How to Choose the Best Trail Running Shoes – A Beginners Guide

trail running shoes

Trail running offers a different sensory experience than running on urban roads.

It’s like a portal to someplace far away from the hustle and bustle.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

Trails are no easy walk in the park.

When tackling them, you’ll encounter different types of terrains, such as puddles of mud, rocky paths, and trippy tree roots.

So, whether you’re running through fields, along towpaths, or steep mountain trails, you’ll need a suitable pair of running shoes for each type

In today’s post, I’ve put together this beginner guide on how to choose the best trail running shoes for you.

Sounds great?

Let’s get started.

The Reasons You Need Trail Shoes

Trail shoes are made for off-road running and include plenty of features not found in your regular, road, running shoe.

These provide trail-specific traction, durability, cushion, protection, and comfort on the various terrain and conditions.

Since your typical road running sneakers aren’t designed for the trails, they’ll be more than likely break down much faster as well as leave your feet exposed to gnarling roots, sharp rocks, and anything else you encounter on the off beaten path.

That’s why if you’re looking to make trails a regular part of your running routine, for the sake of comfort and injury prevention, go for a shoe form the “trail category.”

Without further ado, here are the guidelines you need for choosing proper trail running shoes.

The Terrain

Before purchasing trail shoes, consider the type of terrain you’ll be running on most often.

Trails are not created equal—the type of terrain will dictate what shoe will work the best for you.

When picking trail shoes, go for a pair that gives the most optimal grip and protection on the surface you’ll be running on.

Stick with this guide!

  • On soft park paths, crushed gravel or packed dirt, go for a flexible midsole with less underfoot protection, and no need for a highly aggressive tread.
  • On muddy or slippery surfaces, you’ll need shoes designed with a more aggressive tread with deep and widely spaced lugs so that the mud doesn’t get stuck underneath the shoe.
  • On rugged, gnarly, surfaces, choose trail shoes with an aggressive tread and lugged soles to help improve traction and balance over mucky sections, sticky rocks, and steep sections.
  • On rocky, harsh surfaces, go for a shoe with a stiffer outsole for more stability and better protection from impact. Reinforced upper will help shield your feet from sharp rocks.


One of the main differences between trail shoes and road shoes is the tread.

Trail shoes’ tread is far more aggressive than regular running shoes.

As a general rule, the deeper the lugs (the “cleats” on the outsole), the better traction of the shoes, especially on muddy and slippery surfaces.

On the other hand, shorter lugs work well on dry, hard-packed trails, and they’ll provide extra stability and efficiency.

Simple tips for choosing the right tread.

  • If you plan to primarily run on hard-packed trails, choose trail shoes with shorter— Roughly 2 to 4 millimeters is the sweet spot- and more closely spaced lugs.
  • If you plan on running on soft ground or wet, sloppy conditions, go for an outsole tread pattern with a range of deeper lugs, 5 millimeters, or deeper.
  • Intending to run on technical trails with poor footing? Choose rigid shoes with deep lugs (5mm+). Just keep in mind that these may feel uncomfortable on road runs.

Shoe Fit

Tackling trail surfaces involves many more changes of direction and speed than typical road running, and that’s why it’s key to go for a pair that fits well.

As a rule, your trail shoes should fit sung around your arch and midfoot area and have a locked-down fit in your heel.

woman running

Make sure your trail running shoes are neat around the ankle, snug but not too tight around the middle of the foot.

Another ground rule, leave at least a thumb’s width of extra room between the end of your longest toe and the front of the shoe, with sung heel and midfoot.

This will help you avoid the agony of the unavoidable toe-stabbing that occurs when tackling technical trails.

You should also test different pairs of the same genre to find the ideal comfort. For trails, comfort comes first!


When running on hard surfaces, you’ll want a pair of running shoes with plenty of trail-specific features to protect your feet, especially on

rough surfaces with rocks, roots, branches, mud, and water.

Most trails shoes have a reinforced toe bumper and extra-durable upper that protect your feet against impact.

They’re also designed with a hard plate, usually hidden between the midsole and outsole to protect from sharp objects.

Just keep in mind that the more protection features, the heavier the shoes.


Some trail shoes are designed with waterproof features.

These can help keep your foot dry and comfortable, often via an interval sock-like lining.

Waterproof trail shoes are usually demarcated by the letters “GTX,” short for “Gore-Tex®.”, and are most helpful in wet, cold climates or when running on snow.

But If you’re going to do any running in water deeper than the top of the shoes—as in when crossing through a creek or running under the rain—the water can get trapped inside of the shoes, adding a lot of weight to each foot.

Instead, go for non-waterproof, quick-draining, shoes, or add gaiter that prevents water from seeping in at the collar.

Here’s the full guide running shoes anatomy.

Here’s how to make your running shoes last longer.


The above trail shoe checklist of features will get you well on your way to your perfect pair of shoes.

Just remember to ask for advice from someone at your local running store or another trail runner, especially for those with a history of injury.



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