The Differences Between Trail Runners and Boots for Hiking

A number of serious backpackers are stashing their boots in the closet in favor of a type of shoe called trail runners. What is this type of footwear, and why are they making the switch? Is the change a good idea?

The Question

A number of serious backpackers are stashing their boots in the closet in favor of a type of shoe called trail runners. What is this type of footwear, and why are they making the switch? Is the change a good idea?

In the past few years the sport of trail running has increased in popularity. This means running on surfaces that are not paved or hardened. Usually trail running is done on single-track trails designed for hiking, sometimes mountain biking, through forested or grassy areas. And a specific type of shoes has been developed for this.

Trail runners (shoes) are usually low cut, with mesh panels for good ventilation, and excellent support. The model names change pretty often, but brands you may recognize are Montrail, New Balance, Brooks, Adidas, Merrell, Asics, Saucony, North Face, Nike, Izumi, and probably more. Some of these names will be more familiar to runners, and some to hikers. And this is because hikers have really taken to this type of shoe, especially ultra-light afficionados who want to shed every ounce of weight possible.

The Differences

Trail runners look pretty much like sneakers with a lot of mesh. Indeed, they do have a number of mesh panels in them to provide great breatheability. This can be a help to people who suffer from perennially hot feet. Of course, it also means that the shoes are not remotely waterproof. The mesh is made of very tough materials, so it provides a lot more abrasion resistance than regular sneakers. They can't measure up in this respect to leather boots, but for those who want to leave the boots behind these ar much better than soft athletic shoes.

Most trail runners are low-cut, although a few styles are available that are slightly higher. For some hikers this is not an issue at all. For others, who need, or are used to, the ankle support given by a boot, this may be a problem. It might at least require some getting used to.

Trail runners have a much more aggressive tread than regular sneakers or tennis shoes. For people who are used to hiking in boots the soles won't feel much different. For those who have done a lot of hiking or walking in sneakers, this could be a big advantage. The deep treads will provide a lot more protection from feeling stones or other protuberances through the bottom of the shoe. Of course the deep tread will provide a lot more traction than the tread on a normal athletic shoe. Coupled with this, there is usually a stiffer toe guard in the trail runners. This will help reduce the pain of stubbed toes.

The tongue in a boot is usually gusseted to keep dirt and stone from entering the boot, and trail runners have this same feature. Regular athletic shoes do not.

Internally, trail runners are much better than regular sneakers. What you get will, as usual, depend on what you pay. But running shoes are designed to keep your foot in a neutral position. Many of them are designed to protect those people who tend to overpronate from hurting their feet or creating back pain. To varying degrees, they will provide good stability to reduce turned ankles and rolling of the feet over obstacles in the trail.

In fact, there are so many designs now available, that trail runners and light hikers really just fill a continuum. They no longer have discreet identities.

Some people believe that those who backpack with loads over about 35 pounds should continue to wear boots. In actual practice, experienced hikers have learned what their own feet need and will tolerate. The bottom line on footwear for the trail is that one should wear a shoe that fits well, gives you good protection and support, does not hurt your feet, and matches your budget.

In any case, don't start on a major hike with any pair of brand new shoes. Break the shoes in and learn whether that pair is going to cause any particular problems for your own feet. There are few things more miserable than damaged feet on a hike.

Comparing the benefits of Trail Runners and Boots:

Trail Runners: cool, lightweight, arch support and maintenance of foot in neutral position, less expensive price range, easier range of ankle motion on rough terrain, highly padded

Boots: more waterproof, ankle support, more abrasion resistance, four season use (except probably in deep snow)


For those contemplating trying trail runners, many good deals can often be found near the end of summer as stores are switching from runners to winter boots. At full price you might expect to pay anywhere from $85 - $200. On sale you may be able to find something for half that.

Remember: fit, support, budget. Trail runners might be just the type of trail shoe for you.