New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest is home to a number of rugged trails that are littered with rocks, wet roots, and never ending uphill scrambles. These trails lack switchbacks and often head directly up the mountain. In 2011 when I set out to hike the 48 tallest peaks in New Hampshire, I bought some new gear to be prepared for the trails: a backpack to support a water bladder, hiking pants, and a new pair of hiking boots. The only thing I kept of these three in my current gear list is the bladder. I have since switched over to hiking in skirts, shorts, or leggings (’cause hiking pants hardly actually fit women right) and trail runners.
I actually hiked all 48 peaks in a year’s time in those boots. I got many blisters but thought it just came with the territory. I used smartwool hiking socks (they’re thick!) along with a sock liner and still got blisters. Many people purchase traditional hiking boots for the ankle support and the protection they provide. For me, I was putting more pressure on my knees which wasn’t good. I was not giving my ankles an opportunity to get stronger.
One of the biggest differences between most boots vs trail runners is how they deal with moisture. Most boots are waterproof while trail runners typically are not. With boots, if you dunk your foot into water during a difficult stream crossing or get caught in a downpour, they’ll be wet for a long time (like days….) Also, I found these “waterproof/breathable” shoes to be an issue. My feel sweat quite a bit and the moisture stayed trapped in the boots which was yet another factor that caused blisters.
The plus side of boots is they do last much longer. A quality boot with PU midsoles could last 1000-2000 miles with the replacement of your outsole as the thread will likely wear before then.
After my first round of the 48 I decided to ditch my hiking boots for trail runners. Why?
-The more weight you carry, the more energy you use carrying it (why I went lighter all around). Weight on your feet is actually even more cumbersome than pack weight. You use 4-6 times more energy on weight on your feet than weight on your back. By switching to lightweight trail runners, you could do your body a world of good!
-I was sick of blisters. “Waterproof” boots trapped moisture in and were too rigid to move with my feet.
-Ankle support was doing me more harm than good. I need to stretch and strengthen my ankles, not restrict them. If you don’t have any nagging issues with your ankles, you don’t need to brace them.
For me, switching to trail runners was very easy, but this process may take you weeks or even a couple months. I am barefoot whenever I can be so that helps. I also had begun wearing Vibram Five Fingers on less rocky trails so this already got me well on my way to transitioning to a more minimal shoe.
I had heard great things about Salomon Speedcross 3 trail runners and love my Salomon Toundra winter boots so I tried those out.
At first these shoes were wonderful: lightweight, fast drying, and had great traction. The problem? After some time they were just too narrow for my feet. If these fit your feet well, they’re a wonderful shoe, but I ended up getting giant holes in the fabric where my pinky toes are while thru hiking the John Muir Trail.
My shoes were in need of an upgrade and I went with Brooks Cascadia 8 as they fit a little wider. They weren’t a perfect fit, but like the Salomons they performed very well on the trail.
During this shoe transition I also made some big changes to my socks. I went from thick “hiking socks” to a running sock also made by Smartwool. I also tried Darn Tough socks, but ultimately fell in love with Injijni Run socks. They have separated toes which help with blister prevention and are really light. I found that I really didn’t need all the cushion some socks had. Simple is good.
Wading through a river. Lightweight trail runners dry in no time!
Last winter I had the opportunity to hike with some fellow Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassadors in Utah. It seemed that just about everyone there had Altra Trail Running shoes.
Most of these hikers are thru hikers and everyone had hiked thousands of miles. Some were triple crowners (hiking all three long distance trails: AT, PCT, and CDT) and some were even speed record holders. I don’t plan to ever set speed records or ever hike a 2000+ mile trail (I’m happy with my two week trips!), but I was very intrigued. How are these shoes different than my typical trail runners?
The answer is actually quite simple and can be summed up in just a few remarks:
My former trail runners just didn’t have enough space for me. Even with the Brooks I felt my toes were squeezed though they were sized correctly. This is because traditional running shoes have pointier toe boxes which alters how your toes rest. They are meant to spread out and Altra’s foot box does just this. Because your big toe is able to stay straight like it naturally does, your stability is enhanced.
Another big difference in Altra’s shoes is the placement of your foot. Your heel and forefoot are the same distance from the ground so you have better balance and less impact as you hike or run. Most trail runners have a lifted heel. A Zero Drop shoe promotes proper form which is key to reducing injury on long hikes.
I have been using my new Altra Lone Peak 2.5 shoes on local hikes and smaller peaks as I transition. They feel really great, but I am making sure I transition properly before I take them to the Maine/Canadian border to bag six more peaks on the New England Hundred Highest list! In the next couple months I will have an update on how these shoes have been performing and if I stick with them. Read more about how to properly transition to Altra Zero Drop shoes.
Note: I received a pair of the Altra shoes from Altra Running for the purpose of writing a review. All commentary found in this review is my own personal opinion of the shoe. This post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a commission if you make a purchase using links in this review.
Last modified: September 1, 2017
I am currently trying out trail runners also. I kept twisting my ankle in my Keen Targhee’s and my Salomon GTX Quest boots, although they had great ankle support, they were giving me this weird Achilies pain in my left foot. I think I bought them too small. Weird. I’m pretty sure I need to build up my ankle to be stronger so I bought a pair of La Sportiva Raptors. I went on a short hike with them yesterday. I’m going to test them out on the Blue Hills in Mass after work on Tuesday. Any experience with those shoes? The Altras seem really interesting! I don’t have really wide feet, but they are wide enough to give me some discomfort in sizes that I usually fit into, depending on the shoe. I had to by the Raptors in size 9 instead of my usual 8 for instance. Did the Altras take a while to get used to? I’m thinking of trying those too. How long would you suggest before going on a bigger (3 day) hike in them?
La Sportivas are really nice trail runners but are too narrow for my feet. According to Altra it can take up to a couple months to fully adjust to their shoes. It really depends on what you’re used to wearing before. Boots to Altras would be a big transition, but if you are used to a more minimal trail runner, it should only take a couple weeks. I’ve been using mine on smaller hikes and trail runs in prep for three days of hiking in Maine this weekend! They feel great to me but I’m going to try an alternative lacing method before to see how I like that.
I’ve now got my pack weight down to a point where I feel like I can safely start working on ditching my boots (I’m so clumsy in them). It’s kind of unnerving for me as I have always heard about how important it is to have good hiking boots when carrying a load. Your article gives me hope that boots are the way of the past. I had a bad injury to one of my ankles (compound dislocation) nearly 20 years ago, and my ankle is partially fused. I have full extension but not flexion, so as you can imagine the zero drop would not be fun. The only time my walk isn’t normal is in bare feet. Can you recommend a good trail runner that has a little lift on the heel?
Hi! I recently broke my ankle (while wearing hiking boots) and was wondering if you think that trail runners might be good for me to switch to once I am healed? I’m also planning on continuing to bag the 4000 footers in the whites this summer but still consider myself on the advanced side of beginner (I’ve completed 6 of the easier ones). Any advice on which trails might be less rocky in the whites as well or ones to avoid, at least until I’m more back on my feet? Thanks!