Hiking Footwear: Boots or Trail Running Shoes?
As hiking continues to grow in popularity, many long-standing rules are being questioned. A map & compass are being replaced by phones with GPS. Bulky backpacks are being ditched for small, single pocket rucksacks. And in long-distance hiking circles, traditional boots are being tossed aside for nimble running shoes.
Are these simply fads, or is there any validity and insight behind these changes? What are the pros and cons of using different hiking footwear and is it worth trying something new?
Hiking Boots – Pros
Hiking boots have been around the world and then some. For years, leather boots have been the choice of hiking footwear for numerous outdoor adventurers. New synthetic materials now offer lighter footwear with all the same benefits of grip and durability.
Hiking boots also provide exceptional ankle support. This helps prevent injury from ankle strains or ligament damage. As an added bonus, hiking boots are often made from waterproof materials such as Gore-Tex. Dry boots are important as they allow for warm and comfortable feet when crossing rivers and combatting rain!
Hiking Boots – Cons
Unfortunately, waterproofing and ankle support come at a price. Often hiking boots are bulkier and heavier than regular shoes. This can make you more tired as you’re slowed by the extra weight.
Boots aren’t the supplest kind of hiking footwear either. Although they are soft when worn in, they are still a relatively stiff surface that can rub against your skin. This of course causes blisters, a well-known nightmare for hikers.
If the weather is particularly hot, your feet will sweat. Moisture will be trapped inside the shoe causing your feet to rub against the interior. This friction can also cause nasty blisters. A similar effect can happen if hiking boots are used on hard, dry ground such as a dusty or rocky trail.
Hiking Boot Recommendations
Brands like Solomon and Adidas are striving to deliver a shoe that achieves the best of both worlds. The Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX (£125 RRP) is one such shoe, as is the Salomon Quest 4 Gore-Tex (£175 RRP). The Adidas Terrex line is another excellent option for hiking boots.
For a budget alternative, Merrel is a brand that has been making hiking footwear for 40 years. A visit to a shoe shop will give you plenty of options and you can walk away with a good pair for a reasonable price.
Trail Running Shoes – Pros
Hikers of the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail in the United States swear by trail running shoes. These thru hikers were some of the first walkers to actively champion their use.
In comparison to hiking boots, trail running shoes are extremely lightweight. They will feel like feathers on your feet, keeping you moving smoothly and tirelessly over long distances. Trail running shoes are also breathable which allows your feet to aerate.
This might not sound like a big deal but having moisture wicking away from your skin to reduce swelling can make a huge difference when hiking. Anything that prevents hot spots from forming is a good thing.
Trail Running Shoes – Cons
The biggest downfall of trail running shoes are their lack of waterproofing. Very few brands offer a shoe that is anything above water-resistant, and this feature soon wears off too. The benefits of the shoe being lightweight and breathable does mean that waterproofing is sacrificed.
However, this may not be a problem if you’re hiking in summer or following a well-paved trail. An added point is that even with wet feet, you are less likely to get blisters than with hiking boots because the inner material is soft and malleable even when damp.
Another issue with trail running shoes is the lack of ankle support. For new hikers or any walkers not confident on the trail, this could be a hazard that may open you up to injury.
Trail Running Shoe Recommendations
Time and again, one brand breaches above all other competition: the Altra Lone Peaks. The team at Altra have put in time and research to create a comfortable shoe that is spacious around the toes, grippy, and flexible over multiple terrains.
There are a range of generations available but the Altra Lone Peak 4.0 (£80 RRP) and 4.5 (£90 RRP) are particularly revered. As these are getting phased out, the newer models may be your best option.
Salomon have also made a splash in the trail running industry. The Salomon Sense Ride 4 (£92 RRP) is another popular pair of shoes for hikers and trail runners.
No selection of hiking footwear can be complete without socks. Even if you have an excellent pair of shoes, their efficacy is greatly reduced if you don’t use the right type of socks. Start off by disregarding anything that is made of cotton.
Cotton, once wet, will not dry. It stays damp and gets cold. To make matters worse, the moisture that gathers will be a guaranteed way to give you blisters. So even if no exterior water gets in your shoes, the sweat from your feet will create enough moisture to give you problems anyway.
Look for synthetic blends of socks. These will be carefully stitched to provide support in areas of the shoe that will be under tension while hiking. These socks last longer and the likelihood of blisters through worn/fraying areas is greatly reduced.
Synthetic blends are also fast drying. Air can wick away moisture from your feet leaving your socks dry and comfortable even in wet conditions. Merino wool is excellent for insulating feet on winter hikes and can keep your toes warm on those extra cold days.
Ultimately, your choice of hiking footwear will depend on the terrain you’re passing through. If you plan on hiking through bogs, rivers, and snow, go for hiking boots. If you’re hiking in warm weather on well paved trails then give your feet a rest, aim for comfort, and try out some trail running shoes.