Trail Runner Shoes vs. Hiking Boots: The Great Debate
Do you ever find yourself wondering what type of shoe or boot you should buy prior to heading out on a big trek or adventure? Do you get confused and completely lost when you begin looking online or in stores for hiking gear? Fear not, in this article I will begin to break down these commonly used types of hiking shoes and boots from my own experiences with them.
When people think of hiking in the mountains or hiking long distances, most times they immediately seem to think that big bulky, heavy hiking boots are the only choice. I'm here to tell you that it is not your only option, and that there are more lighter and sleek options now available to your feet.
Let it be known that this is where I will begin to create controversy with some people reading this who are avid hikers, backpackers, or adventurers who are adamant about the use of hiking boots.
What exactly are each of these types of footwear?
First, before I dive any deeper into the subject, I think its necessary to identify the two types of hiking shoes/boots I am speaking of first. To start off, I will begin with the classic hiking boot. Hiking boots are built tough, meant to handle rugged terrain, grip the difficult surfaces you may be hiking on, provide proper stabilization, protect you feet, and be a strong barrier between your foot and water on the trail. Hiking boots generally have higher ankle support, and are considerably heavier than your typical shoe that you may wear day to day. Generally, they are stiffer and harder than most shoes as well. A solid pair of good quality hiking boots can cost anywhere from $100- $350 or more. The technology, fabrics, materials, and design seems to be ever improving with hiking foot gear every year. It really is impressive!
Next up on the description docket is the trail running shoe. Trail runner shoes are built for essentially what it sounds like, running on trails. Trail runner shoes can be broken down into 3 individual categories depending on the circumstances you will be using them in. Light trail shoes are more for country dirt or gravel roads, smooth hiking trails, and flat grassy areas. Rugged trail shoes are more for your typical hiking trails that are groomed, and then your off trail shoes which are meant for rough trails or completely off trail. All of these shoes have different features.
Light trail runners are most like your typical running shoes, but with some more rugged features. These shoes use similar soles and lug patterns (rubber traction that are raised up on the bottom of your boots/shoes) as hiking boots. A lot of these key features are what separates them from your average running shoe or tennis shoe. They are specifically built to withstand a more difficult terrain versus a paved road or sidewalk etc. All of these shoes are considerably lighter than your typical hiking boots as well.
There is more to these two types of hiking footwear, but I'm just providing a basic description. Two great articles from the experts with more details can be found by clicking this link by REI on trail-running shoes, or by clicking this link about hiking boots by Merrell (a well known boot company).
For all of my adventuring life, I have always stuck to big clunky, heavy duty hiking boots whenever I headed off to the trails in the Rockies, Cascades, Andes, or the steep water soaked paths of Iceland, etc. I had not thought twice about this decision up until the spring of 2017. Prior to that, I would always wear hiking boots unless I planned poorly and brought a pair of regular tennis shoes or something of that nature.
A change of pace...
In 2017, I decided to make my first leap into the trail running shoes category. It was bold and risky. It was literally a day before I took off on a 10 day road trip that would include around 50 miles of hiking total. I know what some people are thinking right now, "what an idiot, he needs to break in those shoes first before going on some sort of trip like that!" I thought it was risky too, but it ended up paying off extremely well!
The shoes I bought were Salomon. They are a little pricey, but it was worth it in the end. I did not have a single issue with adjusting and wearing in the shoes. They were pretty much ready to go right out of the box. I did not receive any pains, sores, or blisters from this entire road trip in the Southwest portion of the United States, and I wore these literally 95% of the trip.
My whole reason behind this last minute switch was to eliminate the risk of blisters forming on my feet while I hiked a 20 mile round trip hike to Havasu Falls. I was worried that this trip, had I taken big clunky hiking boots, would become a death march for my feet not even halfway into the hike. I knew the trip out would be intense, and I wanted my feet to be in the best condition possible. I would not have any time to recover and heal if any blisters healed. I should also mention that this involved carrying a heavy 75L hiking backpack loaded with gear too. My shoes and feet held up wonderfully through this whole experience. I felt like I had enough support for my feet regardless of the low riding trail shoes, which is often an argument by big supporters of hiking boots. I believe some of this related to ankle health and strength. More injury prone ankles may benefit more from the use of hiking boots due to their higher ankle support.
Looking back on this new experience with a new type of hiking shoe, I will probably never look back to returning to the heavy hiking boots for most types of hiking I do at this point. I was so pleased with the performance these shoes provided me with. If I was able to do a extensive amount of hiking, in completely new shoes, and have no issues or sores, I am one happy hiker.
There are still some areas where I feel that using the taller hiking boots would be more beneficial, for example in snowy, muddy, or water logged trails. I know for a fact that my trail runners would be soaked very quickly if I had to hike through any terrain containing those elements. Overall, I really feel like all shoes or boots will get wet eventually regardless of how water resistant they are. Trail shoes will clearly become waterlogged much quicker than hiking boots, but they will dry much faster on the upside.
I have also been told that hiking boots are more helpful for navigating scree (loose small rocks) on sides of mountains as well. I can not speak from experience from this right now, but I am convinced trail runners could work fine for this too.
One other benefit for hiking boots are that they are built pretty tough, and they are built to last quite a distance. Trail running shoes have a tendency to wear out after a few years (all depends on how much you hike, to be honest). They are also cheaper most of the time though too.
As mentioned before, people with weak or injury prone ankles may also want to stick to the higher supporting hiking boots.
I'm not an expert on this subject, and I know some people are very adamant on the hiking boot philosophy for hiking and will not consider any other option, but I'm just discussing my experience with trail runners. And with that experience, I am encouraging other people to try taking this newer philosophy on hiking shoes a shot. It may be worthwhile like it was for myself.
If you are like me and have always suffered from painful blisters on your feet when wearing boots, then trail runners may be the option for you to save your precious feet. Nothing can ruin a hike quicker than blisters forming on your feet. Especially, if its on the heels, at least for me anyways!
If you are wondering how to determine what size or shoe to get after reading this article, I recommend going into REI and speaking with one of their floor staff. They are extremely knowledgeable about the topic.
Some other options for your feet
On a side note, if you are constantly struggling with painful blisters on your feet, I have tried several different remedies to relieve this, or prevent this. Some things work better than others, some prevent while some only delay the inevitable. I'm still always learning new and better ways to help prevent them, if you have any suggestions, feel free to mention them in the comments below to suggest it to myself, or other hikers reading this!
If you are hiking, and already have blisters forming, my usual go to now is Moleskin, or some sort of similar adhesive. It is much better than band aids, and provides a cushioned layer to protect the blister that's forming. This is my top recommendation to ease the pain of a blister. You can place band aids over the Moleskin if you want to ensure that it stays on wherever it was placed. You can even put it on a common spot you get blisters in order to prevent them from happening.
Another thing I sometimes utilize is for runners. The product is called Bodyglide. This assists with letting sweat and moisture escape more easily from your body in locations that get sweaty when your active. Sweat/moisture greatly increase the chances of blisters forming. Check out this link for more super interesting information on the formation of blisters. That was me being sarcastic by the way.
Another area I have really focused on in the last few years is socks. Not all socks are created equally, believe it or not. The higher quality, better hiking socks are gonna cost a bit more than your 12 pack of socks for $6. I commonly spend $15-30 on a pair of good hiking socks. My go to hiking sock is going to be mainly comprised of wool and other synthetic material. Cotton is a terrible material for socks for any sort of hiking adventure. Wool dries much faster and does a better job of keeping the body cooler. If you don't take my word for it, take it from the REI sock experts! Is that even a thing?!
This whole article is dedicated to hiking shoes and boots. Good quality boots/shoes are necessary to prevent these issues from arising. On top of good quality equipment, you need to make sure that it fits too. Generally, I always give my hiking shoes a half inch to an inch larger to accommodate for my feet swelling during lengthy hikes.
Aside from Moleskin, there are other types of bandages that can be placed on blisters. This was the technique I used to use, but I have since abandoned it since finding my savior, Moleskin.
Literally duct tape has a million different uses. I have also heard of people using it to prevent blisters! Apparently, you just need to wrap the sections of your feet that typically get blisters prior to a hike. I have not tried this, but if anyone has feel free to mention your experience!
These aren't the only answers to solving one of the biggest concerns of a hiker, but they are the answers and strategies I commonly utilize or have heard of. I'm always looking to discover new ways to prevent blisters! Feel free to provide more insight in the comment section if you have tried anything that is effective.