How to Choose the Right Trail Running Shoes

Posted by Bryan on 2020 Mar 27th

How to Choose the Right Trail Running Shoes

Running in the woods, hills and coastlines we have here in New Brunswick is a pretty fun way to stay in shape. Whether it's a nature trail, mountain biking network or an ATV trail, we certainly have plenty in the Maritimes. Actually, wherever you may travel, trails can be a great way to explore the area and expand your possibilities of discovery.

But there are so many kinds of trail running shoes out there that it can be hard to know which one is right for you.

Modern trail running shoes can range from super flexible, barefoot style with no cushioning at all to the extra soft and thick soled maximal shoes - and every variation in between. They are different than our typical road running shoe in that they have a more aggressive sole, often are more durable, often have some kind of flexible rock plate to protect feet from sharp rocks and some kind of toe protection. Trail shoes usually don't have any corrective sole structure for pronation or supination either, due to the variable surface angles and bumps on trails.

I'll break the trail running shoe categories up into:
  1. Barefoot, Minimalist
  2. Lightweight, Race
  3. Transition, Trail and Road Capable
  4. Regular, Daily Trainer
  5. Maximal, Max Cushion

If you end up loving trail running and getting more into the sport, you will most likely find your self with several pairs of trail shoes, but starting with one pair that is best for where you run most is the best way to find out what you like.

There are a few questions you need to ask yourself when narrowing down which shoe is best for you.
  1. What do I want to do? Any goals you have. Upcoming race? Get in shape?
  2. Where do I want to go? Local trails? Road and trail capability? Fundy Footpath (FFP)?
  3. Where am I most likely to run with these shoes. (Be honest with yourself here.)

Barefoot, Minimalist

An example of a Barefoot Minimalist shoe is the Merrell Vapor Glove 4 below.

It has a thin, semi aggressive sole with no cushion. These shoes provide a great feel for the trail but generally aren't suited for longer runs. They have a wider forefoot to mimic the natural shape of the foot and a zero drop. Drop refers to the difference in millimeters of sole thickness from the heel to the ball of the foot. Some people find they can run in these without knee pain but they are not for everyone. People who have gone barefoot most of their lives and walk or hike often are more suited to try these. You have to be careful with the increased impact and add more recovery time for each run.

Lightweight, Race

The Salomon Sense Pro 4 are a great example of a lightweight race shoe. They do have some cushioning and a bit of drop, (typically 4-6 mm), are lighter than a daily trainer and meant for racing, (typically 25 km or less), or short, faster efforts and workouts. They are a good mix of ground feel and cushioning.

Transition, Trail and Road Capable

These shoes most resemble a typical road running shoe with a similar drop, (typically 8-12 mm), and ample cushion. They differ in that they have a slightly more aggressive sole but one that is more durable than a dedicated trail shoe for use on pavement. The Salomon Women's Sense Ride 3 is a great example of this. It's a great shoe if you just want to get in shape and you want to keep your options open for running on the road and the trails. 

Regular, Daily Trainer

The Salomon Speedcross 5 is the best example of an all around trail running shoe. It has a sticky rubber sole that grips well on wet and dry surfaces, big lugs for traction in mud and soft ground. Very durable, ample cushioning and a larger 8-12 mm drop. It's not great for the road because the large, softer lugs will wear quickly. Some people like to hike in these because of the incredible traction but they often have strong ankles and have walked or run most of their lives.

Maximal, Max Cushion

These shoes are at the opposite end of the spectrum from barefoot and minimalist. They have thick, extra soft soles, and are best suited to longer runs such as ultra marathons or long adventure runs. They often give amazing traction because they have a larger sole to add stability for being higher off the ground and the extra soft sole acts like a low pressure jeep tire, mushing around what ever roots and rocks you might step on. This increases the surface area of contact with the ground. They do look clunky but are fairly light due to the low density foam in the mid-sole. They don't have much ground feel and the drop can vary from 0 to 8 mm. The Hoka One One, (Hoka for short), Speedgoat 4 is a great example of a maximal shoe. Many through hikers, (think Appalachian Trail), use these shoes if they have a history of hiking, walking and strong ankles.


If you want to get into the woods and on the trails as much as you can, then a regular daily trainer, (Salomon Speedcross 5), will be a great start. If you have a goal race on the horizon, (25 km or less), then you will probably need a daily trainer and a light weight race shoe, (Salomon Sense Pro 4). The barefoot shoes, (Merrell Vapor Glove 4), are best for people who go barefoot a lot anyway. If you have an ultramarathon on your list, are an older runner or just like to run an awful lot, then the maximal shoes, (Hoka Speedgoat 4), might be your best bet. These can work as a daily trainer as well.