Trail Running Shoes vs Hiking Shoes - Backpacking Shoe Showdown

Back in the day, hikers only had access to bulky, sturdy footwear. Huge hiking boots that weighed 4 pounds and could survive being run over by a tank.

Nowadays, many models and styles are available that are more comfortable and weigh less. Backpackers know that hiking 15 miles in a day takes less effort when their shoes are lighter and more comfortable. That's why running shoes have seen a huge increase in popularity in recent years. ​

As the gap between hiking shoes and running shoes narrows, it makes more sense to look into some alternative shoe options that 10 or 20 years ago wouldn't have been possible.

Hiking footwear needs to fulfill two main requirements: protection from the environment and ankle support to help avoid injuries. These two factors depend on the terrain, the durability of your ankles and the weight of your backpack.  We'll take an in depth look at each factor and help you decide whether hiking shoes or running shoes make more sense for your situation.

Terrain and Backpack Weight

Uneven, rough terrain requires additional ankle support, but you can get away with less support on smoother paths.  Since the terrain you're on will vary by trail, just try to think of the average path you'll be travelling. 

If you mostly stick to marked trails that are well traveled, you don't need as much ankle support.  But if you're someone who likes to go off trail or travel on rocky terrain frequently then you'll want to choose a shoe option with more ankle support.

A heavy backpack can create problems for your knees and ankles and increases the chances of getting injured. Keep in mind that the condition of your ankles also plays a factor when selecting hiking footwear. If you’ve had prior sprains or consistently carry a 45+ pound backpack, consider beefing up on support and looking for a shoe option with extra ankle protection.

Ankle Support

When shoes for hiking have high ankle collars, they're called hiking boots. Beginner backpackers might think that the only way to support ankles is by choosing boots.

However, greater torsional rigidity of a shoe and proper fit are the main characteristics of ankle support because they create a stable platform when you’re walking.  Torsional rigidity is just a fancy way that shoemakers can say that their shoe flexes.  This means stepping on a rock won't result in your ankle bending and the full weight of your body coming down on your ankle.  The flexibility of the shoe allows the bottom of the shoe to deform around the rock and 'absorb' the impact and keeping your body balanced.

Characteristics of Hiking Shoes

Hiking shoes come in different rigidity levels that range from supple to virtually inflexible. The tread on this footwear is harder when compared to running shoes and typically features durable rubber. These soles can withstand abuse from roots and rocks.

Hiking shoes also come with thick lugs (the texture on the bottom of the shoe) that provide traction on loose soil.  These textured bottoms do provide some help with grip on sand and gravel but it's not that noticeable and wouldn't be a reason to choose hiking shoes over running shoes if that's the only deciding factor for you.

The upper portions of the hiking shoe are made of sturdy materials but don't have to consist solely of leather. Many shoes now days feature combinations of leather, mesh, and fabric to take advantage of the water resistant properties of one material and the light weight of another.

Characteristics of Running Shoes

Running shoes are much more flexible and lightweight compared to hiking shoes.

Running shoes also typically last for about 500 miles which is more durability than you'll get out of hiking shoes at a similar price point.

They are lightweight, and you don’t have to break them in because they feel comfortable right away. Running shoes also come in numerous colors and designs which could be a plus if you're trying to look good while backpacking.

Running shoes are ideal for paved nature trails and clear forest paths. Trails that have a lot of foot traffic and are nice and packed down mean you don't need to deal with any variation in terrain which can be troublesome for running shoes.

How to Decide between Hiking Shoes and Running Shoes

If you’re new to hiking and carry a heavy backpack, it takes some time to get used to keeping yourself straight on the trail. Hiking shoes with thicker soles will help provide stability. Until you get used to maintaining a healthy posture with weight on your back, you might want to consider hiking shoes over running shoes, even on beginner’s hikes. Running shoes are ideal when you have strong ankles and the trail conditions are gentle and smooth.

Some general tips for both hiking and running shoes are:

  • Go up half a shoe size to accommodate any swelling in your feet.
  • Make sure that the arch support, stitches and lace designs are of high quality.  
  • Avoid shoes that have big areas of unsupported mesh because this material wears out quickly.  
  • Stick with well known brands that have a good reputation.  

There's an old saying that goes "Don't cheap out on anything that goes between yourself and the ground".  This applies to mattresses, tires on your car, and shoes.  The last thing you want to do is try to skimp out and save $20 on a pair of hiking shoes only to have your cheap shoes fall apart half way through a 40 mile loop.