Shoes to Hit the Trail

Trail shoes take you off-road

Trail Shoes and Poles on Rocky Trail
Trail Shoes and Poles on Rocky Trail. gaspr13/E+/Getty Images

Trails shoes are for natural trails, while sneakers are for sidewalks. For rocky, rooted, dusty and muddy trails a trail shoe gives you added traction and support. A full hiking boot may be needed if you are backpacking and carrying a load. But for day hiking or enjoying a natural trail, a trail running shoe is  best. What makes a shoe a trail shoe?

Trail Shoes Have Rugged Traction Soles

On a natural trail surface you have loose dirt, sand, gravel, mud, rocks, roots, dead leaves, evergreen needles, pine cones and wildlife poop.

You can slip on any of those things, so a trail shoe needs to have a traction sole. On many trails you will also be going up and down hills, adding to the risk of slipping if your shoes don't grip the trail.

The sole of a trail shoe will be rugged-looking, and hopefully will have good engineering behind those looks to give you better traction. The sole will also be thick enough and cushioned so you don't feel the gravel, rocks, and roots. Often they have a rock plate in the sole specifically to prevent the "poke through" of rocks under your foot.

Stiffer material also guards the sides of your foot from sharp edges and the they have a stiffer toe guard to help prevent stubbing your toes on rocks. This protection is very welcome when you are on a rocky trail.

Trail Shoes Vary for Stability and Support

Like hiking boots, most trail shoes provide more stability and support than regular running and walking shoes.

They often are stiffer and less flexible than street designs. However, some are designed more for looks than function and give less support and stability than regular motion control or stability running shoes. Shop with care, especially if you overpronate.

Minimalist trail running shoes will have minimal stability, support and cushioning as they are designed for speed and traction only.

They gained popularity, but they are not for everyone. If you have no foot or leg problems and want to really feel the trail, you may prefer them. But if you want protection and durable trail shoes, you won't find it with a minimalist design.

Dirt and Trail Debris

Trail shoes are meant to hit the dirt. You may love keeping your walking shoes spotless, but your trail shoes are going to pick up all sorts of debris. Old-school styles were colored to camouflage the dirt, but there is a trend towards brightly colored trail shoes. The construction usually is of materials that clean easily.

The tongue of trail shoes is usually gusseted, meaning that it is fully attached to the rest of the upper so trail debris can't work its way into the shoe in the tongue area. That feature alone makes trail shoes worth wearing. With regular shoes, you will definitely be picking up bits of gravel, tree needles and other irritants and have to stop and shake them out of your shoes.

Water Resistance and Breathability

Sweaty and wet feet increase the risk of blisters.

For dry climates you want breathable trail shoes with airy mesh uppers to let the air flow around your foot to keep it dry. The fabric needs to be durable enough to resist tearing yet still let your feet breathe.

Trail shoes come in a variety of degrees of water resistance. If they are labeled water-repellent they will barely keep out the dew. Waterproof designs use various barriers such as Gore-tex and will cost more. If you are going to encounter rain, streams or puddles on the trail, waterproof is worth the extra money.

Top Picks

Top Picks for Trail Shoes: See which trail shoes are rated best for walkers and runners. Don't waste money on shoes that are more trail style than performance - these are the real deal.

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