Trail-Running Shoes vs. Road-Running Shoes

Trail-running shoes or road-running shoes: which are the best choice for you? Both have their benefits and drawbacks, so it can be hard to make a decision when you're faced with all of the great options. To make your decision easier, I'll answer the most common questions people have when deciding between trail-running shoes and road-running shoes.

What's the difference between trail- and road-running shoes?

So is there really a difference between trail-running shoes and road-running shoes? The answer is yes, and here's all of the ways they're different:

trail running shoes

Trail-running shoes are designed for tackling rocky, rugged terrain, so they are generally heavier, sturdier and more durable than road running shoes. When you run over the uneven terrain of a trail, your foot and ankle move to maintain your balance, so some trail-running shoes offer beefed-up torsional support along the sides, as well as added support underfoot.

Another big difference between road- and trail-running shoes is the outsole. You can get a good look of a trail-running shoe outsole in the picture above. It has a deeper traction pattern and heavier outsole than a road-running shoe outsole (see picture below). Trail-runner outsoles are built to provide aggressive traction so you can better move over rocky terrain, gravely trails and uneven ground.

road running shoes

Road-running shoes are all about responsive speed on smooth surfaces. They are lighter than trail-running shoes, but not as protective or durable. Running shoes are designed to move quickly over smooth pavement, so their outsoles aren't as aggressive as trail-running shoes. They don't need as many reinforcements as trail-running shoes, either. That means road-running shoes tend to be more breathable, because their upper is primarily mesh. Like trail runners, road-running shoes provide adequate support for all sorts of runners, and can feature a variety of technical features.

Can I wear trail-running shoes on pavement or treadmills?

Yes, as long as your trail-running shoes don't have metal ice studs you can wear them anywhere. Like road-running shoes, you have a lot of options when choosing your trail-running shoes. If you think you'll be using your trail runners on the treadmill or road, opt for a lighter pair that boasts flexibility and a responsive design. However, if you're planning on using your running shoes on pavement and treadmills the vast majority of the time, you'll want to opt for a pair of road-running shoes.

Can I wear trail-running shoes on hikes?

Yes. Trail-running shoes are built for the trail, so some people like to wear them as lightweight, low-cut hiking shoes. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that they aren't built for long hikes or backpacking trips. While some backpackers like to wear trail runners, others find that they aren't supportive enough for the added weight and mileage. If you like to go for long hikes and occasional backpacking trips, it might be worth it to buy a pair of hiking shoes or boots.

Can I wear road running shoes on trails?

It depends on the trail. Road-running shoes will work just fine on smooth, groomed trails with few rocks. If you already own a pair of running shoes, you can always give a trail a try with those before deciding to spring for a pair of trail-running shoes and take up the hobby. I wouldn't recommend using your road-running shoes as your go-to trail-running shoes or hiking shoes, though. They don't offer the support, protection and traction you need to feel comfortable on trails that aren't groomed.

Trail or Road: which running shoe should I get?

This question isn't as straight forward as all of the others, but you should be able to easily answer it for yourself. It all comes down to your intentions. Are you a new runner who wants to get started by lacing up your shoes and stepping out your front door? Get road-running shoes. Are you a dedicated runner who takes to the sidewalk or road for a run every week, but might check out a groomed trail every once in a while? Again, get road-running shoes.

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Are you a seasoned runner who's ready to take on the challenge of trails on a consistent basis? Trail-running shoes are for you. Do you live in an area where trails are easily accessible for daily or weekly runs and hikes? Trail runners are a perfect fit. Trail-running shoes are also a great choice for dedicated runners who want a second pair of running shoes to add some variety to their running footwear choices.
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