New Kicks for Warm-Weather Trail Running

Spring's best off-road shoes strike a balance between speed and comfort

Mar 12, 2015
Outside Magazine

Smart designs prevail this spring: Helios SR's grippy outsole has deep waves of foam that provide plenty of traction in loose terrain.    Photo: Inga Hendrickson

Choosing a trail is hard enough. Searching for a new pair of running shoes? Unfathomable. Narrow down your search to exactly six options. We've put these new designs to the test and found a top-notch choice for all kinds of runners. Minimalist, maximalist, whatever—we can all agree that it feels great to find the perfect pair, lace up, and head out.

Fat but Fast

  Photo: Hoka

Hoka One One Challenger ATR ($130)
Sure, it looks as thick as a Dickens novel, but the crazy-light Challenger ATR’s low drop and fast turnover managed to recruit a few of our most dedicated minimalists to its cushy cult. Thanks to a snug lace-closure system, it’s easily the most secure-fitting Hoka yet, which means more stability on steeps—though its inherent tippiness on off-kilter terrain means it still shines brightest on mellower trails, where the rockered midsole and springy foam give a smooth, fun ride. If you think thick means soft and slow, think again. This beast flat-out flies. 8.6 oz; 5 mm drop.

Chubby and Agile

  Photo: Merrell

Merrell All Out Peak ($130)
With a full 32 millimeters of gummy foam underfoot, the All Out Peak lands just as softly as the Hoka. What sets it apart is a deeply lugged Vibram outsole that, combined with one of the most secure uppers we’ve tested, gives it a huge technical boost over other fat shoes on hills, rocky turf, and loose surfaces like ball-bearing gravel. But while it’s reasonably responsive on toe-off and turns over fairly quickly, the All Out Peak is hefty and feels a tad flat in the heel, making it more of a cruiser than a speedster. 10.7 oz; 6 mm drop.

Tough and Sturdy

  Photo: Montrail

Montrail Bajada II ($110)
The Bajada is an up-armored and supportive workhorse that loves long runs on technical terrain. Big guys will especially like the stout midsole, which gives it the stability and efficiency of a hardtail bike. While we did notice some interior foot slippage on hills, the Bajada’s dry-weather traction is excellent—dozens of little square lugs grip solid surfaces like Velcro, but it never feels sluggish on hardpack. 11.4 oz; 10 mm drop.

Minimalist at Heart

  Photo: Nike

Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 2 ($125)
This protective trail runner is really two shoes in one. A firm midsole offers decent armor on rocky terrain, yet the Kiger 2 also has minimalist DNA, including a rounded heel and structureless heel counter. This makes it seem a bit squirrelly on hills, but the compression-sock-like mesh upper is a nice antidote, locking down the forefoot for a secure feel when hopscotching over rocks. If you like a firm ride with quick turnover, this could be your new favorite hybrid trainer. 8.7 oz; 4 mm drop.

Supple and Speedy

  Photo: La Sportiva

La Sportiva Helios SR ($125)
The Helios SR is a slipper with a speed fetish. The lugless tread pattern is impressively tacky on dry and packed trails, and the locked-down fit in the midfoot and heel gives great stability on steep trails. Placing it closer to the minimalist side of the mountain-racing spectrum, the two-millimeter drop and Gumby-like flexibility make for an amazingly smooth, ground-connected feel. We prescribe it for efficient trail racers, mid-foot strikers, and lean- or average-volume feet. Just don’t look to this soft, thin shoe for stabilizing support or protection from sharp rocks. Size up: it runs small. 8.4 oz; 2 mm drop.

Mountain Goat

  Photo: The North Face

The North Face Ultra TRII ($110)
After dashing away with our Buyer’s Guide Gear of the Year award last year, the low-flying Ultra Trail is back with a stout new ripstop upper that’s even more secure than the original for better precision on rocky routes. Efficient runners will love the race-ready minimalism of the soft, thin outsole, which has just enough foam to take the sting out of a scree field without bogging down or muffling the contours of the ground. On anything dry, the traction is spectacular. 8.1 oz; 
8 mm drop.

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