The Best Trail-Running Shoes of 2021: Tested

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

48 reviews with an average rating of 4.7 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 13 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 Trail-running Shoes for Beginners and Intermediates: Salomon Sense Ride 4 (Women's, Men's)
  • Best Trail-running Shoe for Experts and Racers: The North Face VECTIV Infinite (Women's, Men's)
  • Best Trail-running Shoe for Runners Navigating Technical Terrain: On Cloudultra (Women's, Men's)
  • Best Trail-running Shoe for Runners Who Want Zero Drop: Altra Lone Peak 5 (Women's, Men's, Kids')
  • Best Trail-running Shoe for Long-Distance Runners: HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6 (Women's, Men's

Other Top Performers

 

Salomon Sense Ride 4

Best Trail-running Shoe for Beginners and Intermediates & Editors’ Choice Award Winner

Score: 97

A product-on-white image of the Salomon Sense Ride 4 Trail-Running Shoe

  • Versions:  Women’s (regular, GORE-TEX®); men’s (regular, GORE-TEX®)
  • 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)
  • Price: $120–$160

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 Editor’s 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, soft foam for a plush ride with a dense, rubberized heel insert for snappy turnover. The result? 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 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 stuck like glue to sandstone and dusty granite and, paired with 4-millimeter 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 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.

 

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.”

 

The North Face VECTIV Infinite

Best Trail-running Shoe for Experts and Racers & Editors’ Choice Award Winner

Score: 95

A product-on-white image of The North Face VECTIV Infinite Trail-Running Shoe

  • Versions: Women’s, men’s
  • Weight: 1 lb. 3 oz. (women’s 7), 1 lb. 6 oz. (men’s 9)
  • Heel-to-toe drop: Moderate (6 mm)
  • Cushion: Moderate (25 mm stack height)
  • Price: $169

Test Results: Running is hard. But if you want a shoe that feels like it does at least some of the work for you, The North Face VECTIV Infinite may be the one. The winning formula: a plate made of Pebax, a high-energy-return plastic more often used to make road-running shoes, paired with a rockered (or, upturned) midsole that helps propel you forward. What’s all that mean? Well, the VECTIV Infinite just feels easy, especially for more experienced runners who maintain a longer stride and speed when training for races. “I’ve been dealing with some nagging injuries, but I felt like I could run all day in these,” says one Colorado-based tester who logged nearly six weeks of testing. Placebo effect? Maybe, but we like it.

The high-end materials in the VECTIV Infinite aren’t the only features of the shoe that experts will like. Fit is snug—ideal for folks who want more precision. “The shoe hugs my foot,” reports one tester. “They fit me like racing flats.” That said, some testers found that the tighter fit was too constricting on longer runs (consider the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6 if you want a shoe that will accommodate foot swelling). The VECTIV Infinite’s soft socklike upper belies its technical chops: It’s stitched with durable Kevlar® and polyamide, an abrasion-resistant nylon. “I hustled through a dense patch of spiky prickly pears and the shoes are no worse for wear,” affirms a Colorado-based tester.

The shoe’s dimensions make it fairly versatile, both for target distance and terrain. Its 25-millimeter stack height beneath the heel and 6-millimeter heel-to-toe drop work well for midfoot (and forefoot) strikers, and the 3.5-millimeter lugs on the outsole stick well enough on grit, rock and even packed snow. Things got a bit slippery for one tester on an exceptionally muddy adventure, but the VECTIV Infinite shed the gunk quickly and easily. Buy here.

 

Bottom Line: High-end materials and a clever profile make The North Face VECTIV Infinite a top choice for experienced trail runners who prioritize speed.

 

Testing stats:

  • Total distance: 142 miles
  • Testing states: Colorado
  • Best testing story: One of our testers logs most of her miles on dirt roads around her neighborhood. Returning from one run, she noticed a herd of cattle that had “breached the fence and were on the loose.” As she ran closer, the animals turned to watch her—pointy horns and all. “I kept telling myself that they were the ‘sit-and-smell-the-flowers types’ and not the ‘stab-the-running-lady types,’” she laughs. Given a safe return, she must have been right.

 

On Cloudultra

Best Trail-running Shoe for Runners Navigating Technical Terrain

Score: 92

A product detail photo of the On Cloudultra

  • Versions: Women’s, men’s
  • Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz. (women’s 7), 1 lb. 5 oz. (men’s 9)
  • Heel-to-toe drop: Moderate (8 mm)
  • Cushion: Moderate (29 mm stack height)
  • Price: $180

Test Results: Calling all mountain goats: We found your shoe. Across the board, testers raved about the nimble On Cloudultra trail shoe for its agility, traction and responsiveness on rocky, rooty and off-kilter terrain.

The sorcery happens in the midsole: First off, the Cloudultra has a full-length plastic plate (similar to The North Face VECTIV Infinite) called the Speedboard, which provides firmness on the toe off (or turnover, in runner’s parlance). A rockered design means the shoe’s profile looks like a smile and helps push you forward as you elongate your stride. 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. Note: While most testers hailed the socklike fit, a few wider-footed runners felt pinched at the forefoot.

But with the Cloudultra, runners can tweak fit on the fly with a nifty feature called the FlipRelease, a small plastic doodad attached to the lower lacing. A quick flip of the tool cinches the laces just a hair, tightening the forefoot fit by a few millimeters. Release it to loosen the laces. “I thought it was gimmicky, but I found myself frequently expanding the fit when my feet swelled during longer runs,” says one tester.

Fans of Swiss brand On will notice the different outsole shape of the Cloudultra compared to other shoes the brand makes. 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. It’s a change that our testers praised because while other On shoes tend to gather rocks and grit, the Cloudultra remains clear of lumps and grime underfoot. As for traction, the Cloudultra handles dry terrain with ease, but the smaller lugs (ranging from 2 to 4 millimeters) falter on wet, sloppy trails. That same shallow lug pattern, however, makes the Cloudultra a solid choice for folks who have to cover some ground on pavement before reaching the trailhead. Buy here.

 

Bottom Line: Great responsiveness and a snug fit combine in the On Cloudultra, creating a nimble, mountain-ready shoe for technical trails.

 

Testing stats:

  • Total distance: 171 miles
  • Testing states: Arizona, California and Colorado
  • Best testing story: One Colorado-based tester was the only runner perched at the summit in time for sunrise during a morning run near Boulder. “I watched the warmth spread throughout the valley and the sun’s first rays glitter over my community,” she says. “Is there a better way to start the day?”

 

Altra Lone Peak 5

Best Trail-running Shoe for Runners Who Want Zero Drop

Score: 94

A product detail shot of the Altra Lone Peak 5

  • Versions: Women’s, men’s, kids’
  • Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz. (women’s 7), 1 lb. 6 oz. (men’s 9)
  • Heel-to-toe drop: None (0 mm)
  • Cushion: Moderate (25 mm stack height)
  • Price: $130

Test Results: Hey, Altra loyalists: Sink your lugs into this update. Now in its tenth year, the venerable Altra Lone Peak is lighter and more responsive than ever before. Designers ditched the traditional EVA foam midsole from past iterations, replacing it with a proprietary (read: top-secret) 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. “I could more easily respond to the terrain.” That all means that more technical trails are on the docket for the Lone Peak 5.

And the improvements don’t end there. An updated mesh upper is lightweight and more breathable. Also, an updated TPU rock plate underfoot is more flexible than in prior versions of the Long Peak. That means you still score protection underfoot and a stiffer platform for toeing off, but the shoe doesn’t feel as rigid as before (one tester who’s used past iterations of the Lone Peak called this one a “pliable fit” on her feedback form). Another tweak: The chevron-shaped lugs now extend beneath the metatarsals in the forefoot, providing deeper grip on the toe off.

One thing didn’t change: the spacious toe box. “I love how my toes can spread out and gather trail insight to communicate with my brain,” another tester says. Trade-off: Some testers dubbed the roomy toe box “sloppy.” Sizing down may be advisable; the Lone Peaks are now available in wide sizes, too. Buy here.

 

Bottom Line: Looking for a zero-drop trail shoe? You can’t go wrong with the lightweight Altra Lone Peak 5, which boasts a responsive midsole and a spacious toe box.

 

Testing stats:

  • Total distance: 123 miles
  • Testing states: California, Colorado and Kansas
  • Best testing story: “Running in these shoes helped me escape the pandemic and relationship struggles, and slowly shake off the weight of all the work it takes to raise two kids,” says our Kansas-based tester. “I call them my emotional-support shoes.”

 

HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6

Best Trail-running Shoe for Long-Distance Runners

Score: 93

Product detail shot of the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6

  • Versions: Women’s (regular, GORE-TEX®); men’s (regular; GORE-TEX®)
  • Weight: 1 lb. (women’s 7), 1 lb. 4 oz. (men’s 9)
  • Heel-to-toe drop: Low (5 mm)
  • Cushion: Moderate (women’s: 26 mm stack height; men’s: 29 mm stack height)
  • Price: $130–$140

Test Results: Use ultracushioning to go ultrafar with the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6. With a 29-millimeter stack height beneath the heel (26 millimeters for the women’s version), the Challenger ATR 6 served up one of the plushest rides in our test—perfect for long-haul days when the dogs are barking. All that pillowy goodness (HOKA calls it “marshmallow softness”) cushions the foot from constant pounding, even if your running form begins to drop off a bit as you tire and fall into a heel-striking pattern. And, for a trail shoe like this, the big ol’ stack height can help protect your foot from jabby, uneven terrain

Stability can be an issue with max-cushioned shoes like this, but HOKA designers widened the landing platform beneath the heel with the Challenger ATR 6. The wider surface area helps boost stability, especially when tired legs grow wobbly. Closely spaced, shallow (4-millimeter) lugs on the outsole also give the shoe great contact with the ground. “I never felt unbalanced,” said one Virginia-based tester after an eight-hour day on the Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail. (Note: The outsole on this shoe lends it to mellower, dry trails. If technical or sloppy trails are your quarry, look elsewhere.)

A rigid heel counter (a plastic insert that reinforces the heel cup) and snug upper work together to secure the foot; no slippage here. Still, some testers with wider feet thought the shoe felt pinched on the lateral side. If you need more wiggle room, check out the Challenger in wide sizes. Buy here.

 

Bottom Line: Ample cushioning and a stable platform combine to make the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6 a versatile shoe for long-distance runners moving through mellow or moderate terrain.

 

Testing stats:

  • Total distance: 164 miles
  • Testing states: Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia
  • Best testing story: One of our testers caused a hot debate when he showed up at a Scouts training hike wearing the Challenger. “We’d told the kids they needed to wear boots due to the snow, so the leader’s son wasn’t too happy when he saw I got to wear comfy running shoes,” he says. “But it was all in the name of testing.”

 

Other Top Performers

Brooks Catamount

Score: 90

A product detail shot of the Brooks Catamount

  • Versions: Women’s, men’s
  • Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz. (women’s 7), 1 lb. 3 oz. (men’s 9)
  • Heel-to-toe drop: Moderate (6 mm)
  • Cushion: Maximum (31 mm stack height)
  • Price: $160

Test Results: Speedy runners looking to move quickly on non-technical terrain might want to take a flyer on the Brooks Catamount. It has a fat, 31-millimeter stack height beneath the heel, giving it cushion on par with the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6, but unlike that shoe, it has a rock plate for added stiffness and protection. That all gives it a soft-yet-snappy feel. “It’s a good mix of lightness and responsiveness,” says one Montana-based tester. “They just run fun.” That said, some testers felt the 4-millimeter lugs on the outsole weren’t aggressive enough for technical or slick terrain. Our take: Go fast, go far and stick to rolling terrain to best enjoy these kicks. Buy here.

 

Brooks Divide 2

Score: 89

Product detail shot of the Brooks Divide 2

  • Versions: Women’s, men’s
  • Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz. (women’s 7), 1 lb. 5 oz. (men’s 9)
  • Heel-to-toe drop: Moderate (8 mm)
  • Cushion: Maximum (32 mm stack height)
  • Price: $100

Test Results: Beginners wanting to take to the trail without exploding their bank accounts will love the forgiving fit and price of the Divide 2. Brooks dialed in the shoe on round two to create a more responsive sneaker that better hugs the midfoot than the original. “I’m new to trail running but I was able to grab these and go immediately,” says one Colorado-based tester. The Divide 2 has similar geometry and profiling as many road shoes, so it should feel familiar. Additional cushion and traction make it fit for mellow trails. Nice at this price? A simple rock plate, which adds some stiffness and protection underfoot. Buy here.

 

Shop All Trail-Running Shoes 

 

Buying Advice

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

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, The North Face VECTIV Infinite, On Cloudultra, Brooks Catamount or Brooks Divide 2.

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 ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6.

There’s only one zero-drop shoe on our list: the Altra Lone Peak 5. 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 Brooks Catamount—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 spring of 2021, we enlisted 13 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 North Face VECTIV Infinite and Salomon Sense Ride 4 received the highest marks, earning our coveted REI Co-op Editors' Choice Awards. The On Cloudultra, Altra Lone Peak 5 and the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6 scored the next highest, proving they earned top spots in their respective categories. The Brooks Catamount and the Brooks Divide 2 scored high in most categories, still receiving top marks in their respective niches.


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.

All photography by William M. Rochfort, Jr.

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