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 when the weather turns. 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 Showers Pass. 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) because “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
Sealskins/Hanz Waterproof Socks (right) 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 woodstove. 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 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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14 comments

  1. I was JUST thinking about this today!

  2. I’ve been thinking about this as I look ahead to some fall backpacks and remember a cold morning or 2 last fall.

    • Great article. I’m hiking the Long Trail SOBO from Canada to Killington and made the mistake of using an old pair of boots I’ve used for winter hikes. Too much rain the first week, portending real problems for my feet. Bought a pair of Merrill’s in Johnson that have a lot of toe room and breathe a lot more. Had several nights since in the upper 20’s – lower 30’s, with more rain expected the next 2-3 days. I regret the initial choice of footware; I don’t regret leaving the trail runners home; I feel pretty confident about the Merrill’s.

  3. A question. I have read trail runners and street runner shoes support up to about 200 pounds. I have seen some street runners for big people, larger than two hundred but know trail runners. I’m 6 foot 1, 240, ideal weight would be about 230, a 25 to 30 pound pack would cutrently put me at 270.

    Phi, how much do you weigh?

    I would like to where trail runners but it appears I am beyond there design limit. Additionally I am diabetic and am told to take good care of my feet. All reviews etc for taril runners are from people maybe weighing 150 to a large 170. A 30 pound pack puts them at 200.

    • I weigh 180. But I don’t understand why you think there’s a design limit on trail runners. I’ve never heard of such a thing. There’s nothing about them that would affect your feet negatively unless you go a size too small.

    • Any human’s foot has a weight limit that changes with the total load, the distance traveled, and the walking surface, more supportive footwear will increase the total load you can carry while reducing the distance you can travel.
      All the above is detailed in “beyond backpacking” by Ray Jardine. He also discusses what happens to your feet when trail runners breakdown internally.
      I weigh 225 down from a max of 242; and I don’t have the greatest feet. Here’s what I’ve experienced: your milage may vary.
      Well made top brand leather hiking boots 50-100 miles to break in 500-750 miles service life, feel good till the tread wears flat in the heel.
      New Balance leather cross trainers break in 20-30 miles service life 200-250 miles, remain comfortable until the uppers fall apart. (Have hiked up to 90 miles on dental floss repairs with no loss of comfort.
      Merrel ventilators break in zero miles (they really fit me that well) service life 100-150 miles. At which point the soles & uppers appear only lightly worn but the breakdown in internal support causes horrible stabbing pains in my feet that become crippling after an additional 2-3 days. No blisters no hot spots just complete bio mechanical breakdown in my feet.
      Altra lone peaks break in 1-2 days wearing around town. Service life 250-300 miles cloud like comfort first 150 miles gradually thins out as the miles add up but stays very comfortable, just not squishy soft awesomeness of a new pair. They remain comfortable until the uppers are full of holes but the seams never come apart & I’ve never field sewn a pair –
      Merrel bare access flex ll break in 24 hours on a shoe stretcher & 1-2 days around town service life 200-250 miles comfort DOES NOT depend on the shoe wearing out… it depends on pack weight, mileage, and trail surface. I cannot thru hike in these shoes but I love them for moderate day hikes & overnights around 13 miles I really start wishing I had worn a thicker shoe.

    • I weigh around 230 without pack – can add 20 pounds easily for a pack to make my weight 250. This past summer I wore only Merrell trail runners – finished 14 4,000 footers in them, most of the way up Katahdin, and well over 100 miles of easier hiking. I do not have foot issues so that must be considered.

    • 6’6″, 230#’s. No foot issues. I wore Altra Timp trail-runners all season. Given the reviews I saw that questioned longevity/durability of them I marked on my hiking log when I started wearing them and can tell you I got 260 miles out of them before the soles got to the point where I wouldn’t trust it to grip surfaces any longer. I was hoping for more miles than that but was overall happy with the shoe.

      Weight CAN play a role in how long the cushioning will last before it breaks down. Sort of like sleeping on a bed – the spot with the fat guy is going to leave a divot much earlier than the spot his petite wife takes. Aftermarket insoles can help this to an extent but in any case I don’t see your specifications falling well outside what it should be intended for.

  4. This weekend, I tried a new “ fall” hiker. It’s a Danner Trail 2650 Goretex. Pretty comfortable out of the box, and the vibram megagrip sole has a outward flair in the center, a bit like a trail runner. Pretty light fir a mid height, nowhere near as heavy as my Asolo 520 TPS, which will be for colder climate hiking and backpacking,. Time will tell. I’m Not familiar with this Danner brand, just wondering if you have any info about them. Thanks.

  5. I have no trail runners, only MERRILL MOAB low hiking shoes for 3 season including “wading hiking” as in Utah’s Coyote Gulch. With wool/acrylic socks my feet dry in 2 hours once on dry land.

    But, as you say, if it’s cold, dry or wet, I change to the MOAB Mid boots with a WPB liner.

    And still colder I use US Divers 3 mm thick closed cell, factory seam sealed diving socks over thin poly liner socks. This keeps sweat out of the boots’ linings, also keeping me warm as well, the neoprene “foam” being an insulator, doing their job as designed, “warm when wet”.

  6. I have found most trail runners don’t offer me the support and comfort I need. I wear Salomon wide fitting mid X-Ultras boots with GTX year round in the UK for most hiking on decent paths. The Summer is seldom extreme and winters likewise. If I need something a little more supportive and tougher for rough uncertain ground, I wear Salomon Quest Prime GTX boots. I use Superfeet or similar insoles and Darntough Light Hiker Micro socks. It took me years to find a foot ‘system’ that works really well for me but am delighted to have got there.

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