How To: Pick the Perfect Trail Shoe

Your running and trail goals make a difference.

If you’ve recently found yourself interested in trail running, strapping up your average pair of trainers, in all likelihood, just won’t cut it. Road shoes provide less-than-ideal grip on slippery trails, are easily gunked up with mud and, on a technical course, are easily punctured by debris or other obstacles. But jumping straight into a full-on trail shoe might not be wise, either—the added protection can be too much for some runners.

Before you buy, identify your running goals, including what trails you intend to blaze, and then let this guide help you step into the perfect pair of trail shoes.

Trail vs. Road Shoes—What’s the Difference?
To understand the difference between trail shoes and road shoes, think of them as bike tires—both road and mountain tires provide tread and grip, but otherwise, they function differently. Road tires are thin, lightweight and built for speed; mountain bike tires are meant to absorb impact, easily channel dirt and water through them and provide additional grip on uneven surfaces. In this regard, road vs. trail shoes function similarly. To accomplish their task, trail runners usually feature thicker outsoles, wider treads (called “lugs”) and features—such as a stiffer midsoles or rigid toe guards—that protect feet against stubbed toes and sprained ankles.

Picking the Right Model
Trail shoes come in an array of styles, each providing a different level of protection. Some are lighter than others, while others are heavy-duty and more similar to hiking boots than racing flats. The current market divides trail shoes into two categories: hybrid models for lighter trails, and conventional models for technical courses.

Hybrid Trail Shoes
Hybrid shoes feature wider-spaced treads, more rigid outsoles and added support throughout the midfoot to brace against hard surfaces, but skip bulky protective elements in order to retain a lighter weight. This makes them perfect for bridle paths and gravel trails—surfaces that are typically flat, even and free of large obstacles. Hybrids are a great choice for novices running on easy trails as well as veteran trail runners who are comfortable forfeiting extra protection in the name of a lightweight shoe.    

Conventional Trail Shoes
Conventional trail shoes are made to help runners trek up mountains and woods rife with boulders, rivers and switchbacks. The rugged outsoles protect against sharp protrusions, while the spacing of the lugs help runners traverse mud and rivers without gumming up traction. What’s more, the sturdy uppers of conventional trail shoes protect against the elements better than the mostly-mesh construction of a road shoe—keeping feet dry against the elements.

After deciding which type of shoe fits your needs, it’s important to try on as many models as you can in order to get the best fit. As with all running shoes, they should fit perfectly right out of the box—they’re not designed to be “broken in.” Keep a snug fit through the middle of the foot, with at least a thumb-width of space in the toe box for swelling and foot movement. Additionally, ensure that the heel fits tight against the back of the shoe, as slippage here will likely result in nasty blisters halfway through your run. And as any trail runner will tell you, the beauty of trail running is the scenery whizzing past—not in the slow, blister-induced limp back to the car.

For more advice and top picks for trail shoes, visit