What is the best shoe for Road, Trail, Off-Road or Mountain?

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What is the best shoe for road, off-road, trail and mountain?

You won’t believe how many times I get asked this question. Of course I can’t answer it. Far too many variables come into play.

  • Drop
  • Cushioning
  • Grip
  • Upper type
  • Lacing
  • Outsole

Taking into consideration all of the above, certain elements are comparable and with 2015 drawing to a close I thought I would take a look back at some of the shoes I have tested and worn in the last 10-months and then put my neck on the line and say, which shoe (for me) is the best.

Shoes to look at:

  • Salomon S-Lab Sense – 4mm drop
  • Salomon S-Lab Sense SG (soft ground) – 4mm drop
  • Salomon Sense Mantra 3 – 6mm drop
  • The North Face Ultra MT – 8mm drop
  • The North Face Ultra Cardiac – 8mm drop
  • inov-8 Race Ultra (2-models) – 4mm and 8mm drop
  • inov-8 Terraclaw (2-models) – 4mm and 8mm drop
  • inov-8 Mudclaw 300 – 6mm drop
  • Scott Kinabalu 3 – 11mm drop
  • Scott Kinabalu Supertrac – 8mm drop
  • Scott Trail Rocket – 5mm drop

Notice that I have added the drop next to all the the shoes above. Drop has become a very important element when choosing a shoe. What drop you require as a runner is open to debate and to a certain extent; genetics. The book, ‘Born to Run’ inspired many runners to get low and minimal and what followed was carnage and very happy physiotherapists. Please read this post HERE to provide some perspective of my thoughts.

Drop and minimal are two separate issues.

1. Drop is the angle from the heel to the toes that the foot will sit at when parallel to the ground.

2. Cushioning is the amount of ‘soft stuff’ between you and the ground.

To clarify:

  • You can have low drop (typically 4mm) and LOADS of cushioning = Hoka One One
  • You can have low drop (zero) and no cushioning = Vibram
  • You can have a combination of varying drop and varying cushioning = Many of the above shoes.

So, if you want zero drop and no cushioning OR you want lower drop and maximal cushioning; stop reading, this is not the review for you!

If however, you are looking for a shoe that can handle some road, off road or mountain paths then read on; which shoe is a jack of all trades?

Where do I start?

It’s quite daunting taking so many shoes and then saying which pair, in my opinion is the best. So, here is my criteria:

  • Ability to run on road
  • Ability to run on hard trails
  • Ability on dry and wet rocks
  • Grip in mud
  • Climbing
  • Descending
  • Time on feet
  • Fit
  • Lacing
  • Cushioning
  • Outsole
  • Wear and tear
  • Drop
  • Conclusion

©iancorless.com_Sense4SG-9068

Salomon S-Lab Sense SG – Read full review HERE

Ability to run on road – For a shoe with an aggressive outsole, on road experience is good but as the name suggests, the SG is for Soft Ground.

Ability to run on hard trails – Good. Handles the trail well with comfort.

Ability on dry and wet rocks – On dry rocks, grip is very good. On wet rocks the grip is very compromised and at times sketchy/ scary.

Grip in mud – For such an aggressive outsole, the grip is moderate. The SG sits somewhere in the middle.

Climbing – Shoes feel great. They are flexible, hold your foot snug and you have a feeling of precision. They also handle wet ground well providing it does not get very muddy. Wet rock is hit and miss.

Descending – As above but in mud, or on wet it can be a challenge.

Time on feet – 6mm drop, adequate cushioning and great fit make this shoe very popular. Excellent for 50k and after that it depends on the runner and the runners adaptation.

Fit – Excellent. Endofit and the speed lacing system is the best out there!

Lacing – The best but lacks an ability to tweak or adjust.

Cushioning – Cushioning is good and finds a nice mix that still allows feel and contact with the ground.

Outsole – It’s a soft ground outsole but for me it’s a great outsole for dry terrain with a variety of surfaces and not too much mud.

Toe box – Narrow, precision fit.

Wear and tear – Moderate – 500k – 600k

Drop – 4mm

Conclusion – Great fit, 4mm drop and soft ground outsole. For many this is the ultimate off road, trail and mountain shoe for longer days training or racing. It’s limited in the wet and mud though.

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Salomon S-Lab Sense 

Ability to run on road – Excellent. The outsole has a low profile.

Ability to run on hard trails – Excellent. The outsole has a low profile and therefore if the trail is dry, these shoes will fly along.

Ability on dry and wet rocks – On dry rocks, grip is very good. On wet rocks the grip is compromised and at times sketchy. You lack 100% confidence and that makes you go slower.

Grip in mud – Hopeless.

Climbing – Shoes feel great. They are flexible, hold your foot snug and you have a feeling of precision. Not good in the wet or mud.

Descending – As above but in mud, or on wet rock forget it!

Time on feet – This depends on ones adaptation to a more minimal shoe. If you like being close to the ground with a low drop this shoe will be perfect. However, for me I prefer this shoe for shorter runs on dry trails.

Fit – Excellent. Endofit and the speed lacing system is the best out there!

Lacing – The best but lacks an ability to tweak or adjust.

Cushioning – This is a more minimal shoe but it does have cushioning.

Outsole – For dry trails

Toe box – Narrow, precision fit.

Wear and tear – Moderate – 500k.

Drop – 4mm

Conclusion – It’s a racing shoe for dry trails for mid to fore-foot runners. Fit is excellent if you like a precision feel.

©iancorless.com_Mantra3-7562

Salomon Sense Mantra 3 – Read full review HERE

Ability to run on road – Excellent. The outsole has a low profile.

Ability to run on hard trails – Excellent. The outsole has a low profile and therefore if the trail is dry, these shoes will fly along.

Ability on dry and wet rocks – On dry rocks, grip is very good. On wet rocks the grip is compromised and at times sketchy. You lack 100% confidence and that makes you go slower.

Grip in mud – Hopeless.

Climbing – Shoes feel great. They are flexible, hold your foot snug and you have a feeling of precision. Not good in the wet or mud.

Descending – As above but in mud, or on wet rock forget it!

Time on feet – This depends on ones adaptation to a more minimal shoe. If you like being close to the ground with a low drop this shoe will be perfect. However, for me I prefer this shoe for shorter runs on dry trails.

Fit – Excellent. Endofit and the speed lacing system is the best out there!

Lacing – The best but lacks an ability to tweak or adjust.

Cushioning – This is a more minimal shoe but it does have cushioning.

Outsole – For dry trails

Toe box – Toe box is generous and for those looking for a Salomon with more room, this is the shoe for you!

Wear and tear – Good 700K

Drop – 6mm

Conclusion – I think the Mantra is a shoe that more people should look at. They often go for the S-Lab Sense because of the S-Lab tag but for me, this is a better all around shoe and far more suited for most runners. It has 6mm drop, wider toe box and more cushioning. If you run long on dry trails this is a great shoe.

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The North Face Ultra MT – Read full review HERE

Ability to run on road – Good considering the outsole but keep it to a minimum.

Ability to run on hard trails – It handles hard and dry trails well but the shoe lacks flexibility and is a little firm.

Ability on dry and wet rocks – On dry rocks, grip is very good. On wet rocks the grip is better than the Salomon due the Vibram sole. Felt far more confident in this shoe.

Climbing – Good but they are not as supple and flexible as others in the test. Grip is goo.

Descending – As above.

Time on feet – The Ultra MT is a relatively firm shoe that excels on softer, muddier and forgiving ground. If you stick to that terrain they are excellent.

Fit – Pretty good, you may need to replace the laces (not great) and tweak how they are laced to get the best fit.

Lacing – Provided laces are average.

Cushioning – It’s a firm shoe and although cushioning is present, it’s not a cushioned shoe.

Outsole – Is Vibram and aggressive. It’s good!

Toe box – Has loads of protection and although not over wide it will work for most people.

Wear and tear – Good 600k but less if you go on the road a great deal.

Drop – 8mm

Conclusion – I was disappointed with the Ultra MT at first. I wanted it to be something else I think! But after several runs I found that they excelled off road when the terrain was forgiving (cushioned) and muddy, wet or slick. It’s a good mountain shoe that protects the foot.

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The North Face Ultra Cardiac – Read full review HERE

Ability to run on road – Excellent. The outsole has a relatively low profile.

Ability to run on hard trails – Excellent. The outsole has a low profile and therefore if the trail is dry, these shoes will fly along.

Ability on dry and wet rocks – Good. Confidence in both scenarios.

Grip in mud – Moderate. It’s a great middle ground shoe so does not handle the real muddy terrain well.

Climbing – Shoes feel great. They are flexible, hold your foot snug and you have a feeling of precision. Not good in the wet or mud.

Descending – As above but in mud it’s compromised.

Time on feet – Great. The combination of 8mm drop and good cushioning make this a great long distance trail. mountain or off road shoe for primarily dry conditions. I’d recommend these for 100-miles and multi-day racing.

Fit – Good with a well padded tongue.

Lacing – Standard lacing that you may wish to tweak for the best fit.

Cushioning – Great cushioning but not maximal. Ideal for longer days.

Outsole – Great compromise outsole that can handle road and trail. Okay for mud but not too much!

Toe box – Is average width so if you need a wide toe box you may want to try them.

Wear and tear – The upper lacks durability which is the only downside of the shoe – 500k?

Drop – 8mm

Conclusion – One of the best ‘all-rounders’ in this test that can handle multiple terrains with an 8mm drop that will allow you to run long.

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inov-8 Race Ultra 270 (4mm drop) and 290 (8mm drop) – Read full reviews HERE (270) and HERE (290)

Ability to run on road – Good, the outsole has minimal tread and they work well on road.

Ability to run on hard trails – As above, good outsole for hard and dry trails.

Ability on dry and wet rocks – Average grip and terrible when wet.

Grip in mud – Hopeless.

Climbing – If you have really wide feet they will feel ok, if not they feel sloppy, over stiff and lack any true feeling with the ground beneath.

Descending – Toe box is too wide and therefore foot moves around inside the shoe causing friction, toe impact and a lack of control.

Time on feet – A real plus of inov-8 shoes is that they provide you with 2 drops, 4mm and 8mm so that you can get the correct shoe for you. I personally prefer the 8mm drop shoe and the cushioning that goes with it for longer runs.

Fit – If you have wide feet one of these shoes may well be for you. They are roomy! Too roomy for me.

Lacing – Standard lacing and I used a ‘lock-lacing’ method to make both shoes feel more secure on my feet.

Cushioning – In both models is good but lacks feel for me and suppleness.

Outsole – For dry trails only.

Toe box – Wide, very wide.

Wear and tear – Very good 7/800k

Drop – 4mm and 8mm

Conclusion – The Race Ultra shoes look great and have been extremely popular. I personally don’t get along with either model. I can run in them for sure but I wouldn’t if I can choose any other shoe in this list. For me they lack feel for the ground, they are sloppy and stiff.

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inov-8 Terraclaw 220 (4mm drop) and 250 (8mm drop) – Read full reviews HERE (220) and HERE (250)

Ability to run on road – Both shoes run well on the road with good feedback but be warned, the outsole will wear dowm.

Ability to run on hard trails – Excellent. Plenty of feeling in both shoes and the grip works well.

Ability on dry and wet rocks – On dry rocks, grip is very good. On wet rocks the grip is compromised and at times sketchy. You lack 100% confidence and that makes you go slower.

Grip in mud – If it’s not too muddy they work well. This shoe is trying to be the perfect trail shoe doing all things well. Of course, compromises are made at the extremes: all road or all mud.

Climbing – Shoes feel great. They are flexible, hold your foot snug if laced correctly but the wide toe box lacks precision and makes them feel too sloppy for me.

Descending – As above but in mud grip is compromised and on wet rock you slow down.

Time on feet – This depends on ones adaptation and preference. Two shoes and two options, for me the 250 with 8mm drop is the shoe for longer days but if you are efficient and like low drop, the 220 works great,

Fit – Slipper like feel as the shoe has very little seams. You get a great barefoot feel from the wide toe box and if you lace the shoe as per your needs, they are very comfortable.

Lacing – The 250 laces conventionally and the 220 laces at an angle. I used lock lacing in both models to get a more firm hold of my foot which added security.

Cushioning – Cushioning is good in both but the 250 is for longer runs with more cushioning.

Outsole – Has good grip made from 2 compounds. The sole is aggressive but not too aggressive. You can run on the road in comfort and on the trails. Comprises would be made when the trail gets muddy, you start to loose grip. I also wouldn’t recommend for just road runs.

Toe box – Very wide.

Wear and tear – Good but not great, 6-700k

Drop – 4mm and 8 mm

Conclusion – The Terraclaw is everything the Race Ultra should be. They are comfortable, have great feel for the ground and the grip is great for all around use.

©iancorless.com_Mudclaw300-7440

inov-8 Mudclaw 300 – Read full review HERE

Ability to run on road – Surprisingly good considering the outsole but keep it to a minimum.

Ability to run on hard trails – Okay but this shoe is for the soft and muddy stuff as the name implies.

Ability on dry and wet rocks – On dry rocks, grip is very good. On wet rocks the grip is excellent for such an aggressive outsole. I would say the best in this group.

Grip in mud – Excellent. They will take loads of mud, soft grass and give you more security than any other shoe here.

Climbing – Shoes feel great. They are flexible, hold your foot snug and you have a feeling of precision. Although precision fit the toe box has room.

Descending – Excellent. Shoes give you great confidence.

Time on feet – If you are running in mud all day, the 300 has cushioning to go with the grip and I’d say they are one of the better long distance off road/ fell shoes. If you are on hard or dry trails you’ll start to feel it.

Fit – Precision fit shoe designed to hold your foot so that you can run with confidence. Toe box was roomier than expected and I had to lace with a locking method as they have a low heel to reduce problems with the achilles tendon.

Lacing – Standard lacing and I used a lock lacing method to add a more secure feel.

Cushioning – This is a more cushioned fell shoe and therefore it’s great for longer soft ground running.

Outsole – Aggressive for the soft and muddy stuff.

Toe box – Narrow, precision fit.

Wear and tear – On soft ground they will last but add hard trail, gravel and road and they will wear because of the soft rubber outsole.

Drop – 6mm

Conclusion – Brilliant off road shoe with great cushioning and 6mm drop for long days on soft, mountain and boggy terrain. A comprise comes with shoe longevity if you run on road and gravel but then again, the shoes name tells you where you should be using it! Grip is excellent even on rocks when dry and wet.

Scott T2 Kinabalu 2015

Scott T2 Kinabalu 2015

Scott T2 Kinabalu 3 – Read full review HERE

Ability to run on road – Excellent. It’s not a road shoe but it runs great on the hard stuff.

Ability to run on hard trails – Excellent. The outsole has a low profile and therefore if the trail is dry, these shoes will fly along.

Ability on dry and wet rocks – On dry rocks, grip is very good. On wet rocks the grip is compromised.

Grip in mud – Moderate, they can handle a little soft stuff but not too much.

Climbing – Pretty good. The shoes are a little more substantial than others in the test and therefore they are a little heavier and a little more rigid.

Descending – Good feel and cushioning but grip is compromised on wet and muddy trail/ rocks.

Time on feet – Great shoe for longer running and a very durable upper with great protection. The shoe has an 11mm drop which is almost unheard of these days. 8mm has become the norm. But Scott use a ‘rocker’ and this does keep you mid to fore-foot and they don’t feel like 11mm drop when running.

Fit – Great fitting shoe that feels comfortable and holds the foot.

Lacing – Standard lacing with ‘lace-locker’ to hold excess lacing after they are tied.

Cushioning – Very good.

Outsole – It’s a road to trail shoe that offers grip similar to the TNF Ultra Cardiac but they have more grip than the Race Ultra, S-Lab Sense and Sense Mantra 3.

Toe box – Standard with good protection

Wear and tear – Very good 800k.

Drop – 11mm

Conclusion – The Kinabalu in it’s 3rd incarnation is a really good shoe, if it was 8mm drop it would be excellent. It’s a great shoe for those who want one shoe to do all things.

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Scott Kinabalu Supertrac – Read full review HERE

Ability to run on road – Surprisingly good for an aggressive sole and you can run comfortable for longer periods of time.

Ability to run on hard trails – Excellent. As above.

Ability on dry and wet rocks – On dry rocks, grip is very good. On wet rocks the grip is compromised at times but you have confidence in the shoes.

Climbing – They are heavier shoes with less flex but the combination of grip and firm foothold make them very pleasing to wear.

Descending – Good cushioning and a robust (bomb proof) upper make you feel confident to tackle most terrain.

Time on feet – 8mm drop, good cushioning and a bomb proof upper make these great for long days. The only downside comes with the weight of the shoe. They are a fair bit heavier (340g) than other shoes in this test.

Fit – Great fitting shoes, maybe a little stiff when new but they soften. Toe box has room but not too much room and protection is excellent.

Lacing – Standard with ‘Lace-Locker.’

Cushioning – Excellent

Outsole – Aggressive that works on a multitude of surfaces.

Toe box – Standard with good protection.

Wear and tear – Excellent 800k

Drop – 8mm

Conclusion – This shoe is a real winner that mixes up different surfaces really well in a shoe that gives great cushioning all with an 8mm drop. The downside is the weight.

©iancorless.com_Scott-8036

Scott Trail Rocket – Read full review HERE

Ability to run on road – Excellent.

Ability to run on hard trails – Excellent.

Ability on dry and wet rocks – On dry rocks, grip is very good. On wet rocks the grip is compromised.

Climbing – Shoes feel great. They are flexible, hold your foot snug and you have a feeling of precision. Not good in the wet or mud.

Descending – Okay if it is dry.

Time on feet – This depends on ones adaptation to a more minimal shoe. This is a shoe for faster running on dry/ mixed trail.

Fit – Good snug fit with precision feel.

Lacing – Standard.

Cushioning – This is a more minimal shoe for faster running but they are well cushioned.

Outsole – For dry trails

Toe box – Narrow, precision fit.

Wear and tear – Moderate – 5/600k.

Drop – 5mm

Conclusion – Great fitting shoe and the race rocker works well for keeping you mid to forefoot. This shoe compares to the Salomon S-Lab Sene, Mantra 3 or the Race Ultras. It has a specific use.

And the winner is?

Before I say my winner, lets look at my thought process. By ‘best’ shoe I am taking into consideration many things such as: comfort, drop, cushioning, longevity, fit and so on. I am not looking at the colour or the price of the shoe. It may sound flippant but all shoes are around the same price these days and to be honest, if the shoe is what I want and I know it works then I will pay the bucks.

You may well say, ‘But you can’t compare 4mm drop shoes to 8mm drop shoes and shoes with hardly any grip to shoes with loads of grip!’

Yes, I know.

But in some respects, this review or this comparison is all about purchasing one pair of shoes that can do all things well. If I wanted to just run in the mud I would get the Mudclaw 300. If I was just going to run fast hard trail I may well go for the Salomon Sense Mantra 3.

So, here you go:

Scott Kinabalu Supertrac

Surprised?

I am! When I started this process I didn’t think the Scott would come out on top but you know what, it has been a relatively easy decision.

I know it’s a heavy shoe and that is a big down side, especially when you compare it to say the Salomon which are almost 100g lighter; that is huge! But if I could only have one pair of shoes that had to take me along roads, along dry trails, up mud, down mud and along rocks in the wet and dry then the Supertrac would be the ones for me! The combination of 8mm drop, excellent cushioning, bullet proof upper, ‘rocker’ design and the aggressive outsole make them a winner; for me!

On a final note, shoes often have very specific uses and all the shoes above (in most cases) do one thing well! So, if you have the funds and the desire to own multiple pairs of shoes this almost certainly is the best way to go.

Three key shoe choices:

  • Road/ dry trails
  • Trail shoes for mixed conditions
  • Mud/ off-road shoes

The other key choice is drop and cushioning – you know your needs!

What are your thoughts and what shoes have I not tried here that would provide some competition?

12 thoughts on “What is the best shoe for Road, Trail, Off-Road or Mountain?

  1. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News, Mon Nov 9

  2. You should start testing La Sportiva, that’s grip! I noticed than none of the proposes shoes are good on wet rock…

    Thanks for the reviews, can’t review all of them.

  3. Good article that highlights the compromises you have to make ….. but as Richard says, why no La Sportiva ? Great shoes in my opinion 🙂

  4. Good review Ian.
    For me the Inov-8 Roclite is the best all rounder; good grip on all but the muddiest terrain, enough cushioning for harder trails and robust enough to last (got 1000 miles from my last pair!)

  5. Great review, plenty food for thought. Just got some Inov-8 Terraclaw 250s and would agree with your comments on them, lovely shoe as long as it’s not too muddy (here in Cumbria right now it is very muddy).

    It would be good to see Inov-8 Roclites in this line-up. Though everyone should be warned that the new (blue) Roclite 285 is nothing like as good as the previous (black & lime green sole) version. The old ones were my go-to shoe for any training run or trail race. The new ones are truly awful. Inov-8 have changed the midsole material I think, and they now feel like clogs. I hope they realise their mistake (as they did with MudClaws) and bring back the originals.

    Love the blog, interesting reading.

  6. Interesting review. I disagree with the Inov-8 Race Ultra (270) being terrible when wet, I also own Salomon Lab Sense SG and find those terrible when wet by comparison. The Race Ultra has a bigger contact area which make them ok-ish, but am still looking for shoes that do well on wet rock.

    • Okay, to clarify, both the Race Ultra and Salomon SG are awful in the wet ;-). For me, Mudclaw 300 is still the best (ironically) but getting some good feelings from La Sportiva too.

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