  • Best testing story: One tester supported a runner who was going for the fastest-known time (FKT) on the unofficial “Sanitarado” route from Mount Sanitas to Eldorado Mountain in Boulder, Colorado. “We were coming down a trail-less gully as fast as we could on the final section off Eldorado Mountain,” our tester explains. “I jumped on a boulder, and it dislodged from the choss pile. I rock-surfed for half a second, panicked, jumped off and watched the boulder settle into its new place below, setting off that burnt-sparky smell. I was a bit shaken, but we busted out the final few miles and my friend successfully established the female FKT.”

 

Altra Timp 2

Best Shoe for Barefoot-Style Runs

Score: 93

Altra Timp 2

  • Versions: Men’s, Women’s
  • Weight (pair): 1 lb. 4 oz. (m’s 9)
  • Drop: None (0 mm)
  • Cushion: Moderate (29 mm stack height)
  • Price: $140

Test Results: There’s an army of loyal (and vocal) Altra devotees out there, and with a shoe like this one, it’s easy to see why. “They practically disappear on my feet,” says one California tester. “I’ve even started calling them my running slippers.” Lauded as one of the most comfortable trail-running shoes in our test, the Timp 2 showcases Altra’s foot-shaped fit with an ultrawide toe box that allows the big toe to remain straight while the other tootsies can splay. It’s a design that promotes a more natural (or “barefoot-style”) gait where you tend to land on your midfoot or even your forefoot.

A thick stack height (29 mm) throughout the shoe cushions you from the pounding, but the pillow-like ride of the Timp 2 doesn’t come with a weight penalty. Altra shaved more than an ounce off this redesign by swapping the midsole material and hollowing out grooves in the MaxTrac outsole.

Note: The inherently wide Timp 2 might feel sloppy for folks with narrower feet or runners trying more technical pursuits. (It also doesn’t have a rock plate.) This one’s best for smoother, more straightforward trails. Buy here.

 

Bottom Line: The spacious toe box and plush midsole make the Altra Timp 2 one of the most comfortable shoes in our test for barefoot-style runners and people with wider feet.

 

Testing Stats:

  • Mileage: 64
  • Testing states: California, Washington
  • Best testing story: With COVID-19 restrictions in full effect during most of our field test, one runner noted that wildlife near his home in the South San Francisco Bay Area had been more brazen (and visible) than usual. “I read in the local news that a mountain lion had been spotted within a mile of my local loop in San Bruno Mountain State and County Park,” he recalls. “I’m not sure if it was the Timps on my feet or the threat of the big cat, but I set a new PR that night by 7 seconds per mile.”

 

La Sportiva Jackal

Best Shoe for Rugged Trails

Score: 92

La Sportiva Jackal

  • Versions: Women’s, Men’s
  • Weight (pair): 1 lb. 5 oz. (m’s 9)
  • Drop: Moderate (7 mm)
  • Cushion: Moderate (25 mm stack height)
  • Price: $140

Test Results: When our crew logs more than 300 miles during our testing cycle and still praises a shoe’s durability, we take notice. “I notched 135 miles of mud, snow, gravel and pavement in the Jackals, and I don’t even spy a loose thread,” one Vermont tester said after two weeks playing in the rough-and-tumble Glastenbury Wilderness. The La Sportiva Jackal owes its durability to a beefy mesh-and-nylon upper that has plastic reinforcements along the stitching—virtual armor to protect against any pulled or snagged seams.

It doesn’t end there. The Jackal has a burly TPU toe cap to protect your digits from sharp objects and a rock plate that extends the entire length of the shoe. That plate not only guards your foot against bruising but gives the sneaker a more stable platform that you’ll appreciate on off-kilter sections of trail.

Like others in our test, La Sportiva opts for a soft EVA foam midsole. Unlike others in our test, the brand includes more durable PU rubber inserts at the forefoot and heel that help prevent the shoe from breaking down after repeated pounding. It’s the same general midsole formula as many hiking boots (which may make the Jackal feel a little firmer than others here). Moderate, 3 mm lugs on the outsole claw into sand and grit but wouldn’t be our first choice for snow or mucky terrain. Buy here.

 

Bottom Line: The impenetrable upper and firmer midsole of the La Sportiva Jackal create a tough-as-nails shoe that’s as durable as a tank for off-road adventures.

 

Testing stats:

  • Mileage: 307
  • Testing states: Montana, New Hampshire, Vermont
  • Best testing story: After accidentally killing her 7-year-old’s caterpillars, one Montana tester laced up with a Mason jar in an effort to find three replacement woolly bears. She found ’em, enjoyed the run and her kiddo was none the wiser.

 

Brooks Divide

Best Shoe for Beginners

Score: 92

Brooks Divide

  • Versions: Men’s, Women’s
  • Weight (pair): 1 lb. 5 oz. (m’s 9)
  • Drop: Moderate (8 mm)
  • Cushion: Maximum (31 mm stack height)
  • Price: $100

Test Results: Looking to hit the trail without forking over a fortune? The Brooks Divide is built with beginners in mind—including a more budget-conscious price point. The shoe’s 8 mm heel-to-toe drop feels natural for those just finding their trail legs, and the 31 mm stack height in the heel (24 mm in the forefoot) offers enough cushion for longer runs if you’re feeling squirrelly.

The synthetic mesh upper of the Divide isn’t the most durable in our test (and may let grit inside), but it breathes well and served our testers just fine on less technical local trails like those in Tacoma, Washington’s Titlow Park. The upper has some overlays for slight protection and a snugger fit, but one tester felt heel slippage on steep downhills.

The Divide has shallow, evenly spaced lugs that help it hold fast on flatter trails, even in the Pacific Northwest’s mucky springtime terrain. (“I didn’t slip at all,” our tester wrote on his feedback form. “I could’ve been running in crampons.”) They’re probably not aggressive enough for anything too technical, but that same design gives the Divide a familiar feel. “These are featherweights compared to my other trail shoes,” a California-based tester says. “They feel more like road-running shoes.”

Nice touch: The Divide’s EVA foam midsole is par for the course when it comes to support in a trail shoe, but a birdie in the sustainability department. Brooks’ BioMoGo midsole breaks down 50 times faster than other foams when it hits an active, enclosed landfill, the brand says. Buy here.

 

Bottom Line: Thanks to the forgiving fit and relatively wallet-friendly price point, the Brooks Divide is a top selection for first-time trail runners.

 

Testing stats:

  • Mileage: 95
  • Testing states: California, Washington
  • Best testing story: One tester was running through thigh-high grass along a rocky ledge on the Potato Cove Trail in California’s Channel Islands National Park when an island fox darted out from the underbrush. “I nearly tripped and fell into the Pacific Ocean, but thankfully the Divide’s traction kept me upright,” he says.

 

Other Top Performers

 

HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 4

Score: 90

HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 4

  • Versions: Women’s, Men’s
  • Weight (pair): 1 lb. 5 oz. (m’s 9)
  • Drop: Low (4 mm)
  • Cushion: Maximum (32 mm stack height)
  • Price: $145

Test Results: HOKA’s latest redesign of the classic Speedgoat includes a few tweaks to features, but this version is still the trail shoe its fans know and love. A whopping 32 mm stack height beneath the heel and a low, 4 mm heel-to-toe drop make the sneaker at home on jagged, rough terrain, and though the brand slightly widened the toe box, the Speedgoat 4 is still tighter than most shoes in our test. Thanks to deep, cleatlike lugs on the outsole, the Speedgoat 4 lives up to its namesake: “These are stickier than my approach shoes,” declares one Colorado tester. Some testers did experience hot spots or bruising where the tongue hits the ankle, though. Buy here.

Other versions: Women’s Waterproof, Men’s Waterproof

 

On Cloudventure

Score: 88

On Cloudventure

  • Versions: Men’s, Women’s
  • Weight (pair): 1 lb. 5 oz. (m’s 9)
  • Drop: Moderate (6 mm)
  • Cushion: Moderate (25 mm stack height)
  • Price: $150

Test Results: If rock hopping and sandy ascents are your thing, reach for the Cloudventure with its funky, tubular outsole. Dubbed “the perfect Colorado trail shoe” by one editor, the On Cloudventure has a proprietary rubber outsole with multiple grip patterns and zigzag channels (like tire chains) that up-level traction on dry surfaces. Still, “dry” is the operative word: One tester proclaimed the shoes “slicker than snot” on wet boulders and logs after a 7-mile run near Ashby Gap, Virginia, on the Appalachian Trail. A narrow midfoot construction and an angular toe box allow for precise movements on fast ascents, but those with wider feet felt pinched. Buy here.

Other versions: Men’s Waterproof, Women’s Waterproof

 

New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro v5

Score: 87

New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro v5

  • Versions: Women’s, Men’s
  • Weight (pair): 1 lb. 8 oz. (m’s 9)
  • Drop: Moderate (8 mm)
  • Cushion: Moderate (28 mm stack height)
  • Price: $134.95

Test Results: The New Balance Fresh Foams are like peanut butter and jelly: a trusty option for most occasions. The plush EVA foam midsole feels good underfoot during high-mileage days, and the colorful upper is covered in TPU overlays that look good and shed grit easily. The Vibram Megagrip outsole is one of the stickiest outsoles in our test, and it extends beyond the heel for extra grip when braking. “I realized I am so used to slipping on the downhills that I legitimately had to alter my gait to account for the fact that the Fresh Foams didn’t slide at all,” says one California tester. Note: The Fresh Foam lacks structure in the upper, and, paired with a 28 mm stack height, may feel loosey-goosey or clunky to faster runners. Buy here.

 

Shop All Trail-Running Shoes 

 

Buying Advice

a man trail running in the Topo Athletic Ultraventures

Consider these three factors when choosing the best trail runners for you.

 

Heel-to-Toe Drop

When someone mentions the “drop” of a running shoe, they are referencing the difference in height between a shoe’s heel and toe. A shoe’s drop primarily affects how your foot strikes the ground.

It used to be that you wanted a high drop (10 mm and more) because it promotes landing on the heel first and rolling through the motion. There’s been a bit of a renaissance in running, however, and nowadays “midfoot striking,” or landing on the middle of your foot, is all the rage. Typically better for your knees and other joints, midfoot striking is considered more natural for the body, even if it may feel unnatural to you at first.

In this gear guide, you’ll find shoes with moderate drop (6 to 8 mm), low drop (3 to 5 mm) and zero drop (0 mm). For folks who haven’t tried midfoot striking before, consider sticking with a moderate-drop shoe like the Salomon Sense Ride 3, La Sportiva Jackal, Brooks Divide, On Cloudventure or New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro v5. Weekend warriors and other more casual trail runners should follow suit.

If, however, you’re interested in moving faster or even dappling with forefoot striking, look for a low-drop shoe like the Topo Athletic Ultraventure, Saucony Peregrine 10 or HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 4.

There’s only one zero-drop shoe on our list: the Altra Timp 2. This shoe mimics your natural gait.

Note: If you’re a heel striker or are transitioning from a higher-drop shoe, progress slowly. Jumping straight into a minimalist or barefoot-style shoe may result in muscle soreness or even injury.

 

Cushion

Your shoe’s cushioning is often referred to as “stack height” because it references the amount of padding under your foot, particularly beneath the heel. The higher the stack height, the more protection you will experience from both day-to-day pounding and actual obstacles you might land on when running rocky and rooty trails. The trade-offs for cushioning are precision and ground feel.

Today, there are generally four categories of cushioning in trail running shoes:

Barefoot: Made popular in the early 2000s, a barefoot-style shoe means there is no padding underfoot. This is the preference for runners who want to “feel” the ground and understand their own biomechanics. There are no barefoot-style shoes on this list.

Minimal: Minimalist shoes can be a good option for runners who still want to feel the ground beneath them while enjoying a small amount of cushion (think: race flats). Again, you won’t find any minimalist shoes on this list.

Moderate: Shoes with moderate cushioning, like many on this list, have enough padding for cruising over rocks with little risk of bruising your feet. Look for shoes with a stack height between 20 and 29 mm.

Maximum: Shoes with maximum cushioning—like the Topo Athletic Ultraventure, Brooks Divide and HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 4—boast more than 30 mm stack heights. Advocates believe the bonus padding is easier on the joints and minimizes muscle fatigue, but opponents believe these shoes are bulkier and less agile.

 

Traction

Unlike their road-running brethren, trail shoes rely on grip. For that, it’s important to understand how the type of rubber and the arrangement of the lugs, or cleatlike bumps, affect traction. A softer rubber, like the one used in the HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 4, will be grippier, but it will wear down faster.

For maximum traction, look for trail-running shoes with deep (greater than 4 mm), angular lugs like those on the Salomon Sense Ride 3, Topo Athletic Ultraventure or Saucony Peregrine 10, which hug the ground while expelling mud and muck. For dry trails and fine grit, a shoe like the On Cloudventure that has large, blocky lugs spaced farther apart will grip best.

 

How To Choose Trail-Running Shoes 

 

Methodology

two testers stretching before a trail run

In the spring and summer of 2020, we asked 16 co-op members around the country to lace up and hit their local trails for shoe testing. They tried out the best trail shoes available at REI, traded, and ran some more. After a couple seasons of hard use, we asked our team to rate each shoe on its comfort, traction, support and durability. The nine pairs of trail-running shoes here are the highest-scoring kicks in our field test; the scores are the testers’ averages.

After we tallied up the numbers, the Salomon Sense Ride 3, Topo Athletic Ultraventure, Saucony Peregrine 10, Altra Timp 2, La Sportiva Jackal and Brooks Divide scored high in all categories. The HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 4, On Cloudventure and New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro v5 scored high in most of the categories, still achieving solid marks in specific niches.

We’d like to thank our crew of testers for safely and responsibly getting after it, even if it meant a few blisters. All photography by William M. Rochfort, Jr.

 


Article by Heather Balogh Rochfort. Heather is a freelance writer and author specializing in the outdoors and adventure travel, particularly as they apply to women and families. She is the co-founder of WildKind, an organization educating and empowering families to find their wild. As a lifelong Colorado resident, Heather loves Type-II fun above treeline where the sun is hot and the oxygen depleted. Things she does not like: rock climbing. REI member since 2008.


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