As the minimalist tide sweeps across the running world, a battle rages for the soul of trail running shoes: Thin, low-profile padding versus regular cushioning. Do you want the superior ground "feel" and stability of a lower shoe, which can rattle your bones? Or do you go for the taller, more traditional padded shoes that pamper you over rocks and ruts at the expense of that prized feel? We took four pairs out to the trails in Orange County's Peters Canyon for a mano a mano (or is that pies a pies?) showdown.
Barely there speedster
Likes: Superb trail feel and speed — best of the group. Ideal for the committed barefooter or Vibrams user who wants more protection on rough trails. So light that you definitely go faster, having less weight to pick up. Room for the widest feet. Great for forefoot landers but enough cushioning that one tester could actually heel-strike while wearing them.
Dislikes: A bit jarring. You can feel every little rock through the hardly padded sole, which has short studs on the forefoot and odd moon crater-ish holes in the rear. Lacks a heel-strap loop, which could have been useful for putting on and hanging up the shoe.
Price: $74.95. (617) 746-2435; http://www.newbalance.com
La Sportiva CrossLite: Low-profile, thin-soled shoes with big rubber studs designed for wet and muddy conditions.
Likes: A climbing/descending monster. Best overall in extreme conditions. The quarter-inch-tall lugs help you stick to the steepest trails like a goat with flypaper feet. In fact, they stick so well that you seem to need extra strength to yank your feet off the ground — even when it's dry. Wide, comfy and cool-looking, they're also safe, thanks to a unique mesh that covers the top of the foot and creates a pocket to tuck laces into so they don't come undone. 11 ounces in size 10. Includes a heel-strap loop.
Dislikes: Despite being relatively minimal and fast compared with more padded shoes, it's a lumbering tank next to the New Balance. The studs are overdone for non-technical, hard–packed or concrete paths. Also, the cover makes it tricky to replace broken laces.
Price: $90. (303) 443-8710; http://www.lasportiva.com
Running on a cloud
Montrail Mountain Masochist: Moderately light, well-cushioned, supportive shoe with tactile forefoot and elevated heel.
Likes: Extremely comfortable. One tester called it a "monster truck" that could flow over anything, including rocks and cracks. Despite including far more arch and midfoot support than the other shoes, it felt nimble with decent forefoot feel. Light at 11 ounces in size 9, it flies downhill (if you like to land on your heels) and would be a good street shoe for heel-strikers. If the previous two shoes are stick shifts, this is an automatic transmission.
Dislikes: In terms of control, it feels very sloppy compared with the New Balance and La Sportiva models, due to the extra cushioning. Much slower on the climbs. No heel-strap loop.
Price: $95; $115 for Gore-Tex model. (800) 249-1642; http://www.montrail.com
Timberland All Mountain Inferno: Sturdy trail runners with substantial cushioning and protection.
Likes: Good cushioning, padding and traction. Awesome blue-black color scheme; we called it "the Avatar." Includes a heel-strap loop. Wide-foot friendly.
Dislikes: Clunky, slow, overbuilt, uncomfortable. The sole seems less flexible than the others, like a junior hiking boot. The footbed cushion seemed misshapen, causing an irksome pressing against the inner edge of my forefoot on the landing. It's ponderously heavy at 13.5 ounces in size 9.5. The other three shoes feel comfortable and broken-in out of the box; this one would need at least a week or two.
Price: $120. (800) 445-5545; http://www.timberland.com
Wallack is the author of "Run for Life: Fast Times, Fewer Injuries, and Spectacular Life-long Fitness." email@example.com