With each passing year, lightweight hiking outdoor gear gains in popularity. More and more outdoor enthusiasts want their jackets, backpacks, and boots to be ultralight – traversing rough terrain while wearing such apparel, footwear, and accessories turn every trekking adventure into an enjoyable experience.
This is especially true when it comes to footwear. While they’re not as rugged as your regular hiking boots, trekking shoes and trail runners have certain advantages over heavier alternatives. They’re a major bump in weight savings and comfort and are typically the best bet for most outdoor enthusiasts.
However, hiking shoes and trail runners often look very similar. Both of these types of footwear were made for trudging on bumpy ground conditions, which is precisely why they often share the same features. This turns the task of choosing between these two options into a real challenge, particularly if you don’t know that much about hiking footwear.
In this article, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at both trail runners and hiking shoes and break down the key differences between these two types of hiking footwear. Some of the categories we’ll compare them in include breathability, traction, durability, protection, support, weight, and others. In addition, we’ll analyze some of the market’s best-selling hiking shoes and trail runners, with the ultimate goal of helping you choose the right kind of footwear for your backcountry escapades.
Table of Contents
- 1 Types of Hiking Footwear
- 2 Hiking Shoes vs Trail Runners – A Comparison
- 2.1 Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Waterproofing
- 2.2 Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Breathability
- 2.3 Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Comfort
- 2.4 Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Traction
- 2.5 Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Durability
- 2.6 Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Protection and Support
- 2.7 Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Weight
- 3 Approach Shoes – Are They Worth It?
- 4 What About Hiking Boots?
- 5 Popular Trail Running Shoes and Hiking Shoes
- 6 Hiking Shoes vs Trail Runners – The Verdict
Types of Hiking Footwear
As their name suggests, these shoes are used mostly by active people who like to do their running on out-of-the-city trails. A pair of trail runners are typically built for springy but light movement, but with added traction, support, and protection needed for backcountry activities.
However, running enthusiasts are not the only people using trail runners. Hiking in these types of shoes is now more popular than ever – they’ve been adopted by everyday trail-goers, ultralight trekkers, and thru-hikers. After all, they provide excellent performance while allowing fast-and-light movement.
Some trail runners are designed for light-and-fast hiking, such as the extremely popular Altra Lone Peak 4.5. Others, such as Brooks Cascadia, are designed specifically for running. “Trail running shoes” is actually a very broad category and one in which you should always look for features such as the mesh upper, beefy toe cap, stiff midsole, heavy cushioning, as well as low weight. Just like hiking shoes, a lot of trail runners can be obtained in waterproof variants – waterproof trail runners have become very popular in the last couple of years.
Hiking shoes, on the other hand, are quite similar to your standard hiking boots, with the primary difference being the low cut at the ankle. Some of the best examples include the famous Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator and Salomon X Ultra 3 GTX. It’s a well-known fact that the best leather boots provide excellent underfoot support and stiffness, but did you know that the same can be said for most of these low-cut hiking shoes?
Not only are they a lot less cumbersome and clunky than hiking boots, but they also often sport a very durable construction, typically featuring heavy-duty nylon or leather. This construction successfully protects one’s feet during day hikes but also during long-distance journeys, and it provides enough support for the heavy load on your back. Don’t get us wrong – hiking boots are still the best choice for the most demanding trips into the backcountry, but a pair of shoes made by a reputable brand is often more than sufficient for most people’s needs.
When shopping for hiking shoes, look for stiff midsoles – these will protect your feet from rocky terrain. Make sure that they also offer good traction through thick outsoles with sharp lugs. Just like in the case of many trail runners, most hiking shoes will be waterproof. However, keep in mind that these low-cut shoes won’t protect your feet from getting soaked as well as mid-cut or high-ankle hiking boots.
Hybrid Trail Running / Hiking Shoes
It’s not always easy to spot the differences between a trail running shoe and a regular hiking shoe. In fact, the distinction between these two types is growing cloudier by the day, particularly if we take into account shoes such as Salomon Outline or Arc'teryx Aerios FL GTX. Models such as these are trail runners at their core, but they’ve been built upon through the addition of more protection in the uppers and the incorporation of tackier and stiffer soles.
In their own categories, these shoes are outliers – that much is clear. They should not be anyone’s first choice for either traditional trekking or trail running. However, their combination of low weight, breathability, and support turns them into a favorite of many hikers (especially thru-hikers). In the next part of the article, we’ll be breaking trail runners and hiking shoes into two separate categories, but don’t forget that you can always purchase a hybrid model and get the best of both worlds.
Hiking Shoes vs Trail Runners – A Comparison
Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Waterproofing
Almost all hiking boots made by reputable brands are waterproof. The same can be said for hiking shoes, but not so much for the trail runners – only some of them can be obtained in both waterproof and non-waterproof variants. The already-mentioned Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator is a great example of hiking shoes that are available in both waterproof and standard suede/mesh models.
Waterproof trail runners, on the other hand, provide protection that is very comparable to that of hiking shoes. In many cases, the level of waterproofing doesn’t depend that much on the style of footwear – it all comes down to the technologies used in the manufacture of particular hiking boots, shoes, or trail runners (with Gore-Tex being the most famous one).
That being said, outdoor enthusiasts do get more waterproof options if they decide to go with hiking shoes. Many of these are made out of leather, which is, after all, a material with inherent water-resistant properties. In other words, leather-made hiking shoes (or hiking boots) are better at staving off snow, puddle splashes, and raindrops without the additional weight penalty or cost of Gore-Tex or similar waterproofing technologies.
A very important thing to keep in mind here is that waterproofing often compromises the breathability of particular trail runners or hiking shoes (and hiking boots to a degree, although they’re not something you should go for if you’re looking for breathability anyway). This often results in annoyingly swampy feet, particularly when you’re hiking during warm summer days.
Breathable shoes, which feature mesh uppers and thin construction, are a must for those who can’t avoid getting their feet wet while trekking (as well as for summer-only hikers). Backpacking in winter is an entirely different story, however – here, keeping the feet dry isn’t only a matter of comfort but also of safety. For cold-weather backcountry adventures, hiking shoes that sacrifice breathability for waterproofing are a must.
Once again, we have to point out that those looking for genuine water resistance should simply opt for a pair of good hiking boots. Hiking in mid-height or high-ankle boots keep the water at bay – it’s as simple as that.
Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Breathability
It’s no big surprise that the trail runners are significantly more breathable than the hiking shoes – they are, after all, made out of thinner materials. However, some hiking shoes, such as Salomon X Raise or Salomon X Ultra 3 (which we’ve mentioned above) are still fairly breathable thanks to their generous mesh panels. Hiking boots and shoes with burly leather or nylon uppers, on the other hand, tend to sacrifice breathability to provide more protection and durability.
If you’re often hiking during summer or in places where wading through streams can’t be avoided, mesh shoes are a much better choice – they provide quick drying time and sufficient ventilation. Keep in mind, however, that the leather-made or waterproof models take more time to dry. For winter hiking, you’re better off with a shoe that sports a waterproof membrane and a thicker upper (which is, in turn, less air-permeable).
Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Comfort
If a pair of particular hiking boots or shoes don’t feel comfortable, you should not be wearing them – it’s as simple as that. Whichever type of footwear you ultimately choose to go with, it’s really important that you make sure it provides your feet with comfort.
With that out of the way, we think that there’s no clear answer to the question of whether it’s the boot, shoe, or a trail runner that feels most comfortable on one’s feet. Those who often traverse technical ground or carry heavy loads will find that nothing provides more comfort than the support and stiffness of a hiking shoe. Those who traverse well-maintained trails, move quickly, and carry light loads, often prefer the nimbleness, flexibility, and cushioning offered by many trail runners.
It all depends upon your personal needs and capabilities – such as what kind of terrain you’re usually covering and how fast you like to move.
Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Traction
In general, the soles of trail runners, hiking shoes, but also hiking boots differ in terms of stiffness, rubber compounds, and tread patterns. Comparing hiking boots vs hiking shoes in this category is an easy task – hiking shoes often sport stiff soles that resemble the ones often found on hiking boots. As expected, this is something that gives a hiking shoe extra support for traversing rough, uneven terrain, with the already-mentioned Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator shoes being a great example.
The soles of trail runners, on the other hand, are significantly more flexible in order to provide more comfort while running. A lot of experienced trekkers prefer the increased sensitivity and greater freedom of movement provided by a quality-made trail runner. However, if you decide to use trail runners for long-distance hikes, you’ll need quite a bit of time to build confidence, balance, and strength. If you’re a trekking newbie, you should start out by using a hiking boot or a hiking shoe with a stiffer sole before you get yourself a pair of trail runners.
If we take a closer look at rubber itself, we’ll notice significant variations in tread pattern and depth between hiking boots vs trail running shoes vs hiking shoes. And if we take hiking boots out of the equation, we’ll notice that there’s still a pretty big difference between hiking shoes and trail runners. With its tread being similar to that of the boot, a hiking shoe provides an outstanding grip on most surfaces, such as snow, slippery tree roots, sand, mud, and rock.
On the other hand, trail runners come with a variety of sole patterns and some of these can provide phenomenal traction on different types of terrain. For example, Salomon Speedcross 5 trail runners provide amazing security in the loose or muddy ground thanks to their deep lugs. A trail runner with shallow lugs, on the other hand, will grip better on rocks. These and other factors can make choosing the most suitable trail runner a very baffling task. If you’re a beginner, regular trekking shoes (or even hiking boots) are probably a better choice.
Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Durability
When deciding between a trail running shoe, a hiking shoe, or a hiking boot, durability becomes a vital factor. Obviously, those who want their trekking footwear to be really durable will go with a pair of hiking boots.
When comparing hiking shoes vs trail runners in terms of durability, however, the shoes are a clear winner. A well-made hiking shoe will always be made out of durable nylon fabric or leather, and, therefore, sport a tougher build. In addition, this type of footwear often features medium-stiff midsoles and toe caps, and these perks allow it to withstand abrasive terrain and hold up better under a heavy load.
A standard trail runner, on the other hand, will be made out of lightweight fabrics in order to remain nimble and allow fast movement. As expected, this leads to lower durability and reduced lifespan. Outdoor enthusiasts who still like to use trail runners more than any other type of footwear often have to buy a new pair every couple of months.
Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Protection and Support
When it comes to protection and support, the battle of hiking boots vs trail runners vs hiking shoes has a clear winner – the boots. Hiking in boots means the best possible foot and ankle protection, as well as unmatched ankle support. Comparing only hiking shoes vs trail runners in this category, however, shows us that most outdoor enthusiasts tend to lean toward hiking shoes.
This is because a hiking shoe made by a renowned brand will always provide the support that is comparable to that of your standard hiking boot (without the high ankle protection, of course). With features such as the rubber rand, toe cap, burlier upper and outsole, as well as the more substantial midsole, it easily beats soft and lightweight trail runners. In addition, going with hiking shoes instead of trail runners means having some extra security while traversing rough terrain with a heavy load on your back.
A trail running shoe, on the other hand, is designed to be nimble and to allow fast and easy movement. Therefore, it gives up a bit in terms of support and protection in order to remain lightweight, sensitive, and flexible.
An important thing to mention here is that support can and does vary within each category. For example, the popular Salomon X Raise hiking shoes are an excellent option when it comes to shorter trekking journeys, but they don’t provide sufficient support for heavy loads. In contrast, Arc'teryx Norvan VT 2 trail runners offer ample stiffness and cushioning and are, therefore, a great choice for multi-day hiking adventures in the backcountry.
Due to this variability within each category, it’s incredibly important to do some research before shopping – you don’t want to end up with a trail runner, hiking shoe, or even a hiking boot that doesn’t offer enough support.
Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Weight
Many hiking enthusiasts switch from hiking boots to hiking shoes in order to cut some weight. Those who want to shave even more weight usually go for the trail runners.
A pair of hiking boots typically weighs around 2 pounds. Hiking shoes, on the other hand, are typically around half a pound lighter. But if you want your hiking footwear to be as light as possible, you’ll go for the trail runners – La Sportiva Bushido II, for example, weighs just a bit over 1 pound. These are truly lightweight trail runners that are guaranteed to save your feet and legs from heavy lifting when you’re spending hours out on the trail.
Most people want their trekking footwear to be ultralight, but shaving weight typically comes with significant sacrifices in categories such as durability, protection, and support. Are you an outdoor enthusiast who often travels with a very light load and who always looks for lighter weight when shopping for outdoor gear? If so, a pair of trail runners is your best choice. However, keep in mind that even though hiking shoes weigh a few ounces more they provide a lot more in terms of durability and performance.
Approach Shoes – Are They Worth It?
Besides hiking shoes, hiking boots, and trail runners, there is one more category of hiking footwear worth mentioning – approach shoes. With lightweight trekking footwear gaining in popularity, a lot of outdoor enthusiasts have embraced approach shoes as an additional alternative for demanding backcountry expeditions.
As their name suggests, approach shoes are intended for “approaching” rock climbs, i.e. for outdoor trips with steep climbs and rough, rocky areas. However, the soles of these shoes aren’t that effective when it comes to traversing snowy, muddy, and dusty trails. In such circumstances, they can feel quite slippery and inadequate.
Furthermore, the overall design of approach shoes is often very snug. While this adds a bit of security when you’re scrambling over rocks, it can cause your feet to start swelling when you’re walking over flat trails for extended periods of time. In addition, many approach shoes have soles that are flat and stiff, which often leads to sore feet after miles of walking. The soles of hiking shoes and trail runners provide more comfort as they’re more flexible and cushioned.
With that out of the way, we still have to mention that some people consider the approach shoes to be the best hiking footwear money can buy. La Sportiva TX3 approach shoes, for example, offer outstanding rock-scrambling traction, excellent trail-running breathability, as well as sufficient hiking support.
As expected, approach shoes are the best choice for people who often hike on routes filled with steep rocky slopes and technical climbs. However, if you’re not someone who often traverses areas that are particularly rocky or steep, you’re better off opting for the trail traction, cushion, and comfort of trail runners or hiking shoes.
What About Hiking Boots?
When it comes to long-distance trekking adventures, hiking boots are still the go-to footwear for most people. Even if you’re not someone who often traverses extreme landscapes, hiking boots will provide you with better foot and ankle support than most hiking shoes and trail runners. This can be of crucial importance when carrying a heavy load over long distances.
It goes without saying, but boots and trail go together like wine and cheese. In other words, hiking boots provide better protection from brushy, wet, and muddy terrain. As expected, this can make a huge difference for trekkers traversing tropical areas where poisonous plants, snakes, or leeches may be found underfoot. Another thing that makes hiking boots a more practical option for off-trail escapades is that they offer better water-protection, stability, and support.
Lastly, comparing hiking boots vs hiking shoes vs trail runners in terms of cold-weather use gives us a clear winner – it’s the boots. Elements such as anti-balling pads, grooves for attaching cleats/crampons, and Gore-Tex waterproof outer layers are precisely why winter hikers don’t want to move away from boots. Besides keeping the elements out, boots also keep the warmth in – thick leathery walls and interior padding trap the heat and force it to circulate around the user’s feet.
Unfortunately, hiking boots also have their downsides. They are much heavier than trail runners, approach shoes, or regular hiking shoes – wearing them means expending more energy with each step. In addition, your feet can still get wet inside hiking boots, no matter how waterproof they are. This is because they’re far less breathable than the other types of trekking footwear – a sweat build-up on the inside is sometimes unavoidable. Finally, hiking boots can take forever to dry out.
Popular Trail Running Shoes and Hiking Shoes
To help you better understand the differences between these two types of footwear, we’ll take a quick look at a couple of popular hiking shoes and trail runners, all of which we’ve already mentioned throughout the article.
Salomon X Ultra 3 GTX
One of Salomon’s most popular products, the X Ultra 3 is something special. It is versatile, it provides excellent water resistance, and it offers aggressive traction – what more could one want?
What’s more, the fit of this excellent model is snug and resembles that of your regular trail runner. As the name suggests, X Ultra 3 is also fully waterproof and a great choice for trekking in wet conditions. In terms of weight, the model weighs a few ounces less than its predecessor, and that’s always a big plus in our book.
Should you get a pair of these versatile all-terrain hiking shoes? In our opinion, Ultra 3 GTX offers great value for the money and it’s undoubtedly a worthwhile investment.
Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator
Whoever knows a thing or two about trekking footwear, also knows about Merrell’s Moab series. And when it comes to products from this lineup, Moab 2 Ventilator is the most popular choice.
Offering support, stability, and out-of-the-box comfort, these shoes are one of the best offerings from this well-established brand. Although it’s not waterproof, Moab 2 Ventilator is extremely breathable and very pleasant to wear in warm weather.
The only major downside of Moab 2 Ventilator is the weight – a size 11 pair clocks at 2.20 pounds, which is far from ideal. Still, it’s a fantastic option for short, moderate ventures.
Salomon X Raise
While these are regular hiking shoes, they are inspired by the look and feel of trail runners. As such, they are intended for fast-and-light trekking and require little to no break-in period.
While it’s not that great when it comes to ankle support or ankle protection, the X Raise has a plush interior and is extremely comfortable to wear. Its Contagrip outsole works well on rough terrain and offers good traction, while the weight of 1.37 pounds ensures quick and easy movement.
One of Salomon’s best hybrid-like hiking shoes, X Raise is certainly a great choice for folks who need a hiking shoe with a trail runner-like personality.
Altra Lone Peak 4.5
The first trail runners we’ll be taking a look at are Altra Lone Peak 4.5, and they are protective, durable, and more resilient than the previous iterations of this model.
The latest update doesn’t only introduce a tighter (and therefore more secure) fit but also features such as the StoneGuard Rockplate midsole and the Trail Claw pattern on the model’s outsole. These perks make the shoe very protective and sticky, turning it into a great choice for rocky terrain.
Who should get this trail runner? In our opinion, Altra Lone Peak 4.5 is a solid option for outdoor enthusiasts looking for trail runners that offer boot-like protection against sharp rocks.
Salomon Speedcross 5
One of the best trail running shoes in terms of traction, Salomon’s popular Speedcross 5 model is comfortable straight out of the box and also significantly wider than previous iterations.
With lugs that are stickier, larger, and deeper than those found on its competitors, Speedcross 5 grips all types of surfaces with ease. In addition, it requires no break-in time and its foam padding comfortably cushions the user’s feet.
While it won’t protect your ankle, Speedcross 5 provides excellent underfoot protection. Its quick lace system, on the other hand, allows users to quickly and easily get that perfect fit for their feet.
La Sportiva Bushido II
Those familiar with trekking footwear know everything about La Sportiva – the company’s products are held in high regard by backpackers everywhere around the world.
The company’s Bushido II model is a successful upgrade of the old version and one of the most capable products of this type for use on technical terrain. It sports an upgraded rubber toe cap, a burlier upper, and a compression-molded EVA midsole. Due to these features, it provides outstanding stability, traction, and all-around performance on all kinds of trails.
Besides these advantages, Bushido II is also very lightweight (1.6 ounces per pair) and provides a comfortable, snug fit.
Hiking Shoes vs Trail Runners – The Verdict
So, which type of footwear is a better choice for you – hiking shoes or trail runners?
If you’re looking to replace your old trekking boot with something lighter, you won’t make a mistake by getting yourself a pair of hiking shoes that combine good traction, durability, protection, support, and comfort. On the other hand, if you’re someone who walks only on well-maintained trails and never wears a heavy backpack, a nimble and light trail-running shoe is your best bet.
If you want the best of both worlds, however, a hiking shoe/trail runner hybrid may be more up your alley. There’s also the option of getting two pairs of different types of footwear, but most people don’t really want to spend that much money.
Finally, those looking for footwear that will last for thousands of miles and which provides the best possible protection should stick with regular hiking boots.
I love hiking. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.