The Best Trail Runners for Thru-Hiking in 2021
Are you planning a long-distance backpacking trip? If so, it’s essential that you choose the best trail runners for thru-hiking. Think of this as an investment in your future happiness. Your feet are your most important assets as a thru-hiker, after all. You’re counting on them to carry you thousands of miles through thick and thin.
If you treat them right, it’s possible to complete an entire thru-hike without so much as a blister. But if you don’t take care of them, any number of (progressively more horrifying) foot afflictions could take you out of action in a heartbeat. That’s why it’s so important to choose proper footwear for your hike. Footwear is highly personal—more so than most other gear—because everyone’s foot shape, gait, and preferences are unique. You’ll only figure out what’s right for you through trial and error, but it helps to know a bit about the fit and features of some top models in advance.
Why should you trust us?
Because we’re so incredibly intelligent, of course! Attractive, too. (Not to mention extremely humble).
But if that isn’t enough to impress you, there’s also the fact that everyone who contributed to this article is an experienced thru-hiker with thousands of on-trail miles under their belt. We’re gear nerds who love putting our equipment to the test on trails long and short, and we’ve tested dozens of shoes in pursuit of a smoother, more comfortable hike.
Moreover, we survey hundreds of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers every year to learn about their behaviors, demographics, and—you guessed it—gear preferences. That means our picks for the best trail runners for thru-hiking aren’t just our opinions: they’re based on years of feedback from the thru-hiking community.
Best Trail Runners for Thru-Hiking: Quick Navigation
- Altra Lone Peak 5 (Most Popular Trail Runner with Thru-Hikers)
- Brooks Cascadia 15 (Best Trail Runner For Narrow Feet)
- Hoka ONE ONE Speedgoat 4.0 (Most Comfortable Trail Runner)
- Astral Designs TR1 Mesh (Best Shoe for Wet Trails)
- Topo Ultraventure Pro (Most Versatile Trail Runner)
- Hoka ONE ONE Challenger ATR 6 (Best Medium-Cushion Trail Runner)
- Inov-8 Terraultra G270 (Most Durable Trail Runner)
- La Sportiva Wildcat (Best Budget Trail Runner)
- Salomon XA Pro 3D V8 (Best High Drop Trail Runner)
Trail Runners or Boots for Thru-Hiking?
Trail runners have surged in popularity in recent years and are now more popular than traditional hiking boots among thru-hikers. If you want to save energy (they say a pound on the feet is worth five on the back), keep your feet relatively cool and dry (trail runners’ lightweight mesh uppers allow moisture to escape quickly), and be able to “feel” and react to the changing trail surface through a flexible, responsive pair of shoes, go with trail runners.
If you want footwear that will last a long time, protect your tender soles from the impact of rough terrain, and provide unyielding foot and ankle support, hiking boots are the way to go. They’re heavier, yes, but they provide a lot more protection. And while they cost more than trail runners upfront, they often last two to three times as long, meaning fewer shoes in the landfill and more dollars in your pocket over the course of a thru-hike.
Hiking shoes are essentially low-top boots. They’re beefier and more supportive than trail runners, but not quite as bulky as boots. They’re a good compromise solution if you can’t decide between trail runners and boots.
Hiking Footwear Terminology
Before we dig into our picks for the best trail runners for thru-hiking, let’s first establish some common footwear terminology so that we’re all on the same page:
- Upper: The “main body” of the shoe/the flexible material above the midsole. Usually made of durable mesh or leather.
- Insole: A removable footbed insert located inside the shoe that provides cushioning to your foot. Many hikers upgrade to aftermarket insoles like Superfeet that offer better and more targeted support than the factory version.
- Midsole: The rubber bit between the insole and the outsole.
- Outsole: The grippy rubber bottom of your shoe where all the tread is located.
- Rock plate: A nylon shank found in the midsole of some trail runners to protect your sole from sharp rocks.
- Heel-to-toe drop: The height differential between the shoe’s heel and toe, normally measured in millimeters. The heel is elevated higher than the toe in most shoes so that the toe points slightly down, but some minimalist shoes have zero drop (no height difference between the heel and toe).
Are Minimalist / Zero Drop Hiking Shoes Worth It?
It’s complicated. Minimalist zero-drop footwear is meant to mimic bare feet, the idea being that less shoe support will lead to stronger muscles, improved stability, and a more natural gait. In contrast, many podiatrists argue that cushioning exists for a reason, and wearing unsupportive footwear can create new foot problems and exacerbate existing ones. With that in mind, hikers with flat feet and other pre-existing foot problems should be especially cautious with minimalist footwear.
If you’re considering zero drop shoes, we recommend you buy a pair or two from a retailer with a decent return policy (we’re looking at you, REI) and try them out on-trail. There’s really no other way to know whether a certain style will work for you. If you go the zero drop route, break the shoes in slowly and know that you’ll likely experience calf and Achilles fatigue at first as your muscles adjust. This is normal, but be careful not to push yourself too hard at first lest you hurt yourself.
Check out High Drop or Zero Drop: How to Choose Shoes that Work for You for a detailed breakdown of the respective pros and cons of high and zero-drop shoes.
Many hikers swap out the flimsy insoles that come standard with most hiking footwear for a beefier, more supportive after-market offering. Superfeet, which are available at REI and most other outfitters, are especially popular. If you go this route, swap out your Superfeet every time you replace your shoes to get the maximum benefit out of them. Yes, they’re a bit expensive, but you won’t be able to finish your thru-hike if you ruin your feet, so this is an area worth investing a little extra. If you really struggle with foot pain, it might be worth visiting a podiatrist and getting custom orthotics that are molded to your unique foot shape.
Finding a shoe that fits your foot perfectly (and finding the correct size of that shoe) is probably the most important step you can take toward blister prevention. Everyone’s foot is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this problem: you just have to figure it out through trial and error. If you’ll be thru-hiking, bear in mind also that your shoe size may increase over the course of your hike. Because you can’t predict whether and to what extent your shoe size will change, we recommend starting in a pair of shoes that fits your feet now, rather than starting a size too big in anticipation of a change that may or may not happen. The start of a thru-hike is challenging enough without adding the difficulty of too-big shoes.
Other methods include:
- Cover potential hotspots with Leukotape as soon as you feel them.
- Slather on some Vaseline to reduce friction.
- Wear a thin, protective pair of liner socks under your primary socks. Opt for toe socks for maximum protection.
- Use the heel lock lacing method to keep your feet from sliding around in your shoes.
Alright, now that we’ve got all that cleared up, let’s get on to the exciting stuff!
The 10 Best Trail Runners for Thru-Hiking
Weight (pair): 22 oz.
Rock plate: Yes
Waterproof: Not available
Pros: Wide toe box; iconic among thru-hikers; gaiter-compatible; affordable; lightweight; now available in wide.
Cons: No waterproof version; not the grippiest; other brands offer more durable uppers; potential heel rub issues.
Lone Peaks are easily the most popular shoe model among thru-hikers: almost a third of respondents in our 2019 AT Survey reported using Lone Peaks, as well as a third of PCT hikers in Halfway Anywhere’s 2019 survey. The latest version (5.0) has seen the addition of updated Altra EGO midsoles, which are designed to deliver the best of both worlds: somehow soft and firm at the same time. In our initial testing, the new midsoles do feel noticeably springier.
The new model also features a lighter, redesigned rock plate and laser-cut drainage holes in the uppers to facilitate quick drying. Classic Lone Peak features like the Gaiter Traps and wide FootShape toe box remain, while the distinctive tread pattern on the bottom of the shoe appears broadly similar to that of the 4.5s. The 5s are the first incarnation of the Lone Peak to be available in wide sizes. Note that this year’s shoes run larger than previous versions, so you may want to go down a half size from what you normally wear.
Many hikers and trail runners reported serious heel rub / blistering / Achilles tendon issues with the Lone Peak 4.5s. We haven’t experienced that with the new Lone Peak 5s, but some users say the problem remains. We recommend you pad your heels with Leukotape the first few times you wear these, just to be on the safe side.
Pros: Gaiter-compatible; sticky outsole for added grip; Pivot Post system adds stability.
Cons: Stiff; higher drop isn’t for everyone; narrow cut will feel cramped for some.
In a world of wide toe boxes and increasingly roomy designs, Brooks keeps it old-school with their slim and snug-fitting Cascadia 15s. Although some may object to the closeness of this design, it’s ideal for slenderfoots who can’t seem to avoid slipping and sliding in more generously proportioned shoes. ” I rate the grip above average and durability looks great,” said contributor Owen Eigenbrot of the latest Cascadias. “The new upper material is breezy and dries quickly.”
A densely-cushioned BioMoGo DNA midsole and Ballistic Rock Shield provide ample protection from rough, technical terrain, making the Cascadia ideal for hikers/runners who prefer a firmer, more responsive ride. The TrailTack outsole is both wonderfully grippy and notably more durable than many competitor models. Thoughtful additions like Brooks’ Pivot Post stability system and gaiter traps will be appreciated by many hikers.
Monoloop mesh uppers on the 15s are lightweight and breathes/dries more readily than previous Cascadia iterations—a definite improvement over the 14s. Brooks is expected to drop the Cascadia 16 this summer, promising even airier and more flexible uppers, an updated mudguard, and a gripper outsole—so be sure to check back for our take on the newest member of the Cascadia family when the time comes.
Read our review of the Brooks Cascadia 15.
Pros: Vibram outsole; 3D-printed midsole overlays for added support; wide toe box.
Cons: Bulky; expensive; not everyone likes the plushy midsole; flat tongue can be uncomfortable.
Our reviewer says the Speedgoats’ famously plush, highly cushioned EVA foam midsole is similar to walking on clouds. Pair that with a durable, grippy Vibram outsole with 5mm lugs, and you’ve got yourself a damned smooth ride (in a variety of wild color schemes to boot). Despite the extra cushioning and boxy design, the Speedgoats are middle-of-the-road in terms of weight, perhaps in part because they eliminate the rock plate favored by many trail runner models.
The Speedgoat 4s feature an updated midsole that provides slightly more cushioning, amazingly, than previous iterations. The toebox is also noticeably roomier. This model weighs a hair more than the Speedgoat 3, though Hoka used some weight-saving measures, like reducing padding in the tongue/ankle area to mostly offset this gain. In any case, for a shoe that’s this cushioned and supportive to weigh in at just 21.6 ounces for the pair is pretty remarkable. Lightweight comfort indeed.
Read our review of the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4.
Weight (pair): 21.2 oz.
Rock plate: Midsole top shank
Waterproof: Not available
Pros: Anti-odor insole; near-zero drop; mesh uppers and drain holes in midsole for quick-drying; wide toe box; tacky outsole.
Cons: Some users report durability issues; no waterproof option.
This offering from Astral Designs isn’t a conventional thru-hiking shoe, but it’s a great choice for wet trails with frequent stream crossings. Even more than most trail runners, the TR1 Mesh is unmatched in its ability to drain and dry quickly thanks to lightweight mesh uppers and literal drain holes cut in the midsole. There’s something deeply cathartic about stepping out of a stream and watching water literally spout out of your midsoles.
Add a wide toe box, wonderfully grippy tread (their patented G Rubber excels in wet and slippery conditions), and near-zero drop to the equation and you have a shoe that’s comfortable and deeply appealing for hikers. These shoes are great for wet hikes, but they’ll hold up on a wide array of technical terrains as well. “I’ve hiked thousands of miles in Astral’s TR1 Mesh model, including miles on the Oregon Desert Trail and the CDT, which together cover practically every terrain imaginable,” said contributor Katie Gerber. “These are my go-to trail runners through spring, summer, and fall.”
Weight (pair): 20.8 oz.
Rock plate: Yes
Waterproof: Not available—check out the Topo Hydroventure 2 instead ($140)
Pros: Vibram outsole; drainage gills for quick-drying; wide toe box.
Cons: Can feel stiff and clunky compared to the traditional Ultraventure 2.
If you love the wide toe box of Altra trail runners but would prefer to avoid the Lone Peak’s zero drop-ness, the Topo Ultraventure Pro may be your perfect shoe. It’s wide in the toes, like Altras, and has a modest 5mm drop that will provide more support for heel strikers. Its grippy Vibram outsole also outperforms Altras in terms of traction, and its is carefully designed for a perfect fit that hits the sweet spot between sloppy-roomy and too tight. The Ultraventure Pro, just released in 2020, is a beefed-up version of the Ultraventure 2.
Compared to the Ultraventure 2, the Pro has a stiffer feel thanks to the addition of a rock plate and higher-density midsole foam. A more abrasion-resistant mesh upper and slightly roomier fit make this trail runner better suited than most to the rigors of a thru-hike. Topo Athletic designed this shoe to combine the rugged, all-terrain durability of a long-distance hiking shoe with the streamlined minimalism of a trail runner.
Read our review of the Topo Ultraventure Pro.
Pros: Lightweight; oversize midsoles add cushioning and shock absorption; gusseted tongue keeps debris out.
Cons: Outsole isn’t the grippiest; some users report issues with fit.
The Challenger ATR is perfect for hikers who love the springy feel of the Speedgoats in principle but find it too squashy to allow for comfortable/efficient hiking in practice. Although this moderately-cushioned offering still rocks Hoka’s signature chunky midsole, it’s noticeably firmer than that of the Speedgoat, which has so much midsole that it can feel stiff and unresponsive compared to the more maneuverable Challenger ATR.
The Speedgoats have a higher stack height and a “stickier” Vibram outsole than the Challenger ATRs (which are standard rubber). These features only add to the feeling that the Challenger is a nimbler, more stable shoe overall. It was once Hoka’s go-to model for wide feet, but the brand has since expanded its offerings to include “wide” Speedgoats as well. Despite this, the Challenger still has an overall roomier design.
The ATR 6, the latest version of this shoe, is fairly similar to its previous incarnation (the ATR 5), though it’s one ounce heavier and features a more tightly woven mesh upper.
Read our review of the Hoka One One Challenger ATR 6.
Weight (pair): 19 oz.
Rock plate: No
Waterproof: Not available
Pros: Graphene grip for enhanced durability and traction; lightweight; breathable; zero drop.
Cons: Expensive; no rock plate; no waterproof option.
Aptly named Inov-8 took a novel approach to their trail runners, incorporating a graphene compound into the rubber outsoles to improve durability and traction. We thought this sounded like a gimmick, but our reviewer tested a pair of Inov8 Terraultra G 270s thoroughly and found them to be every bit as durable and grippy as advertised: their pair was going strong at 650 miles and counting at the time of the review. This shoe has the same wide toe box and zero-drop that many hikers love in minimalist trail runners. The icing on the cake: it’s also the lightest shoe on this list.
The G 270 builds on its predecessor, the G 260, with enhanced cushioning and breathability. The new version has four additional millimeters of POWERFLOW MAX midsole foam and three more millimeters of overall stack height. At $160 per pair, these are the priciest trail runners on our list. “But due to their durability, they could end up cheaper over the course of a thru-hike,” testers Joal and Jenny pointed out.
Read our review of the Inov-8 Terraultra G 270.
Pros: Affordable; durable; high heel-toe drop favors heel strikers.
Cons: Heavy for a trail runner; no rock plate; runs small.
At 25 ounces for a pair, this is the heaviest trail runner on this list. But it’s also the most affordable at just $110, especially when you factor in the Wildcat’s durability, which is superior to that of many higher-priced shoes. And in a world dominated by no- or low-drop trail runners, the Wildcat is one of the few models that keep to the old ways with a precipitous 12mm heel-to-toe differential. This isn’t the roomiest shoe on the list, but it’s not cramped either, and it provides a degree of structured support not found in most lightweight footwear. The design makes it ideal for heel strikers.
The Wildcat’s upper is very breathable, with a mostly-mesh upper that has a distinct lack of mudguards and reinforcements. It’s actually remarkable that the Wildcat is so durable given this near-total lack of reinforcement. If you’re in the market for a decently comfortable and affordable trail runner that won’t leave you flat-footed, La Sportiva’s Wildcat may be the shoe for you.
Pros: Quicklace system = no more untied shoes or fumbling with laces on freezing mornings; high level of stability and protection.
Cons: Heavy for a trail runner; high heel-toe drop will appeal to some hikers; relatively stiff midsole can be uncomfortable.
If you’re on the fence between trail runners and burlier hiking shoes, the XA Pro 3D V8 (what a mouthful) does a decent job straddling the line between the two categories. It’s undoubtedly heavy for a trail runner, but it offers more stability and support than minimalist, ultralight models.
In particular, hikers who suffer from heel pain may appreciate the additional support offered by the 11mm heel-to-toe drop. It’s not the highest drop shoe on this list: the budget-friendly La Sportiva Wildcat, listed above, takes that crown by a narrow margin. But with superior traction, stability, a rock plate for added protection, and thoughtful features like Salomon’s easy single-pull lacing system, we think it’s the best-executed high drop shoe on the list.
The XA Pro 3D V8 builds on the iconic XA Pro 3D. It’s two ounces lighter than the original (for the pair) and uses thinner, softer materials. The eponymous “3D chassis,” a thin layer of dense foam between the midsole and outsole that provides additional support and reinforcement, has been redesigned to improve precision, responsiveness, and energy control.
Any offering featuring Salomon’s Quicklace system could also be given the “Best Trail Runner for Raynaud’s Syndrome Sufferers” award, as well, since the single-pull lacing setup is easy to manage, even with cold-addled fingers.
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