The Best Trail-Running Shoes of 2023: Tested

Run into the wild or explore close-to-home trails with our testers’ seven favorite shoes.

Heather Balogh Rochfort|Updated October 20, 2022

71 reviews with an average rating of 4.4 out of 5 stars
A trail runner crests a sloping plateau with sagebrush and pinon juniper in the foreground.

For trail runners, the joy is in the journey as you explore everywhere a car can’t. That means technical ascents in the high alpine and ribbons of singletrack snaking through urban forests are yours for the taking. No matter where you run, it’s always the same trio: you, dirt and a good pair of sneakers.

But which trail-running shoes are right for you? Our team of 21 REI Co-op member-testers evaluated everything from grip to response to bring you the best of the best. They ran up mountains, battled frigid early-spring temps and even splashed through a few streams to bring you the best trail-running shoes available at REI this season. In this guide, you’ll find options for long runs, technical terrain, timed efforts and more. 


Test Results

Find our quick recommendations here or read on for the full breakdown of our year-long round-robin test of the best trail-running shoes.

  • Best Beginner-Friendly Trail-Running Shoe & REI Co-op Editors ’ Choice Award Winner: Salomon Sense Ride 4 (Women's, Men's)
  • Best One-Quiver Trail-Running Shoe: HOKA Mafate Speed 4 (Women's, Men's)
  • Best Zero-Drop Trail-Running Shoe: Altra Lone Peak 6 (Women's, Men's)
  • Best Long Distance Trail-Running Shoe: Brooks Cascadia 16 (Women's, Men's)
  • Best Trail Racing Shoe: Saucony Peregrine 12 (Women's, Men's)

Other Top Performers


Best Beginner-Friendly Trail-Running Shoe + REI Co-op Editors' Choice Award Winner

Salomon Sense Ride 4 Trail-Running Shoes

Score 97

Weight 1 lb. (women’s 7); 1 lb. 5 oz. (men’s 9)

Heel-to-toe drop Moderate (8 mm)

Cushion Moderate (27 mm stack height, women's; 32 mm stack height, men's)

Test Results: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s the logic behind the Salomon Sense Ride 4, the latest iteration of a shoe that earned an inaugural REI Co-op Editors’ Choice Award in 2020. The core DNA of the 4 is just as good as it was in the 3: Its dual-density midsole is constructed from cushy foam for a plush ride with a dense, rubberized heel insert for snappy turnover. The result is a do-it-all shoe that should satisfy most runners. “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-based tester after a day in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. A moderate, 8-millimeter heel-to-toe drop (learn more) feels like a happy medium for most runners, too.

As with the Sense Ride 3, the 4 received high marks for traction from our testers. The outsole is made with Salomon’s proprietary Contagrip, a versatile rubber compound that sticks like glue to sandstone and dusty granite; paired with 4-millimeter lugs, it 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-based 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 4 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. New in the 4, Salomon added padding around the heel, which creates a more secure fit and levels up protection from burrs and other snaggly inconveniences. Note: As with the 3, the lace garage is tough to access. Buy here.


A product-on-white image of the Salomon Sense Ride 4 Trail-Running Shoe
Photo by William Rochfort Jr.

Bottom Line: The lightweight Salomon Sense Ride 4 fits most feet and has top-notch traction, making it a great choice for beginners and intermediates looking to up their trail time.


Testing stats:

  • Total distance: 512 miles
  • Testing states: Colorado and Montana
  • Best testing story: While running through the North Hills near Missoula, our Montana-based tester noticed the snow falling in big, fat flakes and stopped to marvel at the landscape. “I realized I was very close to a fawn and her doe grazing,” she says. The doe turned and ran but the fawn froze. “I yelled out, ‘Wait!’ and the doe stopped. Then I sang, ‘You’re OK’ in a sing-song voice, and the doe walked back. She and her fawn kept grazing together. Magical.”


Test Results: It’s the ultimate trifecta: lightweight, tacky traction, and so comfortable you’ll (almost) forget you’re wearing them. That’s the wizardry behind the Mafate Speed 4, HOKA’s latest offering that underwent a total redesign and came out pleasing our entire testing team: “I have nothing bad to say about these!” The cushioned, responsive feel comes from the new midsole: double-stacked layers of Profly+ on top and traditional Profly foam underneath. While both EVA foams are softer in the heel and firmer during toe-off, the top layer is treated differently to boost foam expansion. The end result is a soft and bouncy top with a durable layer below. When combined with HOKA’s classic rocker (the sole slightly curves upwards like a smile), our Colorado-based tester found herself easily moving through varying terrain without any complaints.

The shoe’s new, snazzy colorways left hearts in our eyes, as did its new shape. Constructed from jacquard mesh, the upper runs a bit snugger than in the previous version, but that isn’t a bad thing. “I feel like it’s more secure this time around,” reports one bunion-laden tester after her first 10 miles in the Mafate Speeds. A few light overlays add a little design flare along with bonus durability.

A host of 5-millimeter lugs line the Vibram Megagrip outsole with Vibram Litebase construction. Megagrip is known as one of the stickier rubbers out there but it’s heavy, so the Litebase version boasts the same traction in a thinner-and-lighter compound. “It didn’t matter if I was scrambling up gritty rocks or bombing down mucky slopes; I felt solid,” reports one of our crew. There is still a fair bit of exposed EVA foam to help slash ounces, but durability didn’t suffer during 50 miles of testing. Final thoughts: Give ‘em a go. Buy here.


Image of a person's lower body running in the desert in the HOKA Mafate Speed 4
Photo courtesy of HOKA

Bottom Line: The lower profile combined with the maximum cushioning in the redesigned midsole makes the HOKA Mafate Speed 4 a perfect blend of comfort, efficiency and all-around versatility.

Testing stats:

  • Total distance: 82 miles
  • Testing states: California and Colorado
  • Best testing story: One of our Colorado-based testers has been sidelined with injuries this summer, and the Mafates showed up on the same day she returned to trails. “I can’t look at these and see anything other than magic,” she reports. “I was able to log 4 solid miles and they felt good every step of the way.”


Test Results: The legacy continues. Now in its eleventh year, the venerable Altra Lone Peak 6 sees a few updates that make the latest version lighter than ever before thanks to a couple trimmed overlays. Added bonus: These kicks boast a more secure fit, too. Altra spent most of their updating hours on the air-mesh upper, snugging up the midfoot area for a dialed fit that brings confidence on technical terrain, turning one tester into a self-described “billy goat” while exploring Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. 

Beyond the new upper, not much is different. Altra swapped to the EGO midsole last year, so the Lone Peak 6 sees that same proprietary blend of rubber compounds that miraculously doesn’t weigh the shoe down. Instead, what you get is a featherweight trail shoe that’s bouncy and far more responsive than most sneakers with a similar wide, foot-shaped last. “It doesn’t feel like you’re floating on puffy clouds, but that’s a good thing,” says one tester. 

Altra also kept the TPU rock plate underfoot, meaning you still score protection and a stiffer platform for toeing off. But one thing didn’t change: the spacious toe box. The Lone Peaks are also available in wide sizes should you need it, but wide definitely means wide. If you think you need the extended sizing, we recommend trying before buying. Buy here.

Image of a person's lower body running on rocky mountain terrain in the Altra Lone Peak 6
Photo courtesy of Altra

Bottom Line: Looking for a zero-drop trail shoe? You can’t go wrong with the lightweight Altra Lone Peak 6, which boasts a responsive midsole and a spacious toe box.

Testing stats:

  • Total distance: 467 miles
  • Testing states: Colorado and Washington
  • Best testing story: Our Washington-based tester had just blazed up a steep-and-dirty ridgeline in the heart of the Cascades when the hot summer temperatures began scorching her skin. Unable to contain herself when passing an alpine lake, she dove in—shoes and all. “It was freezing snowmelt water but it felt so refreshing!” she laughs. “We ran the last seven miles dripping wet with the sunshine drying us with every step. By the time we got to the trailhead, my Altras were totally dry.”


Test Results:

Everybody loves a comeback story, and the Brooks Cascadia 16 has a good one. Known as one of the original trail shoes when it launched in 2005, the latest iteration brings a total redesign to this ultra-protective runner, starting with a new midsole that makes the shoe more comfortable during long hauls. Dubbed DNA Loft v2, it’s constructed with a mix of EVA, air, and rubber. Not only does this slash a few ounces from previous versions, but it makes the Cascadia 16 softer underfoot—a much needed change. “The last version felt like I had a lead foot but these brought back some comfort and bounce in my step,” reports a Colorado-based tester after a 6-mile jaunt up to Cathedral Lake. The updated thermoplastic EVA rock plate adds additional protection and stability underfoot, providing confidence and security on rocky and rooted trails.

The upper has always been a durability highlight in the Cascadia series, and that streak continues. While the technical material is still listed as engineered mesh, most of it is covered in a thin TPU layer. This adds a bit of heft when compared to lighter kicks like the Saucony Peregrines (below), but the tradeoff is superior protection—even when scrambling through talus fields above tree line. “The last thing I want is to shred my shoes when I’m 20 miles into the backcountry, but these things are tanks,” says one of our testing crew.

Brooks opted for a proprietary rubber outsole (called TrailTack) that tested well on varying terrain including granite slabs, scree fields and rooty singletrack. In the 16s, they carved out vertical chunks from the outsole, lending more flexibility underfoot to wrap around trail obstacles. We can’t say the Cascadias will make you go faster, but they sure will keep you protected while going farther. Buy here.



Bottom Line: A burly upper and a thick-yet-firm midsole make the Brooks Cascadia 16 a bombproof trail shoe designed to go farther on rugged trails. 


Testing stats:

  • Total distance: 98 miles
  • Testing states: Alaska, Colorado
  • Best testing story: Our Alaska-based tester wore his Cascadia 16s to a local orienteering race, a timed event where participants navigate through checkpoints along unfamiliar trails with a map and compass. “As luck would have it, I turned in one of my best-ever performances and won the event!” he crows. “I have never won one of these events outright so I am gloating as much as possible on this one!”


Test Results: When your namesake is among the fastest animals on Earth (yes, we’re talking about the Peregrine falcon, which scientists have clocked at speeds close to 200 mph), you’ve got big shoes to fill. Thankfully, aggressive, toothy lugs cover the moderately tacky outsole, making the Saucony Peregrine 12 a go-to option for runners wanting to grip it and rip it. “I felt so confident on soft terrain and mud that I cruised a lot faster than usual,” reported our Hawaii-based tester after a mucky jungle run near Oahu’s North Shore. “I never worried about slipping.” Add in a new fiber-and-resin rock plate and you’ve got a fleet footed-yet-flexible shoe that handles off-kilter terrain like a champ.

Saucony’s latest iteration of its crowd-favorite trail shoe lives up to its bird-like reputation by underscoring lightweight responsiveness through its proprietary EVA-TPU foam midsole (called PWRRUN). This isn’t a new technology, but we still like the stability on technical terrain. “I definitely felt a little bounce-back on the climbs,” noted one North Carolina-based tester after his first 10 miles in the shoe. But the real success story is that Saucony managed to drop over two ounces of weight per pair, without changing the stack height. The secret: A new, minimal mesh upper with fewer TPU overlays. 

The fit isn’t for everyone, and our wide-footed runners struggled with pinching in the forefoot. Due to the slim-and-trim design, we’d recommend capping your mileage at the 10K distance to prevent further foot constriction. Buy here.


Product image of a red Saucony Peregrine 12 trail running shoe
Photo courtesy of Saucony


Bottom Line: The Saucony Peregrine 12 boasts a svelte design and rugged traction that creates confidence while racing shorter and technical trails.

Testing stats:

  • Total distance: 215 miles
  • Testing states: California, Colorado, Hawaii, North Carolina
  • Best testing story: “I [recently] joined a running group and our second run was on this slippery, root-covered trail,” reports our North Carolina-based tester. “I was so nervous that I’d totally eat it in front of my new crew, but these lugs kept me on my feet the entire time. I’m pretty sure they’re the only reason I have friends now.”


Other Top Performers

Test Results: It’s a heady thing to be named after the runner who has won more 100-mile races than anyone else, but the Speedgoat 5 continues to live up to its namesake. Miraculously, HOKA made a good thing even better by allowing for a roomier toe box, increased traction with new lugs on the Vibram Megagrip outsole (the same as the Mafate Speed 4 above), and a new, peppy EVA midsole. Cue the celebration now: it weighs less, too. HOKA ditched the overlays on the upper, allowing the stretchy mesh to form to your feet without any hindrance or side toe pressure. Not only does this make a comfortable shoe feel even better, but there was less delamination for us to worry about. Talk about a win-win. Buy here.


Test Results: Calling all mountain runners: We found your shoe. The On Cloudultra has a full-length plastic plate called the Speedboard, which provides firmness on the toe off (or turnover, in runner’s parlance). Couple that with a snug, tighter-than-usual fit, and you’ve got an agile shoe that excels when a trail calls for precise footing and quick moves. Runners can also tweak fit on the fly with a nifty feature called the FlipRelease, a small plastic doodad that cinches or loosens the laces. Designers stuck with the beloved CloudTec pods (or pockets of air) that help boost rebound without added weight, but they closed the channels between them. So, same tech, different look—and we appreciated the lack of rocks stuck in the sole. Buy here.


Shop All Trail-Running Shoes 


AnchorBuying Advice

When purchasing trail-running shoes, consider these three factors: heel-to-toe drop, cushioning and traction.

A product detail shot of the Brooks Catamount
Photo by William Rochfort Jr.


What is drop and why does it matter when shopping for trail-running shoes?

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 millimeters or more) because it promotes landing on the heel first and rolling through the running motion. Nowadays “midfoot striking,” or landing on the middle of your foot, is all the rage. (Learn more in our article, Minimalist/Barefoot Running Basics.) 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 millimeters), low drop (3 to 5 millimeters) and zero drop (0 millimeters). For folks who haven’t tried midfoot striking before, consider sticking with a moderate-drop shoe like the Salomon Sense Ride 4, Brooks Cascadia 16, or the On Cloudultra.

If, however, you’re interested in dabbling with forefoot striking to minimize any injuries coming from heel striking, look for a low-drop shoe like the HOKA Mafate Speed 4, Saucony Peregrine 12, or HOKA Speedgoat 5.

There’s only one zero-drop shoe on our list: the Altra Lone Peak 6. This shoe mimics your natural gait.

Note: If you’re a heel striker or transitioning from a higher-drop shoe, progress slowly. Jumping straight into a low- or zero-drop shoe may result in muscle soreness or even injury. Such shoes often make your Achilles tendon work harder than it’s probably used to.

Why does cushioning matter when it comes to trail-running shoes?

Your shoe’s cushioning is often referred to as “stack height.” This number references the amount of padding under your foot, particularly beneath the heel. The higher the stack height, the more comfort you can expect from regular pounding (and more protection against actual obstacles you might land on, too). 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 millimeters.
  • Maximum: Shoes with maximum cushioning—like the HOKA Mafate Speed 4—boast more than 30-millimeter 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.

How does traction help trail-running shoes perform?

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 will be grippier, but it will wear down faster.

For maximum traction, look for trail-running shoes with deep (greater than 4 millimeters), angular lugs, which hug the ground while expelling mud and muck. For dry trails and fine grit, a shoe that has large, blocky lugs spaced farther apart will grip best.

Testing Process

In the summer of 2022, we enlisted 21 REI members from around the country to log miles on the best trail-running shoes currently available at the co-op. Our testers jogged through rolling meadows, scampered across technical ridgelines and powered down steep descents to rate each shoe’s performance.

After eight weeks, our crew rated the shoes on five categories: comfort, fit, traction, durability and support. Each tester ranked her shoes in each category on a scale of 1 through 100. We tallied it all up and took the average. The seven pairs of trail-running shoes included here are the highest-scoring shoes in our test, and the scores are their averages.

After doing the math, the Salomon Sense Ride 4 received the highest marks, earning our coveted REI Co-op Editors' Choice Awards. The HOKA Mafate Speed 4, Altra Lone Peak 6, Brooks Cascadia 16, and Saucony Peregrine 12 scored the next highest, proving they earned top spots in their respective categories. The HOKA Speedgoat 5 and On Cloudultra scored high in most categories, still receiving top marks in their respective niches.

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