Burly hiking boots or trail runners on a hike? There’s probably no right or wrong answer but conventional hiking boot wisdom is getting a [trail] run for its money. James dives into the discussion feet first.
My first pair of hiking boots were army-issued cadet combat boots – weighing nearly 3kg and rising mid-way up my shin.
I remember my first time slogging along fire-trails in the mountains wearing them; my feet feeling cemented to the ground. A man – or was he secretly a gazelle? – ran past my entire platoon – gracefully, effortlessly. He carried a small bladder pack, and on his feet were trail runners.
A switch flicked in my mind. Where do I get a pair of those?
I had trudged headfirst into an age-old debate among hikers – should I buy hiking boots or trail runners?
Buying footwear for the outdoors is confusing and even painful. Everything feels good when you’re walking around a flat smooth concrete floor in-store, but we’ve all heard horror stories of what happens when shoes don’t fit. If you want to strut your stuff in the outdoors, it’s a decision you want to get right. What are the differences between trail runners and hiking boots, and what’s right for you?
Think of hiking boots as the 4WD of footwear. Off road, on the rockiest terrain, the sole is so rigid it’ll feel like you’re walking on the flat concrete floor in-store. The soles provide more stability, your feet get less tired, and you won’t feel all the bumps and rocks underfoot – all especially useful if you’re just starting out or carrying lots of weight.
4WD’s are great on dirt roads, but cumbersome if you’re trying to find an inner-city parking spot. It’s the same with footwear – trail runners have a more flexible sole, offering less support for your foot. Don’t read ‘less’ as ‘none’ here. They still have support, and they are uber-comfy, but you’ll feel rocks underfoot, and your foot will bend more with every step. The upside is trail runners offer a complete range of motion: more nimble, more free.
Trail runners also have more traction, and the traction gets grippier and grippier the quicker you move – but no, that doesn’t mean you can sprint downhill without falling over – sorry!
‘But ankle support: Won’t I get broken ankles from trail runners?’
There’s a common misconception in hiking that you need ankle support from boots to protect your ankles. There’s a bunch of research papers on this, but I’ll summarise: there’s no real scientific backing for the benefits of ankle support. If your ankles are in good condition, you’ll be absolutely fine without it.
Undoubtably hiking boots provide more support than trail runners, but like an inner-city 4WD, it can be excessive at times. But are there any downsides to all this support? Why would you pick trail runners over hiking boots?
Durability and Weight
Hiking boots have tonnes of support. And it’ll literally feel that way as you hike.
There’s an old hiking adage that one kilogram on your feet is the equivalent of four kilograms in your pack; apparently it dates back to Edmund Hillary summiting Everest. Wherever its origins and whatever the science behind it, I’m telling you – it’s true. Heavier feet means more energy with every step. My old cadet boots felt like they were dragging my whole body down the hill. [I’ve even heard someone who was adamant the adage was one kilogram equates to six kilograms in your pack!!]
When it comes to weight, trail runners are far away winners. The average hiking boots weigh around 1kg as a minimum, and I found some almost weighing 2kg. In contrast, trail runners on average weigh around 300g. That is a … weighty difference.
All the weight and support makes hiking boots durable. On average, you’ll get 2000 km out of a pair of boots, compared to 800 km for a pair of trail runners. That durability makes a difference if you’re out in Woop-Woop where resupply is going to be hard and you bung a hole in your footwear – hiking boots reduce this risk. When the time does come to replace them, trail runners are cheaper than hiking boots, so the cost over time averages out.
With trail runners and hiking boots, you’ll have to pick either lightweight or durability.
Waterproofing and Breathability
While you’re choosing, you’ll also need to decide between waterproofing and breathability.
These two always come as a tradeoff, because adding a waterproof membrane – for example Gortex – always decreases breathability.
While you’re trying to navigate tracks and mountain ranges, look out for this common misconception too: when hiking, your feet must be clad in waterproof membrane. It’s simply not true! Yes, your feet will stay dry if you step into a puddle with a waterproof lining, but your feet will get wet, too, from perspiration from that same membrane.
Once wet, waterproof shoes are nigh impossible to dry – unless you hold them over the fire, and I’ve seen far too much sole rubber melted across campfire rocks to endorse this option.
The worst part of walking with wet feet is the mental barrier of thinking it’ll be gross.
Hiking in a rainstorm once, it felt like someone had pranked me by filling my boots with water. I turned to my experienced mate and asked ‘My boots are soaked. What do I do?’
‘Walk,’ he replied.
The idea was grotesque in my mind, filled with soft flesh, burning blisters and WWI trench-foot. The reality was quite different. Walking with wet shoes is actually totally fine, just make sure to dry your feet at the end of the day.
Footwear without a lining is more breathable, and dries quicker, even in your tent vestibule over night! Boots tend to be waterproof lined while trail runners aren’t – though there are some exceptions.
I’m not hating on waterproofing – it absolutely has its place, and boots – especially made from leather – are advantageous in situations where snow or mud cake your foot, building pressure that can force moisture through the membrane. Many boots are also snow crampon-compatible, where trail runners aren’t.
So, should you buy hiking boots or trail runners?
There are strengths and weaknesses to hiking boots and trail runners. There’s no Goldilocks, and so you’ll have to make a choice. This debate has raged for so long because it’s personal. But to help you choose, here are three questions to ask:
Where are you going?
Off-track, extreme long distance where resupply will be hard? Snow, mud or ice? For all the above, pack hiking boots. Anything less, consider trail runners.
How fast are you moving?
Slow pace, cautious, learning the ropes and just dipping your toe into hiking? Protect said toe with hiking boots. Travelling fast and lightweight? Go for trail runners.
How much you carrying?
New to carrying a pack, or going full mountain yak and carrying a heavy load? Pack hiking boots. Moving quickly, freely and light – choose trail runners.
Is there a scenario where hiking boots will get you through a hike that trail runners won’t? Most of the time, I think they’re overkill. But I have a beloved pair, for when going off-route, into snow or mud.
Don’t just take my word for it either, here is WAE editor Tim Ashelford’s take:
‘I hiked in trail runners on Monday, and hiking boots the week before. Personally, I only grab the hiking boots if it’s muddy, I have a heavy pack or it’s off-track, otherwise trail runners all the way!’
No matter what camp you choose to be in – boots or trail shoes – you’re all still welcome at the campground!
Cover Image courtesy of Le Bent