Conditions on any trail run can vary enormously, but there are routes out there where the surface is guaranteed – it’ll be hard. Alpine trails or higher ground on paths in Snowdonia certainly come into that category so if you know it’s going to be solid underneath perhaps with rocks and roots to contend with, well then these are a few of the great shoes you should consider.
What to look for in a hard pack trail running shoe
Carbon - For many of us, running is all about going that bit quicker and there’s no argument carbon provides runners with more responsibility on the harder, more uniform trails this season provides. Some will run faster, while some will benefit from the reduction in impact carbon provides. Yes, there’s a cost but it’s well worth the investment.
Breathability - In the same way, you’d look for fabrics that breathe in t-shirts, go for materials that allow air and water vapour to escape from inside the shoe, while also allowing cooler air from outside to enter.
Weight - Of course, there’s no definitive weight in a running shoe as more than any other product, it’s very much individual. But, as a general rule, summer shoes are lighter and swifter feeling, so you’ll be thinking of shoes that weigh less than 300g for that rip-roaring 10km PB. If you’re thinking long distance though, think about additional cushioning and therefore in some, but not all, additional weight, bringing the shoes into the mid-300s.
Toe box - The rocks will be there summer, or winter so look for protection in that department year-round.
Drop - There’s almost a generational gap here. Older shoe models work off an 8mm-12mm drop for a higher, more cushioned ride while many of today’s shoes come in at around 4mm-6mm for a closer to the ground, faster feel. As with any shoe advice, it’s always about what feels good personally.
In theory, it’s worth progression to lower drop shoes as they do feel quicker (half the job), but it can be at a cost for your calf muscles. There are lower drops as well with 0mm replicating barefoot. The jury is out at the moment as to what is best!
Midsole - EVA, PU, TPU or Pebax are the foams of choice for most brands. All offer softness and flexibility to different degrees.
Fit - There’s the traditional lacing system of course, but the Salomon system and the Boa fit in a variety of brands including La Sportiva and Adidas do offer superb stability on rough, steep terrain. Consider the surfaces you’ll be running. Tough descents and contouring lend themselves to this new fit system.
Lug length - Summer shoes will offer less in the grip department, so lugs around 3mm at the most, while winter shoes go all the way up to 6mm and even beyond on occasion. Rubber, of course, wears quicker so longer lug length shoes need to stay strictly off-road!
The best running shoes for hard pack trails
Pros: Great price for a carbon shoe
Cons: They are a little unforgiving
It’s difficult not to be excited when the word carbon is involved, especially when your heart rate numbers suggest a faster than usual run is going very, very easily. And what does that run feel like? A harder-type ride with acceptable rather than sensational grip – greasy surfaces were a small problem.
The fit is comfortable and certainly built for long, long days – the UTMB, marathons – but such is the response that you’ll find them the shoe of choice for shorter efforts. The technical details include that all-important 3D Carbon Filter Plate and a super responsive Rocker Geometry midsole, all working from a 6mm drop.
Pros: An impressive longer-distance shoe combining grip, protection and comfort
Cons: Sizing needs attention
These shoes combine plush cushioning, a tough and highly protective upper, good support throughout the foot, and superb grip on wet or dry trails. The offset lacing wraps the upper around the top of the foot for a really snug fit. Underfoot protection is top-notch. Sizes are slightly short.
Pros: Comfort - they have bags of it
Cons: Technically a road shoe so not much toe protection
Although road running shoes, the high-stack Cloudmonsters have a place on hard-packed trails, offering incredibly cushioning and fatigue-free miles for long and middle-distance runners (On reckon 5-20km is the sweet spot for these).
The upper, made from recycled polyester, is easy to wipe clean, but not as flexible as some mesh uppers. The midsole foam feels firm but gives a cushioned feel between the foot and running surface, the speed board (thin snappy thermoplastic layer) has been designed to help for a faster toe-off and you definitely have the feeling of being able to run faster.
Pros: Good grip making them a nice all-rounder
Cons: They are a little heavy looking (but not actually in real life)
It looks a bit bulky and sort of slow, but one run later and you’ll be stunned by the responsive, lightweight, and general zippiness this shoe provides. Very much a wolf in sheep's clothing. And on rough ground at that...
The zonal rubber placement ensures traction and grip where you need it the most and the 5mm lugs (and 4mm drop) provide flexible and sticky multi-directional traction as you tackle awkward ascents and daring descents. The lugs ensure additional support and stability. One reviewer sums it all up like this: “I don't think I have been this impressed with a shoe right out of the box... ever.”
Pros: Well-cushioned and grippy
Cons: More of an all-rounder than a trail shoe
The first thing you notice when slipping your feet into the Merrells is the amount of cushioning on offer a far cry from the brand's previous focus on zero-drop, barefoot footwear. And this FloatPro foam is one of the Agility Peak 4's trump cards; the hard-packed ground is bounded over with ease.
An aggressive tread pattern provides grip where you need it, and the sticky Vibram MegaGrip sole has more than ample traction. The lacing is secure, there's a rock plate for protection, a decent toe bumper, and even a D-ring attachment point for gaiters. A 6mm drop puts them just on the right side of 'pacey', too.
Pros: Very fast
Cons: Looks won't be for everyone
Ultra legend Tom Evans is behind this shoe. 'I wanted it to look sleek, aggressive and fast,' he said. 'I also like seeing my socks through the shoe; it gives me the feeling that the shoe is very light. The team used translucent materials to achieve that. And I also wanted to make this shoe as lightweight as possible without compromising on performance.'
So, did he? On a five-mile spin, we ran more than two minutes quicker than the previous outing, proving they're very much about hitting the gas! Details include an 8mm drop, 2.5mm lugs, a cushioned outsole that develops 20% more response than the original Boost, and a breathable upper.
Pros: Great shock absorption, made from recycled plastic
Cons: Quite heavy
The sixth iteration of the Stinson ATR packs a lot of comfort and cushioning into an already decent long-distance shoe. Working off a 5mm drop, they're easier to adapt to than that stat might suggest, with an easy transition and toe-off through the gait cycle aided by phenomenal shock absorption.
Widely spaced lugs and a wide footprint offer stability on trails and even occasional road, with a clever lacing system that spreads the load. They might not be the most featherweight shoes we've tested, but they're some of the comfiest. Also, they're constructed from post-consumer waste plastic, which is a major plus.
Pros: Perfect for hard pack trail races
Cons: Sizing is a bit long
If you're looking for a pair of shoes for your next fast race, these are a solid option. Think of the Race Light as a racing flat for trail running. Their 4mm drop gets you up on your toes, cushioning is there, though minimal, and the mesh upper is thin.
Aggressive 5mm lugs slice through most terrain and really key into both wet and dry rocks. Everything about them is purposeful - they're built upon a narrow last and you barely notice the 225g on each foot. PB hunting time is here. But bear in mind that, while the toebox is roomy, they do come up a bit long so it's worth considering sizing down.
Pros: Super light and non-intrusive
Cons: Bold fashion statement
With a close fit and tipping the scales at just 215g, the Sense 8 SGs are a fit-and-forget solution to tackle every type of terrain. The high-topped silhouette and bright red colour certainly catch the eye, but once you slip them on and get going, it's like they're hardly there.
The upper is formed from elasticated knit fabric that is surprisingly supportive thanks to the lockdown from the Quicklace system. At 4mm of drop, the midsole ride is responsive without being clunky or hard. They offer a nimble ride across most off-road terrain - especially on grassy or soft trails - thanks to Salomon's Contragrip outsole.
Pros: Long-lasting and packed with tech
Cons: Big, heavy and expensive
Following the launch of the graphene-outsole G 270 three years ago, the innovative brand has now introduced the world's strongest and thinnest material to the midsole foam, too. The result, it's claimed, is 25% more energy return, with the foam lasting twice as long.
Offering more cushioning than perhaps any other Inov-8 trail shoe (and a 6mm drop) these are all about comfort over longer distances. However, they won't be ideal if you prefer light shoes or being closer to the ground. Better for harder-packed trails, and even road than thicker mud, they're a great choice for mixed-terrain runners who pack in the miles.