Trail Running Shoes Vs Hiking Shoes: Which Is Best For Your Adventures?

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If you are going to be hitting the trails, you want to make sure that you have the right footwear to support your feet and give you ample traction.

But, which is better, hiking shoes or trail running shoes? What are the main differences between trail running shoes vs hiking shoes? Are there benefits of wearing hiking shoes vs running shoes on trails?

In this article, we will look at the characteristics and compare the features and main differences between trail running shoes vs hiking shoes to help you decide which is the best choice for you.

We will cover the following: 

  • What Are the Primary Differences Between Trail Running Shoes vs Hiking Shoes
  • Should I Wear Trail Running Shoes or Hiking Shoes?

Let’s dive in! 

Hiking shoes.

What Are the Primary Differences Between Trail Running Shoes vs Hiking Shoes

Although both types of shoes can both be worn on the trails, there are quite a few differences in the characteristics of hiking shoes vs trail running shoes. 

These differences may make one type of shoe better suited than the other for your trail adventures.

Trail Running Shoes vs Hiking Shoes: Stability and Ankle Support

There is actually very little difference in the amount of ankle support provided by hiking shoes vs trail running shoes.

Both types of footwear do not come up and over the ankles at all, as the low-cut design scoops below the malleoli, which are the round bony prominences on either side of your ankle.

This is an important consideration when deciding what is the best footwear for hiking.

Beginners and novice hikers often conflate hiking shoes and hiking boots, but these are two different types of footwear.

A hiking shoe resembles a trail running shoe or sneaker in the cut around the foot and ankle.

People trail running.

The primary difference between hiking boots vs hiking shoes is that hiking boots usually come as either a mid-hiking boot or a high-hiking boot.

The “mid“ and “high“ refer to the cut of the hiking boot and the length of the shank, which is how high up the hiking boot comes on your lower leg. Mid-cut hiking boots come up and over the ankle, while high hiking boots come even further up the shin by a couple of inches.

Both types of hiking boots provide significantly more ankle support than hiking shoes or trail running shoes, both of which provide no support or structure around the ankle.

Thus, the primary reason to choose hiking boots vs hiking shoes is if you want more protection around your ankle and stability against twisting your ankle on loose rocks, roots, gravel, and other obstacles on an uneven trail.

Returning to comparing trail running vs hiking shoes, while there is no difference in the amount of ankle support provided, there are differences in the overall stability of the shoes.

Although not universal, stability is usually slightly greater in hiking shoes vs trail running shoes (and best in hiking boots).

Stability is primarily provided by the density and materials of the midsole.

Trail running shoes generally have a softer, more flexible, and cushioned EVA foam midsole, whereas some of the best hiking shoes have a more rigid midsole crafted from polyurethane.

The sole of a hiking shoe.

Trail Running Shoes vs Hiking Shoes: Breathability

Typically, when comparing the breathability of trail running shoes vs hiking shoes, trail running shoes will be more breathable and allow for better air circulation.

Most hiking shoes are made from leather, which can trap heat in, and leather is not particularly breathable.

Moreover, any hiking shoe, or trail running shoe for that matter, that has been treated with Gore-Tex to be waterproof will not be breathable. The Gore-Tex coating prevents circulation in and out of the shoe, potentially causing your feet to get quite hot.

It’s also worth mentioning the breathability of hiking boots vs hiking shoes.

Generally, hiking boots almost always have a waterproof coating or liner; plus, because hiking boots come up further past your ankle, heat will get trapped in the hiking boot, leaving your feet feeling hot and sweaty.

Therefore, if you are looking to maximize breathability, it is almost always best to go with a trail running shoe vs hiking boot or hiking shoe.

Hiking boots.

Trail Running Shoes vs Hiking Shoes: Durability

The durability of trail running vs hiking shoes is generally less dependent on the type of shoe, in that it is not black-and-white.

There is no clear winner about whether trail running shoes are more durable than hiking shoes or if hiking shoes are more durable than trail running shoes.

Instead, the durability of either footwear option will depend on the quality of construction and the materials used.

As a general rule of thumb, lighter trail running shoes and hiking shoes are less durable than heavier alternatives because the lighter materials will have the propensity to break down more quickly.

However, as a broad generalization, you will usually find that hiking shoes are more durable than trail running shoes largely because hiking shoes are generally crafted from leather or suede, whereas trail running shoes will have synthetic materials or meshy uppers.

Hiking shoes.

Leather will be more durable and long-lasting. Additionally, many hiking shoes are treated with waterproofing coatings or cortex, which can help create a seal around the uppers of the shoe and all of the seams to prevent moisture infiltration, which can cause premature breakdown of the shoe.

Some of the premium trail running shoes are also treated with a Gore-Tex coating, which will increase the weight but will greatly enhance the longevity of the materials as well as your comfort while hiking and running on wet trails or in rainy conditions.

The quality of the stitching, adhesives, and glues used and the types of cushioning materials will also affect durability.

Finally, the lugs or outsole materials will affect the durability of trail shoes vs hiking shoes.

Rubber outsoles that are crafted with a higher durometer rubber will withstand greater wear and tear before breaking down and showing wear patterns and worsening traction abilities.

Trail running shoes in the snow.

Trail Running Shoes vs Hiking Shoes: Traction

The primary difference between running shoes vs trail running shoes specifically is in the degree of traction on the bottom of the outsole.

Trail running shoes have more aggressive grip patterns to help provide stability and anti-slip traction on wet trails, wet rocks, loose gravel, roots, rock faces, etc.

While there is more traction provided by trail running shoes vs road running shoes, hiking shoes, and hiking boots provide even more traction than trail running shoes.

Here again, hiking boots will provide the most traction because the lugs on the outsole will be deeper and more robust, and hiking shoes will fall somewhere in the middle of hiking boots vs trail running shoes.

If you are looking for a hiking boot, hiking shoe, or trail running shoe with a high-quality sole that provides excellent traction, look for footwear that has a Vibram sole.

Trail running shoes.

Trail Running Shoes vs Hiking Shoes: Weight

There is generally a weight continuum between hiking boots vs hiking shoes vs running shoes. 

Running shoes and trail running shoes will be on the lightest end of the spectrum, hiking shoes fall in the middle, and hiking boots will be the heaviest footwear.

The difference of a few ounces in either direction may not seem significant, but if you are going to be doing long hikes or trying to do speed hiking or trail running, even saving a couple of ounces of weight by choosing a lightweight trail running shoe vs hiking shoe can be ideal.

It takes more energy and muscular work to hike in heavy hiking boots, compromising your comfort, speed, and endurance on the trails.

A person trail running.

Should I Wear Trail Running Shoes or Hiking Shoes?

Overall, there isn’t necessarily a “winner“ when it comes to the head-to-head matchup of trail running shoes vs hiking shoes

Both types of footwear provide some similar benefits as well as unique benefits.

If you are looking for a more lightweight, breathable shoe for fast hiking or trail running, you should choose a trail running shoe. However, if you plan to only walk on trails and don’t want the weight, heft, and mobility-compromising design of hiking boots, but want more stability and durability than a trail running shoe, you should choose a hiking shoe.

To check out some of our recommendations for the best trail running shoes, check out our ultra running shoe buyer’s guide here.

Two people trail running.
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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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