Trail Runners Dominate Long Distance Hiking by Eli “Shinbone” Staggs
At RRT, we see a lot of folks looking for a shoe to wear on an assortment of outdoor excursions. From my experience as a long distance hiker I try to sway them towards a non-waterproof trail runner, whether it’s for an overnight trip to the Red River Gorge or a long section of the Appalachian Trail. No matter where you go, moisture management will insure happy, blister-free feet.
The trade-offs between a high top boot and a trail runner are numerous. In my opinion, the benefits of a low top shoe that is not waterproof outweigh those of a waterproof high top boot during three-season hiking. Although sacrificing ankle support and warmth, a trail runner provides better breathability, cost efficiency, flexibility, and weight.
One of the first concerns I hear is that the low top shoe will not provide adequate support. The support a high top boot provides that a trail runner does not is in the ankle and stiffness of the shoe. The high top boot keeps your ankle from moving as much as a trail runner, which in certain terrains can hold you back when you want full range of motion (i.e. bolder scrambles). Backpacking boots are good for absorbing the shock that comes with walking with a heavy pack. These days, a pack in the 30 pound and under range is more common and the support of a boot can be overkill. As you get out and hike more, your ankles will strengthen and the extra support becomes less necessary.
For every pound on your foot, you spend the amount of energy equivalent to 5 pounds on your back with each step. So every time you walk with the two to three pound boot, you are essentially adding 15 pounds to your back! A typical trail runner weighs just under a pound. On a short day hike this may not be noticeable, but on a week long trek you will definitely notice the difference each night.
Calling a waterproof shoe breathable implies an absolute. Every waterproof shoe is breathable to a degree. Different fabrics allow better air flow, but pale in comparison to a completely non-waterproof material. As a result of limited breathability, any water that enters the boot will not leave until you take the shoe off to dry. A trail runner will flush the water out with each step and dry on the move faster than the waterproof boot.
The warmth that a shoe provides is a result of its breathability. A waterproof shoe will be significantly warmer than its counterpart, but this is only beneficial in the winter. During warmer temperatures, waterproofing can cause sweat to build up inside of the boot. In the cold, movement itself can keep your foot comfortable through freezing temperatures no matter what shoe. So a trail runner can keep you moving through cold snaps, although keep in mind that a waterproof boot will keep you more comfortable through sustained freezing temperatures or heavy snow.
A solid pair of hiking boots run in the price range of $200 or more while a pair of trail runners cost around $100. While it’s true that the boot may last twice as long, by that point, the boot will be damaged, it’s waterproofing compromised, the insole broken down, and the tread worn thin. Repairing the boot can cost upwards of $100. At this cost, you could have replaced your trail runners almost twice over.
In conclusion, trail runners will keep you on the move, help maintain drier, happier feet and maintain their value longer. Whether you are wearing waterproof or not, your feet will get wet during an extended backpacking trip. It may be from your own sweat or water entering through the giant hole your foot goes in. Having the proper footwear to combat prolonged moisture is key. The trail runner is the proper footwear that I use to manage moisture on long distance hikes. Waterproof boots are very specific in their use and should be saved for extended cold weather, snowy trails, or use with heavy loads. So weigh the pros and cons against your needs. No one knows your foot better than yourself!