TOP PICK: BIRD OF PLAY
Get the inside story on the best socks for trail runners, along with support inserts ideal for you new pair of kicks.
Asics Gel-Eagle Trail IV, Adidas Jasten, La Sportiva Rajas, New Balance 871
Asics Gel-Eagle Trail IV
The aptly named Eagle soared through the nastiest glop we could find
WICKED SOLE: At first blush, this shoe evokes a mild-mannered street runner, but flip it over and you'll find an outsole that tears asphalt to shreds. I could feel the grooved tread—bristling with conical studs—hustle mud out from under my foot and latch on to the terra firma beneath. FLEX TIME: Some manufacturers engineer their trail runners to be stiff underfoot, to increase stability on off-trail surfaces. But Asics makes the case that more flex between heel strike and toe-off creates a more freely moving sole that allows your foot to better "feel" its way through the terrain. HOLD ME NOW: It's hard enough to run in mud; the last thing you need is a loose-feeling kick. Asics eliminated shoe slop with a memory-foam-lined heel collar that molded to my foot after only a few miles. Result? The snuggest, most secure fit of all the shoes I tested. GRAVEL GUARD: When you're hoofing it through goop, you're destined to hit a rock. Fortunately, the extra rubber on the Eagle's forefoot helps buffer your toes. And unlike some other manufacturers, Asics doesn't go overboard with the stuff and add unwanted weight.
»1. Adidas Jasten
The Jasten's substantial carbon-rubber tread rips through muck while a thin hard-plastic plate, tucked just under the outsole in the shoe's forefoot area, protects you from the sharp rocks that mud can conceal. $90; www.adidas.com
»2. La Sportiva Rajas
A buffed-up tread inspired me to tackle the gnarliest off-trail terrain I could find. The Rajas dug in and prevented slippage on muddy descents as effectively as it did on the climbs. $90; www.lasportiva.com
»3. New Balance 871
New Balance engineered excellent support into the 871 to keep me, well, balanced. Laces pass through a silver-dollar-size plastic plate; one quick tug binds the shoe tight to your instep. $90; www.newbalance.com
The Super Soakers
Nike Air Zoom Orizaba, Puma Complete Thiella XCR II, Merrell Full Pursuit Gore-Tex XCR, Salomon XA Pro 2 XCR
TOP PICK: THE SUPER SOAKER
Nike Air Zoom Orizaba
From the mountains to Central Park, this shoe says "Let it rain"
PORT AUTHORITY: Athletic shoes built around waterproof "booties" can get muggy in humid climes. The hydrophilic Orizaba lets the wet stuff in—and ushers it out—via four mesh ports. Two minutes after crossing a brook, my dogs were nice and cool, and well on their way to dry. HYDRO CYCLE: Those screened ports—sited at the arch and forefoot, on both sides of the shoe—rely on the natural movement of your stride to move water like a hand pump. Post-stream-crossing, I could actually feel my feet squeezing the agua out. GET A GRIP: The Orizaba's low-profile, square-pegged tread is deceptively effective on wet rocks. At the prompting of Nike's own adventure-racing team, the Swoosh molded the outsole from its stickiest house-brand rubber—the same stuff you find on climbing and approach shoes. OFF THE CUFF: If your trail runs take you through gravel and scree, a pair of gaiters will keep the grit out. The Orizaba's three-point gaiter attachments will accommodate just about any aftermarket nylon cuff. Clip one on and tear it up.
»1. Puma Complete Thiella XCR II
This flashy Gore-Tex trail shoe had a lighter, more anatomical feel to it than some of the other, more bootlike water runners; it was snug and quick but still kept the wet stuff out. $100; www.puma.com
»2. Merrell Full Pursuit Gore-Tex XCR
The Gore-Tex on this Merrell will keep water out, and if your feet sweat a little, the nylon lining on the inside of the shoe will help wick that moisture away. $120; www.merrell.com
»3. Salomon XA Pro 2 XCR
Even after dashing through shallow streams, I could not break the Salomon's seal—this shoe stayed light and dry all the way down to its water-resistant Kevlar laces. $120; www.salomonsports.com
Turn Up the Juice
TOP PICK: TURN UP THE JUICE
The ultra-vivid Amp delivers power to the ground without a weight penalty
PLATE TECTONICS: The Amp proved impressively stable, allowing me to fearlessly sidestep rock outcrops on a mountainside sprint. Vasque's secret? A stiff plastic plate runs from the forefoot to the midsole—then flares up into "wings" near the heel. It kept my feet from shifting abruptly when the trail did. THE LAUNCHPAD: Vasque canted the Amp's forefoot upward like the tip of a ski. It's an old trick, but it works: The design created a fulcrum under the ball of my foot, propelling me forward into my stride. After an hour on the trail, I was happy to have the help. TREAD CRED: This flashy shoe wasted no time getting down to business. Its highly efficient fanglike tread—a multidirectional rubber lug—bit into the gravelly terrain of our high-desert testing grounds without any slippage. I lost neither seconds nor energy. NET EFFECT: To keep the Amp light but cushiony, Vasque deployed a half-dollar-size slice of dual-density ethyl-vinyl-acetate foam underfoot and hemmed it in with nylon mesh. The mesh uppers kept my feet relatively cool across five long, sweltering miles.
»1. Dunham Waffle Stomper Alcatraz
With foam mesh on the forefoot and heel, plus four nylon-mesh slits, the Waffle Stomper works as well in the creek as it does on the flats. And at only 11 ounces per shoe (men's size 7), this one really flies. $85; www.dunhamfits.com
»2. Teva X-1
Teva combined thin layers of tough monofilament mesh and ripstop nylon to make, at a hair over nine ounces apiece (size 7), the lightest kicks of the 39 shoes tested for this review—then enhanced them with track-shoe-style rubber cleats. $90; www.teva.com
»3. Pearl Izumi SynchroSeek
Better known for its cycling gear, Pearl proves with this light trail runner that it's not just about the bike. The company layers the 'Seek's sole with soft foam and flexy plastic, imparting a springy feel to each stride. $95; www.pearlizumi.com