Trend Following Trading Strategies and Systems

Trend Following Trading Strategies and Systems (Backtest Results)

Trend following trading strategies aim to profit from existing market trends. They identify trends using technical analysis tools, enter trades in the direction of the trend, and exit when signs of reversal appear. These strategies focus on momentum, use risk management techniques, diversify across assets, rely on systematic rules, and adapt to changing market conditions.

In this article, we take a deeper look at explaining what trend following is. Do trend following systems work? Which markets do trend following strategies work on? Are trend following strategies complicated? We discuss the performance of six specific trend following strategies and end the article by looking at the pros and cons of trend following systems.

How do you create a trend following strategy? In this article, we show you how you can create a trend following strategy!

Table of contents:

Trend following indicator trading strategies

Trend following strategies and systems are popular, especially in the commodity markets, and we aim to shed some light on this type of trading in this article. We have written many articles that contain backtested trend following strategies with trading rules.

What is trend following?

Trend following is when you try to capture extended moves in the financial markets, either up or down, mostly for long-term gains. Once in a while prices tend to keep on going (enduring) and these are the moves trend followers like. The aim is to capture most of such moves, not all, but the majority of them.

Trend followers are not trying to predict tops and bottoms. They are not trying to predict anything, really. The aim is, quite simply, to take advantage of moves in different asset classes in the anticipation that some of the positions go their way big time. There is zero forecasting involved.

Trend followers might use different time frames and many asset classes to diversify in order to avoid big drawdowns. Having different strategies is important for a trend follower.

Trend following strategies

Trend Following Trading Strategies

We have backtested many trend following strategies over the years. Here are our trend-following strategies all in one place.

What is a trend?

A trend refers to the general direction in which the price of an asset is moving over a period of time. Trends can be classified as upward (bullish), downward (bearish), or sideways (neutral). Traders often try to identify and follow trends to make informed decisions about buying or selling assets.

Trader Joe might argue recent price action is a longer-term mean reversion, while Jim sees a trend. This illustrates the complexity of trading:

There is no exact universal definition of what a trend is. This is what a market is all about: a meeting place for different opinions and goals.

Does this mean that it’s futile to look for trends? No, there are many ways to define trends. It’s all about rules and time frames:

Many like to draw trendlines to define the trend. They pick bottoms or tops in the chart and draw lines between these. As long as the price is following the trendline, the trend is intact. When the price breaks out of the trendline, the trend is broken. Trends are primarily long-term – not short-term.

We used the same technique some 20 years ago but found out this involves more hindsight than predictions. If you have success with it, congratulations, but this is not something we recommend. We believe a trend needs to be quantified:

How to quantify a trend?

Quantifying a trend in trading involves analyzing price movements over a specific period to determine the direction and strength of the market’s momentum.

This website is about quantifying numbers and statistics, and trend following is no different. A trend needs to be objectively calculated by specific rules.

This typically involves using technical indicators, such as moving averages or trend lines, to identify patterns and establish the trend’s duration, magnitude, and potential reversals.


For example, in the book The Four Cardinal Principles of Trading, one of the traders interviewed defined trends using an x-day moving average of the high. If the close was above the moving average, the trend was up until the close was below the x-day average of lows (the trend reversed). Pretty simple stuff.

Likewise, in the stock market, many define the trend by using the 200-day moving average of the closing. If the price is above the average, the trend is up, and vice versa.

Paul Tudor Jones once said that the 200-day average is like playing defense. Trading is about survival, and the 200-day moving average takes you out of trouble frequently: you are unlikely to get a huge drawdown, but you are frequently stopped out.

Summary of Key Performance Metrics for our Trend Following Strategies below

In analyzing trend following strategies, various backtested results reveal the efficacy and challenges of these approaches. Below is a summary table highlighting the critical statistics for several trend-following strategies based on a sample of diverse markets.

StrategyCAGR (%)Max Drawdown (%)
ATR Channel Breakout49.539.9
Bollinger Channel Breakout51.834.1
Donchian Trend29.436.7
Donchian Trend with Time Exit57.243.6
Dual Moving Average57.831.8
Triple Moving Average48.131.3

These statistics provide insight into the potential returns and risks associated with each trend-following strategy, offering valuable information for traders considering these methods. While the returns can be substantial, the significant drawdowns highlight the necessity for robust risk management and psychological resilience.

Trend following, characterized by its simplicity and systematic rules, remains a viable trading strategy, especially for those prepared to endure its inherent volatility and low win ratios.

What are some trend-following strategies?

A trend following strategy is trying to capture a significant move up or down in a financial asset. Some of the original Turtle Systems (the famous Turtle Experiment by Richard Dennis in the 1980s) were republished in Curtis Faith’s Way Of The Turtle: Here are some trend-following strategies:

1) ATR Channel Breakout strategy

This is a breakout system based on volatility. A seven ATR is added to the 350-day moving average of the closing prices, and three ATRs are subtracted from the 350-day moving average. A long position is initiated on the open the day after a close above the channel, and a short position if the close is below the channel.

Trades are closed when they end up below (or over if short) the 350-day moving average.

2) Bollinger Channel Breakout strategy

A Bollinger Band channel is formed by adding a band of 2.5 standard deviations to the 350-day moving average. A long trade is entered on the open if the previous day’s close exceeded the top of the channel. A short trade is entered if the close is below the bottom band. This is completely the opposite of what a mean reversion strategy would do.

Positions are closed when they cross the moving average.

3) Donchian Trend strategy

The Donchian trend system has two components: the trend filter requires the 25-day exponential moving average to be above the 350-day moving average. If the trend is up and the close sets a new 20-day high, a long position is initiated on the open the next day (and vice versa for short).

This system uses a 2 ATR stop.

4) Donchian Trend with Time Exit strategy

This system uses the original Donchian rules but the exit is based on time: an exit is after 80 days without using any stops whatsoever. We recommend time exits and we covered this in an article called how and when to exit a trade.

5) Dual Moving Average strategy

As the name implies, the system uses two moving averages: a 100-day moving average and a 350-day moving average. This system is always in the market: Long when the shorter moving average is above the long moving average and vice versa. (We have backtested moving average trading strategies.)

6) Triple Moving Average strategy

This system uses three moving averages: 150, 250, and 350-day moving averages. Buy and sell occur when the 150-day moving average breaks above and below the 250-day moving average. The 350-day average is used as a trend filter: Trades happen only when both moving averages are on the same side as the longer 350-day average. If both are higher, long trades are permitted. If both are lower, only short trades are permitted.

Trend-following Trading Performance

Curtis Faith did a backtest on all the above strategies on a sample of markets:

  • Australian dollar
  • British pound
  • Corn
  • Cocoa
  • Canadian dollar
  • Crude oil
  • Cotton
  • Euro
  • Eurodollar
  • Feeder cattle
  • Gold
  • Copper
  • Heating oil
  • Unleaded gas
  • Japanese yen
  • Coffee
  • Cattle
  • Hogs
  • Mexican peso
  • Natural gas
  • Soybeans
  • Sugar
  • Swiss franc
  • Silver
  • Treasury notes
  • Treasury bonds
  • Wheat

Notice that he didn’t include the S&P 500 in the backtest. All the above assets were backtested via futures contracts. Some markets were eliminated due to correlation. Curtis Faith was risking 0.5% of the equity per trade. The test period was from 1996 until the end of  2006.

How did the strategies perform? Let’s summarize:

  • ATR CBO: 49.5% CAGR, 39.9% drawdown
  • Bollinger CBO: 51.8% CAGR, 34.1% drawdown
  • Donchian trend: 29.4% CAGR, 36.7% drawdown
  • Donchian Time: 57.2% CAGR, 43.6% drawdown
  • Dual MA: 57.8% CAGR, 31.8% drawdown
  • Triple MA: 48.1% CAGR, 31.3% drawdown

Before you start applying trend following strategies: remember that these are futures contracts and that involve leverage. Moreover, the drawdown is big and this type of trading suits very few traders: only two systems had a win ratio above 50%: Bollinger CBO and Donchian Time.

Unfortunately, Curtis Faith doesn’t write about how these strategies would perform together as a portfolio. (We recommend Faith’s book. We believe this is the best of all the books about trend following. It’s a great read and available in pdf on the internet.)

The best system measured in CAGR, the Dual Moving Average system, had a win ratio of only 39%! This makes the system very hard to trade for most of us. Please also keep in mind that trend following is mainly a long-term strategy, certainly not for day trading, perhaps not even for swing trading strategies or other short-term strategies.

What were Curtis’ main takeaways?

  • The best trend following trading strategies from the 1980s still seems to work. Trend following still works.
  • Time-based exits are probably better than anything else.
  • An entry that has an edge can account for the entire profitability of a system.
  • Breakouts have probably lost some of their effects over time. Curtis calls this the trader effect (discussed below).
  • The Dual Moving Average system performs better than the Triple Moving Average system, indicating simplicity trumps complexity.
  • Stop-losses don’t improve performance, quite the contrary.

Do trend-following strategies work?

The observant reader quickly spots the simplicity of the strategies mentioned above. Can something so simple work? Isn’t the markets extremely complex? But yes, trend following works. We have written a separate article about why trend following works.

One of the main reasons why trend-following works is that these strategies, most of the time, have a low correlation to other types of strategies (additionally, it works pretty well as a tail risk hedge strategy).

Is trend following profitable?

In the upper table below please look at the row that starts with MLM. MLM is the Mt Lucas Index that tracks a 200-day moving average trend-following strategy. The correlation is low to the overall stock market (S&P 500):

Trend following strategy
In the upper table, the row with MLM shows that trend-following correlates little to stocks.

Many CTA indices track trend followers, such as the Barclay CTA Index. Many of the funds are also systematic (they use algorithms).

Because trend following uses “simple” variables, they are more robust and not susceptible to curve fitting. That might explain why they are working, presumably decade after decade. No strategy can ever capture all the variables determining moves in the market, and hence it makes sense to make things as simple as you possibly can.

Curtis Faith’s results show that straightforward systems can work exceptionally well in various markets. Because of their simplicity, we most likely can expect them to continue working in the future. The systems only require one element: movement.

Some weeks ago, we tested trend following on the gold price and the S&P 500, which supported Curtis Faith’s results:

Trend-following moves in cycles

Periods of below-average returns are followed by periods of above-average returns. This happens all the time in the financial markets.

Trend followers try to keep their heads above water when times are bad and rather bet on having infrequent spectacular gains. This can be very hard to stomach for many investors unfamiliar with the strategy. Human nature tends to think for the short term and withdraw funds at the wrong time. Waiting for the large outlier trend-following move requires patience and accepting big drawdowns.

John Henry, one of the best-known trend followers, decided to close his shop a few years ago. Even the famous trend-follower Bill Dunn has had many tough years and subsequent dwindling assets under management. This is precisely why trend following is tough.

Related reading: Mean Reversion VS Trend Following

Does trend following work for stocks?

Trend following works for stocks in the medium and long term but not so well in the short term. There is also a difference between different sectors and whether you are trading board indices or single stocks. Single stocks trend a lot more than broad indices. We can argue that the trend is not your friend for stock indices in the short term.

In general, most currencies and commodities show a tendency to trend more than stocks and/or stock indices (at least according to our research).

Let’s look at a scatter plot for S&P 500 (the ETF SPY):

Does trend following work for stocks
Does trend following work for stocks

The plot shows the gain for two days and the next two-day period. The plot shows that if a 2-day period is positive, most likely, the next two days will show opposite returns. We did the same plot for different markets and got the following results:

  • EWA: Australia -0.07
  • RSX: Russia -0.08
  • EWZ: Brazil -0.11

Trend followers like to keep things simple

A back of an envelope algorithm is often good enough to compete with an optimal formula, and certainly good enough to outdo expert judgment.

Micheal Covel made the statement above in his best-selling book about trend following. We believe he nailed it. The best thing about trend following is the magic that even “naive” systems seem to generate excellent results.

Robust trading systems should be simple. This is not a contradiction, quite the opposite. You want systems that can handle the unpredictable, not those that are fitted to a specific market regime.

The best way to make a robust system is to simplify and diversify. We have both covered the importance of that in previous articles:

Curtis Faith stresses the importance of simplicity. The logic is simple: in times of change, complex species are more likely to die off. At those times, the hardiest species are those which are very simple, for example, viruses and bacteria. They are less dependent on their surroundings. In trading, if you have a complex system, you are more likely to face difficulties the bigger the market change.

It’s easy to become a victim of market noise. There is an abundance of info, bells, whistles, indicators, commentaries, expert opinions, movement, etc., that make you deviate from your original plan. A simple strategy can help you rise above all the unnecessary market noise.

But if trend following is so “simple”, why doesn’t it get “arbed” away?

Why do trend-following strategies work? Why isn’t the strategies “arbed” away?

Anything that repeats with enough consistency is likely to be noticed by several market participants. Similarly, a strategy that has worked especially well in the recent past is likely to be noticed by many traders. However, if too many traders start to try to take advantage of a particular strategy, that strategy will cease working as well as it did previously.

Curtis Faith mentions the trader effect in chapter eleven of his book. The quote above is this effect – strategies get “arbed” away.

However, despite being simple, trend-following strategies are not easy to follow.

Why are trend following systems hard to follow?

Trend following often experience many whipsaws that feel like “bleeding to death”. Most humans want the pleasure of winning frequently, and most of us prefer many small winners instead of occasionally “lump-sum” big gains. Read more below under “pros and cons”.

When the win ratio is low, we are more prone to behavioral mistakes. No matter how good you are, it takes lots of experience to fight the most common trading biases.

What markets trend the most? What are the best trending markets?

Trend followers are mainly looking to capture big moves. Some markets are more prone to sudden and volatile moves than others. For example, the commodity market is most likely best suited for trend following, and we would also like to add the forex market, which tends to go in directions for months.

The list provided by Curtis Faith above should guide you to the best markets.

What are the best indicators for trend following strategies?

Which is the best trend indicator? That is a tricky question to answer. However, you don’t need any fancy tools to determine the trend. As you’ve probably discovered by now, the straightforward moving average is an excellent tool for trend following:

The great advantage of a moving average is its simplicity.

However, there are other tools in the arsenal you can use:

How do you create a trend following system?

Creating a trend system is not much different than developing or building other trading systems. The same logic applies to all of them: to make a good entry, to have a proper exit, and you might want to have a stop-loss, although most trading systems work better without stops.

However, capturing trends is not about making a perfect entry and exit. The main aim is to capture big moves, not noise and minor fluctuations. This leaves room for margins because you are not occupied with catching tops and bottoms, which many traders are concerned about.

Tops and bottoms are only clear in hindsight. Forget the tops and bottoms and focus on the big picture.

The cons of trend following strategies (disadvantages)

Trend following is not like magic and has its disadvantages. It’s not a magical system that makes money without any downside. Trend following does not produce stock-like returns with bond-like risk.

Even though the performance of a trend-following strategy seems to be better than that of its buy-and-hold counterpart, there are several caveats:

Trend following is prone to sudden reversals

You might take on a position and it slowly ticks your way until it one day suddenly reverses and heads down. When trend followers sell their positions, the sell-off is exacerbated, and volatility increases even more.

Trend followers get whipsawed a lot

Markets spend a lot of time going nowhere and you must expect to find yourself “stopped out” frequently. Sometimes this feels like bleeding slowly to death. This is probably the number one reason why most traders give up trend following.

It’s human nature: it feels better to get a steady income instead of a random and rare lump-sum gain.

What would you rather have? A steady gain of 50 000 a year over five years? Or would you prefer a gain of 250 000 in year one and nothing in the last four? In the latter example, you would have one great year and four years feeling miserable.

We hope you get the point.

Trend following has a low win ratio (hit ratio)

Curtis Faith’s results above showed that the best strategy had a win ratio of 39%. This means most of your trades end up as losses. It looks so easy on a backtest, but we are confident that most traders can’t tolerate such a system. Most would have given up before the big win came.

Trend followers need to fight the temptation to cut winners

It would help if you rode the winners. This means you need to accept giving up large profits before the trend resumes, or you get stopped out. The old saying “you don’t go broke by taking profits” is utterly wrong for a trend follower.

For most traders, it doesn’t feel right to buy at 50, see it go to 100, and then watch in disappointment the price drop to 70. It’s tough to be a trend follower.

Trend following requires switching – thus liable to capital gains taxes

Unless you have a tax-deferred account, you need to pay taxes on profits, which is a huge headwind to compound efficiently.

Moreover, frequent switching also means you need to roll over futures contracts when they expire and subsequently, you need to add slippage and commissions.

A few trades determine overall profits

If you miss just one or a few good trades, your performance might suffer. The win ratio is low, and you are dependent on the few and rare very profitable trades.

The profit distribution is different than in a mean reversion strategy. A mean reversion strategy is prone to “fat” left tails, while trend following has “fat” right tails.

The pros of trend following strategies

Could the advantages offset the advantages? We let you decide:

1) Trend following’s main advantage is the simplicity

As we have described above, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to exploit market moves. The strategies described in this article are pretty good evidence for that.

2) Trend following doesn’t require a lot of time to manage

Trend following works best on long time frames. You can probably do well even by using weekly bars/data and placing orders on Mondays, and doing absolutely nothing during the week.

3) No timing is required for trend followers

You don’t need to follow the markets daily. You are probably doing better the less time you spend following the markets.

4) Trend followers are somewhat antifragile

Mean revertive traders tend to blow off spectacularly, while trend followers bleed slowly. The latter, we believe, stand a better chance of surviving sharp and sudden moves in the market.

Likewise, as shown in the links above, trend following strategies frequently have more big winners than big losers. The distribution tails are on the right side (the positive side).

Does trend following fit your personality and trading style?

At the end of the article, we have a general piece of advice:

The success or fiasco in the markets is ultimately less about your strategies (your entries and exits), and more about your behavior. All traders make behavioral mistakes all the time, which might have a significant impact on trend followers, more so than mean reversion traders.

Can you pull the trigger after six losing trades in a row? By employing mean reversion strategies you have many more winners and the occasional big loser. For trend followers, it’s the opposite. Thus, you must understand how you react after a series of losses.

The truth is, most traders give up or don’t take the next signal after a series of losses.

Moreover, can you handle being wrong at least 50% of the time? In trend following, the win ratio can sometimes even be lower than 50%! Trend following might seem easy in backtests and on paper, but it’s far from easy to perform flawlessly without behavioral mistakes.

What is a trend following CTA?

CTA is an abbreviation for Commodity Trading Advisor. This is a person, an individual, that gives specific advice on what to buy or sell for clients. CTAs are required to register in their self-regulatory organization (National Futures Association – NFA).

Thus, a trend following CTA is someone (person or firm) that does trend following strategies.

We have written more about CTA trading strategies in a separate article:

Trend following ETFs

There are a few trend following ETFs. The most obvious, in our opinion, is KFA Mount Lucas Strategy ETF. The ticker code is KMLM. We covered this ETF in depth in a previous article about do trend following strategies work.

What’s a trend follower?

That is someone trading trend-following strategies by using strictly quantified trading signals and settings. This way, he or she can backtest their strategy to check the historical performance, something which is highly recommended.

What is systematic trend following?

That’s someone using backtested rules and trading a portfolio of strategies. Typically, hedge funds are labeled “systematic” when they employ these strategies.

Is trend following profitable?

It depends on which assets you are trading. For example, trend following works much better among commodities than stocks. We don’t think it’s a good idea to walk into the office daily to have a particular liking of which strategy to trade. Backtest to find out what works or not, and start trading it. Don’t limit yourself!

Does trend following still work?

Indeed! But it goes in cycles. For example, 2022 has been a record year for many systematic trend followers after several lackluster years.

What is the best trend following indicator?

In trading, there are no definite answers. But the very simple 200-day moving average is a great trend filter. Simple, yet effective. We also believe the well-known ADX indicator is good at filtering trends. We like the ADX indicator, and we have used it among our strategies and strategy bundles you find in our shop.

Trend following strategy example

A good example of a trend-following strategy is the Weekend Trend Trader strategy. It was originally created by the Australian money manager Nick Radge, and based on his sound principles, we developed some trading rules. If trend trading interests you, we highly recommend clicking on the strategy (the trading rules are included).

As an example, we show you the equity curve for the strategy when we backtested it on survivorship-free data for the S&P 400 Midcap:

Trend following trading strategy example
Trend following trading strategy example

The backtest is from 1990 until today, and the CAGR (annual return) is an impressive 22.9% (303 trades). On the negative side, the max drawdown of 58% is perhaps a tad too high for most traders to stomach. However, the strategy is not optimized in any way and can surely be improved massively. We are impressed by the results, showing that keeping it simple gets you a long way.


The best trend following trading strategies from the 1980s still seems to work, albeit breakouts have probably lost some of their power. Curtis Faith revealed that the entry price is the most important factor and that stop-losses don’t tend to improve trend-following systems.

That said, trend following is hard to practice because of the low win ratio. Can you handle inevitable drawdowns? Most people stop trading trend following systems because they simply can’t follow the rules!

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