Welcome to the wonderful world of trail shoes! If you ended up here, you’re probably looking for some help picking out a trail shoe. We’ll go over some of the key features to look for when choosing a shoe, and some questions to ask yourself to help guide your decision. Finally, we’ll finish with a look at some of our customer and staff’s favorites!

If you drop by Runner’s Edge looking for trail shoes, we’ll often ask you some of the following questions:

  • What kind of trails will you be running on?
  • How much cushion do you like?
  • Do you have any current or former injuries?
  • What has worked well for you before?

Keep these questions in mind as we dive into what makes a trail shoe, a trail shoe!

Drop by for the biggest selection of trail shoes in Montana! Photo: Rachel Mayhem


Compared to road running shoes, one of the most noticeable differences with trail shoes is the more aggressive tread. Tread is the raised rubber or foam bumps (called “lugs”) on the bottom of your shoe that provide traction. Generally, you will want more “aggressive” tread (ie, larger lugs) when you will be running on looser, muddier, rockier, or snowier terrain. The larger lugs will bite into mud or loose rocks to provide more control and grip. You will especially notice the effectiveness of tread when on rough trails when conditions are poor. Compared to road shoes, the tread on any trail shoe will have larger lugs that offer more traction and protection.

Trail shoes with good tread help a ton in adverse conditions! Sometimes, “traction devices” are also necessary when there is ice or snow. Photo: Anastasia Wilde

“Ground Feel”

“Ground feel” is just that: how much of the ground you feel through your shoe. Some people want lots of it, some people want none of it. More ground feel can provide a sense of security for some, as you know what the terrain under your foot is doing. For others, feeling the terrain under their feet does the opposite, and makes them feel unsteady. There is no right answer, just personal preference!

The two biggest factors in “ground feel?” Cushioning and heel-to-toe drop!


If you don’t want to feel much of the trail underneath you, opt for a high cushion shoe! The more cushioning, the less you will feel of the trail. Conversely, the less cushioning, the more you can feel the trail under your feet.

Heel-to-toe drop

Heel-to-toe drop is the difference between the height of your heel off the ground and the height of your forefoot off the ground. In road shoes, it is typical to have heel-to-toe drops between 8mm and 12mm. With trail shoes, heel-to-toe drops are much more commonly 0mm to 8mm. By setting your foot more level to the ground, you are able to respond better to uneven terrain. A lower heel-to-toe drop will promote a forefoot landing in your stride, which some prefer when on technical terrain.

Sometimes you want feel every rock on the mountain, and sometimes you want to fly right over them!

Protection and reinforcement

Trail shoes come with a wide variety of reinforcement and protection on the upper of the shoe. Most models will have a sturdy toe bumper that helps protect your toes from dreaded stubs on rocks and roots. The sides of the shoe may also feature overlays that help reinforce the upper material. These can make the shoe more durable and also provide added protection for your feet.

Rock plate

You might see rock plates described with exciting names like “ballistic rock shield” or “StoneGuard”. Despite the varying fun names, most rock plates are relatively similar. These plates are a thin layer of plastic laminated in the midsole material that deflects and dulls the impact of rocks. They are usually in the front half of the shoe. Yes, you will still feel rocks. But rock plates tend to take out the sharpness of striking a rock. Note that many high cushioning shoes don’t have rock plates because, well, you can’t feel much of anything through all that foam!

Rock plates help deflect the impact from those pesky sharp rocks. Not many rocks on this strip of single track from the Bitterroot Runoff!


How long should my trail shoes last?

The industry standard is 300-500 miles. While we wish trail shoes would last forever, there is some terrain that will quickly chew through them. Off-trail or buschwacking adventures and traveling on sharp rock can end the life of a trail shoe quickly (ie, less than 300 miles). Remember, these shoes are designed for use on trails, not off-trail travel.

What are your best selling trail shoes?

Great question! These are our top-4 most popular trail shoes:

Altra Lone Peak (men’s; women’s) – a “zero drop” (0mm heel-to-toe offset), foot-shaped shoe with a happy medium amount of cushion and great traction.

Hoka Speedgoat (men’s; women’s) – Hoka’s flagship trail shoe, the Speedgoat packs a punch with tons of plush foam, a rockered midsole, and grippy Vibram rubber lugs.

Saucony Peregrine (men’s; women’s) – The Peregrine has a crowd-pleaser 4mm heel-to-toe offset, aggressive traction, and just the right amount of cushioning.

Brooks Cascadia (men’s; women’s) – The Cascadia is a tried and true classic with moderate high cushion, great traction, and reliable durability.

Our favorite “Missoula shoes”

If you run in Missoula, you know we often run from the roads to the trails and back again. For these mixed-terrain runs, we love a shoe with enough tread, but not too much tread. Our close-to-town trails have terrain that require just a touch of traction and protection. This often fits into the “road-to-trail” category. Here are a few of our favorite Missoula shoes!

Brooks Caldera (men’s; women’s) – High on the cushion, light on the traction. The Caldera has the perfect amount of traction for Missoula trails, but not so much it feels clunky on the roads.

Brooks Catamount (men’s; women’s)- A speedy, lightweight trail shoe that has lugs you hardly feel on the roads!

Craft CTM Ultra (men’s; women’s) – Carbon shoes give you a distinct pep in your step, and this shoe from Craft is one of the few that works on both roads and trails!

Altra Timp (men’s; women’s)- Designed to be at home on either road or trails, this higher cushion, zero-drop shoe does it all!

Hoka Zinal (men’s; women’s)- Ultralightweight with small but grippy Vibram-rubber lugs, the Zinal can fly from your front door to the top of Sentinel.

Enjoying the trails in the North Hills of Missoula.

Still need help? We got you!

If you’re still unsure of what shoe(s) to try, feel free to drop by the store or give us a ring! We’d be happy to chat through some trail shoe options that make sense for you. Give us a call at (406) 728-9297. And as always, if you don’t love your shoes, bring them back and we’ll try again! We want you in trail shoes that you love!

Looking to learn more?

Trail Running 101

Trail Etiquette