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When you’re headed into the deep backcountry, you want a durable shoe that emphasizes protection, holding up to abuse from above and below and handling every type of tough terrain. That doesn’t have to mean a light hiking boot, however. Today’s trail shoes keep you rolling smoothly through whatever conditions you encounter, in surprising comfort and without excess weight. These models are more runable than ever, without sacrificing control, cushioning, or protection.
Brooks Cascadia 14
At a glance: A svelter Cascadia with a smoother, more versatile ride and comfortable fit—yet still capable of tackling the toughest trails.
While the Cascadia 14 retains the rugged durability and supportive ride that has made it a favorite for long, rough trails since 2005, this version received a rather major makeover. One of the Cascadia’s signature design elements has always been the 4-corner “suspension” system, created by putting firmer density triangles under the heel and ball on both sides of the foot. These “pivot posts” are designed to support and re-center the foot over uneven ground, however you land—and they seem to work, as the Cascadia has always been a great companion over particularly rough, technical trails where you fear twisting an ankle. This year, the pivot posts have been reduced in size and reach only roughly halfway to the bottom of the midsole. The result is a smoother, more cushioned, and more versatile ride that still feels capable on most any trail.
The outsole, too, lost its larger, firm pivot lugs under the posts, replaced by a simpler, consistently lugged, full-bottom layer of sticky “TrailTack” rubber. The heel-toe drop was reduced from 10 to 8mm, and the upper has fewer overlays—all bringing the total weight down by more than an ounce, and making the shoe feel smoother-rolling and more cushioned on firm terrain, while also more adaptable over obstacles.
Testers said the Cascadia provided “a close feel to the trail” yet had “enough separation from the ground I didn’t feel every rock and stone under my foot.” Everyone raved about the “very comfortable upper” and “awesome” traction. Runners who like Brooks’s road shoes will likely feel comfortable in this Cascadia, which has a familiar fit and ride, both slightly more solid here.
Weight: 9.5 oz
Price: $130/$160 GTX
HOKA Evo Mafete 2
At a glance: A classic, highly-cushioned HOKA that smooths the long trail in comfort—with a more adaptable, accommodating fit.
True to HOKA’s reputation, the Evo Mafete 2 is a max-cushioned shoe that floats over and swallows any obstacles on the trail. Unlike many HOKAs (and the original Evo Mafete, the Evo Mafete 2 has plenty of forefoot room, thanks to a stretchy panel that extends from the base of the gusseted tongue and almost to the end of the toe. This panel allows the thin, breathable, durable—but rather stiff—Kevlar-enhanced “Matrix” fabric upper to expand where needed, while still holding the midfoot securely.
Combined, the high, soft stack height and more relaxed upper create a shoe that, in the words of one tester, “made some tricky footing sections a bit sketchy.” But once you adjust to the quick-turnover stride required by the low drop, soft-platform, early-rocker design, the shoe feels remarkably comfortable, capable, and speedy on all but the most-technical trails. Enhancing its trail-worthiness is the exceptional traction from the deep lugs of tacky, flexible Vibram “MegaGrip.”
“Tons of grip and flexible outsole helped to ‘flex’ on the rocks and loose terrain—this made for easier than normal descents,” said one tester. “Can really tell the difference in confidence on the trail with these,” said another who gave credit to “the grip and sponge to the rocks/terrain, with solid cushioning at the same time.”
Weight: 8.9 oz (W)
At a glance: Durable value that, while not the most nimble, has an easy, comfortable fit and can tackle the muddiest miles.
The SuperCross is a value shoe for the usually technical Salomon brand, designed, in their words, for “a daily lap around your urban park, an escape to the local trail, or something more rugged.” Most prominent are the deep chevron lugs and aggressively-sculpted sidewalls of the midsole, feeling almost self-consciously “rugged”—like a Toyota FJ Cruiser. But the lugs are functional and durable, leading one tester to cite traction as the best part of the shoe, and another to rave about how they perform on mud.
Another tester named the secure fit as the shoe’s strong suit. The padded upper is low-volume around the heel and midfoot, with a high, supportive arch. The forefoot is slightly more generous than other Salomons, making them more accommodating, but it still holds snugly. Like many Salomons, the SuperCross has a Quicklace pull-cord system, but the SuperCross has no “garage” to tuck the excess length into, only a loop over the tongue between the second eyelets; this works fine if you don’t get too deep in the woods where brush and branches might snag them.
The ride is a bit stiff, although well-enough cushioned, with a 10mm heel-toe drop creating a bit of distance between the rearfoot and the ground, making the stance somewhat less stable. That didn’t stop one tester, however, from saying the shoe made him feel “like Killian Jornet ready to run up Chamonix.”
Weight: 9.5 oz
Topo MTN Racer
At a glance: A durable, comfortable, protective shoe that lets you connect stably and nimbly to the trail.
Topo’s signature design feature is its fit, and the MTN Racer excels in comfort with a secure hold yet roomy toe box allowing for a natural splay and roll. One tester raved, “The upper fit was very comfortable and snug/secure. Nothing was too tight, bulky or flimsy. No blisters and no rubbing.”
Underfoot, the MTN Racer’s 5mm drop and 3-density midsole—with a softer exterior crash pad for downhills and firmer stability post under the arch—is a bit different than the more minimalist design you might expect from the brand. Still, the feel is responsive and proprioceptive, too much so for one tester who complained about feeling every stone, with no rock-plate as a buffer. Even that tester, however, felt that, “These shoes would be really durable over the long haul.”
The thick-lugged Vibram MegaGrip outsole appears particularly durable and proved so during our test miles. The upper too, inspires confidence with its rip-stop mesh, reinforced with flexible welded overlays and a fully-gusseted tongue keeping out any debris. In sum, the MTN Racer is an interesting and welcome combination: A tough little shoe that feels protective in almost every aspect, but doesn’t isolate you from the terrain beneath your feet.
Weight: 7.7 oz (W)