Less is more—that’s the big idea behind the latest crop of pared-down shoes.
The North Face Ultra Trail
The Ultra Trail ($110) was a near unanimous favorite among our test team. The flexy shoe has the kind of speed and agility you’d expect from so low-flying a design: it absolutely rips along flat and rolling trails. But it was the smooth, socklike fit of the stretchy upper and the confidence-inspiring foot security that made it really stand out. “It felt like a direct extension of my foot,” said one tester. The foam may be thin, but it’s protective and energetic—two hours of running over sketchy volcanic rubble seemed like nothing. And dozens of tiny lugs on the Vibram outsole boost both suspension and grippy surface area and excel on everything but loose terrain. 9.1 oz; 8 mm drop
BEST FOR: Speedsters; efficient midfooters.
THE TEST: The impressively light Tru ($109) injects a bit of comfort into the speed-shoe category. The swollen, thickly padded tongue and overlay-free mesh upper give it a pampering interior that’s lacking in most other sub-nine-ounce trail shoes. Same goes for the moderately thin midsole foam, which is softer than most racing foam but still protective enough to motor over sharp rocks and energetic enough to feel zippy. Over tricky terrain, however, we noticed a bit of sloshing, due to the absence of overlays, and the laces over the instep felt a bit harsh.
THE VERDICT: The most welcoming of the low-and-light trail shoes here. 8.8 oz; 6 mm drop
Merrell All Out Fuse
BEST FOR: Bridging the gap between minimalist and lightweight trainers; road to trail.
THE TEST: The Fuse ($110) borrows a lot from Merrell’s hyperminimalist Trail Glove line—a cavernously wide toe box, Gumby-like flexibility in the midsole, a skin-hugging upper. But the differences are profound: a soft, plump midsole, a forgiving six millimeters of drop, and a heel that’s deep enough that you can even heel-strike (gasp!). “The midsole has a wonderful feel—spongy but not mushy,” one tester said. Hot-spot alert: a few testers reported pinch points in the overlays near the joint of the big toe.
THE VERDICT: An extremely forgiving minimalist. Best on flat and rolling terrain. 7.7 oz; 6 mm drop
La Sportiva Bushido
BEST FOR: Gnarly mountain running.
THE TEST: The narrowest shoe in this year’s test, the Bushido ($125) is also the most armored and agile. When we were parkouring through treacherous rocks, the foot-hugging, streamlined upper didn’t budge, and the sticky rubber lugs—made of the same stuff the company uses in some of its climbing shoes—delivered excellent traction. Thin, responsive foam and a stiff, torsionally rigid forefoot and midfoot make the Bushido a true mountain shoe, though the ride can be harsh. Foam lovers and heel strikers: you’ll find plusher pastures elsewhere.
THE VERDICT: Low, fast, and well-armored underfoot, the Bushido is a shoe for wilder trails. 10.6 oz; 6 mm drop
Brooks Cascadia 9
BEST FOR: Going slow and steady; comfort addicts and heel strikers.
THE TEST: A lot of companies make comfy trail cruisers. No one else makes ’em this smooth and fun to run in. The Cascadia ($120) feels like a pillow with cleats—the swollen tongue, excessively padded heel cup, and deep-sinking, 20-millimeter-thick heel (thankfully a little lower than last year’s) smother your foot in comfort. You pay a weight penalty for all that luxury, of course, but while the turnover is a bit sluggish, it’s not as slow as you’d think. And thanks to the admirably secure fit, the handling is still very good.
THE VERDICT: “The archetypal general-purpose trail shoe,” as one of our testers put it. 11.5 oz; 10 mm drop
Montrail FluidFlex II
BEST FOR: Comfortable training runs in any conditions.
THE TEST: The FluidFlex I ($90) proved to be one of the most versatile trail runners in last year’s test. The updated FluidFlex II delivers everything that made the first version incredible—featherweight construction, moderately thick but responsive foam, low-profile but grippy lugs—plus much improved handling in technical terrain, thanks to better symmetrical lacing and other tweaks to the snug, narrow-fitting upper. And it’s still a softie. Cushioning fans will adore the plush, forgiving landing.
THE VERDICT: By far the best bargain of the season in a comfort-minded shoe. 7.7 oz; 4 mm drop
BEST FOR: Urbanites with trails nearby.
THE TEST: A trail-running shoe designed primarily for pavement? Yep. And it works. The moderately cushioned ride is a bit firmer and less smooth-rolling than most road shoes, though the upshot is more responsiveness and protection. Salomon also borrowed the locked-down feel of its technical shoes to give the X-Scream ($90) the foot security that road kicks often lack on off-kilter urban terrain. You’ll get the best results on steep hills, rough streets, stairs, and roads that turn to dirt. But don’t worry: there’s still plenty of bite to excel on flat and rolling trails.
THE VERDICT: A unique shoe smartly designed for the rough edges around town. 11.2 oz; 9 mm drop