Best trail running shoes 2018: storm over tough terrain

Get speed and support across grassy, muddy, stoney trails with our pick of the best off-road, trail running shoes. It's going to get messy…

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It's summer and time to hit the rough, in the best trail-running shoes, now they're less icy, muddy and generally soul-sapping. Oh what, you like that? Never mind, winter will be back before you know it.

Those planning to escape the tarmac and run off-road, should make sure you're lacing up a pair of shoes built to contend with everything the trail can throw at them. To help you find the perfect pair, T3's resident off-road running experts have hunted down finest trail running shoes available to humanity, from lightweight racers to full-on ice-busting, hill-conquering trainers that will transform you into a human mountain goat.

How we picked the best trail running shoes

Our resident jocks, sorry, running experts, Kieran and Luke have sampled numerous trail running shoes from the best brands, to pick a selection that offers something for everyone.

Our pick for the best trail running shoe overall was the On Cloudventure Peak. This lightweight, versatile and fast off road shoe provides power on the ups and stability on the downs and is a great option for those who split their time between tarmac and trail. Serious ultra running mountain goats should definitely check out the inov-8 X-Talon 230, which set a new high for grip, comfort and durability on the tougher terrain. 

The other shoes are then listed very approximately in order of how much we like them.

However, you should also note there are also shoes in the list below for different off-road specialisations, different levels of grip and support, and so on. 

To help you make the best choice, we've indicated what we think each shoe is best for. 

Trail running shoes: a buying guide

Trail runners, just like road-running shoes, come in numerous variants, with something to suit every style and level of running ability.

High up the list of requirements for most people will be things like weight, grip, increased support, durability and decent waterproofing.

Most of the big brands like Nike and Adidas offer adaptations of your favourite road runners, but there are plenty of other brands that specialise in off-road running, such as inov-8 and Salomon, so don't restrict your search to the obvious. 

Your perfect trail running partners might even come from a brand you've never tried before.

Have a think about where you're going to run most. Do you want shoes that can cross comfortably from road to trail? Do you want a pair that's going to help you get over tough, stoney tracks? Or perhaps you're hitting hills that have just as much grass as dirt track.

Try on as many pairs of shoes as your patience can stand. If they feel in any way niggly in the shop, they're going to be 10 times worse when you're clambering down steep hills.

You want to find shoes that almost feel like they're not there the moment you slip them on. That's a good sign you're on the right track.

The best trail running shoes, in order

  • Handy tip: we've generally included the most up-to-date versions of each of these shoes, for obvious reasons. However, you can usually still buy older incarnations, from previous years, that are functionally very similar, but often cheaper. That is a bit skanky, though.

1. On Running Cloudventure Peak

Best trail running shoes for rapid hill chasers

Specifications
Built for: Moving fast on unpredictable surfaces
Reasons to buy
+Extra stability on the descent+Look good off the trails
Reasons to avoid
-Pods on soles can collect stones

With a tagline like “as fast as the Alps are high”, the Cloudventure Peak sets a pretty lofty goal. The minimalist, highly flexible shoes have been stripped down to create the fastest shoe possible, whether you’re running up or down those challenging hills or powering along horizontal surfaces. 

The overriding goal is to make ascents and descents feel flatter, while still offering the cushioning, protection and durability you’ll need on unpredictable surfaces. 

• Buy On Running Cloudventure Peak from Amazon

To assist with this, the patented Speedboard tech (which has underpinned On’s running shoes since 2013) combines with the Cloudtec pods to propel you forward on the uphill stretches, all while helping you maintain your natural running style. 

On the up, the design reduces the temptation to transfer too much weight onto the forefoot and can unlock speed you didn’t know you had when powering up those mountains. 

Then, during your descent, the Cloudtec pods slide backwards on contact, offering you more support and cushion, and a little more resistance when planting your foot. Rather than the unpleasant slapping of the forefoot, the shoe encourages a nice forward roll for a feel more akin to cycling than running. 

For the Cloudventure Peak, On deployed a super-detailed micro-engineered, 4-level rubber grip profile, delivering different levels of traction and control where you need it most. 

Design wise, the Cloudventure Peak offers a considerably lower ankle profile than most of its competitors. It’s a striking design choice, even for a shoe company that thrives on them. However, this has enabled On to reduce the weight and prevent any unnecessary rubbing against the ankle. There’re also heel and toe caps to guard against those pesky rocks and tree roots that sometimes appear out of nowhere.

The Peak also offers a unique upper constructed from a lightweight, breathable, durable and fast-drying ripstop material. There’s an inner sock construction that eliminates blisters, while the slim and comfortable tongue helps to bring the weight (260g) down further. 

Unlike some trail running shoes, these are also stylish enough to wear around town and comfortable enough on a workday when a lot of walking is in order. 

On’s Cloudtec pods can split opinion, mainly because they’re prone to stone intrusion rather than any issues with the cushion provided. However, those unwanted passengers they tend to work themselves out relatively quickly. Also, it’s fair to say some runners (especially those with previous injuries) might miss the ankle support when tackling longer distances. 

Overall though, the innovative tech on board and the ability to unlock a more explosive running style makes the On Cloudventure Peak our top pick for trail running. Although not 'cheap' as such, they’re priced comparably to their competitors.

For those who enjoy On's road running shoes, this is the perfect equivalent if you’re planning a switch to the trails. It uses the same 6mm heel to toe offset, so you’ll feel right at home. 

2. Merrell All Out Crush 2 Gore-Tex

Best trail running shoes for long-running vegans

Specifications
Built for: Long distance trail running
Reasons to buy
+Animal-friendly production+Fully waterproof
Reasons to avoid
-Tend to come up a little narrow

Brand new for 2018, the All Out Crush 2 builds upon its popular predecessor, with a versatile trail shoe suited to long distance runs or hikes. It arrives with a waterproof Gore-Tex membrane that offers a lightweight (190g per shoe) construction with breathable protection. 

• Buy Merrell All Out Crush 2 Gore-Tex from Amazon

Vegan-friendly, the Crush 2 promises the same great traction thanks to the M Select Grip outsole, while comfort is there in abundance thanks to the Lycra neoprene heel lining and integrated footbed. If the heavens do open, you’ll also benefit from a fast-draining mesh and TPU upper. 

Merrell’s TrailProtect pad technology is also on board, delivering some additional support on those tough rocky routes. Some runners might find they run a little narrow so you might want to grab a wider size than normal. If you’re looking for a more agile running shoe for the summer, you may want to consider the Bare Access 3D Knit shoe, which offers a lower profile and a sock like fit. However, you’ll sacrifice the waterproof protection.

3. Hoka One One Speedgoat 2

Best trail running shoes for ultra runners with a need for speed

Specifications
Built for: Fast miles on rugged terrain
Reasons to buy
+Inspired by an ultra legend
Reasons to avoid
-Might not be one for newcomers

If you’re unfamiliar with the modern parlance, the word goat now not only refers to the creatures you may see idly grazing along your trail route; it’s also an acronym for the Greatest Of All Time. 

In the case of Karl “speedgoat” Meltzer, there’s no disputing that status. He holds the record for the most 100-mile race wins and has completed the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail faster than anyone else. 

• Buy Hoka One One Speedgoat 2 from Amazon

The second-generation Hoka Speedgoat 2, inspired by Meltzer’s feats, is a complete redesign. Whether it’s rocky, sandy, muddy or root-filled, this shoe will allow you to “attack all breeds of technical trail,” and keep you out there for hours on end. 

The manufacturer says the fit, stability and durability have been improved. The latter is aided by deeper Vibram lugs, which can stand up against rugged terrain, while the base has been widened to ensure more traction and stability and protection against potentially awkward landings.

It’s everything we loved about the first Speedgoat, just improved for even tougher surfaces. Given the design features about nine different colours, they’ll certainly see you coming in these. If you want to take them for a spin, the manufacturer offers free shipping, free returns and a 30-day guarantee. 

4. Saucony Xodus 2 ISO GTX

Best trail running shoes for plush rides over bumpier trails

Specifications
Built for: Encouraging a natural running style
Reasons to buy
+Low heel-drop
Reasons to avoid
-Might be too bulky for some

More adept at navigating puddles than your average mallard, the GoreTex-protected Xodus 2 ISO GTX is Saucony’s top trail-running shoe with good reason – it’s packed full of custom tech. There’s a 4mm heel-to-toe drop promising a more natural run. That means when the foot is fully planted, the heel is a mere 4mm higher off the ground than the forefoot. Saucony says this helps runners benefit from allowing their bodies to do the work rather than relying on the cushioning system. It sounds kind of odd, but trust us, it makes sense when you’re out there. 

• Buy Saucony Xodus 2 ISO GTX from Amazon 

Meanwhile the Everrun cushioning system promises smoother landings and stronger takeoff, while the Isofit system that lends its name to the Xodus 2 gives runners a custom made snug feel. 

Whether it’s mud or rocks, the ever-reliable, hexagonal PWR TRAC outsole will serve you well in a range of unenviable conditions. It’s tough, responsive waterproof, breathable, comfortable and versatile. The gusseted tongue is also great at keeping debris out. What more could you ask from a trail running shoe?

5. Inov-8 X-TALON 230

Best trail running shoes for wet conditions

Specifications
Built for: All-round off roading
Reasons to buy
+Brilliant grip in the wet+Good energy return
Reasons to avoid
-Tarmac is like Kryptonite to them

Time flies when you’re on the trail. The X-Talon shoe is celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2018 with the addition of the X-Talon 230. Alongside the new 210, it’s the first ever Inov-8 shoe to feature the brand new Stickygrip outsole. The claw-like 8mm moulded studs remain very much in play, but a new rubber compound offers much improved traction on all terrains. 

• Buy Inov-8 X-TALON 230 from Amazon

Inov-8 had also added a new flexible rockplate that lines up with each metatarsal, which can protect your feet against the nastiest protruding rocks. And make these shoes pretty much bullet proof. In the midsole, we’ve got Inov-8’s Powerflow+ tech, which offers a soft landing without dumping all of that hard-earned momentum into the ground.

In order to keep the X-Talon 230 as light as possible (230g as the name suggests), the company constructed the upper from new materials and is including a gusseted tongue and protective rang to keep out run-ruining debris and water.

If you’re after a slightly lighter and faster solution, the 210g X-Talon 210 offers the same Stickygrip tech, but you’ll lose the flexible rockplate. The stripped-back upper is also a little more breathable also comes minus the wraparound rand.

6. Salomon Sense Ride

Best trail running shoes for everyday trail addicts

Specifications
Built for: All-day off-road comfort
Reasons to buy
+Cushioned ride+A little bit of style
Reasons to avoid
-Struggle on more rocky terrain

Most trail running shoes favour function over looks and, given they abuse they’re subjected to, that’s not surprising. But with the Salomon Sense Ride, you get a pair of trail blazers that you can look down at and enjoy the view.

• Buy Salomon Sense Ride from Amazon

Beyond the pleasing aesthetics, the Sense Ride is headlined by the Vibe cushioning system, which helps to disperse vibrations from shock before they reach your foot. The EnergyCell+ tech within the midsole also delivers great energy return, while the Contragrip outsole is designed to combat wet and slippery surfaces.

The upper has Salomon’s trademark easily-adjustable quick-lace technology, and the laces themselves contain Kevlar fibres that encourage one-pull tightening. Once you’ve got the perfect fit, the laces can be tucked a way into a pocket and won’t interfere with your run. Salomon also includes its Endofit inner sock, promising a snug fit and heightened foot security.