Whether you’re a seasoned backpacker or a complete newbie, the most important gear decision you can make when heading outdoors is, arguably, your choice of footwear. If your feet aren’t comfortable, it won’t be an enjoyable hike. But we certainly wouldn’t blame you for being overwhelmed by the array of options that are out there. Gone are the days of big leather boots as the only option for outdoor exploration. There are now so many new and emerging models making their mark on the trail, and an increasing number of hikers are deciding to opt for trail runners instead of a traditional hiking boot. So, do you really need a hiking boot? The short answer to this question is: it depends. To help shed some light on this great debate, we’re weighing up the pros and cons of hiking boots vs trail runners to help you decide which option is best for your hiking needs.

Lacing hiking boots

Hiking Boots vs Trail Runners: Factors to Consider

There are many elements to consider when choosing your hiking footwear. What is the terrain like? What about the weather conditions? Are you going to be carrying a heavy load? How far are you planning to walk?

If you’re torn between a hiking boot and a trail runner, we’ve outlined some of the most important factors to consider before you make a decision below. 

Terrain/Environment

If you are heading out on rocky trails or up steep mountains, then a hiking boot will offer much more sole protection and ankle support than a trail runner. Hiking boots are a better option in colder climates or wet conditions since they offer significantly more protection and are often waterproof. Trail runners, on the other hand, have thinner soles and reduced ankle support that will fatigue your feet when walking on sharp and uneven rocks, so they are a better choice for less technical trails like woodland and gravel. They’re great in warmer, drier climates as most trail runners offer a significant degree of breathability due to lack of waterproofing.

Speed & Distance

How fast and far you plan to go is another key consideration. If you’re hiking steadily over multiple days, covering serious distance and bagging high peaks, consider a boot. Hiking boots can handle a beating and are more likely to protect against any injuries you might encounter on the trail. If you’re just looking to hit the trail at pace for a few hours, then trail runners will get you from A to B in a flash. However, with ultralight backpacking gaining popularity, we are starting to see more backpackers and thru-hikers moving toward trail runners as a way of increasing their speed (this can have an impact on durability – more on that below).

Load

Speaking of weight, you’ll also want to think about the load you’re carrying. This will likely correlate with your distance and speed. Because quality hiking boots are more durable with much thicker soles, they will support your feet and body properly under a heavier weight. If you’re carrying a small daypack for fast and light day hikes on a well marked trail, however, then trail runners would work perfectly.

Durability/Longevity

When it comes to durability, we have a clear winner. Hiking boots are built with heavy duty materials that can withstand all sorts of outdoor conditions and terrain. Trail runners often have thinner, more flexible soles which is definitely a benefit for those who don’t want to feel restricted on the trail. This generally means that they’ll wear out more quickly as a result, offering significantly less miles per purchase than a hiking boot.

Price point

Closely related to durability is cost. As a general rule, trail runners are easier on the purse strings initially. However, although they’re more expensive, the cost per wear of hiking boots is likely far lower when we consider potential mileage.

Experience

If you’re a newbie hiker looking to buy your first hiking shoe, it may be wise to opt for a boot. The wide sole will provide a stable base and the additional ankle support will help to prevent injury. Experienced hikers may feel that they prefer the flexibility of a trail running shoe. When it comes to hiking, runners are generally not recommended for beginners because of the limited support and stability.

Support Needs

Only you know your body and what it needs from a shoe. If downhill sections make your joints start to niggle, or you have a history with injury, a hiking boot may help. The likelihood of rolling an ankle or tweaking a knee becomes much more possible under heavy loads, and trail runners will likely not offer adequate support.

Versatility

Let’s face it, trail runners are more versatile than hiking boots – rock up in your boots to the gym and you’re likely to get some funny looks (though we aren’t judging). Hiking boots are purpose-built for mountains and trails, where trail runners can be worn in pretty much any fitness environment. Keep in mind that if you wear your trail runners everywhere, they will wear out much more quickly as they are designed for trails, not concrete.

Comfort

If there’s one thing that we know for sure after 90 years in the outdoor business, it’s this: if your feet aren’t comfortable, it won’t be an enjoyable hike. Many things can impact comfort: width, cushioning, flexibility – the list goes on. Trail runners generally have more “comfortable” features than hiking boots, however, once a traditional hiking boot has been properly broken in, it moulds to your foot shape for personalised comfort.

Running with trail runners

Pros & Cons: Hiking Boots vs Trail Runners

Hiking Boots Trail Runners
Pros Durability Breathability
Stability Lighter weight
Weatherproof Flexibility
Excellent grip Variation in options
Cons Longer break in period Shorter lifespan
Heavier Less support & stability
Less breathability Less protection
More expensive
Best for Multiday hiking with a heavy pack  Fast & light day hiking
Cold weather Warm weather
Beginner hikers Experienced hikers

Hiking boots in the mountains

Types of Hiking Footwear

When it comes to choosing the right pair of shoes for your hikes, there are so many options out there that it can be a little overwhelming. As an increasing number of footwear options enter the market, many hiking boots and trail runners are beginning to adopt features from each other and become more hybrid in nature. To help make sense of the madness, we’ve outlined the main types of hiking footwear that you’ll encounter below.

Heavy grade leather boots

Think traditional dad-style hiking boots. Built to tackle anything and everything on the trail, this type of boot is the most durable with tough waterproof leather and wide, thick soles. Once you have put in the work to break them in, you will struggle to find a more comfortable boot. One of our all-time favourite boots in this category is the Scarpa SL Active (men and women). Despite their higher price point, this boot has remained in hiking closets for decades with proper care, and can be easily resoled by a cobbler if the soles wear out.

Hiking boots

Suede/synthetic upper boots

More modern versions of hiking boots are usually made with a combination of suede and synthetic, with a mesh upper that makes them a little more breathable than just leather. Most are constructed with a membrane technology like GORE-TEX for waterproofing. They’ll often have a cushioned sole (similar to that of many trail runners) and deep lugs for traction. Brands like Salomon and Merrell make many boots in this category- check out the Salomon X Ultra 4 (men and women) for a classic example.

Lightweight hiking boots

Lighter weight boots are becoming increasingly popular as a hybrid option for hikers who want the best of both worlds – light weight and flexibility combined with ankle support and weather protection. Of the boots in this category, many are essentially trail runners that have been heightened to provide more ankle support. The Altra Olympus 5 (men and women), for example, are extremely similar in spec to the Olympus 5 trail runners (men and women), with the only difference being a GORE-TEX membrane and a heightened ankle. Alternative lightweight boot options include pared back versions of regular hiking boots, such as the Arc’teryx Aerios FL 2, which offers GORE-TEX protection, a toe cap, and lower ankle support.

Lightweight hiking boots

Hiking shoes

Another meet-in-the-middle option, hiking shoes have a similar feature set to a standard hiking boot but without the ankle support and coverage. Offering durability & traction, they’re heavier than a trail runner and won’t provide as much flexibility or breathability. They are usually lighter in weight than a boot though, and can be a good option for technical hikes in warmer weather. The Merrell Moab 3 GTX (men and women) are a favourite amongst many hikers, featuring a GORE-TEX waterproof membrane, sturdy Vibram sole, and comfortable cushioning.

Hiking shoes

Trail runners

Trail runners are lightweight, breathable, and versatile. Essentially a more durable version of a regular running shoe, they are made for moving fast and light over technical terrain, offering flexibility, light cushioning, and grip. But trail runners are still running shoes, and will not provide as much durability as a hiking shoe or boot. Styles and types of trail runners and their features can vary significantly. More rugged models include the Scarpa Ribelle Run XT (men and women), which are made with a super grippy sole and GORE-TEX membrane, whilst lighter models like the Salomon Ultra Glide (men and women) offer more flexibility, breathability, and versatility.

So, hiking boots or trail runners… which should I buy?

There’s no magic answer to this question, but hopefully we’ve helped to shed some light on what is now a common dilemma amongst hiking rookies and veterans alike. For technical trails, multiday adventures, carrying heavy loads, and winter weather, a traditional hiking boot is usually the way to go. For shorter hikes, lighter loads, and fairer weather, we reckon you’ll manage just fine with a trail runner. It’s worth bearing in mind that hiking boots and trail runners have distinct uses, and if you need shoes for a broad range of hiking, then consider a pair of each (if that is an option that is available to you). Alternatively, meet somewhere in the middle. There are lots of lightweight hiking boots and more rugged trail running options out there, as well as hiking-specific shoes that can stand up to a range of different terrain and conditions.

If we’ve helped you make a decision on your hiking footwear, you can check out our range of trail runners and hiking boots online. Still unsure? Head into your local Paddy Pallin store to find your perfect pair.

About The Author

Darcy Smith

Darcy is an outdoor lover from the east coast of Scotland who is trying out life in Australia. Having travelled through much of Europe and Asia, her favourite place in the world remains the Scottish Highlands. Darcy loves hiking, camping, bulldogs, brunch and sunsets.

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