I’m going to be honest. I went through much of my adult life without knowing that trail running shoes existed. I’ve always been an athlete and when I started trail running I just threw on my tennis shoes (or sneakers depending upon your geographic location) and away I went. Then one day I happened to stumble upon a pair of Under Armour Trail Running Shoes and I grabbed them almost on curiosity alone.
After wearing them on the trail for a few months I became a huge fan. So are trail running shoes worth it?
If you’re going to be logging a lot of miles on the trail, then yes, they are absolutely worth it. Trail running shoes are specifically designed to help you navigate the challenges that running on a trail will bring. Uneven terrain, rocks, roots and wet or muddy conditions are all things you’ll experience sooner or later.
A good trail shoe will have you prepared for all these conditions.
Still not sure if trail running shoes are for you? Let’s take a deeper look into what trail running shoes are and how they’re different than the ones you’re running in now.
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What are Trail Running Shoes?
First things first: Exactly what are trail running shoes?
The best way to describe trail running shoes is to compare them to a traditional running shoe.
A good trail running shoe is going to be constructed to be much more durable than a road shoe. The toe and heel will have extra protection to hold up against pokes, scratches (from rocks, sticks, etc) and general wear. Most toeboxes are also designed to give extra protection in the event you stub your toe (which happens to the best of us).
The sole is often wider (especially in the toe box) to try to get more surface area onto the ground. More surface area means better grip, especially on uneven surfaces. Some trail shoes come equipped with a rock plate to also help protect your feet from sharp rocks and roots.
Because small pebbles and debris are more of an issue on a trail, most trail shoes come with a gusseted tongue to keep all those pesky annoyances out of your shoe.
The tread is much more aggressive and designed to give more grip to handle rocks, roots or anything else you might come across on the trail. If I’m being honest again, the tread also looks super cool and is what caught my eye when I first stumbled upon trail running shoes.
While these are general descriptions, all trail running shoes are unique and generally have their own strengths and weaknesses. In particular there are 3 different types or categories – conventional or pure trail running shoe, hybrid and minimalist. Let’s break down the difference between each.
3 Different Categories of Trail Running Shoe
There are 3 different categories of trail running shoe and getting the right style for your needs is huge in getting the performance that you’re looking for.
First are the conventional trail running shoes. These shoes are made for rugged terrain. They are going to generally be more stiff with a very aggressive tread to handle uneven terrain, steep inclines and rocks. They are very rugged and built for maximum durability against sticks, dirt and mud. Speaking of mud, many of the shoes in this category are going to be waterproof to some extent.
On the downside, pure trail running shoes are typically a bit heavier, a by-product of the extra protection and aggressive tread. The La Sportiva Wildcats pictured above weigh in at about 12.5oz a piece. That’s much heavier than what a road shoe will be.
They are also stiffer than most people are accustomed to in a shoe. If you’re not going to be running on very rough and challenging trails, then a hybrid might be a better fit.
Hybrids are a blend of a traditional running shoe and a trail running shoe. These shoes are great for dipping your toe in the water of trail running shoes. They are perfect for the majority of the trails you’re going to come across. If the terrain is not overly demanding, hybrids will give you the extra durability and tread you’ll want and still have a lightweight feel like a running shoe.
Finally there are minimalist shoes. We could do an entire article on what minimalist shoes are, because there are varying degrees of minimalism and debate over what is and isn’t minimalist. To sum it up as briefly as possible, minimalist shoes try to mimic being barefoot as much as possible. They are extremely lightweight due to most of the support from a traditional shoe being stripped away.
The thought behind minimalist shoes is that by stripping away all the cushioning and support, the foot can strengthened by having to engage more with the ground.
If you’ve never worn a minimalist shoe before, I would advise easing your way in. Logging a ton of miles quickly with shoes before your feet have had a chance to adjust may actually cause more injuries which is the opposite of the intention of the shoe.
Are Trail Running Shoes Waterproof?
As mentioned above, many pure trail running shoes are waterproof as least to some extent. Some of good with puddles and a little mud and others are completely waterproof. The design of the tongue and upper mesh is usually what makes a shoe waterproof or just water resistant. Just make sure to do your due diligence with any shoe you’re looking at. All trail running shoes will address whether they are waterproof or not.
Can I Wear Trail Running Shoes on the Road?
Short answer is, yes. While a pure trail running shoe can be worn on the road, most people are going to prefer a road shoe. Trail running shoes are built to be more durable to hold up against everything you’re going to run across (or through) on the trail. Because of this, trail shoes are typically heavier and hotter than a road shoe.
If you want a shoe that can be worn on trails and the road, then a hybrid shoe is your best bet. A hybrid shoe is going to feel much more similar to a traditional road shoe on the road. A hybrid shoe is especially good on the road in inclement weather. The extra grip can come in really handy in rain or snow.
Keep in mind that while you can wear a trail shoe on the road, a hard flat surface are typically going to wear down the tread of your trail shoe faster than a softer surface like a dirt trail.
Final Thought: Are Trail Running Shoes Worth It?
While maybe not a necessity, you will definitely notice a difference with a good trail running shoe. Better grip and durability are going to lead to safer runs and more of them. If it’s within your budget, I’d definitely recommend a pair.
In fact, after a ton of research, I put together a list of the Best Men’s Trail Running Shoes. On this list you’ll find different options in each of the 3 different categories and shoes that excel in specific areas.