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Hiking boots vs Trail Runner Shoes

Hiking is a popular activity in the United States and is the preferred term for long walks on nature paths in the countryside, dense forests and mountainous areas. Backpacking is the term used for multi-day hikes. Backpackers carry a lot more gear. Trail running, on the other hand, also takes place off-road, but involves running far distances on isolated coastal paths, hilly terrain and forest trails. Hikers and trail runners often share the same routes.

Trail runners typically wear running shoes and tend to carry only water and navigation tools. Hikers usually wear hiking boots and carry essential equipment with them.  The list often includes items such as knives, fire starters, first-aid kit, flashlight, trekking pole and sunscreen.

Choosing the best shoes for your adventure starts by assessing the type of trail you are about to challenge. Before you head for the hills, you need to make an informed decision about hiking boots vs trail runner shoes. Hiking boots differ from trail runner shoes in many ways. It remains important to consider foot protection, type, grip and construction of the shoe when choosing proper footwear for the great outdoors.

Types of trail runner shoes

Once you know the type of trail you plan to run on, you may want to choose the type of shoe that will suit your needs best. Some hikers also use trail runner shoes to save weight. Trail-running footwear can be divided into three categories, namely light, rugged and off-trail.

Light trail runner shoes are designed for less challenging trails and offers modest protection against roots and rocks. Rugged trail shoes are made from sturdy materials and offer great protection against thorns, rocks and brush. Off-trail runner shoes are designed with excellent torsional rigidity and are made with more resilient materials.

Stack height, or cushioning level, of the midsole is available in a wide range of options, including:

  • Barefoot is the description for runner shoes with no padding
  • Minimal cushioning level has no midsole padding
  • Moderate stack height is typically a design with enough padding for a comfortable run over rocky trails
  • Maximum stack height offers a lot of padding in the midsole

The difference between the height of the heel and that of the forefoot also needs to be considered. Biomechanics is a study to determine what causes injuries and how athletes can prevent it. The correct heel-to-toe drop is important in runner shoes as it provides a more stable landing platform and prevents knee and muscle injuries.

The fit of a trail runner shoe is one of the most important considerations. Footwear is only great if it fits your foot. Foot volume, arch length and shape should be taken into account. It should provide adequate width and length. Some trail runners’ feet swell as they run. Ensure that you purchase the correct shoe size.


  • Excellent grip on dry terrain, snow and mud
  • Some trail runner shoes are water-resistant
  • Solid traction
  • Good combination of protection and flexibility


  • Not ideal for difficult terrain
  • Leaves ankles exposed to rocks and thorns
  • No ankle support
  • Even with membrane, not waterproof

Choosing the best hiking boots

Materials have an impact on a boot’s durability, weight and breathability. Full-grain leather offers good water resistance and excellent durability. This material is commonly used in backpacking boots built for rugged terrain and heavy loads.

Split-grain leather is a combination of nylon and cowhide. The material offers less resistance to water, though some boots feature waterproof liners. The nylon creates a lightweight shoe with good breathability.

Nylon, synthetic leather and polyester are also used in modern hiking shoes. The materials dry faster and are generally lighter than most of the other hiking boots. The downside of these boots may show wear sooner than the boots made of leather.

Nubuck leather resists abrasion, is durable and waterproof. The leather resembles suede after it has been buffed. Hiking boots made from nubuck leather is flexible, yet takes time to break in.

Midsoles provide cushioning and buffer feet from shock. EVA and Polyurethane are generally used for firmer support and durability. Shanks are sandwiched between the outsole and midsole to add stiffness. Semiflexible, thin plates are inserted just below the shank to protect feet from getting injured by uneven rocks or bruised by roots.

The lug pattern on the outsole sheds mud more easily and offers good traction. The heel brake reduces the chance of sliding during steep descents. Your footwear should fit snug and be comfortable to wear. You may want to break your boots in before the extended hiking trip.


  • Offers great stability and durability
  • Waterproof membrane keeps the boot dry
  • Ankle and foot protection
  • Performs well in snow, water and mud
  • Excellent for cold-weather trips


  • Usually require break-in period
  • Hard to run in

Hiking boots vs trail runner shoes

With literally hundreds of trail runner shoes and hiking boots available on the market, there are a variety of choices in each category. Your body type, how fast you will be going and the terrain on the trail are some of the key factors you should consider. If you do not require too much support from your footwear and you plan on taking a heavy pack with, a hiking boot may be an excellent choice.

Trail runner shoes are probably the best if you are on a speed hike. Light trail shoes offer less grip, but off-trail and rugged provide almost the same traction than hiking boots. For a lightweight option with ankle protection and good stability, the day-hiking footwear with its mesh upper may be just perfect for you.


One has to make an informed decision about hiking boots vs trail runner shoes. Hiking boots differ from trail runner shoes in many ways. With the hundreds of hiking boots and trail runner shoes available on the market, there are a variety of choices in each category. Your body type, how fast you will be going and the terrain on the trail are some of the key factors you should consider.

By |2018-07-12T11:37:47+00:00July 18th, 2018|Categories: Informational|Comments Off on Hiking boots vs Trail Runner Shoes

About the Author:

My name's Jim and I love to get outside. Hiking, backpacking, camping, whatever. I started GearSignal because I wasted too much money on horrible gear that I ended up throwing out. I want to help you avoid making the same mistakes as me. Never buy another piece of crappy backpacking gear!