Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes

In this post, I’ll compare trail runners and hiking shoes and recommend which is better for each type of hike.

While they’re not as rugged as regular hiking boots, trekking shoes and trail runners have certain advantages over heavier alternatives. They offer a major bump in weight savings and comfort and are typically the best bet for most outdoor enthusiasts.

Some categories I’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 footwear for your backcountry escapades.

Types of Hiking Footwear

Trail Runners

As their name suggests, these shoes are mostly used by active people who like 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 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, like the extremely popular Altra Lone Peak 7, are designed for light and fast hiking. Others, such as Brooks Cascadia, are designed specifically for running. Trail running shoes are a very broad category, and you should always look for features such as mesh uppers, beefy toe caps, stiff midsoles, heavy cushioning, and low weight. Like hiking shoes, many 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, hiking shoes are quite similar to your standard hiking boots, with the primary difference being the low cut at the ankle. 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?

They are much less cumbersome and clunky than hiking boots, and they also often sport a very durable construction, typically featuring heavy-duty nylon or leather. This construction protects one’s feet during day hikes and long-distance journeys, providing 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. Like many trail runners, most hiking shoes are waterproof. However, keep in mind that low-cut shoes, mid-cut shoes, and high-ankle hiking boots won’t protect your feet from getting soaked.

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 consider 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 by adding more protection in the uppers and incorporating tackier and stiffer soles.

These shoes are outliers in their own categories—that much is clear. They should not be anyone’s first choice for traditional trekking or trail running. However, their low weight, breathability, and support make them a favorite of many hikers (especially thru-hikers). In the next part of the article, we’ll break trail runners and hiking shoes into two 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 for trail runners – only some can be obtained in waterproof and non-waterproof variants. The Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator is a great example of hiking shoes available in waterproof and standard suede/mesh models.

Waterproof trail runners, on the other hand, provide protection comparable to that of hiking shoes. In many cases, the level of waterproofing doesn’t depend much on the footwear style. It all comes down to the technologies used to manufacture particular hiking boots, shoes, or trail runners (Gore-Tex being the most famous).

That said, outdoor enthusiasts get more waterproof options if they choose 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 remember 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 swampy feet, particularly when 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 and safety. For cold-weather backcountry adventures, hiking shoes that sacrifice breathability for waterproofing are a must.

Once again, I must point out that those looking for genuine water resistance should opt for good hiking boots. Hiking in mid-height or high-ankle boots keeps the water at bay – it’s as simple as that.

Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Breathability

It’s no big surprise that trail runners are significantly more breathable than hiking shoes – they are 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. On the other hand, hiking boots and shoes with burly leather or nylon uppers 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. However, remember that the leather-made or waterproof models take longer 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).

Comfort  of Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes

If a pair of particular hiking boots or shoes doesn’t feel comfortable, you should not wear them. It’s as simple as that. Whichever type of footwear you choose, you must ensure it provides your feet with comfort.

With that out of the way, we think there’s no clear answer to 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 many trail runners offer.

It all depends upon your needs and capabilities – such as what terrain you usually cover and how fast you like to move.

Traction Difference Between Trail Runners and Hiking Shoes

In general, the soles of trail runners, hiking shoes, and hiking boots differ in stiffness, rubber compounds, and tread patterns. Comparing hiking boots vs. hiking shoes in this category is easy. Hiking shoes often sport stiff soles that resemble those found on hiking boots. As expected, this 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 to provide more comfort while running. Many 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 a lot of time to build confidence, balance, and strength. If you’re a trekking newbie, you should use a hiking boot or shoe with a stiffer sole before getting yourself a pair of trail runners.

If we look closer at the rubber, we’ll notice significant variations in tread pattern and depth between hiking boots and trail running shoes. Even 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 similar to 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 various sole patterns, some of which can provide phenomenal traction on different types of terrain. For example, Salomon Speedcross 5 trail runners provide amazing security in 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 baffling. Regular trekking shoes (or hiking boots) are probably a better choice if you’re a beginner.

Durability of Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes

Durability becomes vital when deciding between a trail running shoe, a hiking shoe, or a hiking boot. Those who want their trekking footwear to be durable will choose a pair of hiking boots.

The shoes are a clear winner in terms of durability when comparing hiking shoes vs. trail runners. A well-made hiking shoe will always be made 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, allowing it to withstand abrasive terrain and hold up better under a heavy load.

On the other hand, a standard trail runner is made of lightweight fabrics 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 footwear often have to buy a new pair every couple of months.

Trail Runners vs Hiking Shoes – Protection and Support

Regarding 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 and unmatched ankle support. However, comparing only hiking shoes vs. trail runners in this category 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 support comparable to your standard hiking boot (without the high ankle protection, of course). It easily beats soft and lightweight trail runners with features such as the rubber sole, toe cap, burlier upper and outsole, and more substantial midsole. 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.

On the other hand, a trail running shoe is designed to be nimble and allow fast and easy movement. Therefore, it sacrifices some support and protection 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. Still, 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 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 to lose weight. Those who want to lose more weight usually choose trail runners.

A pair of hiking boots typically weighs around 2 pounds. On the other hand, hiking shoes 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 lightweight trail runners are guaranteed to save your feet and legs from heavy lifting while spending hours 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 always looks for lighter weight when shopping for outdoor gear? If so, a pair of trail runners is your best choice. However, remember that even though hiking shoes weigh a few ounces more, they provide more durability and performance.

Approach Shoes – Are They Worth It?

Besides hiking shoes, boots, and trail runners, there is one more category of hiking footwear worth mentioning—approach shoes. With lightweight trekking footwear gaining popularity, many outdoor enthusiasts have embraced approach shoes as an 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 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 walking over flat trails for extended periods. In addition, many approach shoes have flat and stiff soles, often leading 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 approach shoes the best hiking footwear money can buy. For example, La Sportiva TX3 approach shoes offer outstanding rock-scrambling traction, excellent trail-running breathability, and 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?

Regarding long-distance trekking adventures, hiking boots are still the go-to footwear for most people. Even if you do not often traverse extreme landscapes, hiking boots provide better foot and ankle support than most hiking shoes and trail runners. This can be crucial 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 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. 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 Runners 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

Salomon Men's Authentic Gore-TEX Hiking Boots Trail Running Shoe

One of Salomon’s most popular products, the X Ultra 3, is special. It is versatile, provides excellent water resistance, and offers aggressive traction. What more could one want?

What’s more, this excellent model’s fit is snug and resembles that of your regular trail runner. As the name suggests, X Ultra 3 is fully waterproof and great for trekking in wet conditions. 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? We believe Ultra 3 GTX offers great value for the money and is undoubtedly a worthwhile investment.

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Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator

Merrell Men's Moab 2 Vent Hiking Shoe

Whoever knows a thing or two about trekking footwear also knows about Merrell’s Moab series. Of these products, the Moab 2 Ventilator is the most popular choice.

Offering support, stability, and out-of-the-box comfort, these shoes are among the best offerings from this well-established brand. Although it’s not waterproof, Moab 2 Ventilator is extremely breathable and pleasant to wear in warm weather.

The only major downside of the Moab 2 Ventilator is its weight; a size 11 pair weighs 2.20 pounds, which is far from ideal. Still, it’s a fantastic option for short, moderate ventures.

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Salomon X Raise

Salomon X Reveal Men's Hiking Shoes

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 great for ankle support or 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 a great choice for folks who need a hiking shoe with a trail runner-like personality.

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Altra Lone Peak 4.5

Altra Lone Peak Running Shoes

The first trail runners we’ll be looking 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 introduces a tighter (and therefore more secure) fit and 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, making it 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

Salomon Speedcross 5 Trail Running Shoes for Men, Black/Black/Phantom, 12.5

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 significantly wider than previous iterations.

With stickier, larger, and deeper lugs than those found on its competitors, Speedcross 5 grips all types of surfaces with ease. 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. On the other hand, its quick lace system allows users to quickly and easily get that perfect fit for their feet.

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La Sportiva Bushido II

La Sportiva Bushido II Running Shoe - Men's

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.

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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. I also take lightweight crocs for wearing in the evening.

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.

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