(Inga Hendrickson)

The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2018


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Light up the trails with these all-terrain performers.

(Courtesy Brooks)

Brooks Mazama 2 ($140)

The reason the Mazama is taking home Gear of the Year is simple: it’s a Ducati with knobby tires. Built for hammer-day speed, it’s a low-riding shoe that can absolutely scorch flat and rolling trail sections, yet has the technical chops to move with abandon through rocky terrain. The flexible, rock-plate-protected design makes it easy to hopscotch patches of dirt between loose rubble. While the Mazama is pretty pared back, Brooks significantly boosted the shoe’s comfort-oriented features compared with last year’s version—think extra padding around the heel collar, suppler overlays in the forefoot, and a thicker tongue. That made for a much more enjoyable ride at short and middle distances. “Well balanced, smooth, effortless, and willing to move as fast as you can,” one tester said. Make no mistake, however: this shoe is about efficiency. Testers agreed that the ride is on the firm side; a couple even thought it was harsh. But what made the Mazama stand out was the level of comfort it achieved while retaining its race-ready profile—something no other speed shoe we tested was able to do. 9.3 oz (men’s) / 7.9 oz (women’s); 6 mm drop

Men's Women's

(Courtesy Hoka One One)

Hoka One One Challenger ATR 4 ($130)

Most comfortable

If you want a maximalist shoe that stops short of soggy and energy sapping, the Challenger ATR is the way to go. The fourth generation of this fatty was the lightest of the thick-soled shoes we tested, and it earned high marks for its balance of comfort, quick turnover, and responsiveness. Extra-long days on hardpack? Easygoing efforts? Both felt great. “A perfect balance of cush and pep,” one tester said. While big midsoles can make for difficult landings and rely on precise footing, that wasn’t a problem with the Challenger. It’s an admirably nimble shoe, considering how much foam there is between your foot and the ground. The chief drawbacks are the underpadded, even somewhat harsh upper and a capacious fit that felt loose through uneven terrain. Downhills had our team hitting the brakes to avoid slipping forward. 9 oz (men’s) / 7.4 oz (women’s); 5 mm drop

Men's Women's

(Courtesy Topo)

Topo Runventure 2 ($110)

Best for midfoot strikers

The Runventure 2 was our favorite among this year’s shoes catering to the “natural” runner, especially where mellow trails transitioned into rocky terrain. For its second generation, the Runventure gets zero millimeters of drop and a huge, wide-open toe box. The ride is firm and responsive, with excellent traction on dry turf (thanks to aggressive lugs), and the flexy rock plate and full-rubber outsole lend protection underfoot. The Runventure is a muscular, protective shoe, even though it’s among the lightest in its category, and it’s ready for moderately rocky and technical trails. The flexible upper is about as comfortable as you’ll find. While the shoe has an excellent, locked-in feel in the midfoot, the heel counter had too much give, and we slipped around a bit on uphills. And like many zero-drop shoes, we just couldn’t get the afterburners to kick in. 9.2 oz (men’s) / 7.4 oz (women’s); zero drop

Men's Women's

(Courtesy Asics)

ASICS Gecko XT ($120)

Best all-terrain

More proof that ASICS is upping its trail-running game. The Gecko XT turned out to be one of the more well-balanced, versatile shoes in the test. It’s responsive, it offers a good mix of protection, speed, and comfort, and the cushioning is just right. While this midweight, medium-thick shoe felt most at home on rolling and moderately technical trails, it manages to protect while still delivering decent ground feel. As one tester pointed out, the Gecko has “long-range speed”—a combo of manageable weight with first-rate structure and responsiveness that translates into longer, faster efforts with less fatigue. The fit was superb, although the toe box is a little narrow. The shallow lugs work best on dry and packed trails. The only real complaint we had was the bit of topside pressure that bled through to the foot. Don’t go cranking the laces. 10.2 oz (men’s) / 8.4 oz (women’s); 6 mm drop

Men's Women's

(Courtesy New Balance)

New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro v3 ($135)

Best for long runs

Call the Hierro a mobile pillow party. Best for extended, chill runs on meandering terrain, it’s a fun, bouncy shoe—“the new king of comfort,” one tester said—and an excellent choice for cruisey marathons and ultramarathons. Don’t expect much energy return or a lot of tiptoeing through rock patches. The Hierro lacks confident security on steeps, sloped trails, and rocky turf. Its bootie construction is wrapped in a protective TPU skin that’s perforated with little slits for ventilation, and the liner is similar to a compression sock that doubles as an integrated gaiter, snugging up around the ankle and keeping debris from dropping in. It’s a great feature, although it forces the shoe into a tongueless design that creates lace pressure and some numbness. Still, the Hierro is a dream on descents and flats. 11.5 oz (men’s) / 9.4 oz (women’s); 8 mm drop

Men's Women's

(Courtesy The North Face)

The North Face Flight RKT ($150)

Best fast-and-light

Like the name says, the Flight RKT is built to soar. This featherweight, cushioning shoe weighs just eight ounces for men and 6.5 for women, making it absolutely churn. It feels like you’re wearing nothing at all on uphill slogs and hammering at full speed on flats. These are dry-trail, nontechnical speedsters: the barely-there lugs are too shallow to bite through anything loose, but the Flight did grip on boulders, hardpack, and dusty trails. The springy FastFoam midsole is where this shoe really shines, delivering the perfect balance of firmness for responsive toe-off and softness for trail marathons. “The midsole is to die for,” said one tester. By cutting every ounce possible, the North Face made a couple of sacrifices worth noting: the thin laces can bite across the foot. And watch your step—sidewall, rock plate, and toe protection are nonexistent. 8 oz (men’s) / 6.5 oz (women’s); 8 mm drop

Men's Women's

(Courtesy Columbia)

Columbia Montrail Rogue FKT II ($110)

Most lightweight and technical

The Rogue earned this year’s Goldilocks award. It slots into that run-anywhere sweet spot between lightweight speedster and tank-like protective shoe. With 4.5-mil­limeter lugs, a rock plate, and a meaty outsole—but weighing in at around nine ounces for the men’s version—the Rogue’s chief talent was surefootedly moving at casual speeds over moderately technical turf. “A solid, all-around performer,” said one tester. The cons? Some gave it flack for delivering a tipsy, blocky ride and for its narrow toe box. The shorter last also rubbed a few testers wrong (buy a half-size up), and no one liked that the slippery laces came untied so often. Are you a midfoot runner? You’ll want to steer clear. But if you’re a die-hard heel striker who wants confidence in your shoe (and you can tie a sturdy double-knot), there’s none better. 8.9 oz (men’s) / 7.4 oz (women’s); 10 mm drop

Men's Women's

From Summer 2018 Buyer’s Guide Lead Photo: Inga Hendrickson

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