How to Choose the Best Trail Running Shoe

Trail Running Shoes

Trail Running and Road Running

First, how do trail running shoes differ from those designed for road running? Trail running shoes grip better on rugged terrain because the outsoles have deeper lugs and more aggressive tread patterns for better stability. Unlike road running, trail running shoes have stiffer soles and hidden plates for added foot protection, and protective toe counters on the tips to prevent toe injuries.


Before making any purchases, consider the terrain over which you expect to run, and weather conditions that you might expect to encounter. If you’re planning to run on steep and difficult trails, then more structure and torsional support are what you want to look for. If you plan to run mainly in wet and muddy conditions, lugs that are spaced widely apart to prevent the mud from getting caught in between is normally the best choice.

Midsole and Upper

The support and cushioning of a trail-running shoe resides in the midsole. Midsoles consist of an open-cell foam material called EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate). Some use a single grade of EVA while others feature double or triple densities of EVA, placing firmer foam sections under specific sections of the foot. Some models also add polyurethane which is closed-cell foam that is firmer and more durable than EVA. Many also include a thin, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) plate or insert placed between the midsole and the outsole (below the balls of the feet) for added protection.

Mid and Outer Sole
Source:Tweak Fit

As to the construction of the upper, some trail shoes have a thin, breathable mesh while others have more protective materials. The majority of trail-running shoes have a water-resistant upper with a tight weave to keep out debris. If you’ll be contending with steep inclines and lots of loose gravel and stone, make sure to select a shoe with an upper made of substantial materials. And, there is nothing worse than blisters caused by puddle-soaked feet—for wet climates, consider a waterproof-breathable upper like Gore-Tex. In hot and dry conditions, you want a breathable mesh upper so your feet don’t get hot, which increases the likelihood of blisters.

Fit and Foot Topology

Like those for road running, trail running shoes are built around lasts, a mechanical form that has a shape similar to that of a human foot. Each manufacturer uses a last that it thinks best represents the shape of a typical foot. But, since shoes vary in size and width, a correct fit is not determined by the last alone, but also by foot topology.

Trail shoes should fit closely in the heel, a finger’s width, and the mid-foot section should fit snug, similar to a firm handshake on the foot. You want that snug mid-foot feel because you will blister quickly if the shoe is too loose. In the front of the shoe, there should be about a thumb’s width of space. Width-wise, your foot should lie flat without rubbing up against the sides. When your feet swell on longer runs, you will be glad to have the extra room.

Foot topology essentially means the shape of your foot, which is just as critical in determining the correct size as it is the length. An expert salesperson in any outdoor retailer will certainly account for topology, but if you’re unable to get to a store and can only order online, consider the foot shapes below and compare it with your own:
Foot Arches

  • Runners with flat feet no longer have arches and are prone to supinating. Supination means the feet have relatively little stability and tend to roll to the outside of your stride. Insoles or orthotics will help to provide more stability.
  • Some runners have normal arches, with little movement of the feet rolling inward or to the outside. A neutral shoe promotes a more natural stride.
  • High arches translate into over-pronation, whereby the feet roll to the inside of your stride. Select a shoe that is less cushioned but more supportive. As with supination, insoles or orthotics can help to minimize the over-pronation.

Foot Ailments

If you suffer from plantar fasciitis, bunions, or hammer toe, don’t get discouraged. You can still head out on trail, so long as you consider preventative products such as moleskin, sock liners, and insoles or orthotics to help reduce the discomfort.

Now that you have a better idea of your size and foot type, you can make an informed decision about which running shoes are best for you.

If you have any additional concerns or comments, please feel free to contact Campmor’s knowledgeable and experienced staff via live chat or the customer service line at 800-525-4784.


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  • Brock

    The best part is no matter which runners you choose your feet are going to be so much happier than being in big clunky boots!