Cleat-like tread doesn't pick up rocks or dirt. Lace tightening system works well. Laces can be tucked away in a pocket.
Toe box might be too wide for those with narrow feet.
Amazing heel support. Reinforced toe holds up to tough terrain. Good traction design reduces slipping.
A narrow toe box doesn't work for wide feet.
Flexible sole offers protection while letting you feel the ground. Extremely comfortable for those who like a minimalist shoe.
Durability of the mesh has been an issue for a few users.
Gel system makes them comfortable no matter the terrain. Traction provides good grip. Great stability and construction.
Firm sole is too stiff for some.
We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
Trail running adds a new dimension to health and fitness. You're not just staying fit but also spending time in the outdoors where the mind and body can be rejuvenated. But for your health and safety, a solid pair of trail running shoes is a must. Trail runners protect your feet and offer greater stability than traditional running shoes.
Women’s trail running shoes come in several different types that may include any number of features, so how do you know which ones to choose? Our shopping guide takes you through the features you'll need to consider before buying. Don't forget to take a minute and check out our top picks for the trail runners we love to lace up.
Barefoot: These shoes have little traction and minimal if any cushioning, but they offer more protection than barefoot traditional running shoes so they can be used on well-groomed trails. However, make sure your feet are used to them before taking off for a long run.
Light/easy trails: Light trail running shoes are like regular running shoes in weight and design but offer better protection from rocks, sticks, and roots, and the traction is designed to grip groomed trails.
Rugged trails: If you like to run on different types of trails, a rugged or all-around trail running shoe is for you. These shoes have rock plates, toe guards, and sturdier designs to keep you upright and safe. Traction patterns vary more with this type of shoe to provide better grip on more types of terrain.
Off-trail: Off-trail running shoes are highly specialized and can sometimes work for hiking as well as running. They’ve got highly durable materials with increased rigidity to keep your foot (and the rest of you) from twisting. Of all the trail shoes, these are the most water resistant.
Every foot is different. That's why a shoe that your best friend loves or one that gets great reviews may not work for you. The shoe needs to fit your foot in all its uniqueness. Each brand creates a foot form, called a “last,” that it uses to design its shoes. One brand may have a last that better fits your foot. However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try a few different brands or different models within a brand.
Before buying, measure the length and width of your foot. Feet change with age and weight, so don't be surprised if your feet change over the course of a few years. If you have issues like bunions or hammer toes, you might need to look for brands with a wide forefoot. Keep in mind that the shoe should feel snug but still provide plenty of room to wiggle your toes.
If you switch to barefoot shoes, don’t wear them for long runs right away. It can take weeks or months to build your foot strength before you can wear the shoes full time. Start with a few minutes and work up to a full run when your feet are strong and well adjusted.
Traction (provided by lugs on the soles) varies by the type of trail shoe. Light trail shoes have the least amount of traction, while off-trail shoes are often specialized for snow, mud, or incline level. All-around shoes fall somewhere in between. The rubber used on the sole makes a difference in the quality of traction and the shoe’s durability. Soft rubber provides grip in wet conditions and on trails that may require you to climb over downed trees. However, it wears out quickly. Hard rubber holds its grip in dry conditions and lasts far longer.
The heel drop, or heel-to-toe drop, is the difference in height between the shoe’s toe and heel. The typical heel drop range is between 0 and 12 millimeters (about half an inch), although a few shoes may be more. In general, you want to try to match the heel drop to the other shoes you wear to avoid disrupting your stride. It all depends on your foot, stride, and comfort. If you’re unsure of the appropriate heel drop for your trail running shoes, stick to the middle of range, between 5mm and 8mm.
Higher heel drop: A higher heel drop offers better cushioning for your heel, but depending on how your foot strikes the ground, it can cause the foot to push forward against the front of the toe bed.
Lower heel drop: Lower heel drop encourages a healthy running platform with a mid-foot or forefoot strike.
No heel drop: Barefoot shoes with no heel drop may cause too much force on the heel or midfoot for someone who strikes the ground with the heel or lacks the foot strength to support the arch.
There are four cushioning levels: barefoot, minimal, moderate, and maximum.
Barefoot: You feel every nuance of the trail when you’re wearing barefoot shoes. These shoes promote proper running form, but they require some getting used to. There's absolutely no cushioning with these shoes, so be prepared to feel every rock and root.
Minimal: If you're not quite ready to go barefoot, minimal cushioning is your best option. You’ll still feel the trail, but you've got some midsole cushioning for protection.
Moderate: Moderate cushioning in a trail running shoe offers improved stability, It feels similar to wearing regular running shoes.
Maximum: These shoes offer the most cushioning. You're well protected from any ground obstacles, but the cushioning may affect the efficiency of your running because you can't feel the ground to time your takeoff as well.
Everyone's trying to cut back on weight these days and shoe manufacturers are no different. Lightweight shoes reduce fatigue. Rock plates and waterproofing both add weight but keep you comfortable for long runs. You'll have to decide how much foot protection you're willing to sacrifice to save on weight.
Rock plates: Rock plates protect your feet from rocks and debris on the ground. They also stiffen the shoe for greater stability. Rock plates range from thin and flexible foam to a stiff shank. They can prevent foot pain, which in turn reduces fatigue. However, not all trail shoes have rock plates, so if you know you’ll be running on rocky terrain, read the specifications carefully.
Toe bumpers: Like rock plates, toe bumpers are specially designed to protect your feet on the trails. These are usually a rubber toe guard that extends from the sole or a cap that absorbs the shock of kicking a rock.
Water resistance/waterproofing: In some climates, standing water and streams are the norm. If that’s true where you run, you might want shoes with some water resistance, which consists of a Gore Tex layer between the shoe’s liner and exterior. Waterproofing adds a small amount of weight, stiffens the shoe, and reduces breathability so it's not for everybody.
Breathability: Sweaty feet are uncomfortable. Look for shoes with nylon mesh that allows moisture and heat to escape.
Lacing system: Some trail running shoes have the same standard lacing holes as regular running shoes. Even within this framework, there are different ways to lace the shoes to accommodate specific running issues. Some manufacturers now use a quick-lace system that tightens with a single pull. You may not be able to tighten or loosen specific areas on the shoe as with a traditional system, but if you just want to hit the trail in a hurry, a quick-lace system is a great option.
Trail running shoes don’t usually have features to control pronation (inward rolling of the foot). On trails, strides tend to vary in length, so stability takes precedence.
Women’s trail running shoes come in a wide price range.
Light trail running shoes fall into the $30 to $80 range. They have more aggressive traction than regular running shoes and have adequate cushioning for well-groomed trails that are mostly clear of rocks and roots.
All-around trail running shoes start around $70 and go up to about $130. These shoes have increased stability and may have rock plates, improved traction, and water-resistance features.
Off-trail running shoes have a rigid construction, rock plates, and maximum cushioning and start at $110, with top-of-the-line models coming in around $200.
If you want to wear your shoes on hikes, look for off-trail running shoes with high tops to add some ankle protection to the mix.
As more people take to the trails, the number of trail running shoes on the market increases. We narrowed our list to our top five, but there are other shoes that didn’t make the cut that still might be a great fit for you. Let’s start with the Salomon Women’s XR Mission Running Shoe. This all-around shoe has a quick-lace system, so you don’t waste time getting started. It also has a foam-cushioned midsole that lets you feel the trail beneath your feet. The Merrell Women’s Vapor Glove 2 Barefoot Trail Running Shoe is a great pick if you’re leaning toward a minimal option. A rubber sole and microfiber footbed offer a small amount of cushioning. Stick to the groomed trails because the traction is also minimal.
Q. Can lacing my shoes differently affect comfort and fit?
A. Most trail running shoes have at least one or two sets of extra lacing holes. These holes allow for different lacing patterns to accommodate fit issues. If your feet are difficult to fit or you’ve experienced issues with fit in the past, we suggest staying with a traditional lacing system rather than a quick-lace system to allow for extra adjustments.
Q. Can I wear trail runners for hiking?
A. The answer to this question depends on what kind of hiking you want to do. If you'll be carrying a heavy backpack, an off-trail running shoe that has rock plates and good stability will probably work for short to medium hikes. However, a light trail shoe probably doesn't have the support necessary for hiking with more than a water bottle and snacks.
Q. Can heel drop affect how my foot strikes the ground?
A. It most definitely can. Barefoot shoes, for example, may cause you to reach out with your toes and strike in the forefoot or midfoot, which improves running form. For some runners, a high heel drop can lead to heel striking. However, if you already strike with your heel, a barefoot or minimal shoe won’t provide enough cushioning to prevent bruising. If you don’t know how your foot strikes, find a mid-range heel drop that’s somewhere between four and eight millimeters.
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