Winter Hiking in Trail Runners

Winter Hiking in Trail Runners

If you use trail runners for hiking and backpacking in three-season weather, it is possible to keep using them in winter instead of insulated winter hiking boots or mountaineering boots. There are some advantages to doing this. Trail runners are substantially lighter weight than boots, so you can hike farther and faster with less fatigue, and they usually cause fewer hiking blisters than boots, if you’re prone to that kind of thing.

But when it comes to winter footwear, your shoes, be they boots or trail runners, are just one component of an integrated winter footwear system that needs to address four key requirements:

  • insulation
  • waterproofing
  • traction
  • flotation

Granted, it is easier to build a winter footwear system around insulated waterproof boots because that is the status quo. But there are ways to assemble a functionally equivalent system around trail runners if you’re willing to do a lot of experimentation and you’re reasonably conservative in your testing of its limitations. Failure is not an option when it comes to cold injuries caused by inadequately insulated or waterproof winter footwear.

Below, I enumerate some of the options available to you if you want to build a cold-weather footwear system around trail runners, including some observations about how they perform in different winter conditions.

Insulation

There are a couple of ways to add insulation to a trail runner. Many people wear Neoprene socks or waterproof socks inside their trail runners to insulate their feet and provide some moisture protection. These are available in different thicknesses and heights and you’ll want to experiment with a few different ones to figure out what works for different temperatures. You may also have to adjust your shoe size to accommodate an insulated sock.

NRS 2mm Neoprene Wetsock
NRS 2mm Neoprene Wetsock

Check out the Neoprene and waterproof sock selection from NRS, Showers Pass, and Sealskinz. You can also just wear plastic bags over thick woolen socks. The plastic will keep your feet warmer because it prevents evaporative cooling, a process that pulls body heat away from your skin.

Another approach is to wear a Neoprene overboot, like the Forty Below Light Energy Tr Shorty Overboot which is worn over a trail runner and has a foam insole for added insulation. I’ve used these for winter hiking and they’re easy to use with microspikes, crampons, and snowshoes. Unfortunately, they’re hard to get this year because there’s a worldwide shortage of Neoprene.

Forty Below Neoprene Overboot
Forty Below Neoprene Overboot

Waterproofing

You want to avoid getting water into trail runners in winter because it will freeze inside your shoes. The easiest way to keep them dry is to get a waterproof/breathable trail runner lined with Gore-Tex, eVent, or some other proprietary membrane. The waterproof/breathable liner will create a cushion of warm air around your feet, but I wouldn’t put much stock in their breathability: what you care about is their waterproofness.

You also need to prevent snow from entering the top of your shoes from above and wetting your socks, especially if you’re hiking on trails that have not been broken out (packed down) by other hikers. Gaiters are the obvious solution, but there are also winterized trail runners that have built-in gaiters to prevent snow from entering above. Some of these have deep lugs and tungsten spikes for traction, which is an interesting combination used by winter trail runners on packed trails.

The La Sportiva Blizzard GTX has a built in snow gaiter
The La Sportiva Blizzard GTX has a built-in snow gaiter

I once used a pair of La Sportiva Crossover GTX Trail Runners (no longer made) with a built-in gaiter and it was quite effective. The La Sportiva Blizzard GTX Trail Runner, available today, has one, as do the Salomon Snowspike Climasalomon Waterproof Trail Runners.

Traction Aids

When hiking on packed trails, you’ll want a lightweight traction aid like microspikes to prevent slips and to help grip the walking surface. For thicker and moderate-angle ice, you’ll want a more aggressive crampon with longer spikes, but one that’s designed for use with very soft-soled shoes.

Lightweight Traction Aids

Unfortunately, Kahtoola Microspikes and Hillsound Trail Crampon Ultras can be uncomfortable when worn with trail runners.  Both have free-floating metal spikes attached by chains to a stretchy elastomer harness. But the harness squeezes the toebox and can cause blisters, while you can feel the spikes through the soft soles of trail runners.

One alternative is to add hobnails or screws to the soles of your trail runners so the screw heads act like tire studs. The two winter trail runners mentioned above, the La Sportiva Blizzard GTX and the Salomon Snowspike Climasalomon Waterproof also come with factory-installed spikes, which is great, as long as you remember to take them off before you walk across wood floors (they can also shred snowshoe decking). The Blizzard has 7mm lugs, so it really wears like a studded snow tire!

Kahtoola Nanospikes DO NOT exert any extra pressure over the ties which can lead to blisters
Kahtoola Nanospikes DO NOT exert any extra pressure over the toes which can lead to blisters

There are also all various traction aids that are designed for use with soft-soled trail runners, like Kahtoola Nanospikes, Kahtoola EXOSpikes, Hillsound Flexstep Crampons, Black Diamond’s Blitz Spike Traction Device, the Black Diamond Distance Spike Traction Device, Vargo Pocket Cleats, and numerous others. These provide more flexibility because they’re easily removed when they’re not needed or when you need to switch to a more aggressive crampon, or snowshoe, below. The key variables to consider when evaluating these light traction devices are comfort, specifically in the toe box and from below through the sole, and spike length, since this determines how much traction they provide.

Crampons for Trail Runners

When choosing crampons for trail runners, you want a pair that are compatible with very soft-soled shoes. These are not rigid climbing crampons, but ones designed for hiking on flat terrain and moderate inclines when a longer, sharper spike is required.

The key feature to look for is a very bendy flex bar (also called a leaf spring) connecting the front crampon to the heel crampon. The bindings should also be compatible with a soft heel and lower profile toe box. The best ones I’ve found for soft-soled trail runners are Kahtoola’s K-10 crampons which have a binding system that is tailor-made for a low-toe box and heel counter. Most of the other crampons out there have bindings designed for use with soft-soled boots instead.

Kahtoola K-10 Crampons
Kahtoola K-10 Crampons

When you order the K-10’s, they come with “snow release skins” (often called anti-balling plates) that you’ll want to attach to the crampons. These keep wet snow from clumping to the bottom of the crampons, making it impossible to walk.

Flotation

Snowshoes are designed for flotation, to let you hike on the surface of the snow without sinking into it. But one of the challenges of outfitting yourself for winter hiking is that you often don’t know what the snow depth on your route is unless you hike on heavily used trails that are broken out by other hikers. If that’s the case, you can usually forgo snowshoes completely and just hike with light traction.

Northern Lites Elite 25” Snowshoes
Northern Lites Elite 25” Snowshoes

If there’s a light coating of packed snow, you can often get away with a very lightweight racing snowshoe, like the Atlas Run Snowshoe (2 lbs 5 oz/pr) or Dion Snowshoes 121 Quick Fit (2 lbs 4.9 oz/pr). But if there’s substantially more snow, you’ll want a snowshoe that has more surface area and provides more flotation. For flat and rolling terrain, Northern Lites Elite Snowshoes (2 lbs 5 oz/pr) are a good lightweight option.  If you hike in steeper mountainous terrain, you’ll want snowshoes with large crampons and a televator bar (for climbing hills) like the Atlas Helium Trail Snowshoes (3 lbs 2 oz/pr), which is one of the lightest snowshoes available for that kind of terrain (there’s a new model out that has an improved binding.)

As it stands, trail runners are compatible with just about every snowshoe binding made today, so you shouldn’t have any problems finding snowshoes that fit into a trail runner-based winter footwear system. But it will also take some experimentation to find the lightest weight snowshoe you need for your local conditions.

Wrap Up

If you’re interested in building a winter footwear system around trail runners, it can be done. However, it will probably take a lot of trial-and-error experimentation to put together a complete system that suits your needs. I’d focus first on finding a waterproof trail runner, insulated sock, gaiter, and traction combination that works for winter hiking before you try to spend a lot of time optimizing snowshoe weight.

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About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 8500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 3000 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip has hiked all 650+ trails in the White Mountains twice and has completed 8 rounds of the 48 peaks on the White Mountains 4000 footer list with over 490 summits in all four seasons. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire. Click here to subscribe to the SectionHiker newsletter.

14 comments

  1. Couple things.. I bought those Atlas Helium snowshoes last winter and while they seemed like they would be great, I had to return them due to a design flaw. The binding straps were too short to completely fit around my boot. I bought the appropriate size snowshoe and my boots was a standard Oboz Bridger in 11.5. It was very disappointing. Luckily , I had my TSL Symbioz Elite’s to fall back on..

    Secondly, those Blizzard GTX boots look pretty solid, since they are still not insulated do you need to wear those water proof socks mentioned earlier in the article? Do you still wear the full sized gaitors with these?

    • As noted in the text above, Atlas has completely changed the binding to correct that design flaw, which I identified when I reviewed the gear last winter. They must have listened to me because the new binding mimics the plastic mesh binding used on the MSR ascents.

      Those waterproof socks are very efficient insulators, so yes I’d recommend wearing them. But you should test all this out carefully to be on the safe side. You would use high gaiters too if the snow comes over the blizzard gaiter.

      • Yes, I read what you wrote about a new design on the Heliums but I didn’t know that it was the exact same issue I has with the strap being much too small. I’m glad it wasn’t just me not figuring out how to put them on correctly. Maybe I’ll give them another try this winter.. Thanks for clarifying about those Blizzard boots and socks/gaiters.

  2. Great info!
    Trail runners are my prefered footwear and their use in winter is something I haven’t seen discussed much. I believe Skurka used them on his long winter adventures several years back. Nice to have a up-to-date road map.

    • More like several decades! I think Andrew used VBLs and cross-country ski boots on his North County Trail trip. In the Whites, you see a lot of the younger gridiots wearing trail runners. Guthook and I experimented with trail runners quite a lot in winter a few years ago. I think he’s still using the 40 below overboots. I also consulted Chris Dailey when writing this to get a read on what Ultra/trail runners are usng. I mention all these because they’re all mutual acquaintances, I suspect.

  3. On the topic of screws: Kold Kutter3/8″ screws are a step up from your hardware store screws.
    I tried various adhesives on the threads to help them stay. Silicone= useless. Urethane (Seam Grip)= better. Now using JB weld to good effect. Seems like that stuff is good for so many things :)

    They can still pop out but easy to replace. I am not a fisherman but they could be useful in the summer for wading in streams.

  4. have you tried the La Sportiva Hob Nails? instead of the crampons?

  5. I have had pretty good luck with wool socks unelder gtex socks in my Alturas with dirty girl gaiters. The only downside is that you need to wear pants

  6. I wear Altra Lone Peaks over the years and love them. I have found it better to switch to a proper winter hiking boot when things get very cold. the Altras are not waterproof and have almost no insulation so are not fit for purpose in cold and wet conditions.
    Better to shift to Keens or Merrills once the cold weather comes.

    • Dara, Altra now has waterproof trail running “boots.” I bought a pair last year, and found them to be warm and comfortable. Wearing a large size with a sheepskin insole, and a water barrior, has so far kept my feet cozy enough – and my feet tend to get cold. If you like Altras, I recommend these.

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