Dominate the Dirt: A Guide to Trail Running Shoes

Words by Peter Wolter and Annie Pokorny.

That’s right all you off-road runners out there—‘tis the season to start trail running again. And when it comes to this pursuit, your kicks are obviously the most important piece of your equipment. We tested scores of shoes and three rose to the top. Happy trails to you!

Women’s:

 

HOKA Challenger ATR 3
$130
HOKAs are maximalist shoes, and in our mind’s, a sensible response to the uber-minimalist trend that took hold a few years ago. HOKAs are known for their cush and the surprisingly lightweight nature of all that cush. The Challenger ATR 3 is a good transitional shoe for those interested in making the move from traditional and low profile running shoes to the maximalist approach. The Challenger performs well on trails—it’s stable and responsive. And lightweight enough for the speedsters in your running group. The stack height at the heel is is 31mm and 25mm under the forefoot, less dramatic than the Clifton 3. The Challenger 3 toe box has a bit more space than the previous version of the ATR—so if you’ve struggled with width in previous versions of the Challenger, that’s a definite bonus for this iteration. Other improvements? HOKA designers widened the platform underfoot and that increases stability. Overall, loved the new Challenger and can’t get enough of it on the trails—long or short distances.

Salomon Sense Pro Max W
 $150

Well, you just gotta love any shoe that starts out with a hug. According to the Salomon website, “The Sensifit and Ortholite Endofit technologies are our shoe’s equivalent of a hug.” Stop right there. You had us at hello. The midsole height is 30 mm at the heel and 24mm at the forefoot, with a 6mm drop. So Salomons have their own brand of cush and we like it. Salomon loves your feet so much that they employ anti-vibration technology and 17mm of ‘Energy Cell + Foam,” giving you ample (but not too much) bounce for your longer distance runs. For reliable traction on a variety of trails and conditions, the shoe utilizes a “Wet Traction Contagrip” outsole. Overall, Salomon’s Sense Pro Max is a lightweight, responsive, and stable shoe that is definitely going to be one of our go-to shoes for all the trail running miles we plan to log this summer training for the Cirque Series (sign up here). And finally, there is the Quicklace™ bonus feature—you have appreciate anyone out there trying to save you time and give you a better fit at the same time. We have nothing against tying our own shoes, but we appreciate the pull and tuck situation Salomon shoes offer.

Saucony Peregrine 7
 $120
 The latest edition of Saucony’s Peregrine series has 8.4 ounces of trail-sticking lightness for which the line has become famous. Out of the box, the shoe fits tighter than other models, but opens up quickly with one or two wears. This is a neutral shoe with a medium cushion, most of which is directed toward the heel. However, a newly added EVERUN top sole is designed to distribute cushion throughout the shoe. While by no means a minimalist shoe, the latest Peregrine feels light, with a PWRTRAC® signature traction that keeps you on the trail. In particular, these shoes are fantastic for trail running with steep rocky or dusty sections. It’s hard to find a shoe that can climb (and descend) granite slabs as well as it does dusty inclines–but this shoe is it. Along the tongue of the shoe are the words “run anywhere,” and this is a light shoe that will allow you to do exactly that.

Men’s:

 

HOKA Challenger ATR 3
$130

Ask anyone with a pair of HOKA shoes what they think about them. They’re like members of a cult. The first thing they’ll say is how comfortable they are and that verdict holds true with their new version of the Challenger ATR, the 3. Like the women’s, the Challenger is perfect for trail running with is lower heel lift than the Clifton or Stinson. The sole is wider under the forefoot adding to stability and our desire for a low-weight shoe has not been sacrificed at the alter of comfort.  At only 9.5 ounces, this shoe will not weigh you down. With its balanced level of cushion, it provides a connected feel between your feet and the trail. It also has a neutral level of stability that gives your foot the dexterity to adopt its natural position. The shoe is wearable not only on dirt trails, but on the road as well. The design is dynamic enough to be capable in more than one environment.

Salomon Speed Cross 4
$130
These shoes nail it 100% of the time. Wearable in almost every condition, including the road, the Speed Cross 4 is an extremely dynamic shoe. If you really want to see this shoe shine in its natural habitat, take it out on some of the “road less-traveled” trails that throw all sorts of hazards your way—mud, sticks, and rocks. The aggressive ContaGrip Traction on these shoes excels in the variable terrain that is spring running. Snow in May? No problem. These shoes have you covered from A-Z.

Saucony Peregrine 7
 $120

The first thing we noticed when with the men’s version of the  Peregrine 7 is how light they were at 9.4 ounces. Once we put the shoes to the test around Sun Valley’s trails,  we noticed that Saucony nailed the breathability. The mesh on the shoe allows for excellent airflow, keeping your feet cool in the hottest weather spring and summer can throw at you. The shoe excels in all things trail running. Need to jump over, around, and through fallen logs? Done. Need to run through mud without any worry of slipping? Done. Thanks to the PWRTRAC® technology, this shoe truly can go anywhere. With the addition of the EVERUN topsole it allows you to run for hours without worrying about sore feet. The latest edition of the Peregrine benefits from six iterations that came before.