Trends in outdoor footwear tend to move in certain waves, and certainly there are camps of people who advocate for features/types of shoes across the spectrum. The ongoing trend of brands offering minimalist shoes of varying degrees is certainly not going anywhere, however there has also been a renewal of brands offering thicker cushioned, more maximal shoes. For this article I am going to be referring generally to trail runners and /or other lower cut shoes. I rarely wear boots outside of winter, but they are also a valid shoe choice for the right user.For the past few years, I have used trail runner type shoes for both running off road and also for backpacking trips, and after experimentation I have come to the following general guidelines for usage: Minimal trail shoes (I use the Xero Mesa Trail) can be a good choice for activities that involve a slower pace and less high velocity impact forces. This can include back packing trips depending on how rocky the terrain is. I have found when at a walking pace , even with a load, the ability to be more deliberate with foot placement and make a more thorough stride through your foots range of motion melds well with the thin and pliable nature of minimal shoes. I find that using them in the right circumstances transfers fatigue from my knees and ankles to my foot musculature and structure, which has become stronger with paced training. You do end up feeling more of the surface irregularities (rocks, roots,etc) of trails in minimal shoes, but the discomfort from this tends to fade quicker than discomfort from ankle and knee alignment issues. Minimalist shoes also have an advantage of (lack of) weight on your feet that is appreciated when endurance fatigue sets in, especially when facing inclines late in a hike. Due to their construction in general, I have also found that many issues with blisters/pressure points go away with the use of minimalist shoes. In certain technical sections of hikes, the ground feel of minimalist shoes can be an asset, especially when addressing rocky sections. That being stated, these shoes may not be the best choice for prolonged ascents, especially in higher altitude, where even the strongest ankles in the world may benefit from a bit more support.
So, with all of these potential benefits of minimalist shoes, why do I still use more built trail runners as well? What I found after a period of using my Xero Mesa Trails is that they put a certain limit on to my performance when running trails at a XC/ short distance race pace. There is a threshold in pace that once passed, leads to impact forces on your feet becoming a performance issue. I started going back to a pair of converted road shoes for my runs, but eventually bought a pair of 2020 Saucony Perigrines, seeking a shoe with more underfoot protection but a degree of trail feel and flexibility. There is a wide range of cushioning and stiffness levels in trail running shoes, and I will not go into depth on the topic here, but I can say that when running at speed through rocky terrain as well as doing uphills I have no regrets using regular trail runners. Running uphill in my minimalist shoes meant I was losing momentum through the thin shoes, but my Peregrines transfer momentum uphill much better. Having a rock plate and reasonably thicker sole allows me to not have to be as careful picking a running route, which at speed, is rather important. I think having both types of shoes in my closet for different activities is a best of both worlds approach, and enjoy the feel of minimal shoes at a slow pace, and the added power of more built footwear for runs.