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Trail running shoes vs. hiking boots – What is better for hiking?

Which is a better footwear option for hiking, a trail running shoe or a hiking boot? Let's take a look at a few things you should consider.

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A number of years ago I really began to do an assessment of the gear I was taking into the outdoors. I “thought” I had made reasonably good choices in what I was selecting, and I was in the quality category.

However, one thing that snuck up on me was weight. While I was accruing quality gear, I was blind to how much my entire system was actually weighing. Things were really adding up.

So, I started on a slow journey of researching, selecting, and testing lighter weight options to replace my heavier stuff. This can be an expensive process, which is one of the reasons it has taken me a bit to get things switched out.

For this particular piece of content, and in relation to weight reduction, I’m focusing on footwear. Specifically, trail running shoes versus hiking boots. I would like to take a brief look at the pros and cons of each and then get what I choose (most of the time) and why.

What is a Hiking Boot?

oboz bridger

There’s nothing revolutionary about this definition, but to keep things in perspective we need to make sure we are on the same page. For the purpose of this comparison, we are going to loosely define a hiking boot as a piece of footwear designed to offer support and protection to the foot and ankle, designed and used for traveling distance over mixed terrain.

What is a Trail Running Shoe?

altra lone peak

Trail running shoes are lighter weight than hiking boots (typically), but often are heavier than traditional running shoes. Trail running shoes normally offer no ankle support or protection, but do have a sole designed to protect the bottom of the foot on rough terrain. In a sense, they are a hybrid somewhere in between a hiking boot and a classic running shoe.

What features did we look at?

Stability/Support

In general, hiking boots are going to offer more stability and support than a trail running shoe. The question is, how much support do you need and at what cost. Some folks have weak ankles, etc., and need the additional support and stability a boot offers. Those benefits add up to additional weight.

If you are prone to weak ankles, ankle sprains, and the like, you may want a boot. Fortunately, I have never had any of those issues (knock on wood) and feel like for most environments I do not need the extra support in exchange for weight.

Traction/Grip

oboz bridger and altra lone peak soles

I feel the traction or grip comparison is negligible. Most quality soles are made of similar, if not the exact same materials. As companies have progressed over the years, so have the material components, and mostly for the better.

Tread patterns may change or differ, but there are not many differences otherwise. I have found equally good traction and grip between boots and trail runners (TR’s). However, for the current boots and trail runners I’m using, there is a clear winner in the category. I will discuss that at the end of this article.

Weather

oboz bridger waterproof

Trail runners are quick-drying, which is a big plus for me. If you have ever soaked a pair of leather boots in the backcountry, you know what kind of issues that can cause.

I like being able to remove the insole to allow my trail runners to dry out in the sun. It’s amazing how fast it can happen with a little breeze, some sun, and low humidity.

On the flip side, trail runners are really only 3 season footwear depending on where you live. When the weather turns really cold, snowy, or just plain nasty, boots may be the better option.

Durability

oboz bridger toe cap

Boots will typically last longer and are the undisputable winner in this category. A steep price is often attached to this durability, and rightly so.

Trail runners do not last as long and will typically wear out after a season or two of hard use. This is obviously very subjective, but as they relate to boots, there no comparison.

Breathability

There are some breathable boots out there, but TR’s will typically win this hands down. Breathability is a big deal for me. Being able to let my feet breath translates into more comfort on the trail.

I have never owned a pair of boots that are as breathable as any TR’s I’ve owned. Again, this is a sample size of 1 and I have not tried everything on the market. My gut tells me it’s just not very likely.

Comfort

altra lone peak cushioning

Comfort is a big deal. What we exchange for that comfort is something to consider. One thing a lot of people struggle with on the trail is blisters. Those nasty little boogers seem to creep up as a hot spot and turn into a blister in no time. Especially, as the mileage starts to add up.

My experience has been that I have had way more blisters with heavier footwear…all things being equal. I’m not sure why this is the case. I would like to think all my footwear has been fitted properly, but I could be wrong.

To me, the lighter the footwear, the more comfortable it is. Keep in mind, there have to be sufficient “attributes” that allow the footwear to operate in the particular environment you are in, so we are going to assume that’s the case. You’re not going to hike the PCT in a pair of house slippers. If you have…please let me know.

Weight is a big factor in this category.

Weight

Though weight is listed last, it is definitely not least. You feel every extra ounce you throw onto your feet. Science has proven (seems pretty common sense) that every bit of extra weight has a notable impact on our performance. The bottom line is that heavier footwear costs us extra energy.

In the weight category, trail running shoes are the winner hands down. In my non-scientific study (again, a sample size of 1) I save 1 lb. 2.5 oz. of weight by using my trail runners. That’s a pretty significant amount of weight.

Cost

Boots are Expensive, but TR’s can be as well. TR’s will average being cheaper, but you will replace them more often due to the durability mentioned above. Boots will generally cost more but will last a lot longer.

You will have to run the numbers as they relate to you and determine which is more fiscally responsible (if it even matters).

As of this date, my trail running shoes are an older pair of Altra Lone Peak 3.0 and my hiking boots are a pair of Oboz Bridger Mid’s. Let me do a quick breakdown of each of these.

My Choices

Altra Lone Peak 3.0

altra lone peak 3.0

I’ve had these TR’s for a couple of years now and they are my first pair of Altra. All I can say is that I love these shoes. They have worked out really well for me and for what I have thrown at them.

My first trip with these shoes was an adventure through Grand Canyon. There was nothing too aggressive about this trip, starting with 7.4 miles down Bright Angel trail to get things rolling. This is a well-maintained trail that does not require a heavy type of footwear. A lighter option was a plus.

bright angel trail
Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon, AZ, USA

Several of the longer day hikes on this trip were much more technical and these shoes performed equally as well. They offered great cushioning from the rocky terrain and the breathability allowed my feet to stay dry during active times. They also offered great protection on wet rocks, which is a big deal for me.

This pair of Altras weighs in at 1 lbs. 3.5 oz for the pair and currently cost around $90.

Oboz Bridger Mid Waterproof

Oboz Bridger mid dry

I have also owned my Oboz Bridgers for quite some time and have put some miles on them. They offer great ankle support when needed and the midsole provides great protection against sharp rocks and more.

I have hiked and backpacked in these boots, but I find myself using them for hunting nowadays. Believe it or not, they are much lighter than my other hunting boots, which are the Danner Pronghorns weighing in at 3 lbs. 11 oz. For most of my hunts, they were too heavy and too hot.

The Oboz Bridgers work great for North and West Texas hunting. The terrain is very rough and varied and it typically requires something a little heavier with more stability. The waterproof(ness) works great when needed and the rubber toe cap is good for added protection.

hunting in texas

My one complaint about these boots is the grip/traction they offer on wet surfaces, primarily rock. It leaves a bit to be desired and if improved upon would make these great boots excellent. I have not had any issues in dry, rough terrain on longer hikes.

The Oboz Bridgers weigh in at 2 lbs. 6 oz. and cost around $180.

Conclusion

Here is the punchline…you need to pick what works best for you. Everyone is different and we all have unique considerations that have an impact on what gear works for us.

Take a look at all the considerations above and factor those in when you begin searching for your next pair of footwear. Like I said at the beginning of this article, I was on a mission to cut weight from my kit. Again, I was able to save 1 lb. 2.5 oz. by going to a pair of TR’s, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Weight is important, but at a certain point, cutting weight can be detrimental as well. Your gear has to be able to perform the task at hand. If you cut too much weight you start to remove certain features/attributes that you may need. Be cognizant of that.

On the other hand, if you like your boots and have found some that work for, that’s awesome. You get what works for you and get out there and enjoy life.

Have you tried both hiking boots and trail running shoes? If so, let me know what you prefer and why.

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