The type of trail you normally run will shape:
- The kind of sole you need for grip
- What protection you may want to consider.
- Whether your shoe drains water well or is waterproof.
Muddy conditions: if you run somewhere where it’s often muddy, you’ll want a longer spike-style sole.
Dry, rocky riverbeds and flowing river crossings: If you’re running on wet rocks and roots, look for a sole with a bit more contact area to give you better grip on the slippery surfaces.
There are also a range of rubber compounds that footwear companies use. If you’re running on wet, smooth rocks, consider a sticky rubber to help you cling to them. You’ll gain more speed and confidence.
Snow: opt for breathability, water-resistance, insulation, durability and grip. Consider investing in strap-on spikes.
If you’re planning on running in snow or very damp environments, a pair of waterproof runners will help keep your feet dry. But if you’re likely to be crossing rivers or streams where water will get inside your shoe, it’s better to have footwear that drains well. This is a better result than ending up with ‘foot soup’ inside your waterproof shoe — a precursor to blisters.
Dirt trails: look for trail running shoes that have strong support, good cushioning and are breathable. You want to avoid friction from sweating when running in hot conditions.
Beach trails: while all of the above are important, you may want to opt for a lighter trail running shoe when tackling coastal trails, as you will likely sink slightly in the sandy ground with each step.
If you want to simplify things, break it down to the two main types of trails:
A longer, more aggressive spike-style sole will serve you well on soft forest trails, steep climbs or descents, sand, gravel, mud and grass.
This kind of sole will dig in and give you good traction. Wide spacing between the knobs (lugs) will allow mud and other debris to clear quickly.
On harder, rockier terrain, these aggressive soles can become quite slippery because they have very little contact with the surface and can’t dig into the ground.
Go for a sole with more surface area to contact the ground. You can still run in a shoe with semi-aggressive knobs, but they’ll often have wider, flatter contact points. There can also be a secondary pattern at the point of contact — helping you pick up small ridges and features on the surface to gain extra grip.
However, expect this type of sole pattern to clog up easier with mud, and lose traction on loose descents.