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(The Gear Loop) - The sheer joy experienced when stepping away from the road and heading into nature is one of the major reasons that trail running has become so popular in recent years. But not all trails are the same and when it comes to taking on advanced routes, you need to make sure you have a pair of technical trail running shoes that are up to the task.

The variety of obstacles and challenges that you can find on any given trail means you can be tackling anything from muddy country tracks to high-gradient mountain ascents, which means you need to be using the right shoes for the terrain, weather and running style. A great shoe for getting you across boggy fields in winter is going to have very different benefits when compared ti a pair designed for rocky mountain paths in 30-degree heat.

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And most important of all, when hitting technical terrain, your shoes need to give you as much protection as possible to ensure you minimise the risk of injury, whether that’s keeping you upright on a slippery cross country incline or making sure that your feet are protected against jagged rocks on a steep and craggy mountain downhill.

We’ve tested dozens of trail shoes across a wide range of terrain, from the sodden hills of the Lake District to the rocky climbs of the Biokovo mountains in Croatia. So with that in mind, we break down our top picks across a range of the trickiest technical surfaces. All you need to do is lace up and go smash that imposing mountain trail.

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If you like to take trails at a slower pace, check out our guide for some of the best hiking boots on sale.

The best technical trail running shoes for advanced runners

SauconyThe best technical trail shoes for advanced runners product shots photo 4

Best trail shoe for versatility: Saucony Peregrine 11

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For

  • Versatile across a range of technical terrains
  • Comfortable upper and midsole

Against

  • The heavy design isn’t great for faster efforts
  • Not as effective on technical terrain as specially designed shoes

Not everyone needs different shoes for all of their technical trail exploits. For those who want one pair to rule them all, the Saucony Peregrine 11 is our favourite all-rounder option.

The Peregrine range has long been one of Saucony’s most popular shoes due to the versatility it offers trail runners, with a perfect balance of features that mean it can take on a range of terrains and conditions. If we’re heading off the beaten path but we’re not sure what we’re going to come up against, you can be sure we’re throwing the Peregrine 11 in the boot of the car.

The standout highpoint of the Peregrine 11 is by far its level of comfort. The "PWRRUN" midsole foam manages to feel both cushioned and responsive - almost to the point of a road shoe - while the generous and soft upper design feels right from the moment you slip your foot into it.

Despite the shoe feeling like an easy day option, there’s no lack of technical features when the going gets tough. The "PWRTRAC" rubber lugs on the outsole are aggressive enough to handle muddy conditions, while still being soft enough to hit harder technical trails in complete comfort. There’s also a rock plate in the midsole to protect the feet from obstacles underfoot. A solid investment and a great all-rounder. 

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The best trail shoe for long mountain runs: North Face Flight Series Vectiv

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For

  • Impressive energy return over long distances
  • Good protection from rocky trails

Against

  • Outsole design collects wet mud
  • One of the most expensive trail shoes available

When the Flight Series Vectiv was first announced, it was met with a great deal of debate around the inclusion of a carbon plate, mainly focussing on whether it would offer the same performance benefits seen in road shoes. In addition to this, there was a big question mark over how a carbon plate would affect the stability over uneven surfaces.

In testing, those fears were put to bed when we discovered that the Flight Series Vectiv was a very different sort of carbon plate. Unlike the thick stack of soft cushioning usually associated with super high-tech carbon plate running shoes, The North Face created a trail alternative designed to offer a more subtle experience where the plate adds an extra level of responsiveness without affecting the stability of the shoe.

The result is a well-balanced trail option that excels over long distances on hard or compacted trails. The midsole foam has enough cushioning to keep the legs fresh over a consistent pounding of the ground, while the durable "SurfaceCTRL" rubber outsole protects the feet from hard rocks or sharp objects. The upper also throws futher protective elements into them ix in the form of Kevlar, polyamide and "Matryx" fabrics, as well as a reinforced toe cap. It's proper futurustic stuff. 

Although it excels over those harder trails, the carbon plate does give a little when it comes to soft ground. We also found that the outsole lug design has a tendency to collect a lot of mud, so it’s not a great option if you’re looking for a versatile all-weather shoe - especially when it comes to the more eclectic climate we experience here in sooggy ol' Britain.

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The best lightweight technical trail shoe: Arc'teryx Norvan SL 2

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For

  • Very lightweight
  • Good midsole protection from rocky ground

Against

  • The lean upper can be uncomfortable over longer distances
  • Outsole lugs lack grip on soft, muddy surfaces

With the growth in trail running events around the world, it’s no surprise that people are looking for lighter and faster options that still offer the benefits associated with a conventional trail shoe but shave precious seconds off competitive times. Arc'teryx has taken on the challenge and created the Norvan SL 2, a shoe stripped down to the bare minimum when it comes to weight, but one that still has the features to take on tough, technical terrain.

At 170g, the Norvan SL 2 is almost unnoticeable when worn, feeling more like a plimsoll than a shoe built for tricky surfaces. Despite that lean appearance, the midsole of the shoe has a surprising level of cushioning, which manages to both protect the feet against impact as well as sharp objects when running full pelt across unexplored surfaces.

Other features we liked are the Vibram rubber outsole that does a competent job when running across slippery terra firma, while still proving thin enough to be flexible. The combination of which means that the shoe can be easily rolled or flattened in a kit bag and makes a great backup shoe for long-distance training.

In testing, we found that the Norvan SL 2 isn’t without its limitations though. The small lugs offer little in the way of traction when it comes to covering muddy ground quickly, and the thin upper has minimal padding for comfort, so we wouldn’t suggest using it for anything over 15km runs ,as we found it does tend to rub around the heel and ankle.

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Best trail shoe for mud: Inov-8 Mudclaw G 260 V2 

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For

  • Excellent grip on extreme muddy terrain
  • An agile feel despite the rugged materials

Against

  • Lacks comfort on harder trail surfaces
  • Limited design options

When the weather turns and you find yourself clambering up the side of a muddy hill, a pair of general running shoes is going to have you sliding around like Bambi on ice. Trust us, we’ve been there and it's not pretty. That’s when you need to pull out the big guns - like these spikey Mudclaw G 260 V2s from trail running stalwarts Inov-8.

Considering the company is based in the Lake District, it’s not surprising that it has created a shoe that excels in the worst of the British weather. The Mudclaw G 260 V2 is a powerhouse when you find yourself staring up at a steep incline that's covered in moss, mud and other intimidating foliage. This is largely due to the aggressive 8mm lugs that stick into the ground like, well, claws.

But it’s not just the claws that make the shoe so good for those conditions, the outsole is also made using Inov-8’s “Graphene-Grip” material, an incredibly strong substance that adds a high level of strength and durability, while still allowing the foot to flex. Add to that a metal-plated shank to protect the foot from unwanted pointy objects and you have our go-to shoe when it comes to taking on the worst the British countryside can throw at you.

Insanely grippy and absolutely brilliant in wet weather, they compliment those hardcore runners who are willing to brave any forecast, but we did find they start to lose appeal on dryer and more compact surfaces, where those lugs actually prove a bit slippery. 

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Best performance shoe for comfort: Salomon Speedcross 5 Gore-Tex

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For

  • Comfortable and secure fit
  • Can handle a range of technical terrain

Against

  • One of the heaviest shoes tested
  • The thick upper limits breathability

The Speedcross range has long been a favourite of those trail runners that demand high-level performance features, but also want to hit the trails in as much comfort as possible. The Speedcross 5 Gore-Tex continues that trend with the addition of a Gore-Tex upper to keep moisture out when the weather turns south.

When it comes to technical terrain, there isn’t much that the Speedcross 5 Gore-Tex can’t handle. The aggressive lugs found across the “Contagrip TA” outsole can tackle mud and soft ground with ease and offer an impressive level of grip across hard and slippy surfaces, too. The upper also has some of the best protection we’ve seen in a trail shoe, including durable reinforcements across the toebox and side panels.

Although the Speedcross 5 Gore-Tex has the specifications of an Abrams tank, Salomon has managed to make it feel more like a luxury saloon inside, combining a surprising level of midsole cushioning with a precision fit that holds the foot in place securely. The result is a level of stability and comfort that’s rarely found in a trail shoe. It's the Hummer of the running shoe world. 

All those features do, however, come at a cost, with the Speedcross 5 Gore-Tex coming in at a hefty 340g, which may dissuade people looking for something a little sprightlier.

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What to look for in a pair of technical trail shoes

Choose the right shoe for the terrain

The term ‘technical terrain’ covers a wide range of trail surfaces, so it’s important to make sure you pick a pair of shoes that are specifically designed for the locations you plan to run. If you spend most of your time running across muddy trails you’ll need shoes that have deep lugs that can dig deep into the ground, preventing you from sliding around. If your preferred trails are on hard, rocky ground you should be looking for shoes that have a tried and tested outsole rubber that can handle slippery surfaces.

Get the right fit

Unlike road shoes, where the movement of the foot is largely set to one continuous pattern, trail surfaces tend to be uneven and can often have rocks or debris in the way. As a result, the foot will land at different angles which means your shoes need to have a secure fit to ensure you minimise the risk of landing incorrectly and causing injuries.

Protective uppers

For road runners, shoes don’t tend to need any protective covering across the upper, as this area of the shoe rarely comes into contact with any obstacles. When running on technical trails - especially those in rocky areas - there’s a high chance that rocks or branches can sneak up on you. Shoes with additional reinforced areas on the upper can help to protect the feet from painful injuries when you’re not keeping an eye on the ground.

Outsole design

The outsole of a shoe can have a big impact on how it performs on technical terrain. As well as the lug length, the spacing and patterning of the outsole lugs are often designed for a specific purpose. Shoes with widely spaced out lugs tend to be better at not picking up big clumps of mud when hitting claggy ground, while lugs that sit closely together are often better at gripping slippery surfaces, assuming the material used is from a trusted source like Vibram.

Writing by Tom Wheatley. Editing by Leon Poultney. Originally published on 11 November 2021.