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Trail Running Shoes
I use trail running shoes when hiking about 75% of the time. I own hiking boots and I own insulated snow boots. Both have their place but my trail running shoes are my 3 season go-to shoes. This post is primarily about understanding why you don't need hiking boots in most cases and where trail running shoes are and are not appropriate.
Forget Ankle Support
One of the biggest things I hear about when talking about hiking boots is that you want ankle support. The people saying that however are usually not the people who have the most miles under their belt. Ask anyone who has completed the AT/PCT/CDT what shoes they prefer and you'll find that the answer you hear most is trail running shoes.
While I would agree that boots will protect your ankles from smashing into something they offer limited protection from rolling. If you have weak ankles an ankle brace offers far better protection. If you have healthy ankles then the lower center of gravity on shoes can actually help which offsets some of the support protection offered by boots. Additionally, in the long run, your ankles are going to be stronger from wearing trail runners because they won't be getting the extra support from your boot. That increased stability from hiking boots is helping to weaken the muscles.
Forget the Dream of Waterproof Boots
In practice your feet are often going to get wet because the rivers you are crossing are higher than your boots and when you sweat it doesn't magically cross over to the outside of your boot. The real “feature” that you want is that your shoes dry quickly. Trail running shoes are usually going to dry faster because they are designed to breathe. For warm weather couple them with quick drying socks (see our post on socks for hiking) and you won't be too worried about cross streams.
Trail Running Shoes are Lighter
Probably the biggest comfort factor has to do simply with weight. You're going to experience more foot issues with hiking boots because they are more rigid and heavy. The longer the hike the more that extra weight is going to be felt, which is why shoes are so popular for thru-hiking.
Trail running shoes being lighter and more flexible will also help with blisters when hiking. If traditional blister prevention methods aren't working then switching away from boots can help. The rigidness of hiking boots can lead to more friction which can translate directly to more blisters.
Where Hiking Boots Make Sense
As much as I love my trail running shoes I most certainly have a place for my hiking boots. I wouldn't be using mines in the snow, for example. I also wouldn't wear them if I know I'm going to experience a lot of mud. Boots stay on better than running shoes and the waterproofing actually works well against water that is partially solid as it is in mud or ice.
A Note on Cost
Another thing to keep in mind is the cost. Good boots will cost you $50-$100 more than good shoes. If you're not a frequent hiker that is a difficult gap to justify, especially given the fact that hiking boots need to be broken in and trail running shoes usually don't. Hiking boots will last longer, without a doubt, but you're paying for that durability both financially and physically. That being said, whatever footwear you buy you should splurge on. Don't buy cheap hiking boots.