Fortunately, getting started hiking isn’t too difficult. A day hike does not require the purchase of expensive new equipment or a significant learning curve. You do need, however, a pair of good hiking shoes. If you try hiking in a pair that is either too flimsy or too sturdy for your purpose, you might end up with sore feet, inflamed tendons, blisters, or worse.
We will talk about the comfort, support, weight, and traction provided by the most well-liked models currently available on the market. This article helps you identify the criteria that are most important to you so that you can find a model that fits your needs best.
Types of Hiking Footwear
Let’s start by looking at the various types of hiking footwear that are available. Depending on your experience and goals, any of them would be a suitable option for hiking and light backpacking. We’ll discuss the three fundamental categories of hiking shoes and their characteristics and we’ll outline the benefits of each. Finally, we’ll help you with sizing and fitting for your particular foot.
A good balance of support, weight savings, water resistance, and durability can be found in hiking shoes. On average, hiking shoes can cover 750 trail miles before they need to be replaced.
Even though many hiking shoes are waterproof and perform well in light rain, they won’t keep your feet as dry as high-collar boots will. Although they don’t offer the extra weight savings and breathability of non-waterproof trail runners or the ankle support that many people prefer from boots, hiking shoes are a good compromise.
Hiking Boots are a more practical option for off-trail adventures than hiking shoes or trail runners because they offer more ankle support, stability, and water protection. They typically last for 500-1,000 trail miles or more and are more durable than other types of footwear.
Many hiking boots are waterproof, which can make going through the rain more bearable, but if they do get wet, they become heavy and dry slowly. Boots are the heaviest option for hiking footwear, so each step will require more effort.
When choosing trail footwear, those who value comfort and weight savings should look into trail runners. The most common footwear choice for thru-hikers and long-distance hikers is typically a pair of trail running shoes. Because trail running shoes are breathable and light, it’s easier to control sweat and prevent blisters.
The most common models don’t seal against water to allow for breathability, but once wet, they dry fairly quickly. The majority of hiking boots and shoes are more durable than trail runners. The typical lifespan of a trail runner is 500 trail miles before it needs to be replaced.
When packing for a hiking trip, choosing a fleece, coat, and over-trousers may take precedence over packing socks. In actuality, your socks may be the most crucial component of your hiking gear.
There is a lot more to choosing the right socks than you might think, and it can mean the difference between a pleasant hike and a miserable, uncomfortable one. To decide which socks are best for you, refer to our guide.
Related articles: Hiking Footwear 101: Are Cotton Socks Good For Hiking?
Comparing Hiking Footwear Options
Beginners frequently wonder whether they should wear mid-height boots or low-cut shoes when hiking. Although the weight is one factor among many, a pair of hiking boots frequently weighs several ounces to a pound more than shoes. Conditions, distances to be traveled, and individual ankle and foot strength are all crucial considerations. Boots are essential for rough terrain and when carrying heavy loads because they offer more protection from mud, snow, and water.
For hikers who have trouble with their ankles, ankle stability is the main factor in deciding between a boot and a shoe. In a way that no low-cut shoe can, mid-cut boots stabilize and support the ankle on uneven terrain or while wearing a backpack.
Your energy expenditure while hiking is greatly impacted by the weight on your feet. According to studies, carrying an equal amount of extra weight on your back consumes less energy than carrying it on your feet while hiking. (Therefore, the cliche “a pound on your feet is equal to five on your back” is both old and generally true.)
Weight on your feet is important, especially if you’re trying to move quickly and with little effort. Trail runners are the undisputed champion in this category and a hugely popular option for long-distance hikers. Less than 10% of 2019 Appalachian Trail thru-hikers used hiking boots, according to a survey, while roughly three-quarters of them traveled in trail runners.
Most trail runners weigh between 20 and 25 ounces per pair. In comparison, hiking boots typically weigh between 2.5 and 3 pounds more per pair. Hiking shoes usually fall ar in between the two, with most weighting around the two-pound range.
Compared to other hiking shoes, trail running shoes are unquestionably lighter. They are, however, less effective in terms of durability, with the majority of models needing to be replaced after 500 to 750 miles of use. The softer, more grippy rubber beneath the foot wears out and loses tread, and the materials in the shoe uppers start to tear and disintegrate. Additionally, the extra cushioned midsole found in many maximalist trail runners has a tendency to collapse and lose its bounce as the number of miles increases. Trail runners are frequently changed out by thru-hikers during the course of their journey.
Contrarily, hiking boots are made to last thousands of trail miles, especially if they have hard rubber underfoot, a substantial amount of tread on the sole, and a leather upper rather than a combination of fabric, leather, and/or mesh, which is more prone to wearing out. Hiking shoes vary in their durability; most last longer than trail runners but fall well short of a hiking boot’s longevity. Their uppers are typically made of a combination of leather and fabric, which will eventually start to deteriorate and fray, frequently in the heel.
Protection and ankle support
Low-cut trail runners and hiking shoes are not as protective of your ankles from abrasion and scratches, which can be problematic and painful when moving through rocky, brushy, or other sharp environments. (Not the best option for Northeastern bushwhacking excursions!) Additionally, the materials used in trail runners are thinner than those used in most hiking boots and shoes, leaving your foot more susceptible.
Next, think about how much ankle support you require. Contrary to popular belief, a high ankle collar does not serve as the primary source of ankle stability, though it undoubtedly helps. Instead, the stiffness of the sole, particularly how resistant it is to flexing side to side, provides support and stability for the ankle. This is referred to as torsional rigidity and it is what provides a more secure ground surface. To test this, hold a shoe at the front and back and twist it side to side in your hand. The more difficult it is to twist, the more stable the shoe will be.
For the majority of hikers, trail runners, hiking shoes, and hiking boots all offer sufficient stability. In comparison to hiking boots, trail runners and the majority of hiking shoes generally flex more easily across the toes and forefoot, making them more comfortable to wear on easy trails but less stable on difficult and rocky terrain.
If you have no history of ankle injuries and are planning to pack only light to moderate weight, both trail runners and hiking shoes will provide enough stability for all but the roughest terrain. Hiking boots, however are a better choice if you’re carrying heavier loads, traversing difficult and uneven terrain, or if you have trouble with your ankles.
You should wear hiking boots if you’re going on a hike in the snow. This is an important safety measure. Due to the high ankles of hiking boots, snow will be kept out, keeping your feet dry, warm, and less likely to suffer from frostbite.
However, if you’re a three-season hiker, you might adopt a different strategy to keep your feet dry. In hotter weather, it might be more effective to keep your feet from getting sweaty by wearing more breathable footwear. Your sock choice can also make a significant difference in this situation as well so you don’t have to switch to trail runners if you prefer the stability that boots and hiking shoes provide.
You should budget between $100 and $150 for a good pair of trail running or hiking shoes. Hiking boots can easily cost twice that amount or more, especially if they are made entirely of high-quality leather. However, the overall cost will change over time depending on how much you hike. If you hike hard and frequently, buying a single pair of tough boots will cost less in the long run than buying several pairs of trail runners or hiking shoes.
Features to consider when Choosing Hiking Footwear
What is Your Quest?
The terrain, weather, the time of year, and how much weight you will carry are all factors to consider. First, close your eyes and think about what you want to do in your sweet new shoes.. To maximize your comfort and performance while hiking, focus on how you intend to use your footwear and what you hope to gain from it.
The topography and the time of year can both affect the footwear you should wear on your adventure. Will you primarily come across trails that are well maintained? Scrambles and rocky ridgelines? Long stretches of sand? In and out of the water a lot?
On a larger scale, let’s say that most of your hiking takes place in mountainous terrain, in which case your outsole must have a tough tread for traction, underfoot protection as well as adequate support for those frequent ascents. If you prefer to hike on trails that are similar to those in the soggy, rainy Pacific Northwest then keeping your feet dry with waterproof shoes is a top priority. If you decide to hike the Grand Canyon from rim to rim in the middle of August, it’s likely that you’ll want to consider options that have good breathability.
The length and distance of your hike will most often determine your payload, so take into account how much weight you can carry when your pack is fully loaded. This can assist in determining how much support and cushioning you need in your shoes.
You can probably get away with having very little cushioning and support if you mostly day hike and only bring a rain shell, water, and some food. If you go backpacking frequently and carry a heavy load, you should probably consider a stiffer design with plenty of support.
Materials have a strong impact on breathability, durability, and weight. In short, your options are leather, synthetic, mesh, or most likely a combination.
Although a pure, all-leather boot has a long history in hiking, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still in use today. They are incredibly strong and become softer with age, molding to your foot over time. Many hikers discover that the soles of their shoes wear out before the uppers, forcing them to visit a cobbler when they can no longer kick their reliable old companion.
Today, synthetic materials like nylon, polyester, and synthetic leather (PU/TPU) are largely replacing natural materials. Synthetics are extremely versatile, lightweight, and quick to dry, and they are used in the design of the majority of contemporary products. Additionally, they are strong and sturdy, so you can still kick rocks away.
For outdoor activities in warm weather, breathable mesh is the best option. This material constantly lets air in and out of your shoe, which greatly improves comfort on particularly hot days. Being somewhat delicate, it is frequently combined with other synthetic materials, like a cage layover, to increase the durability. The best thing about mesh is that it dries incredibly quickly, so even if you fall in a puddle or cross a creek, you’ll soon be dry again.
Waterproof VS. Breathable
In the past, if you wanted to fit in with the hiking community, you had to take a strong stand on the waterproof versus breathable issue. The problem with waterproof footwear, according to many, is that it doesn’t function as well in warm to hot conditions. Traditional waterproof barriers, such as waxed leather, make it difficult for moisture to escape from the inside out, which can cause discomfort from the accumulating sweat. In addition, if water does manage to get inside, it may take a lot longer to dry out your new waterproof boots.
However, times are changing. Nowadays, we have more versatile footwear options thanks to advancements in waterproof materials and design. Products with GORE-TEX® or eVent® membranes will provide waterproof performance with varying levels of breathability to keep you comfortable in a range of conditions. Materials like GORE® SURROUND® and GORE-TEX® Performance Comfort are among the most breathable choices. The latter is made for high-intensity activities where perspiration is a given.
Despite advances in waterproof and breathable footwear design, no boot or shoe will be a master of all trades that excels in every circumstance. You must select shoes that balance various features to meet your needs and comfort requirements. Perhaps you don’t mind if your toes get wet occasionally, and you choose to prioritize footwear that dries quickly. Perhaps your trail crosses a few shallow streams, in which case a waterproof boot is a must. Maybe you’re thinking about going on some chilly, snowy winter hikes, and in that case, wearing shoes without sufficient waterproofing is completely negligent.
The harsh truth is that there’s a good chance your feet will get wet at some point during your adventure. It is not unusual to see a hiker sitting on a rock and emptying a puddle from their shoe. And many of us have enjoyed hanging our shoes to dry by the fire. All is well. To increase your comfort and enjoyment while you’re out there, weigh the advantages and disadvantages of breathable versus waterproof materials. As always, use your best judgment.
Insole: The insole, also known as a sock liner or footbed, is the component that lies directly below the sole of your feet. These can be stiffer (for extra support) or soft and flexible. While some are better ventilated than others, the majority are effective at wicking moisture away from your feet and/or socks.
Almost all insoles are detachable, allowing you to remove them for washing and drying or to replace them with aftermarket or custom orthotic inserts if you prefer a different level of comfort.
Midsole: This is where the majority of your cushioning comes from and where the stiffness/flexibility balance is set. EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate), PU (polyurethane), or a combination of the two are typically used in midsole construction. EVA is a kind of lightweight, pliable, soft foam that acts as a cushion and absorbs shock. In contrast, PU is much stiffer and more popular due to its supportive and long-lasting characteristics. The majority of shoes combine both components for a comfortable, creamy ride that lasts for miles.
Outsole: Here is where the road actually meets the rubber. As different rubber compounds produce different types of performance, outsoles come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. While harder compounds will last longer, softer ones will flex more and wear out faster. There is rubber that sticks to ice and cold ground better than others, and there is sticky rubber that grips rocks like a champ. A hiking shoe’s sole pattern will have lugs facing different directions, all designed to help you grip as you move up, down, left, and right.
Shanks: A metal or plastic layer between the midsole and the outsole that protects the bottoms of your feet. Although you won’t see them, shanks can go through half, three-quarters, or the entire length of the sole. The longer the shank, the stiffer the boot.
Support and Weight
How much support you require depends on how far you hike, how smooth or difficult the terrain is, and how much weight you are carrying. You’ll benefit more from a shoe with more support and torsional stability if you plan to undertake challenging trails or off-trail terrain. The more weight you carry, the more support your feet need. Wearing shoes that are stiffer and more supportive will help you avoid foot fatigue.
When making long hikes, light is best. Thanks to modern materials and construction techniques. The best hiking shoes available today deliver support, comfort, and performance at lower weights than those available a few years ago. The lightest pair we examined in 2015 weighed 2.1 pounds. The lightest model under review in 2019 weighs 1.7 pounds. Our recommendation is to pick the lightest pair of shoes that still meets your requirements for support and durability.
Fitting and Finding Your Size
The fit of the shoes on your feet has a big impact on how comfortable and functional they will be. Once you’ve focused your search, it’s ideal to try on numerous pairs of footwear to find the style and size that suits your foot the best. Products from certain manufacturers are known to fit narrow feet the best. (For example: La Sportiva). Other manufacturers have a tendency to fit wide feet well (For example: Lowa). And lastly, there are some manufacturers that provide width options for their shoes.
Consider going to a nearby store and trying on shoes in person if you have the chance. Many people have ended up with the incorrect size shoes because they arrived with a pair of socks that are thinner than the ones they intended to bring on their hike. Another piece of advice is to go to a fitting in the evening, when your feet are at their most swollen . When you try on shoes in the morning, you might also get a pair that is too small.
If the majority of your hiking takes place in chilly conditions, begin your fitting with a pair of moderately thick wool socks. On the other hand, if you hike in an area where warm or hot weather is more common, start with a thin pair of synthetic socks.
To prevent the heel of the shoe from sliding up and down, make sure the shoe and size you select fit your foot comfortably. In order to prevent blisters, your toes should never touch the front of your shoe. Slide your foot all the way to the front while loosening the shoelaces. Your pinky finger’s width, (or roughly a half inch), should be left behind your heel. Slide your heel into the back of the shoe as you lace it up, then tighten the laces evenly across your forefoot. Walk around store, try to climb some stairs, and observe how the shoe feels and how securely your heel is held in place.
Tip! Many people find themselves conflicted between two sizes as the final decision approaches. When we’re out hiking, especially on long days, our feet swell a little bit. A slightly too big shoe can be made to fit by using a thicker sock or thicker insole. But a small shoe is still a small shoe. If there are two sizes available, choose the larger one. A leather boot might soften and give the toe box a little room over time, but most contemporary footwear won’t because synthetic materials don’t stretch as much as natural ones do.
Choosing the right socks
The socks become humid because of the moisture produced by the foot. Blisters develop as a result of increased friction with the skin as they grow heavier and lose their cushioning. In order to keep the foot as dry as possible and minimize the risk of blisters, hiking socks are primarily designed to cushion and wick away sweat and moisture. They are primarily made of cotton, wool, and synthetic materials, each of which has distinct properties:
They are very quick to dry and breathable, but after a brief period of use, they harden and begin to smell awful, necessitating frequent replacement. They are most suitable for brief hikes in warm climates. Long hikes are possible with them; just be sure to bring at least one pair per day.
Wool / Synthetic
Socks made entirely of wool are extremely rare; most having a synthetic component. They are less breathable than synthetic socks but dry quickly. Wool’s antibacterial properties ensure that they stay fresh and comfortable for at least a few days. Long hikes in milder and colder climates are best suited for these.
Wool / Cotton
Cotton hiking socks also contain a synthetic component. Although they are cozy and breathable, they dry very slowly. Avoid 100% cotton socks at all costs because they will take even longer to dry. These are only useful for brief hikes in extremely arid environments.
Tips for Buying Hiking Footwear
- Don’t rush; give yourself enough time to browse the store in a pair of boots for at least 10 to 20 minutes.
- As your feet swell throughout the day, shop in the late afternoon. Even better if you’ve been on your feet all day. Especially in warm weather, your feet may be 1/2 to 1 size larger after a long day of hiking.
- Put on the socks you’ll be taking on your trip or are most likely to use for hiking. In particular if you wear thick socks in the winter. Additionally, make sure you try them on while wearing any orthotics, cushions, or insoles you typically wear.
- One foot may be bigger than the other, always pick shoes based on your bigger foot.
- Are your feet wide? Select a company that is best at this (like Lowa)
- Make sure you can wiggle your toes and that your feet don’t feel pressed in from the sides. Your foot should feel stable and not move around. When your toes are pushed to the front of the boot, your heel shouldn’t lift and you should be able to slide two fingers down either side of your Achilles tendon.
- Don’t base your decision to buy shoes for a lengthy, multi-day hike solely on price. Fit and comfort must come first; otherwise, painful blisters, foot pain from ill-fitting shoes, or even having them fall apart mid-trail could ruin your trip.
- Think about weight; for every kilogram on your feet, there are five on your back.