This is a gear review about the best trail runners for thru hiking.
All the best ultralight trail running shoes are well suited to hiking trails. In fact, in the last couple of years, ultralight hikers have been using Trail Running Shoes for Thru Hiking. With the perfect combination of comfort and lightweight they could be a better alternative to Hiking Boots or Hiking Shoes.
Trail Running Shoes for backpacking are generally more robust and are stiffer than regular running shoes, offering more support and stability to better adapt to rugged and uneven surfaces. They also offer a more aggressive sole for better traction.
Some trail-running shoes are designed with rock plates between the midsoles and outsoles that add an extra layer of protection against sharp objects such as rocks and sticks, while still providing a lightweight feel.
I started using trail running shoes for thru hiking a couple of years ago and have clocked up hundreds of days of hiking in trail running shoes. They now have a place on the hiking trails in my opinion, and often are a much better choice than heavier shoes or boots.
Whether you’re hitting the trails to run, hike, camp, or go backpacking, in this article, I’ll be taking you through the best trail running shoes for hiking that are on the market in 2021.
Table of Contents
- The Best Ultralight Trail Runners for Thru Hiking 2021
- Buyer’s Guide
- Frequently Asked Questions
The Best Ultralight Trail Runners for Thru Hiking 2021
The Best Ultralight Trail Runners for Thru Hiking 2021 are:
- Salomon Speedcross 5
- Altra Lone Peak 5
- Salomon Men’s X Ultra 4
- Hoka One One Speedgoat 4
- La Sportiva Bushido II
- Brooks Cascadia 15
- La Sportiva Wildcat
- Altra Timp 3
- Salomon Men’s Ultra Pro
- Altra Olympus 4
> OrthoLite footbeds for support and shock protection
> Contagrip rubber outsoles for maximum traction
> EnergyCell + high-rebound midsoles for excellent energy return
> Protective toe caps
> Heel cradles and SensiFit arms for improved stability and fit
> For narrow feet only
The Speedcross 5 is a true trail running shoe that provides a balance of stability, traction, and responsiveness.
They’re designed with removable OrthoLite footbeds which provide shock absorption and are coated with antimicrobial treatment to deter odor.
The heel units cradle the heels, encouraging a clean foot strike and improved stability, while the SensiFit arms mold to the shape of the foot and provide a snug fit.
The Speedcross 5 features Contagrip rubber outsoles that have deep, sharp lugs to provide both durability and adhesion on loose, soft, or rugged and uneven surfaces, while the EnergyCell+ high -rebound midsoles provide exceptional energy return along with a plush feel for maximum comfort.
These shoes also have protective toe caps to guard against bumps and abrasion.
> Rock plate for underfoot protection
> MaxTrac outsoles with multidirectional lug pattern
> Balanced cushioning for a responsive feel
> FootShape toe boxes for comfort and stability
> Laser-cut holes for quick drainage
> For wider feet
The Altra Lone Peak 5 is a trail running shoe that ticks many boxes. It features an updated StoneGuard which offers great underfoot protection from rocks without weighing the shoe down.
Thru Hikers love these trail runners. The tread pattern and multidirectional lug pattern for superb traction on a range of terrains, while the Altra EGO midsoles provide a responsive yet soft ride.
The Altra Lone Peak 5 offers a Balanced Cushioning platform that places heels and forefeet the same distance from the ground to encourage low-impact landings and provide a responsive, yet soft, feel.
The Altra Lone Peak has a wide toe box which allows the toes to relax and spread out naturally and for the big toes to remain in a straight position, which not only provides a better fit and feel, but also improves stability.
The Altra Lone Peak is a zero drop trail running shoe with no difference in the heel to toe drop.
Another great feature of this shoe is its laser-cut holes on the uppers which allow quick drainage when crossing creeks so the shoes dry quicker.
I used the Altra Lone Peak trail runners while thru hiking the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand. I found them to be awesome on formed trails but poor when used in muddy conditions or technical terrain.
Overall, the Altra Lone Peak is are my personal choice for the best trail runner for thru hiking. Long distance hikers will love these zero drop shoes.
> Injection-molded EVA midsoles and Ortholite sockliner for comfort
> Breathable mesh panels wick moisture
> Asymmetrical chassis for increased stability
> Outsoles feature strategic lines for better flexibility
> For people with narrow feet only
The Salomon X Ultra 4s are ideal if you’re looking for a trail shoe for hiking rather than running, as these shoes have been designed to provide cushioning and support on long distances.
The injection-molded EVA midsoles provide excellent underfoot cushioning and support, while the outsoles have been specifically designed to increase the shoes’ flexibility and decrease foot fatigue.
The Ortholite sockliner and contoured EVA heel cups provide enhanced heel support and cushioning, while the breathable mesh panels keep feet feeling cool and wick moisture away.
The Salomon X Ultra 4 has been designed to reduce the risk of slippage for more stable descents, and the asymmetrical chassis maximizes stability on rugged, uneven terrain, while the outsole features 2 types of rubber for maximum grip.
The Salomon X Ultra is best suited to hikers wanting more of a lightweight hiking shoe than a trail running shoe. They are best suited to hikers with narrow feet only, people with wide feet should look elsewhere.
> Lightweight foam cushioning
> Spacious toe boxes
> Enhanced midfoot support and stability
> Vibram Megagrip rubber outsoles
> No rock plate
The HOKA One One Speedgoat 4 is one of the best trail running shoes for hiking on the market, and it’s perfect for both running and hiking thanks to its lightweight foam midsoles that provide ultimate responsiveness and all-day comfort.
The updated toe boxes and wider forefoot construction provide a more accommodating fit for enhanced comfort and stability, while the 3D-printed overlays enhance midfoot support and lock the foot into place for a more secure feel.
The mesh uppers provide breathability, and the gusseted tongues feature strategic cutouts for improved airflow.
Despite the lightweight feel of this shoe, it has a surprisingly aggressive sole thanks to the Vibram Megagrip rubber outsoles and 5mm “stepped” lugs which provide excellent grip in all weather conditions.
The Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 are an exciting trail running shoe for ultralight hikers. They lack the durability of a hiking shoe but have gained a following for those looking for an ultralight trail running shoe for thru hiking.
> Updated ergonomics in heel and tongue
> Lightweight yet aggressive FriXion XT V-Groove2 outsole
> Impact Brake System for more traction, less impact.
> Outside lugs wrap around the midsole for improved stability
> Best suited to narrow feet only
The La Sportiva Bushido II provides a perfect combination of responsiveness, stability, and comfort, as well as great protection and traction.
La Sportiva have made some small tweaks to the Bushido to take it to the next level, included an updated tongue and heel that provides ergonomic padding, as well as outsole lugs that wrap around the midsole to provide added traction and stability on off-camber terrain
The La Sportiva Bushido ii features a lightweight yet aggressive FriXion XT V-Groove2 outsole which incorporates dual-compound rubber to deliver superb grip on any type of terrain, while La Sportiva’s famous Impact Brake System gives you 20% more traction with 20% less impact.
> Quick-drying and breathable mesh uppers
> Built-in rock plate for protection
> BioMoGo DNA cushioning for comfort and support
> TrailTack sticky rubber outsoles for great traction
> Brookes tends to run a little small, but there are wide sizes available
Brooks are pioneers of some of the best running shoes on the market, and the Cascadia15 is no exception.
It features engineered mesh and 3D Fit uppers to increase breathability and improve drainage to dry quickly when running through creeks or in wet weather.
The built-in rock plate helps to protect the feet from loose rocks, roots, and random debris on the trail, while the plush yet lightweight BioMoGo DNA cushioning softens every step with a springy, energy-boosting return.
The 4-point Pivot Post System provides stability and enables your feet to adapt to any terrain, while theTrailTack sticky rubber outsoles provide added grip on rugged or wet surfaces.
A few years ago these were the best trail running shoes for thru hiking. Then a new model came along that was poor quality and these shoes lacked durability with many hikers throwing their shoes away after 100 miles of hiking. In the last couple of years things have changed and they are back to being one of the best trail running shoes for backpacking and hiking.
> Durable nylon mesh uppers
> External thermoplastic urethane stabilizers provide heel support
> Dual-density midsoles and EVA cushioning
> Sticky FriXion AT rubber outsoles for superb traction
> Sizes are a bit small and narrow
The Wildcat is another of La Sportiva’s best-sellers, and it features rugged 1-piece nylon mesh uppers which minimize the weight of the shoe and provide superb breathability.
The external thermoplastic urethane stabilizers provide support for heels, while the dual-density midsoles and 2.4mm thick EVA lasting boards provide ample cushioning for comfort when covering distances.
The Wildcat has been designed with a dynamic tongue that works with the lacing harnesses to provide a snug fit and maximum stability.
The nylon mesh linings on the tongue and back half of shoe wick moisture to help keep feet dry, while the Sticky FriXion AT rubber outsoles deliver excellent traction.
> Lightweight, minimalist design and feel
> Durable and breathable mesh uppers
> FootShape toe boxes
> Balanced Cushioning for superior comfort and minimal shock
> For wide feet
The Altra Timp 3 features a trimmed-down overall design for a lightweight feel and superior fit.
The Engineered mesh uppers are durable and breathable, while the high-cushion Quantic midsoles provide soft cushioning to deliver miles and miles of comfort.
The Altra Timp 3 also features Altra’s wide toe box that allow the toes to relax and spread out naturally and for the big toes to remain in a straight position, as well as Balanced Cushioning which places heels and forefeet the same distance from the ground, to encourage low-impact landings when running.
The Altra Timp is a zero drop trail running shoe with no difference in the heel to toe drop.
They also supply excellent traction thanks to the MaxTrac outsoles and multidirectional lug pattern.
When I tested the Altra Timp on muddy trails the slipping and sliding put pressure on the side of the boots and I started to wear holes in them after only 2 days of use. While this is not great the Timps are not designed for hiking on super muddy trails in the mountains when carrying several days of food. Most of the trail running shoes in this review would have failed in the same way.
Overall, I found them comfortable and essentially very similar to the Lone Peaks but with an extra couple of millimeters of padding under the feet.
> Energy Save midsole specially designed for long distances
> Special zones on the rubber outsole for added grip
> 3D stretch air mesh for breathability
> Won’t collapse or compress even after miles of running
> Narrow fit
Issues with the lacing system coming undone
The Salomon Ultra/Pro has the comfort and cushioning required to withstand walking or running for miles and won’t collapse or compress under pressure.
Designed for committed endurance runners, these trail running shoes feature an Energy Save midsole with a rolling profile to keep you flowing down the trail.
The rubber soles provide durability and grip and feature special zones to provide added traction and confidence when you’re descending.
The SensiFit technology also provides the much-needed versatility required for covering distances, providing floating wings that make it easy to adjust the forefoot and midfoot support as your needs change.
> Maximum cushioning for long distances
> FootShape toe boxes and Altra Balanced Cushioning
> InnerFlex midsole for improved flexibility and agility
> Vibram Megagrip rubber outsoles
> For wide feet
The Olympus 4 offers maximum cushioning and a stack height of 33mm, so they’re ideal if you have high arches or foot-related issues, and are one of the best trail running shoes for long distance hiking trails.
This shoe features signature Altra Balanced Cushioning and FootShape toe boxes which allow your toes to spread out and encourages proper, low-impact form throughout your run.
The heel of the shoe has been rounded to encourage a smoother step from heel to toe, while the InnerFlex midsole technology increases flexibility for agile movements.
The tongues have also been redesigned for improved comfort and a more locked-in feel, while the Vibram Megagrip rubber outsoles provide secure traction on varied terrain.
The Altra Olympus is a zero drop trail running shoe with no difference in the heel to toe drop.
The Olympus 4 is also surprisingly lightweight considering the amount of cushioning and support it supplies. This trail runner is one of the most comfortable trail running shoes on the market due to the excess padding. There is no chance of feeling the rocky terrain with this shoe.
Overall, I love the comfort of this shoe and the soft padding of these shoes.
Other Trail Runners to Consider
There are several other worthy trail runners for thru hiking such as:
- Saucony Peregrine 11 : The Saucony Peregrine 11 is yet to be reviewed but is a good quality trail runner.
When it comes to any type of running shoe, comfort is always going to be top of your priority list.
This will largely depend on the fit of the shoe, and some trail running shoes run small, so ensure you check the size guide and reviews before you purchase.
Also bear in mind that your feet are bigger in the afternoon, and they’re going to swell when you’re running or walking for long periods of time, therefore, it might be wise to size up a little.
You’ll also want to pay attention to the cushioning in the shoe, and the level of support it provides.
Those with high arches require maximum cushioning, whereas those with lower arches may need a stability shoe to prevent the foot from rolling.
It’s also worth looking for a shoe with a roomy toe box so your toes can spread out, and a flexible upper that adapts to your movements.
Most trail running shoes are designed to be lightweight to lessen fatigue and reduce stumbling and injuries, however, if you’re running on particularly uneven terrain, you may wish to opt for a heavier shoe as these are likely to provide more protection and durability.
Trail running shoes usually compromise on durability in order to reduce the overall weight of the shoe, however, it’s worth checking the uppers and the lugs of trail runners as these will indicate how durable they are.
Reinforced mesh uppers and firm lugs will make for the most robust trail runners.
Most trail runners aren’t waterproof, but they’ll usually feature breathable mesh panels for increased air flow or drainage holes which allow the shoes to dry quickly if they get wet.
Some styles may also come in a Gore-Tex variation, which is a breathable, waterproof material, and these are can be good if you’ll be running in wet, muddy conditions. But most people prefer the breathability benefits of non waterproof trail running shoes. When they are more breathable the feet are less sweaty and less prone to blisters.
Heel to Toe Drop
Traditionally, a noticeable heel-to-toe-drop was believed to increase your running and walking efficiency, however, today, some modern trail runner designs have zero drop and balance your foot off the ground at the same distance from heel to toe.
It’s thought that this puts less stress on your body and allows for a more natural gait while running.
If you ever try zero drop shoes after being conditioned to us shoes with a heel to toe drop it will initially feel weird. I found that it felt like every step I was taking was uphill as my calves had to do more work, or so it appeared to me. They are not for everyone and a period of adjustment is usually needed for most people to get used to them. After more than 200 miles of hiking with zero drop shoes I have grown to love them but I still prefer a couple of millimeters in the heel to toe drop, it just feels better.
Frequently Asked Questions
Trail running shoes should last around 500 miles when used on hiking trails. Long distance thru hikers love lightweight trail runners for their comfort when hiking long distances. They will last less than that when used on technical terrain or muddy terrain.
Trail runners are designed to provide traction and protection when tackling off-road trails, however, bear in mind that lighter styles won’t provide the same level of grip as hiking shoes, particularly because they’re designed to offer traction when moving at a faster pace than a slow hiking speed.
For a casual hike, trail running shoes may be fine, but for a longer hike or regular hiking, you should buy a pair of hiking shoes or boots, and save trail runners for running alone.
Usually, a hiking shoe is a low-cut version of the brand’s boot. These offer the protection of a boot but with the out-of-the-box comfort of a sneaker.
They offer a similar shape to trail runners, but the main difference between the two is that hiking shoes are sturdier and more robust, and are therefore heavier.
They also often feature a waterproof membrane such as Gore-Tex and might feature suede or leather for extra durability.
Trail runners will often be made of mesh and other synthetic materials, as these provide less weight and are more appropriate for running.
There’s no rule book insisting that you can’t wear running shoes for hiking, however, these shoes aren’t designed for uneven terrain and therefore you’re more at risk of slipping or sustaining an injury.
Trail shoes will provide much more traction and support, but even these don’t provide the protection required for regular hikes.
If you regularly run on trails, go for trail runners, and if you go on regular hikes, invest in a pair of quality hiking shoes or boots.
The answer to this question depends on a few things; a) where you’re backpacking, b) how heavy your pack is, and c) how long you’ll be carrying it for.
The heavier you and your pack are, the more cushioning and support you will need in order to bear the load safely. If you’re in good shape and are used to carrying a lightweight pack (e.g. under 10 kg/22 lb), trail runners may be a viable option, but more often than not, you’ll require a sturdy pair of hiking boots or shoes.
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