There has long been a debate among trail runners and hikers about the right footwear. Many trail runners prefer to wear their trail running footwear for running and hiking, while hikers will argue that walking shoes and boots are a better bet.
There is no definitive answer to the question but there are plenty of points to consider. It’s also worth noting that there is a variety of style and types across the best trail running shoes and walking shoes and the best hiking boots, so this is a general overview of the differences and suitability.
Trail running footwear versus hiking footwear
There are many points to consider when choosing the right footwear for hiking.
Terrain and stability
While trail running shoes are designed to give traction and stability, when hiking you will move in a different way and most likely carry a hiking backpack, too. Walking shoes and boots tend to have a wider and thicker sole to provide a stable base for every footfall.
Traction will also be different when you compare trail running shoes to hiking shoes. When you run, your foot lands and rolls in a different way to when you walk. Runners will take shorter and lighter steps, too, as they move faster.
It might seem obvious, but the designers of running and hiking shoes will consider footfall and speed when creating shoes for specific activities and this can often be seen in the sole of the shoe. The sole is usually wide, stiffer and more durable. Subsequently, it is usually a heavier shoe.
This is not to say that a walk in your favourite trail running footwear won’t be a success. Because the sole is narrower and thinner, you will feel more nimble and closer to the ground, and as a result, there is a decreased risk of tripping on uneven terrain.
But if you are hiking a longer distance, carrying a heavy pack and on rougher terrain, you might end up requiring footwear that offers more stability.
Trail running shoes are designed to be lightweight and easy to wear while running. Some will offer greater foot support than others, but if you compare a trail running shoe to a hiking shoe or boot, you’ll notice that the upper gives lower levels of support.
Hiking footwear is designed to give higher levels of support for the foot over longer distances and it is likely to be a more robust and heavier design. A walking boot will support the ankle much more than a trail running shoe or walking shoe.
Look at the materials in trail running shoes, too. The uppers are usually a lightweight fabric, while hiking shoes and boots are made with heavier and more robust materials, including leather.
Because hiking shoes and boots are usually manufactured from thicker materials and generally have a tougher sole, they also offer greater protection from the terrain. The style of a hiking shoe or boot is also to give a larger coverage of the foot and ankle.
This means that the foot is more protected from vegetation, stones, roots etc. If you are going to be hiking in rough terrain, such as rocky mountains, muddy hills or rough forest trails, hiking footwear is likely to provide better protection.
It really does depend what the terrain will be like because if you plan to walk on the type of trails that you usually run on, then your favourite running footwear will suffice.
The chances are your trail running shoes will feel more comfortable than a walking shoe or boot. But is that because you were your running shoes more frequently and so they seem more comfy?
Many styles of walking shoe and boot these days can be very comfortable. There are plenty of choices and you will discover hiking shoes and boots that look a lot like running trainers.
Again, it depends on where you will be hiking and for how long. A lightweight summer hiking boot or shoe, which looks a bit like an enhanced running trainer, will be ideal for some lower level trails and hills in summer but probably not for mountain hiking or walking in winter.
In general, hiking boots are a lot stiffer and made from more durable and thicker materials so they might not feel as comfortable and flexible as a trail running shoe. They will probably fit the foot more neatly and stiffly, too. But there is a good reason why hiking shoes and boots are like this and it’s because of the type of terrain that you will hike compared to trail running.
It shouldn’t take long for you to “wear in" a hiking boot or shoe thanks to modern materials and if you find they rub or they are too stiff or uncomfortable, the chances are they are not the right footwear or fit for you anyway.
Trail running footwear might well be fine for summer hiking because you are less likely to end up with wet feet. In addition, the lightweight design of running footwear allows your foot to breathe more easily when it’s a hot and sunny day.
But other seasons bring a greater chance of wet weather. In winter, there will be snow and ice to deal with while hiking, too.
Some running shoes have Gore-Tex waterproof linings, but there is a greater chance of hiking shoes and boots keeping your feet dry because they are made from more robust materials. There are vey few hiking shoes and boots that are not waterproof – and you can also check out our guide to waterproofing hiking boots.
The thicker and heavier hiking footwear will keep your feet warmer, too, and protect from the cold, wet and muddy ground.
There is the weight of the shoe and also your own body weight to consider. Trail running shoes are likely to be lighter in weight compared to hiking footwear. This can be an advantage in terms of comfort and energy use when walking in trails.
People who are a bit heavier themselves will probably be better off in a heavier walking shoe or boot because it will give greater foot and ankle support and durability when walking longer distances. This is especially true if you will be carrying hiking pack.
There is a lot to consider when choosing between trail running shoes or hiking shoes or boots for a walk. Points to think about include terrain, distance, the weather, weight and durability. At the end of the day, you can try both and see what you prefer.
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Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, who is better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favourite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing, both downhill and back country. Her target for 2021 is to finish the final nine summits in her first round of all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of more than 3,000ft high. Aside from being outdoors, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy the great outdoors, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors.