Hiking Boots vs Trail Runners (Buying Guide)
Mountains and hiking trails can be explored and experienced in many different ways. Long-distance backpacking, day hikes, and trail running are all among them. However, depending on what you do and where you go there are different types of footwear out there for each adventure. It is extremely important to get that right.
Hitting rugged mountainous trails with the wrong boots or shoes for the task at hand can lead to blisters, sprains, blackened toenails, and even plantar fasciitis among other problems. Thorough research and product testing beforehand can make all the difference. Thankfully, a large portion of the work has already been done for you.
Out of the seemingly infinite selection of footwear available, we have compiled lists of our top three hiking boots and our top three trail runners. The first question, of course, is which one do you need? If you aren’t already familiar with the key differences between the different mountain and trail gear out there for your feet then making the right choices can seem daunting.
In a hurry? Here’s the test winner after 10 hours of research:
- Graphene enhanced rubber sole delivers the worlds toughest grip on all hard trails and paths
And here’s an overview of the best hiking boots and trail runners on the market today:
The first big consideration is whether or not you will be encountering ice, snow, or more technical terrain in the mountains. If that’s the case then you probably need mountaineering boots which are specially designed for that type of environment. If, however, you will be on trails at lower and warmer altitudes then there are other options to consider.
Most people need good hiking boots when they are in the mountains. These provide the ankle support and grip for long slow hikes over rough terrain while carrying a heavy pack. Hiking boots are made for walking in the mountains and for tackling adventures like the Appalachian Trail. Hiking boots are also great for shorter day-hikes or other little jaunts. If any of these situations sound like what you are planning to do then hiking boots are probably what you need!
Trail runners, as the name implies, are specifically designed for people who are jogging and running along rough trails. These shoes grip your feet well and provide plenty of cushioning and support in the sole. That way you can run over roots and rocks without slowing down. Trail runners can also be nice for little day-hikes though. The key difference between trail runners and hiking boots is that hiking boots provide that additional ankle support and ruggedness needed by someone carrying a heavy pack through the mountains and/or traversing rougher more technical terrain.
So, if you’re planning to hike some distance while backpacking then hiking boots are probably best. If you’re taking up trail running though, and you plan to jog the trails, then trail runners are what you need. For day-hikes and similar excursions you can probably get away with hiking boots or trail runners, it’s just a matter of what suits you best!
Best Trail Runners – Overview
1. Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2
- Outsole: Premium Wet Traction Contagrip
Salomon is a company that makes excellent footwear for the outdoors. Not only that, but they also make excellent outdoor equipment in general. They have been in the business since 1947 when they opened shop in Annecy, France and started working on skis. From there they slowly branched out and went on to become one of the global leaders in outdoor equipment.
For the design of the Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2, the company combined their years of experience with the unmatchable knowledge and experience of French elite ultra running athlete François D’Haene. He is arguably the best ultrarunner in the world holding multiple speed records on trails like the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) and the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada. His list of achievements goes on and on but it is safe to say he knows trail runners.
With his input, Salomon have designed a very stable and comfortable shoe that provides tons of protection for the foot. An Energysave® foam insert in the forefoot combined with the ENERGYCELL+ foam in the bottom of the shoe shields the foot from the impact of rocks and roots on the trail. The Contagrip® outsole with wet traction and reverse lugs ensures a solid grip on those roots and rocks as you run over them. Stability is the name of the game with this shoe.
The shoe is also equipped with SensiFit™ technology which basically helps the shoe to cradle the foot for an almost customized fit. Combined with the one-pull tightening Quicklace™ system the shoe is easy to put on, easy to take off and conforms to the foot when worn. In addition to all of that, the show also has an internal EndoFit™ sleeve to help the shoe hug your feet in just the right places.
These trail runners are expensive but that makes sense given all that has gone into them. The shoe does lack waterproofing though and the upper has been noted as lacking in padding which can be a comfort concern for some. Also, the toe box is quite narrow which can be a great fit for some but not for others. If you have especilly wide feet these shoes might not work for you.
- Designed with the help of French elite ultra running athlete François D’Haene
- Energysave® foam insert and ENERGYCELL+ foam help protect the foot
- SensiFit™ technology and the EndoFit™ sleeve create an amazing fit
- The Contagrip® outsole increases stability
- The Quicklace™ system allows for an easy-on and easy-off use of the shoe
- The shoe is expensive at $180 a pair
- The toebox is narrow
- The upper lacks padding
- No waterproofing
2. Inov-8 Terraultra G 260
- Graphene enhanced rubber sole delivers the worlds toughest grip on all hard trails and paths
Inov comes right out of the gate and calls this “The world’s toughest shoe for running the world’s toughest long-distance trails.” They might be right. The company was founded in 2003 with the goal of making a shoe that had the grip that many trail runners seemed to be so sorely missing. Eventually, Inov worked out a way to enhance the rubber in the grip of their shoes with graphene which resulted in one of the best grips on the market.
In case you aren’t aware graphene is currently the strongest material known to man. It is over 200 times stronger than steel, and it is in the soles of these shoes. As though that weren’t enough some sections of the upper are also made with Kevlar® aramid fiber. Kevlar® is the material that goes into bulletproof vests to actually stop the bullet. Needless to say, these shoes are tough!
An Exterofit upper helps the shoe adapt to the natural form of your foot as you run and even changes as your feet swell over long-distances. Dynamic Fascia Band technology in the sole along with META-FLEX grooves creates a shoe that allows you to better grip the terrain. When that is combined with the g-grip graphene sole you get a very grippy shoe with great trail feel.
These are also zero-drop shoes. Zero-drop means that your heel is at the same height as the ball of your foot while wearing the shoes. This is exactly how your foot is on a level surface without any footwear and it is a healthier more natural foot position. Most running shoes have a heel drop of about 10mm which means there is more cushioning in the heel and less at the ball of your foot. In a zero-drop shoe, there is equal cushioning from your heel to your toes which provides for a more natural running position over long distances.
- G-grip graphene soles provide amazing grip
- Dynamic Fascia Band technology with META-FLEX grooves help your foot grip the terrain
- Kevlar® aramid fiber in the upper makes a tough shoe
- This is a zero-drop shoe which means you will have a more natural running position over long distances
- The shoe is pricey at around $150
- The shoe absorbs water easily
3. La Sportiva Kaptiva
- Provides the perfect balance of protection, cushion, stability and traction while training, racing or on long days in the mountains
La Sportiva is a company that describes itself as mountain based and family-run. Located at the foot of the Dolomites in Italy they have been making some of the best technical exploration gear around for almost 89 years. Their footwear covers almost all mountain needs from trail running to more technical ice climbing. They have it all.
With La Sportiva Kaptiva they have made a shoe that is very good on all fronts. The TRUST-FIT® shape and SLIP-ON construction make the shoe fit like a second skin, it becomes a part of your foot. The FriXion® sole with Impact Brake System provide excellent stability and traction too.
The upper is also fitted with a Sock-Like™ Compression sleeve and a Knit Wraparound Tongue that helps maintain fit and comfort. This isn’t a shoe that stands out in any one area exactly but that’s because it is excellent in all areas. From reviews and side by side testing La Sportiva Kaptiva stands out as a consistent favorite among trail runners.
It isn’t cheap but it is the cheapest option to make this list. The shoe is also known for being a little heavier than other trail runners which can become important on long-distance runs. Also, for people with wide feet this might not be the shoe for you. The fit is on the narrow side which helps the shoe conform to the foot usually.
- TRUST-FIT® shape and SLIP-ON construction make the shoe fit like a second skin
- The FriXion® sole with Impact Brake System provides excellent stability and traction
- A Sock-Like™ Compression sleeve and a Knit Wraparound Tongue help improve the fit
- At $139 it is the cheapest of the top three
- At $139 it is still pricey
- The shoe is heavier than most trail runners
- The fit is narrow which isn’t ideal for wide feet
Best Hiking Boots – Overview
1. Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX
- WATERPROOF BACKPACKING SHOES: Designed for maximum traction on mixed terrain, the Quest 4D 3 hiking boot features our 4D Advanced Chassis to help guide the foot & reduce fatigue, even on the roughest...
When it comes to hiking boots you want comfort, stability, and water resistance all in a breathable lightweight non-slip structure. That can be a hard balance to strike sometimes but the Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX hiking boots manage it very well. This is the second selection on this list from Salomon but that is because they really are that good.
The Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX is all about stability and comfort. With Gore-Tex® membranes keeping water out while also maintaining some breathability, the boots work to keep your feet dry. Stability is managed with a unique Contragrip® TD outsole that increases traction on varied terrains and a 4D Advanced Chassis™ allows the foot greater control.
The boot itself is made from a high-quality full-grain nubuck leather while the insole uses Ortholite® technologies to provide additional molding and comfort for the foot. This is matched by the SensiFit™ system which basically helps cradle the foot in the boot in the most optimal way.
When you combine all of this what you get is a boot that you barely need to break in that fits beautifully right out of the box. This great fit and all the boot technology that goes into it does make the boot a little pricey at $230 and this has been one of the few but persistent critiques of the boots. People have also noted that the boots aren’t as breathable as others so if you’re hiking in very warm environments these might not be the boots for you.
- Gore-Tex® membranes for waterproofing
- Contragrip® TD outsole and 4D Advanced Chassis™ for stability
- Ortholite® insoles and SensiFit™ system for the best fit
- The boots are expensive
- In warm weather they might not be very breathable
2. Scarpa Zodiac Plus GTX
- GORE-TEX Performance Comfort keeps feet dry
It would seem that many of the best boots in the world are Italian made by old hands in family-run businesses at the base of the Dolomites. Scarpa is just that and has been around since 1938. The company is still run by and employing members of the same Parisotto family that came through its doors in 1942. For decades they honed their craft in their little region of Italy and then, in 2005, they opened a North American headquarters.
They have a legacy of craftsmanship and living in and around the mountains that comes through in the quality of the footwear they produce. Bootmaking can be deceptively complex but when it’s done right you can tell.
The Scarpa Zodiac Plus GTX is exactly the boot you would want if you are hiking in a moderate mix of rocky and snowy mountain terrain. In some ways, this boot is a little more mountaineering boot and a little less hiking boot in terms of its design and capability. In the end, it treads a line. Made from 100% Suede with a Gore-Tex® lining this boot breathes well. That breathability doesn’t make it any less water-resistant though.
A Vibram® outsole gives all the grip you would need scrambling across rocks and alpine approaches while the shoe itself weighs in at only 545g making it very light for how robust it is. The boot really is a marriage of mountaineering boot and hiking boot. Currently, the boots are going for $268.95 on Amazon making them another expensive pair of boots. That and the fact that the lace locking system has given some people trouble are the only downsides to these fantastic boots.
- 100% Suede
- Gore-Tex® lining for waterproofing and breathability
- A Vibram® outsole
- This is another pair of expensive boots
- The lace locking system has given some people trouble
3. HOKA ONE ONE Sky Kaha
With arguably one of the best hiking boot names ever HOKA ONE ONE was started by a couple of plucky French men who just wanted to make a better running shoe. Their flagship products are known for having a generously cushioned midsole and unique forward-leaning geometry that maintain your momentum when you are moving.
The HOKA ONE ONE Sky Kaha was built from those principles but also strives to embody the actual meanings of the Maori word Kaha, which are strength and support. A Vibram® mega grip hi-traction outsole helps the boot hold strong on many surfaces while the eVent waterproof bootie keeps your feet dry.
The rockered sole can be a little off-putting at first but as you ease into it you will find these boots offer amazing comfort and stability in most environments. At $220 these are the cheapest high-quality hiking boots on this list and certainly worth consideration. Some people have tried them and found the specialized soles made it too difficult to navigate off-trail terrain relative to other boots so that is worth keeping in mind.
- A Vibram® mega grip hi-traction outsole
- eVent waterproof bootie
- Rockered sole to maintain momentum
- The price is lower than the others but still pretty high
- The rockered sole can make off-trail terrain difficult for some
When hikers and backpackers are under heavy loads in rocky terrain in the backcountry, traversing scree with sharp rocks, they will be happy to have a good pair of hiking boots. The ankle support and traction can be life-saving. For others who like to run along mountainous trails, a nice pair of trail runners are more appropriate. It’s all a matter of personal preference and depends on how you want to explore the great outdoors.
Many thru-hikers have managed just fine with trail running shoes, for example, while others need nice lighter weight leather boots or hiking shoes to get by. Still, there is some surprising data out there indicating that around 75% of surveyed hikers on the Appalachian Trail actually ended up using trail runners for their hike. In some environments, the versatility of trail runners just works.
For this reason, we have chosen the Inov-8 Terraultra G 260 trail runners as our ultimate winner. Ideally, you should have good hiking boots and good trail runners but if you had to choose one this would be it. These shoes can handle most situations with their one of a kind g-grip graphene soles while the zero-drop shoe design works well for your feet over short and long distances. Relative to the hiking boots the $150 price tag seems modest and even though the shoes do absorb water too readily that also indicates their breathability.
Bonus tip: Check out one A.T. thru-hikers reasoning for switching from hiking boots to trail runners while hiking!