Trail Shoes or Hiking Boots?

When hiking or backpacking you need hiking boots, right? Because, as we all know, hikers need extra ankle support, water protection, and foot protection from the tough terrain. Plus, it helps to have the extra weight on your foot when you need to kick a bear in the face.

We aren’t buying it. From the runner’s perspective, hiking boots are heavy and hot! Many outdoor enthusiasts, including thru-hikers, are switching to wearing trail running shoes instead of a traditional boot for their outdoor pursuits. The tread on trail running shoes provides grip on rock and dirt surfaces, but without the extra 2-3 lbs of a boot. We were curious about the difference ourselves, so our very own Fast Breaker Varina put both boots and trail running shoes to the test!

Varina’s been rehabbing a messed-up ankle for the past few months, so she was very curious what the differences would be between boots and runnings shoes while hiking, especially regarding ankle support. To make a proper judgement, Varina hiked short hikes (3-4 miles) to longer day hikes (up to 18 miles), in cold weather, in rain storms, in sunshine, and up large mountains! Here are her thoughts on hiking in trail running shoes:

Varina backpacking on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park, wearing trail shoes.

Varina backpacking on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park, wearing trail shoes.

Varina and her husband, Andrew, hiking on the snowy peaks of Colorado, wearing hiking boots.

Varina and her husband, Andrew, hiking on the snowy peaks of Colorado, wearing hiking boots.

Weight

It’s probably an obvious observation, but hiking boots are much heavier than trail running shoes! I was using a lower ankle boot, and I still felt like they were bricks on my feet. Ok, that might be an exaggeration, but trail shoes are definitely 1-3 lbs lighter. I can’t say I necessarily hiked faster in the trail shoes than the boots, but I did feel lighter on my feet and able to go much further. I hiked 14+ miles in both shoes, and felt better in my trail running shoes. It could have been due to the fit of that specific boot or not. Who knows?

Breathable

Trail shoes definitely breathe better than boots. In the south’s summer heat, my feet sweat! Thick boots, no matter how broken in they are, can rub blisters on feet because water from sweat sloshes around inside the boot causing friction. I found that trail shoes allowed moisture to wick outside of the shoes, allowing my feet to dry out.

Waterproof

Trail shoes are not waterproof. So if you need a shoe to get you through snow or creek crossings with low water levels, then boots are for you! The downside is that waterproof boots keep the water out and in. If a downpour hits, you are going to get soaked. Boots become heavier when wet and they take a long time to dry. Trail shoes, on the other hand, drain the water and dry out quickly. Personally, I wear my boots when hiking through snow in Colorado, but when I'm in the southeast, I prefer to wear trail shoes. When there are creeks or puddles, I embrace the water and splash my way through! (I do wear sweat wicking socks which help.)

Ankle Support

The reason I tried out boots in the first place was to find more ankle support as I recovered from an injury. Having a weak ankle, I knew hiking on uneven trails was taking a risk. I found that the boots provided a little extra support and allowed me to enjoy the outdoors as I was healing. As my ankle grew stronger, I began taking short hikes in the running shoes progressing the miles each week. With time, I was able to switch over to only using the lighter trail shoes.

For anyone worried about ankle support, I suggest, first off, doing regular ankle exercises (like calf raises with your heel in line with your leg) to strengthen your ankles. Stretching and strengthening will protect your ankles more than any boot. Second, try trail running shoes on short, less technical hikes before taking on 8-12 miles up a technical mountain.

Protection

A thick soled boot is going to offer a firmer surface and more protection from sharp rocks than a trail shoe. But many trail shoes include rock plates in the forefoot to protect your foot. While wearing my boots, I felt like I could walk over anything and be fine. The trail shoes I hiked in did not have a rock plate, but I did not have any issues.  


So if I have convinced you to try out trail running shoes, here are a few pro-tips to get you started: One, go to Fast Break Athletics (it’s on Cherokee Boulevard). They know everything. Two, ask about rock plates and different levels of cushion. There are many different types and styles of trail running shoes, so find one that fits the kinds of terrain you walk on. Three, make sure your shoes have plenty of space in the toe box. With all the ups and downs a trail brings, you need room for your feet to swell and move around some.

Trail running shoes are not for everyone, since every hiker’s preferences and terrain vary. But if you think that a lighter weight, breathable trail shoe is for you, give them a try!