Friday, September 23, 2016

Five Reasons to Wear Trail Runners Instead of Hiking Boots

Some of Zach's PCT shoes

Who’s ready for a post from early 2015? I discovered this while digging through unfinished blog material, and decided that the topic was still quite relevant. Seriously, the last time I was in REI, it took all my self-control to keep from running into the shoe section and yelling at the people trying on boots (like a soothsayer in a Shakespearean play), “NO! Touch not the dreaded boots of lead! I promise you, you shall regret this!”

So, here’s why.


Zach and I had stopped to gather water at a backcountry camp in Yosemite National Park. While I attempted to dip water from the shallow bank of a stream without trampling the fragile aquatic ecosystem, and Zach beat off hordes of mosquitoes with his hat, we were approached by an older couple who had hiked into the camp for a weekend with their grandchildren. They chatted with us for a while, asking about the trail and congratulating us for making it this far. Then, glancing at our footwear, they asked the question that we were asked countless times on trail:

“Are those really the shoes you’re wearing?”

People in towns, at trailheads, and even people on longer-distance trails (100 to 200 miles) almost always wore and advocated hiking boots. In town, we were often given advice on how to properly lace our boots, or how often to change our socks to keep the awful heavy leather footwear from rubbing us raw. We’d listen politely, trying not to draw attention to our well-worn trail runners— which are, in essence, glorified sneakers. 

Please note: jeans, unlike tennis shoes, are not good for hiking!
But back to the couple in Yosemite. They were shocked to learn that we were, in fact, wearing the beat-up sneakers on our feet (can I call them tennis shoes? I grew up calling them tennis shoes). “That’s incredible,” the man said. “I couldn’t do that— my feet just need more support than that.” 

I nodded, but all I could think was, Support for what? Although I’m sure there are situations in which hiking boots would be useful (although I can’t offhand think of any), I would prefer lightweight shoes any day.

Here are the two main objections people have to trail runners:

There’s not enough support! Actually, human feet are designed very, very well— they have all the support they need. If you have a normal foot, your arch and ankles will be just fine supporting themselves. Shoes are mainly there to protect your soles from rocks, hot sand, and cactus spines.

Trail runners don’t offer enough protection! I can see this one… a little bit. I was annoyed that dust often leaked into my trail runners, which boots will prevent. And sometimes, when I was post-holing through snow, I wished that I had higher-top shoes that wouldn’t allow snow in so easily. But honestly, in each of these situations, the tradeoff of flexibility and weight was well worth it. Other than snow and dust, I don’t know what “protection” people are talking about in such grave tones. A boot will not keep you from breaking your ankle, or tripping on a rock (actually, you’re more likely to trip with a boot), or getting bit by a rattlesnake. 

I still say the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, with the advantages being:

1. Weight. In backpacking, you count every ounce, so why should shoes be an exception? The one day on trail that I hiked with boots, every step was a struggle. Once I put my trail runners back on, I felt like I was flying. Unless you’re really into resistance training, do yourself a favor and ditch those leaden boots.

2. Price. Trail runners are, in general, cheaper than boots. If you can find them on sale, you can buy an excellent pair for a very reasonable price. 

3. Breathability. Blisters are often caused by sweat, and if your foot is in a boot, you will be sweating a lot! Also, if your boot is leather, you sometimes can’t take it off in the middle of a hike because your swollen feet won’t fit back inside. In contrast, trail runners allow your foot to breathe, and they’re easy to slip on and off to give your feet a chance to air out. 

4. Multipurpose uses. I wear my trail runners in everyday life— they look like normal sneakers and are great for walks around town, working in the garden, short hikes, walking around horse stables, and, of course, if I was into it, trail running!

5. Flexibility. The point of a hiking boot is to put a stiff, heavy sole between you and the ground, which translates into your foot always being flat. With a lighter shoe (which still has a pretty thick sole), you can feel the ground and keep your balance better, as well as let your foot curve and move more naturally as you walk over rocks. It’s not good for a foot to walk flat all the time. In Oregon, where the trail is flat and smooth most of the time, my feet were starting to kill me. After a day of walking over lava rocks, they were perfectly fine! Trail runners allow your feet to stretch, bend, and move— which is what feet are supposed to do in the first place.

So, if you’re considering buying yourself a pair of hiking boots, do yourself a favor and buy some trail runners instead. Your feet and your body will thank you!

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