The Best Cushioned & Protective Trail Running Shoes

This round of testing brings together eight trail running models in the Cushioned & Protective category. They’re distinguished by their stack height (typically 25-35mm in the heel), heavier weight, stable ride, and comfortable fit. These are the trail shoes you pull out for a multi-hour training run in the mountains or an ultramarathon race. Some of them can even double as lightweight hiking shoes. Our wear-testing team is spread across the country and put in many hours and literally hundreds of miles in testing each shoe on a variety of trails and types of terrain. Each shoe was evaluated on six categories: comfort, speed, security of fit, agility, responsiveness, and protection.

Review Year
Best in Class
Overall Rating
Price
Name Overall Rating Ratings The Good The Bad Price
New Balance Leadville v3
92
Best in Class
2016
Comfort 10
Speed 8
Security of Fit 9
Agility 8
Responsiveness 8
Protection 9

Seamless upper

Roomy toe box

Grippy, durable outsole

Comfortable, responsive midsole

Unobtrusive but effective medial posting

Thin tongue

Some heel slip

Relatively slow to break in

Runs about a half-size large

MSRP
$125.00
BEST DEAL
$99.99
Montrail Caldorado
91
Comfort 8
Speed 10
Security of Fit 9
Agility 8
Responsiveness 9
Protection 7

Responsive midsole

Agile, quick trail feel

Comfortable upper bootie construction

Smart stability control

Heavier than peer shoes

Laces are short

Tongue is not fully gusseted

Some lace pressure through the thin tongue

MSRP
$120.00
BEST DEAL
$60.93
Pearl Izumi Trail N3
91
Best in Class
2016
Comfort 10
Speed 8
Security of Fit 9
Agility 7
Responsiveness 8
Protection 9

Responsive cushioning

Seamless uppers

Lightweight for a maximalist shoe

Smooth & stable trail feel

Undersized lugs

Ineffective toe guard

Durability concerns on upper

MSRP
$135.00
BEST DEAL
$93.99
La Sportiva Akasha
90
Comfort 9
Speed 8
Security of Fit 8
Agility 8
Responsiveness 8
Protection 9

Secure wraparound upper

Comfortable fit

Great ground-feel

Fast and agile

Terrific traction on a wide variety of surfaces

Sizing runs short

Very firm heel

Stiff, low-flexibility midsole

Uncomfortable heel cup

Relatively heavy

MSRP
$140.00
BEST DEAL
$70.00
Inov-8 X-Claw 275
90
Comfort 8
Speed 9
Security of Fit 7
Agility 8
Responsiveness 9
Protection 9

Lightweight

Quick turnover

Aggressive grip

Wide forefoot

Overkill for smooth trails

Narrow laces

Shallow heel cups

Reduced breathability

MSRP
$120.00
BEST DEAL
$129.95
On Running Cloudventure Midtop
90
Comfort 8
Speed 9
Security of Fit 8
Agility 8
Responsiveness 10
Protection 7

Quality materials and construction

Innovative cushioning system

Comfortable bootie liner

Attractive design

Fits long and narrow

Only one color option

Difficult to put on

Thin laces

Expensive

MSRP
$160.00
BEST DEAL
$159.95
Salewa Ultra Train
90
Comfort 7
Speed 9
Security of Fit 8
Agility 8
Responsiveness 8
Protection 10

Versatile

Outsole durability

High quality

Supportive

Uncommon colors

Uncomfortable toe bumper

Thin laces

Lace grommets

Stiff heel counter

MSRP
$139.00
BEST DEAL
$103.99
Altra Lone Peak 3.0
88
Comfort 8
Speed 8
Security of Fit 7
Agility 7
Responsiveness 9
Protection 9

Terrific trail feel

Supportive upper

Integrated gaiter hooks

Comfortable fit

Challenging adjustment period

Slow foot turnover

Less stable on descents

MSRP
$120.00
BEST DEAL
$71.97
Altra Lone Peak 3.0 Neoshell Mid
87
Comfort 8
Speed 7
Security of Fit 7
Agility 6
Responsiveness 9
Protection 10

Versatile runner/hiker

Incredibly supportive upper

Roomy toe box

Effective waterproofing

Overpadded ankle collar

Very thick tongue

Traps heat

Difficult to adjust to zero-drop

MSRP
$160.00
BEST DEAL
$149.95
Pearl Izumi Trail N2 v3
87
Comfort 9
Speed 9
Security of Fit 8
Agility 7
Responsiveness 7
Protection 7

No-stitch seamless uppers

Smooth rockered sole

Responsive feel

Roomy forefoot

Breathable mesh

Heavy

Undersized lugs

Not distinct from other models

MSRP
$125.00
BEST DEAL
$77.97
Salomon Speedcross 4
87
Comfort 8
Speed 8
Security of Fit 6
Agility 8
Responsiveness 9
Protection 8

Colossal grip

Protective uppers

Durability

Long, narrow fit

Speed laces

No tongue gusset

MSRP
$130.00
BEST DEAL
$77.97
Montrail Trans Alps
86
Comfort 7
Speed 7
Security of Fit 7
Agility 7
Responsiveness 8
Protection 10

Burly outsole

Super durable

Great protection

Full-foot rockplate

Excellent traction

Heavy

Stiff

Relatively narrow fit

Slow to break in

Not very versatile

MSRP
$130.00
BEST DEAL
$77.97
Skechers GoTrail Ultra 3
84
Comfort 10
Speed 6
Security of Fit 8
Agility 5
Responsiveness 6
Protection 9

Soft, cushy midsole

Wide toe box

Innovative drainage system

Flex grooves and rocker midsole

Soft midsole feels unresponsive

Minimal groundfeel

Less stable than shoes with traditional stack heights

Poorly-suited for technical trails

The new Skechers GoTrail Ultra 3 is the successor to last year’s GoRun Ultra road/trail hybrid, but it’s a full revamp of the shoe with substantial changes. The maximalist sole has innovative drainage ports and new rubber, while the segmented sole gives it the flexibility similar high-stack models from Hoka are lacking. At just under 11oz for size 9, it’s surprisingly light, and our wear-testers universally described it as supremely comfortable to wear. Reactions to its performance on the trail were mixed, however, with some wear-testers describing it as a solid choice for off-road ultras while others found the maximalist sole energy-sapping, unstable and distracting.

MSRP
N/A
BEST DEAL
N/A
Asics Gel-FujiEndurance
84
Comfort 7
Speed 8
Security of Fit 7
Agility 7
Responsiveness 8
Protection 7

Versatile trail/road hybrid

Waterproofing

Comfortable sockliner

Snug, secure fit

Responsive midsole

Shallow heel cup

Overbuilt toe guard

Heel slip and lateral forefoot movement

Best suited for tamer singletrack

MSRP
$180.00
BEST DEAL
$179.95
Scarpa Proton
83
Comfort 7
Speed 6
Security of Fit 6
Agility 7
Responsiveness 8
Protection 9

Protective

Durable Vibram outsole

Flexible forefoot

Reflective heel elements

Abrasive forefoot stitches

Stiff heel

Widely-spaced lugs

Low-quality laces

MSRP
$129.00
BEST DEAL
$92.92
Adidas Terrex X-King Adidas Terrex X-King
82
Comfort 5
Speed 8
Security of Fit 5
Agility 7
Responsiveness 9
Protection 8

Extremely innovative

Aggressive lugs

Sticky outsole compound

Visually attractive design

Narrow removable midsole

Confusing sizing

Speedlaces come loose

Expensive

MSRP
$160.00
BEST DEAL
N/A
La Sportiva Helios SR
81
Best in Class
2015
Comfort 8
Speed & Agility 7
Security of Fit 5
Responsiveness 6
Stability 5

Extremely soft and comfortable


Excellent responsiveness and turnover

Sticky outsole rubber grips well on rock

Poor traction on gravel and scree

Limited protection underfoot

Upper breathes and drains poorly

MSRP
$125.00
BEST DEAL
$130.00
Hoka One One Challenger ATR
80
Comfort 7
Speed and Agility 7
Security of Fit 8
Responsiveness 1
Stability 7

More cushioning than any other shoe in its weight class

Surprisingly responsive

Increased ground contact area improves both stability and traction

Narrow toe box

Larger stack height requires adjustment, particularly on technical terrain

Somewhat lacking in upper protection

MSRP
N/A
BEST DEAL
$77.83
Montrail Bajada 2
78
Comfort 4
Speed and Agility 7
Security of Fit 4
Responsiveness 7
Stability 6

Excellent traction

Decent turnover for a shoe in this weight class

Well protected underfoot

Narrow midfoot and toebox

Stiff ride and cushioning

Stack height can inhibit stability on technical terrain

MSRP
BEST DEAL
N/A
ASICS Gel Fuji Attack 4
77
Comfort 4
Speed & Agility 7
Security of Fit 5
Responsiveness 4
Stability 7

Slightly more responsive than shoes in this category

Full-length outsole adds protection

Low profile lugs facilitate turnover

Slightly odd fit

A bit stiff for a comfort shoe

Traction struggles on wet surfaces and bare rock

MSRP
$110.00
BEST DEAL
N/A
The North Face Ultra Cardiac
76
Comfort 6
Speed & Agility 6
Security of Fit 7
Responsiveness 1
Stability 6

Comfortable fit and ride

Full length outsole aids traction

Good balance between flexibility and responsiveness

Protection is somewhat lacking

Short lugs struggle on loose surfaces

Narrow toe box

MSRP
$110.00
BEST DEAL
$109.95
Scott Kinabalu Enduro
69
Comfort 3
Speed 6
Security of Fit 3
Agility 5
Responsiveness 5
Protection 7

Good traction under a variety of conditions

Aggressive treads with great traction

Durable Vibram lugs

Uncomfortable fit

Narrow uppers

Constrictive one-piece plastic overlay

Heavy weight

Stiff, clunky trail feel

MSRP
$150.00
BEST DEAL
$82.47
Pearl Izumi Trail N3

The Pearl Izumi Trail N3 is the company’s burly, cushioned new addition to the E:Motion line of trail runners While it looks and feels as substantial as other maximalist shoes, the N3’s light weight, comfortable fit, and buttery smooth trail feel make it stand out in this category.

Read the Full Review Shop Now at Moosejaw

Inov-8 X-Claw 275

The Inov-8 X-Claw 275 makes smart compromises in a lightweight, nimble package that can handle challenging trails as well as multi-hour runs.  Our wear-testers had some concerns about the model’s fit and its performance on gentler terrain, but praised its responsiveness and low weight.  

Read the Full Review Shop Now at Road Runner Sports

Altra Lone Peak 3.0

The Altra Lone Peak 3.0 is an all-around trail runner that’s suitable for everything from speedy off-road 5K’s through all-day ultramarathons and light hiking. It mates comfortable, supportive uppers to a responsive EVA/Abound midsole and sticky TrailClaw outsole. Although some wear-testers reported that the Lone Peak 3.0 doesn’t feel light or agile, it’s a shoe that’s built for all-day performance and comfort.

Read the Full Review Shop Now at Competitive Cyclist

Altra Lone Peak 3.0 Neoshell Mid

The Neoshell Mid is a burly trail runner that doubles as a light hiking boot. Our wear-testers praised the shoe’s versatility, light weight, and performance on the trail, but some had concerns with the amount of padding around the heel collar and tongue.

Read the Full Review Shop Now at Backcountry.com

Salomon Speedcross 4

With its deep lugs and protective upper, the Salomon Speedcross 4 is an aggressive trail runner best suited for soft ground, muddy trails, and rocks. The new version receives only minor updates to last year’s Speedcross 3, including a slight change to the toebox, tongue, and tread. For sloppy conditions and rocky terrain, nothing beats the Salomon Speedcross 4.

Read the Full Review Shop Now at Backcountry.com

See All Cushioned & Protective Trail Running Shoes Reviews

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REVIEW RESULTS

COMFORT
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.

SPEED
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.

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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.

AGILITY
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.

RESPONSIVENESS
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.”

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Midsole of The North Face Ultra Vertical & outsole of the Hoka One One Speedgoat 2

PROTECTION
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.

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Comparing outsoles of the (left to right) The North Face Ultra Vertical, Altra Timp, Asics Gel-FujiRado, and Hoka One One Stinson ATR 4

REVIEW CONCLUSION

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.

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All eight shoes in this round of testing, waiting to head out the door to the trail

TEST METHODS

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?

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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.

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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.