Trail running shoes vs. hiking shoes: Your best bet for exploring the outdoors
June 29, 2023|By Tim Kelly
One thing most outdoor enthusiasts can agree on is that we love gear. At the same time, from trail running to mountain biking to kayaking, it's often important to travel light and simple. Specifically, when it comes to trail running shoes vs. hiking shoes, there is a growing interest in hikers opting for trail running shoes for that very reason. But how do you decide when to reach for one or the other?
When I worked at a local running shoe store, people often came in looking for hiking shoes. When I asked what they would be using them for, a common answer was something along the lines of, "I'm going on vacation in a couple weeks, and we're going to do a day hike near the hotel." I'd respond by leading the customer to trail runners instead.
This was due to the fact that, in most scenarios, new innovations allow trail running shoes to compete with hiking shoes. However, there is undoubtedly still a place for more rigid, supportive hiking shoes in certain circumstances.
What are hiking shoes?
Hiking shoes are designed for anything from a stroll through the park to a day hike in the mountains to a multi-day backpacking trip. They are very comparable to hiking boots, but with one key difference: Hiking shoes are usually low cut below the ankle, whereas hiking boots offer more ankle support and are made in a mid to high cut profile.
Hiking shoes are designed to be tough and durable, with the upper often made from leather or durable nylon mesh. They're made with thicker, more durable outsoles and midsoles to withstand the beating of mile after mile on rugged trail terrain, both to protect you and keep the shoes performing as designed. Their common rigidity is designed to put more of the stress on the shoe and not your body. You'll find many hiking shoes offer a toe bumper or cap. Finally, hiking shoes are commonly found in both waterproof and non-waterproof options.
What are trail running shoes?
At first glance, you'll notice some similarities between hiking shoes and trail runners, mainly their lugged outsoles. Trail running shoes are specifically designed for running on more aggressive trails with roots, rocks, and uneven terrain. They help runners avoid slipping in the mud or on loose debris with specially designed lugged outsoles, while also offering protection underfoot with a more dense, rigid midsole.
Trail running shoes are made with a more durable upper than their road running counterparts but still offer optimal breathability for your runs. They're designed to be lightweight, cushioned, and move well with your foot and body while bounding down the next switchback.
5 key differences between trail running shoes vs. hiking shoes
With shoe technology constantly evolving and new and improved materials being used in each season of trail running shoes, there is a clear and growing interest in trail running shoes as the preferred option. But let's consider the full spectrum of what to choose and when. Hiking shoes absolutely still have a place in any outdoor enthusiast's gear closet.
Here are five considerations to help you make a decision about what will best suit your outdoor needs.
The first and most obvious consideration when deciding between a trail running shoe and a hiking shoe is weight. Undeniably, you're going to find trail running shoes to be lighter across the board. Who wouldn't want less weight underfoot?
While we can all agree that the lighter the shoe, the better, there is still a clear consensus your hiking shoes are going to hold up a while longer than your trail running shoes — sometimes even twice as long. This doesn't necessarily make a hiking shoe better or a trail runner worse, it's just a matter of fact that the more dense, durable, heavy material hiking shoes are made from are going to outlast trail runners.
This consideration gets a bit trickier. Simply put, hiking shoes are going to offer more support and protection while out on the trails. With that being said, one must consider how much support you'll actually need based on your activity and its duration.
If you're carrying a 20kg bag on your back on a multi-day hike, you'll likely find that hiking shoes or even boots are going to be optimal for support. For anything less than that, though, many people are opting for trail running shoes — again, because new innovations allow trail running shoes to have a great amount of support while maintaining their traditional comfort and lightweight profile.
If you're going out for a quick day hike with a partner on vacation, you might actually find the greater level of support a hiking shoe offers to be too stiff and uncomfortable.
4. Comfort and breathability
I'm lumping these two together because a shoe that isn't breathable on a hot day in the desert or a 16K trail run on a humid day is going to get uncomfortable pretty quickly. The advantage for this consideration goes to trail running shoes. Again, with the outlier being the need for a heavy pack and many, many hours on your feet (we'd probably recommend hiking boots, here). Trail running shoes are commonly more cushioned, breathable, and move more fluidly and naturally with your foot strike.
Long answer short, it depends on where and how you're using the shoes. Hiking shoes commonly have great traction with their tacky outsole and deep lugs. The stiffness of a hiking shoe allows you to move more efficiently over roots and rocks with the shoe itself taking much of the load. Some trail running shoes, on the other hand, are specifically designed for running or moving through mud with almost dagger-like lugs. That's a long way of saying, more or less, it's a tie here.
What about hybrid shoes?
For those that spend time hiking and trail running and like the cushion and freedom of a trail running shoe but with a bit more support—or even for those that just can't make a decision on what to purchase—there's a growing class of shoes considered more of a "hybrid."
Hybrids are commonly a mid-cut profile that offer more support and structure than a low-cut trail running shoe but not a full profile like that of a hiking boot. Hybrids are often more breathable, flexible and allow for more freedom of movement while still offering greater support than true trail running shoes on uneven surfaces. You can literally think of these shoes as a perfect combination between a trail running shoe and hiking shoe.
All things considered, trail running shoes are undoubtedly closing the gap on innovation in regard to support, traction, and what people are reaching for when heading out for the trails, regardless of where and how they're doing so. They're lighter weight, more breathable, and allow more freedom of movement than a hiking shoe.
Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.