Boots or Trail Runners

When I started hiking as a child everyone knew you should wear hiking boots, ideally made in Italy with Vibram soles and leather.uppers. Only stupid people wore tennis shoes while hiking, though often they were brought for river crossings and for relaxing around camp. This is still a common view in the general public.

When I join traditional hiking or backpacking groups, I often encounter people who think I am irresponsible for wearing trail runners, and that I am crazy when wearing minimalist shoes or sandals. I try to explain that I have literally walked thousands of miles in my minimalist shoes without a problem and that there is some good science suggesting a “barefoot” approach is smart… but people are still concerned.

These days trail runners are the most common footwear worn by people who finish long hikes like the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Camino De Santiago. Trail runners are simply running shoes that have soles designed to have good traction on trails rather than paved streets. They have many of the same properties of our camp shoes: light weight, comfortable, and more breathable than our boots. They are optimized for comfort rather than protection. I have come to love using trail runners and no longer even own a pair of boots.

Ankle support?

Trainrunners don’t provide what most people think of as ankle support… but most boots aren’t significantly better.  Boots typically prevent excessive forward / reverse motion which trail runners do not provide. But in most cases it’s lateral motion that results in ankle injuries. Most boot provide little protection from lateral motion. If the boot doesn’t feel like a ski boot or a mid-calf military jump boot, than it’s most likely not giving you full ankle support.

What most boots and trail runners do provide is a good traction, a heel cup and foot bed which provides a good foundation for your foot, making it less likely that your foot will end up at a bad angle.

Wearing boots provide a sense of invulnerability, which can lead to excessive carelessness about foot placement. Wearing trail runners tends to make people aware (at least at an unconscious level) of the conditions they are walking on. The combination of higher situational awareness, better tactile feedback, and more agile feet, make it easier to place feet and enables people to recover a bad placement before full body weight is applied.


I have found that in nearly all conditions trail runners provide traction which is good as, if not better than classic, Vibram soled hiking boots. The situations where I have found hard Vibram soles to provide better traction have been where I needed a hard edge and/or lateral stiffness so I could drive the edge of my boot into the ground. For example, when going across a steep hill that doesn’t have a trail or descending some scree fields. In most cases I think the best way down scree is to go strait down (sort of like a cross country skier).  When you need a better bite uses your heels rather than the sides of your shoes. I think Vibram might have a slight advantage on wet granite.

Sole protection

Most hiking boots have a heavy, protective shank. If you come down on a pointed rock the pressure is spread over the entire foot. With trail runners, the pressure isn’t spread as evenly, so you can “feel” the rocks you step on. In theory, this could lead to bruising you feet which wouldn’t been good.

I have never bruised the soles of my feet wearing trail runners… but I suppose this could happen to people going over very jagged conditions who have sensitive feet. If bruising is an issue, there are optional “rock guards” which can provide added protection.

Top Protection

On well established trails or hiking in areas that have fairly spare vegetation (high alpine, etc) protecting the tops of your feet isn’t that important. In many cases the added ventilation offsets any lack of protection. Additionally, people wearing lighter weight shoes tend to be a bit more aware of foot placement which reduces potential issues further.

There are some environments where the tops of the feet need more protection than the average trail runner. Places that have extremely broken ground with sharp rocks can tear apart the tops of most trail runners, if not hurt the wearer’s foot. Likewise, travelling through areas that have dense stands of plants that have sharp or pointy edges can go right through light uppers. In these cases it is wise to go with a more protective “upper”. While I haven’t experienced this, I understand there are some places (like the Australian outback) where there are snakes that can bite through most shoes. The final situation where I think this concern could be justified is when doing trail work or engaged in other activities that use large, heavy, sharp tools.


Blisters are caused by friction or extended pressure on the skin. One of the common problems is footwear which is too tight or crowds the toes together. Historically boots had wide toe boxes and shoes didn’t. Thankfully there are now a number of companies which make shoes that have recognized the advantage of a wide toe box.

Another common cause of blisters is friction. This is much more common in boots because the uppers tend to be stiffer than trail runners. When you walk the boots will be unyielding which will put pressure on specific areas of a person’s foot. It’s common for blisters to appear in these locations. It is also likely that with the boot not yielding that a person’s foot will slide a bit inside the boot. This creates friction. Worse, most boots don’t let out moisture out which makes the friction worse. The best solution for this is using two pairs of socks with part of the sock with the most texture facing the shoe and foot, and the smoothest part between the socks so the rubbing isn’t directly on your foot.

Comfort Normally Rules

I mentioned that when I join more traditional groups there are people who are concerned when I am wearing trail runners. On the beginning of the trip, these folks are wearing heavy duty hiking boots. Ironically, during the trip they will develop blisters which become so painful they can’t put on their boots. What do they do? They finish the hike in their water shoes, sandals, crocs, or tennis shoes. I try not to point out that by wearing my trail runners I have avoided the crippling blisters while having footwear with good traction.

Foot Freedom and Energy

I find that boots with stiff soles makes it harder to enjoy the environment I am in. I like “feeling” where I am rather than being protected for it. I also love a sense of freedom, and not feeling weighted down. When I switched from heavy hiking boots to lighter shoes I noted that I had more energy at the end of the day. Later, I discovered several papers which examples this:

for every 1 lb of footwear, it’s like carrying an extra 6.4 lb of weight on your back

[Legg SJ, Mahanty A. Energy cost of backpacking in heavy boots. Ergonomics.1986 Mar;29(3):433-8.]

Trail Runners vs Heavy Hiking Boots

People often talk about how trail runners are “disposable” and how hiking boots will last forever. My experience was that I got around 3000 miles before I needed to at least re-sole, if not replace my boots. Frank Revelo recorded his experiences with 15 pairs of Belleville Boots concluding he could get at least 2000 miles from each pair.

Area  Trail Runner  Heavy Duty Hiking Boot
Shoe Weight18oz70oz
Equiv work for this Weight on Back7.2 lbs28 lbs
Service400-750 miles3000+ miles
Cost/Mile10-19 cents<6 cents
Break In PeriodPractically NoneOften 100+ miles
Foot ProtectionModerate to GoodExcellent
Moisture ManagementMost are fairly breathable.  Your feet will get wet.  They will also dry in a few hours of hiking.  Gore-Tex trail runners are available.Most are highly water resistant or waterproof.  If they do get wet they stay wet for a long time.  Feet tend to be slightly damp because when they are sweating, it is hard for the moisture to escape.
InsulationTypically no insulation on top.  Many models have some amount of mesh which helps keep feel cool and well ventilated. The soles though (often made from light weight foam) tend to be more insulating than heavier boots with dense soles.Tends to be warm on top.  Thick leather or material, and typically thick sock to protect your feet from the boots.  In cold weather good.  It hot weather you feet sweat and swell which encourages blisters to develop.

Reasons for Boots

As mentioned above, I don’t use boots anymore, but I do believe there are a limited number of situations where boots are the best footwear. There are times when the ankle support of a jump boot is needed, when feet need to be protected from a hostile environment. Crampons typically work better on boots than lighter shoes. Finally, it is possible to complete an extended trip with a single pair of boots. This is important it you are in locations with replacing trail runners every 500 miles will be difficult. Some people think heavy boots are best in cold conditions because they are insulated where trail runners are not.

Hiking Shoes

A compromise between trail runners and boots are hiking or approach shoes. They tend to have the thick, stiff soles of hiking boots, but lighter weight and more breathable uppers.

So what’s your choice?

1 Comment

  1. Not sure if your physiological cost calculation for shoes is correct. I’d have to check the reference but, from memory, studies on running have shown that it is only footwear weight above 150g that incurs a measurable physiological cost. So trail Shoes might be disproportionately less energy costly than your calculation as the relationship does not appear to be completely linear.

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