Trail-running shoes are constructed differently from road-running shoes. They're designed to address 2 needs vital to off-road runners:
● Grip rugged terrain: Trail-running shoes offer outsoles with deeper lugs and more aggressive tread patterns to boost a runner's stability.
● Protect your feet: Trail runners feature a stiffer sole to shield feet from bruising that might occur due to impact on rocks and roots. Many also include a thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) plate or insert sandwiched between the midsole and the outsole for added protection. Most trail-running shoes include stiff, protective toe counters on the front to prevent toe injuries.
What Type of Trail Runner Are You?
Finding a shoe that fits you well is the key to shopping for trail runners. To improve your odds of doing so, first ask yourself these questions:
Q: How will I most often use these trail-running shoes?
● For up-tempo runs and racing? If so, light weight becomes most important. The trade-off is you'll get less structure, protection and support.
● For occasional off-road runs to add variety to a road-running regimen? Look for trail-running shoes that are beefed-up versions of their road running counterparts—deep lugs and stiffer soles may not be as important to you.
Q: When and where will I be using them?
● For steep, difficult terrain? More structure, support and protection are desirable.
● For wet, muddy conditions? Look for widely spaced lugs that release mud easily.
Q: Should I get a shoe with a waterproof/breathable liner?
A: In general, the more moisture you anticipate, the more waterproof/breathable liners—such as Gore-Tex® or eVent™—make sense. Of course, there are always exceptions. Some people prefer shoes without liners, especially in hotter or drier climates, because of the increased breathability and quicker drying times.
Fit: The Most Important Factor
Fit trumps all other considerations. A proper fit will keep you from getting black-and-blue toenails or heel blisters. You may or may not regret buying a trail-running shoe based on criteria like technology, reviews, fashion or recommendations from friends. You won't regret buying a shoe that fits you well.
Q: How will I know if the trail-running shoe I choose will fit me?
A: Shoes are built around forms (either wood or plastic) known as "lasts." Each manufacturer uses a last that it believes best represents the shape of the typical human foot. Yet shoes of the same size made by different manufacturers routinely vary in depth, width and volume, indicating shoemakers have differing views on what is a typical foot shape.
Ideally you will find a shoe that closely mimics your foot's shape and characteristics. You've probably experienced this when you've purchased a pair of shoes that seemed "made for you." If athletic shoes from a particular manufacturer fit you well, that can be a great starting point, especially if they make trail-running shoes.
Otherwise, work with an REI sales specialist to locate shoes that are suited to you. If you can't visit an REI store, contact REI's customer service center (by phone at 1-800-426-4840, or live chat online) and discuss your options with a specialist. They'll need you to describe your feet in as much detail as possible:
● Are they wide, narrow or flat?
● Is your instep high or low?
● Is your foot straight or curved?
The more detail you can provide, the more likely you are to get a good fit.
Q: How can I tell what type of feet I have?
A: There is a quick test you can do to determine your foot type. Look at your footprint after swimming or showering. Feet with low arches have a lot of contact area with the ground; they leave a "filled in" footprint. Feet with high arches contact the ground at the heel, the ball of the foot and the toes, but not along the outside edge of the foot. Average feet with medium arches are somewhere between these extremes.
Certain models of trail-running shoes cater to certain foot types, due to the last used in their design and their type of sole construction. Share this information with your sales specialist; our crew will be glad to guide you to options that could be right for you.
Q: What do you mean by a "good fit"?
A: A good fit can be defined as snug everywhere, tight nowhere, with room to wiggle your toes. Functionally, a good fit should prevent blisters or bruised toenails.
Q: What can I do to predict whether a trail-running shoe will fit me?
A: We suggest 2 tests. They require an incline you can walk on and some stairs.
The first test is done walking down an incline. As you come down the incline, stomp and scuff your feet. Try to get the tips of your toes to touch the front inside of the shoes. Assuming you've laced the shoes snugly, the shoes shouldn't let you move that far forward. If the tips of your toes are touching when you do this test, it doesn't get any better once you're out running trails. With use, the shoes stretch slightly in width. You'll end up with black and blue toenails—or worse. If you don't pass this test, try on another pair of shoes.
If you do pass the downhill toe jam test, try the uphill stair test. Go up some flights of stairs, taking them 2 stairs at a time. You should check for heel lift. If your heels are lifting off the insoles more than about 1/8 of an inch consistently, a heel blister might be in your future.
Q: I have some special fit considerations. What help is available?
A: Bunions, hammer toes, Morton's neuroma, plantar fasciitis, orthotics, blisters: There are many foot problems that can potentially interfere with your running. REI carries solutions and preventative products such as aftermarket insoles (footbeds), absorbent socks and sock liners, moleskin and silicone toe caps.
Q: I've read shoe reviews online, in magazines and on social media. They all said a certain trail-running shoe is a great shoe. Why shouldn't I just buy that one?
A: Reviews and recommendations need to be approached with a certain measure of caution. Let's face it, they probably weren't written by your identical twin, so any fit advice has to be taken with a grain of salt.
Yet you can often glean useful information from reviews. If all the reviews state that a certain shoe runs wide (or narrow), then it's probably true. By all means, read the reviews, but keep in mind that the fit you experience when trying on shoes trumps all other considerations.
Q: What's the best way to order shoes from REI.com?
A: Unless you already own the year and model of the shoe you are ordering, it's a good idea to order 2 sizes. Order the size you think you are, and also order the size that you might be. Then you will have the option of returning the size that doesn't fit to an REI store or by shipping it back. This can dramatically cut down the amount of time you spend shopping and waiting.
Trail-Runner Shoe and Usage Tips
Q: What goes into the foundation of a trail runner?
A: In between the shoe's upper and the outsole is the midsole. It provides cushioning, and many trail runners include additional support materials for stability.
Trail-runner midsoles consist of EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate), an open-cell foam. Some use a single grade of EVA; others feature double- or triple-densities of EVA, placing firmer foam sections under specific sections of the foot. A few shoes also add polyurethane—closed-cell foam that is firmer, slightly heavier and more durable than EVA.
For added support, trail runners may use one or both of the following:
● Shanks: Sometimes also called stabilizers or inserts, shanks add stiffness to the midsoles. They help runners maintain balance as they navigate rocky, rooty terrain. They vary in size, depending on each manufacturer's design objectives, and are commonly made from lightweight TPU.
● Plates: Sandwiched between the midsole and outsole, plates are thin, protective layers usually made of light, flexible TPU. They also help feet from getting bruised by rocks or roots.
Q: Can I use trail runners for backpacking?
A: Here are some thoughts from Pete Smith, who has provided footwear advice at REI Seattle for more than 2 decades: "It is quite common for thru-hikers (people on the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail), weekend backpackers and day hikers to use trail runners. In most cases they're experienced hikers who are aware of 1) what their limitations are and 2) what is safe for them. Folks new to the hiking world may not understand that thru-hikers are doing 20 to 25 miles a day for 5 months straight while carrying only 20 pounds on average. A more typical 40-pound load in a backpack may cause real injury to someone less experienced wearing trail runners.
Also, while you may have strong knees and ankles, the next person (me) may not. Or, while you are doing all your hiking on trail, I may spend my days side-hilling on steep off-trail routes. I may need a boot capable of kicking edges in steep heather and on dirt hillsides, even for day hikes. Some folks want their boots to last a long time, and 1-piece leather boots will outlast ultralight synthetic boots by a mile. Others consider it a good tradeoff: They get to wear super-light boots, but they have to buy a new pair every year or 2. It's all a bunch of tradeoffs."
Q: Are there any accessories that can improve my trail-running experience?
are like rain jackets for your ankles that keep water and debris from entering your shoes. They come in various heights.
● Water bottles or hydration packs, energy snacks and gels, and sun-protection clothing, hats and sunscreen are always good items to have.
● If you're heading into unfamiliar territory, route-finding gear such as a map and compass, or a GPS unit can increase your safety and peace of mind.
Related REI Expert Advice articles:
Contributors: Pete Smith of the REI Seattle store and T.D. Wood, REI Expert Advice editor.