Hiking Boots vs Trail Runners (The Endless Dilemma)

I have a strong affinity for hiking boots. Nonetheless, in the past year, I’ve embraced trail runners during some of my outdoor adventures, and I’ve come to appreciate their widespread popularity.

They not only offer a lightweight option but also boast remarkable comfort and minimal break-in requirements.

However, it’s essential to recognize that traditional hiking boots serve a specific purpose and have their own niche. Therefore, one should not disregard them when in the market for new hiking footwear.

In this discussion, I will delve into the primary characteristics and distinctions between both options, as well as the factors to weigh when contemplating the merits and drawbacks of hiking boots versus trail running shoes.

Keep these considerations in mind when determining the most suitable choice for your hiking requirements.

Quick Summary 

  • Hiking boots offer excellent ankle support, superior traction, and waterproof capabilities. They are ideal for challenging terrains and colder, wetter conditions, providing durability and protection.
  • Trail runners are designed for agility and breathability. They are well-suited for shorter, less demanding hikes in warmer climates, offering flexibility and a quick break-in period.
  • When choosing between hiking boots and trail runners, factors such as terrain type, hike duration, weather conditions, and personal comfort preferences play a crucial role in determining the most suitable option for individual hikers.

Hiking Boots vs Trail Runners (Side-by-Side Comparison)

hiking boots or trail runners

After completing many types of hikes in both types of footwear, here’s my list of the top differences between trail runners vs. hiking boots. 

FeatureHiking BootsTrail Runners
Ankle SupportProvide excellent ankle support, ideal for treacherous terrains like mountains or steep rocks.Offer less or no ankle support, as they are low-cut like sneakers.
TractionExcellent traction, especially on wet or slippery surfaces and loose gravel, due to deep tread.Generally less traction than boots, though some have cleat-like treads for muddy areas.
WeightTypically weigh around 3 pounds or more, can be cumbersome over long distances.Weigh about 1.5 pounds, lighter due to synthetic materials like mesh uppers and nylon.
WaterproofingOften have a waterproof membrane, suitable for wet conditions and winter hikes.Usually not waterproof; mesh uppers and thin materials allow water in.
ComfortRequire breaking in, can feel restrictive due to stiffness.More comfortable due to being lightweight and flexible, with extra cushioning.
DurabilitySturdy and durable, especially on challenging terrain.Less durable, lighter materials more prone to damage on rough terrain.
BreathabilityLess breathable, can cause feet to sweat in hot weather.Highly breathable and quick-drying, ideal for warm weather.
StabilityProvide excellent stability and support on rocky and abrasive terrain.Sufficient for well-maintained trails but may lack support for technical areas.
WarmthOffer great insulation and protection in cold weather.Minimal insulation, not ideal for cold conditions without additional layers.
Drying SpeedSlow to dry, can take days, not ideal for multi-day hikes without multiple pairs.Dry quickly, especially in the sun, suitable for hikes involving water crossings.

Ankle Support 

Hiking shoes and boots stand out for their substantial ankle support, making them an unbeatable choice for anyone in need of solid ankle stability.

When it comes to navigating challenging terrains like mountains or steep rocks, high-top hiking boots are essential as they offer outstanding ankle protection.

Regarding trail runners, they resemble sneakers with their low-cut design, providing significantly less ankle support. From my personal experience, using trail runners on uneven ground doesn’t feel as safe as when I’m in my hiking shoes.

It’s not that trail runners are more likely to cause injuries compared to hiking boots. But for those prone to weak ankles or frequent rolling, this lack of support is an important consideration.

Traction 

hiking boots and trail runners traction (tread)

Hiking boots grip well, even on wet or gravelly surfaces thanks to their deep-grooved soles. Their sturdy soles prevent slipping.

Trail shoes may not always offer the same grip, though some have special soles for better traction in mud.

Weight 

Hiking boots’ major drawback is their weight, which can tire your feet and cause leg aches if you’re not accustomed to walking long distances with such heft.

For those concerned about weight, our list of the best featherweight hiking boots offers a detailed analysis and comparison of top options.

It’s also important to factor in the additional weight these boots add to your gear during backpacking trips. Typical leather hiking boots weigh around 3 pounds or more.

When I backpack far from home, I usually travel with just one carry-on. In these situations, the extra weight of my hiking boots is something I’d rather not deal with.

Hiking shoes are notably lightweight, a feature that makes them a popular choice. Trail runners typically weigh around 1.5 pounds, with ultralight versions being even lighter.

The reduced weight of hiking shoes comes from their construction using light synthetic materials like mesh uppers and durable nylon. While some hiking boots also use synthetic materials, many top-quality pairs are leather, increasing their weight.

This weight difference is significant for packing purposes. Many of my friends now prefer trail runners for backpacking, precisely because they favor lighter loads.

Read More: How Much Does A Pair Of Hiking Boots Weigh

Waterproofing 

hiking boots and trail running shoes waterproofing comparison

Hiking boots, with their waterproof membrane, are great for keeping feet dry in wet conditions. I always choose water-resistant hiking boots over trail runners for winter hiking.

Based on my experience, hiking shoes offer superior protection in snowy, sub-zero conditions. Think about it: you wouldn’t wear regular running shoes in heavy snow, as they’d leave your feet cold and wet.

Similarly, hiking shoes can’t provide more protection against the elements than regular hiking boots.

Hiking shoes are also effective at keeping your feet warm, an essential feature for trail adventures.

Regarding trail runners, their mesh uppers and thinner materials lack waterproofing. Wearing them in snow or water will inevitably lead to wet, cold feet, which makes for an uncomfortable hiking experience, as I’ve learned firsthand.

If you’re set on using trail runners for winter hikes, there are ways to make them more waterproof and keep your feet warm and dry. Wear merino wool socks, add gore-tex socks over them, and top it off with waterproof gaiters.

Comfort 

Hiking boots require some effort to break in, but once done, they become comfortable and reliable footwear that won’t cause foot pain.

Some hikers, however, find hiking boots too stiff and restrictive, lacking the desired flexibility.

For many, trail running shoes are more comfortable due to their lightweight and flexible nature. They often come with extra cushioning, providing immediate comfort.

As previously mentioned, trail runners don’t need breaking in, making them a preferred choice for those who lack the patience for a lengthy break-in process.

Trail runners also offer a greater range of ankle movement and a more natural walking experience, potentially reducing the risk of ankle injuries in some situations.

Their design allows for better ground feel, a reason many rock climbers favor them for enhanced rock sensation.

Durability 

Because they are sturdy, hiking boots perform better on challenging terrain. Even sharp rocks shouldn’t destroy your hiking boots because leather doesn’t tend to split or break as quickly as cotton does.

When I first started hiking, I had a pair of hiking shoes that lasted me many years, and the tread wore out long before the boot’s upper body did.  

A trail running shoe will always have less durability than a sturdy hiking boot. The lighter-weight materials will rip more easily on jagged rocks or other types of rough terrain. With that in mind, you’ll likely have to replace them sooner vs a good pair of boots. 

Breathability 

hiking boots vs trail running shoes breathability

Hiking boots are less breathable than lightweight trail runners, with waterproof hiking shoes being particularly non-breathable. In hot weather, some people experience excessive sweating in boots.

Contrary to popular belief, boots aren’t always necessary for dry feet. In summer, I find my feet dry quickly in hiking shoes, whereas boots can feel too warm and cause my feet to overheat.

Trail shoes offer excellent breathability, ideal for warm weather. Their quick-drying nature also reduces the likelihood of blisters from moisture and sweat.

Even during river crossings, trail shoes dry out swiftly, unlike heavier boots which take much longer to dry.

Stability 

As mentioned, boots offer excellent stability on rocky trails or abrasive terrain. They offer more support to certain areas of your feet than a trail running shoe can offer. The torsional rigidity of a boot is unmatched by any other type of hiking shoe.

If you’re hiking off the trail somewhere in dangerous conditions, you’ll want this stiff sole to help keep you stable and less likely to suffer from ankle sprains or other injuries. 

Although trail runners generally provide you with enough support and stability for walking well-maintained trails or less technical areas, some hikers find that most trail runners don’t provide the right amount of support that they need. 

If you continuously hike in footwear that doesn’t give you sufficient support, you risk shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and even Achilles tendonitis. For this reason, you should choose durable trail runners with good hiking insoles and cushioning to absorb shock well. 

Warmth 

hiking boot vs trail runner shoe warmth comparison

I can’t stress enough that one of the main benefits of wearing boots is their warmth, especially for a long hike in cold weather. This type of hiking shoe definitely insulates your foot well and protects your toes from freezing temperatures.

A trail runner cannot do that as well, and you must add extra waterproof layers to get them to hold heat. 

Trail runners typically have almost no insulation and do not hold heat well. Therefore, if you’re looking for a hiking shoe that holds warmth, they will not make the best option.

Snow and water will get into the top of your trail runner and can cause your feet to freeze if you’re not wearing the right socks. 

How Fast They Dry 

Hiking boots are slow to dry, often taking up to three days to fully air out if they get very wet. Due to my impatience with long drying times, I’ve purchased a boot dryer.

This slow drying time is an important consideration for multi-day hikes, where packing multiple pairs might be necessary, adding to the weight you carry.

In contrast, lightweight trail runners dry much faster, particularly in sunny conditions. If you need hiking footwear that wicks away sweat rapidly or doesn’t stay damp after crossing a stream, trail runners might be the better choice.

Read More: How to Dry Wet Boots for Hiking

How to Decide Between Hiking Boots and Trail Runners 

After weighing the pros and cons of both hiking footwear types, here are additional factors to help choose between running shoes and boots for hiking.

Terrain: For rugged, rocky, steep terrains, or paths with loose gravel, boots are the better choice. Trail runners are suitable for smoother trails, like well-maintained forest paths or compact dirt.

Weight: Hiking and backpacking boots are heavier, and carrying them can be cumbersome. For situations where you’ll carry your shoes, lighter trail runners are advisable.

Climate: In winter or freezing temperatures, opt for heavy, waterproof boots. Most non-boot hiking shoes are adequate for three-season hiking.

Experience: For beginners, running shoes are generally sufficient for most trail conditions. They’re particularly suitable for less technical hikes and feel similar to regular running shoes.

Distance: Consider your hiking distance over days, months, or years. Trail runners usually need replacing every 300 to 500 miles, whereas hiking boots can last up to 1000 miles.

Related Articles:

Are Trail Running Shoes Good For Hiking? 

Trail running shoes are suitable for hiking if you aren’t hiking in extreme conditions, doing off-trail hiking, or tackling challenging trails. The average pair works well for moderate thru-hikes and hikes in spring, summer, or fall. 

FAQs

Can You Use a Trail Running Shoe for Walking?

Yes, you can easily wear a trail running shoe for everyday walking or day-to-day activities. These shoes are in fashion and as comfortable as a regular running shoe but just have rubber soles that are slighter thicker and provide a bit more traction. 

Are Trail Running Shoes the Same as Hiking Shoes?

The terms trail running shoes and hiking shoes are often used interchangeably. However, trail running shoes refer to a specific lightweight shoe that looks like regular sneakers while hiking shoes are low-cut hiking boots that don’t wrap above the ankle.

Jennifer Strom

Jennifer Strom

Jennifer Strom has been a writer for over 20 years and an outdoor and hiking enthusiast for most of her life. After spending much of her career in the corporate world, she decided to freelance to spend more time with her family and explore new places. You will find her always looking forward to her next weekend adventure and writing guides that help others make the most of their own hikes and time outdoors.
E-mail: [email protected]

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