The Geartrade Guide to Hiking Boots vs. Trail Runners
Hiking is the least complicated sport ever. You just walk! Ideally somewhere pretty!
Of course, there are a few gear items that can really make the experience more comfortable and safe. (See our first aid kit guide and ten essentials guide here.) We also have a great beginners guide to hiking here. One of the biggest things to make or break your day is your choice of footwear.
Hiking boots: burly enough to go the distance
Proper hiking boots are what generations of trekkers wore—from our parents to our camp counselors to Edmund Hilary. They’re sturdy, a bit heavy, and built with grippy lugged rubber soles and lots of ankle support. Since they’re built like tanks, you might need a few hikes to break them in, let them mold to your feet, and build up the right callouses.
Typically, hiking boots are high-tops, which gives you lots of ankle support. This is invaluable if you’re heading out far into the wilds and don’t want to risk a sprained ankle, or if you’re a person with ankles that like to get a little too rowdy and can twist easily. If you might be covering uneven terrain, the ankle support goes a long way. Especially if you’re wearing a heavy pack, which can make you a little less steady on your feet.
The boots’ outsoles usually have thick rubber lugs (like off-roading tires for your feet!) that grip well on dirt and rock and can hike literally hundreds or thousands of miles without wearing the traction down. And no worries if you have to cross a creek or snow patch—these suckers are often waterproof-treated leather or waterproof Gore-Tex, so your feet should stay dry.
Since you’re making a lasting investment in a long-haul trucker of the footwear world, quality hiking boots usually cost quite a bit more than trail running shoes. But they last longer.
Trail running shoes: light and fast, but a little less substantial
Many hikers these days are taking to the trails in shoes that are technically trail running shoes. It’s understandable, though: they weigh very little so it’s easier to move faster with less strain, they’re less expensive, and they usually take way less time to break in. They might even fit just right out of the box.
There are cons along with the pros, though. Trail running shoes are most often low-topped shoes (although there are some exceptions, such as from Altra), which means it’s easier to roll an ankle or slip.
The traction is typically quite good, especially for the nicer brands, but a little-known fact is that the physics of the outsole material rely on you moving swiftly, touching lightly on the dirt and rocks to propel yourself forward. If you’re walking slowly, the grip may not work the same.
These lightweight shoes also just don’t have the built-in burliness to go several hundred miles without wearing down, so if you’re an active hiker and runner, you’ll likely replace them every season, if not more often.
Some trail running shoes feature waterproof Gore-Tex, which is lovely for winter running or for fording the occasional puddle, but keep in mind that this makes them less breathable and hotter. Which probably isn’t your cup of tea mid-summer.
Hiking shoes: a hybrid of boots and runners
Some brands are offering “hiking shoes” as a reasonable hybrid blend of hiking boots and trail running shoes’ better strengths. These typically are just low-topped versions of hiking boots, beefier than trail runners yet without the ankle support of a boot.
If this feels like the right Goldilocks solution for you, then there you go!
The sandal contingency: ode to Chacos
Meanwhile, a once-underground contingency of hiking sandal lovers continues to hike in Chacos, Tevas, and other sandals originally designed for river trips. If you don’t mind very little (ok, none at all) ankle support and an occasional loosey-goosey feeling that comes from having the shoe simply strapped around your foot, these sandals can be supremely comfortable.
Obviously, they’ve got breathability in spades. Your feet may find this delightful after a winter of confinement in ski boots, snowboard boots, or other closed-toed shoes. And you don’t need to worry about getting hiking sandals wet. They were born for that—so just slosh through the streams.
While a heavy-duty backpacking trip in Chacos may be a foolhardy move for your ankle health, an occasional trail hike or desert hike in sandals can feel great.
It’s a personal preference kind of thing
At the end of the day, you may not be a boot or running shoe die-hard—you probably want a pair of each and can use the right shoe for the day. After all, your needs are different on a long backpacking trip versus a short day-hike on a nice dirt trail.
By stocking your closet with a good selection of quality footwear that still has good traction, you can reach for the shoe that’s up to the task at hand. When you’re shopping used and UnNew here on Geartrade, it’s affordable anyway!
Send us your hiking pics this summer, sporting your UnNew footwear, clothing, and packs, by tagging us on Instagram We love to see this gear out in the wild!
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.