Person trail running

Hiking Boots vs Trail Runners: Is Lighter Footwear Better?

In the past decade or so, trail running shoes have gone from being a niche sneaker for a niche sport, to one of the most popular forms of hiking footwear. 

Gone are the days when your only trail-ready choices were clunky, leather, above-the-ankle boots. Hikers and outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds have discovered that trail runners are lighter, more breathable, and dry quicker than a traditional pair of heavy hiking boots. And those factors can really make or break a hike. 

Trail runners aren’t for everyone, though. Traditionalists will stand by the extra protection and durability that hiking boots provide. And understandably so! Especially for those with a history of foot or ankle injuries, or, for hikers setting out on a super rocky trail or into persistent wet conditions, boots truly do provide excellent stability and all-weather protection.

In this guide, I’ll go over the pros and cons of both trail runners and hiking boots, so you can decide which type of footwear is the better fit for you. 

Why Trail Runners Are Becoming More Popular

Lightweight trail runners aren’t some over-hyped fad. They have proven benefits that the most diehard hikers can attest to. When you make the switch —whether it’s for a 2000-mile hike, or, for increasing your speed on day-to-day hikes— you’ll move through trails with a new perspective that’ll be hard to turn back on.

Here are a few of the standout features that make trail running shoes a great fit for miles of adventures big and small.

Lighter Than Hiking Boots

Ranging anywhere from six to ten ounces on average, there’s no arguing that trail runners clock in at a much lighter weight than a standard pair of hiking boots.

Have you heard that common adage, one pound off your feet is equal to roughly five off your back? The physics doesn’t lie. With a lightweight pair of shoes, less energy is expended with each step. And less energy means a quicker, more efficient gait, and far less fatigue; even on the most strenuous hikes.

There is a caveat to regular trail runners and low-cut footwear, however. Lower rises mean less overall support. Hence, they require more natural foot strength, more acuity on the trail, and ideally, a lighter pack weight!

Increased Comfort

Out-of-the-box comfort is a big perk in any hiking shoe, and that’s definitely one of the biggest selling points of trail runners. You can literally hit the trail minutes after receiving them with no break-in worries. The lack of a super rigid structure, combined with an extra cushioned midsole, makes them one of the most comfortable shoe styles you can wear while hiking.

With several pairs of trail runners under my belt, I can vouch for this firsthand. Other than that first-ever trial —during which the springiness and flexibility are bound to feel a bit strange—  I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a pair of trail runners that needed a break-in period. Or that posed a threat of hot spots or blisters. 

Better Breathability

The majority of trail running shoes are constructed from highly technical, synthetic materials that prioritize air flow just as much as weight. Whether they feature a durable mesh upper or a combination of materials, like nylon or polyester, breathability is at the forefront of nearly all trail running shoes.

It must be noted that some models have added waterproofing —like a Gore-Tex lining, for instance— to enhance their performance in versatile trail conditions and weather. This is a nice perk for winter hikes, longer trails with numerous water crossings, or in areas where lots of rain (and mud!) is expected. Gore-Tex waterproofing, or something of the ilk, does make them slightly less breathable than non-waterproof hiking shoes.


Trail running shoes dry quickly for similar reasons that they offer superb breathability. Their construction, be it from mesh uppers or other, allows moisture to be flushed out just as quickly as it enters. Be it a sweaty ascent in hot weather or a quick river crossing, a pair of trail runners will nearly always dry far faster than a pair of hiking boots.


How much faster, you wonder? Well, it largely depends on the weather and the climate. On sunny days, I’ve had my trail runners dry in as little as fifteen minutes. If you’re met with nonstop rain and humidity, it might take a couple of hours. Either way, the drying time will be exponentially faster than waterproof boots.

Improved Flexibility & Ground Feel

Think trail runners are just like regular road running shoes? Think again! With deep lugs and aggressive traction outsoles, the difference between road running shoes and trail runners is actually quite substantial. 

With road running shoes, smooth tread prioritizes speed and traction on pavement and flat tracks. In contrast, the soles of trail runners are designed with all-terrain grip and ground feel at the forefront. That means utmost connection to mellow and harsh terrain alike. They’re especially useful if you're charging through loose surfaces, uneven terrain, or want to hopscotch your way through an extra rocky hike.

Okay, but how about when comparing hiking boots vs. trail runners? I’d say that most trail running shoes these days offer very similar traction to the most rugged boots. In terms of ground feel, though, their flexibility makes them far superior if you’re looking for that full ground-body connection. 

The Argument For Hiking Boots

Sure, trail runners are in a class of their own when it comes to being feather-light. But many modern-day hiking boots clock in around a pound, so the notion that all boots tack on loads of extra weight simply isn’t true. So, then, weight aside: what would make hiking boots the better choice?

I’ll be the first to admit that nothing beats the durability and protective qualities of rugged hiking boots. It’s most apparent on difficult trails and abrasive terrain. The most tried-and-true styles —like ones made from durable leather— are really built to be put through the wringer for thousands of miles of adventure.

Here are some other major benefits of donning a pair of boots over trail running shoes. 

Ankle Protection

Although low-rise hiking boots do exist, your standard pair of boots will rise to the ankle or above it. Naturally, this means reliable ankle protection, better overall ankle stability, and far less risk of ankle injuries.

Are you doomed if you set out on a harder trail with a pair of low-cut hiking shoes, then? Not at all. I’ve worn trail runners for some pretty technical terrain and I’ve never felt overly vulnerable. With that said, if you’re healing from an injury or are prone to ankle issues, going with a pair of lightweight, high-top hicking boots would be the smarter choice to avoid risking an injury relapse.

Better for Winter Hikes

I’ve heard professional mountain guides say that if it weren’t for extreme cold-weather temperatures, they’d leave their winter boots behind and throw a pair of crampons on trail runners for mountaineering objectives. Crazy, right?! But alas, trail runners aren’t known for keeping feet toasty and protected in snow, on ice, or when the temperatures really drop.

That’s where boots, especially waterproof hiking boots, reign supreme. If I’m heading out for a winter hike, my trail runners hardly even get a glance. Because I want to keep my feet warm. And the fact is, waterproof hiking boots have better insulation, better traction on winter terrain, and are far better suited for keeping your feet dry on a winter hike (and hence, your feet happy!)

Aggressive Traction

Let me start by saying that trail runners have super impressive traction and grip. In certain tricky terrain, they might even perform better than hiking boots! That said, the outsole rubber of hiking boots is undeniably superior to that of trail shoes.

For one, the rubber compounds are thicker, denser and stronger. That means it’s less flexible, but far more stable. Consequently, the lug patterns can also be deeper and more complex. That’s essential for varied surfaces and challenging terrain, but it especially comes in handy if you come across snow or mud. Deeper lugs mean the boot can really dig into the trail when you need it most.

More Durable

Want to know my favorite pair of hiking shoes? They’re suede leather boots that I’ve had for over ten years. Other than some scuffing and slightly worn-out tread, they’re as structurally sound as ever. 

And so, no surprise here: hiking boots, especially leather ones, usually win in the durability category. They have a stronger outsole and are made with more abrasion-resistant materials, and are built to last for multiple seasons. If it’s numbers you’re after, think somewhere along the lines of 1000 or so miles. Trail runners, in contrast, usually only last 300 to 500 miles. 

Better Foot Support & Protection

There's a good reason hiking boots are synonymous with support. Other than the ankle protection mentioned above, boots offer stiffer midsoles, stronger outsoles, and far sturdier outer constructions. Most also offer extra protection, like rubber toe caps. That all equates to utmost confidence when you’re logging multi-mile days in challenging or rocky terrain. 

For hikers with prominent foot issues, like flat feet or plantar fasciitis, hiking boots provide far more arch support, too. This not only alleviates discomfort when hiking, but it makes your feet feel far less fatigue when on the trail for extended periods.

Hiking Boots vs Trail Runners: Which Should I Choose?

So now that you know the pros and cons of both trail runners and hiking boots, which should you choose? While both offer very reliable trail performance, the deciding factor should be based on two things:

  1. Your style of hiking and the variety of surfaces you encounter.
  2. The features that are most important to you. 

For hikers keen on moving at a slower but more sure-footed pace, finding a pair of lightweight hiking boots won’t disappoint. Because, yes: lighter footwear is indeed better.

Hiking boots are also a great choice for beginner hikers, people with foot issues, or those who merely feel more confident having extra support in rugged terrain. The midsole and ankle support that quality hiking boots offer is truly unmatched, and they’re also the better choice for cold-weather hikes.

Looking for a hiking shoe that will maximize your pace and overall efficiency, especially on longer trips? Trail runners will make you feel like you’re gliding through forest trails and steep mountain scrambles alike. They’re more lightweight and flexible than hiking boots, meaning you’ll feel as nimble as ever. But they still offer excellent traction for a wide range of rough terrain. They’re also very breathable and dry quicker than most boots.

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*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.