Falling leaves make the perfect backdrop for any autumn run. To fully appreciate it, though, you need to go off-road. In most cases, that means changing from road to trail shoes so you can deal with uneven terrain. While your daily trainers might suffice on crushed-gravel paths, trail shoes offer protection and traction to navigate tricky singletrack.
On the following pages you'll find nine shoes we tested off-road and in the RW Shoe Lab, grouped according to the terrain they're best suited for. No matter what trails you run, one of these shoes is sure to provide the ride you seek.
The Best Shoes for Any Surface
How We Test Trail Shoes
We recruited 200 wear-testers in Reading, Pennsylvania, and East Lansing, Michigan, to run in the latest trail shoes for a month and give us feedback. We also mechanically tested each model at the RW Shoe Lab, an independent facility in Portland, Oregon, to measure cushioning (how soft/firm the midsole is; too soft and it may lack durability, too firm and it may not provide enough protection) and flexibility (how much effort it takes to flex a shoe at toe-off; generally, lighter runners need more flexibility than heavier ones).
Learn Your Foot Type!
Runner's World Editor's Choice
Type: Hybrid (best for both roads and trails)
Height: 34.8 mm (heel); 26.2 mm (forefoot)
Weight: 11.8 oz (M); 9.9 oz (W)
The Gel-Scout performs as well on dirt surfaces as it does on the pavement en route to your trail workout. That's because this shoe offers a smooth, pillowy-soft ride reminiscent of the Cumulus and Nimbus--Asics's popular neutral-cushioned road models. "I have a lot of different shoes for various needs, but these are the workhorses," says Ben Rosenberger, 51, of Reading, Pennsylvania, who logs more than half of his 35 miles per week on trails. A protective bumper at the front of the shoe shields your toes from protruding branches and rocks, while the closed-mesh upper helps keep out moderate amounts of water and dirt. The pocket at the top of the tongue allows you to tuck away loose shoelace ends. Aggressive lugs on the outsole perform well on most surfaces, but wear-testers noted that the shoe tends to slip on flat, wet rocks.
Bottom Line: A well-cushioned ride that feels light and nimble.
Video: I'm a Runner: Ziggy Marley
Height: 35.8 mm (heel); 22.8 mm (forefoot)
Weight: 11.3 oz (M); 9.3 oz (W)
The Adrenaline ASR 9 is basically an all-conditions version of Brooks's popular road model, the Adrenaline GTS 12. A slightly more rugged outsole will keep you upright on icy roads or rocky trails, and the water-resistant upper ensures your feet stay dry on all but the wettest runs. Testers appreciated the shoe's comfortable fit and stable ride.
Bottom Line: An everyday trainer that shines on both trails and roads.
Print It: 12-Week Training Log for Runners
Height: 38.1 mm (heel); 24.6 mm (forefoot)
Weight: 11.2 oz (M); 9.1 oz (W)
If your idea of a trail involves more crushed gravel than rocks and roots, the Ascend is the shoe for you. The upper feels like a road shoe, wrapping the midfoot snugly and providing a roomy fit at the toes. Substantial tread on the outsole grips nearly any surface, while deep grooves in the rubber allow the shoe to remain flexible.
Bottom Line: For fast running over a mix of smooth and uneven trails.
Search: What injuries should I watch out for on a trail run?
Height: 35.8 mm (heel); 21.6 mm (forefoot)
Weight: 12.3 oz (M); 10.6 oz (W)
Stiff and firm underfoot, the XT Wings 3 is all about pronation control and protecting the foot. A crash pad at the heel helps smooth out the initial impact of the foot striking the ground. A firm post under the arch and plastic chassis running through the midsole stabilize the foot through the gait cycle. These features will work well for runners who need support on flat and moderate terrain. A toothy outsole featuring multi-directional lugs provides solid grip on more technical and wet surfaces.
Bottom Line: A stable shoe for bigger runners on rough terrain.
Is Less More?
Height: 44.6 mm (heel); 24.0 mm (forefoot)
Weight: 11.9 oz (M); 10.1 oz (W)
The Forward Trail rides high and soft. Its 44.6 mm heel height is the tallest of any shoe in this guide. Testing in the RW Shoe Lab showed that all the cushioning makes for an extremely soft landing. With a 20.6 mm heel-to-toe drop, a plastic lever under the midfoot, and a flat outsole that stays in contact with the ground, the Forward Trail transitions quickly through the gait cycle. Testers loved the traction on soft terrain, although the pointy lugs don't provide enough surface contact for adequate hold on slick, wet rocks.
Bottom Line: Big-time cushioning for heel-strikers.
How to Tell If You Need Insoles
Height: 13.7 mm (heel); 14.3 mm (forefoot)
Weight: 9.5 oz (M); 7.1 oz (W)
The Breatho Trail is a solid execution of a minimal off-road shoe. The outsole provides nominal protection from trail debris, while 4.5 mm lugs firmly grip anything in your path. The Shoefitr scan confirms a roomy fit at the toes.
Bottom Line: For minimalists who want to tackle rugged trails.
What Should You Wear Today?
Runner's World Best Debut
Type: Racing (best for fast-paced training)
Height: 24.8 mm (heel); 17.3 mm (forefoot)
Weight: 7.2 oz (M); 5.9 oz (W)
The Vertical K is the lightest shoe we tested for this guide. At only 7.2 ounces, it's built for efficient runners who want to run fast. While the shoe lacks such features as a rock plate (which would provide more protection from trail debris), a lightweight bumper at the front of the shoe guards against any rocks or sticks you might kick. The gaiter that wraps the shoe does a nice job of keeping out dirt. The scalloped midsole and outsole puts enough rubber in contact with the ground to firmly grip soft surfaces. The shoe runs at least a half size small, and it can be a struggle to get your foot into the bootielike upper.
Bottom Line: A race-day shoe for lightweight and efficient runners.
Height: 26.0 mm (heel); 19.1 mm (forefoot)
Weight: 8.9 oz (M); 7.6 oz (W)
Low to the ground and lightweight like the road shoe by the same name, the Kinvara TR features a grippy rubber outsole that runs the length of the shoe and a plastic plate in the forefoot to protect against stone bruising.Wear-testers appreciated the breathable upper, but many noted that the shoe's fit is very narrow.
Height: 23.1 mm (heel); 16.4 mm (forefoot)
Weight: 9.2 oz (M); 7.7 oz (W)
In addition to looking good as a casual shoe, the Fore Runner RS performs well off-road. The dense mesh fabric wrapping the foot will prevent water from reaching your socks, but wear-testers found that it didn't breathe particularly well on hot days. The lugs are minimal but effective when going uphill and back down.
Bottom Line: A firm ride for runners accustomed to minimal footwear.
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