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

(photo courtesy of Martin Criminale)

Brooks Cascadia 8’s (photo courtesy of Martin Criminale)

If you have a pair accessible, scan the exterior of some waterproof boots for any spots that might allow water to enter themThough 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

(photo courtesy of Jean-Yves Couput)

Salomon trail runners (photo courtesy of Jean-Yves Couput)

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

(photo courtesy of Petar Milošević)

(photo courtesy of Petar Milošević)

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

Who said trail runners weren't fashionable? (photo courtesy of Stacia Bennett)

(photo courtesy of Stacia Bennett)

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

 

Is it possible to get a flattering picture of yourself while running?

Believe it or not, you can run in trail runners too!

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

(photo courtesy of Michael Craigs)

Boots are much better for winter hiking (photo courtesy of Michael Craigs).

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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Comments 24

  • George Turner : Dec 5th

    I have never had any blisters with trail runners. I’m sold!

    Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Dec 5th

      Thanks for your response George! I too have never had a blister in trail runners. I’ve never rolled an ankle either!

      Reply
      • Mareli : Dec 8th

        Nice profile pic 🙂

        Reply
  • Tom Bebee : Dec 5th

    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.

    Good article.

    Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Dec 5th

      Thanks for reading Tom! I agree with, and think I touched upon, just about everything you said in my article. I actually own three pairs of footwear for hiking; my trail runners, which I use from mid spring to late fall, my mid-height boots, which I use for the colder parts of the shoulder seasons, as well as into the beginning of the winter, particularly when there isn’t a lot of snow, and my full height winter boots, which I break out once the snow is deep enough to require snowshoes. I agree there is not a one size fits all approach, and it is important to be able to choose between different options, depending on the conditions.

      Reply
  • Dan Feldman : Dec 5th

    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/

    Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Dec 5th

      Thanks for the information Dan! I am aware that there is no proven connection between wearing boots and getting blisters. I did note that for me personally, I get less blisters in trail runners, but I did not want to suggest that wearing boots always means more blisters. From my experience, it’s just a product of how tough an individuals feet are. As far as the injuries are concerned, I think the same thing could be said. It’s a product of specific individuals, rather than footwear. Thanks for sharing the data!

      Reply
  • Jerry Harp : Dec 5th

    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.

    Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Dec 5th

      Good observation about blisters. Maybe it’s genetic, but I think it’s more a matter of how tough your feet are. When I first started hiking, my feet used to get torn up in every way possible. But I kept with it, and after many miles of hiking and running, I can now say that I don’t get blisters anymore. I haven’t had one in years. Hopefully switching to trail runners will help you!

      Reply
  • Kate : Dec 7th

    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.

    Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Dec 8th

      Hey Kate! Thanks for reading and chiming in. The ankle support argument is probably the most common argument that people use to defend the advantages of boots over trail runners. I didn’t address this in the article, so I will try to do so now:
      1. I’m not sure that having strong ankle support is actually any safer than not having ankle support. This certainly does depend on things like pack weight, and ankle strength, but there is evidence to suggest that extra ankle support actually limits the mobility and functionality of the foot, rather than protecting it. This was concluded in a few different studies, including some by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
      2. It has also been concluded (as was mentioned above in Dan Feldman’s comment), that there is no evidence available, linking ankle support with a decreased rate of ankle injury. This suggests that your injury would have likely occurred regardless of your choice of footwear (i.e it was due to another factor).
      3. I have observed that the most common factor of ankle injuries (and most injuries in general) in the back country is the condition of the hiker’s ankle, regardless of their footwear. Someone who only gets out a few times a year is much more likely to roll or sprain an ankle, than someone who gets out 2 or 3 times a month like me.

      Of course, it does ultimately come down to person preference. I’m not one to tell others how to do things, so if boots work for you, more power to you 🙂

      Reply
      • Luc : Jun 24th

        Just want to throw my 2 cents in that it’s not black and white.

        I ripped apart 2 ligaments in my foot when I was younger playing basketball and never got it properly looked at, so as I got older rolling my ankle was almost a daily occurrence while working in the oil field, so much so that it didn’t even hurt anymore and I started having to wear an ankle brace. A co-worker suggested I get some boots with a higher ankle and I haven’t had an issue since. When I step on some uneven ground that used to roll my ankle the boot only lets my foot twist so far and I am able to catch myself and keep walking. I use these boots now for hiking also and would love something lighter but the support is too valuable for longer hikes.

        Reply
        • Tom Hughes : Jan 7th

          Kyle, my experience is in line with Luc’s. I have had major ankle sprains from taking stairs four at a time and missing one, jumping a hedge and landing poorly, rolling it playing volleyball when someone comes under the net and about a dozen other that only lead to minor swelling… I can roll an ankle on uneven ground. The above studies are great and all but I am a real person and not a study. I have rolled ankles walking that caused swelling and bruising. While having boots on I have also rolled ankles. The boots actually arrested the role and limited the range of motion during the roll. They do not prevent it but the limit the severity. So instead of my ankle flexing by 65* it will only flex 40*… making up the numbers but you get the point. Last year I rolled my ankle solo backpacking in Big Bend. I was going down hill and while my weight was transferring from my rear foot to my extended foot, the pinky toe of my extended right foot caught on something preventing it from planting flatly. My ankle rolled and my twisted foot bore my full weight. Fortunately my boots were laced well and the top of the boot dug into my upper shin not allowing my ankle to flex any more. Without that support my ankle would have bent further. I am assuming that further movement would have resulted in a more serious injury.

          Having said that, I am still considering trail runners with some type of ankle support.

          Reply
  • Laeth : Dec 8th

    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.

    Reply
    • Kyle O'Grady : Dec 8th

      I’ve heard a lot of cool things about these barefoot shoes, I’ll have to check them out!

      Reply
  • Stuart Taylor : Dec 8th

    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.

    Reply
  • Rick M : Dec 8th

    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.

    Reply
  • Irene S : Dec 9th

    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.

    Reply
  • Leslie : Dec 11th

    I’m with you. I switched to trail shoes long ago and have never looked back.

    Reply
  • Anne "Nubbins" Brown : Dec 11th

    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.

    Reply
  • Susan H : Dec 12th

    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!

    Reply
  • Genhacks24.com : Dec 12th

    You have a great blog here! Do you want to make some request articles
    on my blog?

    Reply
  • Andrew F : Jan 8th

    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.

    Reply
  • Vivianne : Nov 7th

    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

    Reply

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