Here our wear-testers are looking for the overall fit of the shoe, cushioning and breathability. Comfort is a function of the materials used, the way the shoe is constructed, and the manufacturer’s design choices. A comfortable trail shoe ought to feel plush inside the upper, not overly restrictive around the midfoot and toe box, and almost unnoticeable on the trail. Some trail shoes in this round of testing had seamless construction thanks to welded (not sewn on) overlays, and some had uppers constructed of an entire sock-like bootie. Two of the most comfortable shoes in our test were the Hoka One One Speedgoat 2 and the Asics Gel-FujiRado. The Speedgoat 2 has a plush upper with just the right amount of padding, while the Gel-FujiRado has a bootie that one wear-tester said he would almost be willing to run in sockless.
Our wear-testers are also looking for how speedy the shoe feels on the trail, and on what types of terrain. One shoe might feel fast on smooth-rolling gravel, while a different shoe with different features feels speedy when bombing down technical descents. We’re looking for shoes that feel light on the trail, with a quick turnover and efficient footstrike (as opposed to a plodding, sluggish stride). The speediest shoe in this round of testing was the new Ultra Vertical from The North Face, which all of our testers praised for its nimble, quick feel.
Inner bootie and micro-adjustable lace dial on the Asics Gel-FujiR
SECURITY OF FIT
Here, we’re looking for how well the foot feels locked-in and secure. A good trail shoe ought to have supportive uppers that keep the foot from sliding around. The shoe needs a secure fit to confidently clear trail obstacles like rocks and roots, as well as off-camber sections and steep ascents/descents. A shoe that doesn’t fit securely isn’t a shoe you can feel confident or fast in. In this round of testing, the models that offered the most secure fit were the Altra Lone Peak 3.5 Mesh Mid and the La Sportiva Akyra. The Lone Peak has supportive uppers topped with a mid-height ankle collar that keeps the foot exactly where you want it. The Akyra is a burly, aggressive shoe meant for the most technical trails, where it’s important that the foot feels locked in place with no movement.
Our team put in miles across a range of different terrains, and each shoe was evaluated on how well it handled rocks, roots, loose gravel, hardpack, wet ground, soft ground, and other types of surfaces. A shoe’s agility is related to how well it handles technical terrain without losing grip or forcing the runner to slow down. A lot of this depends on the shoe’s outsole material, lug placement, lug depth, and lug design. Some of the shoes in our test, like the Hoka One One Stinson ATR 4, have relatively low, flat lugs that don’t bite into technical terrain. The winner in this category was the Hoka One One Speedgoat 2, which has an aggressive outsole that handled a wide range of trails with ease and confidence.
Here, our wear-testers are looking for a shoe’s energy return. When they run, and especially when they turn up the pace, we’re looking for how well the shoe gives a lively reaction. Shoes with poor responsiveness are often described as marshmallows—i.e., the runner sinks into them instead of easily bounding forward down the trail. The most responsive shoe in this round of testing was The North Face Ultra Vertical, which has a relatively firm midsole that one of our testers described as “fast, fun and snappy.”
Midsole of The North Face Ultra Vertical & outsole of the Hoka One One Speedgoat 2
Finally, our wear-testers looked for how well each shoe protected the foot from trail obstacles like rocks and roots. We looked for structural design features like the presence of a rock plate embedded in the midsole and a full-coverage, durable rubber outsole without exposed foam. Some models also protected feet with high stack height rather than an embedded plate. We also looked at the uppers, including how protective the front-end toe bumper is, how well the overlays protect the sides of the foot, and whether the mesh prevents dust and trail debris from getting into the shoe. Some of the shoes we tested (primarily those from Altra), have built-in hooks for gaiters, which are an optional ankle cover to give even more protection from dirt, dust and small rocks getting into the shoe. The most protective shoes in this round of testing were the Hoka One One Speedgoat 2 and the La Sportiva Akyra. Neither has a rock plate, but both have burly full-coverage outsoles, thick midsoles, and protective uppers.
Comparing outsoles of the (left to right) The North Face Ultra Vertical, Altra Timp, Asics Gel-FujiRado, and Hoka One One Stinson ATR 4
With those six categories in mind—comfort, speed, security of fit, agility, responsiveness, and protection—our team of dedicated testers put the eight models head-to-head. When it all shook out, the Hoka One One Speedgoat 2 stood on top, with The North Face Ultra Vertical close behind. However, we recognize that runners with specific needs may find that shoes lower on our score-sheet may be right at the top of their personal list. A mountain runner in Colorado may be a perfect match for the La Sportiva Akyra, while someone tackling a gently-rolling 100-miler on Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail may find that the Hoka One One Stinson ATR 4 has exactly the comfortable, plush ride they need. A runner who wants a dual-duty shoe for fast hiking and backpacking should absolutely look at the new Altra Lone Peak 3.5 Mesh Mid. There’s a standout feature in every single shoe we tested, and our collective assessment is meant to be a starting point and guidepost, not a final determination or universal conclusion.
All eight shoes in this round of testing, waiting to head out the door to the trail
Over the course of a few weeks, our wear-test team does multiple runs in each pair of shoes they test. They aim for a variety of runs (easy recovery runs, long training runs, harder race-pace efforts), across as many different types of trails as they can manage. The team is spread across the country, so we are able to test under a variety of different conditions, terrains, and types of trail. We tested them on gently rolling singletrack, in the mountains, in the muck, over trees, powering up technical climbs, and flying down steep descents. We tested them on easy training days and through ultramarathons.
Each member of the wear-test team individually evaluates each model on six different criteria: (1) comfort, which involves overall fit and cushioning, (2) speed, which is how nimble and quick the shoe feels at pace, (3) security of fit, which involves how locked-in and stable the foot feels when the shoe is laced up, (4) agility, which is related to the shoe’s traction across a range of different surfaces, (5) responsiveness, which involves the shoe’s energy return and whether it feels snappy or sluggish, and (6) protection, which is how well the shoe’s technical features protect the foot from trail obstacles.
The Team Lead collects and aggregates the wear-test team’s feedback into a combined review that highlights areas of agreement and disagreement. Individual assessment of each category are scored on a scale of 1-10, and the individual scores are tallied into an overall Gear Institute Rating. The shoe with the highest aggregate Gear Institute Rating based on all six criteria is awarded Best in Category for that round of testing.
WHAT IS A CUSHIONED & PROTECTIVE TRAIL SHOE?
Cushioned & Protective shoes have a wide range of features and details. There are models from traditional running mainstays like New Balance and Asics, as well as some of the biggest new names in trail running like Altra and Hoka. Some are updated versions of models that have been around for a few years, while others in the test are brand-new introductions to the field. Some try to perfect the versatile trail shoe; others try to stand out from the crowd with innovative, distinctive features like a wind-up lacing system and a mid-top upper that resembles a hiking boot. Some of the models in the test are all-arounders to lace up for all sorts of different trails, while others hit a specific performance niche.
As they put each shoe through its paces, our team tried to answer a range of questions. The answers help them evaluate the shoe and compare it to others in the test. We try to ask exactly the same questions you’d be asking about your own trail running shoes. Are they comfortable straight out the box, or do they need a break-in period? How well do they fit, and how secure does your foot feel on the trail? What sorts of terrain do they perform best on, and can we identify what features or details explain it? Since they’re trail shoes, where do they grip, and where do they slip? What are their strengths, and what are their points of weakness? When we try to turn up the pace, how well do they respond? On the trail, do they feel lively and nimble, or sluggish and slow? When we put long runs into them, do they feel as good at the end as they do at the beginning? How do we feel the morning after a long run in them? Any noticeable wear after a few runs? When the round of testing is over and all the reviews are uploaded, which pair do we want to postpone boxing up so we can keep running in them?
The La Sportiva Akyra has a burly outsole and supportive heel
We’re also looking carefully at each shoe’s specs, design, and construction details. Shoes in this category typically have relatively high stack heights (in this round, they range from 25mm heel/17mm forefoot all the way up to a massive 39mm heel/34mm forefoot). They often have plush uppers with a combination of breathable mesh panels and stitched-on overlays for support. The heels are typically firm to rigid, and the front of the toe box has a wraparound bumper to protect vulnerable toes against errant rocks and unexpected roots.
There can be substantial variation between shoes in this category though. Some that we tested have relatively low outsole lugs, and could easily double as a comfortable trail/road hybrid shoe. Others have outsoles with deep, aggressive lugs that claw into soft ground and grip tight on rock-strewn trails. Some of the shoes we tested have relatively large 8-10mm heel-to-toe drops, while others are built on a zero-drop platform. To deal with sharp rocks and trail obstacles, some have a stiff rock plate embedded in the midsole, while others rely on firm foam and a high stack height to protect the bottom of the foot.
A comparison of the midsole and outsole on The North Face Ultra Vertical and Hoka One One Stinson ATR 4
Because there’s a lot of technology and material in these types of trail shoes, they tend to be more expensive than the average running shoe. MSRPs for the shoes in our test ranged from $110 at the low end to $160 for the highest-priced model. A higher price does not necessarily mean better performance, and the top three highest-scoring models in this test have MSRPs right around the group’s average.