I get a lot of questions and comments from readers asking me to recommend a pair of trail runners given a certain activity or foot type. I review and research shoes to a degree that some might find obsessive, but it allows me to offer a unique insight to those seeking assistance. In this post, I’m going to offer my advice to readers in the all important pursuit of picking out the best shoe for their outdoor activities and foot type. In this post I’m going to:
- I’ll break down the terminology and features of trail shoes. For each shoe feature and term, I’ll explain what a shopper should be looking for in the categories of Overall Fit, Uppers, Midsoles, and Outsoles.
- I’ll put together what I consider to be my dream shoe based on my favorite features from the different trail runners I’ve worn throughout the years.
- I’ll recommend trail shoes that fit different needs, ie) wide feet, muddy trails, thru-hikes, etc.
Choosing the “perfect trail shoe” is a bit of a misnomer, as there really isn’t such a thing in regards to a “one size fits all” approach. We all have different feet, different bodies, and different needs based on our athletic pursuits. Before I get started, the first thing I want you to do is to take a moment and write down what it is you currently enjoy doing on trails, and in another column write down the things you’d like to do. Second, get all of your current trail shoes and think about how they performed. Are they too small? Did they cause blisters? Did they lose traction?… As we go through the anatomy of a shoe in the next section, it will help to have old shoes on hand to diagnose problem areas from previous experiences, and to help dial in on features that work for your feet and usage. Finally, take a moment to think about your feet and your body. Look at your toes, your arches, and your ankles. Do you have an injury history? Are you prone to blisters? Do you have weak ankles? These preparations will help as you read the segments to come.
It’s important to note that If you were to ask 10 trail runners (or hikers) about the perfect trail shoe, you might get 10 different answers. Just like the rest of our bodies, our feet take on many different shapes. Feet can be wide, narrow, high and low volume, high and low arches, have varying heel width, have Morton’s toe, have bunions…well, you get the point. On top of this, we all have different preferences and use our tools (shoes) for different tasks. Soles can be firm or soft, heel offsets can be 12mm or 0mm, a toe box can be narrow or spacious and roomy. I don’t mean to suggest with this post that one shoe is “the perfect trail shoe”, but instead I’m hoping to offer advice from personal experience about shoe qualities that have worked for me in the past. I’ve done 20+ mile day hikes with over 10,000 ft of elevation gain, thru-hiked the John Muir Trail, hiked Tour du Mont Blanc in a week of rain with muddy trails, and have enjoyed many other adventurous hikes and trail runs in the mountains around the world. Having spent so much time on trails, I’m starting to get a good idea of what works for me and have seen what works for a lot of other hikers and runners as well.
The overall fit of a shoe is the most important factor in my opinion when trying on a new pair of shoes. Before I consider any of the tech, features, looks, or performance aspects of a shoe, I simply close my eyes and think about how it feels on my foot. Is it too big or too small? Do my toes feel bunched? Is my heel secure? Are there any pressure points? Once I get a feel for the overall fit, I take a look at a few other features.
- The Last of a shoe is the overall shape that is manufactured. Altra has a wide naturally foot shaped last, whereas something like a Salomon SLAB Ultra will have a more narrow performance oriented last. When it comes to reviews, this can be one of the trickiest bits of input, as we all have different shapes and sizes when it comes to our feet. Find a last that fits YOUR foot.
- After I get a feel for the last, I start to examine the Width and Volume. Width and volume are similar, but not the same. For instance, a toe box can be wide, but low volume. For width, I think of my foot in a two dimensional sense. I place all of my weight on one foot and get a feel for how the midsole covers my expanded foot print. I like a shoe with a narrow heel, medium width midfoot, and a slightly wider toebox. Volume is the internal capacity of the upper, so think of this in a three dimensional sense. A toe box can be wide, but low volume. I prefer a low volume in the heel and midfoot for a secure wrap and fit. I like a medium amount of volume in the forefoot, enough to wiggle my toes. Why do I like a wide shoe, but not a high volume shoe? Too much volume can make a shoe feel sloppy. This can cause blisters, and a lack of stability on off kilter terrain.
- The next thing I consider is the Weight of a shoe. I like my shoes light, but not too light. Light shoes are great for maintaining a high turnover and cadence. Light shoes save energy on long thru-hikes. Light shoes also tend to be made of lighter materials which breathe better. The tradeoff with weight is usually durability (not always). I’ve found that a nice balance tends to be found at around 12oz for my trail shoes (in size 12.5). Find a weight that feels good on your foot, and then make a decision based on need. Will these shoes be for race day? Will these shoe need to withstand a 200 mile thru-hike?
- As I mentioned above, Durability tends to go along with the weight of a shoe. Take a look at the seams on the upper, the midsole composition, and the compounds used on the outsole. It’s not always easy to gauge the durability of a new shoe, this is where online reviews come in handy.
- I’ll be honest, Style is also an important factor when selecting a shoe. Fashion preferences are subjective, so I won’t go into to much detail about what I like. I will say that style and design can sway my opinion. I love a shoe that uses bold colors, but I know some prefer muted earth tones. That being said…Fit first, style second.
The trail shoe upper consists of everything above the midsole, including the laces, grommets, tongue, gusset, rand, heel counter, liner, insole, toe guard, and the materials that account for the part of the shoe wrapping the top and side of your feet. Here is a breakdown of what each of these terms means and what you should look for:
- Laces: This is as straightforward as it gets with terminology, but a critical component of the upper. Laces that are too short or too long can be a real nuisance. There are also laces that don’t stay tied, move around, or apply pressure points when ratcheted down. Some shoe companies, like Salomon, have a quicklace system that require no tying at all. Luckily, laces are one of the easiest and cheapest parts of a shoe to change if the originals don’t work out for you. Make sure to get a good feel for your shoe laces on your first few wears. If you need a replacement, my favorites are the Salomon Quicklace and New Balance Bubble Laces.
- Grommets and Eyelets: Grommets and eyelets go hand in hand with the laces and are a very important part of keeping a shoe feeling secure and comfortable over the long haul. If grommets are too pronounced, they can cause pressure points when you tie the laces tight. If a shoe just uses eyelets without any reinforcements, the durability of those eyelets can be a bit lacking. The most critical thing for me with grommets and eyelets is their placement. A shoe with too few eyelets doesn’t allow for varying lacing techniques, like a heel lock. The top eyelets are most critical, as they tend to dictate the level of heel security. Make sure to analyze the eyelets placement on any new trail shoe and make sure they work for your feet.
- Tongue and Gusset: The tongue of a shoe is a critical piece of the upper for overall foot comfort, especially on descents. Thick padded tongues are great for cushion, but don’t breathe well. I like something lightly padded that stays in place. A lot of trail shoes will have a gusseted tongue, or a tongue that has stitching attaching it to the shoe on either side. Gusseting of the tongue is important to keep dirt and debris from entering the shoe. Not all trail shoes have this, but it’s a nice feature.
- Rand: A rand is a layer of material on the upper of the shoe that runs around the perimeter above the midsole. A rand adds durability and can also keep mud and moisture from seeping up and over the midsole. A rand is great for a trail shoe being used for mountain running on rocky trails, as it adds protection. The downside to a rand, is that it can decrease drainability and breathability on the upper. This is a feature that you’ll want to consider based on need.
- Overlays: Shoes use stitched and/or welded overlays to provide stability, structure, and precision. Many overlays start at the midsole and work their way up to the laces to provide a nice wrap of the foot. Some shoes will use overlays for durability and protection. Overlays give the foot a great deal of lateral stability which is critical when hiking or running on slanted trails. Much like a rand, overly built up overlays can limit breathability and drainability. I personally won’t buy a shoe without some form of midfoot overlay. One of my favorites is welded Sensi-Fit on Salomon’s lineup of trail shoes.
- Toe Guard: A solid toe guard is critical for protection on trail runs and hikes. There’s nothing worse than blasting your toe into a boulder or log without adequate protection. The downside to a burly toe guard is that you run the risk of jamming your toes on the inside when hiking or running downhill. I like shoes that offer just a little protection up front, and find the La Sportiva Akasha and Salomon Sense Pro to be my favorites.
- Heel Counter: A major part of each shoe’s structure is provided with a heel counter. A counter is the material in the heel of the shoe. Some shoes have nothing but fabric for a flexible and soft heel. Others will use a solid plastic insert to provide a lot of stability. This is more a preference and need based feature. For unleveled trails and off trail adventures, I prefer to have a little more structure in the heel. The downside to a structured heel is that it can be more prone to hot spots. Make sure your heel shape fits the counter of the shoe.
- Liner: The inside of the shoe will have a liner, unless it is a one piece upper where the outside and inside are the same fabric. Most trail shoe have very lightweight liners and are moving to a seamless fit. Go with feel here, and make sure there are no noticeable seams or points that could turn into blisters.
- Insoles and Arch Support: Some companies skimp on the insole, and others provide insoles that last as long as the shoe. Insoles are a matter of preference and need. I know many people who never use stock insoles, and instead use after market insoles like Superfeet and SOLE insoles. I’ll cover these in another post. Go with comfort and preference here. Arch support is another feature to consider. Arch support can help with pronation and late stage arch collapse on tired feet. I find that I like arch support when carrying a heavy pack, but am not a fan for running or lighter adventures.
- Upper Material: The key here is that you find a material that’s suitable for the adventures you’ll be enjoying. In my case, I need a breathable upper 10 months out of the year. Breathable and light tends to be a trade off with durability. A breathable upper can also let in dust and debris. Lightweight and breathable uppers also tend to offer great drainability. If you need an upper that’s more durable or less porous, you’ll probably have to sacrifice breathability and drainability. It’s a trade-off.
- Waterproof liner: The most popular waterproof liner is Gore-Tex. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many others, Gore-Tex (GTX) is not really needed for most trail running and hiking purposes. If you’re in a downpour or crossing deep creeks, your feet are going to get wet eventually. In this case, you’re far better off with a breathable shoe, as it will dry and drain much quicker. The only shoes I own that have GTX liners are my snow and ice footwear. In this case, they keep melting snow from seeping in, and are windproof, which helps with the cold.
- Shape: Much like the upper of a shoe, all midsoles are cut into unique shapes and sizes. It’s important to look at the midsole in all 3 dimensions to see what works for you. I’ll start by taking a two dimensional view, and just focus on the cutout of the shape. I really like a wide platform that offers good coverage and stability. Others might prefer a narrower midsole to allow for more precise footing and nimble agility. First find a midsole that fits your foot type, then start looking at how that midsole will fare given your desired activities. As you start to look at a midsole in 3 dimensions, it’s important to consider the midsole stack height.
- Stack Height And Drop: The stack height of a shoe is measured in millimeters, and is the height from the bottom of the midsole to the top of the midsole. Some measurements will also take into account the lugs on the outsole. Most readings will give you two numbers, one for the heel height, and one of the forefoot height. The difference between the two is called Drop. My sweet spot is a 6mm to 8mm drop. Anything more than that, and my heel feels a bit too high and lacking in stability. Anything lower than that, and I can really feel the additional stretching of my achilles and calves. I’ve worn some zero drop shoes before (heel and forefoot height is equal), and I do love the natural feel and stability, I just prefer a slight drop when my mileage for a day is more than 10 miles. If you do decide to go for zero drop, make sure to give your legs a chance to adjust to it. Another feature when looking for stack height is the actual stack height! Hoka has popularized maximal shoes, with stack heights of 30mm+ not uncommon. Some prefer a minimal stack height in the 10-15mm range. My preferred stack height for heel and forefoot hovers around the mid 20’s.
- Foam composition: After getting a feel for the shape, drop, and stack height of a midsole, the next thing to consider is the composition of the materials being used. Most midsoles are made using a compressed or injected EVA foam. Shoe manufacturers use varying densities of foam through their own proprietary blends to accomplish a desired feel underfoot. A firm and dense midsole will be responsive and fast, but a little harsh on hard surfaces and long hauls. A soft midsole will be forgiving on the legs, but waste a lot of energy when pushing hard uphill. Soft midsoles can also lack in stability, leaving the wearer more susceptible to ankle rolls. Midsole composition is a major consideration when purchasing a trail shoe. Make sure to select the correct combination for your needs. Some shoe manufacturers, like Hoka, are going to dual density midsoles to give the runners the best of both worlds. On the Speed Instinct, Hoka uses a soft foam in the rear for downhill running, and firmer foam in the front for uphill running. Salomon and Altra have gone a different route by stacking a softer layer of foam just under the foot, in between the upper and the midsole.
- Stability: Stability can mean a number of different things in a shoe. First, there is the stability of the upper in regards to lateral and forward movement of the shoe. Midsole stability is what most people refer to when they mention a shoe being mentioned in the stable category. Most road running shoes provide stability with plastic inserts or foam posts that prevent the foot from pronating. Trail and hiking shoes use this definition as well, but expand on stability to a greater degree when you start to talk about a shoe being stable on the trail. Most trail shoes provide stability with a wide stance, a firm foam midsole, and maybe a plastic post like Salomon’s Heel Chassis. Stability in a shoe is a preference. I tend to favor stable shoes that have a firm midsole and great torsional rigidity. I’m not a fan of flimsy or overly flexible footwear for the trail. After a long day of hiking on scree, stepping on sharp rocks, and transversing all kinds of terrain, my feet feel trashed in a shoe lacking stability. As I’ve said about many features in this post, stability is about preference and activity.
- Rock Plates: The midsole foam of the shoe absorbs shock and protects the feet from rough trails, but some time additional protection is needed when one ventures onto trails with sharp and jagged rocks. In these conditions, a shoe with a solid rockplate is needed. Rockplates come in many different forms, Pearl Izumi and La Sportiva use a firm compressed EVA, Salomon uses a Pro-Feel Film, and others use some form of a TPU layer between the midsole and outsole. A rockplate can inhibit flexibility if it’s too stiff, but that stiffness can also improve responsiveness. Most importantly, your feet will feel much fresher and better protected after long days hauling a pack over jagged stones.
- Grip vs Traction: These are two terms I see people using interchangeably in regards to outsoles. It’s important to note that they are not the same. Grip involves the lugs and the ability of an outsole to gain purchase on a trail. Traction is the ability of an outsole to provide adequate friction between the shoe and a surface. An outsole that has great traction can also help with grip. Both are important, but which one you steer towards will largely depend on where you’re running. For example, a shoe like the Salomon Speedcross 4 has a number of widely spaced deep lugs for surfaces like mud and slush. The Speedcross 4 has great grip, but take that shoe on a series of slick granite faces in Yosemite, and you’ll see that it has paltry traction. Grip is enhanced by longer lugs that work into the surface of a trail with each step. Traction is enhanced by lugs providing maximum surface area with soft sticky rubber like a 5.10 Guide Tennie.
- Lug Patterns, Depth, And Shapes: I mentioned above the difference between traction and grip, and those are the two most important factors for me when looking at an outsole. Most trail shoes do their best to provide a combination of the two with a wide range of lug patterns, lug depth, and lug shape. Chevron shaped lugs are great for grip, but don’t provide a lot of surface area for traction. My favorite lug shape is that of a square or trapezoid, as they’re able to offer decent grip, while still providing a nice surface for traction. When I’m in mud or soft clay trails, I want a shoe with widely spaced lugs that are long and deep. Widely spaced lugs are able to shed mud and clay much better than tightly spaced lugs, where the mud and clay get lodged in the cracks. Lug shape is also important for durability. I’ve found that small and narrow lugs break off and chip on rocky trails. Deep lugs are not very nice for fire roads or hard pack trails. Trail shoes with flatter lugs tend to be more versatile and can even be used to run on the road.
- Rubber Types The composition of rubber is probably the greatest determinant of traction and durability in an outsole. In this case it’s usually a tradeoff, as sticky rubber is made of a softer composition that wears down. Harder durable rubbers tend to be a little more ridged and provide less traction. My favorite rubbers are Vibram Megagrip, Salomon’s new Wet Contragrip, and La Sportiva FriXion rubber. All three provide a great combination of traction and durability, and they come in a number of different outsole lug patters to match my desired activity.
- Coverage and Flexibility The final feature of an outsole that I’ll mention is the amount of coverage. Some outsoles will have a super durable full coverage outsole with rubber from heel to toe. Most shoes utilize cutouts where you’ll see exposed sections of EVA in the midsole. The reason manufacturers do this is to reduce weight and to increase the flexibility of a shoe. The durability of a full coverage outsole is nice, but all that rubber can be heavy and make a shoe feel stiff.
My Perfect “Dream Shoe”
So now that I’ve broken down every feature to consider when looking at the upper, midsole, and outsole of a shoe, here is what I would consider my perfect trail shoe.
Upper: The upper of my perfect trail shoe would be taken from the Salomon Sense Pro. The Sense Pro has a breathable mesh, and a perfect fit due to Salomon’s Endo-Fit tongue and Sensi-Fit overlays. The Sense Pro also has Salomon’s Quick-lace system and a seamless pressure free fit. I would make the toebox just a bit wider, but keep the great toe guard. I would also add in a slightly more substantial insole to aid in supporting my foot with some late stage arch collapse for longer days on the trail.
Midsole: Under the Sense Pro upper, I would go with the Nike Wildhorse 3 Phylon midsole, but work in an additional forefoot layer like the Sense Pro mentioned above. The Phylon Wildhorse 3 midsole offers the perfect balance of responsiveness and protection, and I love the Air Zoom unit in the heel, with the rock plate in the forefoot. My big change would be to swap the Wildhorse rockplate for a Pro-Feel Film plate from arch to toe. I would also change the drop to 6mm, with 30mm in the heel and 24mm in the forefoot. This combination would work well for short fast runs, long runs, thru-hikes, and 30+ mile day hikes.
Outsole: With a modified Sense Pro upper, and a modified Wildhorse 3 midsole, I would take the Salomon Wings 8 outsole with a slightly altered lug pattern. Salomon’s new Wet Contragrip is incredible sticky and offers great traction. I love the trapezoidal lugs on the Wings 8, as they offer great traction, durability, and versatility. If I was really going to have dream shoes, I would have that as my hard ground shoe for dry days, and go for something a little more like the La Sportiva Akasha or Mutant outsole on wet days.
What’s your dream shoe? Let me know in the comments section below!
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