13 Best Thru-Hiking Shoes [Trail Runners and Lightweight Boots] - Greenbelly Meals

13 Best Hiking Shoes | From Trail Runners to Lightweight Boots

A guide to hiking shoes, lightweight boots and trail runners for thru-hiking.

pacific crest trail thru hiker


Boots have been around since the dawn of hiking, but they are not your only option when you hit the trails. Many hikers now choose to wear low-cut footwear that takes the best of a boot and mixes it with a running shoe. What goes into a good pair of low cut shoes and why are they so popular?

Trail Runner vs Hiking Shoe

There are two styles of low cut shoes on the market for hikers and backpackers - trail running shoes which are lightweight and nimble much like a sneaker and hiking shoes which are low-cut versions of a traditional boot. Both trail runners and hiking shoes cutoff just below your ankle allowing you to bend and flex your ankle when traversing challenging terrain. Because they are cut so low, you lose the ankle support of a traditional boot.

best hiking shoe comparison for trail runners and boots

TRAIL RUNNERS: borrow heavily from a sneaker, but they still are influenced by a boot. The soles of a trail runner are made of Vibram or similar grippy, durable rubber material, and their treads are lugged for offroad use. Some have toe caps to protect your feet from roots and rocks. Trail runners tend to have a flexible midsole and cushioning which provide an extra degree of comfort that you typically don't find in a boot. They are very popular among thru-hikers and ultralight backpackers, who are willing to trade ankle support for a lightweight and cushiony shoe.

HIKING SHOES: considered to be more of a lightweight boot with rubber soles and a stiff upper made of leather or leather and mesh. Like a boot, they have rubber toe caps and stiff midsoles that protect you from roots, rocks and other obstacles on the trail. They provide enough support to carry a light to medium load comfortably over mixed terrain without the bulk of a full boot. They break in more easily than a boot, too.


Main Considerations:

WATERPROOF VS BREATHABLE: Waterproofing repels moisture, so your socks and feet stay dry on the inside of your shoe. This water barrier is a lifesaver for day hikes through slushy snow or rain, but for thru-hikers, this waterproofing can be your worst enemy. The same waterproof membrane that keeps the water out also tends to trap sweat in leaving your feet damp and dank. If you happen to submerge your boot in water, the waterproofing also makes it difficult to dry out a boot.

*Tip: For long-distance hikes, a non-waterproof shoe is preferable because it is fast drying and breathable. No matter what you do, your feet are going to get wet so you might as well have a shoe that can dry out quickly. Some breathable trail runners drain water so well that your shoes and feet will dry as you hike. With dry shoes, you're less likely to get blisters, too.

best hiking shoe and trail runner salomon


CUSHIONED (Support) vs MINIMAL ("Zero Drop"): Whether you are hiking ten miles or a thousand miles, it's essential to find the right amount cushioning for the terrain -- too much cushioning and you can't feel the nuances of the trail beneath you; too little and your legs and feet will hurt. Zero drop is another feature you'll encounter when shopping for a shoe. Drop is the difference in height between the heel and the ball of the foot. Most shoes are designed with a rise that raises the heel of your foot slightly more than the ball of your foot. A zero drop shoe keeps your heel and toes equal, much like standing barefoot. A growing body of evidence suggests zero drop shoes are better for your feet and back while hiking.

FIT AND SIZING: Choosing the correct fit for a shoe can make or break your hike. A shoe that is too small will hurt your toes on downhills, while an oversized shoe will allow your foot to slide causing blisters.  Always try on a shoe before buying it and wear it around the house a while before you hit the trail for a long distance hike.

*Tip: If you have to err, err on the side of too large as your feet often swell while hiking. It's also helpful to have some extra room if you need to throw on a sock liner or any sort of blister prevention tape.

SIMPLE LACING: Lacing and tieing a shoe is an underappreciated art. Most hiking and trail running shoes use a basic criss-cross lacing that you tie utilizing a bow-knot. You can modify this lacing pattern and knot for comfort. Some shoes though, like those from Salomon, have a quick lacing system with a sliding lock that you pull to the most comfortable tightness. These speed lacing systems are easy to adjust, but they don't allow you to change the lacing pattern or the type of knot at the end.

TRACTION: Pay attention to the shoe soles and the lug pattern. Think of lugs like "shoe teeth" or flattened, rubber cleets. Deep lugs provide exceptional footing in mud and loose dirt, while shallow lugs perform best on hard packed trails. Vibram soles are the gold standard for traction, delivering outstanding no-slip performance on slippery trails and steep rock slab. Not all manufacturers use Vibram, though. Salomon developed its own version, Contragrip that performs equally as well as Vibram. 

*Tip: Keep your lugs relatively shallow. Deep lugs trap mud and can lead to a slippery hike. The added height can also cause compromise stability (like walking on platforms).

best trail runner shoe tread and sole altra


DURABILITY VS SPEED: Want to travel fast and light? Then grab a pair of trail runners. Their lightweight frame won't slow you down as the miles fly by. Just be prepared to replace them more frequently as they are not as durable as a hiking shoe. If you want a shoe to last a 1,000 miles or be tough enough to tackles some rocky terrain, then look for a more durable hiking shoe which is constructed with leather uppers and longer-lasting soles.

LOAD WEIGHT: Knowing your base weight will help you choose the correct shoe so you can travel in comfort. In general, you should select a hiking shoe with ample support for heavy loads and leave the trail runners for times when your base weight is lower (under 20 pounds).

COST: Cost is another factor to consider when deciding between a hiking shoe and a trail runner. Hiking shoes tend to be more durable than a trail runner so you might need three pairs of light trail runners to hike the Appalachian Trail versus only one or two pairs of more rugged hiking shoes. Both hiking shoes and trail runners cost about the same with price tags between $65 to $150.

*Tip: If you love a specific shoe model, always check the price and availability of the prior year's model. They are often nearly half the price of the current year's model... and still (roughly) the same great shoe.

MINIMAL ANKLE SUPPORT: Getting a hiking shoe that provides ankle support is another big footwear debate. Traditional thinking is 'more support = less injury'. This is not always the case though. Footwear that climbs above the ankle can act like a cast. Allowing natural movement can help strengthen muscles and tendons, making you less prone to a nasty ankle turn in the long run.

Suggested Models:

altra lone peak best hiking shoes

Altra Lone Peak 3.5

Price: $120 on amazon.com

Type: Trail Runner

Weight: 1 lb. 4.8 oz. per pair

Heel-To-Toe Drop: 0 mm  

Waterproof: No

Altra has quickly become one of the top trail running shoes thanks to the success of its Lone Peak model. The latest version, the Lone Peak 3.5, keeps the zero drop, generous cushioning and wide toe box of its predecessors. The most significant gripe against the Lone Peak is durability. With an average lifespan of 200 miles, the shoe just doesn't last as long as we would like. We also love love love the gaiter velcro strap built-in to the heel.

brooks cascadia 12 best hiking shoes

Brooks Cascadia 12

Price: $130 on amazon.com

Type: Trail Runner

Weight: 1 lb. 8.2 oz. per pair

Heel-To-Toe Drop: 10 mm

Waterproof: No

The Brooks Cascadia is insanely popular among AT thru-hikers. It is so popular that hikers even look for Cascadia's unique tread prints as a confirmation they are on the correct trail. The trail runner is a stiff, supportive shoe with excellent cushioning and a heavy duty rock plate that'll help you cruise over rocky terrain. The tread also lasts longer than your typical trail runner.

salomon xa pro 3d best hiking shoes

Salomon XA Pro 3D and X Ultra 3

Price: $120 on amazon.com

Type: Trail Runner

Weight: 1 lb. 10.5 oz. / 1 lb. 9.8 oz. per pair

Heel-To-Toe Drop: 12 mm

Waterproof: No (waterproof version available)

Salomon makes excellent outdoor recreational gear, and its trail runners are no exception. The XA Pro 3D and X Ultra 3 have just the right amount of cushioning and stability-- not too soft and not too rigid. Salomon is known for its grippy Contragrip soles and its convenient quick lacing system.

new balance leadville 3 best hiking shoes

New Balance Leadville 3

Price: $125 on amazon.com

Type: Trail Runner

Weight: 1 lb. 7.5 oz. per pair

Heel-To-Toe Drop: 8 mm

Waterproof: No

Inspired by the Leadville 100 ultramarathon, the Leadville v3 shoe can handle everything from mountains to flat paved roads. A high-mileage performer, the shoe has a wide, comfortable fit. New Balance is no longer manufacturing the Leadville shoe, so grab a pair while you still can. It will be replaced with the new Summit Unknown and Summit K.O.M./Q.O.M.

saucony peregrine 8 best hiking shoes

Saucony Peregrine 8

Price: $120 on amazon.com

Type: Trail Runner

Weight: 1 lb. 4 oz. per pair

Heel-To-Toe Drop: 4 mm

Waterproof: No

The Saucony Peregrine 8 is a solid all-around shoe known for its stability. The Peregrine 8 uses the company's PWRTRAC outsole and unique lug pattern that provides exceptional grip to handle even the most challenging terrain.

la sportiva wildcat best hiking shoes

La Sportiva Wildcat

Price: $110 on moosejaw.com

Type: Trail Runner

Weight: 1 lb. 9 oz. per pair

Heel-To-Toe Drop: 12 mm

Waterproof: No (waterproof version available)

Hikers looking for a nimble, lightweight shoe can't go wrong with the La Sportiva Wildcat. The Wildcat earns praise for its "right out of the box" comfort and a mesh upper that is so breathable you can feel the wind through your shoes. It also has excellent grip on rock slab and similar terrain.

adidas rockadia best hiking shoes

Adidas Rockadia

Price: $65 on amazon.com

Type: Trail Runner

Weight: 1 lb. 7 oz. per pair

Heel-To-Toe Drop: 8 mm

Waterproof: No

The most striking feature of the Adidas Rockadia is its low sub-$100 price, making it the least expensive shoe on our list. It's an affordable option for new hikers or as a backup pair of shoes. The Rockadia are comfortable right out of the box and are more stylish looking than most trail runners or hiking shoes. They run small and narrow, so you'll need to buy a 1/2 or full-size up.

salewa firetail 3 best hiking shoes

Salewa Firetail 3

Price: $140 on moosejaw.com

Type: Approach Shoe

Weight: 1 lb. 12 oz. per pair

Waterproof: No

The Salewa Firetail 3 is an approach shoe for rock climbing, but its roomy toe box and wide stable design are perfect for the trail. With climbing-specific lacing and Vibram Reptail sticky soles, you'll have ample support and solid footing even on slippery, steep or rocky terrain.

keen targhee III wp best hiking shoes


Price: $135 on amazon.com

Type: Hiking Shoe

Weight: 1 lb. 14.8 oz. per pair

Waterproof: Yes

The Keen Targhee III is a classic Keen shoe with a sturdy leather outer, ample cushioning and wide, roomy fit. It provides just the right amount of support and comfort for shorter hikes, making it popular among day hikers. Though rugged looking, it is casual enough to double as a daily shoe for wearing around town.

adidas outdoor ax2 best hiking shoes

Adidas Outdoor Ax2

Price: $99 on amazon.com

Type: Hiking Shoe

Weight: 1 lb. 8 oz. per pair

Waterproof: No (waterproof version available)

Another affordable option from Adidas, the Outdoor Ax2 is geared for easier day hikes and light trail running. It delivers excellent traction in the mud and is comfortable to boot.

north face storm III best hiking shoes

North Face Storm III

Price: $110 on moosejaw.com

Type: Hiking Shoe

Weight: 1 lb. 14 oz. per pair

Waterproof: No (waterproof version available)

The North Face Storm III has deep lugs and Vibram outsoles that provide ample grip and traction in both wet and dry conditions. A forefoot rock plate protects you from stone bruising and interior padding deliver a comfortable ride. The Storm III runs on the narrow side so you may want to order a size up.

merrell moab 2 best hiking shoes

Merrell Moab 2

Price: $120 on amazon.com

Type: Hiking Shoe

Weight: 2 lb. 1 oz. per pair

Waterproof: No (waterproof version available)

They may not be the lightest hiking shoes on the market, but the Merrell Moabs deliver one of the best values in a shoe. The Moab 2 has a durable upper, a comfortable fit and ample cushioning in the heel. A little on the clunky side, the Moab 2 are perfect for day hikes and light overnight treks.

oboz sawtooth low best hiking shoes

Oboz Sawtooth Low

Price: $110 on moosejaw.com

Type: Hiking Shoe

Weight: 2 lb. 0 oz. per pair

Waterproof: No (waterproof version available)

The Sawtooth Low from Oboz is as close to a boot as you are going to find in a hiking shoe. The shoe feels substantial when you lace it up and has ample support that'll carry you through day hikes and multi-day backpacking trips. The outer nubuck leather and abrasion-resistant mesh hold up well against rocks and roots. Our only complaint is the sole. It has a rugged tread that grips exceptionally well on the downhills and dry rock but tends to slip if you are not careful on wet slab.

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By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.

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