In recent times there has been a movement of sorts to transition from traditional backpacking boots to more minimalistic footwear like trail runners or hiking shoes. The obvious benefit to such a change is the reduced weight of the footwear. Switching from boots to trail runners can remove several pounds from your feet.
Surrounding this obvious benefit have been a lot of assertions and speculation about other advantages and disadvantages with respect to boots and trail runners. I find that most are largely an attempt at rationalizing the choice after the fact.
The biggest point of contention has been the issue of ankle support, with each side claiming that their chosen form of footwear is better at preventing injury. Boot fans assert that the higher boot provides support for the ankle and keeps it from overextending thereby preventing injury. Minimalist footwear supporters (using the term very generally) claim that the lack of constraint on the ankle allows for more natural movement preventing injury. Recently there has been a claim that this also prevents knee injury because it allows the ankle to bend rather than the more rigid knee.
In my personal experience this is all hooey. Unless you are wearing boots with extremely rigid sides, i.e. something like mountaineering boots, your ankle will twist just the same. On the other hand, trail runners and their “more natural” movement do nothing to prevent an injury. A twisted ankle is a twisted ankle. The argument about trail runners preventing knee injuries makes even less sense because it inevitably assumes that boots actually provide ankle support, thereby transferring the stress to the knees. Since an ankle can roll in the boots as well, this is a non issue for your knees. Athletic research seems to support this as well. Testing between high footwear with “ankle support” and low footwear has shown no statistical difference in the ankle injury rates or frequency. See Prevention of Lower Extremity Injuries in Basketball: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses, Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, June 26, 2015; High- Versus Low-Top Shoes For The Prevention of Ankle Sprains in Basketball Players, Am J Sports Med July 1993 21 582-585
Another, lesser point of contention has been the belief that boots have thicker, stiffer soles than trail runners. Each side then extrapolates perceived advantages from the assertion to support their theory. The problem with this side of the debate is that there is such a wide range of soles on both boots and trail runners that the overlap is massive. You can indeed find boots that have extremely stiff and thick soles, and you can find minimal footwear that approximates the feeling of walking barefoot, but most fall somewhere in between. You can find boots with relatively thin, flexible soles and you can find very rigid shoes. So, for me this is a non-issue as well. Same thing goes for the durability of the soles as well. You can find durable and non-durable soles on both types of footwear (within reason).
So, you are probably wondering at this point, if trail runners (or other minimal footwear) are lighter, and I do not believe that boots provide any additional ankle support, why wear boots?
I have several reasons:
1. Even if money was not an issue, I simply have no desire to have a dozen pairs of backpacking shoes/boots. Between my mountaineering and wading boots, I already have too many. My general backpacking footwear has to be usable year round. It has to work on a summer hike, as well as when I’m snowshoeing in winter. When I’m knee deep in show, I just prefer a boot. Gaiters or no gaiters, for me the boots just do a much better job of making sure my feet are not covered in snow.
2. I have actually found footwear that works for the terrain I usually encounter, and it so happens to be a pair of boots. Now, it is not the fact that they are boots that makes them well suited to my needs. I can probably find other shoes that will serve me as well, but footwear is such a personal thing, and finding the perfect fit and function is so difficult, that once you find them there is a resistance to start looking again.
3. On a more practical note, while I find that boots do not offer me any ankle support when it comes to sprains and rolling injuries, they do a great job at protecting my toes when going downhill. When you are walking downhill, especially on rough terrain, your foot has a tendency to slide forward into the shoe, putting pressure on your toes. This can lead to injuries, and more than one lost toenail. Boots allow me to better secure my ankle and heel and prevent my foot from sliding and impacting the front of the shoe. This has been a big issue for me.
So, what boots do I use and why? My choice has been the Solomon Quest 4D GTX. My reasons are as follows:
1. They fit me. This tends to be a highly overlooked issue when discussing boots and shoes. All of the technical issues mean nothing if a boot does not fit well. Different models will fit differently, not just in terms of size, but also in how they are shaped. For example, I prefer a boot with a wide toe box, which the Solomon Quest 4D GTX provide.
2. I need GoreTex boots. There has been a lot of debate when it comes to GoreTex lined boots. Some people prefer more breathable, non-waterproof boots. The thinking is that your feet will get wet anyway if you are in a wet environment, and non-waterproof shoes will dry much faster, which they do. The reason I go with GoreTex lined boots is that there is a wide range of weather conditions between dry and completely wet. Sure, on some trips the environment is so wet that water will get into my boots no matter what. However, most of the time I am going through puddles, mud, small streams, etc. without being knee deep in water. In such conditions, which are more common where I live, waterproof boots work great. Keeping swamp water away from your socks and the inside of your boots while walking on the side of a muddy body of water is priceless in my book.
3. I like footwear with thick, yet flexible soles. Where I usually backpack I have extremely rocky terrain. Thin soles do not work for me. I need footwear that can mitigate the impact of each little rock sticking into my foot. On the other hand, I like flexible soles which provide me with better grip and articulation. The Solomon Quest 4D GTX fit the bill for me.
And that’s it for why I use hiking boots rather than more minimal footwear as well as some thoughts on what I look for in a pair of boots. Of course, the above considerations work for me in the environments I typically encounter. Things will differ for each person. Also keep in mind that here I am discussing general backpacking footwear. There are more specialized pursuits like climbing where specific types of shoes/boots have clear advantages and disadvantages. That however is a different post.