Which hiking gear is best out on the trails is somewhat subjective and boils down to personal preference.
Whoever you speak to, you’ll probably get a different opinion on what qualifies as the ideal footwear.
For so long, we’ve been led to believe that if you’re going to be covering some serious distance, you need a pair of high-quality, sturdy and supportive boots.
As such, deep lugs, tough construction and a nice high ankle have been at the forefront of every boot-buying decision thus far.
But hikers are increasingly looking at other options that allow them to travel further, faster.
Is it okay to backpack in trail running shoes? Do you need to be carrying a lightweight pack (or none at all) to safely make the switch?
Below we take a look at the majors reasons for and against three footwear options: hiking boots, hiking shoes and trail runners.
Hiking boots have always been the go-to footwear for long-distance walking efforts for a number of reasons.
Even if you’re not taking to Everest or some other extreme landscape, they provide better sole and ankle support, which is crucial over long distances and when carrying a weight on your back.
They also offer better protection from muddy, wet and brushy terrain. This can be important when hiking in tropical conditions where leeches, snakes or poisonous plants may be found underfoot.
There’s no doubt that they provide more support, stability and water protection than hiking shoes, making them the more practical choice for off-trail adventures.
Anyone who does a fair amount of trekking during the winter months might struggle to move away from boots.
Gore-Tex waterproof outer layers, grooves for attaching cleats/crampons and anti-balling pads underneath to prevent snow build-up are all crucial elements that can’t be found elsewhere.
Inside padding and thick leathery walls trap heat in and circulate warmth around the foot.
As well as providing warmth, they keep the elements out – critical if you’re going to be hiking in snow.
That said, fully waterproof boots will always fail to keep your feet 100% dry. Why? Because the breathability is vastly reduced and there is a sweat build up within.
Even the highest quality waterproof boot only provide short-term protection from rain. When it pours, water runs down your legs and into your boots.
A good pair of gaiters can be a massive help here but it’s inevitable that your feet will eventually get wet. And what is worse than heavy walking boots? Wet, doubly heavy walking boots.
They also take forever to dry out – particularly without the aid of a hairdryer or radiator.
Boots are by far the heaviest hiking footwear choice, so you’ll end up expending more energy with each step.
The trade-off of this weight, and another thing in favour of boots over trail runners, is that they’re far more durable.
A decent pair will see you through a good 1,500 kilometres or so, saving you money in the long run.
Best Selling Hiking Boots
- Dynagrip outsole
- Standard footbed
- Recommendation: Typically, Merrell sizing can be a little...
- Waterproof - Constructed of a water-resistant upper and...
- Synthetic Upper - Durable and breathable, a lighter style of...
- Mesh Lining - Improves breathability to help keep your feet...
- Deep Lugs - Adds extra grip and stability to your footwear
- Cushioned Footbed - Supports your foot for added comfort,...
Hiking shoes sit somewhere in between boots and running shoes, offering a balance of support, water protection, weight and durability.
They are still sturdy and supportive but manage to shave off some weight. Even a few hundred grams can make a huge difference on long routes and multi-day hikes.
Hiking shoes are ideal for day hikes where you’ll be taking on streams, muddy fields or stony creeks.
They still provide plenty of protection for the feet and toes should you come up against a rockfall, broken glass, etc. They can also be handy for walking around town in wet spring or autumn weather.
In terms of durability, hiking shoes will start to fall apart around 25% sooner than full walking boots.
So they’ll still keep you marching for well over 1,000 kilometres as long as you clean and store them correctly.
As mentioned with the boots, there are plenty of hiking shoes that claim to be totally waterproof but too much condensation trapped inside can be as detrimental as letting rain in.
On top of that, they won’t keep your feet quite as dry as a high collar boot might. That said, some have large mesh panels that provide much needed airflow around the foot.
Opting for a shoe with more mesh than leather improves breathability and further brings down the weight of the footwear.
But for such small weight savings, is it worth losing the ankle support?
As time goes on, more and more articles and reviews are being released, undermining the need for high ankle support.
In fact, research indicates that the best way of preventing ankle injuries, is to do plenty of training and strengthening and stretching of the ankles.
If you do a fair bit of walking and don’t have underlying ankle issues, you should be able to go without the additional ankle support.
And whilst we’re on the subject of injury prevention, clunky boots tire your legs more quickly, making your footwork clumsier and putting you at higher risk of slipping or falling over.
So in some ways, you might argue, walking shoes are the safer option.
Best Selling Hiking Shoes
- Omni-tech waterproof breathable seam-sealed membrane bootie...
- Uses: Hiking
- Recommendation: Typically, Merrell sizing can be a little...
- Bellows closed cell foam tongue keeps moisture and debris...
- Box contents: One pair of moab 2 vent low rise hiking boots
- IsoDry membrane - allows your feet to breathe and keeps them...
- EVA midsole - provides extra cushioning and comfort
- Suede & mesh upper - durable and breathable, a lighter style...
- Mesh lining - improves breathability to help keep your feet...
- Rubber outsole - flexible, lightweight and long lasting
Trail Running Shoes
On the other end of the spectrum are trail running shoes, used by thru-hikers to cover thousands of trail miles every year.
The obvious reason for choosing trail runners is the incredible weight savings.
As any hiker would know, the more weight you carry, the more energy you expend carrying it, with weight carried on your feet being the most significant.
Why is this? Weight on your feet uses up five times more energy than weight on your back. So imagine how much you’ll save by switching out a two-kilogram pair of boots for a set of running shoes that weigh in around 500 grams.
It equates to losing up to six or so kilos from your backpack. Trail runners are also great for those who prioritise comfort.
Rigid boots don’t flex with your feet – ideal if you’re crossing rocky terrain weighed down by a sizeable pack, but otherwise tiring and uncomfortable.
Their lack of breathability also makes your feet more vulnerable to blisters, which is not the case with trail running shoes.
Running shoes’ construction is typically mesh all over, allowing plenty of air to move in and out. Obviously the downside of this highly porous structure is that where air can enter, water can enter.
The most popular options are non-waterproof for maximum breathability. If you get caught in a downpour or have to hike through a stream, your feet will know about it within seconds.
The upside is that the thinner materials and ability to remove the insole allow for a much reduced drying time.
The biggest and most unavoidable issue is the lack of protection from the cold. Trail runners are not suitable during winter and even in shoulder seasons you might start to lose feeling in your toes!
If you’re an all-season hiker, it may be the case that you need a second pair of hiking shoes.
Hiking boots can be expensive, take a long time to break in, and need to be maintained to keep their waterproofing and form.
Trail runners are a cost-effective and lightweight alternative that can go from box to trail in a matter of hours.
However, if you’re opting for trail running shoes instead of boots, you will need to do your research and find footwear with good traction and a flexible sole that is thick enough to avoid feeling rocks and roots underfoot.
Avoid running shoes that have large sections of unsupported mesh, because mesh wears out quickly on the trail and the last thing you need is your big toe poking through.
Running shoe soles compress over time and you’re looking at a maximum of 750 kilometres’ life out of them – about half of what you might expect from a hiking boot.
One final tip is to consider going up half a shoe size, as feet tend to swell over long days of hiking.
Best Selling Trail Running Shoes
- Men's trail running shoe for long distance off-road runs in...
- Perfect fit, Easy to slip on and off foot thanks to...
- Extremely light running shoe with removable OrthoLite insole...
- No slipping on wet, slippery or muddy mountain or forest...
- Content: 1 Pair of Salomon Speedcross 4 Trail Running Shoe,...
- Agressive Grip: Obvious and penetrating traction on soft...
- Precise Foothold: Close-to-foot and comfortable feel
- Lightweight Protection: Just enough to provide protection...
- Outsole: Wet Traction Contagrip
- Misole: Molded EVA /Lightweight Muscle/Injected EVA
- AGGRESSIVE GRIP: The fourth generation of our legendary...
- PRECISE FOOTHOLD: Feel one with the trail with a precise...
- WEATHERPROOF COMFORT: Techno fabric meets technical terrain...
If you do decide to make the switch, make sure you test your new shoes out (as you would with any other modification to your backpacking routine) at home and on shorter trails before setting off on a major hike.
If you’re not prepared to diverge from boots, then it’s absolutely worth it to splurge on a high-quality, lightweight pair.
Whatever your choice of footwear, look for something that hits the sweet spot combining the following factors: good traction, plenty of sole padding and underfoot support, comfortable straight out of the box, breathes easily and dries quickly.
Last update on 2020-11-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API