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Trail Runners or Hiking Boots for Autumn Weather: When to Switch?

Trail Runners or Boots - When to Switch

When should you switch from trail runners back to waterproof or insulated hiking boots when the temperatures drop in autumn? I get asked this question frequently and it’s something I wrestle with myself every autumn. The easy answer, is when temperatures drop below freezing (32 degrees) during the day or night. But there are a lot of mitigating factors and transition strategies that you can employ to defer switching from trail runners to boots. Some are more comfortable than others, some less so.

Day Hiking in Autumn

For example, if you’re day hiking, you can usually wear trail runners down to freezing, provided:

  • You can keep your shoes and socks dry.
  • There’s no wind.
  • You don’t stop for breaks often or stand around on cold rock.
  • You hike at a fast pace and generate a lot of body heat.
  • You eat snacks and stay hydrated.
  • You don’t have to wear metallic traction aids like microspikes.

Unless you know your intended route and hiking partners well, it can be difficult to predict these factors. For example, it’s easy to underestimate the amount of water that fallen leaves can hold in autumn, even if it’s not raining, or the increased wind exposure you’ll experience when hiking through forest after the leaves have dropped. The same holds for morning frost or dew which can make your shoes and socks wet, or the cold that radiates up through your trail runners if you have to wear a metallic traction aid to hike over slick and icy rock.

You can mitigate all of these conditions by wearing a waterproof insulated sock from SealSkinz or a Hanz Chillblocker Waterproof (Hanz is a subsidiary of SealSkinz). The added insulation, wind protection, and waterproofing will keep you reasonably comfortable in your trail runners down to freezing or lower. Another alternative is to wear oven bags over or under wool socks, which is less expensive, but also less insulating.

Regular hiking or insulated winter boots are usually much warmer than trail runners in borderline weather, because they don’t have mesh sides and they have much thicker soles. This results in much greater wind resistance and more foot and sole insulation. Personally, I switch from trail runners to lightly insulated winter boots (200 g of insulation) without ever wearing regular hiking boots, because I don’t own any. “Waterproof” winter boots with synthetic insulation will also stay warmer if you get them soaked, while the same can’t be said of uninsulated or leather hiking boots.

Hanz ChillBlocker Waterproof Socks (right) are insulated with Polartec Fleece for warmth, but still fit in regularly sized shoes for hiking in wet weather
Hanz ChillBlocker Waterproof Socks (right) are insulated with Polartec Fleece for warmth, but still fit in regularly sized shoes for hiking in wet weather.

Backpacking in Autumn

Backpackers have to consider the same factors that day hikers do, plus nighttime temperatures, and the weather over the course of several days. It’s one thing if your shoes get wet on a day hike, because you can go home and dry them out by the wood stove. But if you’re on a multi-day backpacking trip, wet trail runners are likely to freeze at night if temperatures drop below 32 degrees. There’s also less of a chance to recover from wet shoes during a multi-day trip in freezing weather, unless you can hit town and dry your footwear out completely.

There are several ways to mitigate the risk of frozen trail runners. One way is to sleep with them and prevent them from freezing with your body heat. This can be uncomfortable as hell, but it does work. Another way is to rewarm your shoes in the morning by putting a hot water bottle or heat pack in them to melt any ice that’s formed overnight. But they’ll likely to still be cold when you put them on and your feet will struggle to warm them up.

Surrender to the Inevitable: Boots

If none of these mitigating strategies sound very appealing, it’s because they’re not. If you hike in the colder and wetter weather that often accompanies autumn, you will want to switch to boots if temperatures consistently drop below freezing. While boots aren’t as lightweight or comfortable as trail runners, it is what it is. Look at the bright side. You’re still hiking and spring will get here eventually.

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18 comments

  1. Perfect timing with this article, Phil. I’ve been wrestling with what to wear this weekend. I didn’t think about the possibility of wet trail runners freezing over night. Definitely boots now! Thanks for the always helpful information.

  2. Showers Pass makes a nice pair of waterproof socks as well. They are like a heavy weight hiking sock that aren’t baggy or loose. Showers Pass primarily makes gear for cyclist, but they are great products that cross over nicely to hiking/backpacking.

    Phil, Thanks for all your hard work to produce valuable content, I look forward to this site every day since the beginning.

  3. These are great for this time of year. They are still light but waterproof.

    https://www.altrarunning.com/men/lone-peak-4-mid-rsm

  4. So true about the frozen shoes. Pretty much all March on the AT this year, my shoes froze every night. Had to get in the habit of loosening them as much as possible so that I could still slip my feet in them in the morning. There were a few times when I forgot and it sucked trying to get them loosened up enough to put on.

    None of the thru-hikers that I met that had waterproof socks regretted their decision. If I were to thru-hike again, I would carry a pair with me for the beginning portion of the trail until it got warm.

  5. Philip,

    You cost me money again. I ordered a pair of Hanz ChillBlocker waterproof socks to compare with what I already have. Backpacking gear seems to be my form of “retail therapy”.

    My cold/wet hiking is generally in Big Bend National Park in the winter. Snow is not unheard of and the trails can be slushy. Waterproof kayak booties in place of socks have worked in the past. I usually take my trail runners into the tent with me and put the toes under the head of my sleeping pad to add more height for the pillow I make for sleeping. My shoes haven’t frozen in those circumstances, however, they haven’t been dripping wet at those times.

    The wettest my trail runners generally get are in shoulder season hiking in Arkansas or Oklahoma when I have to splash through streams and/or deal with rain. It can get down to freezing or below there but I haven’t faced any really hard freezes while hiking there. Waterproof socks can be useful for keeping feet warm in those conditions. One one hiking expedition there with my brother in law, I provided him with bread bags, which did wonders for his feet… and his mood!

  6. I’m not sure why the Zippo warmers still are so rarely mentioned as an option to dry boots on the trail. Drop one in each shoe, and put everything in a plastic bag or stuff sack (to contain the heat a bit) with the top open (so moisture can escape). The small warmer weighs about two ounces, the larger three ounces. Plus a few more ounces for a bit of fuel. I’ve used the larger size to dry rather damp winter boots when it’s 10ºF.

    And, some of us — who, for example, have sprained ankles badly in the past — are never going to wear trail runners on challenging terrain and will instead opt for a mid-height shoe of some kind for the added bit of resistance against turning an ankle. So, it’s not a matter of “surrendering” to boots or considering when to “switch.”

    As an agnostic, non-meat eater, i’m already used to, but still annoyed by the predominant culture that makes such proclivities seem peculiar or suspect, or, at least, doesn’t seem to even acknowledge their existence. Annoyed again now that hiking footwear choice seems to receive similar treatment.

    • I agree. Trail runners on easy day hikes but hiking boots for backpacking and day hikes on challenging terrain. A twisted ankle in the Backcountry and you may have a long, painful walk out. I like the hand / toe warmers when it gets cold. Drop one of those in your boots at night and it seems to keep them from freezing, although I have l not tried it below about 25F.

  7. What kind of insulated boot do you wear?

  8. I did an overnight last weekend in the whites and had a hard time making this decision. In the end I went with the Solomon X-Ultra goretex mids instead of my regular trail runners and was glad I did as the trails were pretty soggy in places and its just fun to walk right through shallow streams and puddles without having to think about my feet getting wet.

  9. Like everyone else, very timely article so thanks for writing and posting. I love my trail running shoes and Injini socks for hikes in the fall. I’m guessing it’s inevitable that I have to put on the boots.

  10. Goretex socks are also a good way to stretch the season a little with water permeable footwear. They can be found as cycling gear. Just wear them over your usual socks. They are surprisingly breathable and take up so little space in your shoe as to be barely noticeable. You do have to buy them in your shoe size as they are form fitting. They can last for years if you don’t actually use them that much, and they can be washed.

  11. I haven’t worn boots since 11/2014, been wearing all models of Altra Lone Peaks along with 40 Below overboots when it gets cold. I’ve done a SSW48 four times now with them. Plenty of brutal solo trailbreaking. Been up Mt. Washington in -40 windchill with them. Your extremely positive review of these overboots is the main reason I purchased them.

    sooooooo. . .

    Why did you delete your old posts about 40 Below overboots and why don’t you talk about them anymore? I ran into to Guthook a couple years back and he was still wearing them. . .

    • Because you can’t wear them with chain-style crampons like microspikes or hill sounds because they get cut up. I’m also not certain how they’d do in mud, not snow, in terms of durability and traction.I just assume wear aerogel boots which are lightweight and can be worn with all forms of traction. I remove posts no one reads. They just clutter up the web site, but I’m glad you found a product that works for you. 40 below is actually featured in this Sunday’s newsletter.

  12. I have done many trips in trail runners where I ended up in snow and ice. I think “frozen” trail runners are far superior to frozen boots. Lots of miles in snow up to my mid calf. I find the lighter weight footwear to remain flexible at much lower temps simply because there is not that much there. Frozen boots on the other hand, are like strapping blocks of ice to your feet. YMMV

  13. Phil – you recommend the Salomon X Ultra Winter Climashield Waterproof Boots but I discovered they are no longer available by Salomon – got a good alternative?

  14. Why even use trail runners? Maybe in the desert on non-rocky trails but other than that I don’t see all the hype. A good boot keeps water off your feet, protects the foot from stone bruises and best of all doesn’t wear out after 500 miles like the latest high dollar fad (you know the one).

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