The Footwear Debate: Are Trail Runners Superior to Boots?
Though tradition would have most people believing it is impossible to hike a trail like the AT with anything other than a big, leather pair of waterproof boots, this notion is being challenged more and more frequently. Though I know of people who have hiked in Crocs, sandals, or even their bare-feet, the most common alternative to hiking boots is trail running shoes. This has spawned one of the biggest debates in the hiking community as of late; are trail runners superior to boots? It must be impossible to take on the relentless rocks, slippery roots, and colossal pits of mud that make up most hiking trails, with just a small pair of trail running shoes, right?
Wrong. Though it does come down to personal preference, in my experience hiking on the AT, the Long Trail, and the extensive trail systems in the White Mountains and Adirondacks, I have concluded that trail runners are far superior to hiking boots, and here’s why:
There is No Such Thing as a “Waterproof” Shoe
If you have a pair accessible, scan the exterior of some waterproof boots for any spots that might allow water to enter them. Though waterproof boots do keep water out from the majority of their surface, every shoe created in the history of humanity has a giant hole in it; the hole you put your foot into. If you find a shoe without this hole, let me know. Due to the existence of this hole, any extensive hiking in the rain, snow, or mud, is going to allow water to enter your boot. Once this happens, the moisture is going to stay trapped in your boot, as the waterproofness is going to prevent it from escaping. This prevents your boots from drying properly, and means more hiking with wet feet. Yuck.
Obviously, your feet will get wet when hiking in trail runners as well. They will get wet easier too, since waterproof boots can be effective at preventing small amounts of moisture from entering the boot. However, this is a small trade off, since trail runners dry out considerable faster than boots. I’ve had trail runners dry out in as fast as just a few hours in nice weather. It should also be noted that, even in dry weather, your feet create moisture through sweating. Your feet are probably going to sweat even more in a heavy boot, than in a pair of breathable trail runners. Since getting your feet wet is inevitable, getting them dry as quickly as possible is more important than slowing down the process of them getting wet.
Wearing shoes that dry out quickly becomes even more valuable when hiking on trails that require you to ford rivers. If you’re hiking with boots, you’re either going to have to carry an alternative pair of shoes for fording, ford barefoot (which is dangerous in fast moving water), or completely soak your boots. If you’re hiking with trail runners, you can ford rivers without having to stop and remove your shoes, knowing they will dry out quickly.
Extra Weight on Your Feet Requires Extra Energy
We can probably all agree that carrying less weight in our packs is an inherently good thing. Not everyone in the backpacking community has embraced the ultralight movement, but I’m willing to bet that almost every backpacker takes some form of action to reduce the weight of his or her pack when preparing for outings. With this in mind, it has been proven that weight carried on one’s feet expends 4 to 6 times more energy than this same amount of weight carried on one’s back. In other words, if you were to use a 3 pound pair of hiking boots, this would be the equivalent of adding 15 pounds to your pack. However, if you used a 1 pound pair of trail runners, this would be the equivalent of adding only 5 pounds to your pack. The old saying, “every pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back,” is accurate.
There is no reason to carry this extra weight on your feet. Backpacking requires an extensive amount of energy as it is, so minimizing the amount of energy spent is not only necessary to have fun, but necessary to maintain health and safety in the back country. I’m not suggesting that if you wear boots you won’t enjoy your hike, but I’ve found that the less weight I carry, the less exhausted I feel, and this translates into a more enjoyable trip. Once again, I think most hikers can agree that carrying less weight is beneficial.
Trail Runners Can Double as Camp Shoes
Rather than strapping those Crocs to your pack, leave them at home and let your trail runners act as your camp shoes! This could save you up to a pound of weight, and provide you with a much more stable and durable camp shoe to use at the end of the day. But how is this advantage exclusive to trail runners, and not hiking boots? Can’t I use my hiking boots as camp shoes too?
Yes, you can, but it’s much more comfortable, as well as easier to do so with trail runners. When I get to camp, I loosen up my laces, and essentially convert my shoes into a pair of slip-ons. After I do this, I can slide them on and off just as easily as with a pair of Crocs or other common camp shoes. It takes less than five seconds. You could do this with boots, but it would not be as easy and comfortable as sliding on a pair of loosely tied trail runners. Additionally, most people are sick of wearing their boots by the end of a long day. I’m sure every hiker knows what I’m referring to, when I mention the feeling of relief that comes with taking off your boots after finishing the day’s hike. I’ve found that this relief is not present after a day of hiking in trail runners, due to the fact that they are so light, comfortable, and breathable.
Trail Runners are Easy to Break In
Everyone knows what it’s like wearing a new pair of shoes for the first time. They haven’t had the chance to conform to your feet yet, and thus feel slightly awkward and uncomfortable. However, after wearing them for a few hours, the insoles begin to compress to the shape of your foot, and the shoes become much more enjoyable to wear. It goes without saying that this same principal applies to hiking footwear. It should be noted, however, that wearing a brand new pair of shoes to work is not the same as wearing a brand new pair of boots, or trail runners, on a hiking trip. It is especially important that you break your shoes in prior to using them on a hike. Using a brand new pair of boots, or trail runners, in the back country could cause discomfort, pain, and dare I say, blisters. We all know how much fun blisters can be.
Related reading: What Footwear 2015 Thru-Hikers Wore on the Trail
Boots are built to be incredibly sturdy, and in order to achieve this, they are made with tough, rigid soles. Though, this is helpful when doing yard work, construction, and other activities that require strong and protective footing, it ultimately yields a problem for those who hike in them; the strength of boots actually make them very difficult to break in. Their rigid, and robust soles do not bend easily, and thus require many miles before they fit well. Trail runners, on the other hand, conform to your feet easily, and can be broken in rather quickly. Just wear them to class, work, or the store a few times, and they should be good to go.
Other Advantages Provided by Trail Runners
I’ve found a few, more personal reasons, why I hike in trail runners. First of all, even though my feet have become very tough from years of hiking and running, they never feel quite as comfortable in boots. Trail runners just feel better on my feet. Obviously, this is just a personal preference, and I’m sure there are some comfortable pairs of boots out there, but it is important nonetheless. I’ve also found that my feet get significantly less blisters when I use trail runners (I also attribute this to my use of Darn Tough socks, my love for which will probably yield an entirely independent article someday). When I wear boots, a greater amount of moisture becomes trapped on my skin, causing my feet to slide around. This is the most common manner in which blisters are formed. Since trail runners breathe more effectively than boots, this moisture evaporates, and my feet remain blister free.
I should also note that, since I also do a lot of running in addition to hiking, it’s convenient for me to have a pair of shoes that I can use for both activities. I do have a separate pair of shoes I use exclusively for running, but I still run in my trail runners if I’m traveling and don’t have room to bring both pairs.
Downsides of Trail Runners
Trail runners are not the ultimate solution to the matter of hiking footwear, despite how divine I’ve made them sound in this article. It should be noted that there are a few distinct downsides to trail runners. First of all, you can’t hike in trail runners in the winter. I have pushed the limits of mine before, using them just a few days before the trails were covered in snow, but I would not recommend using them once the temperature dips below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Boots provide much better insulation for your feet, and thus are necessary when hiking in cold temperatures. Additionally, Microspikes, snowshoes, and crampons, are built to be attached to boots with a strong base. Another downside of buying trail runners, is that they wear out much faster than boots. This ultimately renders them more expensive, since a hiker will have to purchase multiple pairs of trail runners over a time period that they otherwise would have only had to purchase one pair of boots. However, most trail runners will still last between 500 and 700 miles, and if you ask me, the price of replacing them more frequently is worth the advantages they provide.
Despite conventional wisdom suggesting heavy boots are the standard for hiking footwear, there is an increasing number of hikers who opt for trail runners instead. This illustrates an increase in popularity for the ultralight backpacking movement, and proves that it is becoming more and more mainstream to make significant adjustments to one’s gear in order to go lighter. Love it or hate it, the trend towards trail runners will only increase as more people discover the benefits of cutting unnecessary weight from their packs.
Some Popular Trail Runner Models:
- Salomon XA Pro 3D Trail-Running Shoes
- Brooks Cascadia
- Altra Lone Peak 3.0
- Altra Olympus
Do you have another reason why trail runners are superior to boots? Are you a boot-enthusiast, who absolutely despises the notion of hiking in trail runners? Leave a comment below!
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I have never had any blisters with trail runners. I’m sold!
I think there is a place for both types of footwear in at least some hiker’s closets. I use both, taking the trail runners during on day hikes and short backpacking trips in late spring through early fall. Since most of my hiking is in the Adirondacks, the boots come out in October and usually at back in the closet by late April. As noted trail runners do not fair well in cold temperatures or if you need micro spikes, snowshoes or crampons (at least in my experience this is true). Also I find that on longer backpacking trips, the boots seem protect your feet a little better from the day after day of navigating rocks, roots, etc. The times that I have tried trail runners for extended periods, my feet tend to get “beat up” more than with the boots. It may be my age, but that is my experience.
Bottom line there is a place for both and I am glad I don’t have to choose between the two.
Nice article–I posted this comment to FB:
“Out of 462 AT thru hikers surveyed in 2013-14, 142 (31%) wore boots. When only hikers with prior experience were counted, this number dropped almost by half–17%. Clearly, many experienced hikers perceive an advantage with trail runners, but a significant number of successful experienced thru hikers are happy with boots.”
The data does not support the idea that boots significantly affect the incidence of blisters: https://distancehiking.com/blog/blisters/
Nor to they lower or raise risk of injury: https://distancehiking.com/safety/injuries3/
Great article Kyle, and spot on about trail runners for hiking where snow’s not a foot deep.
I’ve done a fair amount of hiking in Teva Churn water shoes, which are also my everyday shoes. Suckers never seem to wear out, though the sole does finally get scrubbed down.
Re the blister thing, three of us recently did 40 on a local trail. All got blisters, all wearing different foot wear and sock combos. I’ve concluded that some folks are just prone, some are not. Must be a genetic thing.
I think I’ll switch to a more mainline trail runner for my next long hike and see if it’s less prone to produce blisters.
Boots every time. I have weak ankles and need the ankle support. Trail runners left my ankles swollen and twisted after a weekend pack hike.
I did whole of West Highland Way in May wearing nothing but Merell Travel Glove (barefoot shoes). I have been wearing barefoot shoes for hiking for a few years now and can’t imagine wearing anything else, weather allowing. I wear boots only in winter.
I agree with all of these points except the break-in factor for at least some hiking boots. There are some boots (Merrill) that are so good that they don’t really require breaking in. I went on a 16 mile hike with a new pair right out of the box and had no problems whatsoever. It probably helped that my previous boots were the same type of Merrills.
Great article. Out here in the West, trail runners are very common on the PCT and other trails. I personally haven’t used boots in over 10 years.
Oh wow, the trend is in. I remember some 5 years ago how my trainers were amusing other hikers in Zion and now would you look at that, soon I will be frowned upon when wearing boots. People tend jump to the extreme ends forgetting that it’s always better to stick to the golden middle. There are certain types of trail terrain where sturdy hard boots are a must, wearing trail runners will kill your feet.
I’m with you. I switched to trail shoes long ago and have never looked back.
Prior to my AT thru-hike in 2014, I had always hiked in boots, usually lighter weight all-leather boots like the Lowa Tanark and Renegade. I have flat feet, wear orthotics, and like Kate above, thought I needed the ankle support. On the thru-hike, I began to realize that the reason my feet on some days were feeling like they were not contributing to my stride had to do with their confinement in the boots. And they ached a lot. I switched to trail shoes and was much happier. When I made a second switch to a pair of Salewa approach shoes for New England, my feet never hurt again, and they were doing what feet should do–helping move me along. As a flip-flopper, I returned to the southern part of the trail in the fall and wore some Salewa mid-height approach shoes for the colder weather and snow. I’ll save my boots for working in the woods and snowshoeing.
Great article. Thanks. I also switched to trail runners in the last 3 years. Once I switched, my persistent plantar fasciitis disappeared, along with regular blisters! Seems the stiffer soles in boots were just not meant for my feet. A bit of work to improve my ankle strength and my balance has proved invaluable, also. The only time I wear my boots now is in snow; besides the insulation, I also need the stiffer uppers for snowshoeing.
Since I transitioned into ultralight gear, the added freedom of lighter footwear has extended my hiking “career” by years! I had been assuming I would be done with backpacking by the time I reached age 70 (3 years from now) but now I can see continuing into my 80s. Let’s hear it for challenging a few sacred cows!
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Great article! I appreciate people who take the time to write these things up.
You should take a look at Arc’teryx’s newish boot – the Bora 2. It addresses almost all of your concerns with boots. They’re decently light for a boot, they dry out fast, little to no break-in as the 2 part design reduces hot spots, the inner booty comes out to wear as a camp shoe, and the inner liner can be swapped out with an insulated liner for the winter.
One of my biggest gripes with trail runners is getting small rocks and pebbles in my shoe that I’m constantly having to clean out. Although I suppose gaiters could help with that.
Going to stick with my boots. At 53 years young with less than stellar knees and ankles I’ll go slow and stay safe. HYOH
I’m not so convinced. If your trail runners get wet (which they are more likely to) and its even slightly cold, are you supposed to hike the whole day with soggy, damp shoes? Hiking boots are unlikely to get wet if you actually have good ones. And what about mud? In the UK it’s so damp and muddy that a high shoe is a must, otherwise anything low-ankle will just let get the inside of your shoe muddy. The ‘breaking in’ and weight arguments are much less relevant today, with some of the top end hiking boots being extremely lightly. To put it bluntly – the trail runner is great for some contexts, but the durability of a hiking boot means you can use it pretty much anywhere and at anytime. And for a thru-hike with potentially unpredictable weather situations – surely you want that?
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