Hiking Boots Versus Trail Shoes

January 01, 2008
Howard E. Friedman, DPM
Trail Walker


Hiking Boots Versus Trail Shoes


What's the Difference and How to Decide?

By Howard E. Friedman, DPM

First published in Trail Walker, January/February 2008

Over the past year hiking around New York and New Jersey, I have noticed a remarkable variety in the types of footwear on hikers' feet. Hiking boots still predominate on trails, but I have encountered a hiker who had just completed the Giant Stairs along the Hudson River in Palisades State Park in sandals, numerous people in hiking shoes or even sneakers, and even one intrepid woman returning down a steep grade from Kaaterskill Falls in the Catskills barefoot!

Identifying unique characteristics of each type of shoe or boot is difficult since manufacturers blend categories and
features. The following are general guidelines.

Running shoe: Thin rubber outsole, EVA midsole with synthetic upper, less than 20-25 ounces per pair.

Trail shoe: Thicker outsole with composite rubber and a lug sole with lugs placed to improve traction. EVA midsole, generally synthetic upper which may have some leather, padded collar, reinforced toe, less than 20-25 ounces per pair

Light hiker boot: Specialized durable outsole, EVA midsole, may incorporate footplate or shank, combined thinner type leather and synthetic upper, between 2-3 pounds per pair.

Backpacking boot: Thicker outsole with 6-8mm depth lugs, polyurethane durable midsole, incorporates more and thicker, higher grade leather in the upper material, more than 3 pounds per pair.

Mountaineering boot: Rigid outsole and stiff plastic upper, insulating interior, designed to accept crampons, weighing more than 5 pounds per pair.

Nonetheless, notices of upcoming hikes appearing in the Trail Walker and other hiking publications persist in warning would-be hikers that "sturdy hiking boots are required."

Who is right here and who is wrong? Is hiking footwear purely personal preference? What is the difference between a backpacking boot, a light hiking boot, a trail shoe, or a running shoe? [See Sidebar.]

Little scientific evidence exists to point a hiker in one direction or the other. Over the past several years, however, more and more serious hikers have been shifting away from heavy all-leather boots, and toward trail shoes, a hybrid between a running shoe and a hiking boot. Indeed, two trends are emerging, according to Ray Fredericksen, president of Sport Biomechanics, a running shoe testing lab. On the one hand, traditional boot manufacturers are slimming down their products using light-weight materials such as synthetic fabrics traditionally used in running shoes, and running shoe manufacturers are adding features, such as thick rubber soles with sophisticated tread patterns traditionally found only in hiking boots.

Let's look at features of the traditional hiking boot and compare and contrast those features to trail shoes.

Upper Construction
Boots have generally excelled at keeping feet dry and warm by extending the outer leather material well above the ankles, sealing the feet against the elements. High quality boots often have a one-piece leather construction that eliminates the chance of leaking through stitching or seams. The leather is generally a high grade, thick leather. A thick collar at the top of the boot and a widened tongue area help keep out pebbles and debris. Even the lacing system is specialized, using metal hooks for quick and tight lacing.

Light hiking boots and even some trail shoes now also boast water-proof features by incorporating water-resistant materials such as Gore-Tex. They generally use more synthetic material together with some leather. The leather may be thinner and of a lower quality than that used in boots. Padded collars and a modified tongue help keep out debris. However the lower cut of a trail shoe means that hikers' feet may get soaked more easily than if they were in boots. Some trail shoe advocates, however, point out that even if the shoes and feet get soaked in a trail shoe, both will dry more quickly than if in a saturated high-top heavy boot with poorer ventilation.

Boots have thick outsole material frequently using a hard carbon-rubber compound that is firmer than the rubber used in sneakers and even in many trail shoes. In addition, the rubber outsole on some boots may have lugs that are 6-8mm thick. The lugs are placed in a specific pattern to improve the boots' contact area with the ground. The blending of the right type of rubber with a specific tread pattern is so specialized that many boot companies use outsoles from a specialty company. A leader in rugged shoe and boot outsoles is Vibram, an Italian company.

Trail shoe manufacturers, however, are blending different types of rubber-a softer "blown" rubber with the harder, more durable carbon rubber-in their outsoles to make a "stickier" type of substance, better for gripping rocks on the trail. While the outsole on trail shoes is adapted for hiking on uneven trail conditions, the outsole on boots will likely be more durable over time. In addition, a Vibram outsole on a hiking boot, for example, can usually be replaced when and if it wears out.

On top of the outsole of a hiking or backpacking boot sits a thick midsole of durable polyurethane. The midsole adds height and shock-absorption to the outsole. The midsole is generally much thicker in a hiking boot than in a trail shoe. And a trail shoe may incorporate a less durable synthetic material such as EVA (ethyl vinyl acetate) as its midsole material. A hiking or backpacking boot may rely more on a robust outsole for shape, stiffness, and cushioning, while a trail shoe by design will emphasize the midsole: it will be much thicker than the outsole.

Complementing the midsole, some boots as well as trail shoes may incorporate a "shank," a stiff material made of metal, plastic, or carbon fiber. A shank can help stiffen a trail shoe in which the thickness and stiffness of the outsole have been decreased, thereby reducing the weight of the shoe. One innovative company, GoLite, is incorporating a carbon shank in its trail shoes in 2008 to increase support while reducing weight. These rugged shoes weigh around 20-25 ounces per pair, less than half the weight of some hiking boots.

Ankle Support
One obvious difference between boots and shoes is that boots extend up to and even over the ankle joint. Boot proponents are adamant that a high-top boot is essential in preventing ankle sprains. The scientific evidence, however, is equivocal.

A study conducted on Israeli military recruits showed no difference in incidence of ankle sprains between wearing basketball shoes or standard over-the-ankle military boots. A review of multiple studies on the subject concluded that a stiff ankle brace would be required to prevent sprains. A boot alone is not sufficient to resist the force of a twisting ankle.

This idea is echoed in an article in the journal Sports Medicine, which suggests that footwear may contribute to ankle sprains. One theory is that shoes interfere with proprioception, that is, the body's ability to know where the foot is on the ground. Mr. Fredericksen of Sport Biomechanics notes that cross country runners run in low-top shoes to increase their proprioception. Several researchers point out, however, that people who have had previous sprains are susceptible to suffer another sprain, regardless of the type of shoe or boot worn.

As a personal anecdote, I have sprained my ankle both in my Vasque Sundowner Summit backpacking boots and my Ascics Gel Trail Sensor shoes. A high top boot may give an ankle sprain prone backpacker some sensory input to help reduce a full sprain, but, a lower profile trail shoe may increase the tactile response to the ground, helping to prevent sprains. The jury is out. A hiker with a history of sprains should engage in exercises to strengthen the ankle. In some cases, recurrent ankle sprains are an indication for surgical repair.

Light Weight vs. Heavy Weight
One clear advantage of trail shoes over boots is in their lighter weight. One often quoted maxim, repeated in The Complete Walker IV, is that "every pound on your feet is equal to five pounds on your back." While not scientifically proven, the maxim seems logical. The difference between boots weighing more than three pounds and trail shoes weighing less than a pound-and-a-half is significant when multiplied by more than 2,000 steps per mile. The extra weight the hiker is swinging through the air between steps can add up to extra tons of weight carried. On a day hike, the weight may not be noticed. On a long-distance thru hike, the feet and calf muscles may respond to the extra weight.

Trail shoes have evolved over the last several years to provide some of the benefits found in hiking boots. Thinner outsoles use unique tread patterns to improve the contact surface with the ground and employ a blended rubber outsole, more durable than typically found in a running shoe. Trail shoes have incorporated thicker midsoles and integrated stiff innersoles to enhance arch support and to cradle and protect the heel. Waterproof materials and padded collars, or "scree guards," help keep water and debris out of the shoe. And, hiking in a lighter weight shoe provides a more tactile experience on the trail, which may even help prevent ankle sprains.

A solid one-piece all-leather upper construction hiking or backpacking boot and a thick Vibram outsole may just last longer than the latest light-weight trail shoe, however. And, for 5-6 miles once a week or so, the extra weight may not be significant. However, for a long-distance hiker who wants to shed unnecessary weight, or even for a day hiker who wants to feel the trail more acutely, a light-weight trail shoe is a viable alternative. Of course, hikers may want to interchange trails shoes and hiking boots depending on the terrain, hike planned, or, simply for a change.

Howard E. Friedman, DPM, is a podiatrist treating hikers and non-hikers in Suffern, NY.

For more articles on how to take care of your feet while hiking, click here.