Every October, over 100 outdoor enthusiasts gather in Oregon for the annual American Long Distance Hiking Association (ALDHA) conference. The event is the veritable “who’s who” of the hiking world, yet despite what you’d assume the attendees have in common there’s one thing that might surprise you: most don’t own or wear hiking boots.
“I can count on my fingers the number of people who hike most of their miles in boots,” says Liz Thomas, vice-president of ALDHA and the author Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-hike. “Of those people, most of them are 60-plus years old and are mostly doing it that way because they always have.
“For young folks? It’s all about trail runners.”
Why have trail runners become so popular?
One of the biggest differences between thru-hikers and day hikers is their choice of footwear. Regardless of your skill level though, if you’re hanging on to your hikers, it might be time to consider making the switch.
“For an out-of-the-box experience, trail runners are more comfortable to get started in,” says Thomas, who has hiked over 27,000 kilometres on 20 long distance trails and never worn hiking boots. “There isn’t that weird ‘breaking shoes in’ period.”
Even after hiking boots get some solid use, they remain relatively stiff and heavy. In comparison, trail runners are light, allowing hikers to move nimbly. Mesh paneling results in greater breathability and quicker-drying shoes, meaning you’re also less likely to develop blisters.
What about ankle protection?
Joint protection is the most common reason traditionalists stick to boots. And for those new to hiking — or new to trekking with a heavy pack — boots with wide thick soles may offer greater stability and better traction if you’re walking at a slower pace.
But dependent on your fitness and experience level, wearing boots may be doing your joints more harm than good.
“Boots restrain the ankle’s movement, meaning the knee takes a bigger brunt of the angular movement,” says Thomas. Like many long-distance hikers, she instead focuses on building up her ankle muscles to prevent stress on the knee.
Evidence shows that the best way to prevent ankle injury — one of the most common sports injuries — is by strengthening ligaments and tendons, and by stretching.
So, when should I choose a hiking boot over a trail runner?
You may want to choose boots for particularly difficult terrain or winter conditions, where keeping warm is a primary goal. But if you’re just looking to head out for the day with little more in your pack than a granola bar (as opposed to climbing up a mountain with technical crampons and heavy mountaineering equipment), trail runners are probably going to do the job.
There are several brands that offer a hybrid solution, as well. For example, Thomas swears by Altra’s Lone Peak NeoShell Mid model, which pairs the familiar ankle support of a traditional hiking boot with a lighter sole and the brand’s trademark foot-shaped toe box. “It allows more free movement and still feels natural while walking,” she says.
What other factors should I consider?
Ultimately, the choice is up to you. Before investing in any boots or shoes, be sure to take your pack weight, terrain and climate into consideration.
There’s also your level of commitment to consider. Trail runners will have a shorter lifespan than traditional hiking boots, but making the wrong choice can cost you.
“Boots can be expensive,” says Thomas. “Trail runners offer a lower-level commitment that provides a similar experience.”