When are hiking boots better than trail runners?

FAQ Hiking Boots vs Trail Runners

Trail runners are all the rage in the hiking and backpacking community, but there are times when hiking boots really are better than trail runners. If you’re on the fence about whether to switch to trail runners or use them, take the time to figure out what works best for you and what the conditions you hike in require. For example. I wear trail runners some of the time and hiking boots some of the time, depending on what the terrain and weather require.

Trail Runner Strengths

  • Lighter weight
  • Vent perspiration
  • Dry quickly
  • Virtually no-break period
Trail Runner Weaknesses

  • Soles wear down quickly
  • Can’t be resolved
  • Provide little foot and ankle protection
  • Too cold below freezing

Trail Runner Advantages

What are trail runners? They’re running shoes designed for use on hiking trails, with grippy lugged soles that usually provide good traction in dry and muddy conditions. Most trail runners are well ventilated to help dry perspiration and to drain water if they get wet. Some are lined with Gore-tex or other waterproof/breathable layers but most aren’t. On average, you can expect to get about 250 miles from a pair trail runners before the soles wear down although this can differ by make and model.

Trail runners are lighter weight than hiking boots so you have more energy to hike farther. They’re cooler and usually better ventilated so your feet sweat less, which can reduce blisters. Trail runners are softer and don’t usually require a long break-in period before you can wear them for a long hike. They also dry faster than boots because they’re often not waterproof, which can slow down the drying process.

Generally speaking, trail runners are good for hiking on maintained trails in non-freezing weather. But they can become less advantageous the farther you stray from that set of parameters.

Popular Trail Runners

Train Runner Disadvantages

Trail runners can’t be worn comfortably when temperatures drop below freezing because they’re not insulated. When there’s snow and ice on the ground, you’ll be much more comfortable wearing a waterproof and insulated hiking boot.

Trail runners provide less ankle and foot protection when you hike over rougher terrain or off-trail. While they can be great on trails that are well maintained and free of debris, they provide no ankle or lower leg protection from rocks or vegetation that you may encounter off-trail.

The soles of trail runners wear out much faster than hiking boots because they’re made with a softer rubber and other synthetic materials. You can usually expect hiking boot soles to last twice as long as trail runner soles. For example, I typically get 250 miles out of a pair of trail runners while I get 500 miles out of a hiking boot. That can get expensive if you have to keep replacing trail runners when they wear out. It also has environmental consequences, because trail runners must be thrown away when they wear out and can’t be recycled.

A lot has been written about how trail runners provide less support than hiking boots for people who feel they need it. The theory is that people with a lower level of fitness or those who carry heavier backpacking loads require more ankle bracing. I don’t have a position one way or another on this topic and I’ve never found the evidence for either side of the argument particularly convincing. I leave it to you do decide whether hiking boots provide more support than trail runners.

Hiking Boot Strengths

  • More foot and ankle protection
  • Cold-weather insulation
  • Longer lasting soles
  • Many can be re-soled
Hiking Boot Weaknesses

  • Heavier
  • Dry more slowly
  • Hot and sweaty
  • More expensive

Hiking Boot Advantages

What are hiking boots? The term encompasses a broad category of footwear that covers your ankles, including classic leather hiking boots, hiking boots made with softer synthetic uppers, insulated winter hiking boots, and “mids” which provide mid-height ankle coverage, but generally have softer more flexible soles like trail runners.

Hiking boots do provide more foot and ankle protection than trail runners because they have thicker padded uppers, beefy lugged soles, and rigid shanks that protect your feet from stone bruises. This added protection is useful when climbing rocky mountains and across boulder fields or when you step off-trail and head cross-country where thorns, rotting logs, and low lying bushes will do a number on your ankles and feet.

Many hiking boots can also be worn below freezing because their uppers cover your upper foot and ankles and provide more moisture protection. Their relative lack of ventilation also means that your feet will stay warmer, as long as you keep moving.

One of the greatest strengths of hiking boots is the fact that they last so much longer than trail runners. It’s pretty rare for a hiking boot to fall apart after a few months use, while it’s the norm with a trail runner. Many hiking boots can also be re-soled when their treads wear out, while trail runners have to be thrown out and replaced.

Hiking Boot Disadvantages

Hiking boots generally require more energy to hike in because they’re significantly heavier than trail runners. This can be a negative if you’re sole focus is to crank out big miles, day in and day out, or set Fastest Known Times. But it’s a lot less of an issue if you’re a more casual day hiker or weekend backpacker.

Hiking boots dry more slowly than trail runners which can really snowball as an issue if you have to hike across wet terrain or ford numerous streams. Hiking boots become much heavier when they get wet and they take a long time to dry, especially if you need to keep wearing them while they’re still wet. Wet boots can also lead to increased blisters because the moisture can weaken your skin and make it more prone to abrasion. Ditto for hot and sweaty feet, since hiking boots can get stifling hot in warmer weather.

While hiking boots and their boot soles last longer than trail runners, they also tend to require a larger upfront purchase than trail runners. That’s less of an issue with “mids”, which are comparable to trail runners in terms of pricing, but leather hiking boots can be much more expensive.

Popular Hiking Boots and Mids

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