Why Do Some Hikers Prefer Trail Runners?

Why Do Hikers Prefer Trail Runners?

Many hikers and backpackers prefer wearing trail runners instead of hiking boots or mids. Trail runners are basically running shoes that are designed for running on trails and cross-country terrain with larger lugs for better traction on uneven terrain. But trail runners, hiking boots, and mids all have their pros and cons. You should wear the type of hiking boots or shoes that you feel comfortable wearing. We provide this information below if you’ve been considering a change but want information about why trail runners are preferred by some hikers.

Trail Runners for Hiking: Key Advantages

Hikers and backpackers like to wear trail runners because they:

  1. require little to no break-in time
  2. are cooler in hot weather
  3. cause fewer blisters
  4. have a larger toe box
  5. drain well when they get wet and dry faster than boots
  6. the softer soles that provide good traction for scrambling on rock
  7. they are lightweight

The devil is in the details, however, since switching to trail runners still requires knowing what to look for and trying lots of different trail runners on to see if they fit well and are designed to meet the conditions you need them to perform in. We provide a few hints below to get you started.

Little to No Break-in Time

Trail runners are lightweight running shoes with uppers that are soft and pliable out of the box. Many can be worn without little to no break-in time. That’s a different story with hiking boots or mids, especially leather hiking boots or mids, which can require as much as 50 miles of light hiking before they soften up.

That said, when trying a new pair of trail runners for the first time, it pays to be a little cautious. I usually tape my heels with Leukotape, which is a sticky blister prevention tape, when I try on a new make and model of trail runner that I’ve never used before. But when it comes to a replacement pair, I can usually put them on and go out for a hike without bothering to break them in.

Cooler in Hot Weather

Trail runners have mesh uppers which are much cooler in hot weather
Trail runners have mesh uppers that are much cooler in hot weather.

Most trail runners have mesh uppers that are much cooler to wear in hot weather. In addition to better airflow, feet sweat a surprising amount, up to a 1/2 cup of water per day. That mesh allows the foot perspiration to evaporate, which has a cooling effect. While you can buy trail runners that have waterproof/breathable liners, most people don’t. That was one of the reasons trail runners first became so popular: because you could buy them without a waterproof/breathable liner, something that is nearly impossible with hiking boots or hiking mids.

Cause Fewer Blisters

Trail runners cause fewer blisters than heavier and thicker hiking boots and mids because they are softer and more pliable and because they keep your feet cooler. There’s an old saying when it comes to new hiking boots, that you need to “break your feet in” when you get a new pair of boots since they’re so overbuilt and have so little stretch in them. In other words, your feet need to adapt to the shoe, since the shoe isn’t going to adapt to your feet.

Trail runners, in contrast, adapt more easily to different foot shapes, both in the toes, under the tongue, and along the mid-foot. This causes less friction, which is what causes blisters because your foot is not fighting the shoe. Friction is also increased when you’re feet get hot and swell inside a hiking boot or shoe; but the mesh uppers in trail runners help keep your feet cooler so they swell less.

Larger Toe Box

Oversized toe box allows toes to splay out. Mesh uppers help vent perspiration
Altra’s oversized toe box allows toes to splay out. Mesh uppers help vent perspiration

Many trail runners, especially those from Altra Running, have a wider toe box than more traditional hiking boots or hiking shoes. This means your toes can spread out fully inside, which decreases the chance of blistering because they don’t rub together. Besides being a heck of a lot more comfortable, a wide toe box helps prevent or alleviate overuse injuries such as Morton’s Neuroma (toe nerve pain) which is experienced by about 1/3 of all hikers.

Drain and Dry Faster

Mesh trail runners drain and dry substantial faster than hiking boots or trail shoes
Mesh trail runners drain and dry substantial faster than hiking boots or trail shoes

Trail runners drain quickly when they get wet because the uppers are a porous mesh, as long as you get ones that don’t have a waterproof/breathable liner like Gore-tex. In contrast, if you’ve ever gotten hiking boots or hiking mids wet, you know that they can take several days to dry without an electronic boot dryer.  This means you can walk through stream crossings with trail runners if you want, without carrying a second pair of stream crossing shoes, because your shoes will drain and dry so quickly. Furthermore, you’re less likely to get blisters if you get your trail runners wet because they are so soft and pliable and don’t cause extra friction.

Traction on Rock

If you do a lot of scrambling on rock, you’ll find that many trail runners have softer soles and lugs that provide better traction on rock, and even wet rock, than boots or mids with more rigid soles. La Sportiva, which also makes climbing shoes, probably has the trail runners with the stickiest soles, which make it easy to walk up surprisingly high-angle rock faces. Softer soles do wear down more quickly and of course, trail runners can’t be resoled, but then again there’s no thing as a free lunch.

Light Weight

Trail runners, for many of the aforementioned reasons, are also much lighter weight than hiking boots or hiking mids, which can put a little more spring in your step. The weight and energy saving adds up if you like to hike all day and can even result in an increase in the average number of miles you can hike in a day.

Trail Runners for Hikers: How to Choose
Trail Runners for Hikers: How to Choose

Trail Runners for Hikers: How to Choose

Hikers and backpackers are not trail runners and have slightly different requirements for traveling longer distances, a wider variety of terrain, and for a longer period of time. Here are some things that we encourage you to look for in trail runners for hiking.

Toe Protection

The amount of toe protection provided by trail runners varies widely. If you hike on rocky trails, you’re probably going to want a shoe that has a beefy toe kick up front and thick protective strips (usually TPU – thermoplastic polyurethane) running down the sides of the toe box. The frequent alternative is black or broken toenails.  La Sportiva trail runners have the absolute best toe protection with thick rubber toe kicks and wrap-around toe box protection.

Rock Plate

A rock plate is a stiff piece of protective material inserted under the toe box or mid-foot to protect your foot from getting bruised by sharply pointed rocks or roots. Rock plates are common on trail runners designed for rugged trail running. Some trail runners, like the La Sportiva Jackal, even have full-length rock plates, to provide maximum protection for your entire foot.

Cushioning

Trail runners are available with different amounts of cushioning which reduces impacts on your feet, ankles, and knees. While a certain amount of cushioning is helpful, it can reduce the amount of proprioceptive trail feel that you get, which is useful for detecting uneven terrain, poor footing, or trip hazards. Trail runners with a moderate level of cushioning are the best for hiking and provide a good balance of protection and trail awareness.

Gaiter Trap

It’s important to wear gaiters with trail runners to prevent sticks, stones, and sand from getting into the back of your shoes. This is easiest to do if the shoes have a velcro tab in the back, often called a gaiter trap, like Altra’s trail runners. Otherwise, you’ll have to glue a piece of velcro behind the heel to hold a gaiter on. If that’s the case, carefully inspect the back of the heel to see if there’s a flat area to stick the velcro to, as this will help it stay on longer.

SectionHiker is reader-supported. We independently research, test, and rate the best products. We only make money if you purchase a product through our affiliate links. Help us continue to test and write unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides.

57 comments

  1. Thanks for this article. It’s difficult to find anyone else talking about this online.

  2. Nice article Philip! I’ve been wearing “lows” for years and this year switched to real trail runners. I wore the new Solomon Speedcross 5’s to Philmont this summer. I was worried that the soles would hold up to the rocky conditions at Philmont. They were awesome! Light and lots of grip on slick granite rocks. It was pretty dry for our trek so I didn’t test the “get them wet, and wear them dry” aspect, but they certainly garnered a lot of attention and questions by hikers.

    • Because they hike on trails.
      You can hike trails in flip flops.
      They don’t care to go off trail they might even believe that it’s wrong to do so.

      They like running for portions of the day.
      They care about trail miles.
      They care about trails.
      Trails.

      • Definitely not accurate. I have hiked 600 miles this summer off trail in my Altra’s. Philip lists some great reasons boots. Give it a try – you might find you like it.

  3. Carefully dodging the question about ankle support? It’s a dicey one anyway.

    I’ve heard it said boots naturally provide rigid ankle support that can prevent twists. But on the flip side, reliance on that can cause “weak ankles” so one is more prone to turning.

    I dunno. I’ve tried both and prefer runners. But I agree a certain level of fitness and fine ankle strength seems to help. I’ve been more prone to minor twists when I haven’t been hiking or jogging for a while. No trouble at all when fit.

    At any rate, the better advice is to always pay attention to footing, regardless of footwear! Slow down on precarious terrain, and never assume there are no gopher holes.

    • Ankle support is a red herring. The difference is how much your calf/shin is involved in walking. With Trail runners and low shoes, it’s none. With boots, more, especially high boots.

      • Exactly! The more you wear a shoe like Altra brand, the stronger your ankles get. I suffered three sprains over the years on the same ankle. I ditched the boots and went to Zero drop with excellent tread and a wide forefoot, (Altra Lone Peak) and have never looked back.

    • Boots don’t prevent ankle sprains, that’s a myth. They protect from abrasion and bumps. What protects is proprioception and in that the trail is much better.

      • I couldn’t agree with you more. :-)

      • I switched to zero drop trail runners (Altra) and that stopped my ankles from rolling. That had been a big problem for me.

      • I inflicted on myself a Grade 2 ankle sprain this summer and broke my fibula at the mid point. Wearing mid-weight boots over my ankle. So, yeah.

        I like them for protection off trail, and I was on a trail work crew at the time, so regulation. But they don’t prevent ankle sprains. Or leg breaks. Only you can do that….

      • I agree wholeheartedly and I am sad that more people don’t understand this. I have a friend who complains about blisters and sweaty feet all the time and I wish she would switch to trail runners (I have hiked with her for years so I finally gave up on that mission) but she won’t because ankle support. Sigh.

    • Since your foot is effectively further off the ground in a thick solid boot, there is a longer lever arm against which your ankle can be torqued sideways aka and ankle role. Lower to the ground, less rotational torque.

      • Oh, *totally* this. I twisted my ankle so many times in boots because they are higher off the ground. No one seems to understand this.

    • High tops provide almost no ankle support…many studies on this…does tom brady and his $100 million dollar ankles wear high tops….nope…you want support tape your ankles…otherwise…

    • I find that I have much better grip with trail runners. So much more that combined with trekking poles I have yet to slip since making the switch. I have never felt more sure-footed on trail

      • I agree with the other responses, but this one most of all.

        The low-profile grippy-ness of trail runners feel much more rooted to the ground. And didn’t even think to mention the added stability from proper poling.

  4. Trail runners are great unless you are in sandy or dusty terrain. Sand and dirt fall through the mesh and you get shoes full of it. That is much worse than sweating feet. The mesh is a con not a pro.

      • Just wanted to thank you for the La Sportiva Jackal review I ordered a pair, got them today and have been walking around in them for a couple of hours and they feel great, surprisingly cushy. I ordered them one size larger as you suggested and they fit perfectly. The shoes don’t seem particularly wide to me but the last time I measured my foot with that metal device was 25 years ago and I was a D width then, which is normal, but maybe my feet have flattened out since then. In any case the fit is just right at size 12 which is one size above normal for me. The shoes will get a real test tomorrow when I do my weekly hike of 12 miles around Lake Natoma in Northern California. Mostly flat with a few river rocks and puds. It was a high of 105F there today so I am leaving early tomorrow to avoid the heat. At least we don’t have high humidity here like you guys back East, I know because I grew up in Upstate NY!

    • I’m in AZ and I totally agree the sand and dust can be an issue. The work around is to buy waterproof trail runners. That’s all I buy now.

      • See, waterproof goes back to the quick dry/foot stank problems which I definitely have. Just gotta pick your poison, I guess.

        I’ve not had much issue with mesh trail runners even being in the dusty Sierras. Sometimes will throw on gaiters for a long, sandy stretch. Maybe I’m weird, but I don’t mind dealing with sand/dust over wet.

        Sand shakes out, but moisture not so much.

  5. Bill in Roswell GA

    Ditto to what Tim said in regards to ankle support. I had ankles prone to sprains, even wearing boots. After talking with the Altra rep at a local store about how a low or zero stack height could actually strengthen ankles I gave them a try on many very rocky N GA trails. For me it was true, may ankles grew stronger with not a twist. I tried a few Altras, and while I liked the width, the durability was suspect at best. I switched to Topo, which is also wide, but far better built and with a quality insole. YMMV. Phil is spot on about wet crossings – lightweight wool socks will dry in a couple hours after a trail runner crosding. That is why a smart hiker keeps a pair of dry socks for camp!

    I do still wear lighweight boots at times, like on the Presidential range in September when wet, cold weather was a concern. The Salomon Quest GTX was stellar for those conditions or punching through snow fields.

    • I wear boots or mids from mid-Nov to mid-April in the White Mountains. Can’t go losing any toes to frostbite in the service of vanity!

    • +1 on all points, Bill. I think walking with one trekking pole is the most effective way for me to avoid rolling ankles. That reflex when a proprioceptive stimulus comes in keeps me upright. YMMV

      • Yeah, amen to the poling for stability which someone else noted too. Didn’t even think to mention.

        Having a “third foot” has probably saved me from falls/twists more than any shoe. I’m a two pole guy, and they really do feel like an extension of your body once you catch a rhythm.

    • Zero drop, not zero stack height.You want some stack height for cushioning.

  6. Nice article! I still wear my boots when I expect to be hiking in snow or bog but I do not like the way the upper/shaft (?) digs in above my ankles on lateral steep terrain. Bushidos have been a revelation in the summer high Sierra on and off trail, although must state I am working on reducing packed weight too. Also, they fit me like a glove – to me that equals comfort and agility, to others it may just be too tight. The dust that reaches my skin after being sifted through mesh and sock acts as talc, further blister prevention. I think foot strength is a factor to consider, especially as trail runners are so comfy out of the box you don’t have to break in the footwear, but you do need to train the feet.

  7. Just completed the south west coast path 1000 Kms and jacked in a pair of trail runners (saucony peregrines) for waterproof mids half way through.. I was getting annoyed as hell with no only constantly having to dry my socks out but properly washing them out due to dust entering the mesh and I actually chose them for this reason lol. Also, I had totally had enough of my feet and socks being wetted out due to the long wet grass which was everywhere. Also, the soles of my feet received a battering from the trail and I felt I needed a more rigid sole. In the end the mid boot, albeit a crappy one served it’s purpose and when I crunched my toe box into jutting out metal in the middle of the trail I was seriously relieved I wasn’t wearing my peregrines.. so all in all it was the dust which broke me lol

  8. My main question is are the hikers that prefer trail runners day hiking or are they carrying multi day packs? When I’m on a multi day trip carrying 40 – 50 pounds, I need the ankle support of the boot. I just don’t see how I wouldn’t twist my ankle carrying that weight after being on the trail for 8 hours a day.

    • I think it comes down to practice responding to proprioceptive feedback, which people label as “support”. If you hike a lot, you develop a sixth sense to changes in surface angles that you can counter in a blink of an eye. I’ve sprained ankles wearing boots and mids, so I discount claims that ankle support matters much. Hike a lot and you’ll stop turning or spraining your ankles. I don’t just mean on weekends or three times a year. I mean like 30+ miles a week.Boots just provide more proprioceptive feedback, so they’re probably better for people who like less often because there are more points of contact between your boot and lower leg to provide sensory feedback.

  9. No question about it trail runners are better than hiking boots. I’ve hiked1000’s of miles over the past 10 years with light daypacks to 45 pound overnight packs and the trail-runners still prevail. This includes 12 hour day hikes summiting Mt Whitney to multiple days on the JMT. The trail runners are light, cool, comfortable, dry fast and have plenty of tread and support. The boots I started hiking in gave me no more ankle support than trail runners and were miserable to walk in. Just like any shoe some have been better than others.

  10. I have hiked in the Rockies in Western Canada for the last 50 years and I have always worn the traditional hiking boots. Nice to see a different story that is actually useful for the average family. I have 3 daughters and 3 grandsons need I say more ????????

    • Thanks for the comprehensive article. There’s a real changing of the guard going on out there.
      As usual, I see all those benefits and think, damn, I gotta switch over. Then I think of my podiatrist looking at me like I’ve gotta be kidding. With my feet I’m lucky to be out there at all.

  11. Trail runners give me happy feet. I only wear boots when it is too cold.

  12. I have severe osteoarthritis in my ankle with painful bone spurs. In summer, I used to wear heavy boots for protection. One day I tried out Altta’s and discovered that protecting weak ankles doesn’t require heavy boots. In summer, quick draining trail runners are much less strain on weak ankles. In winter, hiking boots still make the most sense. Trail runners are absolutely the way to go for summer hiking, especially if you have a lot of water crossings. GD

  13. Phil – your previous article extolling the benefits of trail runners for hiking prompted me to try them out. I just picked up a previous Altra model at a good discount and I am excited to take them to the Whites. I agree with previous comments regarding ankle support, and while I’m sure they will take a beating with above tree line rock-hopping, that is exactly the type of trail where I hope the grippy and flexible sole pays off.

    Keep up the excellent articles. You are my first place to look when researching gear.

    • Tom – You’re probably going to want to ease into using those for a few weeks while your Achille stretches out if you haven’t been using zero drop shoes. I suggest taking a bunch of short walks with them – under 2-3 miles before you bite off more than you can chew. It depends on the model of Altra, but just be advised, many don’t have a lot of toe kick protection which can be an issue for rock kickers. :-)

  14. I understand the proprioception argument & do see benefits in developing the strength & skills through ankle use; however, there is still a physical difference – which I experienced 2 weeks ago in a monsoon when the trail caved under me & I went down a embankment. Clearly, I would have broken my ankle had I not had boots on (MRI & x-rays were necessary). Ortho thought the ankle was broken. Salomon Quest boots. Knee got trashed too, again. I humped it out two miles never removing my boots but when I did the ankle blew up. But if you’re good with runners that’s great. Just saying it’s not always just feeling the angles & contact points from boots – there is some support in some boots.

    • There totally is. They’re also great way to keep your ankle from swelling up so you can hike out instead of calling for a litter or a helicopter. I wear mids and boots 6 months of the year when it’s too cold for trail runners or there’s snow on the ground. They’re also good for ankle protection and “leverage” off trail. Sorry to hear about your injury. Hope you heel up soon!

  15. After decades of wearing traditional hiking boots, I finally made the switch to mid-height trail runners. The main driver for this was to be comfortable hiking in higher temps. I find the trail runners are much lighter, vent well and dry quickly. This is in contrast to the crummy GTX hiking boots that manufacturers are so fond of today. I do find the trail runners need replacing more often. However, as the trail runners are much cheaper, the overall cost is about the same.
    Also, much prefer a mid-height trail runner to keep debris out of shoe.

    • Gaiters can help keep debris out of your shoes. I wear them all the time now because a couple of times when I’ve thought, “Eh, don’t need them, they don’t really do anything” I have been surprised at how much debris gets into my shoes.

  16. I once saw a grandmother hiking up Tuckerman Ravine Trail with her two grandchildren. They were wearing sandals. Both were taking a nap on a sun warmed rock. She was wearing flip flops. I have or have had every brand of footgear, My favorite hiking shoe for quite a while were Reebock High Tops. A sprained ankle is never in mind, What concerns me more is the foot rolling inside the shoe as I hike across a slope or slab. I have had running shoes slide right off the side of my foot. A hike IMO shouldn’t be a race. Although I have witnessed any “organized ” hikes become just that. Hikers pulling out there stop watches to check the time taken to get back to their cars. I believe there are still people who view of a hike as a series of measured steps taken while experiencing nature. I choose leather hiking boots not to support my ankles but to support the foot against glancing nicks on unforgiving stone, bruised sore soles from miles on sharp rocks, as a firm base with which I plant my feet to take in what views I might find.

  17. Any suggestions for zero drop winter hiking shoes? I’m in Maine and hike all winter so I need something insulated. Preferably boots.

  18. The cover photo of th red Sportivas! Whose feet are they and where please?

  19. I had a grade II-III ankle sprain and avulsion fracture 10 years ago when I fell on top of a mountain and had to hike down. I used stiff, mid boots for years after for protection. Three years ago, I made the transition to Altras and it has been much better. First, you have much better proprioception and can feel ground instabilities more quickly. Your ankle muscles (fibularis in particular) get much stronger over time. The combination of proprioception and strength/function of the muscles will prevent sprains more than stiff, tight boots. And finally, one aspect that may be overlooked is the stability of your ankle at different angles. Your ankle gets less stable as you move into plantar flexion. So boots with heels place your ankles in more unstable positions. It makes a big difference to have your foot flat for stability.

    If I have a big load, or if I am on trails that are mostly loose rocks, sometimes boots are better. But even then, there are boots like Topo that are more minimal and have a lower drop. And I still use poles most of the time for insurance. I am a PT, and believe in rehabilitation, especially balance training. But hiking in 0 drop shoes has actually been more effective for me in terms of balance and strength. Only word of caution is take the transition to 0 drop very slowly. I started with 5 mm and worked my way down.

  20. I was told before hiking the AT to start out with boots for the first 6 weeks so my legs could get used to the extra pack weight. It was more for prevention of getting stress fractures in the feet. I made a mistake of hiking 20+ miles the fist day of wearing the runners. I had a lot of swelling in the ankles. It was clear sailing after that!

  21. In my experience its about the cushioning. Hiking boots have dense materials used in the cushion that allows you to carry a heavy load for multiple days while not deminishing its protection. The type of material used in trail runners does not respond as well when used for multiple days or with a heavy pack. This can cause you to fatigue quicker and increases impact on you knees and back. Evidence of this is seen in long distance runners requiring multiple pairs of shoes for any run longer than 6-8 hours.

    • Not sure I completely follow your logic, as hikers don’t strike the ground with the same force as trail runners and trail runners don’t wear heavy packs and most don’t use trekking poles. I understand the parallel inferenece you’re trying to make. I just don’t buy it as well substantiated. There are also trail runnner (hokas) with more and better cushioning then any hiking boot has, so clumbing all trail running shoes as a class doesn’t strengthen your argument.

  22. I wish someone would create a wizard to narrow down the list of shoes one should consider.

  23. I bought a pair of Altra mids and loved their weight, or lack of, grippy soles, and breathability, but after about 6 miles my posterir tibialis tendenitis would trigger sending me hobbling down the trail to my destination. I find the lack of lateral support, especially when I have a pack on (20 lbs.+/-), is just too much for my feet when hiking on a rockier trail. Nice groomed trails are a breeze! I want to love them, I really do, but I’m scurrying back toward a boot for more protection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.