Welcome to the Minimalist Footwear Trailhead
This is Backpacking Light’s curated gateway page (a trailhead, so to speak). Here, you’ll find information and resources about minimalist footwear and trail running shoes for hiking and backpacking.
Trail running shoes are the most common style of minimalist footwear for hiking, backpacking, and other ultralight backcountry activities. These activities include ultralight backpacking, thru-hiking, long-distance hiking, fastpacking, FKT attempts, packrafting, ultrarunning, and more.
About this Trailhead: Curated and maintained by our staff, this Trailhead page includes an overview of the topic as well as links to information and resources about the topic at the Backpacking Light website. Those resources may include gear reviews, technology and testing, research, skills articles, online education (webinars, masterclasses, or other types of online courses), podcast episodes, forum threads, product recommendations, and other discovery tools including our Gear Finder, Gear Shop, and Site Search engine.
What is minimalist footwear?
Traditional footwear for backpacking (most commonly regarded to be hiking boots):
- is heavy and stiff, causing excess fatigue on high-mileage days or multi-day trips
- absorbs a lot of water and is slow to dry
- is waterproof and thus, not very breathable
But if you can successfully reduce your pack weight, you can get away with lighter footwear. Trail running shoes are overwhelmingly the choice du jour in the ultralight backpacking community. They mitigate some of the problems that heavy boots create:
- trail running shoes are lighter (6 to 14 ounces / 170 to 370 g per pair) than conventional boots (32 to 64 ounces / 910 to 1810 g per pair)
- minimalist footwear is more flexible, which can lead to fewer blisters, less fatigue and increased foot muscle size and strength (Ridge et al., Walking in Minimalist Shoes Is Effective for Strengthening Foot Muscles . Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Jan;51(1):104-113.)
- lighter shoes made with lighter materials drain water and dry faster (2-4 hours vs. 24-72 hours in warm, dry conditions)
- minimalist shoes keep your feet cooler in warm temperatures (reducing the risk of blisters and maceration)
Trail running shoes and other lightweight footwear options are often considered to fall into the category of minimalist footwear for hiking and backpacking.
Are there other types of minimalist footwear besides trail running shoes for hiking and backpacking?
Huaraches, sandals, mocassins, toe shoes – even barefoot hiking. There are lots of variations here. We call some of these styles ultra-minimalist footwear. They are available from several brands including Vivo Barefoot, Vibram, and Xero Shoes.
However, trail running shoes are the most popular type of minimalist footwear for hiking and backpacking, so we generally focus on that product category.
If minimalist footwear works miracles for runners, how about backpackers?
There’s a lot of research that proposes lofty benefits of minimalist footwear for running. That means it’s applicable for backpacking, too, right?
You can’t transfer the research.
(Most) backpackers don’t run (!), so our stride is shorter and our foot plant is different.
Backpackers carry larger and heavier packs than runners, which completely changes our gait, stride, and plant.
Some backpackers travel over rougher terrain than runners. Talus, scree, tundra, bogs, scrambles. That changes everything.
So be careful – the benefits of minimalist footwear for trail running are going to be dramatically different than the benefits of minimalist footwear for backpacking.
What are the key attributes of minimalist footwear?
Some attributes that can be used to characterize and differentiate minimalist footwear include:
- Drop – The differential height between the bottom of a person’s heel and the bottom of the ball of their feet. Shoes with higher drop have a higher heel. Low drop shoes are flatter across the length of the shoe relative to the ground surface. A lower drop provides a more natural, barefoot-style walking motion, but at the expense of transferring more strain to muscles in your calves and knees.
- Stack height – The height of the combination of the outsole, midsole, and insole. High stack height shoes can be more comfortable but come at the cost of some stability on uneven terrain.
- Longitudinal stiffness – The resistance of a shoe’s sole stack to bending. More stiffness provides resistance to fatigue on long days. Less stiffness provides a more natural walking motion.
- Upper material – Synthetic mesh uppers are often lighter, breathe better, drain water better, and dry faster. However, they are less warm in rainy, colder weather. In addition, mesh uppers are often less durable than solid fabric uppers.
- Toe box width – A wider toe box allows the forefoot to splay, which helps distribute body and pack weight more evenly when walking. Narrower toe boxes provide more precision, which is particularly useful when scrambling in steep and rocky terrain.
What’s the best trail running shoe for hiking and backpacking?
The best minimalist footwear, or the best trail running shoe, does not exist.
Our position is simple: the best trail running shoe for hiking and backpacking is the trail running shoe that:
- Fits you and is comfortable; and
- Is designed for the specific application or use case for your style of hiking and backpacking.
Consumer Advocacy Warning: Be wary of listicles written by bloggers or media outlets with titles like “Best Trail Running Shoes for Hiking and Backpacking” because they are often little more than canned, formulaic articles (often written by AI-bots or outsourced to SEO contract writers) filled with affiliate marketing links and seldom offer performance analyses based on extensive experience in the field. We’re not going to recommend any trail running shoe that we think is best for you. Instead, we want to give you the knowledge and skills that empower you to make the best possible decision on your own. Backpacking Light is in the business of sharing information between its members, educating consumers, and consumer advocacy, not in pushing you to buy gear that may not work for you. When we make a product recommendation – always consider that the product may not work for you.
Can you provide examples of brands and products that make minimalist footwear and trail running shoes for hiking and backpacking?
As you embark on your search for the best trail running shoe for you, here are some minimalist footwear and trail running shoe brands that may work well for you.
Link Disclosure: The brand links below go to our own brand gateway pages, which provide an index to articles, gear swap listings, and member reviews related to that brand. Likewise, all links on this page will direct to other pages on our site to original content created by Backpacking Light. You may find affiliate links elsewhere on our site (read our disclosure letter here), but they will not be used on this page.
- Altra Running
- Black Diamond
- La Sportiva
- New Balance
- On Running
- The North Face
- Topo Athletic
- Vivo Barefoot
- Xero Shoes
Some of these trail running shoe brands have been featured in recent gear reviews and gear guides published at Backpacking Light:
- Xero Shoes Mesa Trail
- Xero Shoes Alpine
- Arc’teryx Norvan review
- Inov-8 Terraultra G 270
- Gear Guides from the archives: Minimalist Footwear for Summer Backpacking and Minimalist Footwear for Fall/Spring Backpacking
Browse our curated recommendations for minimalist footwear in the Backpacking Light Gear Shop – a product research discovery tool where you can find Member gear reviews, Gear Swap (used gear) listings, and more info about specific products recommended by our staff and members.
What does a minimalist footwear expert say about using trail running shoes for hiking and backpacking?
Watch Ryan Jordan (founder of Backpacking Light) and Damien Tougas (founder of Toesalad) – a minimalist footwear expert – chat about minimalist footwear philosophy, ideas, and practices:
Is minimalist footwear for everyone?
No, of course not. There are some circumstances where a hiker should elect more robust, supportive footwear. Here are a few contexts:
- Interview with a Physio Therapist: A Biophysical Perspective on Backpacking Footwear
- Techniques for Talus
However, if you care for your feet and judiciously select footwear that won’t cause you injury, we believe minimalist footwear and trail running shoes can be used well into your golden years. See:
- How to Choose Backpacking Footwear So You Can Keep Hiking Until you Die
Can minimalist footwear be used in deep snow?
You bet, but it requires that you pay more careful attention to gear and skills. Check out the following skills articles to learn more about using trail running shoes and other footwear accessories for winter, snow, and cold:
- Ultralight Spring Footwear Systems with Overboots
- Lightweight Footwear Systems for Snow Travel
In addition – we created an entire online course specifically dedicated to helping you understand how to use minimalist footwear and various traction accessories in this online webinar:
- Lightweight Footwear and Traction Systems for Backcountry Snow Travel
Can trail running shoes and other minimalist footwear be used for hiking and backpacking in cold and wet weather?
Sure – with caveats. Keeping your feet warm when it’s cold and wet can be extremely challenging. It requires careful selection of not only the hiking shoe, but also socks, gaiters, and a few other strategic footwear accessories. This guide will help:
- Wet, Cold Feet When Backpacking: How To Keep Your Feet Dry(er) and Warm(er) in Inclement Weather
How does minimalist footwear impact foot health?
We have a few podcasts that discuss maceration, immersion foot, trench foot, stress fractures, and more:
- Stress Fractures
- Maceration and Immersion Foot Diseases
What do Backpacking Light Members say about minimalist footwear?
Check out these recent forum threads:
- Recommendations for Wide Trail Runners?
- Shoes that have all the benefits of trail runners but are more durable?
- What footwear is best for long days in the rain?
- What is your foot care regime?
- Lightweight winter footwear for colder temperatures?
More Skills Articles:
- Crossing Rivers and Water Shoes
- Minimalist Footwear for Backpacking (Video Commentary)
More Education (Webinars, Masterclasses, and Online Courses):
- Lightweight Footwear and Traction Systems for Backcountry Snow Travel (Webinar)
- New in 2021! See our new and revised section on Minimalist Footwear for Backpacking in the Ultralight Backpacking Boot Camp (Online Course), developed by Backpacking Light’s managing editor, podcast producer and co-host, and thru-hiker Andrew Marshall.
Search and Browse: More Discovery Tools
- Search for Shoe Reviews in our Article Archives
- Browse the Footwear Category in our Category Browser to find more articles, Member Gear Swap listings (classified ads for used gear), Member Gear Reviews, and more.
- See all articles tagged with minimalist footwear, footwear, trail running shoes, shoes, socks, gaiters, traction, snowshoes, and snowshoeing.
- Search the Forums for all forum threads about minimalist footwear.
- Browse our curated recommendations for minimalist footwear in the Backpacking Light Gear Shop – a product research discovery tool where you can find Member gear reviews, Gear Swap (used gear) listings, and more info about specific products recommended by our staff and members.
- Find trail running shoes on sale using our Gear Finder search engine.
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