The Best Cushioned & Protective Trail Running Shoes
This round of testing brings together eight trail running models in the Comfort & Protective subcategory. They’re distinguished from Lightweight Trail shoes 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 even double as lightweight hiking shoes. Our wear-testing team is spread across the country, from the desert southwest to mountainous Colorado to New England and the frozen tundra of northern Wisconsin. They put in many hours and 20-80 miles 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.
To dig a bit deeper, the shoes in this round of testing 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 Hoka One One. Some are updated versions of models that have been around for a few years, while other models 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 an integrated bootie with ankle gaiter. Some of the models in the test are all-arounders to lace up for all sorts of trails, while others hit a specific performance niche (an aggressive all-mountain monster for only the gnarliest terrain, for example).
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.
The Alpine XT is a new trail model from Asics that strikes a balance between agility and protection, without sacrificing either. Our wear-test team found it versatile across a wide range of trails and conditions, thanks to an outsole with edge-to-edge lugs. The SpEVA foam midsole is responsive and lively, and cushioned enough (26mm heel, 20mm forefoot) that the lack of a forefoot rockplate wasn’t a serious hindrance. Some runners, however, may find the midsole too stiff. The uppers are a near-seamless dense knit that looks great and holds the foot securely and comfortably. Overall, our wear-test team was impressed with the new Asics Alpine XT.
The New Balance Hierro v3 is almost unrecognizable compared to its predecessor. From the ground up, there are changes to the outsole, midsole, and entire upper. While the upgrades add weight (the Hierro v3 is the heaviest shoe in this round of testing, and about an ounce heavier than last year’s Hierro v2), the benefits are substantial. The new Hierro v3 has outstanding comfort and protection with a snug bootie upper, all of which make it an excellent choice for ultramarathons and long trail days. The new design is also visually striking. On the downside, some of our wear-testers found that the extra benefits didn’t offset the added weight. There were also serious disagreements on the team about fit and traction, with wear-testers giving the Hierro v3 very high and very low marks. Overall, the New Balance Hierro v3 is a shoe that everyone will like to look at, but runners should test out before buying.
The new Hoka One One Challenger ATR 4 keeps what most runners loved about the previous version, namely the maximal-cushioned outsole and lightweight, responsive ride. There are some changes to the upper to shave substantial weight over the previous version. But the weight savings comes from stripping down the upper, and that’s the source of most of our wear-test team’s concerns. Multiple runners on our team noted the flimsy structure to the uppers and lack of support. Overall, the Challenger ATR 4 sets the standard for a cushioned, lively ride, but there’s debate about whether saving weight by scaling back the uppers was worth it.
The Brooks Caldera 2 is a lightweight, versatile trail shoe that tries to find a balance between protection and cushioning on one hand, and agility and speed on the other. Our wear-test team gave it high marks for comfort and design, but were split on how well it found the right compromise on protection and responsiveness. One called it one of his favorite trail shoes ever and an easy go-to for training, while another said it was a poor choice for anything but easy, mellow terrain without any technical features.
The new Salomon XA Elevate is a performance-oriented trail runner with terrific agility, ample protection, and aggressive tread. Our wear-testers could run with confidence up and down just about any type of terrain in any weather, from loose rock to wet roots to hard-pack snow and ice. However, the XA Elevate is built on Salomon’s performance last, which is narrow and snug, especially through the toebox. The midsole is also firm and stiff, which gives the XA Elevate terrific performance at quick paces but makes it feel harsh during longer, slower runs.
The updated Columbia/Montrail Trans Alps FKT II is a beefy, burly trail shoe that could easily double as a lightweight hiker. The substantial full-rubber outsole, full-foot rockplate and sturdy upper make the Trans Alps FKT II at home on rocky, technical mountain terrain - although those same details make it heavier than its more versatile, all-around peers like the Brooks Caldera 2 and Salomon XA Elevate. Overall, our wear-test team was impressed by the Trans Alps FKT II’s protection on the trail, but wanted to see it in a more agile, lightweight package.
The RocLite 315 is Inov-8’s all-around trail model, designed to handle technical terrain but stay comfortable enough for long days on the trail and ultramarathons. It has impressive ground-feel and aggressive tread, but the uppers and midsole are stiff and inflexible. The result is a shoe that feels clunky and unwieldy instead of agile and fast.
The Merrell MQM Flex GTX is a waterproof shoe that’s designed to do double duty as a stable, protective trail runner and an all-day hiker. It straddles the divide between categories, so it’s lightweight for a hiking shoe but the heaviest shoe in the test when compared to trail running shoes. Our wear-tester team gave it high marks for protection and durability, but thought the ride was uncomfortable and clunky.
As they put each shoe through its paces, our wear-test 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?
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 31mm heel/26mm 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 much smaller 4mm 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.
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 $145 for the highest-priced model. A higher price does not necessarily mean better performance, and the highest-scoring models are not necessarily the most expensive.
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 Brooks Caldera 2 and the New Balance Hierro v3. The Hierro v3 has a comfortably snug inner bootie liner with integrated gaiter, and the Caldera 2 has such a soft upper that one wear-tester compared it to a broken-in baseball glove.
Our wear-testers are also looking for how speedy the shoe feels on the trail, and in 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 Alpine XT from Asics, which all of our wear-testers praised for its nimble, quick feel on the trail.
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 model that offered the most secure fit was the Salomon XA Elevate. The XA Elevate has a snug fit combined with supportive overlays in the upper and a firm heel cup to hold the foot exactly where it should be.
Our wear-test 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, snow, ice, and other types of surface conditions. A shoe’s agility is related to how well it handles a variety of different types of 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 Challenger ATR 4, have relatively low, flat lugs that don’t bite into technical terrain. The winner in this category was the Salomon XA Elevate, 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, they’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 shoes in this round of testing were the New Balance Hierro v3 and Hoka One One Challenger ATR 4, both of which have a snappy, lively midsole that our wear-testers described as fun to run in.
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 sections of 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 have built-in hooks for gaiters, which are an optional ankle cover to give even more protection from dirt, thorns, dust and small rocks getting into the shoe. The most protective shoes in this round of testing were the Columbia/Montrail Trans Alps FKT II and the Merrell MQM Flex GTX. Both have rockplates as well as burly full-coverage outsoles, thick midsoles, and protective uppers.
With those six categories in mind – comfort, speed, security of fit, agility, responsiveness, and protection – our team of wear-testers put the eight models head to head. We tested them on gently rolling singletrack, in the mountains, in the muck, over fallen trees, powering up technical climbs, through the ice and snow, and flying down steep descents. We tested them on easy training days and in tough ultramarathons. When it all shook out, the Asics Alpine XT stood on top, with the New Balance Hierro v3 and Hoka One One Challenger ATR 4 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 Inov-8 RocLite 315. Someone tackling a gently-rolling 100-miler on Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail may find that the Brooks Caldera 2 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 Columbia/Montrail Trans Alps FKT II and Merrell MQM Flex GTX. 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.
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, from gently-rolling fire roads to highly technical mountain singletrack.
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.