This is such a good question. I hate having more than 3 pairs of shoes, do I need to go buy another pair? When I was a lot younger (around 16 years old or so), I’d go backpacking +15 miles a day with 40+ pound backpacks wearing only running shoes. Nowadays, things have changed.
The maximum distance you can hike in a day without issues wearing running shoes while carrying a heavy load is 5-7 miles.
If I had a choice, I would never go backpacking with just my running shoes these days. What’s different? How come I used to go with running shoes but I won’t now?
Can You Hike With Running Shoes?
You can absolutely hike with running shoes. People do it all the time, and in fact it’s kind of unfortunate that the natural assumption we make is that you can’t go hiking without specialized shoes. This is just not true. Hiking shoes are comfortable and lightweight, which makes them great for certain types of hiking.
I call out certain types. Because there are distances and terrains that demand a more robust shoe. Let’s talk about it.
When It’s Okay To Wear Running Shoes While Hiking
As I was typing this up I realized that there are a lot of complexities to this question. I’ll make a table to make this easier to figure out:
|Distance(per day) / Any||Terrain / Situation||Running Shoes and/or Hiking Shoes|
|< 5 miles||Pavement||Running/Hiking|
|> 5 miles||Pavement||Running/Hiking|
|< 5 miles||Rocky, Uneven||Running/Hiking|
|> 5 miles||Rocky, Uneven||Hiking|
|< 10 miles||Dirt, Grass||Running/Hiking|
|> 10 miles||Dirt, Grass||Hiking|
|> 3 miles||Extremely Rocky Terrain||Hiking|
|> 5 miles||Carrying > 33% your body weight||Hiking|
Remember, when people are at Disneyland, it’s not uncommon for people to walk 7-12 miles in a single day. That’s hiking, and no mistake–there are plenty of stairs to manage at Disneyland at various rides as well. (also plenty of rest stops… also known as lines ?)
Although it’s possible that people are wearing special shoes for the occasion (intense Disney fans)–most likely people are going to be wearing tennis shoes or running shoes.
The thing about theme parks is that the terrain is even. Even if you are walking up dozens of stairs the stair itself is even.
If you are planning on hiking for more than 5-7 miles and if you are hiking on even, solid terrain, then running shoes will be awesome for your hike.
Furthermore, some hiking (even wilderness hiking) can be on soil and grass or even some densely packed gravel. Even if there are some steep climbs in this type of terrain, you can easily get away with wearing running shoes without having any issues.
I should note that some intense ultralight backpackers might consider running shoes or some other super lightweight alternative. I take my hat off to you! You can definitely do it, but you have to have fantastic hiking technique to avoid situations that can hurt your feet. It is possible–but I wouldn’t try it until you are super comfortable with long distance backpacking.
The key reasons why you should really consider getting hiking shoes is if you’re going to be hiking in rocky terrain or if you’re carrying a heavy load.
When You Should Invest In Some Hiking Shoes
So, I mentioned earlier that I wouldn’t go backpacking without running shoes.
Over the years as I’ve gotten older I suppose that some things that didn’t bother me before bother me a bit more.
Feeling All the Pebbles With Running Shoes
I’ve noticed that while wearing running shoes that I feel every pebble underneath my feet. If it’s gravel than it’s fine since it’s an evenish distribution of weight, but if you’re in rocky or uneven terrain than you can feel a single pebble through the sole of your shoe.
Even though your shoe doesn’t have a hole in it, you can feel that sharp pressure against your foot.
This is fine for mile 1, and maybe even through mile 5. But remember you are accumulating 10’s of thousands of steps in a long hike, and you will be stepping on thousands of pebbles. Your foot is going to feel each one of those if you’re wearing running shoes.
With hiking shoes your feet are much better protected and you will feel those pebbles a lot less.
Don’t get me wrong. You still likely will get blisters after 15 miles of hiking unless you’ve been training and you have good shoes and a good sock system. Even with the extra protection your feet have a good chance of bothering you. But with running shoes your feet will be in total misery after 5-7 miles in rocky, uneven terrain.
Hiking long distances can feel brutal for your feet. It can be excruciatingly painful if your feet are in bad shape. It’s worth any tiny extra effort to protect them. By the way, if you haven’t considered a sock system, check out our article about using neoprene socks for hiking.
Bearing the Heavy Load With Hiking Shoes
Another reason when you should definitely think about wearing hiking shoes is that since running shoes are lightweight and have less support, your arches are going to feel more of that weight.
With hiking shoes and their tougher sole, your feet arches won’t feel as much of the strain and exhaustion.
To be frank, skin pain can be borne and dealt with (if you’re hiking long distances, some skin pain is inevitable), but deep tissue pain including muscles, tendons or bones can even be life-threatening. Make sure your hiking shoes aren’t going to cause cramping, toe crowding, and have proper support so you can hike the distances required.
You can carry 40 pounds for a few miles without issues, usually, but if you are hiking over 5-7 miles with a heavy pack then your feet are going to feel a LOT of compression. I recommend that you invest in some hiking shoes if you’re going backpacking long distances (> 5 miles)
Key Differences Between Running and Hiking Shoes
I allude to some of this above, but I’ll summarize the points here so you can know at a glance what’s different about hiking shoes:
- Hard sole: Running shoes have a soft (in comparison) sole in comparison to hiking shoes. A hiking shoe worth its muster has a tough sole that is often waterproof. This tough sole is much more rigid and doesn’t give when you step on rocks and gives you more support when clambering over rough terrain.
- Surface Area: Because of the hard sole, hiking shoes are much more comfortable to use on terrain with a small surface area because the sole gives a lot less. What do I mean by this? Well, stepping on rocks or ledges often mean you have part of your shoe on the object and part of it not. With running shoes your shoe will bend and conform to the object shape which can lead to arch exhaustion and sharp pain from too much pressure
- Waterproof: Running shoes by design do not have the same waterproof capabilities (if any) as hiking shoes. Hiking shoes are not all waterproof, either, but it’s much more common to see hiking shoes that have more significant waterproof abilities (hiking shoes are heavier and more bulky, usually). Even though my hiking shoes are not “waterproof” they are still much more water resistant than my standard running shoes.
- Heavier: Because hiking shoes have that stiffer sole and thicker materials, you get a much heavier shoe. My Keen Voyageur (Amazon) (or here at REI, or here on Keen’s website) pair comes in at almost a pound per shoe, while my New Balance running shoes are less than a pound together.
- Expensive: As with anything it depends on what you buy, you can definitely find “hiking shoes” for less than $60. However, good quality brands like Keen or Merrill will run you anywhere from $90 to $150. You can find very decent running shoes with decent brands for anything from $40-$100.
- Less Breathable: One thing to be aware of about hiking shoes is that it’s likely they will be much, much less breathable than their running shoe counterparts. Running shoes are super lightweight and are very breathable and comfortable to wear. Hiking shoes are not nearly as breathable–so you may experience discomfort because of this if you’re not used to it.
What About Trail Runners?
Another thing to consider is that there are running shoes that are in between a hiking shoe and a running shoe called trail runners. Trail runners are a bit more stiff so they have more support, and most importantly they have a stiffer sole.
I haven’t personally tried trail runners although I’m very intrigued by them. I’ve been to a few running shoe stores and talked to people who have and they reported that they can do long hikes with these shoes without issues. This makes sense to me.
Without personal experience to draw from, I can say that it’d be safe to put trail runners between hiking shoes as far as what distances you can travel and terrain you can handle. You won’t have the same support and protection as you will from hiking shoes, but you also get a more lightweight shoe.
So, I’d feel comfortable going on a 5-10 mile backpacking trip with well-fitting trail runners.