Top Trail and Mountain Running Shoes of 2014 – By David Henry
Posted on December 15 2014
Trail shoes are unfortunately viewed by many as road shoes with a little extra tread slapped on, and usually they run clunky compared to their road counterparts. While this may be true of many models, and in some ways good trail shoes are similar to good road shoes, in other ways they differ quite a bit. From my perspective I find that I want the following in a trail shoe compared to a road shoe:
1. More rubber coverage in the outsole and tread designs that are more specific to the terrain the shoe is designed for (which varies much more than what most road shoes will encounter).
2. A firmer midsole and a lower heel to toe offset (for stability on uneven terrain) than a road shoe (these factors can vary depending on the terrain and how long I need to be in the shoe). For longer outings I like to see a rock plate/shank to add protection from rocks and other pointy objects in addition to abating some foot fatigue when I have to be on my feet for long periods in the mountains.
3. An upper that will not only hold up to some of the extra beating and lateral movement that trails demand, but one that holds the foot very securely on the platform while still allowing enough comfort (tougher to do than you’d think). This is critical for the long outings more typical of trail/mountain races (5-30 hours) as opposed to road running where most runners usually aren’t out running longer than 4-5 hours.
There can be more niche concerns than these, including fabrics used, drainage, outsole thickness and lug depth, midsole density, to use Gore-Tex waterproofing or not, the list goes on…. However, the above three areas are the big ones to me and are essentials in my mind for good, versatile trail shoes.
I’ve broken my trail shoe picks into two categories based on terrain rather than racing or training categories like I did for my top road shoe post (coming tomorrow). For me, the main variable on the roads is how fast and far you are running, so it made sense to choose racing and training categories. For trail, the terrain dictates the demands on shoes to a greater degree and also impacts the design more than whether it is a training or racing model.
Lets take a look at what I’ve been running in this year and why:
Top Hardpack Trail Shoes
1. Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 2 (review here) – The Kiger 2 really hits the mark for a fast, light trail shoe with just enough cushion and protection to handle trails while still running more like a road shoe. Other than the outsole (which needs a redesign IMO), I’m really enjoying this shoe for most normal trails. It will be my go to shoe for trail racing for anything 50k or under and might stretch to 50 miles depending on the type of course. Purchasing options: Running Warehouse (US) and Wiggle (UK).
2. inov-8 Race Ultra 290 – The Race Ultra 290 was a surprise to me from inov-8. Known for their more minimal and aggressively lugged trail offerings, inov-8 stepped out of their comfort zone for the Race Ultra. They put together a really good all-around trail shoe with protection to go the distance while still retaining just enough nimbleness and ground feel to not lose that signature inov-8 feel and control on the trail. I can see using this shoe a lot this winter and in longer races of 50 miles and up next year. Purchasing options: Running Warehouse (US) and Wiggle (UK).
3. inov-8 F-Lite Standard Fit (wider) Series – I’ve run countless miles in the F-Lite series and while they are sold mainly as crossfit shoes these days, this is a shame! They are some of the most straightforward trail running shoes on the market with a comfortable fit and enough rubber to provide provide protection for all but the most technical trails. I’ve used the F-Lite 262 (now 240 Standard Fit), which is the most protective of the F-Lite series, for everything from a trail 10k to a 50 mile ultra. I also love the F-Lite 232 (now 192) which is their zero drop version. It is hands-down the best and most versatile pure minimal shoe that still has enough protection for comfortable 15 mile training runs. F-Lites aren’t flashy, nor do they have any big technological bells and whistles, but that is why they work so well. The sheer simplicity of a comfortable upper, firm and durable EVA midsole, and a full sticky rubber outsole just ends up not letting you down. Purchasing options: Running Warehouse (US) and Wiggle (UK).
– Honorable Mention: Merrell Bare Access Trail – A new addition to Merrell’s lineup this year and they get a lot right with this shoe. The upper is more comfortable (especially in the Achilles area) than the Bare Access 3, the outsole has a good lug pattern (while still running well on smooth terrain), and the fit is quite good. Other than a midsole material that doesn’t feel that snappy (never Merrell’s strong suit IMO) and a lack of sufficient protection for longer runs, the Bare Access Trail is a really nice shoe. If they make a version 2 with a rock plate, it’d be pretty solid option…the upper needs no change IMO. Purchasing options: Running Warehouse (US) and Wiggle (UK).
Anybody have any other favorites among 2014 Hardpack Trail shoes?
Top Mountain, Fell and Off-Trail Shoes
(My favorite category so I couldn’t keep it to 3!)
1. inov-8 Mudclaw 265 – The new Mudclaw platform and outsole on the 265 is the best all-out mountain/off trail outsole I’ve tried. The upper on this version is a little heavy and holds water too much (although this is getting fixed for an updated version this spring), but the fit is good and the traction is unparalleled in my opinion. It is also sticky enough to perform very well for scrambling on rock. Such a fun shoe for heading up a peak and back! Purchasing options: Running Warehouse (US) and Wiggle (UK).
2. inov-8 X-Talon Series – The X-Talon series, consisting of the classic 212 (which is now offered in the standard fit in addition to the original precision fit) and the super light and fast 190, has been a mainstay in inov-8’s lineup for years and for good reason. Both shoes are a blast to run in and provide very secure and confident footing in loose terrain. They are also light enough that they run decent on regular trails too. Purchasing options: Running Warehouse (US) and Wiggle (UK).
3. inov-8 Trailroc Series – You might be noticing a theme here with inov-8, especially in the mountain category. They simply offer so many more choices and options for the neutral or minimalist mountain runner that, as long as the fit is good for you, you can’t help but appreciate all the different outsole patterns and purpose-built designs. The Trailroc series, in particular the Trailroc 245 that was recently given an upper update this last spring, is very versatile with a wide range of applications. While it runs well on regular trail (and even short road sections), it can handle a fair amount of technicality and even some off-trail without too much trouble. The huge benefit of a shoe like the 245 is that you get very good rock protection in a low and more minimalist package. They are like the MT110v1 but beefed up to be able to handle very long runs (I’ve done 50 milers and ran in them for 35 miles of my 100 miler this summer including the last 20 miles of the race) and the outsole holds up to a lot of tough miles. The recent upper update fixed many of the durability issues that the original version had and is more comfortable and open in the toebox. Although it’s not the lightest shoe out there, it has yet to let me down and takes quite a beating. My go-to shoe for very steep and rocky races. Purchasing options: Running Warehouse (US) and Wiggle (UK).
4. La Sportiva Bushido – When I first saw the Bushido I thought it would be too clunky and heavy to be much fun. I decided to give it a chance a few months back and was very surprised. I’ve run in La Sportiva C-Lites, Ultra Raptor, X-Country, and Helios before and while they have some good elements, the fit was always a little narrow in the toes, but not secure enough in the midfoot or at the ball of the foot. They also tend to have too much volume over the instep. Well, the Bushido is on a new last called the Racing Lite Ergo and it is a great fit for me and really makes this shoe shine. While it is a fairly beefy shoe, it still runs well enough on technical terrain and offers gobs of protection from rocks and the sheer roughness of mountain/off-trail travel. Purchasing options: Running Warehouse (US).
-Honorable Mention: Salomon Fellcross 3 – I’ve not run as much as I’ve wanted to in the Fellcross 3 mainly because it has been too hot up until recently for the Fellcross’s warmer upper design. This is not a problem for most of the conditions it is designed for (mud, snow, slop). It is the purest fell running shoe that I enjoy running in, and the design really lets the quality materials and top-notch construction of Salomon’s S-Lab line shine. It has a fell running specific last that works much better for me than the Sense last and has great traction. I’m looking forward to getting them out much more this winter. Purchasing options: Running Warehouse (US) and Wiggle (UK).
Any mountain running shoes that I missed that you enjoy?
Thanks for reading and I’ll reiterate that these shoes are simply the best that I’ve tried and the ones I pull off the shelf the most when I go train. You may or may not agree with these picks and that’s OK – just take it as my favorites out of the many I’ve tried that reflect my taste for shoe design and function. Now go out and run!
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