The longest decade… er, year of all time is drawing to a close, and now it’s time to play favorites. You’ve no doubt seen our best road running picks already, but now it’s time to get wild. Literally. That’s right, we’re talking about part two of the B.I.G. Awards: The best trail running gear of 2020.
As many of you know, hitting the trails was one of the best ways to take social distancing to the max this year. On weekends outdoors at the beginning of the pandemic, it looked like the California Trail circa the gold rush. Sure, it meant a lot of changes for us and our running community, but now that we’re used to it, we can all reminisce on the great gear that kept us going. We reviewed tons of shoes, and just as many clothes, so let’s get into it.
Other than the obvious COVID-related issues, 2020 saw plenty of growth in the trail segment. Merrell made a splash (with us anyway), enough to place in a couple categories. Where HOKA excelled in years past, we weren’t totally sold on the monstrous TenNine; instead, we turned our gaze towards inov-8, Salomon, and – didn’t see this one coming – Merrell. They were well-loved by Taylor, Courtney, and Matt alike.
So how did we compile our Best In Gear (B.I.G.) list? Basically, our trail gang sat down, took a consensus, looked over the year’s reviews, had a nap, ran some trails, and then debated the list to death. Individually, not all of our favorites made the cut (only one of Nike’s shoes made it past the honorable mention stage, although they are arguably some of the best looking shoes ever), but this is the gear that we loved most overall.
Graphene Grip goodness | Pretty much a do-it-all beast | 9.5 oz (269 g) for a US M10
From the first words of their review back in August, Taylor and Courtney put the Terraultra G 270 in line for shoe of the year. It never changed They both called it a “do-it-all” beast, yet it stays away from classic heavy-duty trail shoe pitfalls — this is no chunky monkey. Taylor also praised the incredible durability and named inov-8’s Graphene Grip the best trail outsole in the game right now. (In fact, the founders of graphene won a Nobel Prize, and its use in outsoles is proprietary to inov-8.)
Courtney loved the Terraultra G 270 so much that she actually rocked her pair into a hip-hop class to better results than any other sneaker or jazz flat to date. You probably won’t do the same, but with the POWERFLOW MAX midsole, you can certainly give it a try.
PRICE: $160Read the Review Shop The Shoe – Men Shop The Shoe – Women
HONORABLE MENTION: Topo Athletic Ultraventure (A do-everything shoe with tons of comfort and space for those long hauls)
More than just beginner’s luck | Retro-inspired colorways | 9 oz for a US M9
It’s already nabbed one Honorable Mention, but Merrell’s MTL Skyfire is taking home titles now too. Even though neither Matt nor Taylor really pictured Merrell as a trail running king, the Skyfire came in and blew them away. From the retro-inspired colorways to the simple, yet technical design, Merrell seems to have nailed it from the start. Just note that Matt recommends shorter distances (sub-15k) for the Skyfire.
Taylor called the Skyfire a new friend that somehow feels familiar, which is high praise when we’re talking about a first attempt. He tried to craft an origin story for the newcomer, which ended up sounding a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, but we’d probably still give it a watch.
And the value – at $100, this may be the best bang for your buck of any trail shoe out there.
PRICE: $100Read the Review Shop The Shoe – Men
HONORABLE MENTION: Saucony Peregrine 10
Of course it wins again | That green colorway is radioactive | 9.5 oz (270 g) for a US M10
Will any other shoes make the podium? Maybe, maybe not. Inov-8’s Terraultra G 270 weighs in at just 9.5 ounces for a men’s US size 10, which is lighter than last year’s model. It’s already a great shoe with a 4 mm drop and quality foam padding, so why not add another title to the list?
Taylor and Courtney piled on the praise for the Terraultra G 270, even if it does cost $160. Don’t balk at the price tag – the Graphene outsole is virtually indestructible. You’ll break before it does.
PRICE: $160Read the Review Shop The Shoe – Men Shop The Shoe – Women
HONORABLE MENTION: Nike Terra Kiger 6
Redesigned upper | A worthy sequel, unless you’re a Slytherin | 9.8 oz (278 g) for a US M9
If you’re a Slytherin or you just believe in the Altra curse, the Timp 2.0 ain’t for you. However, Taylor absolutely loved the shoe. He praised the soft ride, secure fit, and the classic zero-drop Altra platform. He even showed some love for the lugs. While Erin wasn’t as warm to the changes, she still admitted that the Timp 2.0 is a solid shoe and that her faults with it come from a place of love for the brand.
It’s much easier to dig into Taylor’s praise, especially if you’re a newcomer to the Altra realm. He praised the multidirectional mesh upper, the asymmetric lacing, and he might still be writing if we hadn’t taken his keyboard.
PRICE: $140Read the Review Shop The Shoe – Men Shop The Shoe – Women
HONORABLE MENTION: Nike Pegasus Trail 2
Budget-friendly bliss | A trusty go-to for the 3rd generation | 10.5 oz for a US M9
Technically the aforementioned Merrell Skyfire should be the best value, but there’s a lot to love in the Sense Ride 3 for *just* $120 (look, we don’t determine what normal prices are for running shoes). Austin called the shoe outstanding, and took it on both rocks and mud — just a few of his favorite things — and found that the Sense Ride 3 delivered. Salomon’s Sense Ride series is Taylor’s trail go-to, and he stayed faithful to this third iteration, much like his unwavering support for Phone Thai’s Korean BBQ Bowl.
PRICE: $120 (on sale for $80)Read the Review Shop The Shoe – Men Shop The Shoe – Women
Endofit and SkinGuard upper is tough as nails | Dependable traction | 11 oz (312 g) for a US M10.5
Salomon’s S/Lab Ultra 3 is one of the newest shoes on the list, but when you know, you know. Taylor equated the S/Lab Ultra 3 to a craft latte — packed with luxurious layers that complement each other in just the right ways. From the snug fit to the class-leading QuckLace system, this is a well-earned win for the next time you need a well-earned win on the trails.
PRICE: $180Read the Review Shop The Shoe – Unisex
Really locks the foot in | Fast and light, as long as it’s dry | 9.3 oz (263 g) for a US M9
Nike’s Air Zoom Terra Kiger 6 played a bridesmaid in the lightweight shoe category, but this time it’s the bride. Sure, it tried to take Matt out on a creek crossing (Nike outsoles are not grippy, so run at your own risk, kids), but the Terra Kiger 6 is a lightweight head-turner that made just the right tweaks over last year’s edition. It may not be the king of wet, sloppy races, but it’s got the right mix of responsiveness and speed to come out on top of any dry, sunny day.
P.S. Can we talk about how good this shoe looks?? Sigh…
PRICE: $130Read the Review Shop The Shoe – Men Shop The Shoe – Women
HONORABLE MENTION: Brooks Catamount
Swedish and Italian design and technology | Vibram MegaGrip outsole | 10 oz (283 g) for a US M9
Sweden-based Salming is one of those companies that hasn’t quite broken into the mainstream here in the U.S., but they offer surprisingly great running shoes, especially in the trail sector. The Trail 6 is one of the most underrated trail shoes out there. Superior construction, streamlined fit, and one of the best lockdown lacing systems in the game.
Throw on some 4 mm lugs on a Vibram MegaGrip outsole, and this shoe is a serious contender. For Robbe, it felt like a better version of the Nike Terra Kiger 6. You still get that lockdown soccer cleat feel, but with a higher toe box ceiling and a bit more cushion.
If you’re looking to dip into Salming, this is a shoe that will make a splash.
PRICE: $160Shop The Shoe – Men Shop The Shoe – Women
Ortholite® 3D Wave Sense footbed | Vibram® XS Trek EVO outsole | 9.5 oz (269 g) for a US M10
Everyone needs to feel good, especially after a hard trail run. Leave it to Topo Athletic, a brand that clearly cares about your feet, to make our favorite recovery shoe. An antimicrobial blended wool upper provides comfort and resists odor, and the footbed is like a bunch of little fingers massaging your worn-down feet. It’s like a slipper, but also not – that Vibram outsole is just as aggressive as most trail shoes. Wear it indoors or out, we promise you’ll stay comfortable while recovering from today’s run so you can be ready for tomorrow’s.
PRICE: $115Shop The Shoe – Men Shop The Shoe – Women
Tracksmith and high-quality running gear go together like peas and carrots. Even though this is the brand’s first crack at a trail short, it gave our reviewers the motivation to embrace 2-in-1 shorts like never before. You might need a reliable pack because the pockets aren’t very big, but the 5-inch inseam the Goldilocks of lengths (just right, of course). But watch out – that price tag jumps out like a stray root.
PRICE: $98Read the Review Shop The Short – Men
With a name like FreeSpeed, it’s gotta be flexible. If you’re navigating treacherous terrain, a little extra freedom is just what you need. These comfortable — and colorful — shorts also pack two pockets to keep your essentials close at hand.
PRICE: $58 (on sale for $35)Shop The Short
It’s easy enough to throw on any old tee and hit the trails, but your torso will thank you for a bit of luxury. Ours were certainly pleased with ASICS’ Race Seamless short sleeve, and the lightweight top now features a jacquard upper that should keep chafing at bay. It comes in a few trail-friendly hues, but maybe we have to question naming a shade Smog Green.
PRICE: $45Shop The Shirt
It may be winter now, but rabbit’s PEAK Tank is certainly not for the colder weather. The thin strap design is great for a range of motion, and rabbitKNIT is sure to keep you cool, but you might need sunscreen, or a quarter-zip for warmth, or both. The PEAK Tank also features an all-over rabbit pattern, which beats any old monochromatic tank.
PRICE: $50Shop The Tank
Smartwool’s Sport Ultra Light isn’t really a hoodie, and it’s not really a windbreaker, but that’s what makes it a great option for both styles. Taylor loved the slim-but-not-tight fit, and he was happy to simplify his jacket arsenal. He wasn’t even afraid to put the Sport Ultra Light through its trail paces. Often, you have to worry about this high tech material tearing on sticks and such, but Smartwool seems to have gotten this jacket just right.
Of course, the western United States spent a good portion of Taylor’s review period on fire, so he didn’t get to test the waterproof capabilities too thoroughly. Instead, he turned to the kitchen sink for his testing, but Smartwool once again delivered.
PRICE: $130Read the Review Shop The Hoodie
If you ask Courtney, the Ventro jacket is great. If you ask her other running jackets, it’s terrible because they’re feeling a bit neglected. The Ventro is a masterpiece of Clo Eco Vivo insulation, and the Flip Mitts are a nice cozy touch for those chilly trail days. Ultimate Direction’s jacket is a bit too expensive for some at $200, and Courtney did suggest that a few brighter colors would be nice too.
PRICE: $200Read the Review Shop The Jacket
If a piece of gear changes our minds, it’s probably for the better. Taylor went into the review thinking that the Hydro Tights might be a bit too Euro for his liking, yet came out singing a different tune. They may look like standard leggings, but the Hydro Tights add some extra junk space for your trunk space. You can jam in two special hard flasks or leave the hydration behind in favor of your phone or a light wind layer.
PRICE: $130Read the Review Shop The Tight
Another category, another reason to love Tracksmith’s luxurious clothing. Merino wool is a favorite of Taylor’s (and all of ours), and he’s lined the Off Road long sleeve up to contend for the Merino title. He wore the Off Road for days — literally days — on end without a wash, yet it managed to keep odors at bay the whole time. Sure, $98 for a shirt is a lot, but when you can go from short runs to long runs, and then cook dinner without a stank, it’s a small price to pay.
There’s a reason this shirt also made the BIG awards for road running as well (hell, I’m wearing it right now as I’m editing this list for publication).
PRICE: $98Read the Review Shop The Shirt
Rabbit and Tracksmith are like Batman and Robin when it comes to our clothing awards – they always seem to show up together. The EZ RabbitKNIT long sleeve is Courtney’s pick, and it’s easy to see why. The 87% polyester blend is easy to fall in love with, and the all-over rabbit print is fun without being too loud. Rabbit went for a tailored fit (which they like to call not boxy), and we’re suckers for anything that cuts down on drag and keeps us from tangling in those trail bushes.
PRICE: $55Shop The Shirt
Let’s talk about socks, ba-by, let’s talk about you and me, let’s talk about all the good things Taylor and Courtney found with the Smartwool PhD Pro Endurance socks. Alright, so the name is a lot, but both of them loved the cozy Merino wool and the fact that Smartwool’s socks seemed almost immune to picking up a stink. Of course, please do actually wash your socks, and maybe think twice about wearing these in the heat.
PRICE: $26Shop The Socks
Winter is here, and the sun is gone by just about noon these days, but that’s no excuse to skip those miles. Even though the Sprint isn’t the brightest bulb in the bunch at 225 lumens, it’s our winner for adventures that start just before the sun sets or last until shortly thereafter. Taylor managed a few hour-long early morning runs before he had to recharge, but even that is easy enough with the MicroUSB port. Oh, and the Sprint 225 is small and light enough that you just might forget that you’re wearing it.
PRICE: $45Read The Review Shop Sprint 225
An ultralight headlamp that packs a powerful punch at 500 lumens, this thing suits all your trail transportation needs, from a drop bag to hydration pack. Its powering flexibility is appreciated – it can either be recharged via a Petzl core battery or, in a pinch, throw in a few AAA batteries and you’ll be good to go. It also seamlessly transitions between modes, from flood to spot.
PRICE: $90Read the Review Shop IKO Core
What can we say, Ultra Direction is definitely moving in the right direction (pause for groans). Taylor finally bought into the hype after seeing Ultimate Direction trail packs almost exclusively, and it was worth the wait. He compared it to a warm, cuddly koala sitting on his back. A koala that had the space to stash all of his trail running essentials. Ultimate Direction’s Ultra Vest 5.0 is perfectly sized with 10L of storage space.
PRICE: $140Shop The Pack – Men Shop The Pack – Women
There are a couple names that float to the top when you think of energy gels, but VFuel is our favorite. Both Taylor and Courtney rely on them, with Courtney bringing them into her holy trinity of running nutrition. You can snag your gels in more than half a dozen flavors, so there’s bound to be something that tickles your taste buds. VFuel’s gels pack just 100 calories per packet, and they’re fructose-free so you shouldn’t have much in the way of GI issues.
PRICE: $38 (24-pack)Shop VFuel
Tailwind isn’t new by any means, but it’s a tried and true favorite among our trail crew. Simply mix it with water and get cracking on your long runs. You might not need Tailwind for shorter stretches, but the clean and light flavors are just enough to add some excitement to your workout. Tailwind also has great customer service, you feel more like a person than an order number. Courtney is partial to the Tailwind Naked variety while Matt is more of a Colorado Cola guy.
PRICE: $36 (50 servings)Shop Tailwind
Everyone is different, and post-run refreshments are really the dealer’s choice. If you ask Taylor, he’ll tell you to stop by Denver Beer Company or crack open your closest LaCroix. Courtney is in the same boat, but only if the LaCroix is lime and she can drop the beer in favor of an almond milk Cortado. Finally there’s Matt, who turns to nitro cold brew or Screwball peanut butter whiskey — or maybe he puts both together. Either way, crack open what makes you feel right.
PRICE: Free, if you’re always the guy who conveniently forgets to bring beers to the post-run tailgate
Well, that’s all folks. Here at Believe in the Run, we try to bring you the best reviews around because we test everything we can get our hands-on. 2020 may have been the longest, most challenging year on record, but we’re looking forward to brighter days in 2021 and we can’t wait to share them with you.