Hiking Boots vs. Trail Runners

Hiking Boots vs. Trail Runners
Ryan the authorResearch by Duncan
Updated: August 11, 2019

Hiking boots or trail runners? This question gets asked a lot by people either just getting into hiking, or those finally deciding to retire their old faithful boots. Which is better? What are the major differences? Do I have to buy those thick rugged boots to hike through the woods or do serious backpacking? The short answer is no. You can hike in any type of shoe or boot, some brave souls (soles?) even hiked the famous Appalachian Trail in their bare feet.

However for most of us, bare feet is an unappealing option. So it comes back to which is better: Hiking boots or trail runners? When the question is asked, normally what people are wondering is: Are trail runners a viable alternative to hiking boots? Could they even be better?

Decide What You Will Be Doing

Both hiking boots and trail runners have their merits, but what you will be doing in your new kicks will ultimately decide whether you should go with something more rugged or more nimble. Here are a few key things to consider:

  1. Are you new to hiking?

It can take some practice to stay upright while wearing a pack on the trail. Everyone who hikes is good at walking, but it is not often that you put on a heavy pack in day-to-day life. A wide, thick sole on your boot could help you stay more stable in every situation.

  1. What type of terrain will you be on?

Trails with loose stone or dirt sometimes may require more rugged boots for stability and to take a beating. Thick soles will be able to absorb abuse from the rougher terrain so your feet can stay safer. However, if you will be on a slightly more forgiving, well laid out trail, more agile footwear will suit you fine. If you think you will be going on adventures in cold or wet conditions, the warmth and protection offered by a sturdier boot may be appealing. If you will be in hot and dry environments, it is likely the trail runner’s breathability will be more suited for your needs.

  1. What is your body type?

Knowing your own body, you most likely already have an idea of whether or not you will need more support in your footwear or not. If it does, a thick, supportive hiking boot is going to be your best bet. If you have not had any issues with stability, or strength of joints, you are a good candidate for a trail runner.

  1. How much weight will you be carrying?

If you are not planning on carrying a significantly heavy load, trail runners will suit you perfectly fine. If you will be taking a heavy load, you will need a more stable boot to help support your ankles.

  1. How fast will you be going?

Are you going for a slow and steady pace or looking to pick up the speed? Trail Runner’s light weight makes them easier to maintain a quick pace. A lot of thru-hikers take up this lighter option because they need to take on huge chunks or trail every day.

What Makes Hiking Boots Good?

Hiking boots are what most people think of when they are considering new hiking footwear, especially if they are new to the hiking scene. They are characteristically thick and rugged looking. Hiking boots are effective at keeping you stable as you tackle big terrain. Steep inclines, declines, or uneven paths can be very hard on your ankles and have left more than a few hikers in danger. The sturdiness offered by many boots will help prevent ankle damage.

Weather can be unpredictable, and hiking boots typically offer better protection from the elements. Water, mud, snow, and jagged rocks are a few of the many hazards you may encounter. The durability and protection offered by the traditional hiking boot is something to be admired. These will stand up to a lot and continue to be comfortable for a long time after.

Hiking boots also offer great traction. Their deep treads help your feet grip on every terrain type and are the best option for all around foot security. Take a look below for a quick view on the great and not so great things about most hiking boots.

Hiking Boots

  • Durable

    Hiking Boots tend to stand up to more punishment, especially for off trail hiking. They also will last a long time.

  • Stable

    Boots will offer more stability when carrying heavy packs or going over very difficult terrain.

  • Weather Resistant

    Hiking boots are normally water, snow, and mud resistant. Your feet will not get wet from the elements!

  • Long Break In Period

    Hiking boots need a long time to break in. This can be frustrating to some people who are eager to get out on the trail.

  • Heavy

    Hiking boots are almost always heavier than trail runners. This can add to fatigue when going on long hauls.

What Makes Trail Runners Good?

This is a more complicated answer. Trail runners were originally designed to help people who were training on different types of natural surfaces and dirt trails. However, there are now so many different types of trail runners, all offering different pros and cons. In general however, trail runners offer a more breathable type of material. Your feet will get less sweaty. This also causes them to be lightweight so you can maintain a fast pace for a long while.

There is also often a much shorter, or even no break-in period. They can sometimes be ready to go outside of the box. Although you should always give it a test run first! Check out our suggestions on how to break in your gear here.

One main benefit that a lot of people like about trail runners is their versatility as well. You can use them in various circumstances and they will typically perform to an acceptable level. Their range of traction options give the user a lot of options when purchasing a set of these shoes.

Trail Runners

  • Breathable

    Trail runners are built using thinner material to help prevent sweat. These are usually better for hotter days.

  • Lightweight

    Trail runners are lighter weight, making it easier to walk long distances in them. This also reduces break-in time

  • Range of Movement

    Because of their thinner materials, trail runners are much more flexible than more rugged boots

  • Less Support

    These shoes support your ankle and leg less, making carrying a heavy pack more difficult and dangerous.

  • Shorter Life Span

    Because they are made of less rugged material, trail runners tend to need replacing more often.

Room For Both

Both hiking boots and trail runners are viable options. There are literally hundreds of options in both categories, and maybe that many sub categories as well. If you are looking for durable, supportive boot that still offers breathability, you can find durable day hikers with breathable mesh. At some point though, you may need to commit and pick one.

There is room for both trail runners and hiking boots in everyone’s closet. Especially if you have a lot of variation in your hiking preferences. Otherwise, pick what is best for the activity you will be doing the most. If you are doing a lot of shorter day hikes, trail runners. If you are doing long trek backpacking, hiking boots. There are tons of good options and it is hard to go too wrong. See you on the trails!


  1. I just read your article and found it was a good representation of both. I will however disagree with the following: hiking boot are heavy and take a long time to break in.

    I have been hiking for the past 40 years and was a trip leader for the AMC for 20 years and I sell hiking boots and running shoes. I reside in Mass with the White Mountains as my playground.

    Today’s boots depending on what you purchase will determine how long they take to break in. I sell backpacking boots that take about 5 to 10 miles to break in, while others take 50 to 100.

    You can’t compare the weight of a boot to a trail runner since they are two very different products. It’s not apples to apples.

    The long term usage of trail runners could lead to knee issues since you are putting more pressure when you are stepping down.

    I would be happy to discuss this with you in greater detail.

    Please let me know.

    Happy trails


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