Running Shoes VS Hiking Boots
“If you want to forget all your other troubles, wear too tight shoes.” ~The Houghton Line
I get asked about backpacking footwear all the time and the question is almost always the same. Hikers want to know if it’s really okay to backpack in running shoes and how light their packs need to be before they can make the switch.
For many of us, it’s been drilled into our heads since day one that backpackers wear boots. That’s just what you do. You need the toughness and the ankle support and the water protection, right?
That’s why it blew my mind a few years back when I learned that thru-hikers cover thousands of trail miles every year in running shoes!
When I get asked this question now, after many years and thousands of my own trail miles (both with and without boots), I feel very confident in saying: Ditch the boots and don’t look back.
Here are 5 reasons why:
1) Weight On Your Feet Is Costly
The more weight you carry, the more energy you expend carrying it. That part is simple. But weight carried on your feet is actually much more significant.
Weight on your feet will zap 4-6 times more energy than weight on your back. So, swapping that 3-pound pair of boots for a 1-pound pair of running shoes will be the energy saving equivalent of removing 8-12 pounds from your pack. Seriously? Seriously. It’s science.
2) Blisters Are The Pits
Rigid, hard-soled boots don’t flex with your feet and they won’t let your tootsies breathe. Your feet will be soft from soaking in sweaty boots all day and that makes them more vulnerable to blisters.
That’s why even a well broken-in pair of boots can cause blisters over a long day on the trail. And if you’ve ever experienced bad blisters, you already know, blisters are the pits.
3) Waterproof Is A Misleading Term
Most boots claim to be waterproof and most hikers think that’s a good thing. But waterproof boots won’t keep your feet dry. It’s as simple as that.
- Your feet will be wet with sweat because they can't breathe.
- Waterproof boots only provide short-term protection from rain. When it rains, water will run down your legs and into your boots.
- Even the highest quality waterproof boots will develop tiny holes over time that slowly let water in during prolonged rain.
Gaiters and rain pants can help delay swamping your boots, but if it rains for long enough, it’s inevitable that your feet will eventually get wet. And when boots get wet, they get heavy. Very heavy. They also take forever to dry out. So don’t get sucked into the “waterproof” hype.
4) Ankle Support Is A Myth
Okay, maybe myth isn’t the right word. But ankle support isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Ankle support is primarily a phrase that sells boots.
We all have it baked into our minds that boots provide ankle support, and that’s what's going to keep us from getting injured - which, by the way, is among the top fears of wilderness travelers. But there isn’t actually much evidence to back that up.
Most research says that if you want to prevent ankle injuries, you should focus on strengthening and stretching your ankles. If you’re a healthy, active person without nagging ankle issues, you don’t really need any extra "ankle support" while hiking.
Furthermore, boots will tire your legs quicker and make your footwork clumsier. Both of which will put you at much greater risk of other injuries.
True story: I was recently contacted by a new boot company claiming to make boots with better ankle support. They proudly stated, "out of XXX boots sold, we've only had 9 customers report ankle injuries!" Moral of the story: even special new ankle support boots can't prevent injuries.
5) Boots Are Demanding
Boots are expensive, they take a long time to break in, and they need to be maintained to keep their form. That’s a whole lot of hassle for a tool that’s going to tear up your feet and waste your energy.
Wouldn’t a light, cost-effective alternative that you can wear straight out of the box be better? I sure think so.
Don’t get me wrong. I own a fantastic pair of boots that have lasted for many years. I use them for snowy winter hikes and they're an excellent tool. I just don’t wear boots on my 3-season backpacking trips anymore, and I don't think I ever will again.
Make The Switch
When you’re ready to make the switch, choose a lightweight running shoe or trail runner.
Look for a comfortable shoe that you can wear without any break-in period. Look for shoes with good traction and a soft, flexible sole that is thick enough to avoid feeling rocks under your feet.
Get shoes that will breathe easily and dry quickly after getting wet. Steer clear of shoes that have large sections of unsupported mesh, because mesh can wear out quickly on the trail.
It’s also a good idea to bump up half a shoe size, because feet tend to swell over long days of hiking. Running shoe soles will compress over time, but they are usually good for at least 500 trail miles, sometimes much more.
I wore this pair of New Balance running shoes for over 900 miles on the PCT. My last pair of trail runners (Saucony Peregrine) have lasted over 1,000 trail miles.
Top Running Shoe Recommendations
- Saucony Peregrine 7 - I'm currently rocking the Peregrine 7 shoes (find them here at Amazon and Road Runner) and I love them. They have comfortable padding, fantastic traction, and a sturdy sole. I highly recommend checking them out.
- Altra Lone Peak 3 - Lightweight backpackers are all about Altra shoes and I can see why (Amazon - Road Runner). The Lone Peak 3s have excellent traction, comfortable padding, and way more room in the footbox than normal running shoes. These are some of the most popular and comfortable thru-hiking shoes on the market.
- Whatever Fits Your Feet - I've used lots of different brands of trail running shoes in the past with few complaints. So I recommend going with whatever feels right to you. Remember to look for shoes that 1) feel immediately comfortable 2) have good traction 3) have enough sole padding 4) breathe easily and 5) will dry quickly. Also remember to bump up a half size to account for swollen feet on long days of hiking.
How Light Should You Pack
As far as how light your backpack should be before you can safely switch to running shoes, there’s really no magic number. It’s totally a personal preference thing.
For me, I’d still wear running shoes even with a 50-60 pound pack. But I’d probably never want to carry a pack that heavy either.
Hiking lighter has TONS of great benefits, starting with simply enjoying the wilderness more, so I recommend lightening your backpack no matter what footwear you plan on using. If you're looking to pack lighter, check out my CleverHiker Gear Guide, which features all my favorite equipment.
There are those out there that still swear by boots and that’s totally fine. If you feel more comfortable in boots, do your thing. That’s fine by me and I certainly won’t judge you.
I personally will never go back to hiking boots for backpacking. I hiked the 2,650-mile PCT in trail runners and never once did I wish that I had a pair of boots.
I summited snowy mountains, forded icy rivers, crossed miles of snow-covered trail, navigated massive scree fields, and hiked for weeks in the rain. I did all those things in running shoes and I'd still do it the exact same way.
Switching from boots to shoes is a big change that many hikers worry about. So test it out, just like you would with any other modification to your backpacking routine.
Pack up a full bag and head out for a long day hike in your area. You might love running shoes immediately or it might take some time to get used to, but in the end your feet will definitely thank you for it.
Join in on the conversation by filling out the comment box below. Have you made the switch to running shoes? Did it work out? Do you have any good tips to share? Or maybe you're a staunch supporter of boots? If so, let me know why. I'm always interested in hearing other opinions.
Disclosure: The trust of my audience is of the utmost importance to me. That’s why I only recommend equipment I love from companies I trust. I have not been paid to review any of the products listed in this post. This page contains affiliate links. Check out my terms page for more info.