Trail Shoes vs Hiking Boots when Thru-Hiking.

Mickey and Michelle on the Te Araroa

On a long-distance hiking mission, like Te Araroa, what you wear on your feet is super important, especially when walking 3,000 km!

But what should you wear? That is the age-old question! Shoes VS Boots! Do you wear lighter trail running shoes? Or do you wear more durable hiking boots?

A trail running shoe is going to be great for keeping weight down. They'll be faster-drying for all those river crossings (there are a few) and be more breathable for your sweaty feet! But the pay-off for lightness is less durability.

On the flip side, hiking boots, especially leather ones, are very durable but they will be heavier and you'll have to take more care of them (making sure they fully dry out and applying wax on an off day for a leather boot).

Before and After shots of shoes for the TA

Here you can see the difference from a brand-new trail shoe, to and old pair that someone doing TA threw out in our bin! 

So, how long can I expect my shoes or boots to last?
There is no clear-cut answer, but a good rule of thumb is that the sturdier it is, the more durable it can be (when talking about quality brands). But this will depend on what it's made of, how you use it and how you look after it. 

How you walk!

How you walk will have a big impact on this too. If you're agile and very light on your feet, not carrying a lot of weight your shoes will tend to last longer. If you're not as agile, your steps are heavier, you're carrying a heavy pack or you have to take more steps, your shoes will go through a lot more wear more quickly.

As you can see in the video below - we have a more agile person in trail runners and someone who knows they're not as agile choosing a leather boot for its durability. You can see how the second person is travelling the same terrain. However, her feet scuff the rocks, and her foot placement places more wear and tear on her footwear. This is a clear example of how two people who travel the same distance and terrain can have vastly different outcomes on footwear longevity.

Two hikers on the same trail, with different walking styles= different wear and tear on gear.

Rest Days for your shoes

Another factor in the durability of shoes is if they have 'rest days' or if you use them every day (which is often the case when doing a long-distance hike). Rest days for shoes allow the compressed foam in the soles of shoes to spring back. Compressed soles day after day reduces the lifespan of a shoe. Also having wet shoes day after day leads to rotting, which will reduce the lifespan of a shoe.

Trail conditions

Another significant factor is the weather and trail conditions. Trails with fine sand or mud that get caught in trail shoes made with some sort of mesh outer will act like sandpaper - rubbing and causing friction, which will wear out and make holes in your shoes - even in a short time. That's why many people's shoes 'wear out' in the first few weeks of Te Araroa, as there is LOTS of sand to contend with!
Some trail gaiters can help with this, but unfortunately, you cannot often see the fine sand and grit easily, and it gets in and rubs regardless.

I asked some friends what they used for their TA missions, and they all said trail shoes - with some using boot options for more mountainous or scree areas (for their durability!) as well. But how many pairs of shoes did they use for TA...? It varied from two to five! 

Five Pairs!
Brook van Reenan went through five pairs when he was running it, he wasn't carrying a lot of weight but running on that terrain for that long was hard on his shoes.

Three Pairs!

Ivan Clayden went through three pairs but used tougher shoes for the scree in the Richmond's for their sturdiness.

Two.Five pairs!

Stefan Fairweather used two pairs of light hiking shoes for most of TA and a leather hiking boot for the last 300km (and then had the hiking boots for another year after that!)

Three pairs!

Victoria Bruce used three pairs but didn't use tougher shoes at any point. 

Two pairs! 

When Mickey and Michelle hit Wanaka (they had to postpone their TA here, and then resume in 2023 because of lockdowns) they were on track to need a second pair of trail runners, each. 


Michelle of Mickey and Michelle on the TA

Both TA images are @mickeyandmichelle (who went through 2 pairs of their Trail Runners!)

In the end, no matter what works best for you or what you choose, you should expect, and not be surprised, if you go through several pairs of shoes or boots on the TA (3,000km is a lot to ask from any footwear!) Let us know how many pairs you went through! 

5 things to think about when getting a hiking boot or trail shoe for a long hike (like Te Araroa):

1.  How do you walk? Are you agile and light on your feet? Or do you take a few more steps as you go, and sometimes drag your toes up a steep rock face?

2.  Are you going to have rest days on your long hike where your shoes get to have a break from being walked in and have time to dry out?

3.  Are you going to be carrying a big heavy pack? Or will you be going lighter with lots of stops on the way through? 

4.  How many KM's will you be walking? 

5.  What kind of terrain will you be walking in? Sand? Through rivers? Scree slopes and rocky mountains?


1 comment

  • Big T

    In the past, I believed, like most of my ilk that you had to wear boots for mountain terrain. I first met with Scandinavian hikers wearing sneakers in of all places Romsdal heading up to hike the plateau to the north. Mad I thought. Now in my advanced years, I too wear sneakers for all my hiking; but saying that I have decreased my load too. I have gone from a 65 l expedition pack to 38 l frameless pack; from a 9 lb tent to a 3/4 lb tarp and from 4 lb boots to whatever my Merrill shoes weigh and still do just the same distances but with far less strain and energy output. The shoes have changed too with time and are just as robust as the old-time boots of yesteryear.

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