The 10 Best Trail Runners for Thru-Hiking in 2020

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.

Jump to our picks for 2020’s best trail runners for thru-hiking.

Image via Altra Running.

Trail Runners or Hiking 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. This is because they’re lighter, more breathable, and more flexible.

Lighter: As the saying goes, a pound on the feet is worth five on the back, and we’re all keen to conserve energy where we can on a thru-hike.

More breathable: Breathability is also important because thru-hikers’ feet are constantly getting wet from rain and stream crossings, and lightweight trail runners will dry out more quickly and stay cooler throughout the day.

More flexible: Finally, many hikers find that the flexible, minimalist feel of trail runners is more comfortable than the stiff, clunky, unyielding support provided by boots.

Hiking shoes: Hiking shoes, meanwhile, are essentially low top boots. They’re a good compromise solution for those who want something in between mid boots and trail runners.

At the end of the day, which type of shoe to buy is a highly personal choice. While hikers with weak ankles or sensitive soles might benefit from the extra stability and protection of boots, trail runners undeniably rule the market for thru-hiking footwear.

Hiking Footwear Terminology

Before we dig into our 10 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).

Alright, now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s get on to the exciting stuff!

The 10 Best Trail Runners for Thru-Hiking

Altra Lone Peak 4.5 Men’s | Women’s

MSRP: $120
Weight (pair): 21 oz.
Drop: 0mm
Cushioning: Moderate
Rock plate: Yes
Waterproof: Not available

Photo via Eleni “Honeybun” McDaniel.

Pros: Wide toe box / comfort; zero drop (if you’re into that kind of thing); iconic among thru-hikers; gaiter-compatible; affordable; mid boot version available.

Cons: No waterproof version (for the 4.5’s); not the grippiest; other brands offer more durable uppers.

From Our Contributors

“I resisted switching to Altras for years, being hesitant to buy into the “zero drop” hype. Ultimately, after suffering from chronic foot pain while hiking for more than 5 years, I got fitted for a pair and gave them a try. GAME CHANGER. The Lone Peaks have almost completely eliminated my foot pain. I’m covering more miles with less fatigue, while feeling more stable and less prone to injury than I ever have while hiking.”—Stacia Bennett

Related: The Top Footwear amongst 2019 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers

Brooks Cascadia 15 Men’s | Women’s

MSRP: $130
Weight (pair): 22 oz.
Drop: 8mm
Cushioning: Moderate
Rock plate: Yes
Waterproof: Men’s | Women’s ($160)

Photo via Owen Eigenbrot.

Pros: Gaiter-compatible; sticky outsole for added grip; Pivot Post system adds stability.

Cons: Narrow cut; stiff; significant heel-to-toe drop isn’t for everyone.

From Our Contributors

“The newest Cascadias keep the magic going for this thru-hiker favorite.  The outsole lug pattern and rubber have kept my footing secure on all but the slipperiest of surfaces.  I rate the grip above average and durability looks great.

A firm midsole and rock shield have done a great job of protecting my feet during all-day pound sessions on rocky sections of the PCT.  The new upper material is breezy and dries quickly so I don’t mind sloshing through creek crossings, which feels great and looks cool.  The added gaiter trap isn’t for me, but a lot of folks will really appreciate this small feature.  Well designed, well-executed.”—Owen Eigenbrot

Hoka One One Speedgoat 4.0 Men’s | Women’s

MSRP: $145
Weight (pair): 21.6 oz.
Drop: 4mm
Cushioning: Maximum
Rock plate: No
Waterproof: Men’s | Women’s ($160)

Photo via Effie Drew.

Pros: Vibram outsole; 3D-printed midsole overlays for added support; wide toe box.

Cons: Bulky; expensive; no rock plate.

From Our Contributors

“I think I’ve found the one. No blisters, no Achilles ache, and if you can get past the ridiculous looking Shape-Ups vibe, they might be the one for you too. I’ve taken these from the trail to the crag and my feet have never been happier. I’ve been a Speedgoat convert for a while and the 4.0 delivers.”—Caro

Astral TR1 Mesh Men’s | Women’s

MSRP: $125
Weight (pair): 21.2 oz.
Drop: 1mm
Cushioning: Moderate
Rock plate: Midsole top shank
Waterproof: Not available

Photo via Katie Gerber.

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.

From Our Contributors

“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. The wide toe box and zero-drop keep my feet strong and blister-free.

My favorite feature is how quickly these shoes drain water when wet because it allows me to ford creeks and rivers without having to worry about sloshy, soppy shoes for hours afterward. I also love the grippiness of these shoes because it gives me more confidence and agility when rock hopping through boulder fields or hiking down steep slopes with loose rocks. These are my go-to trail runners through spring, summer, and fall.”—Katie Gerber

Topo Ultraventure Men’s | Women’s

MSRP: $130
Weight (pair): 20.8 oz.
Drop: 5mm
Cushioning: Maximum
Rock plate: No
Waterproof: Not available—check out the Topo Hydroventure 2 instead ($140)

Photo via Brandon Chase.

Pros: Vibram outsole; drainage gills for quick-drying; wide toe box; gusseted tongue.

Cons: No rock plate; high volume can lead to awkward fit.

From Our Contributors

“As a lightweight backpacker and ultrarunner, this shoe hits all the marks for me. They fit well without feeling sloppy, have a cushy midsole with a low heel-to-toe drop (5mm), and hold up better than any other trail runner I’ve tried – even on the rugged trails of Maine. They are my go-to for outdoor pursuits!”—Brandon Chase

Hoka One One Challenger ATR 5 Men’s | Women’s

MSRP: $130
Weight (pair): 18.8 oz.
Drop: 5mm
Cushioning: Moderate
Rock plate: No
Waterproof: Men’s | Women’s ($140)

Photo via Owen Eigenbrot.

Pros: Lightweight; oversize midsoles add cushioning and shock absorption; gusseted tongue keeps debris out.

Cons: No rock plate; some users report issues with fit.

From Our Contributors

“I’m thrilled that HOKA now offers some shoes in wide sizes (watch out, Altra). I like to give my toes freedom, and these shoes let me stretch them wide. The cushion of the Challenger ATR 5 is as cloud-like as the HOKA branding promises. That said I was surprised by how nimble and stable they are.

Also, these shoes are my lightest pair, which confuses me due to the huge midsole, and they run well. A modest 5mm drop makes these my go-to shoes for longer runs because they protect my baby calves from excess fatigue without impacting my foot strike. The outsole is a little funky, but grip and durability have been great so far.”—Owen Eigenbrot

La Sportiva Bushido II Men’s | Women’s

MSRP: $130
Weight (pair): 21 oz.
Drop: 6mm
Cushioning: Moderate
Rock plate: Yes
Waterproof: Not available

Photo via Alex Murphy.

Pros: Ergonomic gusseted tongue; lugs wrap around midsole for added traction; grippy.

Cons: Narrow toe box; runs small; no waterproof option.

From Our Contributors

“‘I want to go fast.’
-Ricky Bobby, fake racecar driver, discussing the La Sportiva Bushido II (probably).

La Sportiva’s Bushido II is a great shoe for those who like to be on the move. The slick fit and sticky bottom makes it a great trail runner for hikes in rocky terrain without worrying about slowing down. As someone who regularly tears shoes up, I also have to compliment how tough the shoe is while still being fairly light-weight. Sizing with a lot of La Sportiva products can be a little off so I recommend trying it on before buying.”—Alex Murphy

Inov-8 Terraultra G 270 Men’s | Women’s

MSRP: $160
Weight (pair): 19 oz.
Drop: 0mm
Cushioning: Maximum
Rock plate: No
Waterproof: Not available

Photo via Joal and Jenny.

Pros: Graphene grip for enhanced durability and traction; lightweight; breathable; zero drop.

Cons: Expensive; no rock plate; no waterproof option.

From Our Contributors

“Despite being a relative newcomer versus many in the list, the Inov-8 Terraultra G 270s have quickly become our favorite trail runners thanks to their insane durability, grip, and comfort. Inov-8 is still the only sports gear company using a graphene compound in their soles, which improves tackiness and longevity of the outsole so you can push 600-plus miles with one pair.

The Terraultra G 270s have improved on many of the things we didn’t like about their predecessor, the G 260. They’re much more breathable, and an extra 4mm of midsole makes for an extremely comfortable ride. The biggest downside is the $160 price tag, but due to their durability, they could end up cheaper over the course of a thru-hike.”—Joal and Jenny

Topo Terraventure 2 Men’s | Women’s

MSRP: $120
Weight (pair): 21.6 oz.
Drop: 3mm
Cushioning: Moderate
Rock plate: Yes
Waterproof: Not available; check out Topo Hydroventure 2 instead ($140)

Photo via Clay Bonnyman Evans.

Pros: Affordable; low drop (good compromise solution if you’re not sure about going full-on zero drop); Vibram sole; drainage gills.

Cons: Some users report durability issues.

From Our Contributors

“When the latest model of my go-to “wide toebox” shoe arrived much too narrow, I went in search of a replacement and found Topo Athletic’s Terraventure 2. This is an incredibly comfy shoe, with plenty of room up front, a snug heel, solid cushioning, and a modest 3mm drop.

It has a grippy Vibram sole, a forefoot rock plate, and surprisingly beefy uppers, considering that each shoe (men’s 9) weighs just 10.8 ounces. Reviews seldom mention laces, but the Terraventure 2 never comes untied; I don’t even bother tying a double knot anymore. With an MSRP of $120, this is my new favorite trail runner, by far.”—Clay Bonnyman Evans

La Sportiva Kaptiva Men’s | Women’s

MSRP: $139
Weight (pair): 18.2 oz
Drop: 6mm
Cushioning: Moderate
Rock plate: Yes
Waterproof: Men’s | Women’s ($159)

Photo via Zacc Larkin.

Pros: Wrap-around compression tongue; sock-like fit.

Cons: On the pricy side; narrow toe box; may be too constrictive for thru-hiking.

From Our Contributors

“The La Sportiva Kaptivas are lightweight and completely at home on rough, technical trails. After flapping about in the wide Altra Lone Peaks (great shoes in their own right) for several months after thru-hiking, I was immediately struck by the Kaptivas snug, comfortable fit that is far more precise on technical trails.

The Kaptivas have an elastic sleeve that locks your feet into position and acts as a sort of built-in gaiter, helping prevent dirt and sticks getting into your shoes. Though perhaps too constrictive in the toe box for thru-hiking, the Kaptivas are perfect for long days spent hiking or trail running.”—Zacc Larkin

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Comments 3

  • SA Brotherton : Sep 25th

    I think it important that every time I see a gear review about shoes no one really addresses the whole zero drop thing and those people who absolutely can not wear them (& there are many). As one of those people w/flat, wide feet and exceptionally tight calves and arches prone to plantar fasciitis (er… well the part of my feet where my arches should be anyway) makes it impossible for me to wear anything w/out some stiffness, support (think rock plate) and a drop of typically at least 4-5mm.
    I used to wear Salomons years ago and they became too narrow. I still have 2 pairs of Merrells, but they tend to be heavy. I recently discovered the Salming Trail 6, and they very much perform like a hiking shoe, but at about half the weight.
    I recently tried on a good number of the shoes you have reviewed and I would say I like the Topos the best, but am not keen on the turned up, running style toe (personally). I think I only missed the La Sportivas.
    My point – I very much appreciate the ‘stats’ and Pros and Cons. As someone who has spent a tremendous amount of time searching for the right shoe, the more info, the better….had this come out a few weeks earlier, you could have saved me some time…Thank you, Kelly.

    Reply
  • DavidM : Oct 2nd

    Great review. I swear by my Altra Lone Peaks. I put 700 miles on a single pair of Lone Peak 3.5’s on the Appalachian Trail two summers ago. I pretty much wore them out but loved them and didn’t have a single issue with them. BUT…

    Shoes are VERY specific to the wearer because everyone’s feet are different (yeah, call me Captain Obvious). What works for me won’t necessarily work for someone else. For example, I can’t wear Merrills because my ankle bone is low and they cut into it. My wife swears by Salomon and won’t wear anything else, but they just don’t feel right to me. You really have to try them to find out what works best for you. Of course, this list is a great place to start.

    And secondly, this year’s and next year’s model of the same shoe can feel completely different on your feet. Manufacturers are constantly making “improvements” to their shoe. The “new and improved” model of Altra Lone Peaks feels very different to me. Fortunately I was able to find a brand new pair of Lone Peak 3.5’s in my size on eBay.

    Bottom line, be guided by these reviews but know that with footwear what might work for lots of other hikers may not work for you. Happy hiking!

    Reply

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