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There’s a childlike joy to trail running. You’re coursing through the woods, jumping over logs, getting dirty to your heart’s delight. The mental benefits of being out in nature can land you a next-level runner’s high.
But for those more used to running on concrete than dirt, all it takes is a few bad slips and slides in your regular sneakers to realize you might need to upgrade to a solid pair of trail running shoes.
What should you look for in a good pair?
“Traction seems like it should be most important,” says Phil Kochik, owner of Seattle’s Seven Hills Running Shop, which specializes in trail shoes. But actually, he says, it only comes up third on his checklist when he’s helping customers buy their first pair. “If you have a shoe that is uncomfortable, then doesn’t matter if you have great traction—that won’t save the experience.” And, he adds, any trail shoe with even a little bit of grip is going to instantly feel like a win when you’re first transitioning from road shoes.
Instead, Kochik suggests primarily focusing on fit and cushioning, then thinking of traction as the cherry on top.
Brooks Cascadia 16 — $130.00
A tried-and-true classic, Kochik describes the Brooks Cascadia as a “longstanding trail shoe that started it all.” Now on its 16th version, he says these were the first trail shoes that felt comfortable right away, just like a road shoe—and they still offer that same magic today. He often recommends them to trail newbies. ”They’re like other Brooks, but on the bottoms they’ve got added traction.”
If you want something for the roads, too
Altra Outroad — $140.00
Not yet sure if you’re ready to commit to a shoe just for the trails? Check out this model, which will be launching any day now. Meant for people who live in cities, but hit the trails every so often, this shoe transitions right from asphalt to dirt with a completely natural feel on either surface. Altra is known for its zero heel drop, so your heel and toes are exactly in line horizontally—this is designed to promote proper form, but can be tough to get used to if you’ve never tried it before.
Altras also typically feature an extra wide forefoot so there’s plenty of room for your toes to spread out as you flow through your stride, which is still mainly true here. However, this model has a slightly snugger, less bulky fit than others by the brand. Overall, the shoe runs on the smaller side, so you might want to size up.
If you want to tackle all kinds of terrain
Adidas TERREX Agravic Flow 2 — $140.00
Meant for running a variety of trails, the aggressive lugs on this style give a good grip on a variety of terrain—wet rocks, leaf-covered hills, dirt paths—and still feel stable. The sturdy midsole made with EVA foam easily handles technical (aka rocky and root-covered) trails, but doesn’t feel like so much shoe you can’t sense the ground beneath you. The back sits a little high in the ankle, which can help keep dirt out, but if you have a shorter heel, it could dig into your Achilles a bit.
If you have narrow feet
La Sportiva Akasha II — $150.00
Kochik says this model is a go-to recommendation for customers with narrow feet. Designed to handle tricky technical terrain, these are made for serious days in serious mountains. The airy mesh upper provides a snug fit, with overlays for added protection, making for a breathable—but durable—feel that doesn’t grow too loose, even as the miles add up.
If you don’t want to feel so much shoe
Hoka Speedgoat 5 — $155.00
The latest edition of this shoe isn’t as thick-feeling as the traditional maximalist style Hoka first became known for—you’re not quite so far off the ground. But it’s even lighter than earlier editions of this style, and also heartier with a sturdy mesh upper. Kochik says there’s a good chance of it working well on many people’s feet. Bonus: It’s got Vibram Megagrip rubber outsole for ultimate traction.
If you want a lighter version of your fave hiking shoe
Moab Speed GORE-TEX® X Sweaty Betty — $160.00
Well+Good’s associate commerce editor Francesca Krempa swears by Merrell hiking boots—they’re the only brand she’ll wear. “I was super stoked to see them team up with Sweaty Betty (another one of my faves),” she says. “These sneaks have all the makings of a sturdy hiking boot, just in a lighter, flightier form. I also love that they’re made from more sustainable materials. Fitting, considering they’re made to be in nature.” These kicks are as tough as any other Merrell pair, with sturdy tread and a ton of arch support, but airier and more nimble.
If you’re looking to go the distance
Salomon Pulsar Trail — $130.00
Let’s be honest: Part of what we all love about sneakers is the statement they make—what a particular style tells the world about who we are. And when you put on a pair of Salomon’s, you’re announcing yourself as a legit trail runner. The French brand has a reputation for being the go-to pick of top athletes like Courtney Dauwalter and Rickey Gates.
Although Salomon considers this pair to offer a medium amount of foot protection, it feels like a mini-fortress with its maximum cushioning, strong grip, and rubber all around the bottom edge to protect your tootsies from any errant kicks and missteps. It also offers a pulley-like quick lace system that lets you avoid the need to tie any pesky laces that might come undone mid-run. Warning: They’re just slightly on the narrower side.
If you want a spring in your step
Saucony Peregrine 12 — $130.00
These fan-favorite shoes might be the epitome of a great out-of-the-box feel. Without any “breaking in” required, they have that ideal balance of being supportive but not stiff. The ride has a satisfyingly springy toe-off, whether you’re heading out for an easy loop or logging major miles in an attempt to place at your next race.
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Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.