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  • Photo: Michael Karsh

    Best Trail Running Shoes

    Picking the top running shoe is like picking the best rock-and-roll band—there’s no right answer. (Except in the case of the Exile-era Stones.) There are options for the wide and the narrow of feet, for minimalist fans and thick-sole pounders, for mountain speedsters and fire-road plodders—and every runner in between. But while we can’t point to a single shoe that everyone will love, we can tell you which will best match your needs. Testers put each shoe through its paces, and we tallied the results. The closest we got to a consensus? La Sportiva’s Mutant, which so excelled in its mountain-racy niche that it earned the top spot.
    Justin Nyberg

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    La Sportiva Mutant

    OK, so the Mutant is a narrow-footed-runner’s shoe with little time for funky foot shapes. But to those who fit into this toothy slipper, it is a thing of beauty. Read the full Gear of the Year review.

    Speed: 5
    Protection: 4.5

  • Photo: Michael Karsh

    Adidas Outdoor Terrex Boost

    Best For: Hammering technical trails.

    The Test: This shoe ($160) is a screamer in challenging terrain—quick on the turnover, extremely confident on fast corners, and dependable in chunky turf. The thin layer of foam in the midsole offers the perfect balance of sharp-rock smothering and a responsive, close-to-the-ground feel. The big, broad lugs bit well in muck and gravel but didn’t feel gummy or slick on flat granite. Wide-footed runners might chafe at the overlays, which wrap directly over the metatarsal bones, while those with narrow feet will be cranking hard on the laces.

    The Verdict: It’d be Gear of the Year if not for the slightest slippage on downhills. 10.2 oz; 6 mm drop;

    Speed: 4.5
    Protection: 4.5

  • Photo: Michael Karsh

    Montrail FluidFlex ST

    Best For: Long mountain runs.

    The Test: It’s a tall order to improve on one of the best shoes of last year—the FluidFlex II—but Montrail pulled it off with the ST ($95). While keeping the versatility of an all-terrain, technical shoe, the ST bolsters the upper with abrasion-resistant overlays and more padding, and it adds a new foam rock guard and a stouter midsole. The result is a more substantial shoe that’s just as happy bombing singletrack as it is churning out miles on hardpack. The ride is forgiving, but only a few testers complained about sluggishness.

    The Verdict: As close as it gets to a quiver-of-one trail runner. 8.8 oz; 4 mm drop;

    Speed: 4.5
    Protection: 4.5

  • Photo: Michael Karsh

    New Balance 101

    Best For: Minimalists and extremely efficient runners.

    The Test: The 101 ($90) was one of the iconic early-minimalist-era shoes, and the re-release is true to the original formula: low to the ground, extremely flexible, featherweight, and fun. Mercifully, there’s now a protective rock plate and enough foam in the forefoot and tail to soften landings. The structureless heel is comfy but feels a bit sloshy on steep uphills and descents. The midfoot is nicely locked down on hairpin turns, though traction on tight corners suffers from the low, widely spaced lugs. Note: these run half a size short.

    The Verdict: One zippy slipper. 7.5 oz; 10 mm drop;

    Speed: 5
    Protection: 2.5

  • Photo: Michael Karsh

    ASICS Gel-FujiAttack 4

    Best For: Flat terrain and road-to-trail missions.

    The Test: With its smooth rolling feel and large outsole surface area, the FujiAttack ($110) performed best when loosely laced, chugging along in the flats. But while it’s infused with road-shoe DNA, the rock plate gives the FujiAttack the chops to venture into technical terrain, and a thick midsole has enough support and stability to handle bigger and heavier landers. One bummer: the round laces untied frequently, bit into the top of testers’ feet, and didn’t deliver a secure fit on steep downhills.

    The Verdict: If this were a car, it’d be a minivan with all-terrain tires. 11.4 oz; 10 mm drop;

    Comfort: 3.5
    Protection: 4

  • Photo: Michael Karsh

    The North Face Ultra Cardiac

    Best For: Flats, rolling hills, and long fitness runs.

    The Test: If comfort cruising is what you want, the Ultra Cardiac ($110) should be high on your list. Its soft, foamy midsole and low-profile Vibram lugs lend it an easy-rolling gait suited to all-afternoon scenic meanders in moderate terrain, although its agility and responsiveness are still fairly good. There’s certainly enough midfoot security for tricky descents, but some testers noted a wee bit more slippage than the snuggest shoe here allows, and a few sharp rocks poked through the thick foam.

    The Verdict: “A shoe designed for the long haul,” as one tester put it. 9.7 oz; 8 mm drop;

    Comfort: 4.5
    Protection: 3.5

  • Photo: Michael Karsh

    Next Up:The Ultralight Trail Running Essentials of 2015

    Brooks Cascadia 10

    Best For: The really rough stuff.

    The Test: The Cascadia ($120) offers a traditional, stoutly armored ride that has great appeal in sharp terrain. “It’s protective and cushioned yet is somehow able to be nimble on almost any surface,” said one tester. The downside of the firm, rock-plated forefoot is that it can pitch and roll more abruptly on sharp points. And while the Cascadia can handle a speedy pace on flat trails, downhills feel a bit like running in hiking shoes. But make no mistake: the snug upper is secure enough to handle all the turbulence you can throw at it.

    The Verdict: A bomber choice for technical terrain and real-deal protection. 11.6 oz; 10 mm drop;

    Comfort: 4
    Protection: 5

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