Hiking Boots vs. Trail Runners: Which Is Right for You?

There's been a long debate over whether hiking boots or trail runners are the best footwear for hiking. Camping & Hiking Expert Daphne Graf breaks it down here.

Photo by Emma Van Sant

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Whether you’re a beginner hiker or a veteran of the hobby, there is a chance that you’ve heard the debate of whether to hike in trail runners or to hike in hiking boots/shoes. The answer: it boils down to what is most important for you personally and what you need to feel like you are hiking safely.

Trail runners and hiking shoes both have pros and cons, and each category has its fans. Some people may tell you that trail runners are the future of hiking, where others may tell you that you’re risking breaking your ankles when you hit up a backpacking trip in a pair of them. Meanwhile, with hiking boots, some say that they’re the only shoe built for every terrain, while others say that they’re outdated, heavy, and energy-wasting. All of this being said, the decision will ultimately be up to you. When making your footwear decision, take time to consider your fitness level, specific needs, and goals for your hiking experience. After all, hiking is a personal journey just as much as it is a community activity!

Making the best decision for you comes with understanding each category, weighing the pros and cons, and looking inward at what your needs are physically.

Hiking Boots

Someone stands on a trail in low Merrell hiking boots. A cloud of dust rises where their foot is.

Photo by Fidel Fernando

Hiking boots are built to last. With a tough outsole and thick lugs to grip just about everything, they thrive on rough terrain and trails and support your body as you adventure through the wilderness. When treated well and taken care of, hiking boots can last thousands of miles, which for some, is equivalent to several years of hiking. They are made of super sturdy materials, like leather uppers and rubber soles, and provide you year-round traction in any environment. Hiking boots are built for the elements, capable of trudging through mud, snow, dirt, and more while keeping your feet dry and warm. They also tend to provide significant ankle support and arch support for those needing it.

Trail Runners

A man stands on a rock sitting on a peak that overlooks a wide valley filled with a lake. He's in an alpine environment with rocky terrain and low-lying plant life. He wears trail runners.

Always find yourself hiking ahead of the pack? Love to be light on your feet and hike at a quicker pace? Then train runners might be the shoe for you. Now adopted as the best shoe for long-distance backpackers and thru-hikers, trail runners bring together the comfort and breathability of a sneaker with the grip and support of a hiking shoe. Designed to have increased grip on the fly, trail runners thrive with those who like to hike fast or hit the pavement for a long run. Their lightweight material gives your feet the freedom and flexibility to walk long, hard, miles.

Pros and Cons of Hiking Boots

Pros

  • Foot and Ankle Support: The biggest pro that sets hiking boots apart from the rest is the foot and ankle support from the stiffness of the sole. The thick, wide soles on hiking boots give your feet and ankles stability to keep you upright on rough terrain. This can help if you are carrying heavy gear in your pack or are a beginner hiker looking to get a better feel for hiking as a sport.
  • Durability: As said previously, hiking boots, like the Merrell Moab, were made to last thousands of miles. They’ll also provide you excellent traction in destinations of all kinds.
  • Waterproofing: Hiking boots are predominantly designed to keep water and snow outside of your boot while you hike. This is ideal for river crossings and hiking in the fall and the winter.

Cons

  • Weight: Hiking boots are heavy, and this will directly impact your energy while you hike. It is widely known that the stiffness of boots “reduces the efficiency of your body’s stretch reflex on hitting the ground”, causing you to expel more energy with each step. If you’re on a long-distance hike, the last thing you want is to have more forces taking your energy away from you.
  • Climate: Wearing bulky hiking boots in the summer can cause your feet to sweat and swell without proper ventilation, putting you at risk for blisters and hot spots on your toes and heel.
  • Break-in period: Hiking boots require a break-in period, and usually it can be a little uncomfortable. When you first get your boots, it is recommended to wear them around the house, on small walks through your neighborhood, or to the grocery store before you take them out for a hike. If you try to rush the break-in period, you may find yourself in a world of pain out on the hiking trail.
A group of backpackers walk in a line down a dirt trail in the middle of a meadow.

Photo by Austin Ban

Pros and Cons of Trail Runners

Pros

  • Ventilation: Trail runners are breathable and are very quick to dry. You won’t have to worry about building up sweat or your shoes staying wet if you find yourself in a rainstorm or crossing a stream.
  • Lightweight: As stated previously, hiking boots are heavy and can impact your energy over the course of your hike. Trail running shoes give you a lightweight option to keep you quick on your feet and floating down the trail, which is why these shoes are a top choice among most long-distance hikers. Putting in long miles feels a lot easier when you don’t have a heavy shoe weighing you down.
  • Comfort: With trail runners being more compact and offering a unique toe drop, your feet won’t feel as restricted as they would be in a hiking boot, giving you a better range of motion and more flexibility. Trail runners, like the Altra Lone Peak, traditionally also have a bigger toe box to allow more room for swelling as you put in more miles.
  • No break-in period: You can essentially take your trail runners straight from the box to the trailhead.

Cons

  • The shoe’s lifetime: Trail runners need to be replaced much more frequently than a traditional hiking boot, about every 500-600 miles. This can start to get expensive if you hike far and often.
  • Support: Trail runners do not provide as much ankle and foot support as hiking boots, especially on uneven terrain. The lightweight material means that you’ll feel every rock and root. The low-cut build of trail runners also cannot shield your ankles from the scratches and abrasions caused by the elements on trail. With trail runners typically being zero drop shoes, there may be a slight adjustment and discomfort to your calves and achilles as you get used to your feet being closer to the ground.
  • Weather: Trail runners are an excellent warm-weather shoe, but won’t hold up to the rigors of winter as a hiking boot would.
A closeup of a pair of trail runners that are coated in dirt and slightly peeling near the toes.

Photo by Time Foster

Personal Factors to Consider

Where/when do you typically hike?

Choosing the right type of hiking footwear is very dependent on the climate and the conditions in which you hike. If you’re hiking rugged terrain and tend to do most of your adventures in snow or cooler weather, you may want to opt for a sturdier hiking boot and a comfortable midsole or waterproof footwear to keep your feet safe from the elements. On the other hand, if you find yourself venturing in warmer conditions or on spring and summer hikes, a pair of lightweight trail runners may be a better option for you to keep your feet from sweating too much and developing blisters.

Protection

If you are new to hiking or already know that your feet and ankles require more protection, the sturdy rubber base and durable upper support of a thick hiking shoe will provide you the protection you need until you get into the rhythm of hiking and backpacking. Having the extra support of a hiking boot might be what you need to take you to the next level or to build your comfort with the hobby!

Cost

With trail running shoes needing to be replaced more frequently, the cost can start to stack up if you plan to hike more often or farther. Hiking boots can typically be found at a pretty affordable price and last a lot longer than trail runners do. If you’re wanting to save a penny, consider first investing in a hiking boot. If you find yourself on trail more and wanting a lightweight, breathable option, then consider the switch or addition of a trail runner.

Break-in period

Are you willing to dedicate yourself to truly breaking in your hiking boot? If you are planning on doing a thru-hike or don’t like to wait for your footwear to be broken in before hitting the trails, you may want to consider a trail runner. With little to no break-in period, trail runners are excellent for those on the go who want nothing to stop them from hitting trail when they want to.

The Bottom Line

The author sits and we see her legs outstretched before an expansive view of the trail, a meadow, and hills in the distance. The sky is blue with white fluffy clouds.

On the Colorado Trail in her trail runners. Photo by Daphne Graf

At the end of the day, choosing between a trail runner or a hiking boot truly depends on your body and your own needs. Only you know what’s best for you, and sometimes, it might not be “what” shoe to use, but “when” to use the right shoe. Both trail runners and hiking boots are a great addition to your adventure collection as each brings its own unique benefits.

As an avid adventurer, I find myself switching between my trail runners and my boots based on the climate and the activity. Sometimes it’s nice to enjoy the best of both worlds!

If you’re curious to learn more about the difference between a trail running shoe and a hiking boot, connect with a dedicated Camping & Hiking Expert today! We’ve done all the hard research to make this step (no pun intended) easy for you.

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Written By
I was raised on the road by free-spirited parents who taught me that I should be barefoot as much as possible and play in nature whenever I can. Fast forward to today and I've backpacked over 1000 miles with many more to go. ​ Camping is in my blood and I'll never stop chasing the wilderness! I've s...

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