Trail Runners for Hiking: An Ultimate Guide by Seasoned Hikers

If you have ever been on a trail and thought, “why am I wearing these big clunky hiking boots” or “I miss my trainers,” then you may want to invest in a pair of trail running shoes for hiking! Here is an ultimate guide to trail runners to help make your next hike faster, lighter, and better!

Are Trail Runners Good for Hiking?

Yes!!! Unless it is a backpacking trip where I plan to carry more weight, I almost always wear my La Sportiva Raptors when hiking. Trail runners are designed like a sneaker, but with special hiking boot specs. Their soles are often made of grippy rubber with edged treads for better traction on steep switchbacks. Trail runners for hiking are flexible, lightweight, and get the job done.

The best trail running shoes for hiking

Hiking Shoes vs. Trail Runners for Hiking

Hiking Shoes
Hiking shoes, like the Sawtooth II from Oboz, are built like a lighter hiking boot. Their rubber soles are often paired with stiff leather or a leather-mesh combination. Hiking shoes are great for short backpacking trips where you plan to carry a light to medium load.

Trail Runners
Even if you don’t consider yourself a cardio king or queen nor plan on sprinting up switchbacks, trail runners are great for hiking. As mentioned earlier, they are built like a sneaker but equipped with special functions to protect your feet from water, roots, and fatigue. Trail runners are popular among thru-hikers and ultralight backpackers for their lighter feel. If you are prone to ankle injuries and/or plan to carry a heavier weight, a proper hiking boot may be a better option.

What to Look For When Buying A Trail Running Shoe for Hiking

Tread

If you walk in mud or dirt, you may notice your shoe leaves behind a special pattern. This pattern is an imprint of your shoe’s tread – the (often rubber) part of the trail running shoe that touches the ground. An aggressive tread is the biggest factor that delineates trail running shoes from road running shoes. The tread on trail running shoes is made of lugs, the protruding features that resemble cleats on the shoe’s outsole. In general, the larger and wider spaced the lugs, the better traction a shoe will have on surfaces like mud. These deep lugs (5mm – 7mm), however, can be uncomfortable when running on pavement or firmer surfaces. If you plan to run on hard-packed trails, opt for a shoe with shorter (2mm – 4mm) and more closely spaced lugs.

Pro Tip: For scrambling and/or running on rocky trails, buy trail runners with a “sticky rubber” outsole. The specialized rubber on trail runners like La Sportiva’s, have a specialized rubber that maximizes grip on rock.

Cushion

Ultimately, whether you want your shoe to have more or less cushion is up to you. If you are unsure where to get started, here are some general guidelines:

More Cushioning: More cushioning is common for shoes that go on and off the trail. If you plan on running long distances or primarily on hard-packed trails, the extra cushioning may be easier on your joints.

Pro Tip: Runners that weigh heavier or those with knee and joint pain may find that well-cushioned shoes help reduce shock.

Less Cushioning: A minimalist shoe may be preferred on smooth, short distance trails and/or if you prefer a close-to-ground feel when running.

Rock Plate

A rock plate or nylon shank is built into some trail runners to prevent your feet from rock bruising. If you run on pavement or smooth trails, rock plates are unnecessary. A rock plate on gravel or technical trails, however, can prove extremely valuable.

Waterproofing Features

If choosing a shoe for cold conditions and wet weather, it is important to consider a trail runner’s waterproofing features. Most often, waterproof shoes are marked by “GTX” or “Gore-Tex,” meaning they are equipped with Gore-Tex waterproofing abilities. Waterproof trail runners, however, are overkill in warm climates. They are not as breathable as non-waterproof shoes and will make your feet hot and sweaty. If you are worried about occasional rain or creek crossings, opt for a quick drying, mesh shoe.

Heel-to-Toe Drop

For new runners, the heel-to-toe drop can be quite an obscure feature. It specifies how many extra millimeters of cushioning are in the heel compared to the toe. Choosing the length of a heel-to-toe drop depends on how you run. If you are a heel striker and first land on your heels when you run, a traditional drop (10mm – 12mm) will suit you well. Lower drops encourage midfoot strikes. For many, midfoot strikes are perceived as lower impact than heel strikes. You can find out what type of striker you are on your own or at a local running store.

The Most Popular Trail Running Shoe Brands

La Sportiva

Based in Italy, La Sportiva consistently creates technologically advanced, performance-driven trail running shoes. La Sportiva trail running shoes are characterized by their unbeatable traction and durability. Generally, La Sportiva shoes have a narrower fit, are stiffer, and built for challenging and rough terrain. Several models feature Goretex waterproof lining to keep your feet dry.

Salomon

Salomon trail running shoes are right at the top of the line with La Sportiva. The brand promises to deliver protection stability, durability, and great precision when running – putting you more in touch with the Earth beneath your feet. Salomon shoes are generally firm and prioritize a responsive ride over a cushioned feel – like what you would get from our next brand, Hoka.

Hoka One One

As minimalist designs from brands like Altra started to peak in the early 2000’s, Hoka did the exact opposite. Hoka is the King of Cushion and for good reason – their trail runners provide the plushiest, softest shoes on the market. If you want your runs to be smooth and feel like you are floating, Hoka is your go to brand.

Saucony

Out of the most popular trail running shoe brands, Saucony boasts the most versatile selection. They are known for their mantra “Run For Good” and inspire customers to create their running communitiies.

Altra

If you read the Hoka description above and asked yourself, “why would anyone not want to feel the trail beneath them” or “I prefer running barefoot,” look no further than to Altra. Altra trail runners are designed by the mantra less is more and are built to bring you back to the way you naturally run. Their models are defined by a wider toe box which allows your foot to expand and your toes to wiggle. Altra trail running shoes have little to no drop, which means your foot will fall and lay flat, rather than from heel to toe (like most running shoes). Altra is the perfect brand for fans of the book “Born to Run” and you hippies that like the toe running shoes.

Arc’teryx

Arc’teryx regularly builds high-end products with the best technology on the market. Their trail runners are known for their lightweight and sleek design. Many of their models are integrated with a durable, Goretex waterproofing technology to keep your feet dry, yet able to breathe.

Before buying a pair of trail runners based on our lists, it is important to note that your best pick is based on what style shoe YOU prefer! While these are some of the most popular models found on the cardio kings and queens of the Colorado Rockies, your #1 Pick should be based on your desired shape and comfort.

The Best Women’s Trail Runners for Hiking

The Best Overall Trail Running Shoe: Saucony Peregrine 10

Category: Rugged Trail, Versatile
Price: $120
Weight: 9.3 oz
Rock Plate: Yes
Cushioning:
Moderate
Drop:
4mm
Width Options: Regular and wide
Why We Recommend: The Saucony Peregrine 10 trail running shoe is a long time favorite for its outstanding versatility. The shoe was awarded the “Best Women’s Trail Running Shoe” by Runner’s World and the “Best Buy” by the Outdoor Gear Lab. It boasts high traction and good foot protection but lacks a water drainage system. That being said, while this trail runner is good for most trails, it is not a great choice for wet conditions.

The Best Lightweight Trail Running Shoe: Altra Superior 4 .5

Category: Rugged Trail, Versatile
Price: $110
Weight: 7.0 oz
Rock Plate: Yes
Cushioning: Low
Drop: 0mm
Width Options: Regular
Why We Recommend: Altra is the Queen of lightweight, zero-drop, minimalist running shoes. The Superior 4.5 provides a grippy, responsive, and sensitive ride. Like all Altra shoes, the Superior 4.5 features a large toe box to let your toes wiggle.

The Best Cushioned Trail Running Shoe: Hoka One One Speedgoat 4

Category: Rugged Trail
Price: $145
Weight: 9.2 oz
Rock Plate: No
Cushioning:
Maximum
Drop:
4mm
Why We Recommend: If Altra is the queen of minimalist running shoes, then Hoka One One is the king of maximum cushion. Their best seller, the Speedgoat 4, offers increased midfoot support and a secure, soft feel for rugged trails.

The Best Trail Running Shoe for Winter: Hoka One One Speedgoat Mid 2 GTX

Category: Snowy and Muddy Trails
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex
Price: $169.95
Weight: 11.3 oz
Rock Plate: No
Cushioning: Maximum
Drop: 4mm
Why We Recommend: If you are committed to trudging through snowy trails, Hoka One One’s Speedgoat Mid 2 GTX will keep your feet dry and protected – assuming you have the budget for them. These trail runners are equipped with high-quality Gore-Tex waterproofing and a raised ankle to keep snow from seeping into your socks. Like all Hoka’s, the Speedgoat Mid 2 GTX offers an ultra plush feel, so if you like sensitive soles, these are not for you.

Pro Tip: Not sure if you want to fully commit to a snowy, cold hike? Check out our Essential Guide to Snow Hiking by certified mountain man, Jack Barker!

The Best Trail Running Shoe for Thru-Hiking: Altra Lone Peak 4.5

Category: Rugged Trails
Price: $120
Weight: 8.5 oz
Rock Plate: Yes
Cushioning:
Moderate
Drop:
0mm
Why We Recommend: Due to Altra’s Toe Shaped toe box, the Lone Peak 4.5 is excellent for long distances. The wide design allows your toes to spread, which decreases the potential for nasty blisters or injuries. The Lone Peak’s soles are durable and are built with Gaiter Traps to keep gaiters in place.

Pro Tip: Many veteran thru-hikers say, “if you are thinking about doing a thru-hike, do it.” Nevertheless, just the idea of a thru-hike can be daunting. To help you get started and learn more, check out A Complete Guide to Successful Thru-Hikes.

The Best Men’s Trail Runners for Hiking

The Best Overall Trail Running Shoe: Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2

Category: Versatile
Price: $134.96
Weight: 10 oz
Rock Plate: No
Cushioning: Moderate
Drop: 8 mm
Why We Recommend: The Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2 is one of, if not the, best men’s trail running shoe. The shoe’s impressive foot protection was built for ultra distances. If your budget allows, these shoes promise a sock-like fit with an extraordinary grip. Out of the box, Salomon’s S/Lab Ultra 2s are known to be a bit narrow. If you have wider feet, Altra trail runners may be a better fit for you.

The Best Lightweight Trail Running Shoe: Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 6

Category: Less technical, not slick terrain
Price: $129.95
Weight: 10.26 oz
Rock Plate: No
Cushioning: Moderate
Drop: 4mm
Why We Recommend: The Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 6 is a popular trail runner for those in search of a lightweight and versatile trail runner. Although these shoes drain water well, making them good for occasional creek crossings and wetter conditions, they don’t offer great traction. The shoe’s light underfoot protection and lackluster traction make the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 6’s a better choice for less technical trails.

The Best Cushioned Trail Running Shoe: Hoka One One Speedgoat 4

Category: Rugged Trail
Price:
$144.95
Weight
: 10.8 oz
Rock Plate:
No
Cushioning:
Maximum
Drop:
4mm
Why We Recommend:
There is a reason why Hoka One One’s best selling, Speedgoat 4 is our favorite women’s cushioned trail running shoe for hiking as well. Hoka One One’s unbeatable cushion makes rugged trails feel like you are walking on clouds. This trail runner offers increased midfoot support for a softer trail feel.

The Best Trail Running Shoe for Winter: Hoka One One Speedgoat Mid 2 GTX

Category: Snowy and Muddy Trails
Waterproofing:
Gore-Tex
Price:
$170
Weight:
13.2 oz
Rock Plate:
No
Cushioning:
Maximum
Drop:
4mm
Why We Recommend:
There is a thin line between making or breaking a winter hike. Snowy trails can easily lead to cold and wet toes, and damaged motivation to go on a hike. Fortunately, Hoka One One’s Speedgoat Mid 2 GTX will help your feet stay dry and protected. These trail runners for winter hiking are designed with high-quality Gore-Tex waterproofing. Additionally, the raised ankle design will keep snow from entering your toasty socks. As the Speedgoat Mid 2 GTX hail from Hoka One One, they come with Hoka’s signature ultra-plush feel. So, if you like a sensitive sole on your winter hikes, these are not for you.

Pro Tip: Are you unsure how to prepare for a snowy, cold hike? Check out our Essential Guide to Snow Hiking by certified mountain man, Jack Barker!

The Best Trail Running Shoe for Thru-Hiking: Altra Lone Peak 4.5

Category: Rugged Trail
Price:
$120
Weight:
10.5 oz
Rock Plate: Yes
Cushioning:
Moderate
Drop:
0mm
Why We Recommend:
Altra shoes are built for ultra-endurance runners. Their patented Toe Shaped toe box is wider than other brands and allows your toes to spread. This helps prevent painful blisters and injuries that are common on long-distance runs or thru-hikes. Altra’s Lone Peak 4.5s are equipped with durable soles and Gaiter Traps to keep your gaiters on and your environment out.

Pro Tip: Have you ever thought of going on a thru-hike? Or are you thinking, “what the heck even is a thru-hike?” Well, if you are, we made a helpful guide just to answer your questions! For more helpful information, check out A Complete Guide to Successful Thru-Hikes.

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclosure for more info.

Send this to a friend