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Find your fit: Trail running shoe feet-ures 

Unless you’re a total footwear nerd who knows every in and out of today’s trail shoes, shopping for trail running shoes feels dizzying. There are brands you’ve heard of, brands you haven’t, features that may matter or may just be a gimmicky marketing term … it’s a skittle-hued explosion of Gore-Tex, mesh, and rubber.

While you may suffer from analysis paralysis, scoring the right shoe is super important for not only performance but for comfort, too. And comfort is more than a nice-to-have—if your feet and joints feel good, you can run longer, happier, and with fewer injuries. Sounds good if you ask us!

If you’re a relative newbie to the wonderful world of trail runners, here’s a quick, digestible guide to what a few of the features mean.

Trail shoes vs. road shoes: why trail-specific shoes matter

You may wonder if it’s important to buy a shoe specific to trail running. The short answer is yes. Unless your definition of trail running is cushy smooth dirt paths around the local park, you probably want a trail-specific shoe. We’ll get into the details later, but trail shoes are sturdier, grippier, and will protect your feet from bumpy and rocky surfaces.

How different brands fit 

Perhaps the very most important feature of a shoe is its fit, which is based on the “last,” a foot-shaped mold that a brand uses. There’s absolutely no one-shape-fits-all out there, and different brands fit very very differently. Some are great for high arches or low arches, some are accommodating for wide forefeet and bunions, others hug narrow feet nicely, and each has a slightly different ankle hold.

You can do a lot of preliminary research online based on the type of foot you know you have, but nothing beats experimenting and trying different brands’ shoes on. One of the easiest ways to do this is attending brands’ demo days or visiting demo booths at trail races. You can give a shoe a spin on the race course, which is much better than trying it on in a store. Once you have an idea of what brands suit your foot shape best, you can begin the real shopping.

Cushy, minimalist, and everything in between

Cushioning is all over the map these days—some staunch runners argue that a minimalist, barely-cushioned shoe is the natural way to run, and it’s true that our ancestors probably ran barefoot for millennia. Meanwhile, other shoe brands offer maximum cushioning, such as Hoka, which makes trail runners so thick they practically look like moon shoes. Many brands fall somewhere in the middle, or offer a few different levels of cushioning.

Some folks argue that cushier shoes give you more spring in your step and spare your joints the repeated pounding of less cushioned shoes, and others make a case for mixing up your footwear between cushy and less cushy shoes so you’re getting the benefits of both. In our subjective opinion, cushioned shoes are awesome if you’re concerned about thrashing your joints. Otherwise, try something less cushioned and see if it works for you. The experimentation process is both interesting and fun, and if you’re shopping UnNew, you can afford to try a shoe and simply resell it if it’s not for you.

Women's Trail Running Shoes

Men's Trail Running Shoes

The midsole’s role 

In a subject closely related to the cushioning explanation above, a shoe’s midsole sits under your footbed and above the outer sole. It’s where the shock-absorption lives, and the midsole can be made of a couple different materials. You’ll often see EVA listed as the midsole material; it’s nice and soft, but it wears out faster than the alternative, polyurethane (PU).

High-tops or low-tops

Most running shoes are low-tops, which keeps them nice and light. But if you’re prone to rolling or spraining your ankles, or will be spending time on unstable terrain, high-top trail running shoes are a godsend. They’ll keep your ankles and footing extra stable, and today’s lightweight models don’t add much weight in exchange for this nice reward.

When waterproofing matters

For dry summer running here in the Wasatch, we usually skip waterproof trail shoes in favor of lighter, more breathable mesh. But if you’re trail running on snow-covered, muddy, or wet trails, a Gore-Tex membrane makes a nice difference. Keep in mind that waterproof fabric only really helps if you won’t be submerging your shoes in snow or water deeper than the cuffs, in which case it’ll seep right in no matter what you do. Many brands label the Gore-Tex version of a shoe the “GTX” version, so if you see that appended to the end of the shoe’s name, you know.

Tread and lugs 

Trail running shoes have nice, nubby lugs that give you tread much like off-roading or mountain bike tires compare to city wheels. Each brand has their own versions of tread patterns placing these lugs in various configurations and levels of aggressiveness for traction. If your running surface really demands extra help with grip—such as snow or mud—an aggressive lug pattern will help. But if it’s overly aggressive, it might feel really cumbersome on regular dirt and rock trails.

Differences in weight 

As with most things in the gear world, light weight is a great help. Every ounce you shave off a shoe’s weight adds up over the course of a run to make the effort a little easier. Of course, there are trade-offs—if a shoe is super minimalist, it may go light on other features that matter to you, like thicker cushioning.

Rock plate and toe cap 

Running on a rocky path feels like stepping on Legos barefoot unless your shoe has a protective “plate” built in. This doesn’t ruin the shoe’s cushiness—it just defends your tender soles from painful protrusions. Many shoes also have a rubber “toe cap” that works like a front bumper defending you from the rocks and roots you’ll inevitably kick. Not only does this protect your toes but it also adds durability to the shoe if you’re a chronic toe-stubber.

Now that you’ve taken a spin through some key trail running shoe terms, you can browse and buy shoes armed with a little more helpful info. It never hurts to read ratings and find places to try different brands on in person. And when you’re ready to commit to a pair, don’t forget to check our UnNew supply to find something gently used and ready for you.

Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.Follow us on Instagram + Facebook: Tag us @geartrade with the hashtag #unnewoutdoor #wearitout on your post or story for a chance to be featured on our page.

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