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When Should You Replace Your Hiking Trail Runners?

When should you replace trail runners?

The problem with hiking with trail runners is that you must replace them frequently when the tread wears thin, the midsole cushioning breaks down, and the exterior mesh tears past the point of no return. Depending on the shoe and where you hike, you can expect to get between 350 and 500 miles from a pair of trail running shoes before you need to throw them away. If you hike enough to go through several pairs a year, the annual replacement cost adds up, but what’s worse is that you have to throw the shoes away since they’re no way to repair them and widespread recycling isn’t yet an option

Tread Wear

One of the things that makes trail runners so nice to wear for hiking is the tread, which is soft and grips hard or muddy surfaces well, providing more traction than a harder-soled hiking boot. The downside is that trail runner soles wear out quickly, particularly on more abrasive terrain in the mountains or on trails topped with fine sand and gravel.

When the lugs start to disappear (right), it's time for a new pair of trail runners.
When the lugs start to disappear (right), it’s time for a new pair of trail runners.

While grip and traction loss are a concern, tread wear can lead to overuse injuries that are amplified when parts of your shoes begin to break down, not just the tread, but the midsole cushioning underneath it. When the lugs on your shoes begin to disappear or the heels are worn heavily along one side, it’s time to get yourself a new pair of trail runners.

Midsole Cushioning

Midsole cushioning is designed to give your feet a shock absorber, to help reduce impacts, and injuries, and to prevent foot fatigue. But the level of wear and tear of the midsole cushioning under your trail runner lugs is difficult to assess because the foam, called EVA (for Ethylene Vinyl Acetate) is mostly hidden inside the shoe and under the sole.

However, there are some telltale signs that the cushioning is starting to break down. If you notice the foam along the side of your shoes, under the outsole, is creased or compressed, that’s an indication that the foam is beginning to lose its shock-absorbing properties. Since midsole cushioning usually breaks down before your soles, if your soles are worn down, there’s a good chance that the cushioning is shot too. In addition, if you start to get shin splints all of a sudden or your feet ache after a long hike, the breakdown of the midsole cushioning may be the culprit.

When the mesh begins to deteriorate, the shoe’s remaining lifetime is limited.
When the external mesh begins to deteriorate, the shoe’s remaining lifetime is limited.

Torn External Mesh

Most people wear trail runners for hiking because they have mesh exteriors that drain well and dry quickly when they get wet. Depending on the shoe, that mesh exterior can get chewed up pretty badly leading to the eventual failure of the shoe’s uppers, although some shoes like Saucony Peregrines have an internal sock liner that will hold the shoes’ shape for a while longer.

The location of the most wear and tear tends to be along the sides of your shoes at the point where the toebox begins and the laces end in front, where the shoes flex the most. You can mitigate the damage by coating the area with shoegoo to form a protective shell over the mesh, although it will eventually break down and expose the upper to abrasion.

Pre-emptive shoegoo toecaps on La Sportiva Ultra Raptor Trail Runners
Pre-emptive shoegoo toecaps on La Sportiva Ultra Raptor Trail Runners

Wrap Up

While mesh trail runners are ideal for hiking and backpacking because they provide superior grip, and cushioning, and they drain and dry quickly, they’re really not very durable when it comes to long term use. If you want your trail runners to last, the best strategy is to only use them for hiking and backpacking and not for everyday use. That will help preserve them for as long as possible and save the expense of replacing them multiple times per year.

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  1. Thank you for acknowledging how fucked up it is that people nonchalantly buy and throw away shoes. I love how lone peaks fit but refuse to buy a product that will be in the bin in few months. We as a community need to come down on these manufacturers for their lack of foresight. Ironic that they provide tools for people to enjoy the outdoors but ultimately are simply contributing to our global rubbish crisis, which nobody sees because the trash gets shipped elsewhere. Every trail should have a shoe graveyard so people can visualize how much trash is created due to the way we hike. In a few years, a new mountain will form and can be the next big summit for up and comers…

  2. Some options exist to reduce the landfill burden. Nike Grind (available at Nike stores, which I know are not widespread) is one option which repurposes at least some of the raw materials. Another (for still usable shoes which perhaps don’t suit you) is Soles for Souls.

    However, this is a topic we don’t talk about much for choosing trail runners vs. boots. I wish there was an intermediate option, but the way shoes are constructed (to make them affordable) precludes running shoes that can be resoled at this time as far as I know.

  3. Although I’m not a road runner (marathons) my sense is that it can be as bad – or worse. Not justifying the issue for trail-runners, simply saying this is not a unique issue.

    Similar to car tires what makes the tread so “sticky” is a soft compound and by default that soft compound is going to wear away in fewer miles than a hard compound. If the compound is going to wear away in 300-500 miles, why make an upper with more durable materials than will last the same? Where car tires do differ than shoes is the tires are highly tested/regulated and have a wear rating on them. If you buy a tire that has a wear rating of 200, it will last roughly half the miles of one rated at 400. There is no mileage guarantee with the wear rating, it’s just comparative between models and brands. Might be something worthwhile for shoes at least relative to tread.

    Trail shoes are a bit more of a crap shoot – even within the same Mfg, never mind from one version to the next. I ONLY wear my trail shoes when hiking – on and off at the car. Altra Timp 2 & 3 both got right around 300 miles from them and the tread was shot. Altra LP 5’s right now with 350 miles on them and the tread is still decent with the upper showing a bit of wear.

  4. Shoes4Souls is a South African company that specialize in collecting and redistributing ‘gently used’ shoes. Many of my marathon shoes end up with this company as they are frequently used only a handful of times

  5. Isn’t the terrain walked on a major wear factor? Seems like walking/ running on pavement has got to cause quicker wear than on rock/ soil?

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