Trail-Running Shoes: How to Choose


Trail-running shoes are built differently from road-running shoes. They’re made to address 2 key needs of off-road runners:

  • Grip on rugged terrain: Trail-running-shoe outsoles offer deeper lugs and more aggressive tread patterns to boost your stability.
  • Foot protection: Trail runners feature a stiffer sole and hidden plates to shield feet from bruising that can occur due to impact on rocks and roots. Most trail-running shoes also include stiff, protective toe counters on the front to prevent toe injuries.

What are the best trail running shoes for you? This article will help you narrow your search.

Shop REI’s selection of men’s trail runners and women’s trail runners.

Video: How to Choose Trail-Running Shoes

What Type of Trail Runner Are You?

Start by asking yourself these questions:

Q: How will I most often use these trail-running shoes?

  • For up-tempo runs and racing? If so, light weight becomes most important. The trade-off is you’ll get less structure, protection and support.
  • For occasional off-road runs to add variety to a road-running regimen? Look for trail-running shoes that are beefed-up versions of their road running counterparts—deep lugs and stiffer soles may not be as important to you.

Q: Where will I use them?

  • For steep, difficult terrain? More structure, support and protection are desirable.
  • For wet, muddy conditions? Look for widely spaced lugs that release mud easily.

Q: Should I consider minimalist trail-running shoes?

A: Minimalist trail-running shoes allow you to run with a more natural “barefoot” motion. Advocates believe this is a healthier way to run, if it’s approached gradually. The downside of such shoes is that you give up some stability, protection and durability to achieve the weight savings.

Q: Should I get a shoe with a waterproof/breathable liner?

A: Waterproof/breathable liners—such as Gore-Tex® or eVent™—make sense in wet conditions. For warmer or drier climates, consider shoes without liners. Why? Non-lined shoes offer better breathability and quicker drying times.

Tip: For shoes with waterproof/breathable liners, you usually need to get a half-size larger than normal due to their extra padding.

Trail running shoe

Fit: The Most Important Factor

Fit trumps all other considerations. A proper fit will keep you from getting black-and-blue toenails or heel blisters. Other criteria, such as technology, reviews or style, comes second.

Q: How do I find a trail-running shoe that will fit me?

A: Shoes are built around forms known as “lasts.” Each manufacturer uses a last that it believes best represents the shape of the typical human foot. Shoes of the same size routinely vary in depth, width and volume, indicating shoemakers have differing views on what is a typical foot shape.

Top trail-running shoe brands include adidas, Brooks, Inov8, La Sportiva, Merrell, Mizuno, New Balance and Salomon.

Because of these sizing differences, it’s always best to work with an REI footwear specialist. If you can’t visit an REI store, contact REI customer service (by phone at 1-800-426-4840 or live chat online) to discuss your options. They’ll ask you to describe your feet in as much detail as possible:

  • Are they wide, narrow or flat?
  • Is your instep high or low?
  • Is your foot straight or curved?

The latter is more subtle but is often characterized by shoes causing pain in the heel and by the little toe.

Q: How can I tell what type of feet I have?

A: Here is a quick test: Look at your footprints after swimming or showering and compare them to the diagrams below.

Some trail-running shoes cater to certain foot types, due to the last used in their design and their type of sole construction. Share your fit information with your REI footwear specialist for help.

Q: What do you mean by a “good fit”?

A: It can be defined as snug everywhere, tight nowhere, with room to wiggle your toes. Functionally, a good fit should prevent blisters or bruised toenails.

Q: What should I look for when trying on shoes?

A: If possible, try these 2 tests:

Downhill: With shoes laced up snugly, walk down an incline. As you do so, stomp and scuff your feet. Do your toes feel smashed into the front of the shoes? If so, you could end up with black and blue toenails—or worse. If you don’t pass this test, try another pair.

Uphill: Now climb some stairs, taking them 2 at a time. Are your heels are lifting off the insoles more than about 1/8″ consistently? Try relacing the shoes, changing socks for ones with more heel padding or substituting an insole like those from Superfeet or Sole. It’s important to stop the up-and-down movement of your heels since this can lead to blisters.

Q: I have some foot issues. What help is available?

A: Bunions, hammer toes, Morton’s neuroma, plantar fasciitis, orthotics, blisters: There are many foot problems that can potentially interfere with your running. REI carries solutions and preventative products such as aftermarket insoles, absorbent socks and sock liners, moleskin and silicone toe caps.

Q: If online reviewers all say that a certain trail-running shoe is great, then shouldn’t I just buy that one?

A: You can often glean useful information from reviews, but approach fit advice with caution. If all the reviews state that a certain shoe runs wide (or narrow), then it’s probably true. Just keep in mind that the shoe fit you experience when trying on shoes trumps all other considerations.

Q: What’s the best way to order shoes from

A: It’s often wise to order the 2 sizes closest to what size you think you are. You can return what doesn’t fit to any REI store or by shipping it back.

Shop REI’s selection of men’s trail-running shoes and women’s trail-running shoes.

Trail-Runner Shoe and Usage Tips

Q: Can’t I just wear my road-running shoes on trails?

A: This is not recommended. Consider using a road bike on a mountain bike trail—it’s not designed for this task. Similarly, road-running shoes offer little support, stability or grip on rough terrain. Their ventilation, which is so nice on road runs, collects dirt and debris on trail runs. Trail runners, by contrast, excel in all of these areas.

A road running shoe (top) has a less aggressive sole than does a trail running shoe (bottom) with its terrain-grabbing lugs.

Q: Can I use trail runners for backpacking?

A: Yes, this is common among experienced hikers who know their limitations and what is safe for them. For example, long-distance “thru-hikers” often use trail runners. But there are several factors you should consider first:

  • Your weight and your knee/ankle strength
  • Your pack weight (30 lbs. or less is best)
  • The route (rough terrain or off-trail use is not recommended)
  • Shoe durability (hiking boots will last longer)

Q: What goes into the foundation of a trail runner?

A: In between the shoe’s upper and the outsole is the midsole. It provides cushioning, and many trail runners include additional support materials for stability.

Trail-runner midsoles consist of EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate), an open-cell foam. Some use a single grade of EVA; others feature double- or triple-densities of EVA, placing firmer foam sections under specific sections of the foot. A few shoes also add polyurethane—closed-cell foam that is firmer, slightly heavier and more durable than EVA.

Many also include a thin thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) plate or insert sandwiched between the midsole and the outsole (below the balls of the feet) for added protection.

For added support, trail runners may use one or both of the following:

  • Shanks: Sometimes also called stabilizers or inserts, shanks add stiffness to the midsoles. They help runners maintain balance as they navigate rocky, rooty terrain. They vary in size, depending on each manufacturer’s design objectives, and are commonly made from lightweight TPU.
  • Plates: Sandwiched between the midsole and outsole, plates are thin, protective layers usually made of light, flexible TPU. They also help feet from getting bruised by rocks or roots.
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