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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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:
- Skurka, In what conditions will I hike in waterproof footwear?
- Journal of Foot and Ankle Research, The Effect of High-Top and Low-Top Shoes on Ankle Inversion Kinematics
- Howard E. Friedman DPM, Hiking Boots Vs Trail Shoes
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.”
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).
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).
- 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.
- 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.
- New Balance Minimus 10V1: Men’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 6: Men’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.
- 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 2: Men’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.
- The Hiking Footwear Guide
- Brooks Cascadia 14 Trail Running Shoes Review
- Tips for Hiking in Snake Country
- Five Basic Principles of Going Lighter
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