Trail Runners Vs Hiking Boots: A 30 Year Perspective

From the late 1980s through to the end of the 1990s, I exclusively used hiking boots on all of my backpacking trips. They were waterproof, durable, grippy on slippery surfaces, and provided protection and stability for my feet and ankles. At the time, it was what (almost) everyone used for extended excursions into the backcountry.

As the 20th century drew to a close, I decided to try backpacking in running shoes. Inspired by Ray Jardine’s, The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook, I did so as part of an overall strategy to simplify and lighten my approach to spending time in the woods. The change worked out better than I could have imagined, and since the early 2000s, I have worn low-cut, non-waterproof footwear on almost all of my backpacking journeys around the world. 

The following article is divided into five parts:

1. Why choose trail running shoes over boots for three-season conditions?
2. When are boots preferable to trail runners? 
3. “Wearing Your Fears” – Examining the commonly-held belief that boots provide a greater degree of protection for your ankles than low-cut footwear while backpacking.
4. “A Piece in the Puzzle – Why your choice in footwear should be considered an integral piece of an overall lightweight backpacking strategy.
5. A list of 15 of the top trail running shoes in today’s market.

Note: For an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of hiking footwear (i.e. boots, hiking shoes, trail runners, and sandals) – see the revised and expanded, Hiking Footwear Guide.

Wind River High Route (Wyoming / October 2016) Footwear: Brooks Cascadia 10

1.    Why Choose Trail Running Shoes over Boots for Three-Season Conditions?

A.    Less Weight = More Energy

The biggest reason why many hikers switch from boots to trail runners is the weight savings. A ballpark estimate of the weight difference between a top-of-the-range pair of Brooks, Salomon, or La Sportiva trail runners and a mid-cut pair of composite (i.e. combination of synthetics and leather) hiking boots is around 40%. When compared to a pair of full-grain leather boots – which regularly tip the scales at over 1.5 kg / 3.3 lbs – the discrepancy will be double or greater. 

Whichever way you cut it, that’s a lot of weight. The difference is even more significant when you consider that weight carried on your feet is disproportionately more taxing than weight borne on your upper body. “How much more are we talking?” According to the old adage, which supposedly originated during Hillary’s 1953 Everest expedition, each pound (0.45kg) on your feet equates to at least five pounds (2.3kg) on your back.

Having hiked and backpacked more than 10,000 miles (16,093 km) in boots and many times more in lighter, low-cut footwear, I can unequivocally vouch for the veracity of this axiom. When I’m wearing trail runners I move more freely and efficiently and cover greater distances with no extra effort. In comparison, when I hike in boots it feels like I’ve got weights strapped to my feet, and at the end of a long day my legs are invariably wearier and my dogs are usually barking.   

The Cocuy Circuit in the Colombian Andes (2015) | (Footwear: Brooks Cascadia 8)

B.   Out of the Box and onto the Trail

Compared to boots, trail running shoes are more flexible and require little to no break-in time. In contrast, boots have a more rigid structure and it’s advisable to wear them in slowly, graduating from short walks around the neighbourhood, to day hikes, and eventually to multi-day excursions. This particularly holds true for full-grain leather models. Many hikers have paid the price in the form of painful blisters for not breaking in their boots properly before a backpacking trip.

Badlands Traverse (South Dakota 2016) – Footwear: Brooks Cascadia 10

C.    Breathable Over Waterproof

One of the backpacking world’s most enduring misconceptions is that you should wear waterproof footwear. Almost all composite hiking boots sport a waterproof membrane. In regard to hiking shoes and trail runners, you can normally choose between either a non-waterproof or Gore-Tex (or equivalent) version. Many folks opt for the latter.

The thing is about all this waterproofness is that you don’t need it. Indeed, it’s been my experience that a waterproof liner is a net negative for three-season hiking. It impedes a shoe’s breathability and drying time, and due to the fact that your feet will be sweating more inside of waterproof shoes, you are more likely to incur blisters than you are wearing non-waterproof models. It’s also worth noting that just like with your rain jackets and rain pants, waterproof membranes only work for a limited amount of time. Before you know it, you’ll be spraying and rubbing up a storm hoping for a Lazarus-like revival, only to realize what many others before you have discovered – that the term “waterproof” is more of a marketing sales point than a reality when it comes to backpacking gear.

Approaching Southwest Tasmania’s Eastern Arthurs via the notoriously boggy Farmhouse Creek Track | Tasmania, 2015. Footwear:  Altra Lone Peak 2 (Note: This was the one and only time I wore Altras during an extended trip in extreme conditions. They started falling apart in less than 50 mi/80 km).

Lake Roe on the exceedingly muddy Dusky Track | Fiordland, New Zealand 2010. Footwear: Montrail Hardrocks (RIP) – To this day they remain my all-time favourite trail running shoes.

D.    Versatility

When it comes to hiking footwear there is no panacea – no one model to rule them all. Whether you are talking about boots, trail runners, hiking shoes or sports sandals, each has its advantages and disadvantages. But of all the different options available, non-waterproof trail runners are the most versatile in three-season conditions.

Irrespective of whether I’m hiking in a desert, alpine region, or coastal environment, over the years I’ve found that trail runners provide me with a Goldilocks balance of support, stability, breathability, and traction. While waterproof boots may delay the inevitable and keep my feet drier for longer in wet conditions, their impermeability combined with the fact that they weigh so much more means that they are overkill for every backcountry scenario except for below-freezing snowbound terrain.

Rambling along the Colorado Trail, September 2015. Footwear: Brooks Cascadia 9

E.   When to opt for hiking shoes instead of trail runners?

“Hiking shoes” are basically a hybrid of synthetic/leather boots and trail running shoes. They have a low-cut profile like the latter but boast similar – though usually slightly less robust – materials in the upper, midsole, and outsole to the former.

Even though I prefer trail running shoes in most situations, I still occasionally break out my Merrell Moab2 Ventilator hiking shoes for extended trips in rugged environments such as the traverses of Southwest Tasmania and Bolivia’s Altiplano. Why? Because the combination of a more rigid midsole, a grippier and stouter outsole, and a reinforced and more durable upper, means that irrespective of the conditions I know that the Moab Ventilators will last me at least 800 mi (1,287 km); as opposed to trail runners which normally need to be retired after 500 mi (805 km). That extra durability means one less thing to worry about in places in which the chances of finding quality replacement footwear are non-existent. To my way of thinking, that fact alone makes them worth the small weight penalty compared to trail runners in such scenarios.

Southwest Tasmania Traverse (2016) | One of the more challenging aspects of this trip was negotiating the slippery, wave-pounded gulches that dot Tasmania’s pristine western coastline. Footwear: Merrell Moab2 Ventilators

2.   When are Boots Preferable to Trail Runners?

I generally wear mid-cut waterproof boots when hiking for extended stretches in below-freezing snowy conditions, where keeping my feet dry is a priority due to the risk of frostbite. When doing so I’ll layer my socks (e.g. a thin merino liner under a wool blend medium weight), and wear full-length eVent gaiters to keep the snow from entering in the top of my boots. For an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of both leather and composite hiking boots see, “The Hiking Footwear Guide.”

“Hold on, don’t waterproof membranes such as Gore-Tex “wet out” after extended exposure to the elements?”

Yes. However, when temps are consistently well below freezing the snow has relatively low liquid water content, so “wetting out” takes longer than it would if you were hiking in the rain and mud all day. In “dry snow“, your feet are more likely to become wet because of perspiration, which will condense inside the boot because the vapour has nowhere to go. This is due to the inherent lack of breathability of Gore-tex liners, combined with the fact that the surface material of the upper is saturated.

The Cascade Mountains, Oregon (January 2015). Footwear: Montrail Sabino Trail Mid-cut GTX (no longer made).

What about Trail Running Shoes in Winter and/or Late Shoulder Season Conditions?

An alternative system that I have used both hiking and snowshoeing in sub-freezing, snowy environments is a combination of thin (or medium) merino wool socks, Gore-Tex oversocks, non-waterproof trail running shoes, and full-length eVent gaiters. The theory behind this system is that the Gore-Tex socks rather than the footwear provide the waterproofness which will keep your feet warm and dry. If using this technique it is important that before going to sleep at night, you place your wet shoes inside a plastic bag or stuff sack, which you then put inside your backpack. This will prevent your shoes from being frozen solid by morning.

The summit of Mount Moosilauke, New Hampshire | Early November 2012 | During my southbound hike of the AT (October 17 – December 28) there was quite a bit of snow around and the temps were often well below freezing. During that trip, I regularly went with the trail runner/waterproof socks combo and my feet stayed comfortable(ish) throughout.

Stubai Horseshoe | Austria, late October 2019 (Footwear: Brooks Cascadia 14/Montbell Gore-Tex socks)

3.  Wearing Your Fears 

“Packing your fears” is a well-known expression in the US hiking community. It basically means carrying more (and/or heavier) items than necessary just in case things don’t go as expected while you’re out in the wilderness. Common examples include a sleeping bag that isn’t seasonally appropriate, a bulky four-season tent, too many clothes, too much food, a paramedic-worthy first aid kit, too much water, and, you guessed it, hiking boots for three-season conditions.

In regard to the last example, there remains a widely held belief in the backpacking world that boots offer a level of protection for your ankles that low-cut footwear doesn’t provide in rugged terrain. It’s a notion that has been perpetuated not only by boot manufacturers, but also in certain backpacking books, forums, websites, walking clubs, Scout groups, and hiking YouTube videos. The trouble is that not only there is no conclusive scientific research to back up this theory, but almost all of the folks that claim it to be true are just regurgitating what they’ve read or heard elsewhere. Very few that make the argument have actually spent an extended period of time hiking in a wide range of environments wearing both types of footwear. 

Gazing out at the Salar de Uyuni while descending Volcan Tunupa  | Altiplano Traverse, Bolivia 2017 (Footwear: Merrell Moab Ventilators)

After more than three decades of regularly using both boots and low-cut hiking shoes, I believe that the former holds no real advantage over the latter when it comes to preventing sprains and strains. In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that the chances of you turning an ankle actually increase when you’re wearing boots while backpacking. Speaking of which……….

Three Reasons Why You are More Likely to Fall Arse over Teakettle While Wearing Hiking Boots

1.  Connectivity

Compared to boots, trail runners sport a more flexible, lower-to-the-ground sole, that promotes a higher degree of connectivity with terra firma (i.e. you have a better feel for the ground that you’re traversing). This heightened sense of tactile awareness means that you are better able to adapt to variations in terrain, and in so doing instinctively avoid some of the foot placement issues that occur when wearing cumbersome boots.

The summit of Monte Cinto (2,706 m / 8,878 ft) | A memorable side trip to the highest point of Corsica on the GR20 | France 2009. Footwear: Montrail Hardrocks

2.   Weight Takes its Toll  

As mentioned above, the extra weight of boots takes a bigger toll on your energy levels, and the more tired legs your legs are, the greater the chance of falls and mishaps occurring. This discrepancy may not seem like a big deal when you’re trying on different footwear at your local outdoor retailer, but extrapolate the weight penalty over the course of a full hiking day, and it most definitely adds up.

3.  Restricted Range of Movement

The combination of a stiff sole unit and a calf-tickling upper means that boots limit your natural range of foot and ankle movement. This lack of flexibility impacts your gait, and over an extended period of time can lead to a weakening of the tendons and muscles that support the ankle, thereby compromising stability and control when negotiating variations in terrain.   

Snowshoeing in the Cascade Mountains, Oregon, January 2015 (Footwear: Merrell Moab Ventilator)

FAQ from those that still aren’t convinced……… 

Don’t higher cut boots provides you with a greater degree of protection against jagged rocks, spiny plants, and protruding sticks? What about snake bites when hiking in places such as Australia?” 

There’s no denying that low-cut hiking footwear leaves your ankle bone exposed. That said, no type of footwear is going to tick every box for every occasion. And if given the choice between the enhanced agility and freedom of mobility provided by trail runners (or hiking shoes) versus the occasionally-relevant protective quality of boots, I’ll go with the former benefits every time in three-season conditions. During decades of off-trail hiking, I’ve taken a bunch of knocks and scrapes to the ankle but never once has it caused me to prematurely finish a trip; generally, I’ll just mutter a few swear words, shake it off, and keep walking. As for snakes, as long as you take some basic precautions, you’ve got more chance of getting hit by a car than bitten by a snake while backpacking. 

Larapinta Trail, Northern Territory 2010 | Footwear: Montrail Hardrocks

“I’ve worn leather hiking boots for years. They fit like a glove, and never once have I sprained or broken an ankle while backpacking. Why would I change?” 

For many hikers, the snug feeling of a well-fitting pair of boots brings with it a sense of security. Indeed, some studies suggest that boots provide backpackers with pre-existing ankle issues increased proprioceptive input, which may help in limiting the severity and frequency of future ankle rolls. To those folks I would say the following – give hiking shoes a try. They cost about the same as trail runners but provide similar support and traction to synthetic/leather boots in a lighter, less bulky package. What have you got to lose? Best-case scenario, you may find what others before you have discovered; that the lighter feeling on your feet combined with a lighter load on your back (see below) gives you a renewed lease of hiking life.  Worst-case scenario? You’ll be out $100-$140. Considering the potential gains, that strikes me as being a chance worth taking.

Cape Wrath Trail, Scotland 2018. Footwear: Brooks Cascadia 12

“Trail runners and hiking shoes might be fine for those well-groomed trails in the States or the Alps, but they wouldn’t cut it in the bush back home in Australia and New Zealand.”

I couldn’t resist including this one. Over the decades, I’ve been told on multiple occasions that I was wearing the wrong footwear for harsh environments such as Fiordland, central Australia, and southwest Tassie. Generally, when I hear this sort of comment I just nod along and continue on my way. However, when someone seems genuinely interested in why I’m wearing low-cut footwear and carrying a much lighter pack than most other folks, I’ll take the time to explain my choices. And when those curious backpackers subsequently discover that I too spent years trudging along in boots and carrying full-to-the-brim 80-litre canvas packs in these very same environments, they realize that “hey, maybe this bloke isn’t speaking out of his arse after all.”

To be clear, I’m not saying that boots don’t work in these places – of course, they do. But so do lighter, less cumbersome, well-constructed trail runners and hiking shoes. And having hiked a shedload in all three types of footwear, I can tell you unequivocally that I far prefer the latter two models in almost every respect.

Australia’s mud-slogging capital – Southwest Tasmania (2002).

A dampish final day on the Five Passes Route | Fiordland, New Zealand, 2010. Footwear: Montrail Hardrocks

“Can you recommend any other sources on the subject?”

Yes. Check out the website of Chris Townsend. One of the backpacking world’s most respected authorities, the Scotland-based Townsend has been hiking all over the globe since the seventies, and as with myself, spent the initial years of his hiking life in boots. He made the switch to low-cut footwear when he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in the 1980s and hasn’t looked back since. See his piece Why Lightweight Footwear? for an excellent overview of the subject. Here are some other articles that may be of interest:

Hiking off-trail in Montana’s Beartooth Range (2016) | Footwear: Brooks Cascadia 10

4.   A Piece in the Puzzle

“Choose the style of footwear that is appropriate for the activity you are undertaking. I have mid-cut composite boots for Tasmania in winter, and hiking shoes and trail runners for other times of the year. Most of us have more than one tent, sleeping bag, stove, etc, so why think that one pair of shoes will manage every hike? A lighter pack and lighter footwear make you more nimble and less weary so that you are less likely to trip/fall and injure yourself.”

~ Allan Donnelly (Podiatrist), Veteran Australian Bushwalker and Founder of QCity Podiatry 

Boot wearers generally carry big packs. Most of them believe that in order to bear the load safely, you need something equally robust on your feet. And to a certain degree, they are not that far from the truth.

The heavier that you and your pack are, the more cushioning and support you will likely require in order to bear the load safely. Put simply, if you’re in shape and regularly carrying a lightweight pack (e.g. total weight under 10 kg/22 lb), the wearing of trail runners or hiking shoes becomes a more viable option. If on the other hand, you are almost always hauling an unnecessarily heavy load (e.g. total weight above 20 kg/44 lb), then the extended use of lighter, less supportive footwear can potentially contribute to repetitive stress injuries such as achilles tendonitis, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and stress fractures. This especially holds true for heavier folks, who according to the Podiatry Institute, are more susceptible to foot and balance issues and may require additional cushioning and support in their footwear.

Tip: Proactiveness:  If you have pre-existing health conditions but are determined to go with lightweight footwear, your cause will be helped significantly by being proactive. In addition to lightening your pack load, make a concerted effort to shed any excess kilos, improve your balance, and “prehab” your ankles (i.e. Prevent and rehabilitate ankle sprains through mobility and stability exercises).

Thru-hiking legend, Justin “Trauma” Lichter | Copper Canyon Traverse, Mexico 2013 | During this mostly off-trail 23-day route, Justin and I negotiated extremely rugged terrain and made hundreds of river crossings. We both wore trail running shoes – Justin wore Vasque Pendulum 2 and yours truly Montrail Sabino Trail (no longer made).

5.   15 Trail Running Shoe Recommendations (alphabetical order)

Not all trails are created equal and neither are all trail running shoes. Components such as heel-to-toe drop, traction, stack height, weight, toebox width, midsole rigidity, and the degree of reinforcement in the upper, may all differ significantly between models. Which pair(s) you ultimately go with depends on both the environmental conditions in which you plan to do most of your rambling, as well as personal factors such as foot type, injury history, and pack and body weight. Without further ado, here are 15 of the most widely recommended trail running shoes for hiking and backpacking:

  • Altra Lone Peak 4.5 – Men’s (21 oz / 0.6 kg) and Women’s (17 oz / 0.48 kg) – Very comfortable, zero drop, roomy toebox, and more cushioning and support than its stablemate, the Altra Superiors (Note: But not as much as the Altra Olympus 3.5). Over the past six years, I’ve regularly used the Lone Peaks on well-groomed trails where abrasion-resistance and traction aren’t significant factors.
  • Altra Superior 4 – Men’s (15.8 oz / 0.45 kg) and Women’s (13.2 oz / 0.37 kg) – Gossamer weight, zero drop, voluminous toe box, and blink-and-it’s-gone tread. As with all models in the Altra catalogue, they aren’t the greatest in rugged terrain. That said, long-time hiking buddy, Greg “Malto” Gressel, swears by the Superiors irrespective of the environment in which he’s backpacking. He also rates spam as his all-time favourite trail food, so I’m not sure how much stock I’d put in his opinion (just joking…….not really).

Greg “Malto” Gressel and his beloved Altra Superiors | Long Crossing of the Lofoten Islands, Norway, 2018.

  • Brooks Caldera 4 – Men’s (23 oz / 0.65 kg) and Women’s (20.6 oz / 0.58 kg) – Possibly the most comfortable trail running shoe I’ve tried. Not as good stability-wise in rough conditions as the Brooks Cascadia, but the Calderas are what I’d wear if I was to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail or Continental Divide Trail again.
  • Brooks Cascadia 14 – Men’s (21.4 oz / 0.61 kg) and Women’s (19 oz / 0.54 kg) – A very good “all-rounder” that provides mixed-surface traction and stability out in the woods but also offers sufficient support and cushioning for the occasional cross-over on to the roads. A neutral shoe suitable for hikers with medium-volume feet. My go-to choice in trail runners for many years. Click here for a long-term review.

Winter in Mexico’s Sierra Madre | Footwear: Brooks Cascadia 14

  • Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 – Men’s (21.6 oz / 0.61 kg) and Women’s (18.4 oz /0.52 kg) – Narrow fit, grippy sole, 32mm stack height is a boon for folks looking for lots of cushioning. The flip side of all that padding is that the Speedgoats aren’t typically suitable for off-trail excursions.
  • Inov-8 Terraultra G260 – Men’s (18 oz / 0.51 kg) and Women’s (18 oz / 0.51 kg) – Lightweight, zero drop, great traction, and consistently scores high marks for its durability. Inov8 is a UK-based company whose trail running shoes have a long-established following among British fell runners and lightweight backpackers.
  • La Sportiva Bushido 2 Men’s (21 oz / 0.6 kg) and Women’s (17.6 oz / 0.5 kg ) – Durable, stable, aggressive outsole – excellent for rough and varied terrain. Not a great deal of cushioning and a very narrow last; best suited to low-volume feet.
  • La Sportiva Ultra Raptor – Men’s (24 oz / 0.69 kg) and Women’s (21 oz / 0.6 kg) – Technical trail runner with superb grip, stability, and support. The Ultra Raptor sports a durable toe cap and rock plate, and offers noticeably more cushioning than the Bushidos, but not as much as the La Sportiva Akyra and Akasha (Note: I recently splashed out for a pair of the Akashas which I plan to use extensively over the coming months in Mexico’s Sierra Madre. Stay tuned for a review sometime in 2032).
  • La Sportiva Wildcats: Men’s (25 oz / 0.71 kg) and Women’s (21 oz / 0.61 kg) – Moderate cushioning and aggressive tread. As you’d expect, the all-mesh upper dries very quickly but isn’t as resistant to abrasion as the other La Sportiva models mentioned above. I used a pair of Wildcats during 2014/15 and got around 450 mi (724 km) out of them in a variety of different terrains. I found them responsive and comfortable but ultimately returned to the Brooks Cascadia, which were (and continue to be) a better fit for my feet. 

Before Malto started using Altras, his trail running shoe of choice was the La Sportiva Wildcat. Here he is putting the shoe’s “quick-drying” qualities to the test on the Northville Placid Trail | Adirondack Mountains, New York, October 2015.

  • New Balance Minimus 10V1Men’s (14.8 oz / 0.42 kg) and Women’s (12.6 oz / 0.36 kg) – As the name suggests, this one is for hikers that value tactile feedback over cushioning and support. Very breathable, feather-light, 4 mm drop, and a sticky Vibram outsole. Not known for their durability, which is no surprise given their minimalist design.
  • Nike Wildhorse 6Men’s (22.8 oz / 0.65 kg) and Women’s (17.6 oz / 0.5 kg) Stable heel-counter, anatomically-shaped upper, full rock-plate, and an updated outsole. Compared to its lighter sister shoe, the Nike Terra Kiger, the Wildhorse has more cushioning, better durability, a wider toebox, and is overall is the superior choice for rugged terrain.
  • Salomon XA Pro 3D – Men’s (26.5 oz / 0.75 kg) and Women’s (21.2 oz / 0.6 kg) – Compared to the Salomon X Ultra 3’s mentioned below, the XA Pro’s offer similar support, stability, and durability, but not as much cushioning and traction in rough conditions. Salomon’s patented “Quicklace system” is not for everyone. Suitable for medium-volume feet.

Paul “Mags” Magnanti climbing the talus slopes of Mount Peal in the La Sals | Footwear: Salomon X Ultra 3 | Click here to read Mags’ long term review (Photo courtesy of Joan West and Pmags.com).

  • Salomon X Ultra 3 Low Aero: – Men’s (25.8 oz / 0.73 kg) and Women’s (22.4 oz / 0.64 kg) – As much a hiking shoe as they are a trail runner, the Ultra 3’s offer excellent stability, a durable upper, and an aggressive outsole. Over the last couple of years, they have become the “all-purpose” footwear of choice for backpacking doyen Paul “Mags” Magnanti (Note: For mellow, well-groomed trails, Mags prefers the Altra Superiors).
  • Saucony Peregrine 10 Men’s (21.4 oz / 0.61 kg ) and Women’s (18.6 oz / 0.53 ) – Low-to-the-ground, rock plate in the forefoot, and the aggressive traction for which the Peregrines have always been known. Minimal cushioning and mixed reports in regard to its durability, though supposedly the 10th edition is an improvement over recent incarnations (Note: I have medium-volume feet and found the Peregrine’s to be too narrow for my liking).
  • Topo Athletic Terraventure 2Men’s (21.4 oz / 0.61 kg ) and Women’s (18.6 oz / 0.53 ) – Wide toebox, snug heel and midfoot, 3 mm drop, and a sticky Vibram outsole. This edition is slightly heavier and firmer than its predecessor, and from most reports, has addressed some of the latter’s durability issues.

Tip: Change Things Up Occasionally: A common element in many hiking-related injuries is repetitive movement. This particular holds true if all (or most) of your hiking is done on well-groomed, flattish trails. One way of mitigating repetitive stress on the muscles and joints is by rotating multiple types of hiking footwear, which can result in your muscles and joints being worked in subtly different ways.  

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20 Replies to “Trail Runners Vs Hiking Boots: A 30 Year Perspective”

  1. Finally! I feel so validated for my preference of trail runners vs. hiking boots! Granted, I live in the South and most of my hiking is done on pine needles in the forest vs. rugged terrain. But even when I’ve ventured to other parts of the country to hike, I’ve just felt more steady in my shoes. Thank you for the update on footwear in the 21st Century!

  2. Totally agree – My leather Asolos went to the local thrift shop once I started using trail runners; they were quality and will serve someone well. My feet are much happier. However, one drawback to low cut footwear – mud bogs! Much easier for a trail runner to slip off in knee deep mud, than a hiking boot. Much harder to find it when it does. Avoid the mud bogs! I still use my mids for off trail hiking in Alaska.

    Another comment on this – people who use trail runners still get blisters or other foot issues. Maybe not as often, but they do still happen and you still have to watch for hot spots. When I first started using them, I was surprised by this because the accolades for trail runners seemed to say that with the switch to this lightweight footwear, you’d solve all your issues. It still depends on so many other factors, shoe fit, persistent wetness, type of sock, etc. Also trail runners wear out much more quickly than the old leather bombers so you have to buy more frequently, which is a pain because manufacturers are always changing styles. But I wouldn’t go back.

  3. Thanks for the thorough article about boots v trail runners. I switched to trail runners about 10 years ago and love them. I do think a lightweight boot like the Salomon X Ultra Mid 3 Gore-Tex Hikers, even though they weigh more, requires less effort if you are hiking mostly off trail in loose scree and talus. I did the Wind River High Route a couple years ago and took light boots instead of runners. I’m glad I did. Of course, I could have done it in runners, but the boots offer much better traction and stability off the trail.

  4. Great, informative article Cam, and you make many good points & debates on the old reasons we still hear re. heavy boots. As you mentioned, weight carried makes a difference on footwear, but only so much.
    I was wearing many hiking shoes that Vasque, Oboz & others are making, but then switched to the Topo Terraventure 2 and they have made the biggest difference in gear of anything in years. Topo now has a low boot-type based on the Terraventure, called the Trailventure, just a couple inches taller w a few more laces, (still 13 oz. for M ( US). Btw, Tony Post, founder & CEO of Topo), was with Vibram when they came out with the Five Fingers.

    I 2nd your comments re. ground awareness, feel, balance, more connected with a lower, lighter, more flexible shoe. My ankles have become even stronger, as I do lots of off-trail scrambling. I do recommend those wanting to make the switch to walk barefoot as much as possible, to keep ones feet strong, and flexible, (and ground after hiking:). My feet are less sore, healthier, and as you mentioned, I can cover more ground with less effort. Of course, staying present while hiking will prevent incidence & injury which can happen with any type footwear. Happy trails,S2

    1. Hey Scott,

      Thanks for the comment. That’s a great point about walking barefoot as much as possible; I couldn’t agree more.

      Re: Topo Terraventure 2 – I have a couple of mates who swear by them as well. I wouldn’t mind giving them a try myself in the coming months.

      Cheers,

      Cam

  5. I shifted to trail runners 10 years ago when we moved to northern NM. I have to wear boots for SAR work, but that’s the only time I wear them other than winter. Totally agree with proprioception benefits. I’ve always had strong ankles/knees/legs and boots make me feel unsafe. I wear a size 11.5/12, depending on the shoe, have a low volume foot with a wide forefoot and narrow heel. I HATE marshmallow soles like the Hokas. The Altras LonePeaks feel OK, but the slip & slide flap at the rear of the heel is dangerous descending loose skree and the sole isn’t aggressive enough (but still wears quickly). LaSportiva’s are OK, but always break through at the flex point on the top of the shoe. Nike & Salomon are lovely and I envy people who can wear them, but they are built for pointy-toed Europeans (like Sidi cycling shoes). Which brings me to Saucony Peregrines – my shoe! Perfect fit for me once again in Peregrine 10. I started with them years ago and they got worse and worse. The minimalist build added a marshmallow sole, indifferent manufacturing standards and a lug that was too high/deep. The 10’s are back to the adroit, tactile feel I love. Never interested in Brooks and the Inov-8’s look like they’re trying too hard.

    1. “Nike and Salomon are built for pointy-toed Europeans“………..this line had me chuckling. Thanks for the comment.

  6. “According to the old adage, which supposedly originated during Hillary’s 1953 Everest expedition, each pound (0.45kg) on your feet equates to at least five pounds (2.3kg) on your back.”

    I’m curious about this statement. A mechanical engineer friend cannot see any basis for it.

    Doesn’t seem right to me when I think about how it feels to carry an extra gallon of water.

  7. Hi Cam,
    I wanted to ask your opinion on two points in particular:

    Would you also take trail runners on more technical terrain like high routes, light climbing and via ferratas? In fact I have a via ferrata trip upcomming and am wondering which footware to take. Aside from stiff alpine boots I own both the Merrell Trail glove 4 and Merrell Moabs. I’ve found the stiff soles of mountaineering boots quite well suited for easy climbing and have previously used them on via ferratas. I’m afraid I won’t be able to do that with trail runners though trail runners would be just so much more comfortable. Perhaps the Moabs are the way to go. Do you have experience here?

    How do you pair trail runners snowshoes or crampons? Again the stiff sole seems paramount for good force transfer.

    For hiking, especially long distance hiking, I fully agree with using trail runners – no question there!
    Cheers,
    Ray

    1. Hi Ray,

      In regard to your questions:

      1. It depends on the model. Personally I wouldn’t want to use Altras on high routes/Via Ferratas, but over the past decade, I have successfully taken trail runners from Brooks, Montrail, and La Sportiva on such trips without issue.

      2. I haven’t used the Trail Gloves, but I’d feel comfortable going with the Moabs on High Routes/Via Ferrata.

      3. For snowshoeing, I tend to go back and forward between mid-cut boots and the durable trail runners/Gore-Tex socks combo. As for crampons, I think it largely depends on the angle of the terrain. For low-angle (or even moderate) terrain, trail runners can be a viable option, but when things get steeper, heavier/stouter/stiff-edged boots are the way to go. In both cases, when the temps are well below freezing, I’ll generally go with boots over trail runners for warmth.

      Cheers,

      Cam

      1. Regarding trail runners & crampons, (& I’ll bet Cam would have added this?), you probably only want to go with flexible ones like Katlooa micro-spikes or Hillsound trail crampons, which stay on the shoe well, but of course, won’t give you the true protection & support of real boots & crampons. I found that combo fairly effective in most conditions, (except hard-packed ice), as long as the sole of the runner is fairly stiff & crampons fit snugly. Generally, spikes are only 1/2 as long & not as sharp.

  8. I agree with the waterproof boots are no good. I did a 50 mile hike with goretex boots and within the first mile took a bad step on a beaver dam and had a boot full of water. 49 more miles with no way to dry out the boots. One good thing, it is a great way to exfoliate your feet. I try to tell evryone I know not to get waterproof boots.
    I am not so sure on the low cut running shoe Idea, I sprained and ankle while in the Army (while wearing high on the ankle leather boots – I was infantry). and have been leary of trying low cut shoes on the trail.

  9. Cam, love your work. Would love to get on some of the USA routes you discuss. This is a very tactical question, but your answer will be insightful: what sort of footwear would you (or did you) wear on the Larapinta?

    1. Hi Craig,

      Thanks for the kind words.

      I hiked the Larapinta in 2010 and wore Montrail Hardrocks (no longer made). If I was to make a return visit, I’d wear trail runners again.

      Cheers,

      Cam

  10. Disaster!! Great post, but….. I tried the trail runner approach on a 5 day trek in the UK this summer but found it impossible to keep my feet dry during 3 wet days. Even when it was dry, a field of wet grass was enough to get wet feet in trail runners. Result… blisters. I could not dry the trainers (Brookes Cascadia) or my socks overnight while camping wild. Any suggestions on combating/minimising the impact of wet feet? Also what socks do you use?

    Many thanks

    Tim

  11. Cam,
    I do like that you provided some context when higher boots may be beneficial. But…

    I tried the change from Solomon Quest 4D 3 GTX to Solomon XA Pro’s. That along with much lighter gear had me skipping merrily…uh, I mean manly-gallivanting up and down the trail. It was an easy trip up to the Green Lake area outside Bridgeport, but the change was unmistakable. I felt like I could pirouette.

    But then, a few months later on a simple hike (with no pack) out and back from lookout above Mammoth Lake, I hit a bit of loose gravel bam, my ankle gave out as I tried to catch myself. The outside side of my ankle literally touched the ground. I hobbled back to the car not letting my kiddo or friends know I was in excruciating pain.

    I’ve been prone to high ankle sprangs my whole life since my late teen (so ~30 years now). I’ve gone to physical therapy and the docs and techs have said my ligaments are all loose and stretched out from so many. Even after weeks of therapy and ankle-strengthening exercises, they have warned me and recommended ankle support (this was maybe 5 years before the change to lower shoes mentioned above).

    So after the Mammoth trip and a couple weeks of recovery (the sprang wasn’t bad), I did ~30 miles around Thousand Island Lake/Garnet Lake and that area with my big ol Solomon boots. Oh man, it was good to have the support again. Instead of gallivanting, I just tore over whatever terrain was in front of me. For me, it was the difference between my wife’s cute SUV and my beat up truck. I just went and didn’t worry about what was under foot. I was carful not to step in water that went above the top of the boot, though, as always.

    During that trip had several times where my foot caught a rock, but because the boot transferred the motion up to my leg, the roll wasn’t as bad, my whole leg was able to support the off-camber footing, and it gave me time to simply recover and move on. If I had done that in the low-cut Solomon runners, I would have had a real hard time going on.

    I’m about to embark on another 20+ mile trip from Saddlebag lake area and will be wearing the boots. I have no worries about being able to handle it with the ‘extra weight’ on my feet.

    To each is own. I’ll keep hiking my hikes. You need to know yourself. If your ankles can handle the low cut shoes, then go for it. If you are prone to sprangs, then maybe choose a higher cut shoe if that makes you feel more comfortable. Don’t be susceptible to peer pressure. Many of these writers who promote the runnders do this for a living and are in much better shape than those of us who work in an office most of our time and likely don’t work out much. That’s me. Work, family, chores; there’s only so many hours in the day and I can’t fit it all in.

    To make up for the additional weight on my feet, I do some medium-weight, high-count squats. And, before a trip I’ll make a point to get out and do some aerobic walking in the hilled streets or trails around my house. That really helped me prep for the Thousand Island Lake trip.

    1. Hi Ed,

      Thanks for the message. As you say – ‘to each their own’. If you ultimately feel more comfortable in boots after having tried low-cut/lighter weight models, than that’s what you should keep hiking in.

      Cheers,

      Cam

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