From Heavy Boots to Lightweight Freedom – Why Trail Runners Dominate Thru-Hiking Now

The move from heavy hiking boots to lightweight trail runners happened for good reasons - improved comfort, stability, drying, and less injury. Learn why trail runners now dominate long trails.

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Josh Koop

I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!

woman on trail with backpack and trail runners which are good to feel the ground
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When I started to prepare for my first thru-hikes, like the Lone Star Hiking Trail, I was trying to figure out what gear I truly needed and had always used boots because that’s what Dad had taught me.

Over time reading online and listening to hikers, I wondered, can you use trail runners for thru-hiking?

Trail runners make excellent thru-hiker shoes due to their lightweight build, they do absorb water very fast, but since they aren’t water resistant, they allow that water out, helping to have a quick dry time. They tend to have a shorter lifespan than boots, so you may need to replace them in a thru-hike multiple times.

Let’s look deeper into this change of using trail runners for hiking, why it happened, and why trail running shoes continue to grow in prevalence on the trail with everyone from Appalachian Trail thru-hikes to simple day hikes.

Why Did We Ever Use Boots?

In the older days, a backpack was a solid piece of gear attached to your back, weighing 10 pounds or more, and to support this weight, you needed much more support to ensure you didn’t buckle under the load itself.

These were what I grew up hiking with my dad in the Pacific Northwest, the big heavy lead-filled, ok probably not, pair of heavy hiking boots.

You know the type, the kind of boot you loved to remove after a hard day hiking uphill, back when I was told my sneakers weren’t good for the work.

Why Have Trail Runners Become So Popular?

There are a few core reasons why people have begun to use lightweight trail runners, some have to do with just ease of acquisition since they are in nearly any running store but also they provide the following:

Less Expensive On Average

Trail runners don’t cost an exorbitant amount like some of the top-end leather hiking boots on the market, this makes them simpler to acquire and to just get started.

You can find a decent pair of breathable trail runners for $150 or less, and with the money you save can put it towards other essential gear for your thru-hike .

Lighter Weight Means Fast More Controlled Feet

When you are on trail for 6 months all the weight on your feet adds up, in addition, your trail runners help you stay more controlled on your feet by providing less weight and a more comfortable feel to your foot.

This can help prevent injuries that can occur when you are constantly on the trail for long periods covering uneven terrain, especially in wet conditions where slipping can become an issue.

Water Drains Quicker Which Leads to Quicker Drying

Trail runners are breathable, meaning they have mesh panels that allow water to pass through quickly, so they don’t hold onto water like boots can, which can lead to and cause blisters.

Where “waterproof protection” used to be the best buzzword it has now been replaced as waterproof also means water can’t get out once it gets in, this leads to soggy feet, blisters, and trenchfoot over time if not managed.

Newer shoes for hiking can ensure your feet dry out quicker and while on the move by having the nicer ventilation. Now when they get wet, they drain easy and your foot warmth alone can dry them, which occurs on the trail with regularity.

More Stability and Connection to the Ground

Trails are rugged, boots can leave you detached from the ground you walk on but trail runners connect you to each root, the angle on each rock and can help you be more stable as you move across the constantly changing terrain.

You can also feel smaller changes in the ground which can help you avoid injuries.

Lessening in Blisters

A set of good shoes and quality socks can help reduce blisters for anyone, but trail runners can provide a more comfortable fit since they are designed to contour to your feet.

This can help avoid hotspots that can turn into blisters over time and ensure you are able to stay out there making miles instead of nursing injuries in town.

Better Overall Comfort

Pretty much everyone wears shoes all day every day at work and in life, boots change the mechanics of your walk and gait leading to leg and knee injury possibilities.

Trail runners offer a perfect match to your normal shoes and feet and can help you to keep your normal posture and form while walking and running.

It can also help with balance since you have a better connection to the ground due to their lighter weight and flexibility.

Thru-Hiking Seasonality and Weather

Another key reason trail runners have begun to dominate is that most thru-hikes are limited to three seasons, this means that there is no extreme cold and so shoes work perfectly fine and can handle all the weather changes you will experience.

If you attempt a winter thru-hike with technical terrain, something like a waterproof pair of boots may become essential since there can be extremely cold and snow on the ground, so in this case, they may be your best option.

Hiking Boots vs Trail Runners

Hiking boots dominated the hiking world for generations, mainly for durability and longevity but also due to the incredibly heavy packs people used to carry needed that strong ankle protection and support.

The big debate will continue to rage on between these two types of footwear, but in the end, nowadays it comes down to comfort and personal preference over the long haul of six months as access to replacements is simple, make it to town.

While both options can get the job done, a pair of trail runners, like Altras I write about here, have become more popular since they provide a lighter-weight feel and can be less expensive to start taking backpacking trips.

If you are just getting started, it may be best to try out a few different types of shoes and see which one works better for you on the trail, and don’t just be limited by the opinions of others.

Personally I find boots to make my feet feel like frankensteins monster and that I am pulling them forward each step, this is a recipe for disaster.

Final Thoughts on Trail Runners on Thru-Hikes

The simplicity of trail runners has caused their popularity to surge in the long-distance hiker’s community in recent years as more and more people are looking to get away from the traditional heavy boots.

What used to be a small group of people using trail runners has now turned into the majority of people wearing trail running shoes for thru-hiking versus other hiking footwear.

As technology advances, it will be interesting to see if any new types of shoes can provide even more support or lighter weight to help hikers on the trail.

But for now, trail runners have become the go-to choice for most thru-hikers due to their comfort, lighter weight, and affordability.

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