Best in Gear Awards 2021: Best Trail Running Shoes
Well, here we are — another year of hitting the trails is ending. Even though life on the trails wasn’t hit as hard as road running during the pandemic, this year felt a little more like normal, and now it’s time to celebrate. It might even feel like 2021 flew past, but we still have a whole winter of slushy trails to look forward to. Before we get to trampling the freshly fallen powder, however, it’s time to play favorites. That’s right, we’re talking the best trail running shoes of 2021.
Usually, it’s pretty easy to sit down and find a place to start when it comes to the best shoes, but this year was something special. All of the biggest names came roaring back after the mess that was 2020, and we even saw a few new names emerge. Speedland graced us with its unbelievable SL:PDX in both performance and price, which set the bar as high as an individual shoe can go. HOKA didn’t unleash a new Speedgoat, but it gave us the lightweight Zinal to tide us over. Even The North Face decided to get in on the trail running action, launching its premium VECTIV collection.
For those of you wondering how we settled on our favorite trail running shoes of the year, we held a race. The fastest runner got to pick their favorites first. Alright, so maybe not that, but we did take some time to go back into our review archives. Our trail team picked out their individual choices, and then we all sat down to work out the differences. As always, not every shoe can make the list, but this is an excellent example of the cream rising to the top.
Now, let’s get to the shoes themselves. We hope you enjoy our favorites as much as we did, and here’s to more great trail miles in the new year.
Premium from top to bottom | A trail supershoe if ever there was one | Not priced for everyone
Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: The Speedland SL:PDX is expensive. It’s not easy to drop $375 on a trail shoe, but if there was ever one to justify it, Speedland has found that shoe. The SL:PDX packs a Carbitex carbon fiber plate, a part-Dyneema/part-ripstop-style upper, a Michelin rubber outsole, and a Pebax SCF midsole. Oh, and the BOA Li2 Fit System makes this the best fitting shoe we’ve ever experienced. If there’s a bell or whistle to be had, Speedland made sure to include it.
How much did our reviewers enjoy their time in this shoe? Well, it’s the best race day trail running shoe and best technical shoe for a reason. Taylor praised how dialed in every single detail is, and he wasn’t just making a pun about the BOA system. However, the dual-dial structure is key to a perfect fit on just about any terrain, and it’s the only shoe out there with the Li2 system. With multi-directional dials, you can micro-adjust the fit on the fly, allowing for a perfect fit on both uphills and downhills. Plus, you can snip off the outsole lugs for a custom grip, though we understand why you’d be hesitant to do so.
The Speedland team managed to nail the right blend of cushion and ground feel, which is easier said than done. This shoe offers a just-right 5 mm drop, and you can even remove the Carbitex plate for a stiffer or more flexible experience. Sure, it’s a luxury, but if you’ve ever wanted a shoe that adapts to you in almost every way, it has to be the Speedland SL:PDX.
PRICE: $375Read the Review Shop The Shoe – Unisex
TECHNICAL HONORABLE MENTION: La Sportiva Cyklon
The Cyklon follows Speedland’s lead with a BOA fit system (though it just uses a solitary, one-directional dial), but it adds an integrated gaiter to the mix to keep debris at bay. It’s a beast on technical terrain with the adjustable fit, and the Frizion XF 2.0 Mudguard outsole is tough as nails. La Sportiva adopted a dual-density EVA foam for the midsole, which feels natural under foot and allows for solid ground feel.
RACE DAY HONORABLE MENTION: Adidas Terrex Speed Ultra
We can’t lie — Adidas surprised us a little bit with the Terrex Speed Ultra. We’ll get into it more in the next section, but this shoe found the right mix of fun and comfort with plenty of speed to go around. Adidas added Boost and Lightstrike to the midsole so that you can push the miles and the pace without losing any responsiveness.
Exceptional Continental outsole grip | Combo Boost Lightstrike midsole | Only 9 oz. for a US M9
It can be easy to look at the road folks and be jealous of their lightweight shoes as a trail runner. However, the best trail running shoes tend to have a little more meat on their bones. Adidas seems to have found the perfect middle ground with its Terrex Speed Ultra, and it did so with a gorgeous shoe. We can’t even nail down one secret to success here because Adidas got so many things right.
The Boost and Lightstrike midsole is like thunder and lightning or Batman and Robin — it just works so well in tandem. Taylor compared the one-two punch to the AdiZero Pro, and the 8mm drop is key to the versatility of the Terrex Speed Ultra. He also praised the upper, an engineered mesh that fits well and holds its shape to keep your foot locked in. It may feel somewhat plasticky in hand, but it sure feels like a dream on foot.
If you’re worried about a shoe with speed in the name going light on the traction, don’t be. Adidas added its signature Continental rubber to the outsole, which feels sticky as a melted Laffy Taffy. The strategically designed lug pattern feels solid and reliable over a variety of surfaces, too. Oh, and did we mention that it weighs just 9 oz. (255 g) for a US M9?
PRICE: $160Read the Review Shop The Shoe – Men Shop The Shoe – Women
HONORABLE MENTION: HOKA Zinal
You thought 9 oz. was light? The HOKA Zinal comes in at just 8.5 for a US M9. It’s also somewhat unique among the HOKA family with its low stack, but the Vibram Litebase outsole keeps the grip top-notch. The overall profile feels closer to a road shoe, making the Zinal that much more fun. Don’t be afraid to embrace HOKA’s new set of colorways, either, they look pretty damn good.
Easy peasy Quicklace system | Energy Surge midsole | Finally, a Salomon for us normal folks
Salomon has been a king among trail running shoes for years, and it’s enjoyed sustained success with a reliable formula. Tough lugs, a 10mm drop, and a performance-ready fit. Now, the king of the mountains is branching into new territory with the Ultra Glide. It’s Salomon’s first real crack at a cushy trail killer, and boy, does it deliver. Taylor has spent more than his fair share of miles in Salomon shoes, but the Ultra Glide even won over the notorious road dogs of the team, Thomas and Meaghan.
It won’t be your pick for race day on shorter distances, but it does have the pedigree to go long. I mean, if Courtney Dauwalter is wrecking hundred-milers in the shoe, we’re guessing it works just fine. Salomon crafted a comfortable experience with an accommodating fit and a wider forefoot structure. Taylor equated it to the fit that most Salomon Sense Ride believers are looking for. The thick slab of Energy Surge foam gives a soft and bouncy ride, especially on dry terrain. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Energy Surge is exactly what you’ll find on the Salomon Pulsar and Phantasm.
Salomon even seems to have refined the Quicklace system, or at least the well-padded collar and tongue make it easier than ever to dial in. It’s become the bow on this well-wrapped Ultra Glide present. Don’t worry, you technical terrain hounds, the Contagrip outsole is back and better than ever as long as you avoid thicker mud.
PRICE: $140Read the Review Shop The Shoe – Men Shop The Shoe – Women
HONORABLE MENTION: Norda 001
We really like shoes that can do multiple things, so get ready to see the Norda 001 again in a minute. Not only is it a head-turning shoe, but it’s tough as nails with Dyneema woven into the upper. It comes in a few standard colorways, but the Ciele Athletics Cooper’s Hawk edition is guaranteed to break a few necks. The 26mm heel stack is a surprise winner, and the 5mm drop feels great for almost any terrain or pace.
Dual-layer mesh upper feels like a road shoe | ASICSGRIP outsole | HODL those ASICS stonks
Nobody ever claimed that trail running shoes fell on the budget end of the spectrum — heck, two of our favorites this year cost more than $250. Therefore, when we find a shoe that loads up on quality for just $120, you know we have to celebrate. The ASICS Fuji Lite 2 is the most affordable pick on our list by a decent margin, and it doesn’t slouch on the performance side.
Taylor said he trusts the Fuji Lite 2 for anything from buffed to moderate trails, no matter the weather conditions. A key player in ASICS’ success is the ASICSGRIP outsole, which has the teeth for just about anything. The 3mm lugs aren’t the deepest around, but they feel built to last for heaps of miles. ASICS kept the overall construction fairly simple for the Fuji Lite 2, but sometimes that’s all you need. The dual-layer mesh upper is breathable like a road shoe, and it even blends some recycled materials for an eco-friendly touch.
Taylor found both the midfoot and the toebox more secure than previous trail offerings from ASICS, and the tapered toe gives a satisfying feel through each step. Honestly, there’s not much that the Fuji Lite 2 can’t do, and what it can do is make your wallet smile.
PRICE: $120Read the Review Shop The Shoe – Men Shop The Shoe – Women
HONORABLE MENTION: Topo Athletic Ultraventure 2
Topo Athletic didn’t change much in the sequel to its Ultraventure, and that’s all for the better. It sports a lightweight upper with a three-piece EVA midsole and a Vibram XS Trek Evo outsole that adds recycled compounds to the equation. Matt found the overall ride forgiving in his review, and the multidirectional lugs absolutely shred through debris.
Dyneema as far as the eye can see | Vibram midsole and outsole | Possibly the best road-to-trail shoe out there
We pride ourselves on having a pretty stellar shoe radar here at Believe in the Run. It’s not easy to sneak up and blow us away all the time, but that’s exactly what the Norda 001 did. From the sick Cooper’s Hawk-inspired colorway to the top-notch materials, this shoe swept us off our feet — and Robbe off his ankle. The Dyneema upper is 15 times stronger than steel, and the durability is apparent from the minute you lace ’em up.
If anything, you’ll wear the EVA midsole into oblivion before the outsole or upper give way, which means you have plenty of miles to look forward to. Robbe placed his overall experience somewhere between HOKA’s legendary Speedgoat and the Pegasus Trail 3, but with grip that blows Nike out of the water. For all of the fancy stuff going on, you’d expect the Norda 001 to pack on the ounces, but it stays light as can be at 9.5 oz. (268 g.) for a US M8.5.
The Norda 001 is just as capable on the road as on the trail, even if it’s way more fun tearing across rugged terrain. It packs 26mm of heel cushion with a 5mm drop, which is the sweet spot for varied terrain at all speeds. Just be ready for the Dyneema upper to hold a little extra heat and the price tag to burn through your wallet.
PRICE: $285Shop The Shoe – Men Shop The Shoe – Women
HONORABLE MENTION: Merrell Moab Flight
Merrell had a sneaky great year in 2020, so we really should have seen this coming. Taylor loved the MTL Skyfire, and then the Moab Flight landed almost immediately in 2021. It’s light, the jacquard upper fits like a comfy glove, and the FloatPro midsole is highly versatile yet keeps the weight more than manageable. The 10mm drop is a surprise for a trail running shoe, but a surprise we’ll happily welcome here and there.
Questions? Thoughts? Did we snub your favorite trail shoe of 2021? Let us know in the comments, and let’s get ready for another great year on the trails.
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Very impressed with myself to have two shoes on this list. The Speedland and Norda. So happy with both for the very reasons they’ve won these awards, speed and strength.