Thursday, December 5, 2013

Tips for picking a shoe for trail running in snow

Trail running for me tends to be during the shoulder seasons, fall and spring, where conditions are snowy, slushy, muddy, icy and beautiful.  Running on a trail covered in snow requires more attention to footwork and a bit of predicting what might lie just under the fluffy white cover: uneven rocks? ice? dirt?  A good pair of shoes goes a long way to help navigate these slippery situations.


From left to right: old Patagonia Nine Trails with the tread underfoot worn smooth, Brooks Cascadia 8s, La Sportiva C-Lites.

The most important aspect of a good snow running shoe is traction: will the sole grip the snow or just slide right off?  This is not the ideal time to break out your three year old beater shoes with the tread worn smooth in order to save your nicer pair for less mucky conditions.

Serious tread on the C-Lites

La Sportiva C-Lites (see photo above) are a good example of a shoe with excellent traction: the tread is deep, almost like rubber spikes that confidently grip snow, mud and pine needles.  These were Ryan's top choice for running all last winter.  I use the Brooks Cascadia 8, a shoe with less aggressive, but still quite good, tread.  I find they are more comfortable on harder surfaces.

Decently sticky rubber on your shoe's sole is also an asset, especially when running over wet rocks and talus.  However, the stickier the rubber, the faster it wears out.  The stickiest rubber is often on shoes with less aggressive tread - and I'd choose great traction with semi-sticky rubber over mediocre traction with really sticky rubber for trail running in the snow.

Good fit, not sloppy

I searched long and hard for a shoe with a comfy fit, snug heel and just enough (not too much) room in the toes.  These Cascadias fit just right.

When the snow covers the trail, you can't always see what your foot will land on, or how it will land. A loose and sloppy fit can increase your chance of stumbling when the shoe lands in a way you were not expecting.  Don't size tightly, you still want enough room for your toes, but don't use a very loose and sloppy fit.  If you are shopping for new shoes, try on a few different pairs in different sizes to get the feel for a shoe that has room for your toes but not lots of extra space at different parts of your foot.

Log some miles in your shoes prior to the snowy season in order to get used to your shoe and how it responds in different situations.  Your strides will feel much more confident if your shoe doesn't give you any surprise responses.

Stable heel, stable shoe

Compare width of the La Sportiva Quantum (left) with the Patagonia Tsali (right).  The heel on the Tsali is wider compared to the width of the shoe.

Most trail runners have a relatively wide and stable heel, and this is especially helpful in slick and snowy conditions.  A wider, more stable heel helps prevent you from rolling your ankle when the heel lands on a rock or an uneven patch of ground.  To test heel stability, rock from side to side on flat ground.  How much effort does it take to roll onto the side edge of your shoe?  It should take a little bit of effort.  I have found that the Patagonia trail runners, like the Tsali above, are lightweight and stable shoes.


Ryan using footwork to send a boulder problem

I carry the concept of footwork over from climbing, but it is just as applicable to running and hiking. There are better and more secure ways to place your feet on different types of surfaces.  You get better the more you practice, and the more you pay attention to what works well and what does not.  Good footwork is the most important factor in secure footing on the trail, even more important than good shoes.

A more sensitive shoe (you can feel the ground through the sole) or minimalist shoe will help you practice footwork.  But you can have great footwork in any kind of shoe.  An example of footwork is digging in and gripping with your toes while ascending a slippery hill.


Yep, snow melts through the mesh uppers of most running shoes.  If this bothers you, a waterproof shoe may be the thing for you.  I don't use waterproof trail runners because my feet would probably get wet with sweat if they were encased in a not-so-breathable waterproof membrane (even if they are advertised as breathable).  Also, if the snow is deeper than the ankle on your shoe, snow will creep into the shoe anyway and the waterproof membrane will keep the wet in with your foot while the mesh will allow some of that moisture to escape.  In my opinion, a better alternative is a short, light gaiter to keep snow out of your shoe and a good pair of socks.

An interesting alternative to a waterproof shoe is a shoe with a less permeable upper, like the soft shell on the La Sportiva Vertical K Miles (full review coming soon).  The softshell upper is more breathable than a waterproof upper, but also repels snow melt much better than mesh.


Safae said...

I'm totally new to this sport, and these shoes seem great but I can't help but wonder if they're a bit more than what I need as a novice. Any suggestions for a beginner?
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Ryan Davis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ryan Davis said...

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Alice Taylor said...

Finaly a post that explained n detail what to look for when searching for trail running shoes! Respect! :) Most people don't realize that you can't just buy any model or the most expensive one and expect it to fit your needs. You need to get familiar with all the features and then pick a model that best fits your style and needs. Here are a couple of reviews that will help you find the ones that are best for you:

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