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Expedition Essentials: Trail Running Shoes vs. Hiking Boots

One of the most divisive - and impactful - issues of the outdoor community, here we dive into the "Great Trail Debate" on when and why you should lace up trail running shoes or hiking boots for your next adventure. #ExpeditionEssentials

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"This feels heavy."

I said those words audibly at approximately 10:40 P.M. and 8ish miles into my thru-hike of the Chief Pontiac Trail. For anyone who has backpacked with me in the past, those words may come as a surprise. To this day, my backpacking crew jeers me for carrying 45 pounds on my back over the peaks of the renown Four Pass Loop Trail in Colorado - which, to my credit, I handled with ease.

But on this particular trek, my pack wasn't the gear item that I felt weighing me down.

It was my boots. My hiking boots. The same hiking boots that had humbly carried me and my apparently sadistically-heavy pack across one of Colorado's most rigorous thru-hikes. Boots that now felt more and more like anvils with every step towards Proud Lake.

Despite my growing delirium from the mileage, time of night, and growing discomfort in my feet, I started to hypothesize about the pros and cons of utilizing trail running shoes vs. hiking boots for thru-hikes. My gut told me that trail running shoes might have been a better choice for the Chief Pontiac Trail, especially since I had recently touched on this exact topic when first connecting with the team at Chicken Tramper Ultralight Gear, one of our Expedition Partners. Turns out that the larger outdoor community has also wrestled with this inquiry - it's even commonly referenced as "The Great Trail Debate." And, as with all great debates, the consensus remains mixed at best.

We at Expedition Detroit aren't the biggest fans of "It depends" types of answers - even if that's the most prudent response. Here, we're putting hiking boots and trail running shoes head-to-head to determine which footwear is best for which conditions. More importantly, we're diving into which recreational footwear we recommend for conquering the Detroit region's trails.

Let's test my hypothesis and meet the contenders:

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HIKING BOOTS: Old Faithful

Greatest Strengths: Stability, durability, foot and ankle protection, excellent traction, and additional warmth.

Largest Drawbacks: Necessary break-in period, heavy, bulky frame, single-use, lack of breathability, and typically more expensive.

Best Conditions: Hiking or backpacking through snow or mud, steep ascents or descents, or rock, rubble, overgrowth, or root-filled conditions.

Expedition Detroit's Recommended Hiking Boots

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Danner Mountain 600 Full-Grain Leather Hiking Boot

Designed to withstand the climate and terrain of the Pacific Northwest, the Danner "Mountain 600r Hiking Boot" forges a new path in hiking footwear. Combining decades of classic styling with lightweight innovation, this boot is the perfect hiking companion. Its full-grain leather upper is backed by a waterproof Danner Dry liner to block moisture from the outside and wick moisture from the inside for greater comfort. The new Vibram SPE midsole enhances rebound and support to keep us comfortable to the hike's end. A Vibram Fuga outsole features self-adapting lugs and Megagrip compound for superior grip on wet and dry surfaces. Built on the DPDX last, this boot has a low profile for everyday wear, whether we're on the trail or exploring new towns.

Price: $209.95

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Salomon Outpulse Mid GTX Hiking Boot

Thanks to its GORE-TEX membrane, Salomon's "Outpulse Mid GTX Hiking Boot" will keep your feet dry and comfortable even when the sky opens up. The rockered midsole geometry and high-energy materials are manufactured to maintain your speed in any conditions. Additional, the Salomon boot features durable synthetic uppers crafted from both recycled and waste products, OrthoLite footbed cushions steps for all-day comfort, and an "All Terrain Contagrip" sole that offers traction on wet, dry, and loose surfaces.

Price: $159.95

Merrell Moab 3 Prime Mid WP Hiking Boot

The Detroit region's sandy trails and muddy marshes are no match for Merrell's "Moab 3 Prime WP Hiking Boot." The boot optimizes for plenty of breathability when trekking through variable biomes while still giving waterproof protection thanks to Merrell's "M Select Dry" membrane. The hiking boot's Vibram TC5+ outsole also provides for loads of grip no matter the type of terrain you plan on exploring. Additional features include an "Air Cushion" heel and EVA midsole for enhanced stability and comfort, a vibram rubber outsole that doesn't easily slip on wet, loose ground, and a rubber toe cap helps prevent stubbing your toe too hard.

Price: $164.95

TRAIL RUNNING SHOES: New Kids on the Trail

Greatest Strengths: Breathability, little or no break-in period, lightweight, versatile, moderate to excellent traction, and typically less expensive.

Largest Drawbacks: Less stability and durability, less ankle protection, little to no warmth value, and will require more frequent replacement.

Best Conditions: Mostly dry trails with moderate incline and fairly predictable conditions.

Expedition Detroit's Recommended Trail Running Shoes

Hoka Speedgoat 5

Our personal favorite trail running shoes (I'm about to purchase my 5th pair), Hoka's "Speedgoat 5" easily handles root and rock-riddled singletrack trails. Now a half ounce lighter than Hoka's earlier Speedgoat renditions, this racer has picked up the pace while still padding strikes and energizing toe offs. The sandwich mesh upper will keep your feet breathing easy, while the aggressive lugs solidify footing up steep inclines, around switchbacks, and back down to the moraine floor. Hoka's double layer mesh also delivers durable breathability for its trail running shoes.

Price: $154.95

Altra Lone Peak 7

Now equipped with a stitch-free upper, the Altra "Lone Peak 7 Trail Running Shoe" provides that coveted plush feel inside and out. The energetic foam softens rocky sections while still powering trekkers and trail runners into fast transitions, and the trail running shoes' multi-directional lugs provide stabilizing traction to reduce power leaks on toe off. Additional features of Altra's latest trail running shoes include a flexible air mesh upper for breathable, quick-dry performance, a foot-shaped design including a roomy toe box for natural toe splay, and a 0mm drop that encourages a natural gait and mid-foot strike.

Price: $149.95

La Sportiva Bushido II

Designed for serious runners and hikers taking on technical terrain, the La Sportiva "Bushido II Trail Running Shoe" has earned its well-regarded reputation. Runners and hikers should expect the same low-volume performance fit, same drop, same low weight, same snug fit, and same outsole rubber and lug pattern as the Bushido I trail running shoes. With this iteration, La Sportiva has added their proprietary LaSpEVA in an effort to create a more responsive and springier ride to keep runners and hikers more comfortable through longer distances. These trail running shoes also feature a more breathable mesh fabric that still retains the same durability for tackling more rugged terrain.

Price: $155.00

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The moment of truth has arrived: which trail footwear do we recommend for Detroit region backpacking and hiking?

We give the official Expedition Detroit edge to trail running shoes...but with a few caveats.

First, if you have a medical history of weak ankles, flat feet, or a history of falling injuries, then you should strongly consider opting for hiking boots - even if leisurely hiking along easier trails. Second, if you are planning on thru-hiking any of Detroit's three "Black Diamond Trails" - the steepest, rockiest, ruttiest, and all-around most challenging trails in our region - then sporting hiking boots represents your best bet for an injury free-journey. Last, if you're venturing out into less hospitable conditions, such as trails heavily laden with mud, snow, or overgrowth like certain segments of the Chief Pontiac Trail, then opt for the boots.

Those caveats aside, the Detroit region's hiking trails provide ideal territory for trail running shoes usage. Yes, our parks and trails have surprisingly notable ascents and descents, but the traction of each of the trail running shoes highlighted above can readily handle those variables. Add in the versatility of usage that trail running shoes provide beyond just running, and you may just fall in love with your new favorite pair of recreational footwear.


Looking to put your new trail running shoes or hiking boots to the test? Come explore the most beautiful, beloved, enjoyable, or challenging trails within an hour's drive of Downtown Detroit with us! We lead guided trips across 11 Michigan State Parks and Recreation Areas. Book your next adventure with Expedition Detroit today!

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