Minimalist? Check. Maximalist? Double check. Fast and light? Always. Trail-running shoes now come in a wider variety than ever. Here are the best off-road picks for every runner.
Vasque Ultra SST: $170
Think of it as a long-distance loafer. Vasque's Ultra SST is a pull on, maximalist foam monger—it smothers sharp rocks underfoot but still boasts quick turnover. Despite the double-thick helping of cushion, the ride is firm, which also makes it a more efficient shoe. The bootie-like upper with a ratcheting cable lace couldn't be more comfortable, but since it's mostly braced by stretchy padding, it can feel insecure on tricky terrain. Where the Ultra scores big is on epically long, slow cruises on flat trails. 10.6 oz; 6 mm drop.
New Balance Zero v2: $110
With a snug, svelte upper and locked-down midfoot, this lightweight shoe is built to hammer over mixed terrain. The fang-like lugs beneath the minimalist Zero v2 dig deep in loose gravel, leaves, and slop, but they also add a bit of suspension, softening the sting on hard-packed flats. One quibble: the lack of heel counter—a stiff brace found in most shoes—makes it feel a bit sloppy on the steeps, though it does boost comfort on the flats. 8.8 oz; zero drop.
Newton BoCo AT: $129
In the BoCo AT, Newton applies its proven road-running formula—lightweight shoes with firm lugs under the forefoot for greater efficiency—to the trail. We liked this shoe best on flat, mellow paths, where the lugs could push off evenly. Midfoot striders will love the flat-landing three-millimeter drop, and the all-weather upper keeps wet grass or a puddle splash from soaking the forefoot (although it can get steamy on hot days). 9.8 oz; 3 mm drop.
Saucony Peregrine 4.0: $110
Plenty of shoes call themselves all-terrain. This one deserves the title. Consistently ranked among the best all-purpose trail runners out there, the Peregrine shaves half an ounce of heft in its fourth update and takes on deep, multi-directional lugs for better grip on loose surfaces. The moderately low-riding midsole and snug upper give it chops in technical terrain, but it managed to impress on short stretches of pavement, too. Added structure makes the Peregrine 4.0 a reassuring partner on long hauls, but it's a bit less agile on fast days. 9.4 oz; 4 mm drop.
Merrell All Out Rush: $120
A clear sign that the minimalist tide has turned: Merrell took its iconic, barefoot-inspired trail runner and slapped on a slab of cushioning thick enough to take the sting out of hard trails and downhills. The Rush is somewhere between a lightweight trainer and a minimalist slipper, and it proved best for neutral, efficient runners on flat, gravelly, rolling terrain, though it can certainly handle rougher surfaces. The lack of a heel counter made it a bit squirrelly on steep descents, but overall the Rush is one of our favorite lightweight trail shoes: it delivers 80 percent of the joy of minimalism with 90 percent more comfort under—foot. 9.3 oz; 6 mm drop.
Hoka One One Rapa Nui 2: $130
Imagine bounding down a trail of marshmallows. That's the Rapa Nui's groovy, cushy vibe. But soft doesn't mean slow. Reasonably light at just under 11 ounces, this megafatty has the locked-down midfoot and sturdy heel of a technical trail shoe, so you can motor through loose rocks and charge down hills like you're bombing a fluffy powder run on skis. At just over two centimeters thick in the forefoot, the Rapa Nui is not as overbuilt as some Hokas, so you don't feel as if you're wearing tippy elevator shoes. It's a great pick for ultra-distance mountain runs and cushion addicts. 10.8 oz; 5 mm drop.
Next Up: The Best Trail Shoes of 2014