Venturing off-road can provide a mental lift to your weekly routine and reap huge fitness gains. While we’ve all taken our road shoes to the trail, having specific trail running shoes will elevate your off-road game.
The perfect shoe is the calculus of individual fit and the type of trail you run on. To collect feedback, we had our team of testers from across the country run in diverse terrain.
From rocky scrambles to mellow hikes to the Leadville 100, we’ve worn these trail shoes through rain, summer heat, and everything in between. And while there isn’t a single perfect shoe for everyone, we’ve categorized our top picks to help you find the best fit.
Fortunately for runners, 2023 is a great year for trail running shoes. Every shoe on this list is a stellar choice, with several capable of crossing over into a variety of terrain.
Our list is quite comprehensive. If you need more help deciding, be sure to check out our buyer’s guide at the end of our review to unravel just how to choose the best trail running shoes. Also, check out our comparison chart to see how our choices stack up against one another, and our FAQ section for any lingering questions.
The Best Men’s Trail Running Shoes of 2023
Best Overall Trail Running Shoe
Segmented rock plate provides protection and flexibility
Rounded outer soles and shallow lugs don’t bite into the trail as well as other shoes
Minimal heel cup support compromises some lateral stability
Lugs clatter on pavement
Best Road-to-Trail Running Shoe
Weight (per shoe)
6 mm (32/26 mm)
This is a great all-around trail shoe with a bias for smoother trails and chops for the road. Choose this shoe for tamer trails.
Great rebound and rocker
Some runners find it too much cushion and unstable on technical terrain
The max cushion is soft and squishes easily on cambered terrain. Some runners may experience lateral instability.
Weight (per shoe)
5 mm (33/28 mm)
Goldilocks shoe for the generalist trail runner with a bias for more technical terrain
Low stack and traction elevate this shoe’s ability on more technical terrain
The midfoot volume is low and can bite down on the top of the foot
Weight (per shoe)
4 mm (28/24 mm)
Race-ready daily trainer. Best suited for loose trails and technical terrain
Good laces stay tied
Precise in technical terrain
Will be too narrow for some
A bit of a harsh ride for long distances
Doesn’t allow much foot splay
Beautiful craftsmanship in a sharp-looking shoe
The fit feels like a compression shoe
Firm ride in a heavy shoe can tire legs over longer distances
The compression fit can bind at the ankles at the collar of the shoe
Men’s Trail Running Shoes Comparison Chart
Why You Should Trust Us
Steve Graepel, the author of this guide, has been running for 30 years. During his time on his feet, he’s clocked a sub-3-hour marathon, won the Superior Trail Ultra 50 miler, and made the first known rim-to-rim-to-rim of Hells Canyon, North America’s deepest canyon. Steve can be found lugging a backpack with a spare pair of shoes in and around the Boise foothills with his two dogs.
To complement Steve’s personal expertise, GearJunkie has a crew of four runners collecting miles and feedback throughout the year.
A fitness-focused runner who logs miles for both cardio and agility, Adam Ruggiero run-commutes on pavement daily, and adds box jumps and stairs to his regular routine. Ruggiero logs 20-25 miles a week, with mid-distance trail runs at elevation on the weekends.
Fast is slow, and slow is M.T. Elliot. A recreational runner — and our resident Clydesdale runner — Elliot prefers the crunch of dirt over asphalt but runs on both.
Sean McCoy is a middle-of-the-pack ultra runner who, when not leading the Denver-based GearJunkie team, gets lost running and racing the Colorado high country.
Chris Carter is an avid ultra runner and is coming out of a season of constant competing in trail races along the East Coast. He can’t quite find the gumption to get into road running, but is a trail hog through and through.
Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose a Trail Running Shoe
Staring at a wall of shoes or endlessly browsing an online retailer can be overwhelming. We’ve broken down some helpful tips to find the right shoe.
Consider Where You Run
These days, manufacturers have dialed shoes for nearly every niche of running. A quick way to hone in on the right shoe is to identify where you run.
Road running shoes are primarily suitable for hard surfaces, with breathable uppers and smooth traction for pavement, track, and treadmills. Cushion and stability can vary (we’ll cover that more below).
Trail running shoes have an aggressive lug pattern that bites into dirt, sand, and mud. But not all treads are the same. A blocky, cleat-like tread will shed mud in the Pacific Northwest but can feel clunky on hardpack found in the Southwest and can cause trips and falls.
Trail shoes also have a more durable upper, a robust toe bumper, and a firmer sole or even a rock plate — all to protect the feet from underlying roots and rocks.
Roadrunner or trail shoe? These aren’t hard-and-fast rules. All the editors at GearJunkie run to the trailhead on the road, and we are all guilty of taking a road shoe for a spin on the trail. If that sounds like you, we’ve indicated where a shoe can cross over effectively.
Identify Your Running Gait
According to Dr. Michael Hahn, director of the Bowerman Sports Science Clinic at the University of Oregon and a specialist in neuromechanics and human locomotion, “Everybody has a natural gait, and it leaves a thumbprint on your shoes.”
To get an idea of how you run, flip your shoes over and take a look at the wear pattern on the soles.
- Neutral pronation shows a wear pattern that scuffs the outside of the heel and the ball of the foot. A neutral shoe will probably be your best bet.
- Overpronation shows wear along the inside edge of your shoe (meaning your feet are rolling off the big and middle toes). Hahn added that “people with low arches pronate and that can poorly load joints up the chain.” A stability shoe may help, “but don’t overdo it. Just find a comfortable shoe that feels good and naturally supports the foot,” adds Hahn. That is, learn to listen to your body and buy accordingly.
- Supination, or underpronation, is identified by long wear patterns along the outside edge of your shoes (caused by the feet rolling out). It can also be caused by inflexible, rigid, or high arches. Typical wear patterns will show light wearing on the outside of the heel. Supination is more drastic rolling outward, cupping inward, and is less common. But the evidence is pretty clear. “It always comes down to cushioning,” shared Hahn. If you supinate, “the number one thing you can do is buy a cushion shoe.”
Stack and Drop
Unless you’re running barefoot, every shoe has a stack. Measured in millimeters (mm), the stack refers to how high the insole sits off the ground.
Shoes with more cushion inherently have a higher stack. Furthermore, most shoes have a “drop” in stack height from the heel to the toe. Zero drop refers to a shoe whose toe and heel stack are the same measurement. Zero-drop shoes mimic a more natural, “barefoot” running feel. Both Altra Lone Peak 7 and Timp 4 are zero-drop shoes, but have different stack, and thus a very different feel.
The lower the stack, the closer you are to the ground, and hence the lower your center of gravity. Lower stack shoes, like Nike’s Terra Kiger 9 or Topo Athletics MTN Racer 3, may feel more “racy,” faster, and better equipped to tackle technical terrain.
If you’re new to running or younger, experts recommend a lower heel drop. It builds a wider range of motion and strength, which makes you a healthier runner overall.
For experienced runners who grew up on a generation of high-drop shoes, your legs will appreciate a more judicious stack.
Stepping into a high-cushion shoe can feel like walking on a cloud. Those running longer distances (or who supinate) will prefer more cushion to damp the repetitive pounding and provide support. But it can become a penalty. Extra foam adds extra weight.
So, is more cushion better? Not always. It’s about finding the right balance between speed and comfort. If you’re aiming for a new PR, look for a light, stiffer shoe with a harder cushion and minimal lug friction. Hoka’s Tecton X 2 provides a fantastic combination of cushion and weight.
Stability has drastically changed over the last decade. Bob Coll, owner of the Eugene Running Company, ranked as the top running store in Oregon by Runner’s World, explained that “shoes have become more homogenous. Today’s neutral shoe is just as stable as the best ‘stability’ shoe from 10 years ago.”
The gap between neutral and stability has narrowed. “And the approaches to stability are different,” added Coll. “Max cushion shoes, like a Hoka, use more cushion to seat you deep in a saddle surrounded by foam.” And The North Face wraps its TPU plate outside the shoe to help serve as rails for a neutralizing stride.
Regardless of labeling or engineering, the best shoe is the one that feels natural to the N of one: you.
To help buffer the feet from rough trails, some shoes embed a firm, protective, “rock plate” in the midsole. Made from plastic, or in more expensive models, carbon, the flexible plate protects the feet from getting banged up on sharp rocks and repetitive pounding on erratic terrain, while adding some spring to the step.
A good rock plate will work with the shoe without compromising flexibility or cushion. Our top pick, Nike’s Terra Kiger 9, uses a segmented plate that transitions from rigid to flexible and rides virtually unnoticeable underfoot.
Flexibility is your friend on the trails. You need variability to match the variable terrain.
Trail runners will prefer a shoe with a firm outsole and less cushion, but a firm toebox to push off of. Some flexibility and torsion can help the foot adapt to the trail and prevent injuries, like rolling an ankle.
For most trail running, we prefer a shoe that breathes well. Waterproof membranes will cause your feet to sweat faster than the waterproof membrane can keep up. This leaves your feet wet, clammy, and exposed to hot spots.
Obvious exceptions include really muddy or snowy trails at ultra lengths and cold, wet conditions. To see our pick for waterproof trail runners, give our winter running shoe buyer’s guide a look.
In general, we prefer a breathable upper that allows cooling air to flow in, and hot sweat to move out. The compromise is keeping dirt and grime out of the shoe.
Porous mesh uppers, like those found on Nike’s Terra Kiger, will let more cheat grass and sand particles to ingress. To minimize dirty toes, Nike sewed in an inner bootie that limits trail debris and doubles as a gusset for the tongue.
Most trail-ready shoes are constructed from a synthetic upper mesh. Materials can be simple weaves or complexly engineered, adding more durability and better breathability in different zones on the upper.
Added materials overlays and rubber rands (like those found on Salomon’s Pulsar) provide protection and deflection but will reduce airflow in a shoe. The best, like TNF’s VECTIV Enduris 3, apply overlays that strike a balance of support, breathability, and weight. The rougher the trail, the more protection you’ll need. For optimal protection, it’s tough to beat La Sportiva’s Akasha II.
Runners looking for a PR will likely want fewer materials. It’s a decision that cuts both ways. You drop the weight but have to open the wallet a little more. To keep the weight down, manufacturers start adding more expensive materials, like carbon plates. With minimal protective overlays, these welterweight trail runners may not last as long as a more robust shoe.
Lastly, dark-colored material will soak up more solar heat than lighter-colored shoes. We don’t mind this in winter, but it may sway your choice if you run in hot, sunny regions.
Lugs & Traction
Compared to road running shoes, trail runners will want grippy soles to navigate the slick, uneven, rocky, and muddy terrain. Look carefully at the trails you plan to run. If they’re mostly covered with stones and hard dirt, a short lug pattern will be great.
Those who run on lots of muddy or soft surfaces will appreciate a deeper lug pattern. 4-5mm lugs are best for most trail runners. The loamier the trail, the more you will appreciate deeper lugs. Anything more than 6 will start to feel cleat-like, making hard-pack less fun and road downright unbearable.
Lug patterns will vary across brands as well. Salomon’s Ultra Glide 2 and Pulsar use narrow, mud-shedding treads that dart toe to heel. Many shoes use a multidirectional patterned lug, that provides breaking traction (under the heel), and gripping traction (under the toes).
Outsole compounds vary from soft to hard rubber. And choosing the right lug material depends on where you run. Softer blends will provide better grip and traction on harder surfaces, and run better on road. But they will wear down more quickly. Harder lugs feel clanky on hardpack and can cause tripping hazards in rock, but they bite down into mud like crampons.
The best traction on the list is Hoka’s Speedgoat 5. Made from Vibram Megagrip rubber, the multi-directional 5 mm lugs are cut to create arrowhead-shaped barbs. The result gives the lug more gripping surface area and an impressive amount of traction.
Running shoes should be as light as possible while still offering the protection you desire. This matters both for the fast runner as well as the ultra-distance runner, where those added ounces add up over the day.
Anything over about 12 ounces (for a men’s size 9) is just too heavy. Lighter is better, but lightweight shoes tend to wear out more quickly than thicker, more overbuilt shoes.
With so many options to choose from, it can be challenging to choose the right trail shoes. Here are three things to consider as you shop:
- Set realistic running goals. If you dream of running a 100-miler one day, but realistically will use the shoes for 5-mile training loops around your local park, buy shoes for the latter use first.
- Consider shoe width. For folks with wide feet or those running very long distances, a wide forefoot can be a bonus that lets toes splay. The downside is that wider shoes are less precise, can be a little more clumsy, and won’t fit well on people with narrow feet.
- Test out the tongue. Does it fit comfortably? Will it keep rocks out of your shoe?
The life of a shoe depends on a variety of factors, including running style, weight, and how often they’re used. But in general, 300 to 500 miles is a good rule of thumb.
So if you run 10 miles per week, your shoes could last 8 months to a year. If you’re logging 20 miles per week, plan on replacing your running shoes every 4 to 6 months.
And if you see excessive wear patterns, holes, and tears or notice a decrease in footbed comfort, it’s probably time to grab a new pair of sneakers.
You can certainly run anywhere in your trail shoes or bring your road shoes trailside. That said, most find the aggressive lug pattern of a trail shoe uncomfortable on pavement. Hard surfaces like cement or pavement also quickly wear down the sole of a trail running shoe.
If your runs require a short amount of road to get to your trail, you’ll be fine in most of the shoes we’ve listed. Some shoes offer a better hybrid as a pure road-to-trail offering. Salomon’s Ultra Glide is soft, light, and has road-friendly lugs.
If you plan to run mostly on roads, it would be better to get a dedicated road running shoe.
We have seen a big shift on the trail from hiking boots to lighter-weight shoes, including trail running shoes for hiking. Trail running shoes offer up excellent traction in a lighter, more nimble package.
While many backpackers still prefer a boot, we know thru-hikers who make major miles in trail running shoes. If you’re looking for something in between, it’s worth considering a hiking shoe.
We tested and ranked the best hiking shoes for men and women for 2022, including top picks from Salomon, Lems, Merrell, SCARPA, and more.
We tested the best running shoes of 2022 with options for every budget. Top picks include HOKA, Brooks, and more!