Hiking Boots or Trail Runners?

Newbie hikers or those looking to replace an older pair of hiking boots often ask the question: Do I have to buy a pair of burly boots to hike in the woods or go backpacking? Of course not. After all, there are people who thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in their bare feet.

If you asked the boot question, though, you were probably wondering: Would a pair of trail runners be an acceptable alternative—or an even better choice than a pair of heavy hiking boots? So how do you decide between boots and shoes? The simple answer is that both hiking boots and trail runners will get you out on the trail, but where, when, and how you hike will affect your choice.

Some people prefer trail runners because they are light-weight, can be comfortable right out of the box, and have a wide range of designs and colours.

But hiking boots still have a lot to offer.

Some questions to ask when choosing between boots and trail runners:

  1. New to hiking? Keeping yourself upright on trails while wearing a pack takes a while to master. The wide, thick soles on hiking boots will provide a stable base for every footfall.
  2. What’s the terrain on your trail? Sketchy trails require beefier boots for both stability and the ability to stand up to wear and tear. And their stronger soles can handle abuse from rocks and roots, so your feet don’t have to. If it’s a beautiful, meandering forest trail, though, light and lean footwear will work fine. If it’s a paved nature trail, even a pair of city sneakers can handle it. If you expect to hike in cold, wet conditions, you might prefer the warmth and protection of a sturdy boot with a waterproof membrane, but you can find waterproof trail-running shoes as well.
  3. What’s your body type? You likely already have a sense of whether your body requires more support from your footwear in general. If it does, and you plan to add a heavy pack to your overall weight, a solid, stable hiking boot may be your best choice. If you haven’t had any previous issues with the strength and stability of your legs and joints and you’re not planning to carry a significantly heavy load, you’re probably a good trail-runner candidate.
  4. How fast will you be going? Is it a slow and steady sojourn or a speed hike? Lightweight trail runners make it easier to maintain a brisk pace. That’s why many thru-hikers wear them because they need to knock off huge chunks of miles, day after day. Of course, on a trail as long as the AT they’ll go through several pairs of trail runners.

Comparing Traction

Hiking boots generally have thick lugs to bite into the soil and rubber that grips well on a variety of surfaces. Light trail runners offer minimal grip, but rugged and off-trail styles offer similar traction to hiking shoes. Some trail runners also feature a sticky rubber compound for enhanced grip on wet rocks and logs.

Be aware that many trail runners are actually designed to grip on the fly and they won’t have the same level of traction at a slower hiking pace. The physics change when you apply less force on each stride.

How to choose between Hiking Boots and Trail Runners

Still not sure? Here’s a quick comparison list to help you choose between hiking boots and trail runners: 

Hiking Boot pros and cons:

  • stability
  • durability
  • foot and ankle protection
  • to get through mud, snow, and water
  • warmer for cold weather hikes
  • good all-around traction
  • Heavier and bulkier
  • Require break-in period

Trail Runners pros and cons:

  • Breathability, so feet stay drier
  • little or no break-in period
  • Lightweight for a fast pace, long miles
  • Versatile for multiple uses
  • Cooler for hot-weather hikes
  • A range of traction options
  • Less supportive
  • Will need replacing more often

Maybe It’s Not an Either/Or Question

With literally hundreds of hiking boots, as well as hundreds of trail-running shoes to choose from, you’ll find a continuum of choices in each category. If you want a light, breathable option that offers excellent stability and ankle protection, you can get some lightweight day-hiking boots with mesh uppers. Or you could opt for high-top, off-trail-style trail runners.  It’s really about knowing yourself, and the terrain of the trails you will be hiking so that you can choose the best footwear for your specific needs.