Outside magazine, August 1998
"Believe it or not, my feet aren't ugly," says Ben Hian, a man of tattoo-covered quads, scraggly blond hair, and moretellingly, three consecutive wins in the Angeles Crest 100 off-road ultramarathon. "I haven't lost toenails or even had blisters since my limping-in-the-wrong-shoes days."
We would be wise to heed something that Hian is now experienced enough-and well sponsored enough-to know: The path less traveled requires the running shoe more armored. Trail-running shoes like those piled high in Hian's closet are purposefully overbuilt to prevent roots and rocks from sidelining you with toe stubs, hot spots, and bruised metatarsals. To that end, a bona fide trail-running shoe has a wide tread that's sharply lugged for biting traction. The upper is buttressed with tough patches of synthetic material that shed water and mud, front bumpers that keep your toes safe, and lacing systems that gird your feet on uneven landings. The midsole, on the other hand, is one aspect that is purposefully underbuilt, with a relatively thin layer of EVA foam, giving these shoes another distinct trailgoing advantage: They lower your center of gravity to better avoid stumbles and falls. Given that the impact of running is some 25 percent less on dirt than on pavement, your joints shouldn't miss the extra cushioning.
Almost universally, a trail shoe's construction reflects a unique motion-control agenda-good tidings for overpronators, whose feet roll dangerously inward, and considering the hazardous conditions such shoes are used in, for everyone else as well. In looking over the ten models we reviewed, try not to let weight (listed for men's size nine and women's size seven) hold too much sway: Indeed, when it comes to moving your workout to unpredictable terrain, it's best to err on the side of a huskier model that keeps you upright. These shoes, after all, are about reaching the scenery, not the finish line.
Fila's Harepin Mid
Fila's Harepin Mid (men's, 14.5 ounces; women's, 12.6 ounces; $90) is the Terrell Davis of this roster: Give it just a little daylight and it's agile enough to squirt between the most menacing of obstacles. Likewise, it's not afraid to bull over whatever lies in its path-no matter how sloppy your stride. Credit the Mid's pluck to its combination last, hearty carbon-rubber outsole, and an upper that extends over your ankle bone for added security. As for the upper's Spider-Man stitching, the webbed pattern s intentional. In fact, it's computer engineered and said to enhance the shoe's strength, eliminating the need for plastic overlays.
Adidas Al Fresco
Adidas bills its Al Fresco (men's, 13.6 ounces; women's, 11 ounces; $85) as a "hybrid" ready for both road and trail. Don't buy it — the marketing pitch, that is. The Al Fresco has the sound trappings of the beefiest dedicated trail shoes: The thick mesh upper is reinforced with enough synthetic leather to see an inveterate toe-stubber through the millennium, and the midsole includes a strip of dense foam on the medial side for added stability. Ectomorphs will find that it provides too big a footprint for quick response, and if you're into multiple-hour efforts the shoe's pillowy ride can feel a little sloppy. But the rest of us might love the Al Fresco, especially since it has that good-fit combination of a big toe-box and a snug heel cup.
Merrell's M2 Red Desert
Clydesdale runners will certainly be satisfied with Merrell's M2 Red Desert (men's, 14.8 ounces; women's, 12 ounces; $90).You can't mistake its hiking-boot heritage when the trail turns downhill: The block heel of the lugged Vibram outsole digs in for unparalleled traction. Furthermore, a flexible nylon plate between the midsole and the outsole at the forefoot shields your dogs and extends the life of the foam; it's worth preserving, with a blend of three densities of EVA for well-tuned stability. Throw in a heavy-duty nylon heel-counter and a combination last and you'd really have to try to place a foot askew in the M2 Red Desert. From the niggling complaint department: While the laces pull the mesh upper close over the foot, they're not so easy to adjust. And the gusseted tongue works well to seal out grit but makes for a sweatier, heavier shoe.
Asics Gel-Nandi DS
Yes, the Asics Gel-Nandi DS (men's only, 13.8 ounces; $95) qualifies as a trail shoe, but you'd never mistake it for Frankensteinian motion-control footwear. It adheres to the loosest definition of this breed, as witnessed by cushiony gel pockets embedded in a soft EVA midsole, and an outsole ringed with shallow rubber lugs and studded under the forefoot with sparepolyurethane bumps. The sum is a nimble shoe with sufficient trailworthy tweaks to have you dancing around roots and relishing smooth straightaways. A section of firm EVA on the medial side of the midsole as well as a three-quarter length of fiberboard laid atop it (a combination last) beget adequate stability. Push the shoe to its intended speeds and you'll also appreciate the draftiness of the mesh upper.
New Balance 801AT
The most prominent trailworthy feature of New Balance's 801AT (men's, 12 ounces; women's, 10.9 ounces; $85) is the uninterrupted swatch of rubber on the outsole. Indeed, its big-lugged tread smooths over bumps in the trail, resists toe-to-heel twisting, and provides a generous heel-strike area that's sure to correct even the most awkward of biomechanics. Of course, all that rubber means it's not quite as sprightly going uphill, but a springy midsole keeps the ride lively on dirt roads. Good arch support stops your toes from jamming against the front end. And this should hold true for most anyone, given that New Balance offers the shoe in three widths.
It's easy to understand why Montrail sponsors the aforementioned Hian: He loved the Vitesse (men's, 12 ounces; women's, 10 ounces; $90) because of its all-day comfort and was already training in it when the deal was struck. To keep it light, this lithe package is built with no fiberboard (a slip last) and doesn't have as much plastic frosting as some other models. However, a polyurethane plate under the ball of the foot and plastic around the generous toe box let you practically punt rocks without feeling them. The mesh-and-synthetic-leather upper, which envelops the foot with an elastic, sleevelike fit (there is no tongue), is indeed hot-and probably too heavy-duty for running exclusively on dirt roads. But the grippy Vitesse can't be beat for protection on the long haul: Your stride may flag on a two-hour run traversing the Sierra, but your feet and ankles will feel just fine.
The softish Brooks Gecko (men's, 13.4 ounces; women's, 11 ounces; $80) tackles rough terrain simply by conforming to it. Deep flex grooves snake across the forward end of the outsole, allowing the Gecko to bend around jutting rock instead of glancing off it. Indeed, the shoe works as promised over obstacles, although on multihour runs over relentlessly harsh trails, your feet can grow tired from the relative lack of midsole firmness. Silicone-fluid inserts at the forefoot and heel provide road-shoe cushioning. The Gecko isn't rich with motion-control architecture, but that won't be missed by an efficient runner.
With a Gore-Tex bootie sewn into the lining, the Etonic Dri-Trainer (men's, 15 ounces; women's, 10 ounces; $115) is the only truly waterproof shoe that we reviewed. Now you can take on puddles, drizzle, or slushy conditions with the smug assurance that your socks will remain bone dry. The Dri-Trainer beckons to the overpronator with an especially firm chunk of EVA wedged under the heel on the medial side. That thick midsole, however, elevates your foot too high for surefootedness in truly rugged territory. And if your neighborhood gets a lot of sunshine, try a shoe with standard mesh uppers: "Waterproof-breathable" will never pass for "breezy."
Nike Air Terra Albis
You'll want the Nike Air Terra Albis (men's, 10.5 ounces; women's, 8.8 ounces; $100) for the same reason you're tempted to buy a Miata when you ought to be shopping for an Accord. It's sleek, light, and fast, thanks to a streamlined synthetic-and-mesh upper and an outsole consisting predominantly of high-traction (and quick-wearing) rubber. Nike makes an honest nod to motion control via the dense EVA that extends heel to arch on the medial side and a lacing system that pulls tight around the heel. Still, this narrow-fitting shoe is most appropriate for the biomechanically gifted: Without much armor, there's little room for error as the responsive Albis eggs you on to zoom imprudently on descents. And when you hit smooth dirt roads, you'll feel like Michael Johnson, albeit in well-cushioned shoes, thanks to air pockets in the heel and forefoot.
Reebok's Apogee DMX10
Reebok's Apogee DMX10 (men's only, 16.6 ounces; $110) isn't so much about merely armoring your feet against obstacles as it is about conquering them. Ten bulbous pods in the outsole are connected by chambers that, on impact, push shock-absorbing air from one pod to the next. Walk in the Apogee and it feels as if you're treading barefoot over throat lozenges. Set it in motion at a running gait and it all smooths out. The pods are set outboard enough so that this tank remains stable, letting you tread directly over the roughest terrain. It's hard to snug down the wide upper-the curious lacing system has its anchoring points along the shoe's perimeter-which is reinforced with a sturdy heel cup and a molded toe box. The Reebok is indeed heavy, but its demeanor inspires the confidence you need to lift your eyes from the trail and sneak a peek at your not-yet-conquered surroundings.
Andrew Tilin is a former senior editor of Outside.
Photographs by Josh McHugh