Trail Shoes Buyer's Guide

What to look for in a trail shoe


Posted: 23 November 2009

What to look for in a trail shoe

There are a lot of similarities between your normal training shoes and a model designed for off-road use, but don't confuse the two. On a firm, well-groomed trail, your road shoes should survive. Add mud, moisture, rocks and vegetation and things become trickier. And even if you survive, your shoes probably won't - a rock or thorn bush can easily tear a hole in the mesh on the average racer trainer. Here's what to look for in an off-road shoe. 

Keep a low profile 

The lower the profile, the more stable the shoe on uneven ground. Don't worry about shock absorbency, either - off-road trails are more forgiving than roads and pavements. So the need for a thick layer of foam between your foot and the ground is negated. 

Get a grip 

If you remember nothing else, remember this: grip is everything. Without grip you can't run with confidence. Fortunately, most manufacturers realise this, so it's rare to find a trail shoe without a heavily studded rubber outsole with a wide tread pattern. The perfect rubber outsole is soft enough to flex and mould to the ground it moves over, provides multi-directional traction and won't easily clog with mud and debris. 

Protection perfection

Off-road running is hard on your shoes, particularly the upper. As with so much of the shoe, however, protection is a compromise. You need some rubber or heavy nylon reinforcements around the toe box, heel counter and the bottom of the upper, but not so much that it turns the shoe into a brick. The second element of protection in the upper is how well it keeps out the small pieces of debris that fly up as you run along. A single glove-like upper will achieve this better than the version with a separate tongue, but on the downside it can make it more of a struggle to pull shoes on and off. 

Water management

Water will often be a problem on Britain's trails. There are two schools of thought on how to deal with it: the waterproof shell or the sieve. Proponents of the first believe that water should be kept out of the shoe and prefer a Gore-Tex or other waterproof membrane in the upper. This works if you're on wet grass or splashing through puddles, but the drawback is that if water comes in over the cuff it can't escape. The second approach stems from the belief that keeping your feet watertight is impossible and focuses on drainage rather than protection. 

Saucony ProGrid Xodus, £80

They say: The statement product of Saucony's new RunAnywhere collection. The exclusive Vibram compound outsole provides the grippiest, most durable outsole possible, while maintaining flexibility and comfort. The durable, breathable, rip-stop textile upper protects and comforts the foot. 

We say: A road shoe bulked up and reinforced for the trails, it offers a comfortable, stable ride - although the fit is narrow in the forefoot. If you need the flexibility of swapping between road and off-road, this is a great shoe. It performs better on well-groomed trails than on more extreme terrain.

Contact: www.saucony.co.uk

adidas Supernova Riot, £75

They say: 3-D ForMotion® and a TRAXIONTM outsole grip in all directions for improved handling and stability during high-speed manoeuvering. The NoSeam engineered-mesh upper and GeoFitTM heel and collar ensure a comfortable fit, while the TORSION® SYSTEM promote midfoot integrity. 

We say: The Supernova Riot has the fit and feel of a road shoe souped up for the trails. It's relatively light, with plenty of grip thanks to an aggressive, flexible outsole. The upper's a good mix of padded mesh and heavier reinforced overlays. It lets the water out well and keeps grit out. 

Contact: www.adidas.com

Berghaus Phobic Light Flow, £70

They say: An ultra-stable shoe featuring an Opti-StudTM sole unit and Phobic technology for the ultimate level of water dispersion, protection and stability. An Ergonomic Holding System, along with Low Profile Protection ensures comfort and fit. 

We say: This is an uncomplicated shoe with a simple upper above a single-density midsole. Clears water well. Despite limited overlays on the upper, the toe area is well protected. The outsole tread is better for groomed trails than more aggressive terrain. The ankle collar sits low, as does the shoe as a whole. 

Contact: www.berghaus.com                 

The North face Cooper's Hill GTX XCR2, £85

They say: This is a featherlight fell-running shoe designed with a toothy outsole for the slickest, most rain-soaked runs. A lightweight ripstop nylon mesh features GORE-TEX® for the ultimate in waterproof, breathable protection for your feet.  

We say: This might look like a bulky shoe but it's deceptively light. The Gore-Tex upper works well on wet grass and through puddles but be wary of water coming into the shoe at the ankle. It's not as stable or low in profile as many of the shoes on test but it's a great option if you need a wide fit. The deep, multidirectional lugs ensure a secure ride. 

Contact: www.thenorthface.com 

Merrell CT Marquis, £75

They say: The CT Marquis offers a stable, finely tuned ride. A midfoot torsional bridge keeps the foot correctly aligned, while a temperature- regulating compound in the footbed absorbs heat generated during running. Air mesh moves moisture away from the foot for cool, dry comfort.

We say: But for the heavy upper reinforcements around the forefoot and heel, you could mistake the CT Marquis for a road-training shoe. The meaty midsole is more suited to roads than unstable off-road conditions, but the gently studded outsole does provide grip on well-maintained trails. 

Contact: www.merrell.co.uk

Helly Hansen Manifesto Beater, £65

They say: A great choice for trail-oriented adventure races, the new Manifesto Beater with Helly Tech® waterproof, breathable protection is built with a rugged, well-cushioned sole for multi-sport outings in wet and slippery conditions. 

We say: The strangest-looking shoe on test, mainly due to the cut-away upper. Forget the upper, for a moment, and it's a more traditional shoe than it seems - with its responsive, low-profile midsole and high-traction outsole. Better suited to water-based activities than true trail running since the open upper could let in debris. 

Contact: www.hellyhansen.com

New Balance 783, £55

They say: This shoe offers great cushioning and superb support on both the road and trail. The water-resistant uppers prevent feet becoming waterlogged while the multiple support straps offer an additional level of stability. ABZORB® cushioning helps to reduce compression and impact stress of even the toughest terrain.

We say: New Balance has a reputation for making well-cushioned, stable shoes for bigger runners and this shoe is built on that tradition. A low-profile midsole and multiple overlays on the upper create a shoe that's hardy if a little bulky.   

Contact: www.newbalance.co.uk 

Hi-Tec V-Lite Trail Eruption, £60

They say: These shoes feature a fast-dry synthetic upper, while the Comfort-Tec sockliners contain memory foam for a secure fit. The TPU midfoot shank and eight-density CMEVA midsole combine with SYS cushioning geometry to provide stability and support. 

We say: More of a training model than a performance shoe, the Trail Eruption offers a stocky, stable and secure ride. It's relatively heavy and bulky but with that comes ruggedness and durability. The multi-density midsole feels firm in the forefoot but well-cushioned at the heel.

Contact: www.hi-tec.com/uk

Mizuno Wave Harrier 2, £60

They say: A composite double fan wave gives a balanced combination of support and cushioning, while the outsole and midsole platform are engineered to minimise changes in velocity for a smooth ride. The outsole features multi-directional lugs to enhance grip in wet conditions and the removable, anatomically moulded sockliner aids fit.

We say: A low-profile, well-cushioned shoe that feels stable but light. The upper features fewer overlays than many of the shoes on test  - although key areas are well protected - with the result that it feels more like a performance shoe.

Contact www.sport.mizunoeurope.com

La Sportiva Crosslite, £70

They say: The breathable mesh upper, non-slip lining and gaiter, which covers the laces, ensure comfort and protection from debris. The outsole guarantees maximum grip on difficult terrain thanks to an AT FriXion rubber compound. 

We say: La Sportiva has used its experience as a mountain-shoe manufacturer to create this sporty, lightweight trail shoe. The low-profile midsole and aggressive lugs provide excellent stability and grip in all off-road conditions. The upper fits like a glove and offers protection in all the right places. Overall, a great performance shoe. 

Contact www.lyon.co.uk 

Brooks Cascadia 4, £80

They say: Ballistic Rock Shield technology helps protect feet from rocks and blisters, helping the wearer feel more comfortable and perform better for longer. The durable outsole creates great wet-dry traction, while the smart upper prevents water absorption. 

We say: But for the outsole, this could pass for a sturdy road shoe. On the foot it feels like an everyday trainer, but it's heavier and more robust. Narrow in the heel and broad in the forefoot, the shoe has good ground feel and above-average grip, even in slippery conditions.

Contact: www.brooksrunning.co.uk

Puma Complete Trailfox 3, £74.99

They say: The Complete Trailfox III is the best choice for the competitive trail runner and outdoor athlete. New soft-shell materials and innovative construction provide superior comfort, while deep flex grooves and a low profile create a fast, light performance trail shoe. Clever engineering and sophisticated materials offer great protection. 

We say: These shoes scream performance. The outsole isn't the most aggressive on test but it clears mud brilliantly, while the narrow fit completely envelops your foot. A great option if you're looking for a lightweight racing shoe.

Contact: www.pumarunning.com

Walsh PB Elite Trainer, £60

They say: A truly legendary fell shoe, with pyramid studs running the full length of the sole for superb grip. Made for the mountains, with a very low-profile sole, this Walsh shoe is also popular for muddy cross-country racing and any event requiring reliable traction in challenging conditions.

We say: A simple but effective shoe that's stood the test of time. Cushioning and stability features are limited but the low profile ensures stability on all off-road terrain, while the simple outsole provides unbelievable grip. It's not the most durable shoe but it's one of the best for racing.

Contact: www.peteblandsports.co.uk

Inov-8 Roclite 282, £70

They say: The radical-design upper provides excellent support, while the fascia-band aids the propulsion efficiency of the running cycle. Waterproof breathable uppers protect your feet in any weather and let sweat evaporate, and a five-finger shank in the midsole aligns with each metatarsal for protection from stone bruising.  

We say: Inov8 has forged a great reputation for its lightweight performance fell shoes. The Roclite 282 is built on that tradition. Despite being one of the lightest shoes on test, the minimalist design still offers an incredibly tough and rugged shoe. 

Contact: www.inov-8.com

Salomon XT Wings, £85

They say: The XT Wings handles all terrain with unparalleled speed and agility. The uppers are made of quick-drying breathable mesh, while the rubber toe caps provide protection. Triple-density EVA in the midsole helps perfect your stride.  

We say: One of the least aggressive outsoles on test, but thanks to the midsole flaring out around the heel they feel supremely secure. As easy to put on as a regular running shoe but the innovative lacing system ensures the shoe stays secure. Impressive attention to detail around the laces, too, with a pocket and mud-guard mesh. 

Contact: www.salomonrunning.com/uk


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