It begins, as it must, with fit. Nothing matters more when picking a running shoe. Unlike a road shoe, a trail runner needs to lock your foot securely against the footbed, so there is no slipping forward on downhills or squirreliness over rocks. Next decision: Thick sole or thin? A svelte, close-to-the-dirt shoe will be nimbler and less prone to rolling, but your feet and legs will pay the price when the miles stretch on. Finally, think about cushioning. A firmer, more responsive shoe will be faster and more supportive, and offer great protection, but soft foam saves legs, especially on descents.
Saucony Peregrine 6
Gear of the Year
This year there wasn’t much debate. The Peregrine 6 simply smoked the field. As a lightweight technical trail shoe, it somehow marries a responsive, low-to-the-ground ride with a remarkably cushy feel—typically opposing characteristics. As one tester put it: “It’s a lightweight, race-ready trail beast!” A flexible rock plate deflects hazards without stiffening the forefoot, and the new tread pattern—shark-tooth-like rows of densely packed lugs—is aggressive enough for loose terrain but not unwieldy on tarmac. At less than ten ounces, the Peregrine motors on flats and climbs. The only gripe? The higher-volume last somewhat slowed narrow-footed testers on steep descents, though the roomy forefoot is a godsend on lengthy missions. 9.4 oz; 8 mm drop
Best For: All types of trails; narrower feet.
The Test: The Caldorado won us over with its phenomenally locked-in fit, quick-stepping agility, and go-anywhere versatility. “I felt confident running fast,” said one tester. The highly responsive forefoot is coupled with a soft, comfy backseat that took the grind out of long descents. “Hard downhills were a dream,” another tester noted. Those small lugs are subdued but effective on dry, packed turf, less so in gravel and loose dirt. Niggles: the narrow fit might alienate wide feet, and the cheapo mesh feels dated.
The Verdict: One of the top shoes in our test, the Caldorado shone on all kinds of terrain and over middle distances, from 5Ks to trail marathons. 10.8 oz; 8 mm drop
Adidas Response Trail Boost
Best For: Big feet; iconoclasts.
The Test: The Response Trail Boost is… different. The first thing you notice is the early-nineties styling and retro bootie construction. Then it layers on giant Continental rubber lugs, a heel pillowed with Adidas’s soft and bouncy Boost foam, and an eccentric midfoot wrap consisting of fat, seat-belt-like nylon straps. The ride? Comfortable, loose, and quirky. We admired the casual vibe, soft landing in the heel, and responsive toe-off. That said, the absurdly high volume and loose fit relegates the Response to relatively mellow trails, not hills or aggressive descents. Heel clompers may bottom out despite the steep drop.
The Verdict: The bark is loud, but the bite isn’t vicious. 9.7 oz; 10 mm drop
The North Face Ultra Endurance
Best For: Long days in the hills.
The Test: Think of it as a lightweight trail shoe that’s been hitting the gym. The Ultra Endurance is relatively low and light but has a bit more foam underfoot, a flexy rock plate, five-millimeter Vibram lugs, and a prominent TPU bumper for long distances, load carrying, and fending off rocks. The midsole is on the softer and squishier side, which takes away some of the pep but boosts the fun factor. While the fit is a bit less secure than we’d like, the upper is slipper comfy.
The Verdict: A confident, technical shoe that knows how to have fun. 11 oz; 8 mm drop
Altra Olympus 2.0
Best For: Outsmarting gravity.
The Test: This shoe is massive. With a 36-millimeter stack height, the Olympus sets a new high-water mark in foam thickness. Landing is “like sinking into a pair of bread loaves,” as one tester put it. This is also the lightest shoe here, which makes it quick on the turnover, though the marshmallow softness drains speed and responsiveness, and the towering foam makes the shoe tippy in rocky terrain. The fit? Snug enough in the flats but sloshy on downhills. And consider sizing up: we noticed toe bang on steeper descents.
The Verdict: A blimp with tread—a legit rival to Hoka. 11 oz; 0 drop
New Balance Leadville V3
Best For: Epics.
The Test: Frequently overheard: “I could run all day in these.” With a relatively thick and soft heel, and an open toe box—“Roomy but not sloppy,” said one tester—the V3 is incredibly comfortable, both out of the box and 30 miles into the woods. But all that pampering belies the shoe’s technical chops: a firmly responsive forefoot, moderate height, and locked-down fit make it “rock solid and dependable” in technical terrain, a tester noted. The subdued tread is best for packed trails and slower-speed cornering. One quibble: the tongue could be fatter to deflect lace pressure. Some testers said it took several runs for the forefoot to break in.
The Verdict: All-day comfort. 10.4 oz; 8 mm drop
La Sportiva Akasha
Best For: Nimble, technical footwork.
The Test: If you’re courting both armor and agility, the Akasha is your dream date. Combining the slim-fitting, locked-on Sportiva last with a thick, responsive midsole, this shoe makes for fast footwork while remaining rock steady in the rough. “There’s a fair bit of meat underfoot without feeling the least bit sluggish or clumsy,” said one tester. “Remarkably fast for its weight,” added another. Heavy landers need to mind the borderline-harsh heel on downhills. Those with wide feet will feel squeezed. Fits a half-size small.
The Verdict: A powerful, steely-eyed, hopscotch-ready, all-mountain shoe. 11.4 oz; 6 mm drop