Running outdoors is awesome. There’s nothing like the quiet, private thrill of jogging through the woods, up mountain paths, or across vast stretches of beach. Given that running outdoors often involves water, you might be wondering: do trail shoes need to be waterproof?
Trail running shoes are an increasingly popular option for runners. They combine the structure, protection, and durability of hiking boots with the comfort, light-weight, and cushioning of running shoes. While trail running shoes and road running shoes are a bit different, both offer the same basic benefits. They feel good to run in.
A trail running shoe offers some unique features that road shoes don’t, including some waterproof models. Whether this is something you want in your shoes really comes down to intended use.
What Are Trail Running Shoes Exactly?
In a nutshell, trail running shoes are footwear designed to hold up to rugged use.
Running in an outdoor environment poses unique challenges, with uneven terrain and water. There even can be sharp rocks and other hazards that could injure the runner.
Trail running shoes are highly durable sneakers that can withstand the most demanding environments. They can get wet and muddy repeatedly without deteriorating as other shoes would, which is ideal for runs on a rugged trail.
Most are more rigid, offering additional stability when running on uneven surfaces or a very technical trail. Some have a “rock plate” in the midsole that shields the runner when stepping on sharp, pointy rocks, something you don’t have to worry about with road running shoes.
Often, the best running shoe for technical terrain will also have extended treads called “lugs” from heel to toe. This makes the bottom of the shoe “stickier” which helps with traction when running on dirt, mud, etc.
One key thing to keep in mind is to avoid running with trail shoes on the road.
The shoes aren’t for hard surfaces like asphalt, so they not only offer the same support and cushioning (i.e., shock absorption) as a pair meant for running on the road, but also pavement will damage the outer soles from toe to heel.
The lugs get worn down quickly from the pavement, rendering even the best trail running shoes ineffective on a technical trail.
Can Trail Running Shoes Get Wet?
Trail running shoes are intended to get wet. Most outdoor environments pose some risk of water: either muddy paths, standing water like puddles or streams, or simply the risk of rain. Unless you plan carefully and are very lucky with predicting rain, getting your trail shoes wet is inevitable.
The key to maximizing the life of your running shoes is to maintain them. For trail running shoes, that means cleaning them of any mud and letting them dry out properly.
Leaving your trail shoes muddy is not only ugly, but it can also deteriorate the fabric, causing the material to become dry and rigid, more vulnerable to damage on challenging and uneven terrain.
When You Need Waterproof Trail Shoes
There are instances when you would want waterproof trail shoes. Waterproofing your trail shoes (or buying a waterproof model) is obviously for when you want to keep your feet dry. Dry feet are more comfortable, generally, but there are specific conditions where this is necessary.
Running In Snow: If you plan to run in the snow, you need waterproof trail running shoes to prevent the moisture from the snow from seeping into the shoe, especially the upper material. Having your feet dry keeps them warm, and the added waterproof barrier helps prevent heat loss. You also need additional traction to safely navigate the terrain, so even the best waterproof running shoes won’t do.
See more: our guide to running in winter.
Running In Cold And Damp Conditions: If you plan to run on wet grass or a trail with mud or small puddles, waterproof trail shoes are a good option. They prevent moisture from the environment from getting into the shoes, which is especially important when the weather is cool. Shoes dry quicker when it’s hot and in the cooler weather, keeping warm is a higher priority.
How To Waterproof Your Trail Shoes
Trail running shoes are waterproofed by creating a lining that shields the inside of the shoe from water. In a waterproof shoe, whether it’s a trail runner or a waterproof hiking shoe, this is usually accomplished with a built-in lining or a water-resistant coating.
You can also buy various sprays to waterproof your shoes, but be warned, this will have limited benefits based on the shoes’ design.
If you’re a trail runner consider using gaiters, which are essentially a tube of fabric that you wear on top of the shoe around your ankle. These keep water from getting into the shoe from the top and coming in contact with your foot.
When To Avoid Waterproof Trail Runnings Shoes
It’s worth pointing out that any design feature that keeps water out of your shoes also keeps water in. This can have various negative side effects. You don’t want to be running with water sloshing around inside your shoes; however, there are less-obvious problems with wearing waterproof trail running shoes, like overheating.
Running In Warm Weather: When the weather is warm, waterproof shoes will have the unfortunate side effect of causing your feet to overheat. One of the key aspects of running shoe design is breathability; the more air circulation you get with your shoes, the less sweaty your feet get and the more comfortable you feel.
The same barrier that prevents water from getting into your shoes prevents airflow, essentially. While there are some exceptions — like Gore-Tex, famous for developing a water-resistant material that is still breathable enough for sweat to pass through — the general rule is that waterproofing strategies for shoes can trap heat and cause overheating.
Running In Really Wet Conditions: Chances are, if you’re running through countless puddles, no amount of waterproofing will keep your feet dry. Water can still get in, especially from splashing above the ankle and trickling down past the gaiters.
In cases where the environment is very wet, it makes more sense to wear a trail running shoe with excellent drainage. Sure, running in wet socks can be uncomfortable, but a trail shoe that drains better and dries quicker is much less likely to trap water inside, which is unpleasant and unhygienic.
The Bottom Line on Waterproof Trail Shoes
Waterproof trail running shoes are a wise investment – if you are going to be tackling the toughest of terrain.
When you run in snow or cool, damp conditions, wearing a pair of shoes with a built-in lining and wearing gaiters can be a great strategy for keeping dry, warm, and comfortable. Consider other supplies, too, like rain jackets and anything else you need to stay dry.
That said, most environments are better suited for trail running shoes that aren’t waterproof. A breathable trail shoe that releases heat is the way to go for running in hot environments on technical terrain. Similarly, if you’re running through very wet conditions, even the best equipment is unlikely to keep your feet dry – making excellent drainage a better option for your trail shoe and your foot.