A trusty pair of well-worn boots may be a timeless symbol of outdoor adventure, but many experienced trekkers are now hiking in trail running shoes. Is it just a passing fad, or a really good idea?
You may have heard that hiking boots are essential for protecting our feet and ankles on the trail. And yet, among long-distance thru-hikers tackling thousands of miles on the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails, around half start their hike in trail running shoes and nearly half of the rest switch from boots to trail runners during their hike. These folks cover a LOT of miles and are the experts of the hiking world, so what do they know that boot-wearing hikers don’t?
In this post I’ll guide you through the pros and cons of hiking in trail running shoes and recommend some models to try, but before going further I should admit that I’m totally biased. I’ve never owned a pair of hiking boots! I started my hiking and backpacking journey in trail runners and can’t imagine anything else.
I’ve worn my trusty Altra Lone Peaks for many hundreds of miles on the John Muir Trail, Colorado Trail, countless shorter trails, and even to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. The one time I had to don boots for an alpine climb, I had blisters by day two. I know some people love their hiking boots and see no reason to switch, but for me, trail running shoes the only way to go.
If you’re curious about making the switch yourself, read on to learn why trail running shoes have become so popular for hiking and backpacking. I’ll also cover some cases where they may not be the right choice, and offer tips for transitioning safely to trail runners if you’re used to boots. At the end I’ll recommend some of the most popular trail running shoe models for hiking, and give some general tips for how to hike in trail running shoes with as much comfort and ease as possible.
Looking for one of these quick answers? Start here, or scroll down for the details.
Yes, in most cases. Especially if you work on strength and stability, don’t carry a super heavy backpack, hike in warmer weather, and stick to established trails.
Yup, unless you have unusual weaknesses or past injuries, most people can backpack in trail running shoes. It helps to strength your hips and feet and work on your lightweight backpacking mindset.
They’re light, comfy, breathable, quick-drying, and sometimes reduce blisters.
If you hike in cold or wet weather, backpack with a really heavy pack, or have a history of ankle injury, you may prefer boots.
Start with short hikes. Do exercises to strengthen your glutes, core, and feet. Work up to longer hikes or backpacking with a heavy load.
Many popular long trails in the US are well-suited for hiking in trail running shoes, including the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, John Muir Trail, and Colorado Trail.
Looking for more? Keep reading for all the juicy details, because real life is always more complicated than a few quick answers.
Can you hike in trail running shoes?
If the idea of using trail running shoes for hiking is new to you, you might be wondering if it’s even a good idea. Traditional trail wisdom holds that boots support our ankles and protect our feet from rocks and roots. If this is true, then isn’t hiking in trail running shoes dangerous?
Well, actually, no. If you’ve been following running at all, you’ll recall that the minimalist / barefoot running craze (anyone else remember Born to Run?) disrupted the running shoe industry a few years ago with a similar premise. Though the fervor around that trend has mostly cooled and many runners have hung up their five-toe shoes in favor of regular running shoes once again, the lasting legacy is a valuable point: we can protect and stabilize our feet using our own strength and coordination instead of relying on external support.
If you do any kind of strength training (and you really should, but that’s a topic for a different post) you’re familiar with the idea that we can train our bodies to be stronger and more coordinated. Our feet are no different; the complicated structures of bone, muscle, and connective tissue can be trained and strengthened just like any other part of our bodies. It’s not all in the feet either; a strong core and glutes keep our legs and pelvis aligned properly and protect everything from injury, from feet to knees and on up.
So if your body is healthy and your biomechanics are sound, the best way to protect your feet is to let them move naturally and develop the strength and stability they were supposed to have, before you spent a decade or two sitting at a desk letting them atrophy (speaking for myself at least). This is where trail running shoes come in!
Trail running shoes are designed with the needs of runners in mind: they’re supposed to be lightweight, breathable, comfortable for many hours, and able to flex with natural foot movement. Running shoes designed for trails have grippy bottoms for good traction, and a rock plate for comfort and protection on rough surfaces.
As you look at these features, you might be realizing that the needs of hikers are pretty much the same! This is why trail running shoes are great for hiking. They provide the protection needed for aggressive movement on rough trails (Have you seen a great trail runner in action?), while still being comfy, flexy, and breathable.
Backpacking in Trail Running Shoes
I can almost hear you thinking, “This is all well and good for day hiking. But runners don’t carry camping gear and days of food on their backs. Surely backpacking in trail running shoes is a different story?”
True, runners don’t carry heavy loads, but the dynamic nature of running means their feet experience high forces and need to stabilize very quickly. Studies have shown that a runner’s foot can experience a peak force of 2-4 times bodyweight with each step! Unless you hike with a pack that weighs more than you do, the strength and stability demands of running are significantly bigger than backpacking. If trail running shoes are good enough for trail runners, they’re good enough for backpackers.
There are some exceptions, so I want to tread carefully here (pun intended…). Runners usually train to cope with these forces, so you’ll want to use the same mindset and make sure you train your body to hike with a heavy load (a good idea regardless of footwear choice). If you have poor biomechanics, past injuries that haven’t been fully rehabbed, or tend to hike with a very heavy pack, boots may be best for you.
Trail running shoes and lightweight backpacking tend to go especially well together. A lighter pack makes it easier to enjoy hiking in trail running shoes, and trail running shoes make it easier to enjoy the longer days that some lightweight backpackers put in.
Trail Runners vs. Hiking Boots: Pros and Cons
Now that we’ve established it’s reasonable to use trail running shoes for hiking, why might you want to? Here are the biggest benefits.
Benefits of Trail Running Shoes for Hiking
Less Weight on Your Feet: Some hiking boots weigh twice as as much as trail running shoes. That’s a lot of extra weight to lift up and put down with every step! Hiking in lightweight shoes feels easier, leaving you with more energy to put into hiking farther, faster, or “just” enjoying the miles even more.
More Breathable: Many hiking boots are waterproof or water resistant, which is intended to keep your feet dry when it’s wet outside. But what about when it’s wet INSIDE your shoe? Our feet can sweat up to half a pint per day and that moisture can’t escape very well from waterproof shoes, leading to hot, itchy feet and sometimes blisters. By contrast, most trail running shoes have breathable mesh uppers designed to let moisture escape so your feet stay cool and dry.
Quick Drying: Breathable shoes also dry faster; no more pulling on gross cold wet boots the morning after a rainy day or unexpected step into a stream. Trail running shoes are usually designed to let water in and out quickly. If you walk through a stream on a warm day, they’ll probably be dry again in 30 minutes.
Fewer Blisters and Hot Spots: Blisters are caused by friction between your foot and shoe and made worse by constant moisture. A lightweight breathable shoe often solves these problems. I can hike back-to-back-to-back 25 mile days in trail runners without a single blister.
More Comfortable: These benefits add up to make hiking in trail runners more comfortable for many people. I don’t carry camp shoes when I backpack because my feet don’t hurt in the evenings and I don’t need to take my shoes off. I can’t say the same for the few times I’ve hiked in boots.
Drawbacks of Hiking in Trail Running Shoes
As much as I love hiking in trail running shoes, I admit there are some cases where it’s not ideal. Here are some reasons why you might want to stick with boots in specific circumstances.
They’re not as warm. When temperatures approach freezing or you’re hiking through lingering snow, trail running shoes can be uncomfortably cold. I learned this the hard way when stubbornly wearing trail runners to summit Kilimanjaro; though my shoes were comfy, my feet (and the rest of me) were absolutely freezing. Plastic bag liners and an extra pair of socks can only do so much.
They don’t protect your feet on gnarly terrain. If you’re scrambling on class 3 or 4 terrain, you might appreciate a sturdier boot that can protect your toes from errant boulders and loose scree (and also has a sticky sole, like an approach shoe or mountaineering boot). If bushwacking in brushy or muddy areas a boot can also be appreciated. This comes down to personal preference though; some people really push the limits of trail running shoes! Personally, I ditch my trail runners in favor of mountaineering boots on terrain like the class 3 and 4 California 14ers.
They’re usually less durable than boots. This depends on the shoe model and where you’re hiking, but I often find trail runners show considerable wear after a few hundred miles when hiking on rocky trails. They’re usually cheaper than high quality hiking boots though, so the overall cost is probably comparable even if you replace them more often.
When does it make sense to hike in trail running shoes?
Putting this all together, you’re a great candidate for hiking in trail runners if:
- You want to hike longer miles with less discomfort
- You’re day hiking, or your backpacking gear is at least moderately lightweight
- The weather is not too cold
- You’re hiking mostly on established trails
- You have reasonable strength and balance, or are willing to start training to improve it
You can certainly get away with trail runners in other conditions too, and the more skill and strength you bring, the easier that will be.
Best Trail Running Shoes For Hiking
There are a LOT of trail running shoe models out there. It can be hard to know where to start, especially if you’re a hiker who isn’t familiar with running. This section will help you narrow down the choices and find the trail running shoes best suited for hiking and backpacking.
What to Look For
When choosing trail running shoes for hiking, look for shoes that are:
- Designed for training or ultra-distance racing, not short-distance racing (the latter will be more minimalist and usually not as durable).
- Moderately cushioned. Avoid shoes described as minimalist unless you’re making a slow and careful transition and know what you’re looking for.
- Intended for rugged terrain if you’ll be hiking on rough trails or cross country (they’ll have aggressive lugs and better traction).
- Not labeled GTX – this is a water-resistant design that doesn’t breathe as well and most hikers don’t need.
Popular Shoe Models for Hiking
Based on the above guidelines and surveys of hikers who completed long-distance treks on the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails, I’ve compiled this list of top trail running shoe models for hiking. They’ve been updated for the 2020-2021 season, but most of these models have been around for awhile, and previous years’ versions can sometimes be had for better prices.
La Sportiva Ultra Raptor
Weight: 12.8 oz
Heel-toe drop: 7 mm
Stack height: 29 mm / 22 mm (heel / toe)
This rugged option from a well-known technical shoe manufacturer will be able to take you anywhere. The 7mm drop is a good compromise, not zero-drop but not as raised as the Salomons.
View Ultra Raptor At:
My Personal Favorite
I can’t resist a quick highlight of my personal long-time favorite, the Altra Lone Peak. I never wear anything else for hiking or trail running. Here’s what I love about the Lone Peaks:
- Wide toe box: I have pretty narrow feet, but even I appreciate the roomy fit that never rubs the sides of my toes. The newer models have narrowed a bit (for a while I was stockpiling older models from eBay) but they’re still wider than most other shoes.
- Zero drop: This means the toe and heel are at the same height, in contrast to a slightly raised heel. I’ve solved issues with tight and painful Achilles tendons by gradually transitioning to zero drop shoes, and they just feel more natural to me.
- Flexible soles: Altras are pretty flexy compared to stiffer models, which allows for a natural gait and just feels good.
Other Factors to Consider
Everyone’s feet and mechanics are different, so keep these factors in mind as you search for the model that fits you best.
Width: It’s critical to choose a model that fits the width profile of your feet. Some people’s feet are wide in the toe and narrow in the heel, some are the other way around, and some are just wider or narrower than average overall. People with a wide forefoot often have good luck with Altra shoes because of their extra-wide toe box.
Stability and pronation control: This one is a little tricky, as common advice and recent science don’t always line up. We sometimes hear that pronation – your foot rolling inward when weighted – is bad and causes injury, and particular types of shoes are needed to correct it. Some recent research, however, doesn’t support this view. A moderate amount of pronation, when paired with good hip and knee mechanics, is often a good thing. People who pronate too much sometimes find stability shoes helpful, but they and everyone else should also do strengthening exercises to reduce the negative impact of too much pronation.
Toe room: Our feet swell when we hike, so look for a model with a little extra width in the toes and choose a size with extra length. Leave a thumb’s worth of space between your toes and the end of the shoe, and make sure the outside edges of your little and big toes aren’t scrunched against the sides.
Drop: This is the difference in height between the front and back of the shoe, and is largely a matter of personal preference. “Zero drop” shoes are said to promote a more natural gait, but many people do just fine with a raised heel. If you do switch from a raised heel to zero drop, transition gradually to give your calves and Achilles tendons time to lengthen and adjust.
Comfort: A recent study found that people intuitively choose shoes that support good mechanics because they find them more comfortable. This is great news! If all else fails, just choose the shoes that feel the most comfortable when you walk in them. Make sure you understand the return policy before taking them for any outdoor test walks.
Don’t be afraid to buy and try several pairs. Then either return or sell the ones that don’t work for you. Some stores like REI have great return policies, but often their prices will be higher to begin with. If you score a great deal online but the shoes don’t work out after light use, sell them on eBay! If it’s a popular model you can probably get at least half of the retail value (and people like me will be happy to buy your lightly used shoes). 🙂
Where to Find the Best Deals
You can often get a better price on the previous year’s model (usually indicated by a lower number, for example the Lone Peak 3.5 is older than the Lone Peak 4) on Amazon if they still have your size in stock. Some of Amazon’s shoe listings offer free returns.
Another great site is runningwarehouse.com, which offers free shipping and returns across the board and occasionally has sales on certain models.
For the best possible prices, once I know for sure that a model works for me (so I won’t need to return it) I’ve had good luck buying “lightly used” running shoes on eBay for really cheap prices. Typically they were just tried on and worn for a jog around the block before someone decided they didn’t fit and sold them for half the price in almost new condition.
Other Lightweight Hiking Shoes
If you’re not quite ready for trail running shoes, there is a compromise option. Some companies offer hiking-specific shoes that are lighter than boots but still beefier than trail runners. Some examples are the Salomon X Ultra and the Merrell Moab Ventilator.
These shoes lack the ankle support of boots, allowing for a more natural gait, and can be more breathable. However they will still be heavier, stiffer, and less breathable than a true trail running shoe. Are they the best of both worlds, or the worst? That’s probably an individual assessment.
Tips for Hiking in Trail Running Shoes
Size up. Feet swell after a few hours of hiking, and it’s nice to have the option of wearing thicker socks for warmth. Your hiking footwear should be at least one size bigger than your everyday shoes (allowing for differences between different brands’ sizing).
Start with short hikes and a light backpack. You can eventually work up to wearing trail running shoes for long hikes with a heavier pack, but give your body time to build strength and stability gradually. Start with day hikes and work up to an overnighter before committing to trail running shoes for a backpacking trip.
Add strength training to your routine. A strong body is more resilient to the rigors of the trail and more fun to hike with, regardless of footwear. Focus especially on the core and hips/glutes, which control stability and alignment all the way down to our feet. Continuing the theme of borrowing from trail running, here are some strength exercises to try (seek form advice from a personal trainer or quality videos if you’re new to weightlifting) and some power and agility moves to help with balance and stability.
While transitioning to hiking in trail running shoes, try these foot strengthening exercises to make sure your feet are ready for their newfound freedom. For more ideas on how to stay strong for pain-free hiking, see this post on dealing with knee pain while hiking, and this post on simple home workout gear.
Wear thinner, lighter socks. If you’ve been using thick hiking socks with heavy hiking boots, try switching to lighter running socks along with trail running shoes. I’m a big fan of Drymax Trail as well as Smartwool PhD.
Keep debris out with gaiters. Many hikers use a pair of lightweight hiking gaiters to keep dust, sand, and scree from working its way into low-cut trail running shoes. This sassy brand is very popular (they work for men too, my husband has a pair) and fun too!
Use a plastic bag between two pairs of socks for emergency waterproofing. If you find yourself hiking in wet, cold, or snowy conditions, this can take the edge off.
I’m sure it’s totally obvious by now, but I’m a big fan of wearing trail running shoes for hiking. I almost never hike in anything else and have enjoyed many hundreds of comfy blister-free miles in my Altra Lone Peaks. If you you decide to give it a try, I hope you too will experience the joys of light, comfy, breathable footwear on your future trail adventures.
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