Photo: Tim & Annette
Hiking Boots vs Trail Running Shoes
For years now, there has been a continuing and unresolved debate in regard to which the best shoes for hiking are – hiking boots or trail running shoes? Well, there is no right answer to this question but here are a few facts which may help you set your opinion regarding this matter:
Consider the weight of your hiking shoes
In general, hiking boots are sturdier and are much heavier than the sneaker-like trail running shoes. Heavy shoes will affect your hiking performance, as it will increase the fatigue in the feet, legs and overall. Heavy shoes may provide better foot and ankle stability when walking, climbing or descending on uneven surfaces, but then again, heavier shoes can cause bigger damage and injuries if you slip or roll your ankle wearing them. Trail runners are light and offer little or no protection to the ankles, but then again it depends on the season, the trail and the conditions of the trail you are hiking to pick the most suitable hiking shoes between the two types.
Water-resistance, insulation and breathability
For colder weather, hiking boots are definitely better to keep your feet warm and dry. Their sturdy uppers and insulation will help protect the feet from extreme cold temperatures. Trail runners are usually made with mesh uppers which make them breathable and easy to dry if your feet get wet. These are definitely a better choice if hiking in the summer or warmer months. The trail runners will dry faster if the weather is warm and it is raining or if you need to walk through wet terrains and fords. The hiking boots can get filled with water in this case, and you may even need to pour the water out of them. They will take much longer to dry, which can cause discomfort and blistering. Sweaty or wet feet are one of the most dreaded things for hikers this can cause slippage or blistering which is not something you want to experience when on the trail.
Hiking boots or trail runners for different terrains
If you are hiking in the winter, and the trail includes difficult terrains and mountain climbing, then hiking boots are definitely the better choice for you. They provide better support to the feet and ankles and torsional stability, which will make walking and climbing easier and safer. Insulated hiking boots will also help keep your feet dry and warm even in the coldest conditions. If your trail is easy, more even and is in the warmer months of the year, then you should probably resort to the lighter, softer and breathable trail runners instead. Today many hikers choose to carry a pair of both types of footwear for hiking with them, and to interchange them depending on the specific terrain and weather conditions.
Sufficient ankle support – trail runners or hiking boots?
This question doesn’t have a clear answer either. Some hikers argue that while hiking boots provide better support for the ankles and feet, they cause fatigue as well because of their heavier weight. This can lead to injuries from miss-stepping, ankle twisting and tendon ligament injuries. The supporters of the trail runners for hiking claim that their ankles and tendon ligaments actually get better exercise and get stronger when wearing trail running shoes.
When I first started hiking I got a pair of big heavy boots with a lot of ankle support. I was dragging my feet after just a couple of hours. Talk about misery! However, I am stubborn enough not to give up easily and continued to use those hiking boots over and over again. I twisted my ankle twice wearing them, because my feet were so sore. I do also pronate, not heavily, but enough to be prone to twisting. What I found was that lighter shoes don’t make my feet so tired. The key here is to find a model that fits your feet well. I haven’t had a twisted ankle since switching to lighter shoes and it looks like many other hikers who converted to lighter shoes or trail runners and are not looking back.
I personally am very happy that I switched to light, comfortable and quick drying shoes for my hikes. My hikes have become much more satisfying and I can feel that my ankles are getting stronger. At the end of the day my feet are dry, without blisters and without the soreness which I used to experience before with the heavy hiking boots.
The durability factor
For hikers, especially for thru-hikers the durability of the hiking shoe is essential for them to be able to complete their trail. In general, trail runners are far less durable than good quality hiking boots. But whatever type of shoes they choose to wear, thru-hikers do bring along extra pairs of hiking shoes to replace the worn ones at some point. Here is where the benefit of the trail running shoes is, because you can slip on a new pair and can continue hiking with them without any need of painful break-in time. Hiking boots are sturdier and most of them need break-in which is not something which should happen when thru-hiking. Usually these endurance hikers bring larger sizes of shoes to change when their feet get swollen, so the extra boots or runners will more likely be more comfortable whether they are new or old.
The difference in the soles and outsoles
Hikers choose either boots or trail runners with more cushioning and support, as well as those which provide better traction when walking on slippery surfaces. So, whichever type of hiking boot or trail runner you choose, make sure it is slip resistant and provides sufficient cushioning to keep the feet comfortable even when walking on stones and other uneven surfaces.
How they affect the performance
Some hikers with years of experience have found that their hiking performance has improved vastly as a result to switching to trail running shoes, because of their lighter weight which leads to a decreased fatigue, as well as due to their cushioning and breathability which provide ultimate comfort. Still, other hikers are not willing to take off their hiking boots and replace them with trail running shoes just yet, because of the sturdiness, stability, water-resistance and insulation they provide.
The biggest benefit of trail running shoes probably is the fact that you can use them for running as well as for hiking. So they can serve both purposes quite well. Plus, they are more comfortable to use as camp shoes at the end of the day than hiking boots, because they are lighter, easy to slip on and off and are looser than the tighter hiking boots.
Cara Haley is a fitness enthusiast, footwear fanatic and manager of Comforthacks.com and Fitaholic Gear – sites dedicated to helping people find the most suitable footwear for their needs.
Thanks for this post! I’ve been wondering about this exact question. Enjoying my lightweight Merrells for day hikes, and see no reason why I would want a heavier ankle boot. Great idea to grab extra pairs!
Glad you found it helpful, feel free to visit Cara’s websites and let her know you enjoyed her guest post.
Thanks, Neara. I’m glad to hear that are so happy with the Merrells.
I have started hiking in trail runners, the reduced fatigue is very pronounced. They seem more slippery than my boots, I see my trail runners (Venture 5) do not have the kind of tread that my boots have. Are there any trail runners with a more corrugated tread?
Have you tried Nike Wildhorse? They have some sort of micro spikes and have excellent grip. I’ve only slipped on wet rocks with them. They feel very comfortable, my feet don’t sweat in them and don’t develop any blisters
Altra Lone Peak – best hiking shoes ever. Great traction. Switched from boots years ago and never regretted it.