Did you know there was even a difference to begin with? When I first started out on the trails, I had no clue. To me, if you could put it on your foot, it was a hiking …. something. I never thought or bothered to look into it and kind of paid the price for it, like the actual monetary price haha.
You see my very first pair of hiking footwear was a rugged hiking boot I bought at Red Wing. It was akin to the TruHiker or its equivalent. Something I most definitely didn’t need for what I bought them for. I went into that shop looking for a pair of hiking shoes for a low intensity hike I was planning on doing that weekend. I easily spent over $200. Ouch.
In the interest of helping my fellow adventurist I’ve decided to put together this quick and straightforward article on spotting the main differences between hiking shoes, hiking boots and trail running shoes. After you’ve finished reading up, you’ll be well equipped on making the right choice.
Here’s what I plan on covering – The main characteristics of each type, which scenarios best fit the available options and a few recommendations with links to where you can read up more about them and purchase online.
So let’s get started! Once finished, head over to my detailed post on which type of shoes are ideal in specific weather and terrain conditions here – Find the Perfect Hiking Shoes! 11 Tips on Making the Right Choice
So let’s start going over the differences between hiking shoes, hiking boots and trail running shoes. Simply put, hiking shoes are your all around and most versatile type of hiking apparel. They are usually inexpensive and some people even use them as their normal day to day workhorse of a shoe. Great all around choice.
Main Characteristics: Hiking shoes come with a low-cut design and are made of lightweight material. They are my go-to for day hikes and casual trails where I’m not worried about sweating buckets climbing steep cliffs or carrying a bunch of gear. They offer superb agility and freedom of movement and are perfect for less demanding terrains. Their breathability, often due to mesh panels, will keep your feet cool during warm weather hikes and are most commonly seen with beginner or novice hikers. Great for an all around travel shoe as well!
Day Hikes: If you’re not going for an intense 7 day, 50 mile trek, then these should be your first option. Ideal for exploring well-maintained trails or leisurely day hikes, standard hiking shoes will certainly provide the proper flexibility and comfort needed for short to moderate distances.
Casual Trails: Most of the time you’ll be hiking on trails that are well worn and fairly busy. These shoes excel on those type of casual trails or urban walking pathways. A lot of consumers even opt for style over substance because they offer enough comfort without compromising on style.
Examples and Recommendations:
Merrell Moab 2 Vent: I often rely on these for their exceptional breathability and comfort, making them perfect for leisurely day hikes or walks.
Salomon X Ultra 4 GTX: For moderate terrains and varying weather conditions, this pair strikes a balance between support, traction, and waterproofing.
The differences between hiking shoes, hiking boots, and trail running shoes really show up for this next option. Hiking boots are the “heavy lifters” so to speak when it comes to hoofing it outdoors. They are built very well and usually cost double, triple or even quadruple that of regular hiking shoes because of their intended uses. Only grab a pair of these if you are going on a truly epic adventure!
Main Characteristics: Intended for more rugged trails and longer adventures. I opted for a pair of sturdy hiking boots as my trusted companions when I did my 55 mile hike across Iceland. Believe me I was glad I did. Their high-cut design and durable construction provide essential ankle support and protection against every type of challenging terrain you will come across. They are usually waterproof so you won’t worry about keeping your feet dry when crossing streams or rivers, well unless the waterline goes up to your shin!
Rugged Terrain: Boulders, huge crevices, deep mud, you name it, these things can handle it. You’ll be able to tackle any rough or uneven terrain with quality hiking boots that offer the stability and protection you’ll need. It’s so easy to accidentally slip and twist an ankle, so you’ll be very appreciative of the additional support!
Backpacking Trips: If you plan on carrying heavier loads on multi-day trips, then your feet are going to demand the durability and support that only hiking boots will provide. You’re really going to need that added comfort and reduced fatigue on your back and legs. Personally, I needed a well made pair for my 3 month trip across South America in 2018. The trip was amazing for many reasons and I couldn’t have finished it all if I didn’t utilize the proper foot protection during my many, many miles walked!
Examples and Recommendations:
Lowa Renegade GTX: This pair has been my go-to for its exceptional support, durability, and waterproofing, making it ideal for various terrains and longer hikes.
La Sportiva Nucleo High II GTX: With its balance of comfort, stability, and waterproofing, it’s perfect for rugged trails and extended backpacking adventures.
Trail Running Shoes:
If you are a bit more active during your hiking experiences and usually pick up the pace a bit, then trail running shoes might be a bit more up your alley. They definitely showcase the differences between hiking shoes, hiking boots and trail running shoes in a unique and fun way. The lightest and airiest option of the three. They really shine when it comes to style and personality. I wouldn’t be surprised seeing these in a downtown club in Miami! So many features and options!
Main Characteristics: Extremely lightweight yet durable. When speed and agility on technical trails are a priority, trail running shoes are unmatched. Their grippy outsoles provide excellent traction on diverse surfaces and their reinforced synthetic overlays around the toes and heels provide added protection against roots, rocks or grounded branches. A great confidence boost on any challenging terrain! They are also extremely breathable which will keep your feet cool during your next outing!
Technical Trails: If you are going to come across a lot of loose dirt or rocks then consider grabbing a pair of trail runners, especially if you like to move quickly. Fast-paced runs, sped up hikes or those that just love very lightweight shoes will absolutely love these. No obstacle is too much or technical feature too intricate. The aggressive treads on these puppies will make mincemeat out of any path you choose.
High-Intensity Activities: These are also great for those that treat hiking as more of a workout than leisurely experience. These shoes shine during high-intensity activities like trail running, boulder hopping, long distance day hikes or any situation where agility and traction are essential for navigating various terrains swiftly and effectively.
Examples and Recommendations:
Altra Lone Peak 5: The roomy toe box, cushioning, and versatility make it perfect for both trail running and hiking, adapting well to dynamic terrains.
Salomon Speedcross 5: Known for exceptional grip and stability, it’s my preferred choice for technical trails and rapid hikes.
Summary of Differences
Let’s wrap everything up in a few sentences for a quick comparison. Hiking shoes are great for everyday activities that need flexibility, versatility and all purpose in functionality. Hiking boots are ideal for more extreme conditions from harsh weather to long distance hauls where durability and support are the most important. Trail running shoes are for those on the go, exercising or traveling light. Think of it like Goldie Locks and the 3 Bears!
Choosing the Right Footwear:
Now you can make anything work most of the time, but wouldn’t it be better to choose the ideal option for your next adventure? I know what it’s like not to and I wish I just had a bit more knowledge when I first started out. Knowing the differences between hiking shoes, hiking boots and trail running shoes will make all the difference in the world when it comes to making a decision.
If you’d like more information on how to choose the proper footwear when it comes to terrain and weather, check out my article –
Here’s a very summarized version of that article:
Terrain Consideration: Assessing the terrain’s ruggedness, incline, and potential obstacles helps determine the appropriate footwear.
Activity Type: Match footwear to the activity intensity—hiking shoes for leisurely strolls, boots for rugged trails or backpacking, and trail running shoes for faster-paced adventures.
Personal Fit and Comfort: Prioritize footwear that fits well and provides ample comfort, ensuring an enjoyable outdoor experience without discomfort or blisters.
To wrap up, when you’re selecting the right footwear for outdoor adventures, you have to treat it as a balancing act between terrain, activity type, and personal comfort. If you understand the nuances of hiking shoes, hiking boots, and trail running shoes, you will confidently choose the ideal footwear for each outdoor pursuit, and in doing so, ensure a safe and enjoyable experience on the trails. Now go out and get it!
Happy exploring and trail conquering on your next adventure!