Hiking Shoes vs. Trail Runners
What is the best style of lightweight trail shoe for you? What is the difference between hiking shoes and running shoes?
As lightweight gear becomes more popular among outdoor enthusiasts, hiking boots above the ankle quickly go out of style. Hikers and backpackers now choose lightweight hiking shoes and trail runners for all but the most challenging terrain because they are more comfortable and weigh less. But there are many different styles; how do you know which is best for you? Here are the main differences between hiking shoes and trail runners: weight, support and protection, durability, traction, breathability, and more. To discover more, read our article about: “are trail running shoes good for hiking“.
Types of Shoes for Hiking
Modern hiking shoes like the Salomon X Ultra 4 GTX and the Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator are like boots. Still, they have a lower cut at the ankle. They are just as stiff and supportive under the foot as hiking boots but feel lighter and lighter. The generally rigid construction, which often includes leather or tough nylon, is made to last for miles and miles on the trail while protecting you from roots and rocks. Look for big toe caps, thick outsoles with sharp lugs for grip, and medium-to-firm midsoles that keep you from feeling the rough ground. There are also waterproof versions of many hiking shoes, but remember that the opening at the ankle of a low-top shoe is more likely to let water in than that of a mid-height boot.
Hiking shoe (Salomon X Ultra 4 GTX)
The Salomon X Ultra 4 hiking shoe is a huge hit.
Trail runners are a type of shoe worn when they go on trails. They are made to be light and springy, but they also have extra protection, support, and grip for off-road travel. But runners are no longer the only ones who wear trail running shoes. In the past few years, thru-hikers, ultralight hikers, and even regular hikers who like to go fast and light have started to use them. Some of these shoes, like the Brooks Cascadia 16, are made for running first and foremost. Others, like the famous Altra Lone Peak 6, are made for fast, light hiking and not necessarily running. In this broad category, look for lightweight shoes with cushioning, stiffer midsoles, beefier toe caps than a standard running shoe (but still less than a hiking shoe), and mesh uppers.
Hybrid Hiking/Trail-Running Shoes
There is sometimes a clear line between a hiking shoe and a trail runner. It’s getting harder to tell with new shoes like the Scarpa Rush, Arc’teryx Aerios FL GTX, and Salomon OUTline, as well as mid-tops like the Vasque Breeze LT Mid that look like running shoes. Most of these shoes start with a trail runner and improve on it by making the soles stiffer and stickier and giving the uppers a bit more protection. These shoes stand out in their categories, and we would choose something other than trail running or traditional backpacking.
Thoughts on Performance
Weight Advantage: Trail Runners Shoes Wins!
One of the main reasons hikers switch from high-top hiking boots to low-rise hiking shoes is to save weight, and many hikers save even more by choosing lightweight trail runners. To show this, the average pair of hiking boots weigh more than 2 pounds, while the average pair of hiking shoes weigh about 1.5 pounds. The La Sportiva Bushido II, on the other hand, is one of the most popular trail-running shoes among thru-hikers. It weighs only 1 pound 5 ounces. If you choose a lightweight hiking shoe or, even better, a trail runner, your legs and feet won’t have to do as much heavy lifting while you’re out on the trail.
We would always choose a lighter shoe over a heavier one if all other things were the same. But losing weight means giving up a lot regarding support, protection, and durability, as we’ll explain below. The weight savings of a trail runner might be worth it for ultralight trekkers or people who walk over 20 miles a day with a very light pack. Still, hiking shoes offer a nice boost in performance and durability for just a few ounces more.
Support and protection: Hiking Shoe Wins!
Most everyday hikers choose hiking shoes over trail runners because hiking shoes offer more support and protection. With a stiffer and more substantial midsole, a burlier outsole and upper, and features like a toe cap and rubber rand, hiking shoes can offer the same level of support as hiking boots (minus the high ankle protection). We like the extra security when carrying a heavy load for an overnight trip, especially when we’re on trails that need to be better kept or going off track. On the other hand, trail-running shoes are made to move quickly and nimbly. Hence, they sacrifice some protection and support to stay flexible, sensitive, and light.
Danner Trail 2650 are shoes for hiking (hiking shoes vs. trail runners)
Danner’s Trail 2650 is light but has more support and protection than a trail runner.
Durability Advantage: Hiking Shoe Wins!
Durability is an essential thing to think about when choosing between a hiking shoe and a trail runner. Hiking shoes are usually made of leather or tough nylon instead of mesh or thin nylon. They typically have soft and hard protective toe caps and midsoles. Unlike trail runners, hiking shoes are made to handle rough, abrasive terrain. They will hold up much better under a heavy load. On the other hand, the lightweight material that makes trail runners so easy to move in gives up many durabilities, making them last a lot less time. So, serious backpackers who swear by the lightweight comfort of trail runners will often go through more than one pair each year.
Trail Runners vs. Hiking Shoes (durability)
The hybrid Vasque Breeze LT doesn’t last as long as it should.
The advantage for Grip: Hiking Shoe Wins!
In general, the tread patterns, types of rubber, and stiffness of the soles of hiking shoes and trail runners are very different. The bottom of a hiking shoe is usually very stiff, like the bottom of a work boot. This gives you more support as you move over uneven and sometimes dangerous terrain (the Merrell Moab 2 is a great example). On the other hand, the sole of a trail runner is usually much more flexible to make running more comfortable. Many experienced hikers and backpackers prefer trail-running shoes because they give them more freedom of movement and sensitivity. It takes some time to build strength, balance, and confidence over long distances and on different terrain, though. Because of this, if you’re starting, a hiking shoe with a stiffer sole is usually a better choice than a trail runner.
Trail Runners vs. Hiking Shoes (Merrell Moab 2 traction)
The sole of the Merrell Moab 2 is stiff and grips well on a wide range of surfaces.
Advantage of Comfort: Tie
First, we’ll say that you shouldn’t wear a shoe that hurts your feet. Whether you’re hiking 20 miles in hiking shoes or trail runners, make sure they’re comfortable. Now that that’s out of the way, our answer to the question of what kind of hiking shoes are the most comfortable is: it depends. A trail running shoe will likely have the best cushioning, flexibility, and agility for people who carry light loads and move quickly (especially on well-kept trails). The stiffness and support of a hiking shoe will be the most comfortable choice for people taking heavier packs (25 pounds or more) or going over more challenging terrain. Ultimately, it all depends on what you’re comfortable with and your goals, like how fast you want to move and what kind of terrain you want to cover.
A benefit of having a breathable feature: Trail Runners Shoes Wins!
Trail runners are naturally more breathable because they are made of thinner materials than hiking shoes. Still, a few hiking shoes can compete with trail runners, especially the Merrell MQM Flex 2 and Salomon X Ultra 3 Aero, which have large mesh panels. On the other hand, hiking shoes with leather or thicker nylon uppers will lose some of their ability to breathe to be more durable and protect your feet. Mesh shoes are great for hiking in the summer or in places where you have to cross rivers, like on our trek in Parque Patagonia. They let air in and dry quickly (a waterproof or leather model will take much longer to dry). But if you’re hiking in the fall or winter, you might want a thicker (and less breathable) upper or a shoe with a waterproof membrane (see below).
Salomon X Raise Low shoes for hiking (hiking shoes vs. trail runners)
Waterproofing Advantage: Tie
There are waterproof and non-waterproof versions of many hiking shoes and trail runners. For example, the Merrell Moab 2 has mesh/suede and waterproof versions. We’ve found that waterproof trail runners offer the same level of protection as waterproof hiking shoes. Differences come from the technology (Gore-Tex is our favorite) and less from the style of the shoes. If you choose a hiking shoe, many more are waterproof, which might make it easier to find one that works for you. Also, keep in mind that leather has some natural water-resistant properties. This means that some leather hiking shoes can withstand raindrops, puddle splashes, and light snow without the extra cost or weight of waterproofing technology.
Waterproofing means that hiking shoes and trail runners can’t breathe as well, making your feet feel wet and uncomfortable, especially on hot, dry days and when you’re working hard. As we’ve already said, we like shoes that let air in and dry out quickly, like those with thin soles and mesh uppers. But when it snows, or it’s between seasons, and keeping our feet dry is essential for comfort and safety, we choose waterproof shoes.
What About Shoes to Walk in?
In addition to the hybrids we already talked about, approach shoes are another type of trail shoe worth mentioning. As lightweight hiking shoes have become more popular, many people have turned to approach shoes as another option for longer hikes and backpacking trips. This type of shoe is usually worn when “approaching” a rock climb, which can be a steep and rocky hike. But the sole could be better for walking on dusty trails, mud, and snow, so that approach shoes can feel pretty slippery on these surfaces.
The Ultimate and Final Choice
There are many things to consider when deciding whether a hiking shoe, trail runner, or approach shoe is the best tool for the trail, and the details could be more explicit. But for the average adventurer, we’ve found that it’s best to keep things simple: we recommend a hiking shoe for hiking, a trail runner for trail running, and an approach shoe for approaching climbs. Of course, some hikers don’t follow this rule, and we’ve already talked about many of them. If you’re a thru-hiker with a light pack or a long-distance day hiker, consider a lightweight trail-running or hybrid trail runner/hiking shoe.
Our best choices
Here are our top picks for each type of hiking shoe, whether you want traditional hiking shoes, trail runners, or approach shoes. See our articles on the best hiking shoes, women’s, trail running, and approach shoes for even more suggestions and information.
Best overall: Salomon X Ultra 3 men’s / X Ultra 3 women’s
Best budget: Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator men’s / Moab 2 Ventilator women’s
Trail Runners for Hiking
Best overall: Hoka Speedgoat 4 men’s / Hoka Speedgoat 4 women’s
Best for technical terrain: La Sportiva Bushido II or Ultra Raptor II
Best overall: Arc’teryx Aerios FL GTX or Scarpa Rush
Best budget: Merrell Moab Speed Low men’s / Moab Speed Low women’s
Best overall: La Sportiva TX4 men’s / La Sportiva TX4 women’s
Best hybrid approach shoe/trail runner: Scarpa Rapid men’s / Scarpa Rapid women’s
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