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Choosing the best trail running shoes – a guide.

Trail running has become more and more popular over the past few years with it being the fastest-growing running segment of all. And just like with any kind of specific running, be it on the track, the road or inside, having the best shoe makes all the difference when it comes to trail running training or taking it that little step further.


Some people say you can trail run in any running shoe. The truth is though, just like you wouldn’t play basketball with a soccer ball, you shouldn’t hit the trails with a shoe made for the road; it’s not what it was made to do. You have a huge chance of injuring yourself, especially when it comes to technical trail running, if you choose the wrong shoe.


The way to choose the best trail running shoe is to understand the point of each main characteristic that makes it up. Below, we’ve outlined some of the main details and points you need to consider for an ideal trail running shoe in terms of what’s in it, as well as what you will be using it for, to help you find the perfect type for you.  


If you’re just getting started with trail running check out trail running tips for beginners to gain more real-world context. And if this is your first time venturing into the great outdoors, hiking can be a great exercise too. 


Main features of trail running shoes: what to look for



This refers to the amount of support your feet and ankles receive from the shoes. In trail running, you want to have some level of stability in your shoe (so you don’t roll your ankle) but at the same time, a level of freeness to allow for your footfall to adapt to uneven terrain below.


Sole stiffness

Rocks and twigs and stones (oh my). Sole stiffness has to do with two main factors: the main one is protection (from all the things you’ll step on when trail running) and the second is give, meaning how much spring the sole packs. While protecting your foot is important, if you’re looking for speed on the trail, a shoe with springy elements not only makes for a faster run, but often a more comfortable one at that.



Trail running shoes can range from minimal to maximum cushioning. The right amount of padding depends on the type of trails you’ll be running. The higher the cushioning level (aka “stack height”) the less impact on your body – making the shoe perfect for longer distances and owning the downhill. The lower the stack height the closer to the ground you’ll feel – making the shoe great for navigating uneven terrain and racing uphill.



Comfortable fit

Fit is how close the shoe sits to the foot enclosed within it. Ideally for trail running, the overall fit should be tighter than that of other running shoes, sitting quite close in the heel but with a wider toe box (to allow for motion and stability on varied terrain). Keep in mind that with a slightly thicker sock and the natural foot expansion trail runners experience, you might still need to size up.


Secure lacing 

Trail running shoes tend to have longer laces and eyelets higher up the shoe than traditional road running shoes. This is because trail running shoes need to fit closer to the foot (see fit above) and longer laces tied high allow for this.


Grip on technical terrain 

A no brainer when it comes to the trail, grip (part of the shoe tread under the sole) is usually broken into two types: macro grip (larger rivets that can easily be seen) and micro grip (smaller grip, often that looks like a pattern). These grips work together to provide a “stickiness” when tackling wet trails or help you navigate different terrain, safely.


Heel-to-toe drop

A detail that has only really been picked up in the last few years, heel-to-toe-drop refers to the difference in size off the ground your heel sits compared to your toes. The thicker the sole, the greater the numbers. Trail running shoes tend to have quite small heel-to-toe drops as needing to feel the ground underneath is important, especially when it comes to speed.


How to pick the right trail running shoe for you: From short, light trail runs to long-distance, off-road adventures



When picking the right trail running shoe for your next adventure it’s important to establish three key elements: Terrain, purpose and weather.



Where will you be trail running? Will the ground mostly be wet, dusty, muddy, grass, have small rocks or sharp rocks? Where you run affects more than anything else the lifespan of the shoe, so choosing the wrong trail running shoe for the terrain you’ll be using it on can greatly reduce its lifespan.


Training vs race trail running type

Is this shoe to be used for training or racing? Generally, racing shoes have lower heel-to-toe drops and less cushioning as they are made for speed over everything else. Though a training shoe can, of course, also be used in a race, when hunting down a personal best, often a trail racing shoe is the push you need to get you there.


Wet weather 

Though it also falls under terrain, wet weather is one of the things that can most effect a shoe. If you will constantly be running in the rain, through puddles or over wet rock, make sure you choose a waterproof trail shoe.


How to test trail running shoes in store: Our top 5 tips



With something built for the outdoors, it’s often tricky to know from the store how it will perform where it’s meant to. To help with that, here are 5 quick and handy tips when trying on a trail running shoe.


1. Bring bigger socks. When trail running, you will usually wear slightly thicker socks than when road running, so make sure you bring the right ones in store that represent what you will be wearing in practice – that extra thickness matters when choosing the right size!


2. Grip you can see is real grip. As we mentioned earlier, grip can be a life saver on the run. The easiest way to make sure there is grip is to flip the shoe over and see it on the sole. Some trail shoes have micro grip or adhesive, but great ones should also have clear grip patterning that looks substantial underneath.


3. Roll your ankle. Well, simulate it. Making sure that your ankle can move, yet is supported when you trip (as you will when trail running) is crucial. A few paces on the side of your foot (carefully) should let you know whether you will be supported by the shoe or not. 


4. Run backwards. Running up and down hills probably isn’t a possibility when you’re in the store, so simulate it by running forwards and backwards with the shoe on. This is to have your foot feel what it is like with different areas of the shoe engaged. Running backwards puts more emphasis on your toes as though you were running uphill (counter intuitive but it works).


5. Ask the staff “What can’t this shoe be used for?” Often the difference between trail shoes lies in their use. Ask the team working there and make sure the shoe you’re testing matches the goals you’ve set to be sure.


On’s trail running shoe range


Understanding the theory behind what makes a great trail shoe is one thing, but at On, we’ve put all that knowledge in to an end result. Actually, we’ve put that knowledge to four end results to help every kind of trail runner find the perfect fit for their trail run. Let’s go in to the details of each.


Run free
The lightweight trail running shoe that's big on cushioning and grip.
See the Cloudventure
Rain Supreme
Think protection against the elements in a lightweight, durable waterproof model.
See the Cloudventure Waterproof
Reach new peaks
A lower cut and our lightest Cloudventure model ever made. Ideal for for trail racing and competition.
See the Cloudventure Peak
Go ultra
No distance is off-limits in this versatile trail shoe made for all-terrain adventure and off-road running.
See the Cloudultra


These four different models have fast become some of the most popular on the trail running scene, winning awards and races worldwide. Remembering what to look for in the best trail running shoes is one thing, but feeling them for yourself is another, so get out there, try them on, and let us know what you think (or feel).


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