Saucony Peregrine trailrunning

Trail Shoe Season!

oliver davey ·


With winter in full swing many people stop by the store looking for a good pair of trail shoes to mix up their running from the roads. So what’s the difference between a trail shoe a shoe and a road shoe, and how do trail shoes differ?

The most obvious difference between a trail and road shoe is the amount of traction under foot. That sticky rubber underneath your foot is known as the outsole. The outsole of a trail shoe will be more aggressive in order to prevent you from slipping in mud, rocks, roots, wet grass, sand, snow, etc .

The smooth outsole of Hoka's Mach 4 road shoe

Most road shoe outsoles are quite smooth since they are made for hard surfaces such as pavements and tarmac. Having a smooth outsole provides more surface contact with the tarmac giving you traction on the roads. Yes, there will be variances in the pattern still to improve that grip much like a car tyre, just not as significant as a trail shoe. The type of rubber will vary from the manufacturer allowing that smooth rubber to still give grip when the tarmac is wet. You’ll even see brand name rubber manufacturers on shoes such as Continental, Vibram, Dunlop, and Michelin! Shoe manufacturers also have their proprietary rubber compounds that improve grip from the rubber itself, not just the pattern. These different rubbers will be seen in road and trail shoes. Some trail shoe examples; Brooks’ Trail Tack, Saucony’s PWRTRAC, Altra’s MaxTrac. Hoka’s Speedgoat use a rubber by Vibram and Adidas uses Continental.


Hoka's Challenger ATR, multi terrain shoes

Brooks' Divide, multi terrain shoes 

Trail shoes have obviously more bite to them however this can vary drastically. Starting with multi terrain shoes, they bridge the gap between a road shoe and a full trail shoe. The traction will be much less aggressive but having less rubber underfoot the shoe will be softer on harder surfaces, more suitable for roads AND trails. Looking at a full trail shoe the lugs will usually be at least 4mm deep providing good grip in a variety of conditions. Some will go up to 6mm or even 8mm in depth made for the muddiest of conditions or fells. These patterns also can have proprietary names such as Hoka’s MegaGrip and Altra’s TrailClaws. The patterns are specifically designed to not only provide uphill and downhill traction but to shed mud that sticks to the bottom. One consideration is more rubber underneath will affect how the shoe feels and can make some more rigid. An extremely aggressive shoe can also be slippery on harder surfaces like tarmac due to limited surface area contacting the ground. Think of football boots on pavement.

Saucony's Peregrine ST with 6.5mm lugs for mud and soft conditions

Saucony's Peregrine with 4.5mm lugs for year round traction

Many people ask “what about ice?” Ice is a whole new monster when it comes to traction and in my experience the only thing that helps with running in icy conditions is a pair of shoes with metal studs built in or a pair of running crampon type traction devices. Yes, they do exist, a handful of companies make carbide steel studded running shoes! It is also possible to make your own by inserting screws into an old pair of running shoes which works extremely well, just look at the bottom of Saucony’s Peregrine or Mad River TR shoes, they are “mapped” directing you where to insert the screws! Creating “screw shoes” is for another blog post if indeed the weather presents itself!

Many trail (and multi terrain) shoes will also have a sheet of nylon or plastic between the outsole and the cushioning that protects you from pointy, sharp rocks and thorns. Known as stone guards or rock plates they are an additional level of protection from rugged off-road conditions that you may encounter. Some manufacturers, such as Hoka, do not have this due to the fact their shoes already have an enormous amount of cushioning and deem it unnecessary, opting to leave it out to save weight. 


The Brooks Cascadia showing it's rock shield.

Since we started with the grippy outsole let’s just keep working our way up the shoe! So, next we’ve got the cushioning. Cushion levels in trail shoes seem to be similar to road shoes as of late. Although you still find minimally and maximally cushioned trail shoes, most people prefer a standard amount of cushion under foot. This is very much personal preference, as it is with road shoes. The material used in the cushioning will vary as well; some brands/models being soft and spongy, other being firmer. One could argue one is better than the other however go by how it feels to you! Also, keep in mind that the more traction/rubber underneath will also have a bearing on how the cushioning feels since you’ve got more material under your foot.

The super soft Hoka Speedgoat and the firmer feeling Saucony Peregrine ST

And now on to the upper of the shoe, the material that wraps around your foot. Most trail shoes are made to be breathable and dry out as quick as possible. They are also constructed with drainage holes so that they pump water out in case it comes inside. There are Gore-Tex and other proprietary waterproof materials used in trail shoes however keep in mind if water comes in the top of the shoe, it will NOT come out! The main benefit to a waterproof trail shoe is that it will breathe less and possibly keep your feet a bit warmer. In some models that upper material is a bit more durable, and you’ll see more protection around the toes in case you kick stones and such. Other additions you may see are elastic tabs or pockets to tuck laces into (as seen on Saucony’s trail shoes) and locations to secure ankle gaiters to the shoe (Velcro tabs at the back of the shoe and a metal loop by the laces nearest the toe).

Most trail shoes are neutral. There are a few iterations of stability trail shoes being produced however this is very uncommon, and sometimes it’s a company’s stability road shoe with a different outsole. Either way the reason most are neutral is because the running surface, trails, are not even in the first place unlike a consistent road surface. If you do prefer a more stable feeling, many trail shoes, despite being neutral, will still provide a significant amount of stability from the materials and structure in the upper, the rigidity of the shoe, and the surface area of the outsole that contacts the ground. And once again this is all personal preference. Some people prefer a very flexible shoe such as an Altra Lone Peak, others a soft yet stable Brooks Cascadia, something in between like a Saucony Peregrine, or a maximally cushioned Hoka Speedgoat; four comparable shoes with different shape, fit, and feel!   

Whatever fit and feel you prefer, having a pair of trail shoes in your shoe quiver provides confidence on the trails making the experience of running off road much better than that old pair of road shoes. Extra traction and the capability to handle almost any condition can take you nearly anywhere. If you’ve got a favourite brand of road shoe you run in look at their trail shoe options as the materials and shapes are usually similar. For example, if you like the Brooks Ghost or Adrenaline, consider the Brooks Cascadia! Do you prefer Hoka’s crazy soft cushioning? Try the Hoka Speedgoat! Look at what your trail conditions look like and then find what model is most comfortable to you!

Have fun out there! 

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