Hiking Footwear 101: Trail Runners or Boots?

Hiking Footwear: A close-up of trail runners in a water stream

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As an ultralight hiker, one of the most crucial decisions you’ll encounter is the choice of the right hiking footwear. Your feet, being your most trusted companions on the trail, deserve nothing less than the best in terms of protection and comfort.

In this post, we’ll help you navigate the world of hiking footwear by comparing two popular options: trail runners and hiking boots.

We’ll explore the qualities, advantages, and disadvantages of each, ensuring that by the end, you’ll have a clearer picture of which type of footwear suits your outdoor adventures best.

Trail Runners: Pros & Cons

Trail running shoes are the agile sprinters of the hiking world. Their history dates back to when Nike introduced the world’s first-ever trail running shoe in 1984.

Trail Runners have a lot to offer, but they come with their own set of pros and cons. Let’s take a closer look:

Trail Runners – Pros:

  • Lightweight Construction: Trail running shoes are designed to be feather-light, allowing you to move quickly and efficiently on the trail. If you’re all about covering ground at a brisk pace, these shoes are your best friends.
  • Comfort During Long-Distance Adventures: Trail running shoes are purpose-built for running, making them incredibly comfortable for long-distance hiking.
  • Adapted to Different Surfaces: These shoes are versatile and can handle a variety of surfaces, from rocky terrain to gravel, dirt, mud, and more.
  • Short Break-In Period: Unlike their heavier counterparts, trail runners require less time to break in. This means you don’t have to worry about foot pain.
  • Breathability: Featuring mesh uppers, trail running shoes keep your feet cool and ventilated, reducing the risk of overheating and blisters.

Trail Runners – Cons:

  • Less Traction Than Hiking Boots: While trail running shoes offer decent traction, they can’t match the grip of hiking boots.
  • Less Protection From Sharp Objects: Despite the inclusion of rock plates and reinforced uppers, trail running shoes can’t provide the same level of protection as hiking boots.
  • Shorter Lifespan: Due to their lightweight and minimalist design, trail runners have a shorter lifespan, typically lasting between 300-500 miles for most hikers. In comparison, hiking boots can endure up to 1,000 miles of wear and tear.

Hiking Boots: Pros & Cons

Hiking Footwear: A close-up of a worn pair of hiking boots in the desert

Hiking boots, known as reliable companions, are designed for handling tough terrain. The development of modern hiking boots started in the early 20th century1.

Let’s delve into what makes hiking boots a steadfast choice:

Hiking Boots – Pros:

  • Greater Protection: Hiking boots are constructed with durable leather or synthetic leather uppers, dense rubber outsoles, and additional protective reinforcements. They offer enhanced foot protection against rocky terrain.
  • Better Traction: Featuring larger lugs and dense rubber soles, hiking boots provide superior traction on slippery, rocky, muddy, or unstable surfaces.
  • Longer Lifespan and Durability: The quality materials used in hiking boots make them highly durable. These shoes are built to last, enduring up to 1,000 miles of hiking adventures.

Hiking Boots – Cons:

  • Generally Heavier: Compared to their lightweight counterparts, hiking boots tend to be 3-4x heavier. Carrying this extra weight on your feet can lead to fatigue over time.
  • Less Flexibility and Breathability: Due to their sturdy uppers and rigid rubber outsoles, hiking boots are less flexible and breathable than trail running shoes.
  • Longer Break-In Period: Hiking boots are stiffer and require a longer break-in period compared to trail running shoes. It’s essential to give your feet time to adapt to their robust construction.

Hiking Footwear: What’s Right For Me?

Hiking Footwear: A close-up of a brand new pair of trail runners

With an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of modern hiking footwear, how do you decide between them? Here are 4 key questions to ask yourself:

  1. How fast do you hike? Trail running shoes are lighter and designed for faster-paced movement, ideal for those who want to cover ground quickly. Hiking boots encourage a steadier, slower pace.
  2. How far will you be hiking? If you plan to cover extensive distances (500+ miles), durable hiking boots may be your best bet. They are built to withstand more miles compared to trail running shoes.
  3. How long will you be on your feet each day? Trail running shoes provide cushioned support, ensuring comfort during extended hikes or runs. If you anticipate spending a lot of time on your feet, their plush insoles can be advantageous.
  4. What are the weather conditions? In winter conditions with snow, ice, or sleet, hiking boots or shoes are preferred. While some trail running shoes offer winter options, hiking footwear provides better insulation.

Thus, if you plan to hike long long days in a relatively short time-span, opt for trail runners. If you expect harsh conditions or take on a long thru-hike, go for lightweight hiking boots.

If you’re unsure whether to go for regular or waterproof trail runners, take a look at our post on selecting waterproof trail runners. We’ll help you understand why and when you might want to use them.

Hiking Footwear: Final Thoughts

The choice between trail running shoes and hiking boots ultimately depends on your specific needs, preferences, and the terrain you’ll face.

Trail runners excel in terms of speed, agility, and versatility on well-maintained trails, making them a great choice for 95% of outdoor adventures.

Hiking boots, with their durability and superior traction, shine in challenging conditions and rough terrains.

Whether your preferred hiking footwear is trail runners or hiking boots, be sure to prioritize comfort, safety, and performance on the trail.

It’s important to note that both options have evolved significantly over the past decade, with the use of lighter and more durable materials, ensuring there’s a suitable option for every trail you’ll encounter.

Looking for ultralight trail runners?

Check out our TOP 5 guides to find the best ultralight options for men and women. Or check out the waterproof options available for men and women.


Do trail runners need to be waterproof?

No, trail runners do not necessarily need to be waterproof. While waterproof trail runners can be beneficial in wet conditions, non-waterproof options are often preferred for breathability and comfort during most activities. The choice depends on the specific terrain and weather you’ll encounter during your hike.

Should trail runners be tight or loose?

Trail runners should generally fit snugly but not too tight. A secure fit prevents foot movement inside the shoe, reducing the risk of blisters and injuries. However, they shouldn’t be so tight that they restrict blood flow or cause discomfort. Finding the right balance between snugness and comfort is essential for a great trail running experience.

  1. Hiking Boot – Wikipedia ↩︎
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