When are hiking boots better than trail runners?

FAQ Hiking Boots vs Trail Runners

Trail runners are all the rage in the hiking and backpacking community, but there are times when hiking boots really are better than trail runners. If you’re on the fence about whether to switch to trail runners or use them, take the time to figure out what works best for you and what the conditions you hike in require. For example. I wear trail runners some of the time and hiking boots some of the time, depending on what the terrain and weather require.

Trail Runner Strengths

  • Lighter weight
  • Vent perspiration
  • Dry quickly
  • Virtually no-break period
Trail Runner Weaknesses

  • Soles wear down quickly
  • Can’t be resolved
  • Provide little foot and ankle protection
  • Too cold below freezing

Trail Runner Advantages

What are trail runners? They’re running shoes designed for use on hiking trails, with grippy lugged soles that usually provide good traction in dry and muddy conditions. Most trail runners are well ventilated to help dry perspiration and to drain water if they get wet. Some are lined with Gore-tex or other waterproof/breathable layers but most aren’t. On average, you can expect to get about 250 miles from a pair trail runners before the soles wear down although this can differ by make and model.

Trail runners are lighter weight than hiking boots so you have more energy to hike farther. They’re cooler and usually better ventilated so your feet sweat less, which can reduce blisters. Trail runners are softer and don’t usually require a long break-in period before you can wear them for a long hike. They also dry faster than boots because they’re often not waterproof, which can slow down the drying process.

Generally speaking, trail runners are good for hiking on maintained trails in non-freezing weather. But they can become less advantageous the farther you stray from that set of parameters.

Popular Trail Runners

Train Runner Disadvantages

Trail runners can’t be worn comfortably when temperatures drop below freezing because they’re not insulated. When there’s snow and ice on the ground, you’ll be much more comfortable wearing a waterproof and insulated hiking boot.

Trail runners provide less ankle and foot protection when you hike over rougher terrain or off-trail. While they can be great on trails that are well maintained and free of debris, they provide no ankle or lower leg protection from rocks or vegetation that you may encounter off-trail.

The soles of trail runners wear out much faster than hiking boots because they’re made with a softer rubber and other synthetic materials. You can usually expect hiking boot soles to last twice as long as trail runner soles. For example, I typically get 250 miles out of a pair of trail runners while I get 500 miles out of a hiking boot. That can get expensive if you have to keep replacing trail runners when they wear out. It also has environmental consequences, because trail runners must be thrown away when they wear out and can’t be recycled.

A lot has been written about how trail runners provide less support than hiking boots for people who feel they need it. The theory is that people with a lower level of fitness or those who carry heavier backpacking loads require more ankle bracing. I don’t have a position one way or another on this topic and I’ve never found the evidence for either side of the argument particularly convincing. I leave it to you do decide whether hiking boots provide more support than trail runners.

Hiking Boot Strengths

  • More foot and ankle protection
  • Cold-weather insulation
  • Longer lasting soles
  • Many can be re-soled
Hiking Boot Weaknesses

  • Heavier
  • Dry more slowly
  • Hot and sweaty
  • More expensive

Hiking Boot Advantages

What are hiking boots? The term encompasses a broad category of footwear that covers your ankles, including classic leather hiking boots, hiking boots made with softer synthetic uppers, insulated winter hiking boots, and “mids” which provide mid-height ankle coverage, but generally have softer more flexible soles like trail runners.

Hiking boots do provide more foot and ankle protection than trail runners because they have thicker padded uppers, beefy lugged soles, and rigid shanks that protect your feet from stone bruises. This added protection is useful when climbing rocky mountains and across boulder fields or when you step off-trail and head cross-country where thorns, rotting logs, and low lying bushes will do a number on your ankles and feet.

Many hiking boots can also be worn below freezing because their uppers cover your upper foot and ankles and provide more moisture protection. Their relative lack of ventilation also means that your feet will stay warmer, as long as you keep moving.

One of the greatest strengths of hiking boots is the fact that they last so much longer than trail runners. It’s pretty rare for a hiking boot to fall apart after a few months use, while it’s the norm with a trail runner. Many hiking boots can also be re-soled when their treads wear out, while trail runners have to be thrown out and replaced.

Hiking Boot Disadvantages

Hiking boots generally require more energy to hike in because they’re significantly heavier than trail runners. This can be a negative if you’re sole focus is to crank out big miles, day in and day out, or set Fastest Known Times. But it’s a lot less of an issue if you’re a more casual day hiker or weekend backpacker.

Hiking boots dry more slowly than trail runners which can really snowball as an issue if you have to hike across wet terrain or ford numerous streams. Hiking boots become much heavier when they get wet and they take a long time to dry, especially if you need to keep wearing them while they’re still wet. Wet boots can also lead to increased blisters because the moisture can weaken your skin and make it more prone to abrasion. Ditto for hot and sweaty feet, since hiking boots can get stifling hot in warmer weather.

While hiking boots and their boot soles last longer than trail runners, they also tend to require a larger upfront purchase than trail runners. That’s less of an issue with “mids”, which are comparable to trail runners in terms of pricing, but leather hiking boots can be much more expensive.

Popular Hiking Boots and Mids

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25 comments

  1. It surely used to be true that boots could be resoled. My first pair, once I was all grown up lasted some 20 years this way. Now many boots have the sole vulcanized on, rather than glued onto a sown-on intermediate sole, and resoling is no longer possible (as I understand it). Moreover, I have had two pairs of reasonably expensive boots with vulcanized sole from well-known brands experience catastrophic failure during a hike, one pair in Iceland up on a glacier and one in Colorado. In both cases the sole just delaminated, for lack of a more accurate term, within about half a mile. I am not going back. There are a few brands that still attach the sole the time-honored way for some of their models. Alas I require a boot in a very large size and that severely limits my choices among the few offerings.

    Over the last four years I have hiked about 2.5k miles in trailrunners, including snow travel for up to three days at a time, albeit not in the frigid temperatures that Philip hikes in, and I am loving it. River crossings are much easier, you can dry the shoes over lunch and there’s less breaking in than I used to have to do. I get 500+ miles out of Salomon Ultra 3D shoes typically and that’s while hiking on and off trail in rocky terrain in the US West (Co, UT, AK) and in Europe.

    I have found using trailrunners a revelation, to be honest. However, I can imagine hikes involving extended glacier travel, say, that I would not attempt wearing them..

    • Which brands still make boots the old way?

    • I’m an older hiker, generally aiming for a couple of hikes a week, from 15 to 27 KM in generally sunny conditions in Andalusia, Spain. Where I live it’s trail hiking mostly in mountains on rocky grounds. I have been using trail runner shoes and hiking poles and I think both help me continue hiking. For me, the lighter weight of the running shoes is the big factor. I’m happily using Altra Lone Pine 4 shoes for the weight, the cushioning and the shape of the roomy toe box. I have much less problems with my feet as a result.

      Using hiking poles (mine are long used Black Diamond Carbon Cork poles) allows me to take pressure off my old, bummed up knees and allows me to use my shoulders and upper body on mountain trails.

      I think the analysis of trail runners vs. hiking boots needs a context of older hikers, bad knees, flat feet, wide feet and shoe cushioning as considerations.

      • Old, feet flat enough to need webbing between the toes, weak ankles, history of plantar fasciitis, bad arthritic back with several herniated discs, bum shoulder requiring surgery soon, surgically repaired knee…

        If I hadn’t switched to lighter weight options, I’d no longer be on the trail. It’s not just the trail runners but everything about my gear, including my waistline. With a backpack and a week’s worth of food, I weigh less than I did without one a decade ago. I used to use thick boots that would also require me to put squishy pads in them and wear cushion socks as well. I’d also hike with a knee brace.

        Now, with my lighter footprint (puns perhaps intended), I don’t need all that heavy duty gear for my legs and feet. Trail runners work fine. No knee brace required. One thing I didn’t like about trail runners at first was that I could feel rocks through the sole, however, I now have orthopedic inserts for my many foot problems. They cushion the rocks and help with the foot pain I had. Although the inserts are not soft, I do just fine without the squishy pads I used before. I do hike in Darn Tough socks which are fairly thick.

        I don’t know if my comment adds anything to the discussion at hand but preparing it did save me from doing some real work so there was benefit for me!

  2. Regarding trail runner durability. The rule of thumb in the long distance hiking community seems to be that you can expect 500 miles out of a pair of trail runners. When on a long hike, I have always been able to get that, as long as I didn’t go with a shoe with an very minimally reinforced upper. I know plenty of people who pushed their trail runners to 600 to 1100 miles without issue or injury. Admittedly their was not much left to the shoe by that time. YMMV, literally. Recently, I have seen a few models, such as the Salomon Triple Crown Odyssey and some approach shoes, that use polyurethane (PU) rather than EVA for the midsole. The claim is that the PU is more durable than EVA with a similar amount of cushion and rebound. My limited experience supports that claim. I have a pair of mostly synthetic leather approach shoes with PU midsoles that I have worn over 500 days and I expect that the tread will first thing to wear out. This summer I got about 400 miles out a pair of Salomon Triple Crown Odysseys. When I ditched them, the midsole was still in great shape, but the thin mesh upper had large holes near the ball of the foot on both sides.

  3. I appreciate that “ankle support” never came up.

    Mileage expectations for most of the trail runners I’ve tried are about 500-700, although I stay on trail and off snow. I also buy mostly $100+ shoes made well enough that I can wear the lugs down almost all the way. I suppose it could vary especially with different types of trail. Cushioning trails off, maybe to like half by the end. I don’t use boots as much but 500 miles seems kinda low there too, but the 2:1 mileage proportion is about right for my experience.

  4. This is a great article and very timely for wet winters in the NE. Can you expand a bit more on when you switch from trail runners to non-insulated hiking boots in 3-ish season conditions? How about when you switch to winter insulated boots exclusively? These gray areas are where I struggle most.

    For example, when temps will be in the right around freezing during the day and precipitation is forecast for a mix of rain and snow. I’m tempted to use the hiking boots for their warmth during the day and while stopped, but that warmth may not mean anything if my boots wet out from the inside from all the moisture and can’t dry.

    What’s your temp forecast for definitely using winter boots?

    Your advice and guidance articles like this are some of my favorites on here. Keep it up!

    • When temps dip below freezing during the day I switch from trail runners to insulated winter boots for on-trail hiking. That depends a bit on the hike destination and objectives too. For a sketchy hike above treeline, I might switch to an insulated boot just in case we get benighted and day turns into night. Wearing wet trail runners below freezing is pure misery even if you don’t get frostbite. I don’t wear non-insulated hiking boots for trail hiking, or very rarely at least. I just switch to winter boots.

  5. I’ve been wearing La Sportiva Wildcat, Ultra Raptor, Ex Axum Pro, and TX3 for 11 years and I have gotten ~500 miles out of all of my pairs with the TX3 lasting closer to 750 miles. (I’m excluding Helios from this grouping since they’re ultralight and the soles are not all rubber.) I’ve found La Sportiva more durable than Merrill, Nike, Brooks, and Inov. I have not tried Salomon, Keen, Oboz, or Altra so I cannot compare their durability.

    • I’ve been wearing La Sportiva Ultra Raptors for 6 years and get 250 miles out of them before the soles get too worn to wear without tempting plantar fasciitis. Worn heels and pronation will so that. I’ve gone through 20 pairs. Before that, it was the same thing with Inov-8s. Maybe East Coast hiking is just harder on shoes.

      • I am more hesitant about using Wildcat or Ultra Raptor after wearing them a few months. They get too slippery for tough hikes and bushwhacks, so I’ll use them in state parks and easy trails. That’s why I prefer TX3, the grip is stickier and lasts much longer. The grips tear so much on the other two, it gets annoying cleaning them and repairing them with Seam Grip every few weeks. At this point I’ll probably look for alternatives to Wildcat or Ultra Raptor when I want really flexible, meshy shoes. I will add this caveat that I’ve never really had foot issues, so I’ll wear out my hiking shoes before throwing them out.

      • I like the Raptors BECAUSE they have such great grip on wet and dry granite. Like a climbing shoe, but that’s probably why they wear out relativly fast.

      • 250 miles out of a pair of trail runners? Since that is what you experience, then you would barely finish some of the trails around here and you would need a new pair of shoes. In fact, you would probably want to start something like the NET or the Long Trail from the north end, just to ensure that you still have proper soles to finish since they are easier on the southern ends.
        That actually makes a good case to stay away from trail runners.
        And as another commenter said, why not look at trail shoes?

      • The long trail was only 272 miles long and for most of it you’re swimming not walking.
        But the reason I don’t use trail shoes is that they’re invariably clunky and slip on wet rock.

  6. Hey Phil great article. Timely for me as I’m in the market for real boots. One newb question if I might? For backpacking when the night temps go into the 20s, do you want removable inserts? I took my trail runners on one trip, low was 27, and in the am all my sweat was frozen and the shoes were miserable for awhile. I thought I read somewhere that you needed inserts (or VBLs) to avoid that, but I’m not sure I’m getting that from your piece. Thanks.

    • Under those circumstances you can 1) sleep with them in your sleeping bag/quilt to keep them from freezing or 2) wear oven roasting bags over your socks to prevent your sweat from wetting your insulation.

      If day time temps were also consistent below freezing, I’d probably just wear winter insulated boots.

  7. Surprised that the middle isn’t mentioned: hiking shoes

  8. Great article. I have never gone the trail running shoe approach for hiking. If the hike is to be shorter in duration and less intense terrain, I may opt for a hiking shoe in good conditions.

    However, after several years of opting for a big, all leather hiking boot, I can rarely justify the weight unless I’m carrying a significant load. I love the support, stability and durability, but being over 40 now and choosing increasingly difficult routes, they were just too much.

    Recently, I grabbed the Scarpa Zodiac Plus GTX. Extremely light relative to their underfoot support and stiffness. Ideal for scrambling, rock hopping, and tough vertical climbs like say in the Northern Presidentials. They are not the best choice for pounding out long miles in comfort, as they don’t have a great deal of cushioning. They breath amazingly well for Gore-Tex, which unless it’s winter, I try hard to avoid. Just one example of how new materials and technology can start to bleed the lines between weight and protection.

    Anyway, it’s all about trade-offs, knowing your needs and what your outing will require in my experience. I generally prefer the underfoot protection/stability over the weight penalty of boots, but I have found having a few different options depending on the season, terrain and conditions is optimal.

  9. I’ve benefited from Gore-Tex and other waterproof materials in boots and trail runners when on 1 to 2 day hikes and casual walks in the neighborhood. The waterproofing is great at keeping water out. But they are also great at keeping moisture in. When I’ve taken Gore-Tex boots backpacking anytime outside of winter my feet become very cold and stay that way throughout the trip because they just don’t dry in a tent.

    I’ve switched to waterproof socks, whether Gore-Tex or other materials for most of my hikes with boots or trail runners as they can be taken off, turned inside out and kept inside my quilt/bag at night which does dry them off. I think they also insulate (and can be too hot in the summer) which extends the temps I can wear trail runners when it’s cold.

    I also take out the insoles at night to better let them and the trail runner or boot dry off.

  10. Above-freezing use for hiking boots: deep, sucking mud that would swamp my trail shoes. There’s a certain amount of 35 degree F mud-slopping in our winters. Otherwise, I only use boots for below-freezing (day hikes), and I take spare socks to swap out before my first pair of the day get sopping with sweat.

    My trail shoes are lightweight Salewa approach shoes – feel great, and lightweight, grippy on exposed rock and most other surfaces.

  11. I love my minimalist trail runners (Merrell Trail Gloves 4) and wear them every day on and off the trail. My knees can’t handle boots anymore. No question that’s the best option 3 season for me.

    For winter, I’ve found the best option for me is non-insulated NEOS overshoes worn over my trail runners. Fully waterproof, and work well with microspikes/crampons/snowshoes. My trail runners are not comfortable with microspikes (they bend the shoe).

    If I was doing serious cold winter hiking, I think a nice expensive pair of non-waterproof insulated boots would be the way to go, but I’m usually hitting a lot of slush and sloppy conditions, non-frozen creeks, etc and don’t trust WPB boots.

  12. I own Keen Durands, purchased in late 2016. I bought these with the idea that I made an investment and expected these boots to last many years. In the 3+ years I’ve owned these boots, I’ve had them repaired twice by a shoemaker because of stitching coming apart. After reading this article and comments, I was curious about the expected lifespan of these boots and contacted Keen. The following is my question and Keen’s response:

    I have a pair of Keen Durands that are about 4 years old. What is the expected lifespan? I’ve put about 1000 miles on them between various trips and have had a shoemaker repair them several times. What should I look for to decide if it’s time to replace them?

    Thanks for reaching out! It’s tough to put a “life expectancy” on our boots because it totally depends on usage. How they are used, where they are used, how they are stored, and how often they are used are all big things to consider when trying to put a lifespan on a boot.

    That being said, the Durand is a light-mid hiker and we expect it to last about 300-500 miles depending on terrain and pack weight. In your case, getting 1,000 miles out of them is impressive! I would say that it is time to grab a new pair!

    I was surprised their expected lifespan was so short; comparable to the trail runner estimate. Part of my impetus for buying leather boots was they would be long lasting. There is an environmental impact to disposing of leather, so I also thought I was making a better LNT choice purchasing footwear with a longer useful life.

    Has anyone else contacted manufacturers regarding shoe or boot lifespan?

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