Should You Ditch Your Hiking Boots for Trail Runners?
The trail running shoes vs hiking boots is an ongoing debate that never seems to come to a conclusion. People belonging to the hiking boots camp have their own reasons to believe that hiking boots are superior to running shoes. However, more and more people have started to make the switch to lightweight shoes when hiking.
Are hiking boots really necessary? Both running shoes and heavy-duty hiking boots would get you through almost any trail. But the right selection depends on how, when and where you hike. Instead of making your decision based on the latest trends, it makes more sense to select your footwear based on the expected weather conditions, the terrain and your own experience/strength.
Sure, there are situations where hiking boots can be the better option compared to running shoes like snowy winter hikes, but do the pros really outweigh the cons? Let’s find out.
Part 1: What’s Wrong with Hiking Boots?
People who have already made the switch from hiking boots to trail running shoes believe that pound for pound, hiking boots are not the best option. Some of the main reasons why people make the switch include:
Weight is often the number one reason why backpackers and hikers are moving away from hiking boots to something more manageable like trail runners. That’s why we’ll try to give weight more ‘weight’ than other reasons.
What you wear on your feet can drain up to six times more energy compared to what you carry on the back. In other words, removing two pounds from shoes is equivalent to removing up to 12 pounds from the backpack, which is significant enough to warrant a switch. That’s why people belonging to the ultralight movement don’t consider boots a good option when cutting every gram is the objective.
Although many companies offer lightweight hiking boots, they are still heavier than most running shoes. Every gram counts when backpackers are trying to shed weight for long trips. Boots can weigh around 3.5 pounds (and more), which is almost one-fifth of the total weight people are allowed to carry on most airlines.
Gone are the days when an 80L backpack was the gold standard. Backpackers now prefer carrying as little weight as possible and often go to extreme lengths to reduce every gram possible. In such situations hiking boots are often the least useful item (pound for pound).
The weight of shoes also impacts the quality of long hikes. Heavy shoes start to feel heavier than they actually are on long trails. Two things almost every backpacker wants are versatility and reduced weight and hiking boots are not good at both.
This is probably one of the most talked about key selling points of hiking boots. However, there is not enough concrete scientific evidence that ankle support actually makes hikes any easier or safer. Experts believe that healthy and active individuals don’t really need external ankle support. Instead, they need to focus on strengthening their ankles by stretching, exercising and staying active and therefore developing muscles in those areas as well as getting their feet and legs used to the strain of long hikes and runs.
Moreover, wearing boots for long periods of time can actually be less safe than wearing lightweight shoes. Heavy shoes can make your feet and legs feel tired in long hikes. This can cause fatigue, which leaves people more prone to injuries.
Boots are not very travel-friendly because they are heavy, large and also don’t fit well in standard bags. Either you have to wear them almost all the time or carry them around inside a large bag. They are also hard to take on and off, which can be an issue during security clearances.
It also does not make much sense to carry so much extra weight when you only have to hike for a few hours. You probably don’t need hiking boots for most of your travel trips anyway so why bother carrying around 4-pound boots all the time? You’ll be fine without boots as long as it’s reasonably warm (10 degrees Celsius +), the weather remains dry or you don’t plan on hiking through snowy/muddy areas.
Hiking boots don’t come cheap with prices hovering above $150. You might be able to find cheaper options, but you have to compromise on the overall quality and features offered by expensive hiking boots. For around half the price you can buy a pair of quality trail running shoes or in fact, any other type of shoes you like.
Many hikers and backpackers are enticed to buy hiking boots because the manufacturer claims them to be waterproof. However, waterproofing also means that your feet won’t be able to easily breathe and can become wet with sweat (instead of water). Moreover, they are waterproof only to a certain extent as rain water can easily run down the legs and soak boots from the inside.
Another thing related to waterproofing is the amount of time leather boots usually take to dry. Non-waterproof hiking boots can take a long time to dry, which is not something backpackers can afford on long routes. Even waterproof boots can get wet from the inside due to rain and when that happens, the rest of the journey becomes a pain. Water will eventually get inside the boots if it rains for long enough out in the wild or you’re sweating.
Blisters and Breathability
Rigid hiking boots with hard soles don’t flex much and restrict breathability. Wearing them on long hikes can cause your feet to sweat more than usual, potentially causing blisters and smelly feet. This can also happen even if you have broken in your boots, which takes some time (and miles).
Almost any high-quality synthetic material is going to be more breathable than leather. Waterproof boots are even less breathable than non-waterproof boots. In context of breathability, we recommend not to buy waterproof shoes of any kind unless you specifically need them. It usually makes much more sense to use fast-drying shoes when having to cross streams instead of waterproof boots, as they would usually not go high enough to prevent water from getting in.
Advantages of Hiking Boots
Since we have already covered most of the cons of hiking boots, it’s unfair to totally ignore the advantages hiking boots have over running and other lightweight shoes. Hiking boots make sense in winters, especially when you are hiking through snowy and muddy areas. Hiking boots can also be useful in trekking tours where you need something more durable and protective than running shoes. As we mentioned earlier, hiking boots can be a good option in many situations because they provide:
- Better stability
- More durability
- More coverage
- Warmth in cold winters and snow
- Better traction because of the thick sole
- Better at sloughing off mud, water and snow
If you really prefer these over the advantages running and trail shoes have to offer, then hiking boots might be a better option for you. However, these advantages are mostly relevant to only a few situations. On the other hand, running and other lightweight shoes provide a wide range of benefits as covered below, which can easily outweigh the rather limited advantages of hiking boots.
Part 2: Why Trail Running Shoes (and why ditch Hiking Boots)?
A growing number of thru-hikers and trekkers are switching to trail runners who sometimes walk thousands of miles wearing them. Also referred to as ‘ultralight hiking’, people belonging to this camp are looking to cut as much weight as possible. Boots are usually listed in their top-five list of items to cut weight, with shelter being number one.
Many ultralight hikers are strong advocates of wearing the lightest possible and barefoot/minimalist shoes. Barefoot shoes are designed to closely mimic the experience of walking/running barefooted. The benefit is even further reduced weight compared to shoes with more padding. They also help to develop better foot strength and muscles that would normally not be used when hiking in padded running shoes or hiking boots.
The reasons for choosing trail runners over boots are for the most part, the ones that helps deal with the cons of boots and include:
Ankle Support: Myth or Fact?
Many backpackers choose heavy-duty boots over lightweight shoes because they are strong believers of ankle support and the roughness boots offer. However, there’s not any concrete scientific evidence to prove that angle support is really helpful in backpacking. Ankle support is the key selling point of boots and the concept revolves around keeping people safe from injuries.
In fact, boots can tire legs quicker and put backpackers and hikers at a greater risk of injury. That’s the opposite of what they are advertised for, so it does not make much sense to wear boots for ankle support specifically.
Trail runners shine in this area where boots fail to impress. Being lightweight is their hallmark as they are made using lightweight materials (also shorter so even less use of materials). Less weight on your feet means less fatigue and more energy to move further. Light soles of these shoes might not give you the kind of protection thick soles of boots do. But you are less likely to trip as your feet are closer to the ground and you can ‘feel’ what’s below your feet, which can be an advantage in challenging terrains.
Despite the large claims of manufacturers who say that their hiking boots have great ventilation systems, they are no match to trail runners when it’s 100-degrees outside. Sweaty feet can cause blisters, which in addition to discomfort can also be painful. Shorter, lighter and breathable trail runners are more suitable for warm weather. These shoes make it more comfortable to backpack in warmer months by keeping your feet cool and dry.
In addition to being lightweight, flexibility is another main reason why backpackers pick trail runners over hiking boots. Trail runners allow them to conquer a variety of terrains, including dirt, grass, forests and rivers without having to swap their shoes. Boots don’t offer this level of flexibility as they are rigid and suitable for only a handful of situations.
Trail runners adapt to your feet more easily and unlike boots that have to be broken in, work right out of the box. Their agility makes them suitable for a variety of terrains, including those usually associated with boots, while trail runners are also a better choice for walking, trail running and hiking in most terrain.
The time required to dry your shoes might not be an issue for short one-day hikes, but it’s an important factor to consider when backpacking for days on end. Hiking boots are not as “fully waterproof” as manufacturers claim, and once they get wet from the inside, they can take a long time to dry. Trail runners on the other hand dry quickly/easy to take off and also make it easier to cross through rivers as the ankles are free to pivot/twist.
Backpackers can use the same pair of trail runners in almost all their trekking adventures between spring and fall. However, your specific requirements may vary for long treks in challenging terrains. But still, backpackers have been using their trail runners on such treks without any issue. A non-water proof and lightweight pair of trail runners give you the versatility not possible with heavy and rigid boots.
Less weight on your feet, more flexibility and versatility and compactness translate into more comfortable journeys. Trail runners don’t feel restrictive like boots do and provide a better movement range.
Depending on your definition of hiking and when and where you want to hike, trail runners are considered the better overall option for a variety of terrains. A large number of backpackers have already given up on boots and don’t consider ankle support as an essential element to look for in hiking shoes.
Additional weight on your feet can be costly and although hiking boots are beneficial in certain situations, their cons outweigh the pros for all-season use. Trail runners are easy to recommend if you are looking for comfortable shoes that can breathe easily and dry quickly.
However, if you feel more comfortable in hiking boots despite all their cons, no one should stop you from doing your thing. Ditching your hiking boots is a decision that needs to be evaluated carefully considering your own requirements, terrain, experience and physical strength. That’s why in many cases, boots vs trail runners is simply a region and season-specific decision.