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How Should Hiking Trail Runners Fit?

Trail runners are becoming increasingly popular in the hiking community because they’re lightweight, their soles provide good traction, and they’re less likely to cause blisters because their uppers are much softer than the rigid leather of old-school hiking boots.

Many trail runners are made with mesh and have aggressive soles for good traction.
Many trail runners are made with mesh and have aggressive soles for good traction.

Trail runners differ from road running shoes because they’re designed for the uneven terrain, packed earth, gravel, rocks, and roots found on hiking trails instead of asphalt or concrete. They usually have more aggressive lugs in the sole for traction and are made with softer rubber for better grip on rock surfaces. The uppers are often made of mesh to accelerate drying with extra “bumpers” in front the front or along the sides of the toe box. Many also have wide toe boxes, so your toes can splay out (like claws) for better grip and leverage on uneven terrain. Wide toe boxes can help relieve or prevent toe conditions over the long term, like metatarsal pain or Morton’s neuroma, which produces a tingling feeling in the toes.

Zero drop trail runners usually have a low stack height, less cushioning, and good stability because they’re closer to the ground.
Zero drop trail runners usually have a low stack height, less cushioning, and good stability because they’re closer to the ground.

Trail runners also differ in terms of “drop” and “stack height.” Drop measures the difference in the height of the heel from the height of the toes.

  • Zero-drop trail runners recruit more of your calf muscles when hiking, but it can take a while to get used to because they stretch the Achilles tendon more than shoes with a larger drop. Most trail runners have drops of 0 up to 14 mm. Higher-drop trail runners wear more like regular shoes and usually require little adjustment time.
  • Stack height, also measured in mm, refers to the sole height above the ground and is a good indicator of a shoe’s cushioning. Shoes with a low stack height are usually somewhat more stable because they’re closer to the ground than shoes with high stack heights with lots of cushioning.
Highly cushioned trail runners usually have a high stack height.
Highly cushioned trail runners usually have a high stack height.

Most trail runners have foam insoles that provide very little arch support and only come with thin foam inserts.

  • If you already use insoles, you should use them when you try on new trail runners. However, you may find that they’re too thick and take up too much volume inside the trail runner, leaving less space above the top of your foot. If that’s the case, try using thin insoles designed for trail runners/road running shoes like SuperFeet Run Support Low (formerly named SuperFeet Carbon).
  • If you want to use an insole in a trail runner with a very wide toebox (like many Altra Trail Runners), size up a size on your insole and trim it down to the desired width and shape. Insole sizing hasn’t caught up with the wide toebox trend, but by sizing up, you can get the width you need.
  • If you’ve never used after-market insoles, they can help avert plantar fasciitis by locking your heel in place, preventing pronation, and providing more support for your arch. I swear by them myself.
SuperFeet Run Support Low insoles are thin enough to fit into low volume trail runners.
SuperFeet Run Support Low insoles are thin enough to fit into low volume trail runners.

When fitting trail runners, you want a snugger fit near the heel and midfoot to prevent movement and a looser one in the toe box so your toes can spread out on ascents and descents for better traction and control. Be sure to leave adequate space—a finger width usually does it—in front of your toes so that your toenails don’t get jammed up front or even broken when descending hills. Don’t be afraid to size up a half-size if required.

Be sure to try new trail runners with the socks you plan to wear for hiking since these can greatly impact fit. On the flip side, you can also try new socks to shim out a shoe and get the fit you want.

Trial and Error

The best way to find a trail runner that fits you is to try many pairs of trail runners to see which feels better. There is a surprising amount of variety between makes and models. You may have to try up to a half-dozen different to hit paydirt.

Before you choose which is best, I recommend trying them outdoors to ensure they work for you on a hike. Several retailers and shoe manufacturers offer the option to return used shoes, even if they’ve been used outdoors. This is an offer worth its weight in gold. I try to buy all of my shoes at REI.

After all that, pay attention to how a trail runner makes your knees feel. Even minor changes in shoe drop or arch support can affect knee comfort or cause pain. Keep tweaking the components of your footwear system until you find a combination that works. Remember, a well-fitting trail running shoe should feel comfortable and secure, with enough space for your toes to move freely.

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  1. “Keep tweaking the components of your footwear system until you find a combination that works.” And just as you find that elusive sweet spot, the manufacturer goes and changes the design meaning you have to start all over again for your next pair…Grrr

    • Hint: Stockpile the components when you figure out what works. I have boxes and boxes of un-used shoes that work sitting in my gear closet.

      • I’ve done the same. But. When I started doing that my wife objected to my “…obsessive stockpling of hiking shoes …” Now, I get to point out to her that I haven’t had to spend a dime on hiking shoues while she’s bought new ones twice – and at a greater cost. I also get to point out that I bought them while I was working; now I’m retired and hiking more than I used to for less cost.

      • That works if your foot anatomy doesn’t change. On a recent through hike I stocked up on several pairs of trail runners I liked and fit well to drop ship along the trail, only to find out my feet had flattened out slightly and grew a 1/2 shoe size making the footwear I purchased uncomfortable and ultimately unusable. Additionally materials used in most trail runners today breakdown fairly quickly (uppers, outsoles and the glue holding them together), and have a finite lifespan, even when in storage. This is actually by design from the manufacturer.

        • Your feet do change. I found a pair of boots at my father’s that I hadn’t worn for ages. They were too small yet once needed two pairs of socks.
          Also, not all of us can afford to stockpile shoes. Salomon’s are the ones that fit me. They cost quite a lot and they discontinued the 3gtx I love…
          Also insoles. Been using aftermarket insoles since the 80s and never get any foot problems and the sorbo helps my back.

      • I have somewhat stockpiled shoes I like, but you have to be careful about storing them too long. After several years the glue used on the soles can dry/deteriorate and the shoe starts coming apart has been my experience. Seems 2-3 years ok, but much longer could be a problem.

  2. Philip: Can I help support your site by clicking on your affiliate link for REI or Amazon and then purchasing a different product?

  3. I have completed several thru hikes (AT, PCT, LT) with Altra Olympus shoes. Great cushioning which my aging feet need. But on some shoes like the Olympus you give up feel vs. shoes like the Altra Lone Peak. I like those too and they are more nimble but my feet become a problem on rocky or rooty terrain with Lone Peaks – just not enough cushioning.

    Also I find 3rd party insoles aren’t built with wide toe boxes in mind. It’s a crummy feeling to feel your toes and forefoot over the edges of the insole. And it’s led to blisters. So… on Superfeet and Pinnacle insoles I size up one size to get a wider toe area then trace the outline of the Altra insole over the Superfeet and trim down the length. Despite the geometry differences I find them very comfortable.

    • Very valuable comments. Thank you. I know a guy who owns an insole company. I think I’ll give him the heads up about wide toe boxes. Yes, the problem with those max cushion trail runners is that you feel like your floating and not on the ground.

    • I switched over to custom Orthotic soles or foot beds, working with a podiatrist who had the equipment to custom fit to each of my feet. For me, using them, sized to the original Altra Olympus standard sole, was very effective in helping resolve feet and knee issues. Now, with the Altra Olympus 6 model expected to be soon released to Europe distributors, I fill find out quickly enough if the shoe last and toe box are unchanged from the Olympus 5 model.

  4. I found double socks made a big difference in blister formation, too. I’ve got a system now with Injinji toe socks and a wool hiker sock on top. No blisters! I do take everything off at rest stops when possible to dry. This works well in wider sizes, check before you buy.

  5. My friend sold hiking shoes and boots for 30 years to Texans in New Mexico.
    He always said the difference between a comfortable shoe and a uncomfortable one was a half size.

    That is a half size larger than tight.

    So for hiking if your normal shoe is a 9 1/2 buy a 10 for hiking.


    • Agreed. I wear Altra Lone Peaks a full size up: my feet are 9.5 US and I wear 10.5. It’s what the running shop and my physical therapist recommended. That full size up is actually only an additional 0.8 cm in length. Provided even more space to spread my toes and it means my toes never touch the front.

      I also have high arches and use custom orthotics cut specifically for my Lone Peak 10.5. I’ve gone through 3 pairs, just keep moving the orthotics to the next shoe.

      My only complaint about trail runners, or Lone Peaks in particular, is the lugs wear down pretty fast. Probably because I do a lot of street walking in them. But I have noticed I never scuff my heel any more. When I used to wear hiking boots all the time, I would always rub the heel down first, before all the lugs, because I would scuff my heels walking.

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