Selecting Outdoor Shoes: Trail Running & Hiking
Author: Danae Date Posted:1 March 2018
Thrilling, beautiful and sometimes dangerous, exercising on trails nevertheless requires some forethought and preparation. This guide will help you select the type of shoe that’s best for you and your chosen activity.
The great outdoors is a source of challenge and inspiration that few athletes can pass up. There’s an allure to navigating through deep bushland or running along ridges that speaks to the primal instinct in us all.
Trail shoes are the most important gear you use when hiking and trail running. The right shoe can help prevent blisters, bruises, rolled ankles and other accidents. You wouldn’t use rollerblades to go for a road run or use a road bike on an unpaved trail; similarly, it’s inadvisable to use road shoes for trail runs or hikes as they simply don’t have the required grip and support.
The first and most obvious distinction to make is the difference between a trail running shoe and a hiking shoe.
A trail running shoe is ideally a lighter weight shoe, with an aggressive tread to keep you safe without slowing you down on varied terrain. On the other hand, a proper hiking shoe or boot should be stable and supportive enough to offer you all-day comfort and keep you balanced when carrying heavy loads, so you don’t end up stranded with a rolled ankle.
Read on for Trail Running shoes or click here to skip down to Hiking shoes.
Trail Running – Inov8, Altra, Salomon, Saucony, Merrell & More (Men's/Women's)
More and more runners are hitting the trails, taking advantage of natural slopes and obstacles such as tree roots to increase their fitness and agility. Trail running is a hazardous sport, however, and requires a specialised shoe to keep you safe on the terrain.
Terrain Type (Grip & Structure)
You will often encounter uneven terrain, muddy patches, and loose surfaces on the trails, all of which need an aggressive grip to combat. A shoe’s sole is ‘aggressive’ if its lugs are long, angular and sharp. Aggressive soles are better on uneven terrain, but much less grippy on road surfaces – which is why you shouldn’t use the same shoe for both road and trail runs. Aggressive soles also allow mud and dirt to fall off the sole so soil doesn’t get wedged in and hamper the lugs’ grip.
Shoe soles are usually made from rubber. Softer rubber (e.g. Salomon) grips better but is less durable than harder rubber (e.g. Vibram).
- Groomed/Light Trails – you can pick a shoe comparable to your road running shoes if you plan to stick to light trails such as fire roads, gravel paths and gentle hills. Search for shallow lugs for traction on packed soil, with some protection from rocks and roots and a moderately stiff build for stability. Ample cushioning is fine for these trails if that’s what you prefer in your road shoes.
- Muddy/Boggy Trails – opt for a shoe with a softer rubber sole, which can keep you on your feet better in wetter conditions thanks to the extra grip. Long, thick, multidirectional lugs with wide spacing is great for traction on soft soil and mud, while allowing that mud and soil to drop off your sole instead of packing in hard and compromising your grip.
- Rugged/Rocky Trails – if you’re running on technical hiking trails, you want a shoe that can handle the broadest range of terrains. Pick shoes with thick, multidirectional lug patterns so you have grip and stopping power at every angle. Toe guards and protective plates will keep you protected from roots and rocks, while supportive uppers help you stay stable on uneven surfaces. Choose a shoe with a harder rubber sole, since its lugs won’t wear away as quickly on the harder terrain.
- Off-Trail – Resilient materials are key here (hint: look for midsoles made from PU rather than EVA foam). Structure and stability is also important on difficult terrains to help prevent your ankle rolling. If you’re looking at buying trail runners for hiking or backpacking to save weight, select an off-trail model for the additional durability and support.
- Racing/Speed Trails – look for a lightweight shoe with minimal cushioning: every additional gram can slow you down. Super-lightweight trail shoes won’t have as much support and protection, but they should still have an aggressive grip.
Minimal vs. Maximal
The running community is rife with arguments about whether minimal or maximal cushioning is better for your feet. It’s still up for debate, so feel free to go with whatever feels better to you. Just remember:
- Minimal cushioning – enhances your ability to ‘feel’ the ground, so you can react quicker to slight changes in terrain. Minimal running requires some time to get used to.
- Maximal cushioning – uses plenty of foam (or similar) to absorb shock when your feet hit the ground. Many running shoes use moderate to maximal cushioning.
Hiking – Vasque, Salomon, Merrell, Keen, SCARPA
There’s nothing like the feeling of having conquered a treacherous hiking trail or a multiday backpacking trip. Hiking is an ideal way to improve your fitness and connect with nature, but you do need to invest in stable and supportive hiking shoes or boots so you don’t end up stranded with a rolled ankle.
- Hiking Shoes – these hikers are low-cut and look more like normal shoes. They’re an excellent choice for half-day or day hikes. Hiking shoes are also popular for travel, as they allow your ankle to move more naturally, and most models can be comfortably worn on pavement as well as trails.
- Day Hiking Boots – ranging from mid- to high-cut, hiking boots are more flexible and easier to break in than backpacking boots. They’re intended for day hikes and short backpacking trips with light loads.
- Backpacking Boots – often conflated with day hiking boots, backpacking boots are usually high-cut and wrap above the ankles for additional support. Durable, stout and supportive, backpacking boots have stiff midsoles. They’re designed for multiday backpacking trips with heavy loads and off-trail/backcountry travel. Backpacking and mountaineering boots feature wide flanges at the heel to help keep you upright when carrying a 20kg+ on your back.
- Mountaineering Boots – usually designed to fit crampons, mountaineering boots are the most durable hiking boot but take the longest time to break in. They’re ideal for rocky, snowy or glacial trails and are built to handle a heavy load over the toughest terrain.
Your hiking boots’ upper will affect how well your boots handle abrasion, water and break-in. Hiking boot uppers can be made from:
- Full-grain Leather – offers impressive durability, abrasion resistance and water resistance. It’s not as lightweight, breathable, or as easy to break in, however, so give yourself plenty of time with full-grain leather boots before going on a long trip. It also requires the most maintenance. Best for heavy loads, rugged terrain and multiday trips.
- Nubuck Leather – full-grained leather buffed to resemble suede, Nubuck is also durable and water/abrasion resistant. It’s more flexible than full-grain leather, but still requires plenty of break-in time.
- Split-grain Leather – split-grain is lightweight and breathable, but less resistant to abrasion and water. Split-grain leather is paired with nylon or similar materials.
- Synthetics – lighter and with a faster break-in time, synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon also dry faster than leather. Synthetic hiking boots typically wear out sooner and provide less abrasion resistance than leather boots, however, since they require more stitching.
Stability & Protection
Hikers are at risk of rolling their ankles, bruising their toes on rocks or tripping due to uneven surfaces. Look for shoes that feature ankle support, load-bearing stiffness and a sturdy structure to reduce the risk of accidents. Remember that when carrying a heavy pack, you need additional support since there’s more strain on your ankles. Here are some features you may need for full support on the trail:
- Height – high-top hiking boots are stiffer and therefore more supportive.
- Heel Brake – a clearly-defined heel zone can reduce sliding during steep descents.
- Shanks – thick inserts between the boot’s midsole and outsole that add load-bearing stiffness. The thicker the shank (typically 3-5mm), the stiffer the midsole.
- Plates/Rockguards – thin inserts between the midsole and outsole, below the shank, that protect your feet from roots and rocks.
- Lugs – deep, thick lugs are better for muddy or slippery surfaces, while shorter, harder lugs are better on rocky trails. Widely spaced lugs are great to shed mud and dirt from your sole.
Whether you’re running or hiking, your feet are unique and may require some extra consideration when purchasing your shoes.
Is it more important for you to have a quick-drying or a water-resistant boot?
Nobody likes having wet feet. It’s uncomfortable and can lead to a bundle of blisters, which will make your next run that much harder. Don’t automatically choose full waterproofing on your trail shoe, though. A waterproof shoe won’t be able to drain out the water as efficiently as a breathable shoe.
It’s hard to prevent water from getting into a low-cut shoe. For example, you might cross a stream, your feet could sweat heavily due to exertion, or there could be an unexpected rain shower. You’ll then be running in muddy or wet shoes until you can take them off and leave them to dry. Waterproof membranes often can’t keep up to the rigours of trail running and low-cut shoes.
For this reason, you may want to consider a shoe that uses breathable materials to keep your feet both dry and cool. Look for shoes with small drainage holes in the sole or vents of fabric close to the sole for quick drainage.
Consider these options:
- Gore-Tex Extended Comfort – best for warmer conditions, it’s both waterproof and breathable. Non-insulated, it keeps water outside and allows perspiration to escape from inside.
- Gore-Tex Performance Comfort – best for moderate weather conditions, it’s also waterproof and breathable, but is best for changing weather conditions.
- Quick-drying material – your boot may not include GTX or a similarly waterproof membrane, but instead feature quick-dry properties. This can be best if you hike in and out of water.
- Sweat-wicking socks – your shoes are only as breathable as your socks. Try proper hiking socks from Wigwam, Injinji or Smartwool to ensure you stay dry.
Each shoe brand has a slightly different fit: wide, neutral or narrow. Many brands will even offer a range of fits within them. Find out which brands fit your feet better by looking at online measurements or heading instore to try on different brands.
If you’re buying hiking shoes, try them on in the afternoon when heat and exertion has swollen your feet slightly. You don’t want to be stuck with boots that are too small on the trail. Remember to try hiking boots on with hiking socks, which are thicker than normal socks.
Outdoor sports generally require more planning and specialised gear than indoor activities. Outdoor enthusiasts would agree, however, that the feeling of blazing the trails is well worth the time it takes to select appropriate footwear.