I remember when I first decided I no longer wanted to hike with boots: my wife and I had been walking the Offa’s Dyke national trail for a week, proceeding at a leisurely pace with our heavy packs and our walking boots when on the 7th day my knees flared up, getting fully inflamed. I had not done anything special besides hiking, which I had done many times before and I usually walk for miles in my daily routine, so it made no sense! When I got home I went back to my regular shoes (Inov-8 Tarroc 330) and my knees felt great – that was my aha! moment. That was when I decided to start my transition from hiking boots to trail shoes, or at least try it out and see what would happen.
My first step in the transition was to try lighter, softer and more forgiving boots, thinking this might be a useful tool instead of jumping head on into trail shoes, so I bought a pair of Asolo boots. The boots were great, but I quickly learned that after about 15 miles a day in the boots, my knees hurt again. Road walks were still practically impossible and I had to rest often to reduce the pressure on my knees – not the best hiking method.
Around that time I started to test the barefoot running concept (yes, I’m a victim of that, too) and found that it was the first time in years that I could run comfortably. Combining my new-found running skills in minimalist footwear with my disappointment in hiking in boots meant I was ready for the next step: transitioning from hiking boots to trail shoes, for good. This also coincided with a look into lighter outdoor gear in general and so it made more sense to invest in lighter footwear as well.
I went out and got a pair of Inov-8 Trailroc 235 shoes – a zero drop, minimalist trail running shoe. They were wide enough (-ish) for my feet, light, comfortable and did the job perfectly. But I went too fast, too quickly, getting injuries due to lack of preparation and conditioning. Since then I have learned much quite a lot about footwear and how to do the transition slowly and safely.
I would like to offer here some of what I’ve learned about transitioning from hiking boots to trail shoes so you can avoid some of the potential issues that arise from it. This is not about proving that trail shoes are better for hiking, this is a personal opinion; there are many others who proved why before me (like Chris Townsend). I think that trail shoes are an excellent solution for hiking, especially for people with joint problems (yes, especially), and as long as you are well prepared for it.
A brief history of footwear development
Footwear has been with us for a very long time, filling two main functions: skin protection from sharp objects and insulation in cold conditions. The latter meant that footwear was more common in colder, often mountainous, areas, while in warmer and wetter areas people just walked barefoot. In desert environments, where sand can become very hot, the use of soft thong-sandals has been used for ages.
Until roughly the 15th century, all footwear was soft soled to allow the best foot movement. The introduction of heels, the idea of height as a measure of power and stiff soles were introduced across Europe in the 15th century. Many cultures continued walking (and running) barefoot and a few still do today, at times using nothing but a thin hide sole to protect the skin.
The move to stiff soled footwear created foot issues and reduced foot strength, leading to health issues that required the introduction of orthopaedic support items such as insoles, arch supports and heel holders. Modern shoes are very highly engineered, leading to increased support and comfort while reducing the natural foot and leg strength.
Boots were originally used to protect more of the leg while walking to prevent scrapes and bruises from brush, rocks and snow (more insulation). When those soft boots were used for more vertical climbs, the soles were found to be too soft to allow a “kick in” to snow, so stiffer boots that provide greater traction were developed. Those boots originally had soft tops, but the need to increase foot protection and the danger of heel rolling (from the stiff sole) required stiffening the upper, too. We ended up with very stiff and strong boots for climbing in winter conditions and which have trickled down to other outdoors activities.
The re-introduction of barefoot, minimal and natural footwear practices in the last decade have seen the return of softer, better gripping soles and less cushioning. I won’t go into a full lecture about minimal and natural footwear, but will mention the below to give context to choosing trail shoes:
- Stiff soles don’t allow foot roll and can cause unnatural foot and joint movement
- High boots reduce calf strength, increasing the chances of shin splits
- High differential (between the heel and the forefoot; the higher it is the higher the heel is) enables a heel stroke that can be very damaging for joints and increases the risk of Plantar fasciitis
If you want to learn more about natural movement, the internet is exploding with information. I’m a big fan of that approach as I have learned it allows me to move better, over longer distances, with less injuries. This is not to say it is the best way for you, but just how I see things. Minimal footwear is very controversial, but even if without choosing the full “minimal experience” there are benefits of using shoes over heavy boots.
Key differences between trail shoes and hiking boots
Sole and stiffness
A sole here will refer to the outer sole, mid sole and insole. The claims below are generalizations for the simplicity of the discussion; there are other options out there.
Boots offer stiff, thick soles that are graded B0 to B3 in stiffness level; the soles are graded to match crampons that hold a corresponding grade (0-3) for their intended use. The lower the grade, the softer the sole, intended for flatter surfaces where foot roll is important, while a B3 boot offers no foot roll but allows a climber to easily “kick in” to the ice with crampons and side step on higher gradient slopes. Trail shoes offer very soft soles that allow high foot roll for easy, fast movement; some shoes offer a full or half shanks the are very stiff towards the heel and get softer towards the front. Those shanks allow forward foot roll while preventing lateral roll and damage to the ankle and the tendons in the foot.
Hiking boots tend to have thick lugs for better traction in muddy conditions and on rock edges. Trail shoes usually have smaller lugs, though some shoes are more aimed at muddy conditions and offer soles that are almost like cleats – but those tend to be very uncomfortable on hard packed surfaces.
Most modern hiking boots offer various density mid soles to increase comfort, sometimes using multiple layers where the top layer is soft for immediate foot comfort while the lower sections are stiffer for load bearing. Trail shoes, in many ways, offer very similar construction, but in lower densities, aiming to carry lighter loads but which are also more comfortable without a load (backpack).
Upper and liners
The upper part of boots are usually made from leather or a mix of leather and textile for increased breathability. The purpose of an all-leather upper is to offer more robust and protective construction for a longer lasting boot compared to trail shoes. It is very rare to find leather uppers in trail shoes as the need for breathability is greater than the need for foot protection and durability. Trail shoes are usually all mesh with some protection in the front and back using a rubber rand.
The use of waterproof liners is very common with hiking boots, whether all leather or leather and textile. The waterproof liners can be made using any of the big brands (Gore, eVent etc) or in house and are meant to offer the wearer water protection from the outside while moving sweat and heat to the lip of the boot to be “dumped” out. Trail shoes are usually not waterproof, being made of breathable mesh to allow heat and sweat to move out easily. When trail shoes are waterproof, it is using the same technology as boots.
Modern footwear in general (at least active footwear) tends to have a double layer of mesh (when it is used) with some foam in between for some protection and insulation. In boots that foam is usually ticker and stiffer compared to trail shoes for increased protection, insulation and durability.
Probably the biggest difference between hiking boots and trail shoes and the main reason such a change is needed is that all that extra protection, durability and stiffness come with a weight price tag: boots are much heavier. The old saying is that a pound (450g) on your feet is the equivalent of 5 (2.25kg) pounds on your back, so those boots are a real punishment.
Most hiking boots are heavy (2+ kg), while trail shoes can easily be under 500g for a pair. Based on that general difference and the old saying, when choosing trail shoes over boots we are cutting about 6.5-7kg off our backs – this a big change.
The big downside of this weight cut is durability: you can expect a good pair of hiking boots to last thousands of miles, staying with the usual walker for years and years. Trail shoes, on the other hand, will last 500-1000 miles (at best), sometimes even less for the lighter ones. This is very frustrating but when it comes to enjoying a trip, it is worth it!
Possible issues from using trail shoes and how to solve them
Ankle roll happens when the foot rolls sharply in a lateral movement while the ankle is not ready for it and the ligament gets stretched beyond comfort. That kind of roll can be minor, where a sharp pain runs up the leg but leads to no further issues (like turning your neck too quickly), or it can lead to various degrees of tear in the ankle ligament.
Many mistakenly think that a higher boot that covers the whole of the ankle will reduce ankle roll by stiffening the ankle. In reality, boots are not useable if the ankle is completely stiff (no foot movement) so the ankle part of most walking boots is flexible. What will most determine the chance of an ankle roll in walking footwear is the lateral flexibility of the sole: hold the front of the shoe with one hand and the heel with another, and twist. If a shoe is very “twisty” there is an increased risk of ankle roll, otherwise the shoe will provide the needed support.
In reality, high boots reduce calf strength and this leads to an increased chance of ankle roll, so the best way to protect yourself is by strengthening your calves.
Preventing ankle roll
- Buy shoes that have a stiffened heel with a strong shank and a firm lower ankle
- Train your calves – do calf raises, walk barefoot on the balls of your foot, roll a tennis ball under your foot while sitting etc. Strong calves make for strong ankles
- Watch your step – sometimes, especially with heavier boots that get us tired, we stop paying attention: looking where you step can be all you need
- Stand on one foot – standing on one foot at a time will train the mini muscles around your ankles and allow for better stability
- Calf stretches – the main reason for tears in the ankle is from a short ligament that has suffered a hard “pull” – a longer ligament will be less susceptible to tear
- Use more minimalist footwear during non-hiking low-impact activities – being barefoot or with very minimal footwear while doing non-hiking activities will teach your muscles to step more gently, reducing the pressure you put on the ankle and heel
The big issue that many have when walking outdoors is keeping your feet dry. Personally, I have given up on the idea and now just walk with wet feet, but my wife is a great believer in dry feet. There is a belief that waterproof boots offer better protection compared to waterproof shoes, and though that may be true, the benefit is very small (roughly 2-5 cm in height around the ankle). When transitioning from hiking boots to trail shoes you can choose to stay with waterproof shoes, or you can just choose non waterproof shoes with some form of waterproof socks.
The most commonly used option by many walkers, the concept is very simple: your shoes are waterproof, just as your boots are, and you can hope to keep your feet dry. However unlike boots, the ankle and heels are lower, allowing water to seep in through the top more easily.
One way to solve this is by using gaiters, mainly trail running gaiters, while keeping a keener eye on the water you are stepping into. This might be a problem for many, as it can be limiting.
The biggest issue with waterproof footwear, whether hiking boots or trail shoes, is that they are very hot and they will fail at some point, whether from a membrane collapse or from water coming in from the top. Once a waterproof shoe or boot is wet, it will take a long time to dry.
Waterproof socks are the best and most effective way to keep feet dry while hiking, used by ultra adventure runners quite often and by many advanced ultrapackers. Waterproof socks come in a variety of options but the common ones are the Sealskinz waterproof socks and Gore-Tex socks (check Rocky’s).
The great advantage of waterproof socks is that they are versatile, can be higher (as high as your knees!) and tend to be less sensitive compared to in shoe (or boot) liners. The ability to choose from a variety of socks or pick socks as high or as low as you need increases comfort and breathability. Using socks also allows you to carry spare socks in case the main pair has leaked.
When using waterproof socks, trail shoes really shine as they open so many options to the walker. Many hiking boots are waterproof and finding non-waterproof boots is not simple. Trail shoes, on the other hand, are mostly not waterproof and can easily be combined with any socks you like.
One last advantage of this system is that it is very versatile: if you are not encountering wet conditions on your trail, you don’t have to use waterproof socks! This also offers the ability to own one pair of shoes for multiple conditions.
Foot protection in boots is pretty clear: boots use lots of leather, thick soles and stiff under soles to keep the foot protected from rocks, logs or anything else you might step on/kick. With trail shoes, this is not so simple.
In terms of underfoot protection, most trail shoes except the most minimal ones are well protected. Trail shoes usually use a half to full shank in the sole to prevent any pointy or hard punctures to pass from the sole to the foot, even with softer soles. More aggressive trail shoes, or shoes that are more for approach than walking, offer very similar soles as hiking boots.
The big advantage that boots have compared to trail shoes is when it comes to upper foot protection. Trail shoes are usually all or mainly mesh, which is usually less robust than hiking boots, offering less protection. This might be an issue at times, but trail shoes are meant to be used for higher impact activities where breathability is of a higher concern than foot protection.
If you find that the underfoot protection that trail shoes offer is just not enough and you require upper protection too, hiking shoes can be a good solution as there are many of them that offer similar construction to boots.
Foot stability and support
Foot stability and support are rarely an issue for trail and fell runners as they rely on their body to make the right movement, rather than their shoes. Though trail shoes do not offer as much support and stability as walking boots, the increase in mobility allows for a more natural movement and better use of the feet. When you move more naturally, the foot is less prone to restrictions and minor corrections can be made without a problem.
To make sure you are more comfortable with trail shoes an increasingly harder trail conditions, doing natural movement training will help. The best way to practice natural movement is by being barefoot, especially outside. When you have the chance, try and walk on a grassy area and see how your foot moves and where you are hurting; minor issues can be easily identified and fixed. For example: if you notice that after 5 minutes of walking barefoot your heel is hurting, there is a good chance you are heel striking, creating too much impact on your knees and spine with each step. A slight lean forward and walking on the balls of your feet will reduce that.
If you still require support and more stability, look for the following features in your trail shoes: arch support, stiff heels, full length shanks, reduced rolling soles, etc. Any of these features are there to offer your feet support that you will also find in hiking boots. If the trail shoes you really like are missing some specific feature (like a higher arch support for helping your flatfoot), insoles with varying degrees of support can be used. Superfeet offer walking and hiking specific insoles.
Before undertaking any major decision in regards to support, please remember that I am not a doctor, so consult your physician or orthopaedist.
Training your body to use trail shoes
The key for transitioning from hiking boots to trail shoes easily is by easing into it gradually while training your body to be stronger, more flexible and able to support the foot, ankle and leg. The key places to focus on are:
- Foot strength – getting the foot strong will reduce injuries and inflammation. Moving a tennis ball around on the floor while sitting, or lifting small objects with your toes, are great exercises for strengthening the foot
- Ankle flexibility – the ankle itself is just a ligament so there is no real way to strengthen it, but having a longer, more flexible one will reduce the chance for injury. Good ankle stretches are ones that include full motion moves of your foot, more of which can be found here
- Calf strength – the key to good and comfortable walking is strong calves. Calf raises are the best solution: stand straight and move from a flat foot to standing on your toes. Repeat as many as you can, for 3 sets. For the advanced user: do this on the edge of a step for longer motion and the added bonus of a stretch in each move
The above areas are what you need to work on for simple transition to trail shoes, but to feel better in your walking, general training is also recommended for better fitness. As a last note on training, if you are interested in becoming really strong for hiking, training for barefoot running (without actually going barefoot) is an excellent tool – I like this article.
Putting it all into practice
Down to the bottom line – how should you go about transitioning from hiking boots to trail shoes? Here is a short plan offering all you need:
- Start slow: don’t bin your boots yet, they will still be your main footwear for the time being
- Get good shoes: after the extensive research you are bound to do online, go to a store that has a good range of trail shoes (an outdoors or running store) and try them all until you find one that is comfortable. Once you find one: buy them in that store – they worked hard to help you, so please support them
- Start your leg strength and flexibility training: do this daily, it shouldn’t take more than 5 -10 minutes
- Start going on day hikes that give you the ability to experiment with your new shoes: carry your shoes with you for trying out at various times. Increase the time you are in your shoes compared to your boots each trip
- When you are ready – a day hike in trail shoes: only after you have had a trip during which you spent more than 75% of the time in trail shoes
- Practice day hikes: don’t jump ahead; carrying a backpack for multi-day trips with trail shoes is hard, so practice day hikes to begin with
- After 4-7 day trips- it will be time for a weekend trip: keep it to just a weekend and try to aim for a warm trip so you won’t have a very heavy pack
Congratulations – you have finished transitioning from hiking boots to trail shoes!
Don’t get rid of your boots just yet, they might be useful for winter trips or ice climbing, but otherwise: enjoy the freedom that trail shoes offer – go faster, longer and be less fatigued.