Hiking Boots vs Trail Runners: Which are Best for You?

Your plans are set, gear packed and all that’s left is to choose the right footwear for you hike. The age old battle of hiking boots vs trail runners keeps on coming round. What I’d like to do today is make a few suggestions for you to consider.

First though, trail runners have come a long way since I first pulled on a pair (about 18 years ago). Over time they’ve been engineered to be more rugged, with deep treads on the outsoles, and lightweight. And for many trips they’ve become a credible alternative to hiking boots.

Let’s walk through some of the questions you should be asking of your footwear.

Will you Be Backpacking, Lightweight Hiking Or Moving Across Trails?

Walking long distance over rought terrain demands a high degree of ankle support as well as protection for the soles of your feet. Backpacking boots, and some of the boots made for mid-distance hikes, are your best choice.

Backpacking boots in particular, have thick midsoles that reduce fatigue and bruising that comes as part and parcel of walking with a heavy ruck. They also have significant ankle support – normally due to high, stiffened uppers designed to mold around your ankles and prevent sprains.

When you look at a pair or trail running shoes it’s easy to be fooled that you’ll get same amount of protection. The midsoles of trail runners might be made of a thick layer of rubber, but the inherent flexibility reduces the level of protection.

Takeaways:

  • If you’re going to be hiking long distance with a heavy load you’ll need backpacking boots.
  • At a minimum, use day hiking boots.

Where Will You Be Hiking?

Places to hike up a very important consideration when choosing a footwear. Deep mud normally demands hiking boot. Long distances have a big hills will normally require that you use something lucky a good pair of backpacking boots.

He gets a little bit more interesting when you start travelling across ice. I’ve used a lightweight hiking boots with heavy duty yak tracks when walking. And for the running stages of my trip I used a pair of heavily modified Trail runners (There is an image further down the page).

I’ve read in some places that trail runners are simply not suitable for temperatures below 0°C. I completely disagree. As some of you already know, in February 2020 I ran and hiked 400 miles across Lake Baikal in Russia. During that journey temperatures dropped as low as 

Severobaykalsk Lake Baikal
Severobaykalsk as seen during my hike across Lake Baikal (wearing a pair of trail runners!)

-18°C, but I never experienced any cold injuries whilst wearing my long peaks.

The key to keeping your feet warm when wearing Trail runners is to have a pair of high quality socks that insulate your feet from the cold. I highly recommend sealskinz cold weather socks.

Takeaways:

  • Hot or cold, the temperature is a major factor that influences your choice of footwear.
  • If you’re hiking in cold places you can get away with trail running shoes if you insulate your feet well.

Do I Need Waterproof Hiking Shoes?

This is a big deal and one that’s easily overlooked. There are many trail runners constructed of waterproof materials, but it’s hard to stop water lapping over the top of the ankle cuff and soaking your feet.

Buying gaiters is one option, but I haven’t come across a pair that are anywhere near as effective as hiking boot gaiters.

What I’ve also found is that leather hiking boots lined with a material like Gore-Tex provide two layers of protection. When regularly treated, leather provides an effective barrier against moisture ingress. Add in gaiters and Gore-Tex socks, or liners, and your chances of getting wet feet are minimal.

Takeaway: 

  • Keeping your feet dry when hiking is key to preventing injuries.
  • Hiking boots paired with Gore-Tex and gaiters give the best protection.
  • If you’re determined to use trail running in we places consider buying a pair of Sealskinz waterproof socks (they’re brilliant)

Are Hiking Boots Good for Running?

I like to mix up my hikes. On some sections I’ll march at a briks pace, on others I’ll run. Sometimes I slow down, or pause, to grab some photos like this:

dartmoor national park
Dartmoor, one of the UK’s most beautiful National Parks

Trying to run any distance in a pair of backpacking boots is a recipe for disaster. They simply aren’t designed for running: the soles are too rigid and the uppers don’t give the necessary range of movement.

Seriously, if you gonna be putting in some serious mileage then you really need to think about using a pair Trail runners. Especially if you’re gonna be running for any significant links or distances.

Even if you only intending to type really fast you might benefit from choosing a pair of running shoes are designed for rugged, Craig environment.

What Type of Body Do You Have?

Another consideration you need to bear in mind before you choose your footwear is your body type. As you expect there are huge differences in the construction of hiking boots versus Trail runners. Some people might really benefit from the extra support found in hiking boots.

The size of your backpack will also help you make a decision. When you’re carrying heavy weights in your rucksack, or rock, you’re going to need footwear that has good cushioning in the midsole and excellent ankle support.

.Finally you need to think about the condition of your body. For example, if you have ankle knee problems then a pair of Trail runners with relatively thin midsoles I’m going to do you any favours. In this case you definitely need the current cushioning that you get from a good pair of walking boots.

Takeaways:

  • If you carry more weight (muscle, or ‘carbs’) and intending to cover rough, uneven ground you should wear well-cushioned boots.
  • Lighter hikers moving over fast terrain can usually get by with trail runners of a lightweight hiking boot.

Hiking Boot Tractiion

Are usually find that I can book traction is one of the key deciders O’keeffe factors in my choice of footwear for hiking. I have to be brutally honest, and it’s coming from the guy who run up like by Carl in a pair of Ultra Trail runners,

 None of the running shoes I’ve ever worn have traction that compares to that found on the hiking boots.

It’s a simple as this: hiking boots really are designed for arduous and testing environments. The midsoles pushing your feet, yappers give your ankle support at the souls have deep trance the bike deep into the soil and grip rocks as you travel over them.

My preferred option for raftering where I want to move fast is to use a pair of like my hiking boots. That’s not to say that Trail runners don’t have the place. In fact, I wore a pair of Altra Lone Peak trail runners when I run up like by Carl.

To give me extra traction on the ice I screwed 16 carpenter’s screws into the soles.

altra lone peak 3.5 trail running shoes
Altra Lone Peak 3.5 with home-made traction system

Takeaways:

  • The traction, which is governed by the depth of tread, is a major influence in your choice of footwear.

Hiking with Injuries

Hiking with an existing injury is not generally recommended, but we’re not the kind of people who always listen to advice. Especially when it comes to being in the great outdoors. But if you’re really determined to get out, first assess the impact of your ailment.

Hiking with a sprained ankle, or similar, demands a high degree of ankle support. You’re also going to be moving slower than when you’re fully fit. In this case, heavier and more supportive boots will be your best option.

Blisters are a common injury that, despite being painful, can easily be catered for. Whenever I have blisters I wear lighter footwear – normally my Lone Peak 3.5 shoes – as they are more flexible and create less friction. 

Long-term injuries (such as my broken toe that was never fixed and can be very painful at times) need more thought. Although there might be few restrictions, it’s important that you take care to ensure your footwear doesn’t cause more damage, or aggravate existing injuries.

Takeaways:

  • Hiking with an injury is a personal choice and there’s no clear winner in the ‘hiking boot vs trail runner’ smackdown!
  • Blisters from hiking are easily treated and rarely prevent you from getting out on a hike, or hillwalking.
  • More debilitating aches and pains such as sprain, or longer term injury, need to weighed more seriously.

Breaking in Your Footwear

Probably the last point to consider is that of breaking in your footwear. Most trail running shoes need little to no bedding in. I’ve used a pair of Lone Peak trainers straight out of the box and never had a blister. I’ve always had blisters from my boots (apart from when I used a pair of Karrimor KSBs probably my favourite hiking boots ever). 

If you’re short on time and you don’t need a lot of support and cushioning then trail runners are the way forward.

Wrapping Up the Hiking Boots vs Trail Runners Debate

It’s not always apparent which is the best footwear for your hikes and walks. And rarely is one obvious choice as you decision needs to factor in a number of possibilities.

Many modern trail running shoes are a good alternative to boots, something that’s confirmed by the sheer number of hikers who have replaced heavy footwear with running shoes.

But be warned: when sizing up your hiking boots vs trail runners you need to know the risks. Frostbite, broken toes and twisted ankles are very real and very dangerous injuries. Make your choice wisely.