By Tom Demerly
Top Rated Trail Shoe.
It would seem that the de-facto people’s choice trail running shoe would come from one of the trail specific brands. Salomon, INOV-8, Montrail, GoLite, Merrell, The North Face or Patagonia. It would seem that way, but it isn’t.
From Outside Magazine to Runner’s World Review the Brooks Cascadia 5 has consistently out-reviewed the outdoor brand trail shoes in more media outlets than any other shoe.
By consensus, the Brooks Cascadia 5 appears to be the best trail running shoe. That it comes from a running company rather than an outdoor company should be no surprise.
Is a trail running shoe more lightweight hiker or more running shoe? That is the question you need to moderate before doing your web searches to find the right shoe. The answer lies with your use pattern. The rank n’file consumer looks to the trail runner as a casual athletic shoe. An everyday shoe. The best trail specific, run specific shoes aren’t made for casual wear; they are made for running off road. This may be part of the reason for Brooks’ success with the Cascadia 5. Brooks is not an outdoor company. They are unerringly a running company. Running is all they do. No backpacks, no mountaineering equipment. Running.
In addition to being run-centric Brooks has tapped into a few valid design and engineering themes that happen to apply perfectly in the off road setting. Add unique design to the outsole, midsole and upper and you have a shoe tangibly unique in design and performance.
The Three Key Features: Stability, Insulation from Surface and Contamination Control.
If there are several key features that a true off road runner must attend to one is the mystic attribute called “ride”. How does the shoe feel in contact with the trail? What happens when you step on a sharp rock, when the trail twists off camber, when it is angled up or slopes down? Trail runners look for several things: Stability and insulation from the running surface are two. Another reality of trail running is “contamination”, the entry of foreign matter like water, sand, snow, etc. How is shoe contamination moderated? These are the three areas the Brooks Cascadia 5 shines and where it beats competing shoes: Ride, insulation and contamination control.
The Stable Ride: How do they do That?
During the first off road run you’ll notice the Brooks Cascadia 5 rides and handles differently than other trail shoes. It has a stabilizing tendency especially in the roll axis. This comes from three key features: The Ballistic rock shield, primarily intended to prevent you from feeling sharp rocks through the shoe sole, stiffens the shoe laterally providing roll stability. The Brooks exclusive Pivot Posting System puts denser BiMogo EVA in the optimal place and the optimum shape to improve midsole performance in changing terrains. The material is an upside down triangle plug that puts most of the stiffer foam close to the foot leaving the softer foam to deform over trail irregularities. This also facilitates nice transition from front to back of shoe, especially on descents. If you are a forefoot runner there is a wave-style section in the middle of the forefoot for the same purpose in a similar shape. The third ride control feature is the general shape of the outsole: Wider, fuller. It is reminiscent of a corrective orthopedic shoe. These three technologies converge to make the shoe ride better than an extensive array of trail shoes I’ve run in. The shoe takes the edge off the terrain while remaining responsive and nimble.
Insulation from the Trail: No more “Ouch!”
Trail running is about varied surfaces. Sometimes you land on something pointy. The Brooks Ballistic Rock Shield is a thermoplastic body-armor that shields your foot from the bad stuff. The BRS is laminated between the outsole and the midsole, riding low on the shoe to stabilize handling and sandwiching the softer foam between the armor BRS shield and your foot. As mentioned, BRS adds stability but the primary role is to prevent pointy things from hurting your feet. BRS works admirably and is a necessary trail specific component missing from some trail shoes.
Shoe Contamination: The best way to moderate it.
Because I’ve run a couple hundred-milers in the desert, including one with foot problems epic enough to make it into a Discovery Channel documentary, I can speak to shoe contamination. Shoe contamination is what happens when something gets in your shoe that doesn’t belong- and can’t get back out. There are two approaches to managing contamination by sand, rocks, snow and water: Try to keep it out entirely with waterproof sock liners and even gaiters. Or- facilitate a manageable degree of entry and exit through good design and fit. The first method compromises breathability essentially rendering a shoe suitable for cold weather use only. Additionally, once water, sand, snow and rocks get inside the shoe they almost certainly aren’t working their way back out on their own. The second technique manages contamination in a more “Taoist” approach by acknowledging that stuff is going to get in your shoe and facilitating its rapid exit. Firstly, the Brooks shoe fits me precisely at the foot entry. It isn’t a gaiter, but the collar prevents then entry of major crud. Secondly, the shoe is designed to manage moisture and drain. It isn’t a water shoe, but if you do a river crossing the moisture-managing Element mesh upper sluices out the water and the same fabric helps wick moisture away from the inner to dry quickly. In the real world this strategy of managing moisture by facilitation rather than by trying to put the foot inside a waterproof capsule makes better sense. Water is getting in. Foreign matter is getting in. What happens then is a matter of good design. The Brooks Cascadia 5 does an excellent job of moderating the conflicting agendas of keeping stuff out and letting in get out once it inevitably does get in- which it always will.
The Other Features: Fit, Ride and Handling.
Fit on the Brooks Cascadia 5 is, if anything, a trifle narrow. I read other user reviews that said it ran small and to go up a size. I disagree. Length-wise the shoe runs true. I am a consensus 9.5 and tried 9, 9.5 and 10. For me the same size 9.5 that worked in everything else worked in the Brooks Cascadia 5. The trim fit is one of the things that manages both handling and entry of foreign matter. I didn’t feel the need for another width- I’m a down-the-middle “D” width.
Ride is luxurious even off road. Rocks, sand, gravel- everything we have here in Tucson is moderated underfoot with this shoe. If there is one place this show does absolutely shine it is ride quality. The feel is unique, with a greater “footprint” seemingly between you and the ground. There seems to a little “rocker” to the shoe at first and that moderates with wear. The upper is fantastic and simply seems to “go away”, the greatest compliment you can give a running shoe.
Handling on this shoe- the way your foot moves over the ground and responds to changes in direction- is “guided”. The shoe is bottom heavy as with some other trail shoes. This helps make it feel more stable. There is a lot of sole down there. If you are used to running with a shoe that has a high arch there is going to be a learning curve attached to the Brooks Cascadia 5. This shoe has a lot of material to insulate you from the trail surface. It is extremely forgiving. Traction is superb ascending and descending. The shoe doesn’t feel cloddish or clumpy at all. Part of the reason is superb fit, another is the closure system that eschews fancy pull-to-tighten systems like The North Face’s BOA and the Salomon “drawstring” arrangement in favor of conventional laces but with a pair of tongue retaining flaps the laces pass under. The tongue won’t move once the shoe is tied. Another potential handling plus is the distinctly concave footbed/insole, a cut above removable insoles I’ve seen in other shoes.
Brooks understated the weight on their technical pages by nearly a full ounce claiming 12 ounces. Our 9.5 test shoes tipped the scale at 12.8 ounces, and acceptable weight for a protective, off road specific cushion shoe.
And Finally: Durability.
A trail shoes needs to be durable. One of our runners, Craig Bellman, has logged hundreds of miles in several pairs and model years of the Brooks Cascadia 5. Craig called out the ease with which the shoe cleans and the incredible outsole durability. According to Bellman, a key attribute to the Brooks Cascadia 5 is the entire outsole is covered in carbon rubber- there is no exposed EVA at the outsole. Trails shoes with exposed EVA tend to delaminate quickly from wear.
I’ve run in Montrail, New Balance, INOV-8, Salomon, The North Face and others and I understand why the Brooks Cascadia 5 has earned such strong reviews. It is a category leading shoe from an unlikely source given the number of trail specific brands. The combination of the unique outsole design, supportive midsole, unique fabrics in the upper and exceptional durability make it worthy of the numerous rave reviews. Add this one to those endorsements.