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TrailHack#105: Hiking Boots vs. Trail Runners: Why and When should I use either…

Ah, the age-long debate. Hiking boots, running sneakers, or trail runners. Which shoes should I wear when I go hiking. Your shoes are one of few pieces of equipment that get used every time, all the time. Investing in good hiking boots or trail runners pays off in comfort and ease.

Let’s start with rocks are hard surfaces. Roots and holes are unforgiving. The water is wet.

Thinking About Why Boots or Why Trail Runners for Hiking

You might ask yourself:

  • What are the best hiking boots? It depends.

  • What are the best hiking shoes? It depends.

  • What should I wear to go hiking in the winter in the middle of a blizzard? It depends.

That last one was for effect. But the answer from our experience is, it depends. As no strangers to the treks in the outdoors … from Machu Picchu to Shenandoah, we each have had our fair share of miles on the trail with blisters, bruised toenails, and anything else that can happen inside the rubber sole of a shoe while outdoors.

When you think about the question of trail runners vs. boots, first consider:

  • Leaves cover all sins of the trail. They are the dark horse that causes injuries and time on the couch.

  • Water and winter are a bad combination.

  • Rocks are hard. Let me say that again, but read it in slow motion. Rocks. Are. Hard.

These are the primary factors that we think about when selecting a hiking shoe and our decision for what to wear changes based on the season, temperature, and weather forecast. It’s a two-part answer.

Leaves Cover All Sins — Protect Your Ankles and Feet When Hiking

As the summer season transition to colder periods, the trees shed leaves to the floor of the forest and trails. By the beginning of spring, they have been stepped on, beaten up, and for the most part are no longer covering holes, sticks, roots, and anything that could cause a trip, fall, or banged up toe. Hiking while beautiful is sometimes an exercise of navigating land mines with your feet.

  • Support: Trail running shoes are typically lighter to do the shuffle down the trail if you happen to catch a toe on a root, but they do not provide the level of support needed if you step into a hole

  • Warmth: As you transition to the cooler periods from summer to winter, you’re more likely to stay warmer with hiking boots on your feel — with the appropriate thickness of socks

Water and Winter — Cold Feet Are Angry Feet

If you spend enough time on the trail, you’re bound to run into a stream, creek, or even river everyone once and while — regardless of the time of the year. And no matter how careful you are, it never fails that someone on the trek gets a foot in the water.

  • Waterproof: Running shoes do come with Goretex protective materials, but the low top does not protect very well against a dip in the water. Higher ankled boots protect against puddles, water, and the occasional foot slip. Whether it’s raining outside, your tracking through snow, or crossing a creek

Rocks Are Hard — Put a Barrier Between Your Feet

As the weather starts to warm up in the spring, we both like to transition to lighter clothing and shoes. The leaves are no longer hiding the branches, roots, or random holes and it makes it easier to navigate the trails. However, buyers beware that not all trail runners or running shoes for hiking are created equal.

  • Rock Plates: Many of the trail runners today offer a plate that is built into the sole of the shoe that is a layer of protection for the bottom of your feet. I am not saying that a rock is going to pierce your sole and cause an injury, although it can. When you’re hiking on the trail, it’s important to remember that the surface is not flat. Running shoes on flat surfaces are comfortable; about mile 5 on uneven and hard surfaces is quite uncomfortable. It’s like the soles of your feet are getting beat up with every rock and root that you step on. Find a shoe with a soleplate. These types of shoes have plates in the heel or the sole to provide another layer of protection

  • Water in Summer is Great: There are few things nicer on the trails than stepping in the water when it’s 100 degrees outside. Water and summer are your friends, that’s for sure. Unless you’re on a multi-day trip and don’t want the extra weight. And yes, every ounce counts on long treks.

The Skinny

For us … Waterproof hiking boots are for winter. Trail runners with sole plates are for the summer. The collar months are based on temperature. If it’s above 60 degrees, we typically go with trail runners. Anything below 60 degrees is mostly hiking boots. If it’s going to rain and the trail is going to be slippery, I may go with the hiking boot to protect my ankles - but that’s just because I am getting old.

Lowa Renegade GTA Mid

  • Nike Wildhorse: Yes, Nike, judge me if you want. But the Wildhorse has a “…segmented rock plate helps shield your foot on rough terrain”. It really makes a difference when you're out and about.

Nike Wildhorse

There are many shoes that offer similar functionality, these are just the ones that we landed on. In fact, we both wear the men’s and women’s versions of the shoes. And have been called out by friends about wearing the same shoes, clothes, etc. For her, she claims that it just makes it easier for her to gauge what she should wear based on the stuff that I put on for the day. Whatever works.

And don’t rule out REI garage sales and used gear (Tyson’s REI typically has a great selection of used stuff), eBay, or any of the gently used options to acquire shoes and other gear. Sometimes gently used is just as good as new. If you’re local to Northern Virginia, check out Good Wolf Gear ( for used equipment.

Regardless of your decision - boots for support and cold weather, trail runners for warm spring and summer treks. Get outside, have fun, and happy hiking!


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