In this post I tackle trail shoes, and I’ll do so with a very open caveat: I am primarily a road runner. I do run portions of trails frequently as part of mixed terrain runs, and I have a five mile loop through the woods behind my house that I run frequently, but I am not what you would call a hard-core trail runner (my ultrarunner buddy Nate Sanel will be writing column for me starting this year to fill in this gap a bit). Trails make up probably 10-15% of my current mileage.
Given my running habits, I’m focusing this list on hybrid trail shoes, and by hybrid I’m referring to shoes that work well both on roads and mixed trail conditions. I generally do some amount of running on asphalt or cement to get to the trails that I do run, so ability to handle multiple surfaces is important to me. Given that I live in New Hampshire, I also use trail shoes a lot in winter on slush, snow, and crusty ice on roads and sidewalks, so good traction is important for 3-4 month per year (most years).
With the above made clear, what follows are my top three “hybrid” trail shoes of 2012:
3. Merrell Mix Master 2
The Mix Master 2 ticks of most of my boxes – roomy forefoot, low drop (4mm), comfortable interior, under 10oz in weight. It has a rock plate and provides solid protection on trails and crushed gravel roads, and traction is good via the lugged outsole. I’ve only run one trail ultra (a 50K), but if I had to run one tomorrow these would probably be the shoes on my feet (not sure I could handle zero drop right now over marathon+ distance). You can read my full Merrell Mix Master 2 review here.
Purchase the Merrell Mix Master 2 and Running Warehouse.
2. Inov-8 Trailroc 235
I could have easily ranked the Trailroc 235 number one here, it’s that good of a shoe. The 235 is zero drop (13mm stack height), lightweight (8.3oz in size 9), and has a very roomy fit as it’s built on Inov-8’s anatomical last (in contrast to the performance last of shoes like the X-Talon and F-Lite 195). The Trailroc 235 lacks a rock plate, but the rubber outsole is hard enough to provide adequate protection on trails and chunky, crushed gravel (I run on chunky gravel a lot). The lugged outsole provides great traction even in fresh snow, and of the three shoes here this is the one I would use if traction was my highest priority. Breathability is also good. Read my full Inov-8 Trailroc 235 review here.
Purchase the Inov-8 Trailroc 235 at Running Warehouse.
1. Altra Superior
The Altra Superior is one of the most versatile shoes that I own. It has the characteristically roomy Altra foot-shaped fit, but combines this with much greater flexibility than in a shoe like the Altra Instinct. It has a removable rock plate, and a finished foot-bed beneath the rock plate and included insole (it comes with two insole options as well). Given this, you can remove or add as much material underfoot as you’d like – with the insole and rock plate removed the shoe is incredibly spacious and I can wear thick wool socks with them without feeling constricted.
The full rubber outsole of the Superior should be very durable, and the upper is very well constructed and feels rugged (I do worry about the stretch cords on the sides though). I’ve been wearing the Superior almost daily for a few weeks since it so darned comfortable, and I’ve run in them on multiple surfaces and they have performed well. If I had one complaint about the Superior it’s that traction is not nearly as good as the other two shoes in this list, particularly on snow covered surfaces. The lugs simply don’t project enough to grab the surface, but that in part is what allows this shoe to also work so well on the road. It’s also a bit on the heavy side with both insole and rock plate installed, but I haven’t found that to be a problem for the type of running I do (could be an issue over longer distances I suppose). Finally, the Superiors are pretty reasonably priced for so versatile a shoe ($95 MSRP vs. $120 for the Inov-8 Trailroc 235). I haven’t reviewed the Superiors fully yet, but should have one soon.
Purchase the Altra Superior at Running Warehouse (if you buy the Superior, I recommend at least a half size up as they run small).