Tread on trail running shoes

Choose your trail runners

How do you know what trail running shoes are best for you? It’s important to find the right fit for your feet to keep you comfortable on your run. It’s also wise to think about the terrain where you’ll be running, from gravel and dirt paths to technical trail running with lots of roots, mud and rocks.

Where to start

  • Road running shoes vs. trail running shoes
  • Where you’ll be trail running
  • How to fit trail running shoes
  • Different levels of support
  • Other features to look for

Road running shoes vs trail running shoes

While it’s possible to wear road running shoes on trails, you’ll likely find it worth it to invest in trail-specific shoes if you’re planning to run trails often (especially if you’re running on steep, narrow or technical terrain).

Trail runners in a race

Taking to the trails at an MEC race.

Trail running shoes are designed to have better traction and grip, thanks to rugged soles with deep lugs that dig into the ground. Compared to road shoes, they offer more protection from pointy roots and rocks. Some have thin, protective rock plates between the midsole and outsole, and others have toe bumpers to help save your feet if you bump into something sticking up on the trail. They also tend to be more durable, have a wider, more stable base, and tend to be heavier than road running shoes.

When you’re looking to buy trail runners, there are plenty of brands to choose from – Salomon, La Sportiva, Brooks and Asics are just a few examples – so it’s a good idea to try on different pairs to see what brand fits your feet. If you have a favourite pair of shoes you wear for road running, such as Nike or New Balance, start with that brand to see how their trail running shoes fit.

Where you’ll be trail running

Canada is loaded with so many places to go trail running. If you’re running on gnarly trails with loose dirt, steep sections, mucky sections and rocks sticking out, you’ll want trail shoes with aggressive tread for grip. Deep lugs on the soles help with traction, braking downhill, and are designed to be self-cleaning so you’re not weighed down by gobs of mud. Look for a well-cushioned midsole with a layer of foam to absorb shock over sharp, uneven surfaces.

Close-up of trail running shoes on trail

Rocky terrain requires a stiffer shoe to protect your feet from impacts, and some trail runners have a special impact absorbing plate in the sole that spreads the force over sharp rocks and bumps. This plate as well as stiffeners provide torsional rigidity to lessen foot fatigue and reduce the chance you’ll turn your ankle. You can also find soles with sticky rubber to help keep you from skidding on smooth rocks.

If you’re running on soft park paths, packed dirt or crushed gravel trails, you can still benefit from lugs and tacky rubber for traction but may not need a highly aggressive tread. You can also opt for a more flexible midsole with less underfoot protection, which makes them weigh a bit less than stiffer shoes.

Hybrid shoes – designed to cross-over between pavement and light trails – might be a good option if you find you’re running a mix of terrain.

Some people use trail running shoes for hiking, and they can be suitable for light day hikes. Keep in mind that they don’t have the same level of support, stability or durability as actual hiking shoes or boots.

How to fit trail running shoes

In general, you want them to fit snug, but not tight, and without shifting side-to-side or front to back. Aim to try on trail runners in the afternoon or evening. Your feet can be up to a half size smaller when you wake up, and get wider and increase in volume slightly throughout the day.

Other signs they fit well:

  • You should be able to wiggle your toes inside, but you don’t want so much room that your foot slides forward or back. The toebox of trail runners is generally wider than road runners to accommodate foot swelling on longer runs and add comfort on steep downhills.
  • No slipping, lifting or rubbing in the heel and midfoot.
  • Zero hot spots or pressure points – running shoes will not “break in”.
  • They bend comfortably with your feet and aren’t squeezing them. Remember: your feet will only get wider as they swell on your run.

To help you find the right fit, visit your local MEC. At the MEC Run Lab, staff experts can diagnose your gait and foot dynamics through a pressure mat to see a customized map of your foot. Fit tests and treadmill runs confirm run lab findings so you can head out at a running start.

Different levels of support

Just like road running shoes, trail runners come with different levels of stability: neutral, mild stability and moderate stability. The shape of your arch and your gait (how you stride through each step) will be the biggest indicators of the type of support you’ll need. Review the article on how to choose running shoes to determine what level of stability you need.

Another piece to consider is feel. Do you like your running shoes to provide lots of cushion and float over long trail races? Or do you want a shoe to feel light and responsive or minimalist and natural underfoot? Trail running shoes with cushioning are common – most have lots.

Trail running on a forest path

Other features to look for

Waterproof-breathable membranes are good if you’re running in rainy or snowy months. GORE-TEX® trail running liners is just one type of waterproof membrane (there are other brands as well), and they help keep your feet drier and warmer on cold, soggy days. They tend to add a bit extra padding, so you may need to go up a half size. They could be hotter on your feet in warm weather.

Mesh and fabric uppers suit hot, dry conditions. These materials are light and wonderfully breathable, but are prone to abrasion. Mesh can also be practical for creek crossings, since it lets water drain and your shoes dry quickly.

Gusseted tongues help keep small pebbles and stones out of your shoes.

Closures will vary from shoe to shoe. Some shoes use classic lacing systems, while others use a quick pull system that can prevent the laces from loosening during long runs. You can even find shoes with pockets to tuck in the laces.

Drop (sometimes called “offset”) is the difference in height between the heel and forefront midsole cushioning. You typically want a similar type of drop that you use in your road running shoes. Our shoes are grouped by 9–12mm drop (traditional), 5–8 mm drop (transitional) or 0–4mm drop (minimalist). Read more about drop on the main running shoes page.

New to trail running? Check out the MEC Race Series for well-marked trail running races across Canada, join MEC run crews near you, and read how to start trail running: tips for road runners.

Park trail photo by thinair28/E+/Getty Images.