Your footwear is one of your most important piece of hiking gear. After all, if your feet hurt or your shoes are unstable, you won’t make it very far. These days, many hikers are making the switch from sturdy and heavy hiking boots to lightweight and breathable trail runners. Is this the right decision for you? This guide outlines the pros and cons of hiking boots vs trail runners to help you choose the best footwear for your hike.
Trail Runners Pros
- Breathability- Trail runners are often made with quick-drying synthetic materials with mesh cutouts for added breathability. This design helps keep your feet dry by allowing sweat to vent out and evaporate away. Keeping your feet dry greatly reduces the likelihood of developing blisters and other foot problems.
- Lightweight- Trail runners are significantly lighter than hiking boots. Most weigh between 18 and 24 ounces per pair (about 500-680 grams). The reason is that they simply use less material. Trail runners are thinner and have low tops. Lighter footwear offers several benefits. You’ll tire out less quickly and use less energy while hiking. They are also lighter to carry in your pack if you like to hike in sandals part of the time.
- Shorter break-in period- Trail runners use thinner and less rigid synthetic materials that don’t need much breaking in. They feel comfortable right out of the box. You could break your trail runners in for a day and be ready for a hike. If you’re buying your hiking footwear right before a big hike and you don’t have time to properly break them in, you’ll probably be better off with trail runners.
- Less expensive- A high-quality pair of trail runners costs between $80-$120. A quality pair of hiking boots costs $150-$250. If you’re on a tight budget, you can find a decent pair of trail runners in the $50 range.
- Trail runners dry out faster- Trail runners are usually made from quick-drying synthetic materials. The upper is generally thinner as well. This allows for much faster drying. If you get caught in the rain while hiking, there is a chance that your shoes will dry out.
- Your feet stay cooler in hot weather- Because trail runners offer better breathability, they allow sweat to vent away more easily. This helps your feet cool off. The thinner materials also allow heat to radiate away instead of trapping it in the shoe. Trail runners are great for hiking in hot climates.
- More efficient- Have you ever heard the saying that an extra pound on your feet is equal to an extra 5 pounds in your pack? I don’t know this specific statement is true or not but I do know that the weight of your footwear matters when it comes to efficiency. Because trail runners put less weight on your feet, they allow you to hike further while using less energy. After all, you’re lifting less weight every time you take a step. This means you burn less energy as you hike. Maybe you can hike an extra mile per day due to the added efficiency that trail runners offer. Over the course of a through-hike, this adds up.
- More versatile- Trail runners are just like running shoes or tennis shoes. The only difference is that they have a bit more aggressive tread on the bottom. They look like normal athletic footwear that people wear every day. This means you can wear them off the trail. Walk your dog in them. Cycle in them. Use them as casual sports shoes. You can even wear them as your daily shoes.
- Better tactile feedback- The thinner soles of trail runners allow you to feel the ground underfoot. This tactile feedback helps you choose more solid foot placement when navigating technical or unstable terrain. Some hikers just prefer the feeling of thinner soles as well.
- Lower center of gravity- Thinner soles mean your feet are closer to the ground. This lowers your center of gravity which improves stability. This can reduce the likelihood of falls and ankle injuries for some hikers.
- Trail runners are in style now- Over the past few years, many hikers have begun switching from hiking boots to trail runners. The trend is toward ultralight these days. For example, While hiking the Wonderland Trail last year, I noticed that almost all of the hardcore ultralight hikers that I encountered were wearing trail runners. If you are the type of person that cares about looks and likes to follow the current trend, trail runners are the footwear of choice for hiking at this time.
- Trail runners take up less space- If you need to travel to your hiking destination, a pair of trail runners take up much less space in your luggage than a bulky pair of hiking boots.
Trail Runners Cons
- No ankle support- Most trail runners are low top. This means they don’t support your ankles while you hike. High top hiking boots, on the other hand, tighten around your ankles to stabilize them. This helps to prevent sprain injuries if you step wrong and twist an ankle. Having said this, there isn’t really any scientific evidence to support the claim that ankle support reduces injury. Some hikers even believe that ankle support is a myth. To read more about this, check out this article about ankle support from Hike Heaven.
- Less durable- Trail runners are generally made from less durable materials than hiking boots. The reason is that manufacturers prioritize reducing weight above durability. The soles are thinner and the uppers are made from lightweight synthetic materials. These thin and lightweight materials can tear pretty easily and wear out relatively quickly.
- Less foot support- The soles of trail runners are generally less stiff than hiking boots. They have less torsional rigidity and allow the foot to twist. This can be a problem on uneven terrain for some hikers. A hiking boot provides a more stable platform for your foot. Some people require more foot support than others. Your foot support requirements depend on your body type, stride, strength, balance, and the weight of your pack.
- Trail runners don’t last as long- Most hikers get about 400-500 miles out of a pair of trail runners before they start breaking down and wearing out. A high-end pair of hiking boots last up to 1000 miles. The number of miles you get out of your footwear depends on a number of factors including your weight, stride, and style of hiking as well as the quality of the shoe. Some hikers can make a good pair of boots last the entire Appalachian Trail. Some hikers will go through 6 pairs of trail runners in the same distance.
- More expensive in the long run- Because trail runners don’t last as many miles as hiking boots, you’ll need to buy a new pair more often. On average, you’ll need to replace your trail runners 1.5 to 2 times more often than hiking boots. This means, in the long run, you’ll spend more on footwear if you hike in trail runners, even though they cost less than hiking boots. For example, maybe your favorite brand of trail runners cost $100 per pair and they last 500 miles. Maybe your hiking boots cost $150 but last 1000 miles. In this scenario, you’ll spend $50 more per 1000 miles hiked if you switch to trail runners.
- Trail runners aren’t great for cold weather use- Trail runners don’t offer much in the form of insulation. The uppers are mostly made of mesh. Your feet will get cold in the winter.
- Trail runners offer less protection- The thin synthetic and mesh upper of trail runners doesn’t offer much protection for your toes. If you accidentally kick a rock or tree limb while hiking, you’ll definitely feel it. Low top trail runners also don’t offer any protection from brush or debris rubbing your ankles. The solution to this problem is to wear gaiters. The soles are generally softer as well. This can be a problem if you’re hiking over sharp rocks.
- Less grip- While running, you put more force on the sole of your shoes than you while walking. The soles on trail runners are designed to give the best grip under these circumstances. This is often achieved by using a softer rubber to manufacture the soles. While walking in trail runners, you apply less force and may not get the same amount of grip. Hiking boots are designed to give you the maximum amount of grip while moving at a walking pace.
Hiking Boot Pros
- Greater stability- Hiking boots wide, rigid soles provide excellent stability while hiking over sharp rocks and slippery wet logs. They always offer a stable platform for you to step on, even while you’re wearing a heavy pack. This helps reduce the risk of slips and falls.
- Greater durability- With hiking boots, weight isn’t as much of a concern as it is with trail runners. This means thick, durable materials can be used. The soles are thicker and harder. The uppers are often made of durable leather. These materials last longer and can take a beating without failing or tearing.
- Hiking boots offer ankle protection- One wrong step could cause a sprained or broken ankle. An injury like this can end your hiking season. High top hiking boots tighten around your ankles to stabilize them and prevent them from twisting. Trail runners don’t offer this protection. Whether or not you really need ankle support depends on the terrain you’re hiking as well as your body’s condition.
- More protective- Because hiking boots are made from thicker materials, they offer greater protection for your toes. You could stub your toe on a rock or root and not even feel it in a good pair of hiking boots. The high tops also provide some protection from brush and debris rubbing against your ankles. They can also prevent bugs and other critters from entering. This comes in handy while walking off-trail or in very densely forested areas. The thick soles protect your feet from sharp rocks.
- Hiking boots last longer than trail runners- Most hikers can get about 700-1000 miles out of a high-end pair of hiking boots. Trail runners usually only last around 400-500 miles. The mileage you get depends on your weight, the terrain, your stride, how well you care for the boots, and several other factors. Some hikers only get a couple of hundred miles out of their boots and some can go well over 1000.
- Better foot support- Hiking boots have stiff soles and great torsional rigidity. This means they don’t allow your foot to twist while walking over uneven terrain. You always have a solid platform to step on. Trail runners usually have softer soles that allow your foot to move in a sometimes uncomfortable manner.
- Great for hiking in bad conditions- A solid pair of hiking boots allow you to trample through mud, shallow streams, and snow without getting your feet wet. You can stamp through sand and brush and without worrying about getting any debris in your boots.
- Better grip- Hiking boots are designed to give you the greatest amount of traction while moving at a walking pace. They have thicker lugs and have a more aggressive tread pattern than trail runners. Hiking boots usually have outsoles that are designed to give extra grip on rocky surfaces. Trail runners usually have smaller lugs and less aggressive tread which is better for running.
- Cheaper in the long run- Because hiking boots last longer than trail runners, you need to replace them less frequently. In the long run, you end up saving money. For example, many Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers go through 6 pairs of trail runners. That’s $600 at $100 per pair. Those who use hiking boots may only go through 2 pair. That’s $400 at $200 per pair. This is a $200 savings.
- Hiking boots keep your feet warm in the winter- The thicker materials used in hiking boots provide a greater level of insulation than trail runners. A good pair of waterproof hiking boots are the best choice for four-season hiking where you may encounter snow and ice. They can keep your feet warm and dry.
- Waterproof hiking boots are available- If you hike in a very wet area or have to cross a lot of shallow streams, it makes sense to buy waterproof footwear. You have a lot of options for waterproof hiking boots. Trail runners are almost never waterproof.
- Hiking boots can be re-soled- A high-end pair of leather hiking boots takes a long time to break in but can last many years if properly taken care of. It would be a shame to throw them out when the soles start to wear thin but the uppers are still in great shape. Some hiking boots can be resoled. This can save you money and extend the life of your favorite pair of boots. For $25-$40, your boots are like new and ready for another 1000 miles. Re-soling your boots is also better for the environment because you’re not throwing the whole boot away and starting over. It’s more sustainable. This isn’t really an option with trail runners. Once they wear out, they’re trash.
- Hiking boots are classic- Explorers, hikers, and mountaineers have been wearing boots forever. They are the classic footwear for traveling through rugged country. There’s something about tramping through the backwoods in a solid pair of leather hiking boots that just feels badass.
Hiking Boots Cons
- Poor breathability– Hiking boots are often made of thick materials like leather that don’t breathe well. They also often have waterproof uppers made from materials like Gore-Tex. The high tops on hiking boots also decrease breathability. Heat and moisture can’t easily vent from high top boots. This can increase your chance of blisters because your feet stay wet. It’s also just uncomfortable. Modern synthetic, non-waterproof, hiking boots can offer nearly the same breathability as trail runners.
- Hiking boots take a long time to break in- The thicker and stiffer materials that hiking boots are made of take time to soften up and form to your feet. This is particularly true about hiking boots with leather uppers. This break-in period can sometimes take weeks. Because of this, you should avoid buying a new pair of hiking boots right before a long hike. If you don’t have enough time for a proper break-in, a lightweight pair of trail runners may be a better choice. Check out this great guide to breaking in hiking boots from REI for more info.
- Heavy- The average pair of hiking boots weigh around 2 pounds (about 900 grams). That’s almost twice as much as a lightweight pair of trail runners. The reason that hiking boots weigh more is that they have more material in them. The thick soles and high tops add weight.
- Hiking boots take a long time to dry out- Due to the reduced breathability, hiking boots don’t dry quickly. Particularly if they are made of leather. If your boots wet out, they may never dry out for the remainder of the hike. This happened to me while hiking the Wonderland Trail last year. It rained off and on for 6 days. My hiking boots got wet and never dried.
- Reduced efficiency- Due to the added weight, hiking boots take more energy to hike in. Every step you take requires a bit more effort to lift the boot than it would with lighter footwear. This increases your heart rate and causes you to burn energy and tire out faster. You just can’t hike as far or as fast. For more info, check out this article about the effects of the weight of your footwear.
- Hiking boots cost more- A quality pair of hiking boots costs around $150-$250. A pair of trail runners of equal quality costs around $100-$150.
- Your feet can get hot- Because of the reduced breathability, hiking boots tend to trap heat. This is great in cold weather but not so great in hot weather. Your feet will sweat more. Sweaty feet can increase your chance of developing blisters and other foot problems. If you boots are too hot, you’ll have to stop periodically and take them off to let your feet dry out and cool off.
- Less versatile- Hiking boots are really only useful on the trail. You’re not going to want to wear a bulky pair of boots around town. The only other use you may get out of them is during the winter as snow boots.
- Hiking boots give you a higher center of gravity- The thick soles raise your feet off the ground. This reduces stability and can increase the likelihood of falls and ankle injuries.
Less tactile feedback- Thick soles of hiking boots means you can’t feel the ground under your feet. Some hikers don’t like this feeling.
- Hiking boots are out of style- The current trend in hiking is toward lightweight and minimalist gear. Hiking boots don’t fit that. These days, everyone seems to be going ultralight and hiking in lightweight trail runners. Particularly through-hikers. If you want to follow the newest trend, hiking boots aren’t it. Having said that, hiking boots obviously do have their place.
- Hiking boots take up more space- This is important if you plan to travel to your hiking destination. A pair of hiking boots takes up almost twice the amount of space that a pair of trail runners takes. Space is limited if you’re traveling by air.
How to Decide Between Hiking Boots and Trail Runners
As you can see, both options have their pros and cons. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you decide between hiking boots and trail runners:
- How much hiking experience do you have?- If you’re new to hiking, hiking boots are probably the way to go. The wide, hard soles offer greater support and make it easier to balance on uneven terrain.
- What kind of terrain will you be hiking?- Rugged and rocky trails put a lot of wear and tear on footwear. Hiking boots are your best bet in rough conditions. Soft dirt trails are perfect conditions for trail runners. If you need to cross streams and ford rivers often, trail runners are the better choice as they dry out faster. For shallow crossings, waterproof hiking boots are ideal.
- What is the climate like where you hike?- In warm, damp climates, trail runners are the better choice. They keep you feet cooler and dry out faster. In cold climates where you may end up hiking in the snow, hiking boots offer more warmth and protection from the elements.
- How fast do you hike?- If you need to cover 20+ miles per day, trail runners are the better choice. The reduced weight makes it much easier to maintain a quick pace. This is the reason that many through-hikers choose trail runners.
- How much weight do you carry in your pack?- If you’re an ultralight hiker with a base weight in the 10-15 pound range, trail runners will offer plenty of support. If you need to carry 40 pounds of food and gear, hiking boots offer much better support for your feet.
- What is your body type and level of health?- If you don’t have the best balance and require additional support in your day-to-day footwear, you may be better off with hiking boots. If you are strong, have good balance, and are in solid condition, you may find trail runners to be the better choice.
A Few More Considerations Before Choosing your Hiking Footwear
Whether you end up going with trail runners or hiking boots, you have a few options to consider before making a purchase:
- Heel to toe drop- This measurement represents the difference between the height of the heel and the height of the toe of the shoe. Most shoes raise the heel slightly higher than the ball of the foot (usually about 10-15 mm.) These days, zero drop shoes are gaining in popularity. Zero drop means the heel and toe are the same height. Some hikers believe that zero drop is better for your feet and back because it promotes good posture. Zero drop is also a more natural position because it mimics how we stand when barefoot. I was unable to find any evidence to back up this claim but it is something to consider. For more info, check out this article about heel to toe drop from runner click.
- Waterproof vs breathable- Many hiking boots and trail runners are available in both waterproof and non-waterproof versions. For day hikers or those planning to hike in snowy conditions, waterproof shoes make sense. For multi-day hikers or through-hikers, it’s best to avoid waterproof footwear. The biggest problem with waterproofing is that it reduces breathability considerably. This means your footwear will take much longer to dry out if it gets wet. Even the best waterproofing won’t keep your feet dry through stream crossings or multiple days of rain.
- Insoles- Not all insoles are the same. Some offer more cushioning. Some offer better arch support. Make sure the insoles suit your anatomy. Most hiking boots and trail runners have insoles that can be removed and replaced. This is important if you need to use an orthotic insert.
- Fit and sizing- Whatever footwear you choose, they need to fit well. Shoes that are too large allow your feet to slide around inside. This causes blisters. Shoes that are too small can hurt your toes while descending hills. Hiking footwear is one thing you kind of have to try on before buying. While trying on shoes, wear your hiking socks as they are generally thicker than regular socks. Also, remember that your feet tend to swell a bit while hiking. You may also wear blister tape which takes up a bit more space. Make sure there is enough room in the shoe.
Trail Runner Recommendations:
Below, I’ll outline a few of the most popular trail runner options on the market.
This is one of the most popular options for lightweight hikers and backpackers. The Altra Lone Peaks feature a roomy toe box and an integrated stone guard for forefoot protection. These shoes offer excellent traction with their multi-directional lug pattern. They also feature zero heel to toe drop. One unique feature is the built-in gaiter trap on the rear. This ensures that your gaiters stay in place. The Altra Lone Peaks are also incredibly lightweight at just 10.5 ounces (298 grams). Men’s and women’s versions are available.
The XA Pro 3D trail runners offer excellent durability, fit, and grip. They feature Salomon’s 3d advanced chassis which is designed to maximize stability and protection while also keeping the shoes lightweight. These shoes use a quick lace system which makes them easy to take on and off. An extra beefy toe cap adds needed protection from rocks and roots. These shoes are available in a range of colors in both men’s and women’s. A waterproof version is also available.
These lightweight trail runners are a popular choice in the through-hiking community. They offer solid durability, support, and grip. Brooks Cascadia trail runners are known for their excellent cushioning and longevity. They are also one of the better looking trail runners on the market. They look like regular sneakers.
Hiking Boot Recommendations:
Below, I’ll outline a few of the best hiking boot options on the market.
The Merrell Moab 2 are some of the most popular hiking boots on the market. Mostly due to the great value that they offer. These are one of the more affordable hiking boot options on the market. For the price, they are well made, durable, and fairly lightweight for a hiking boot. The uppers offer the great combination of breathable mesh with durable leather. Vibram soles with deep 5 mm lugs offer great traction on rough terrain. The Moab 2s are available in waterproof and non-waterproof variations in men’s and women’s sizes.
These are kind of a hiking boot/trail runner hybrid. They offer the lightweight build of trail runners with the added protection of hiking boots. The high tops provide ankle support. The rubber soles offer excellent grip and support. These would be a great choice for lightweight hiking or through-hiking.
Of course, there are compromises. These boots aren’t as light as traditional low top trail runners. They also don’t offer the same level of underfoot protection as traditional hiking boots due to the lightweight design. The soles are a bit less stiff than most other hiking boots on the market.
These are a classic leather hiking boot. The rugged Vibram soles offer excellent protection from the ground as well as traction in wet conditions. A full-length nylon shank adds stability. Weight wise, these boots are fairly light. This weight savings was achieved with a thinner leather upper. This does cost some durability. These boots feature a Gore-Tex waterproof and breathable lining. They are available in men’s and women’s versions.
Another Hiking Footwear Option: Hiking Sandals
To make the hiking footwear decision even more difficult, I’ll introduce one more option. That is hiking sandals. These specialty sandals are designed with thick rugged soles for protection from the ground as well as traction on wet surfaces. Hiking sandals are designed for use in wet environments, making them perfect for stream crossing or river fording. Hiking sandals are an excellent choice for less technical hikes in warm weather and wet conditions.
Of course, there are some drawbacks. Hiking sandals can’t offer the protection of closed shoes. It’s easy for debris to enter. They also provide no insulation for your feet in cold weather. Weight wise, the savings isn’t as great as you might expect.
For more info, check out my complete guide to hiking sandals.
My Choice: Hiking Boots Vs Trail Runners
For my hiking style, I like trail runners. The main reason is that I do much of my hiking while traveling. Mostly day hikes and overnighters.
The portability and versatility of trail runners is hard to beat for travel. I can wear them as my day-to-day shoes during the trip. When I need to, I can also tackle some pretty gnarly terrain with them. They save me from having to pack a second pair of footwear as well.
I also own a pair of low top hiking boots which I use for multi-day hikes. I like the stability and protection that a hiking boot offers when I’m going to be carrying a heavy pack and traveling further from civilization.
So far, I have not yet completed any long-distance through hikes. One of my bucket list items is to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. When I attempt the hike, I will probably choose trail runners due to the added efficiency, even though the cost is slightly higher.
Final Thoughts on Hiking Boots Vs Trail Runners
This choice mostly comes down to your body’s needs and personal preference. If you don’t mind carrying a bit of extra weight and you need the additional support and protection, hiking boots are the better choice. If you prefer a minimalist approach and you’re in good health, trail runners are a great option.
For those who have the budget, owning both offers the option to choose the ideal footwear for each hike you take. Whichever hiking footwear you choose, I’m sure you’ll get plenty of happy miles out of them.
Where do you stand on the hiking boots vs trail runners debate? Share your experience and tips in the comments below!