What are the best trail running shoes?

Here’s a question that gets asked a lot. And there are some things that make the best trail running shoe.

In my opinion the best trail shoes should:

  1. Fit you
  2. Instil confidence in your feet
  3. Be well made

Now, because of the difference in trails there is always a compromise. Here in the UK we have a variety of different styles of trails, and these throw heaps of challenges to shoes. Consider the difference between hard pack, dusty, dry forest fire road trails  and sloppy, boggy, marshy trails after rain and you’ll start to see the fact that no one “foot tyre” can fit. Tractors have big aggressive tyre patterns compared to a formula one car. I dislike “waterpoof” shoes, instead I prefer quick drying shoes, which allow water to drain from the inside out. Think if you will about filling your wellies up with water and then walking 10 km. Your feet will be soft and broken. This is what having a liner in creates in UK conditions. There are places where it’s useful, but in my opinion, not on UK trails.

In the same way, everyone feet are slightly different. High arches, wide forefoot, bony heels the list of “I’ve got’s…” is impressive. Get the right length shoe, and then learn how to lace you shoe up properly.

Trail shoes aren’t a one trick pony – I have three shoes that I run trails in. I can run any trail in these three, but my speed will be massively affected by what I have on my feet.

I’m looking at three shoes (L-R)  Inov-8 Roclite 315, Salomon Crossmax Neutral and Asics GT2000. At the time of being pictured I have racked up, collectively, 2700 km on these shoes, split as follows:

  • Inov8 Roclite 315 – 700 km
  • Salomon Crossmax neutral – 620 km
  • Asics GT2000 – 1,380 km

I primarily use the Roclites when I’m heading off the beaten track, mountain, forest and although not this pair, these were the shoe I chose for Marathon des Sables, Trail Marathon Wales, Brecon Ultra and some other off road races. The sole is, in my experience pretty spot on for UK trail running. The rubber is soft enough to give good traction on rock, wet and dry as well on wet tree roots. As the pictures show, despite this soft rubber, the wear has lasted well, bear in mind my running weight is a minimum of 85 kg, sometimes 90+ depending on how much water and kit I am carrying. The upper too deserves credit, these have smashed new paths through heather, run down scree, kicked big rocks in slate fields as well as pottering through Skye’s vicious Gabro rock. There is a bit of material damage inside the heel cup of one shoe, but that is my fault not the shoe, and after 700 km I think that this is a massive success for a shoe that often gets sodden!

The Salomon Crossmax I use when I know I have a large amount of tarmac and hard pack and when I know there are not steep grassy slopes involved. I love these shoes for running alongside canals and rivers. I haven’t raced in these, primarily because I’ve not entered a race where the terrain has suited, but I would use them for any of the Thames path races, or at this stage, something like Ring o’ Fire. These also get a fair hammering through the undergrowth. Though I don’t think this is the reason for the failing upper over the bridge of the toe. The speed lacing system is very effective, and I do like this very much where I don’t need to tension the shoe in a non standard way (swelling feet, steep terrain). The rubber compound is very solid, sometimes at the detriment to grip in the wet. I don’t trust the soles much on wet rock, or tree roots, but this is perhaps because I’m acutely aware of this where I run the majority of my routes.  

Whilst the Asics get used mainly on tarmac, I’ve added them here for a specific reason. I use these where I’m running fire trail, or prepared trails where the surface isn’t broken. I also think the Asics demonstrate how it is possible to make a very long lasting shoe. Whilst these upper do not get abused anywhere near as much as the Inov8’s these do get wet and mucky fairly regularly and I’m really impressed how well they look after 1400 km’s. The sole rarely gets anything more complicated than some big pebbles, and some pretty steep tarmac that I have locally but the sheer volume of footstrike these have experienced (nearly half a million) with my 85kg on top of them are a massive testament to the build quality of these shoes. The grip side of things is never an issue for me, but that is because they are never pushed in a position where I ever really test it. The major win for these is the sheer contact area that they have available without knobbles!

Which are the best trail shoes? Well they’re the ones that work for you. I consider that I’ve tested these three shoes reasonably extensively in UK conditions. Is one of these the best pair of trail running shoes? For me yes, I could pick one pair for all my trail running. I’d prefer to have all three pairs, and I will probably keep on experimenting over the coming shoes. Technology is still evolving in trail running and that will bring about better shoes. Which should you choose? You should choose a shoe that suits the majority of the conditions that you run in.

If I had to choose one pair of shoes from these three, it would be the Inov8’s. In fact I have a few pairs and would happily run any route that went off road in them.

Trust the shoes on your feet, and go run exploring. The best kit in the world does no good sitting on the shelf!

Rhinogydd traverse Trawsfynydd to Barmouth

I was supposed to be racing down in Oxfordshire this Saturday. By Friday evening I really didn’t fancy the 7 hour round trip in the car and the forecast looked like it would be the last day of summer.

It looked like it should be a hill day not to be missed.

Saturday morning, I organised my kit as if it were going to be a long, fast but light day in the hills. The Rhinogydd traverse is a trip of two halves. The northern section, down as far as y Llethyr is a rocky formation of Greywackes, I’ve only really had a couple of trips into this area and knew it was hard going. I was expecting the final run down from the southern Diffwys (there are two on the ridge) to be quicker as the hills become rounded and less steep.

The area of the Harlech Dome is noted as one of the most remote areas in England and Wales, it’s also tricky to navigate through some of the clefts in the rock and featureless plateaus. Fortunately there are several escape routes, east and west, I just hoped I wouldn’t need them.

I parked on the southern shore of Llyn Trawsfynydd and quickly the lack of footfall is really apparent.

Bridges are makeshift and the drainage areas really wet, I was soon knee deep in bog, but the ambient air temperature was good and the sun warm.

Suddenly, the terrain changes from bogland to crags, and big sedimntary rock highways. Route finding means lots of referring back to the map, and picking the best line in front of you. I really relish this kind of terrain, though my speed over the ground became much slower. Some of the quickest route means that hands are needed for ascent and descent. Without exposure generally, but straight line scrambles up good quality rock. The west facing crevices still held cooler air from over night, just as a spectacle wearer fogs up when they come in from the cold, quite a few of the pockets of cold air had me momentarily swirling in my own sweaty steam.

Climbing out of one of the deeper clefts on Craig Wion I heard some male Grouse in the distance. Coming out onto a rock shelf a few minutes later I spooked a couple of groups of male and female Grouse. After watching them briefly I crossed the ground towards my favourite wild swimming spot – Llyn Morwynion.

Llyn Morwynion is nestled in some lovely angled rock that warms up nicely in the sun. It is a really nice spot to swim with amazing views over Tremadog Bay. No chance for this today though, I contoured round quite quickly to Llyn Du, anxious to get the crossing from Rhinog Fawr to Rhinog Fach under my belt.

The going here eases for a bit, mainly due to the number of people coming up from Cwm Bychan via the Roman Steps bashing a cleaner path. As I was moving quicker I caught a goaty whiff. The smell of goat is unmistakable and I dropped onto a track following a small herd of these wild chaps. A few kids and a big, but young looking Billy.

At Llyn Du I stopped for some electrolyte, a power bar and a quick refill of water from the outflow of the lake. I was disappointed to see, in this wild place especially, a laminated card with a rock wrapped in yellow insulating tape. A charity walk was coming through and the card (A4 sized) asked that it shouldn’t be removed. I feel strongly that if this is needed then organised events shouldn’t send people into such wild areas without the appropriate skills.

Llyn Du to the summit of Rhinog Fawr is straight forward, and on the summit I was rewarded with the best view of the day. From Bardsey Island, right round to Pembrokeshire the view was immense. The next section down to Bwlch Drws Ardudwy held some trepedation for me. On my last trip through here, with my friend Jeremy, he had a tumble on some of the boulders above the scree. Fortunately apart from being shaken, some scrapes and a badly scratched watch he was ok. I was pretty clear the consequences of me having a similar fall would be much worse, I headed off the summit in a south west direction finding some shelves along which I could lose height. After a brief encounter with a large Billy Goat who had a slight limp, who I wondered whether he had lost his alpha male status in the herd I saw earlier, I made it down to the valley floor without any problem. I climbed from here to Llyn Hywel.

Llyn Hywel is one of my favourite places in the UK. It’s a really protected wild spot, a great place for a camp, it gets the evening sun nicely and again the rock slabs stay nice and warm and have a lot of grip.

Looking across to the Slabs of Y Llethyr I contoured briefly around the western side of the lake before scrambling up the gorgeous rock. When I reached the path from y Llethyr I came across my first ” walkers”. I was really looking forward to the running getting easier and the navigation along this section to Barmouth is easy… it’s always the highest point along the ridge you’re looking for and in the visibility this was a pleasure.

Some energy gel and water on the go whilst crossing the flatter area near Llyn Dulyn were needed. The wall along here always makes me think of the Great Wall of China, just a bit smaller. A small pull up onto Diffwys meant the last of the big climbs and some great views of Cadair Idris and Mawddach Estuary open up.

The next part of the ridge is quick, and soon I was crossing Bwlch y Rhiwgyr. It made me think briefly of Pete Bursnall, I suspect his guidebook “North Wales (Mountain Bike Guide) 2nd edition” was being launched at that very moment at Plas y Brenin. One of the routes crosses through this wild place and I know it was one of Pete’s favourite places. I’m sure he would have forgiven me making the best of a fantastic hill day.

From here I only knew the route from one trip more than a decade ago. Coming to Bwlch Cwmmaria I descended with the stone wall to join the new “Ardudwy Way”. This meant I could pick the pace up on good trails. Winding down past Barmouth Slabs, no one climbing, I could start to think about the ice cream. A quick diversion to Frenchmans Grave to take a picture of the beach.

A quck check of the phone told me that my wife was on the beach whilst two daughters were skinny dipping. So wandering across the beach I was greeted by two little girls who had a good monster party before we all sat down for an ice cream before I got a welcome lift back to pick up my van.

A great day in a really special place. Quite slow to begin with but picking up later on brought back an almost respectable pace.

To be honest, it was so much better than the M54, M6, M42 and M40 I wasn’t too bothered with the time!