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Is It Okay to Wear Sneakers on Hikes?

Close-up of man in sneakers walking on high mountains.

It’s a tale as old as time. Girl looking for adventure but trouble finds her instead. And she’s stuck in a conundrum of seeking answers to an age-old problem. Nothing comes to mind to what is seemingly a simple question.

Is it okay to wear sneakers on hikes? If so, what type of hike would be appropriate?

Man in blue hiking shoes walking on a wooden bridge.

All jokes aside, I was in a pickle. Just last week, this would’ve never been thought of until I came home with bumps and bruises. But someone’s gotta tell this story and know what to do and what not to do.  

This is about my arduous journey trying to find the perfect pair of shoes for hiking.

But please, let me start at the beginning. 

Over the weekend, after visiting the local farmer’s market, I decided to do a quick hike up the hills nearby. 

It was an impromptu adventure to explore the beautiful green slopes and valleys near the countryside. For this easy activity, the hardest terrain was walking over a slight incline with loose gravel off of neighboring lava rocks and over dry, dusty red clay dirt. 

I only had my running sneakers on. I figured it would be a quick workout, sure to burn some hundred calories. And it should be a fairly easy walk. 

It was clear and sunny, a typical beautiful day in paradise. Because the trail was at a higher elevation, there was a cool mountain breeze that dissipated the heat. 

I was wearing my comfortable old shoes for this hike. I admit the soles were worn-down with the tread nearly gone, almost flushed with the grooves of the mid and outsole. There was no grip for traction to hold onto the earth beneath my feet. 

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As long as I didn’t lose my stride, I think my shoes were just fine. 

Boy, was I wrong. Who knew I would be slipping and sliding throughout this half-mile hike? 

Because ominous clouds came in within 15 minutes of hiking and started pouring torrential rain. I was already too deep in the path to escape back to my car. 

I made my way through the mud, tree roots springing out of nowhere, catching my foot, stubbing my toe against rocks. I was soaked head to toe and squishing in my wet shoes through the mud. I slipped too many times, eventually sporting a gnarly gash on my shin.

Once the rain let up, the mosquitoes came soon after.  Oh, what fun. 

When I finally got to my car, I ended up chucking my old trainers into the trash bin in the park.

What lesson did I learn from this? 

Buy decent shoes.

Woman hand holding a brown leather hiking boots.

Besides my aching feet and a couple of angry blisters at the pads of my feet, a purplish-black spot appeared under my big toenail. The expensive pedicure I had a couple of days ago was ruined. 

It must have happened when I was hiking downhill with my toes hitting the end of the shoe. My shoes weren’t quite as snug and I wasn’t feeling any pain until I got home. Now with an ugly toenail and aching arches, it was the aftermath of bad decisions.

According to WebMD, the medical term is called subungual hematoma where the blood pools and dries under the nail bed.  This happens when you stub your toe or any similar trauma to the nail. It’s a common injury but the affected nail is pretty gnarly to look at. It also can take up to nine months for new nail cells to push out the old and for the discoloration to disappear. 

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I ended up going with a dark colored nail polish to hide the blotch.

Despite this experience, it hasn’t put me off hiking. I knew I had to look for quality shoes made for hiking.

I know I am not interested in wearing hiking boots. It’s a bit too much for what was supposed to be a leisure activity. 

With high-tops and heavy-duty rubber soles, hiking boots are heavy and clunky. They are made well for all kinds of terrain and weather conditions but the weight of them would kill my calves. I would be getting a decent workout but it’s not worth it to miss out because of awkward footwear. 

I’m also a minimalist and prefer no unnecessary frills. From this last hiking fiasco, I knew I needed quality shoes to protect my feet. 

In the end, I decided on quality running sneakers or hiking shoes. 

There are plenty of different types of shoes on the market, with new features and designs for comfort and affordability. I’m looking for versatility and durability. I also want footwear that can accommodate or conform to my small but wide feet. Friends have suggested I look into hiking shoes instead.

But what is the difference between hiking shoes and running sneakers?

A couple choosing hiking shoes in the sports store.

Good running shoes can last up to 500 miles but hiking shoes can last twice as long, according to the Outdoor Veteran. 

Cost ranges from $50 – $170 depending on the brand and type of shoe. 

Both hiking and running shoes are made lightweight, making them easy on the calves. This allows the user to move easily and be quick and nimble on their feet. 

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Because of their durability, hiking shoes are made to withstand all types of terrain, whereas running shoes are made for running on pavement, grass and any other flat, even surface.

Hiking shoes can be waterproof, though not all of them are truly waterproof. But it does repel water more so than your average sneakers. Its low top is flexible for movement and protects against rocks. 

There’s also a sturdy toe guard. The vamp or upper part of the shoe is a tightly-woven mesh so that tiny rocks and debris can’t get in. 

Running sneakers don’t have a toe guard and the mesh covering the vamp allows air circulation for breathability. They may be more comfortable than hiking shoes but that may change later in the future.

Does the shoe fit? Is it tight or too loose?

Woman tying shoe lace getting ready for hiking.

  • Get the proper size and length. Make sure your shoes are snug with shoelaces tied. It has to fit just right. Soles need to fit well to protect the arches of the feet.
  • Don’t wear tight shoes. Too tight and will cut off circulation, causing numbness. Not to mention stinky feet, there’s no air circulating, eventually creating a humid and uncomfortable environment for your toes. This can also lead to athlete’s foot. 
  • Don’t wear loose shoes either. According to Family Foot & Ankle Care PC, wearing loose shoes can cause bunions, corns and hammertoes. It can also cause blisters from constant rubbing. Loose shoes can result in poor arch support. Continual use will likely lead to arch collapse. The worst part is the high probability of spraining your ankle because there’s no brace to secure the foot inside the shoe.
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What features should I look for and how long will it last? 

Close-up of woman feet wearing hiking shoes.

  • Good arch support: Cushioned with a well-fit snug, formed well onto the insoles. 
  • Toe movement: There should be room for your toes to wiggle but snug enough that there’s no gap in the toe box. Otherwise, your toenails will continually hit the front part of the toe cap, eventually causing trauma and discoloration to your toenails when going downhill.
  • Good soles: A thick sole ensures cushion and defense from hard terrain. If the trail has sharp, jagged rocks, your feet won’t feel a thing.  
  • Toe guard/cap protection: A substantial toe cap is usually made of hard plastic, rubber or even metal. This attribute is meant to protect the toenails. 
  • Grip: According to Ben from Pack Your Tent, grooves on your shoes are important. This is what will grip the terrain. If it’s been raining, having your shoes firmly on the ground will help save you (and your tush) from slipping and falling. 
  • Heel support or brace: Similar to what high tops go, some shoes are designed with an additional strap wrapping around the Achilles tendon. This helps stabilize your feet by staying inside the shoe. It also prevents heel pain.

With all this research, I ended up getting both hiking and running shoes. Hey, a girl can never get enough shoes.

I know now to always check what the weather and overall terrain will be. If it calls for trekking over cliffs and slippery rocks, sneakers will not do. The weather can turn on a dime, from sunny skies to heavy rain. 

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Luckily, my car is also my second closet as there are loads of shoes in the trunk. But for those who need to be mindful of their pennies, I would go for hiking shoes. 

Would I use my running sneakers to go hiking again? Of course! I know now that they can come in a pinch but I also know that continual wear and tear will make my sneakers ineffective against nature’s elements. 

But having simple, sturdy and newish running sneakers is fine for easy hikes. 

If all you have are tennis shoes, just make sure they aren’t worn out like mine or you’re gonna be in a world of hurt sooner or later.

References:

Podiatrist: Family Foot and Ankle Care

Pack Your Tent: Can You Hike in Running Shoes?

Switchback Travel: Hiking Shoes vs. Trail Runners

WebMD: Bleeding Under a Nail? What to Do