Trail shoes for hiking

Common question – Is it okay to hike or backpack using a trail running shoe instead of boots?

The answer is yes! With caveats of course.
I am going to address this great question from the perspective of a long-time shoe fitter and as a long-time trail runner, hiker and multi-day backpacker.
One of the fun things we enjoy in the store is studying the many attributes of each shoe model and doing our best to match the most applicable attributes to the desired outcome of each individual user.
Another fun concept is that there are pros and cons to most everything. Boots have worked well for a lot of people for many years. More people, these days, are not using boots for certain reasons and are also doing well.
Here are some footwear considerations for a hiker/backpacker.
  • Key elements that we want: soft surface traction, or some good knobbiness; protection from pointy rocks; to feel supported and stable; a great fit to avoid toe trauma; abrasion resistance from dirt and rocks; and of course- to look cool.
  • It takes more energy with every footstep to move a shoe that weighs more. Consider the difference between a 30 pound pack and 2 pound shoes versus a 20 pound pack and 1 pound shoes.
  • Carrying bigger/heavier loads up top typically demands more stout and stable shoes down below to reduce strain and trauma to the feet, especially in rocky, rooty situations.
  • Boots are usually more durable than trail running shoes. Leather and hard rubber is tougher, but heavier and less flexible than fabric and foam rubber constructions.
    • In fact, the durable materials of a boot can also contribute to more foot troubles, like blisters, toe/toenail trauma, pinch and pressure points, abrasion, etc.
    • More and thicker materials increase drying time and wet-foot-time from rain or stream crossings.
    • I think we’ve all seen boots tied to packs during a hike because of pain from the boots overriding the risks of hiking in camp footwear!
  • Lighter loads (20-25 pounds or less) put less demand on foot/ankle strength and stability.
  • Boots have to be well over the ankle, firm and snugly laced to reduce ankle sprains.
  • Much of a shoes stability comes from the midsole and outsole design and not from a high ankle design.
  • Proprioception (your perception of where your foot is, and will be, in relation to space or the ground) can be improved with a lighter, more nimble shoe and therefore lowering the probability of a sprain.
  • Use a good insole, like Superfeet or Currex, to limit arch strain on uneven surfaces.
I had the fortunate pleasure of getting in a couple of great 7-8 day backpacking trips this summer. Both had significant off-trail sections of the route and included extreme rocky terrain, major ascents/descents, bushwhacking, side hill traverses with exposure, gravel, sand or snow, stream crossings, long miles and the full range of weather. I carried less than 20 pounds of gear and wore trail running shoes for both trips (as I have for the last 20 years). As I age I’m looking for advantages! The results- No blisters, no sprains, no foot trouble at all. Phew! Only a broken smartphone, hiking pole and air mattress! Oh well. All of that was easier to deal with than painful feet or a sprain, I figure. 😉
Bottom line- try going with lighter footwear like trail running shoes instead of boots if you can go with a lighter pack weight. If pack weight is over 25 pounds or so and the terrain is rough…and you are comfortable wearing your tried and true boots, then that sounds smart too. Hike your hike, but I have been re-energized by backpacking light and nimble on my back and at my feet. You might try it!
Happy Trails! – Steve

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Hi, I'm Coach Steve Roguski

Owner of the store with my wife, Genevie. I have enjoyed many years of running, racing, race directing, running club volunteering, reading about running and leading runs and clinics through the store. Happy trails!