It can be difficult to approach a quality running store’s enormous shoe wall and manage to leave with the ideal pair for you. When all you have to look at is a scrollable page on a website rather than a massive wall, it’s even harder. To help with this process, we’ve created this buying advice article to give you more information on the differences between styles of trail running shoes. We also want to draw attention to potential deciding elements that might help you make a more informed decision before you start your search. This article covers Shoe type, Cushioning, Heel-to-toe drop, Fit and more to help trail runners decide on the best shoes to buy.

Why Trail Running Shoes?

Why even consider purchasing specialized trail running footwear? After all, people managed to accomplish amazing things while running on trails or even up and down mountains before there was such a thing as a trail running shoe, which was about 25 years ago. You can absolutely run on your local trails while wearing road running shoes, and some people actually prefer to do just that. However, we think you’ll be happier if you spend money on a specific pair of trail running shoes if you plan to use trails as your main running surface. This footwear, to put it simply, is made for off-road use and has many design elements that are absent from models made for roads.

In order to provide more traction on snow, mud, and dirt, trail running shoes typically have an outsole made of tough, sticky rubber and larger lugs. A rock plate is frequently found in the midsole of these shoes, which helps to cushion blows to the bottom of your foot. If not, they typically have a good deal of EVA foam sandwiched into the midsole, which offers defense against the ground and cushioning for repeated impact. Running through a snowfield, crossing a stream, or simply absorbing the morning dew off the grass along the path can all result in wet feet when trail running or racing. Since they are aware of this, manufacturers have taken great care to create uppers with breathable materials that dry quickly. By selecting materials that will resist abrasion and endure abuse for a long time, they also attempt to strike a balance between breathability and toughness. These are all characteristics that trail running shoe designers prioritize over those that are typically required for a road running model.

Types of Trail Running Shoes

Trail Running Shoes

Shoes for trail running can now be broadly divided into a few overlapping genres. These classifications are merely our attempt to explain the differences between the various types of shoes; they are not an industry definition. The metric that most accurately defines and divides shoes into these groups is the heel-toe drop. However, these classifications also take into account how much cushioning is under your foot. By measuring the heel height and deducting the toe height from it, the heel-toe drop is calculated. The drops range from about 0mm to 12mm according to this number, which is given in millimeters. Generally speaking, these genres are:

  • Barefoot & Minimalist
  • Light Trail Runners
  • Rugged Trail Runners
  • Maximalists

Barefoot & Minimalist

Attempting to mimic the most natural way for humans to move over the earth on two feet while still protecting their soles with some form of covering, a whole slew of “barefoot shoes” has been invented. Aside from an outsole, barefoot shoes have no cushioning or other protective elements and a 0mm heel-toe drop. Although some people opt to run in these models, none of them are discussed in this review. If this sounds like what you’re looking for, take a look at our review of the barefoot shoe.

Zero Drop

Since the publication and instant canonization of the classic running book “Born to Run,” zero-drop shoes have been at the forefront of runners’ minds as well as cutting-edge shoe development. The height of the cushioning beneath your heel and toes must be the same, or there will be zero-drop. The most natural body mechanics are perfectly complemented by these shoes because they simulate how you would stand and move if you were not wearing any shoes at all. Zero-drop shoes were once thought to have barefoot-inspired designs and no underfoot cushioning like you would typically find in running shoes. But things have changed, and now many models feature a zero-drop platform with additional padding or other foot protection.

The majority of people’s bodies have been conditioned throughout their lives to be accustomed to 6–12mm of drop in their shoes, and their calves have shortened to accommodate this type of footwear. This is important to keep in mind when discussing zero drop shoes. It’s crucial to go very slowly when making the switch to these shoes for the first time. You need some time for your calves, Achilles tendons, and plantar fascia under your feet to lengthen and get used to something new. To prevent injury, you should gradually wean yourself off of your old shoes and switch to zero-drop footwear.

A sizeable portion of the trail running community has firmly embraced the philosophy of zero drop running shoes and won’t wear anything else. So it’s surprising that not many running shoe manufacturers are creating zero-drop models. This style of shoe has almost come to be associated with Altra, which only produces zero-drop footwear. They produce a wide variety of trail and road shoes with models that range from minimal cushioning to maximum foam underfoot. Zero-drop footwear is also produced by other brands of trail running shoes, including Inov-8, Merrell, and Topo Athletic.

Light Trail Runners

Light trail runners are more of what most people might think of as “normal” running shoes, with design features that make them optimally suited to trails. They typically have a low profile, less material underfoot, possibly less aggressive traction, and place an emphasis on characteristics like weight and sensitivity as being the most crucial. This contrasts with the tough trail runners described below. Instead of slow, rocky trails (although they can handle those too), these shoes are best suited for smoother, faster trails. These shoes often use less robust upper materials in their quest for lightness, sometimes consisting of a single layer of thin mesh that breathes well but may not adequately shield the foot from heavy abuse. The heel-toe drop of these shoes is also typically lower, though it’s not a requirement. These lighter shoes are preferred by most fast runners with healthy feet, but they frequently aren’t durable or foot-protective enough for longer ultramarathons or more demanding mountain missions. Despite this, this category contains many of the shoes with the highest ratings in our review because they successfully combine optimal performance with lightness.

Rugged Trail Runners

Rugged trail runners are once again what most people would commonly think of as “normal” running shoes but emphasize design features that are best suited to some of the gnarliest terrain on the planet. True trail running shoes, as opposed to light trail runners, have some of the most aggressive traction available. They typically have thicker upper materials and offer a lot of underfoot protection by including a rock plate or a lot of EVA foam. These shoes are made to handle any terrain that you may find yourself on but may compromise ever so slightly on pure running performance to do so. These shoes can typically handle mud and snow with ease, and they are completely at home on rocky mountains or off-trail travel. The heel-toe drop of shoes in this genre typically ranges from 6 to 12 millimeters, but this is no longer the defining feature that it once was. Expect very little sensitivity. Instead, be thankful for how well they can cushion the shock of the rocks and roots you are stepping on. These shoes typically weigh a few more ounces due to their strengthened construction, but they last longer. This kind of shoe still dominates the market for trail running and is a great choice for everyday trainers. In addition, they frequently offer a good value and are meant to compete with some of the best hiking shoes.


These models do not emphasize heel-toe drop but instead focus on giving you the most cushioning possible to absorb impact from the ground. The squish a shoe provides is the best way to describe this category of shoes. Typically, there is a lot of foam between your foot and the ground because of their enormous stack height. The majority of the time, older runners or those whose bodies have undergone some wear and tear use them to complete lengthy ultra races or training runs of the same length. The trail running community has a huge following for these shoes because of their heavily cushioned design, which aims to absorb more of the impact of running and protect your body.

Although they offer excellent underfoot protection and are often light and nimble, these shoes put the wearer at an increased risk of rolling their ankle because of the less stable design and massive amount of cushioning. This makes them the best option for running on trails and other generally flat terrain, but they aren’t the best for off-camber or off-trail travel. They are also a well-liked option for people who spend their entire day on their feet at work or for hiking and backpacking.

Selecting the Right Product


Cushioning level, sometimes referred to as “stack height,” remained largely unchanged for many years until shoes with no padding whatsoever revolutionized the industry. A counter trend developed a few years later when heavily cushioned midsole shoes were introduced to the market.

Today, this “feel” vs. “float” cushioning spectrum offers you a wide range of options:

Barefoot: These shoes have no padding, as you might expect. The appeal is that they enable you to gain a deeper understanding of the trail and your own biomechanics.

Minimal: These shoes are a good choice for runners who want a better trail feel but are not at ease doing away with all midsole padding.

Moderate: These could be described as conventional trail runners with sufficient padding to allow for comfortable running over rocky and rooty trails.

Maximum: These are the models that have a ton of midsole padding. Maximum cushioning, according to devotees, makes running long distances easier on the joints and less tiring. Detractors say that super-soft cushioning in some shoes makes for a “mushy” (less efficient) toe-off as you run.

Heel-to-Toe Drop

The measurement of heel-to-toe drop is very similar to the measurement of cushioning height. Ranging from 0mm to more than 12mm, heel-to-toe drop is the difference between the height at the heel and the height at the forefoot:

  • 0mm is the drop of barefoot footwear.
  • Shoes with a drop of 0 to 4mm are considered minimalist.
  • Shoes with a moderate or maximalist style can have a variety of heel to toe drops.

To decide what heel drop will work best for you, consider these tips:

Your new running shoes should have a similar drop. You won’t mess with the biomechanics of your body. Additionally, keep in mind that even if you’re purchasing the same shoe model, you should check the heel drop again. Every now and then, a shoe company will update a shoe’s design, changing the heel-to-toe drop.

If you don’t have any running shoes, check your other shoes. Check out your other athletic shoes first. Look at your casual shoes if you don’t have any athletic shoes. It is simply advised that you stay away from trail runners that are at or close to the 0mm and 12mm ends of the spec range because the majority of shoes will have a moderate heel-to-toe drop. Low-drop shoes might be acceptable if you constantly wear flats or flip-flops.

Midfoot or forefoot strikes are more likely with a low heel drop. The end result is a landing platform that is more stable, as well as better balance and muscle engagement. A major draw of going barefoot and wearing minimalist footwear is this positive biomechanical shift. However, not everyone can benefit from or switch to a low-drop shoe.

Take it slow if you’re thinking about switching to minimalist or barefoot footwear. You should anticipate a few months of adjustment time as well as some discomfort as you undergo the physical change. .

Be aware that there are shoes with low heel drops that also have moderate and maximum cushioning. It’s not for everyone to switch from well-cushioned high-heel-drop shoes to well-cushioned low-heel-drop shoes. It involves some discomfort and requires some adjustment time.


Beyond all other factors, fit is crucial. Even a shoe with excellent reviews isn’t great for you unless it fits your foot. More factors than just length and width are involved in a good fit. Because feet are biomechanically complex, a good fit will also take into account things like arch shape, arch length, foot volume, and more.

Consider shoe lasts: Each brand builds its shoes around a sophisticated foot form called a “last.” Finding brands with lasts similar to your foot is your aim. After that, you can shop online with a higher likelihood of finding shoes that fit.

Don’t assume you know your shoe size: It’s always a good idea to get your feet measured because your feet change as you age. Then, you must take into account the fact that your feet swell while you run. You should wear shoes with an adequate toe box in terms of length and width.

Get a fit assessment: A footwear expert can evaluate the size and shape of your feet and give you advice on how various brands will fit. You can get this done at any REI location, but for the best results, prepare ahead of time. You are not required to schedule an appointment, but we advise choosing a less busy time or finding out when some of the most knowledgeable shoe staff will be present. You can be sure to get shoes that are large enough to fit you properly if you go later in the day when your feet have had time to swell.

Finally, a shoe expert can assist you in leaving the store with shoes that resolve a variety of foot problems, including bunions, hammertoes, plantar fasciitis, and more. A specialist can also take into account your orthotics or locate a ready-made insole that will work for you.

New to Running?

If you are new to running, your body is probably not used to the abuse that putting in those miles will do to it. When a beginner first starts running, it may take months or even years for their body to fully adapt to the daily act of running. Going too minimal or even low-profile may not be a good idea if your body is already under a lot of stress. In general, our bodies are accustomed to a moderate amount of heel-toe drop, so wearing shoes with a low heel-toe drop may take some time to get used to. At first, we advise sticking with footwear that is on the middle to higher end of the heel-toe drop spectrum, such as a tough trail runner.


Do you currently have a medical condition, or have you recently experienced an injury from running? When trying to recover from an injury, many doctors and sports medicine experts advise looking into changing your footwear. Since we aren’t experts in this area, we can’t tell you exactly what to do, but getting new shoes is a must. In most cases, you’ll want to choose a different kind than the pair that might have contributed to your injury.

Regarding what will heal a running injury, there are many proponents on both sides of the spectrum. Numerous runners have told us their tales of being chronically injured, done for, and unable to run until they tried a pair of maximalist shoes. At the same time, Google zero-drop shoes, and you can read stories for hours about people who claim that the only way to run injury-free and sustainably is by choosing zero drop shoes that support natural biomechanics. The worldwide bestseller Born to Run is all about this topic. Therefore, if you suffer from a running-related injury, the first thing you should do is purchase a new pair of shoes. Then, depending on your propensity, you can look in either of these directions for a treatment.


Do you prefer the idea of zero-drop shoes or do you try to have the most naturally instinctive stride possible? Did you just read Born to Run? Then you might want to read the review’s minimalist or zero-drop models. It can be very taxing on the Achilles tendon and calves for someone used to traditional heel-toe drop, so be aware that it can take many people a long time to let their bodies adjust to wearing footwear with a lower drop. A minimalist or zero-drop shoe should only be included in a quiver if absolutely necessary, and it should only be worn sparingly on shorter runs to allow for gradual adaptation.

If It Isn’t Broke Don’t Fix It

What has been successful for you in the past? Most runners have worn numerous pairs of shoes throughout their lives and have developed a solid understanding of what they liked and didn’t like. We advise you to keep in mind the products that didn’t work for you and concentrate your search on different options. On the other hand, if you already have a favorite brand that you love because they have always felt comfortable, that is probably a great place to start your search for your next pair.

Comfort Rules!

You have probably narrowed down your options after responding to the questions above and have a good idea of the kind of trail running shoe you want to purchase. We strongly advise trying them on before purchasing at this time. The most crucial aspect of a shoe is ultimately comfort, which varies greatly from person to person. You should pay attention to your body when making your final decisions because some of the products we have ranked highly here may not feel good to you at all. Make sure the retailer will accept returns before making an online shoe purchase. Using our recommendations and reviews as a guide, you should buy your top three options, try them all on when they arrive, and return the ones you don’t like.

While this may look like hiking, we like to call steep off-trail ascents like this “running” if we work hard and keep our cadence up 🙂 In addition, we’ll be running on the way down. Here, struggling and gasping in the exceptional air of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

Credit: Andy Wellman


Selecting the ideal trail running shoe for you is not as difficult as it may seem. The best place to start is by educating yourself on the benefits and drawbacks of the various types of trail running footwear. Next, you should understand your needs and preferences to narrow down your options. When you have a limited number of shoes in mind that you know you are interested in, you can compare the individual reviews to learn more. We wish you well in your search for a pair of shoes that will accompany and facilitate many exciting adventures in the years to come. A good pair of shoes can take you anywhere. Happy Trails!