Trail running shoes are sleek and athletic options for people who want comfort, flexibility, and agility over support and durability.
Unlike hiking boots and hiking shoes, trail runners are designed to shave off as much weight as possible to make your movements more snappy, especially off-trail.
As time has gone on, trail runners have had their uses adapted to make them more versatile and appealing for other types of outdoor activities, such as thru-hiking.
That said, are trail running shoes really able to keep up with the demands that most hikes require? Let’s take a look down below and do a little more research into whether or not trail runners are right for your next adventure.
What Are Trail Running Shoes?
Trail running shoes are a style of footwear made to allow for fast and light hiking trips. In order to give maximum speed and flexibility, trail runners are built with just enough protection, traction, and support to make your movements nimble without slowing you down.
Unlike hiking boots and hiking shoes, trail running shoes sacrifice a lot of their padding in order to increase their weight savings.
Many trail runners are also made with thinner versions of the materials you’d typically find on other hiking footwear, such as leather and waterproof membranes. However, to make up for that, the underfoot protection tends to be denser with a stiffer midsole.
Trail running shoes also make use of more mesh than regular footwear. The focus on a mesh-heavy and thin design makes the shoes more breathable, while also allowing them to shed water and dry more quickly.
Can You Hike in Trail Running Shoes?
You can hike in trail running shoes, but it’s important to remember that trail runners weren’t designed to provide the same level of ruggedness that hiking boots and hiking shoes do.
For example, while trail running shoes tend to have adhesive and sticky rubber outsoles, which are made to handle the debris and slippery surfaces of off-trail runs, they’re meant to grip better when you’re moving at a fast pace .
This means that unlike hiking shoes and hiking boots, which have tread patterns and lugs best suited for gripping into the mud and loose dirt at slower hiking speeds, trail runners almost require you to be jogging or running through your hike.
Another factor to consider is the weight of the trail running shoe you’ll be using. The lighter your trail runner is, the less durability, protection, stability, and support you’ll have.
However, the opposite applies if your shoe is heavier. If your hiking trail is of a certain difficulty, you might find that certain types of running shoes will make things more uncomfortable.
Are Trail Runners Comfortable?
Trail runners are very comfortable.
In fact, many travelers sometimes choose a trail running shoe over a traditional hiking boot or hiking shoe due to its lightweight design, which gives a lot in terms of flexibility and agility.
The slim designs of trail shoes take away most of the padding you’d have in other footwear, but the cushioning is enough to cradle your feet up to many miles before feeling discomfort.
Since a trail shoe is made for nimbleness, the uppers shape the movements of your feet, while having just enough stiffness in the midsole to support the ankle and prevent rolling .
What Are the Best Trail Runners?
Altra Lone Peak 7
The Altra Lone Peak 7s are a pair of zero-drop lightweight trail runners, weighing in at 1lb. 6oz. per pair.
The Lone Peaks have uppers made entirely of quick-drying mesh, which makes them perfect for shedding water in wet weather.
The Altra Lone Peak 7 also comes with a 5mm contouring footbed, rock plate, and Altra Ego foam midsole, which are very soft, protective, and responsive on the underfoot.
The flexibility, combined with the MaxTrac outsole, which has good traction and omnidirectional lug patterns, makes this an ideal summer hiking shoe on rugged terrain.
Brooks Cascadia 16
The Brooks Cascadia 16 is another high-performant lightweight footwear, sitting around 1lb. 3.1oz. per pair, which has a very comfortable synthetic lining and an adaptable midsole for rocky terrain.
Unlike most trail running shoes, which sacrifice some level of protection for less weight, the Brooks Cascadia 16 has a unique Ballistic Rock Shield.
This shield protects against the rocks and other debris you might kick up while running on a trail. The DNA LOFT midsole is also made with a 2mm thick layer of foam, making the Cascadia 20% lighter than other models.
These trail runners manage to pack in some useful features without an increase in their overall weight.
Hoka Speedgoat 5
The Hoka Speedgoat 5s are waterproof trail running shoes, and probably some of the best products on the market.
What sets the Speedgoat 5 apart from other running shoes, is that they’re made with both a Gore-Tex waterproof membrane and a Vibram Megagrip outsole, which are two of the most high-quality hiking accessories.
The double-layer jacquard mesh is extremely durable and breathable, allowing your feet to stay cool in hotter conditions. Overall, the Speedgoat 5 is an all-terrain hiking shoe that performs well in areas of changing elevation and varied terrain.
That said, if you’re looking for a trail runner that holds up well on longer runs and even some technical trails, the Speedgoat 5 might be the best choice.
Advantages of Using Trail Running Shoes
Unlike hiking boots and hiking shoes, which tend to weigh around 2lbs. or more, trail running shoes usually max out at no more than 1.5lbs per pair.
As a result, trail runners help you hike and run for many miles due to how much bulk they shave off. The lightweight design also saves you from the pulling pressure you might feel while hauling around a heavy boot or overly padded shoe.
The uppers of trail runners are made to be as comfortable and unrestrictive to your movements as possible.
As such, the midsoles are also designed to be a lot less stiff than what you might encounter in other footwear.
This allows the shoe to easily bend with your foot when navigating uneven terrain.
Trail runners are commonly made with mesh uppers to keep cool air flowing through the shoes. The mesh layers also allow sweat and water from outside the shoe to escape.
Since most trail runners are made with mesh layers, the shoes that are designed with GTX membranes don’t heat up as quickly in hot conditions.
Disadvantages of Using Trail Running Shoes
Since trail runners aren’t as thick as hiking boots, they sacrifice a lot of the cushioning and shock absorption features that other footwear has.
While some trail runners do have rock plates to shield you from debris, sometimes they fall short of a rugged leather upper.
Trail running shoes don’t usually have padded ankle collars like hiking boots and hiking shoes, typically because they’re low cut and fall below the ankle line. This means that when hiking, your running shoes may not do as well at giving you stability or preventing ankle rolling.
The mesh uppers that most trail runners are made with are sturdy enough to tackle most moderate hiking trails. However, since they have small openings for ventilation, this also makes them prone to getting snagged on stray trail debris.
It may not happen immediately, but it can eventually lower the shoes’ lifespan.
Related Article: Can You Wear Trail Running Shoes on Road
Do We Recommend Trail Runners for Hiking?
Everything considered, yes, we recommend trail runners for hiking. However, we wouldn’t recommend them for hiking on technical terrain due to their ultralight designs. That said, the weight and flexibility of trail runners is what makes them so useful.
They allow you to be nimble and agile in ways that hiking shoes and hiking boots don’t allow.
Even though they don’t offer much protection and leave your feet vulnerable to various hazards, if you’re traveling light or want to get the most distance out of your run or thru-hike, trail runners are perfect.
All in all, trail runners come in many different styles, but if you’re still curious about other shoes beyond this article, then take a look here to see what we’ve rated as the best trail runners for 2023.