On a day-to-day basis, I wear regular light-weight sport shoes, such as these:

sport shoe

The footwear I saw people using in serious terrain in the USA looked similar, but this answer to my related question points out those are trail shoes.

The concept of trail shoes is new to me, and I have not seen people hiking in those prior to my recent US trip, or I mistook them for sport shoes. How can I tell apart a trail shoe from a regular light sport shoe? Searching Google for trail shoes links either to running shoes or to shoes no different from the ones above. Presumably, they are different from the ones above, that I wouldn't want to wear even for a 2-hour hike in the English countryside, let alone for a mountain trail (I tried exactly once and I've rarely had such painful feet, so either my shoes are different, or I am different). Do people get trail shoes from cottage industry manufacturers or are they sold in regular stores (just hard to distinguish from sport shoes)?

I suppose it depends on aspects like Gore-Tex™, Vibram™ soles, protection against rocks, etc., but perhaps there is more.

  • 3
    It's pretty grey I'd say. Where do "trail shoes" end and trainers start is a tough one to answer. If I'm fell running do the trainers I'm wearing count.
    – user2766
    Apr 26, 2016 at 10:14
  • I'd have to agree with Liam. As an example, here are the ones I use for everything from fell running, to walking round the local shops: wigglestatic.com/product-media/5360098297/…
    – Rory Alsop
    Apr 26, 2016 at 10:20
  • 1
    I do tend to stick with proper manufacturers for these though, eg Salomon. I wouldn't go for a no-name shoe for fell running, as they take a real beating
    – Rory Alsop
    Apr 26, 2016 at 10:21
  • 2
    The difference is in sole, materials, construction and support. Density/configuration of the midsole and shanks will also be different. Unfortunately theres a whole slice of the market that will differentiate a shoe from normal sneaker to trail shoe just on the basis of a "membrane" or a bit or leather on the top or aggressive lugs on the sole, but the materials and construction are the same. these are the cheap shoes you should stay away from whatever activity you do. Serious manufacturers classify their products properly. Sometimes the stitching gives a clue too Apr 26, 2016 at 12:09
  • 1
    In the case that link to image @RoryAlsop provided will rot: it was link to Salomon-XA-Pro-3D-Shoes-AW15-Offroad-Running-Shoes-Black-AW15-L35680100-20 Apr 27, 2016 at 23:14

5 Answers 5


The problem is, that these are a (comparatively) new type of shoes and a hybrid of other types. Therefore there is no clear definition, not even consistent naming.

Trail running shoes

These are the closest to "normal" sports shoes. They are however very light. The competition shoes have hardly any fabric on it, but there are of course also more robust version. In any case as they are designed to run up and down weight matters a lot. Secondly their soles are specially designed to give maximum grip on rock/mud/grass/... (or a subset of these) and are very soft. Usually these shoes do not have any waterproofness (even though as everywhere you will find GoreTex models, but thats IMO just marketing), but they usually dry very fast. You find such shoes in every bigger sports store or a dedicated running store.

Approach shoes

These come out of the climbing scene. They usually have no ankle support and are more durable and thus heavier than the trail running shoes. Their sole is somewhat stiffer and design for use on rock. Often on the tip the sole is smooth rubber as on climbing shoes. These boots you will find mostly in climbing shops, as the manufacturers are most prevalently climbing shoe manufacturers like La Sportiva, Evolv, Scarpa, Five Ten, ...

"Trail" shoes

I put those in parentheses, as this paragraph is about all those not clearly defined shoes. Under this (or a similar name) you will find a broad range of shoes. The ones that I think fall into the category of "trail shoes" you are asking about have the following characteristics.

  • Most importantly: The sole.
    Good trail shoes give lots of traction. So the rubber and the pattern are designed for trails and not the hard and rather smooth kind as in city shoes. As compared to the heavy boots, the sole is similar in its surface but much more flexible to allow for a more natural walking style.
  • Lacing:
    Trail shoes can be laced such that the feet do not slip around in the shoes. While this is obvious, it still sets them apart from the "unsuited city shoes".
  • Material:
    The material used is durable and designed to withstand abrasion, dirt, water immersion, ... . Sometimes it is waterproofed, sometimes it is designed to dry quickly. Which is more suited depends on the usecase and personal preference, both fall into this category.
  • Ankle support:
    They do not have a shaft covering the ankles as opposed to boots. There are of course many trekking shoes that have some ankle support, but that helps very little. While really high and stiff boots (e.g. mountaineering boots, but also many older hiking boots) clearly provide external ankle stiffness, such that reach just over the ankle really don't do much. Try it out yourself bending left and right.

This kind of shoe you should find in any bigger shop as well. If you search for trekking shoes in google, about halve the picture hits fall into these category (at least superficially).

In my opinion the key feature that differentiates a trail shoe from a regular sports shoe is the sole (see above for details). Also important but less so, as there are very minimalist trail shoes as well, is more durability.

  • Also, I've been told that "trail running shoes" have a bit more ankle support and are made of material a bit tougher that your average "track running shoes". Oh, and +1.
    – Roflo
    Apr 26, 2016 at 14:41
  • I disagree with your description of trail running shoes. The average trail running shoe is probably heavier and “stiffer” than a normal street running shoe. Though there is the same full range from “minimalist” shoes with less than 200g to more than 400g with heavy cushioning and support. The most outstanding difference is the sole with this (Salomon Speedcross) vs. this (Nike Lunaracer 3)
    – Michael
    Apr 26, 2016 at 15:24

To some extent, it's a question of marketing etc.

However, there are clear design diferences between "trainers/sneakers" and "trail/approach shoes". I think you may find that while "trail shoe" is a commonly used term by people, "approach shoe" is preferred by manufacturers.

In practice most trail/approach shoes are effectivley the same as lighter weight fabric hiking boots (as opposed to "clompy" leather hiking boots, or ice boots), but without the high ankle. Most importantly the soles are much the same as hiking boots – lots of chunky tread, with a fairly "flat" profile for walking, as opposed to the more curved for running nature and softer material of trainers. I've been wearing a pair that looks much like this for years now:

enter image description here

Trail shoes are made by all the major maufacturers of outdoor shoes as far as I am aware (in the UK, Merrell seem to be the dominant player in the market). Again, walking in to any outdoor shop in the UK, the shoe display is likely to be a mixture of hiking boots, trail shoes, and possibly serious glacier boots and rock climbing shoes, depending on the store.

I think I climbed Scafell Pike in this sort of shoe. They're not the same as boots, but they are very suitable for walking long distances in – I use trail shoes as "every day" shoes because I walk places a lot, and using trainers/smart shoes/skate shoes makes my feet hurt. This sort of thing doesn't.

  • This is only a partial answer, looking at the heavier end of the spectrum. There is also a wide range of lighter shoes designed for trail running. Most long-distance walkers are using the lighter designs. Apr 27, 2016 at 10:53
  • My feet hurt if I walk more than a couple of hours in those, but in hiking boots they don't hurt until after 10-ish hours per day. Hiking downhill even on a moderately steep slope feels very treacherous in those (hmm, perhaps it partly explains why on steep slopes I'm faster than most?). Apparently, even experienced hikers disagree. I cannot understand how anybody can hike a full day in those, let alone multiple days or weeks, but apparently it's true in North America.
    – gerrit
    Aug 10, 2016 at 18:04

How can I tell a “trail shoe” from a regular sport shoe?

Subjective things like fit and comfort aside, I would look at the sole first and foremost. Does it slip on rock, gravel, wood, leaves? If not, then it'd make a pretty good trail shoe, I'd guess.


Trail shoes should be waterproof and the sole should be prepared for mud, remember that you will run on the mountain trails that can be wet, they should also be wider for more stability. Regular sport shoes are mostly made to run on tarmac, where the soil is usually dry and with no mud with less need for stability since tarmac is usually flat.

Hiking shoes are made to be used in the nature, they protect your feet better, they are even more waterproof than the trail shoes, but they are not made to run.

From what I read in your post I think you want Hiking shoes (or boots), but I can be mistaken :)

Here is a great article about this matter


  • I have hiking shoes, my post/posts were mostly the surprise to see many people on hiking trails do not; and to me their shoes looked like regular sport shoes, but many probably were closer to trail shoes, but not hiking boots. I thought, either they're all irresponsible, or I'm missing something. I'm quite happy with my hiking boots, but apparently some say that trail shoes are superior even for heavy hiking.
    – gerrit
    Apr 26, 2016 at 14:21
  • I don't agree, for hiking, the boots provide better support against twisting ankle, better waterproof and better absorption of the irregular soil (rocks).
    – miguelmpn
    Apr 26, 2016 at 14:39
  • But I'm thinking of hikes on my island (Madeira), here you can easilly have mud and steep declines even on a sunny day, and I don't like to walk with my feet wet. But I can accept that trail shoes are more confortable for dry terrains with less declive :)
    – miguelmpn
    Apr 26, 2016 at 14:43
  • 4
    It is not essential for trail shoes to be waterproof. Waterproof shoes can fill with water, or get sweaty. Often better to use light weight shoes, that dry quickly if they get wet.
    – vclaw
    Apr 26, 2016 at 14:55
  • 1
    Well, by reading your comment and link I must say that there will no consensus on this matter, it depends a lot on the terrain, on surfaces as described on the article, definitely he's right. it takes longer for a waterproof shoe to get dry, but in my island with a waterproof boot you will never get your feet wet, and with a waterproof shoe it will only get slightly damp, never wet. This is why it really depends on the terrain of your hike, there is no perfect shoes for all hikes or trails. Sometimes waterproof is good others don't, depends of what terrain you will deal with...
    – miguelmpn
    Apr 27, 2016 at 13:23

As you can see from the existing answers there is no consensus on this. Something may be "a trail shoe" simply because marketing says so. More pragmatically if someone successfully wears a shoe on a trail it is by definition a trail shoe.

Presumably, they are different from the ones above, that I wouldn't want to wear even for a 2-hour hike in the English countryside, let alone for a mountain trail (I tried exactly once and I've rarely had such painful feet, so either my shoes are different, or I am different).

You, or at least your feet, are different and having "tried exactly once" was certainly part of the problem. It takes quite a while for one's feet and lower legs to adapt to a different kind of footwear.

For my own reasons I went from daily wearing high-top basketball shoes with arch supports to Vibram FiveFingers. This transition was not without discomfort but I found that I could build up the muscles in my feet and not rely on arch and ankle support and now I am more comfortable than I was before. However in the middle of this transition when I tried to wear boots (with arch supports) for hiking my feet hurt like crazy. What once was comfortable now hurt and vice versa. I now typically hike also in FiveFingers even on very rocky trails though again adapting to that took time.

The point of this is not to try to convince you to change to minimalist footwear but rather to make you aware that transition is possible but it takes time. It is possible that in time you would actually find your "sport shoes" became comfortable to hike in and that wearing your boots would cause "such painful feet."

As previously related many hikers are choosing lighter weight footwear. Some hike in simple running shoes or "sport shoes" just like the ones you pictures. Others hike in shoes that are very similar except for a more heavily lugged sole. Inov-8 sells (among other products) shoes that are basically track flats with mud lugs and they apparently are popular hiking options.

People choose all sorts of different hiking footwear for different reasons. On the same trail I will see people wearing leather boots and thick wool socks, sandals without socks, sport shoes, gaiters over fabric boots, Inov-8 mud-runners, 5.10 Guide Tennies, and occasionally someone without any shoes at all. (And then me in my FiveFingers.) All of these are trail shoes, except I guess no-shoes. ;-)

(By the way I do not completely "drink the Kool-Aid" regarding minimalist footwear. I know that there is a lot of marketing behind it and I keep a healthy sense of humor about every trend and fashion including this one. This is simply what works for me, at this time.)

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