We tested dozens of trail runners to come up with this short list, which mixes the fast and the light with the thick and the protective.
Altra Superior 3.0 ($110)
The Superior is a low-swooping speedster, though it’s only for midfoot strikers—the thin foam and lack of drop don’t pair well with back-of-the-foot pounders. But don’t think these shoes are weak on defense. While the Superior (women's model shown) doesn’t get much liftoff, there’s a full-length removeable rock plate for confidence on scree and just enough cush to forget the trail without losing precision while moving quickly. A nimble dancer this is not, as the combination of loose fit and structureless upper makes the Superior a little squirrelly on slopes, especially for narrow feet. A thicker sock helps.
9.2 oz (men’s) / 8 oz (women’s); zero drop
Saucony Peregrine 7 ($120)
There’s a reason the Peregrine continues to top testers’ rankings each year: it’s one of the most well-balanced utility shoes out there. The midsole lies in the sweet spot between responsive and plush, and the blown-rubber lugs roll equally well over sketchy gravel, sandy granite, and clean tarmac. Hard-charging runners in technical terrain will appreciate the fairly locked-down fit on descents, along with the bulletproof yet imperceptible rock shield. Heavy heel strikers might look for a shoe with a thicker slice of foam at the back, but the vast majority of runners will find all the performance they need.
9.4 oz (men’s) / 8.4 oz (women’s); 4 mm drop
Inov-8 Roclite 305 ($130)
The Roclite 305 is a fence-sitter. Like the Altra, it occupies the space where minimalist slipper leaves off and protective trainer begins, with a wee bit of cushion and just enough protection for moderate trail rubble. That’s a DNA best suited to an aggressive pace on technical terrain, imparting confidence that missteps won’t leave you wincing. Anyone who likes a responsive, low-to-the-trail feel will enjoy it, although the thinner foam doesn’t roll out a welcome mat for heel strikers or heavy landers. Only the pickiest runners will whine about the slightly loose feeling in the heel during off-camber strikes and uphill climbs.
10.8 oz; 8 mm drop
Brooks Caldera ($140)
When your regimen calls for miles upon miles for breakfast, lunch, and maybe even dinner, you’ll appreciate the extra meat on the Caldera. With its low-profile lugs (seen here on the women's version) and a thicker, more stable midsole than the other shoes in this category, it’s built for long-range efforts on dry hardpack and even stretches of pavement. But the sub-ten-ounce weight keeps it feeling light and reasonably efficient. It’s a long-range cruiser with a soft, comfy, relaxed vibe. The lack of overlays made for a bit of a slack feel on descents, but jamming quickly on technical downhills isn’t on the menu here.
9.9 oz (men’s) / 9 oz (women’s); 4 mm drop
Merrell Agility Peak Flex ($130)
A medium-thick utility shoe, the Agility Peak Flex takes a novel approach to booting up. The main lace snakes through a set of tension bands to deliver a kind of pulley-action, cat’s-cradle-like double cinch when you tie it. Sounds complicated but it works, achieving the snuggest, most even midfoot fit we’ve ever enjoyed and making for confident downhills. Overall, though, the shoe is fairly roomy, and we noticed some interior slippage on climbs and traverses. It’s not the fastest or smoothest ride out there, but it proved to be well-rounded for everyday trail runs without feeling cumbersome or sluggish.
11 oz; 6 mm drop
New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro V2 ($125)
All together now: Ahhh. Consider the Hierro the Ugg boot of trail runners—and we mean that as a compliment. Fat slabs of interior padding, a swollen tongue, and a thick, luxuriously soft midsole make it a pillowy dream shoe for casual cruises, long paths, and weary feet. Because it doesn’t have the outsize stack height of a Hoka or other maximalists, it feels more agile on rough and rolling turf, although the prominent heel pitches you forward somewhat when descending. Just don’t pull it on expecting a zippy or responsive toe-off. The Hierro is akin to a sofa with laces—sink in, relax, and enjoy the ride.
10.6 oz (men’s) / 8.5 oz (women’s); 4 mm drop