For most conditions provided you are carrying less than approximately 40 lb, I would strongly recommend trying trail running shoes because they can be quite comfortable and will be lighter than the more traditional hiking shoes or boots; I have heard the following concerns about using trail runners rather than boots.
There are lots of good trail running shoes on the market these days. There are a number of factors you should consider when looking at a trail runner:
- Fit: If the shoes don’t fit you, skip them. You need to find shoes which fit the shape and volume of your foot. Pay particular attention to how well the heel box hold you and if there is enough space around your toes. Some people buy shoes that are 1-2 sizes larger than normal, in a narrower width to give their toes maximum space.
- Foot Support: You should start with a wet foot test to figure out what cushioning and control features you might want.
- Type of Sole: The sole of the shoe will determine what some of terrain you will have good traction and how durable the sole will be. Softer materials typically have better traction on hard / flat surfaces but wear more quickly. Deep / aggressive soles with lugs are the best for variable terrain, especially when there is lose materials.
- Ventilation: In most cases you will want a highly ventilated shoe to let your feet breath. There is a trade off for the ventilation which is external moisture can get in, and extreme ventilation (light mesh) will not protect your feet from thorns and other pointy plant material.
If there is an athletic shoe manufacturer that seems to make shoes that fit you well, I would look to see if they make a “trail running” model, and try that. If there is no manufacturer that you are more inclined, you might see what shoes are recommended by the wet foot test at runners world ltd and/or check out the descriptions and reviews on running warehouse. The following are some of the popular manufacturers that I have had reasonable luck with. Note: the models listed in the next section are likely out of date. I have found shoes that work really well for me, so I typically am not following shoes too closely anymore:
- Inov-8: Inov-8 has become quite popular among fell runners, ultra-runners, ultralight backpackers, and with some adventure racers. Inov-8 shoes tend to be very light weight, have very aggressive soles which are very flexible. Their lightest shoes are about as close as you can get to going barefoot while having something on your feet. One really nice thing about Inov-8 is that they have committed not to make gratuitous changes to models, and will keep making old models until it is no longer economically feasible.
- Montrail: Velocity line on trail runners seems quite popular with the light weight backpacking community. In particular, the Hardrock and Vitesse models. Montrail tends to have a more generous toe box than many other manufacturers. In the past year Montrail seems to be losing their way makes shoes which doesn’t seem to compare favorability to previous years designs.
- New Balance: Seem to have been one of the earliest manufacturers that embraced trail runners by introducing the M801AT. This was a great line of shoes, but NB kept change the design. They were good through the M804-807 depending on who you ask but but the M808-809 really sucked. Hopefully NB will learn the lesson and not play with working designs until they break them. I don’t have experience with NB current shoes, thought I might give one of their minimalist shoes a try soon. New Balance is one of the few manufacturers which offers there shoes in a wide range of widths… so if you have a particular wide or narrow foot, I would start with New Balance.
- Salomon: Makes a number of shoes lines which might be of interest including the XA and Amphibian. Salomon shoes tend to run wide through the entire shoe. The fast lacing system is interesting, but it limited customizing fit by changing lacing and it’s hard to repair in the field.
Manufacturers that I don’t have a lot of experience with recently, but are worth a look include Adidas (Supernova), Asics, Brooks (Trail Addiction), Mizuno (Wave Ascend), and Nike.