A good pair of hiking shoes are worth their weight in gold, and buying the wrong shoes can result in a whole range of problems – something you don’t need as you’re scaling Kilimanjaro or trekking the 800 mile trails of Yosemite!
There’s more to the perfect pair of hiking shoes than just a comfortable fit; this is where many go wrong. The weather, terrain, temperature and the amount of support you need all play a big role, and of course, these factors vary from person to person.
There is ‘no one size fits all’ approach to be taken with hiking footwear. Figuring out what you need for your hike is the first step to finding that perfect pair.
Types of Hiking Footwear
With so many different styles and materials to choose from, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by all the options on the market for outdoors footwear. So let’s go over the basic types of outdoors boots and shoes.
At the heavy end of the spectrum, there are true backpacking boots. These boots lace all the way up your ankles and provide serious support and rigidity while traversing awful terrain. These boots are meant to take a beating and are built to last.
Most backpacking boots will be waterproof and quite heavy. These boots can do just about anything, but you pay a steep price in terms of weight and stiffness. These boots can often have longer break in periods and are generally less comfortable than are other boots.
If you’re going off deep into the wilderness for a longer expedition, more sturdy backpacking or hiking boots fit the bill well. This is for terrain that will put your feet to the test. Solid, heavy boots will protect you very well in rough terrain and dense brush.
Also, for any trip in cold weather conditions, these more serious boots are best. They keep snow and ice out of the boot and many of them come insulated as well. For any trip on ice, where crampons are needed, heavy backpacking or even dedicated mountaineering boots do best. Nothing protects your feet like full on backpacking boots do.
Next we have standard hiking boots. While there is a gray zone between hiking and backpacking boots, hiking boots are normally lighter and lower. They offer less ankle support and foot protection. Hiking boots come in both waterproof and non-waterproof variations, though the waterproof boots are more common.
Hiking boots often come in the same format as backpacking boots, making the overall fitment similar. These mid-range boots are a fantastic do-it-all pick and can normally withstand any abuse and wear in the wilderness.
Standard mid-height hiking boots stand out as a solid choice for just about any hiking conditions. Going for a brief day hike in the Appalachians or Cascades? Most hiking boots will offer more than enough protection for your feet, and without the weight of full on backpacking boots.
Hiking boots also serve well on longer trips, provided they fit your feet well. A typical hiking boot is durable and strong, so it should take a beating in awful terrain without showing any real damage.
Third, there are hiking shoes. These are lighter and more agile than the others, but also offer the wearer much less protection. Cut low around the ankle, hiking shoes don’t come with much ankle support at all, so use caution if wearing these low cut shoes off trail.
Also, with that low cut, it’s easier for debris to enter the shoe in rough terrain. However, hiking shoes are often quite light, which makes it much easier to move over long distances on the trail. And with their less rigid construction, hiking shoes tend to be way more comfortable than any boots.
For people who still want protection but want a lighter shoe, hiking shoes fit the bill. A good hiking shoe doesn’t do too much to give ankle support, but it absolutely protects the bottom of your foot from rocks and other impacts.
Fourth, there are trail runners. These are just a step up from normal tennis shoes. Trail runners are light and quick, but offer very little protection. Trail runners differ from standard tennis shoes in that they are somewhat stiffer and will have provisions for wearing gaiters.
Trail runners are often the most comfortable shoe to keep on your feet for longer trips, but you need to be careful with shoes that do so little to support your ankles.
For the ultra light hikers of the world, the answer to your prayers is a good set of trail runners. These shoes offer little support or protection when compared to boots, but their light weight makes them a perfect go-to for through hikers and other distance oriented people.
Trail running shoes are, as the name suggests, meant primarily as running shoes for rough terrain. What this means is that they have good grip, a strong sole, and durable construction when compared to tennis shoes. What you lose in ankle support you gain in mobility.
Regarding ankle support, if you hike in low cut shoes, your ankles will grow stronger over time, reducing risk of ankle injury. If you have a predisposition to roll your ankles, low cut footwear may not be for you, but if possible, try lower shoes to reduce weight and strengthen your ankles.
That’s not to say you can’t backpack in trail running shoes. You absolutely can. Trail running shoes are a favorite of people who hike the long trails like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail.
Finally, there are hiking sandals. This ultra light options gives you maximum breathability at the cost of minimum protection. A hiking sandal, as opposed to a normal sandal, has a tough sole to protect the bottoms of your feet, but obviously lacks to body of a boot or shoe. Because sandals doesn’t have a top, they dry very quickly.
And there you have the full spectrum of outdoors footwear, from the heaviest of boots to simple sneakers. Each one has their place, as dictated by circumstances.
And finally, what about hiking in sandals? Since they offer little to no protection for your feet, sandals don’t do so well in rough terrain, but on a maintained trail they excel. They’re super light and comfortable, and if it’s cooler outside you can pair them with socks.
Being so light, ultralight through hikers often go with sandals to keep weight off their feet.
If you expect to hike through lots of water, sandals also do quite well, since they dry almost instantly. A good pair of sandals also makes a great set of camp shoes for when you pitch your tent in the evening. So if you want comfort and aren’t dealing with very rough terrain, give sandals a shot.
How to Choose The Right Pair of Hiking Boots or Shoes
Comfort and Fit
First up and perhaps most important is that your hiking footwear fits properly. If you’re a seasoned hiker, you’ll know the fine line between too small, just right, and too large.
Hiking shoes that are either too small or too large will at best cause blisters and at worse, cause you to compensate elsewhere in your stride which can do long term damage.
Remember that the perfect shoe looks different on everyone. The right shoes for your hiking partner may be completely different to yours. You might need more support, while they prefer a lightweight or barefoot feel. Find out what works for you, and not other people.
The right pair of hiking shoes should fit snug everywhere. They shouldn’t be tight or rub, and should have enough room for you to wiggle your toes. Try them on with thick socks (or whatever socks you will be wearing on your hike) at the end of the day when your feet are swollen and not cold. They should fit evenly all around your foot, with no noticeable pressure points.
While the general consensus is that lightweight is better, this is not always the case. Lighter boots are great for day-long hikes on easy to moderate terrain as they allow you to move at a quicker pace and be more nimble on your feet. They are cooler and less likely to cause blisters.
The trade off is for a lighter shoe is less support around the ankles. If you’ve got lots of gear and need more support, opt for something heavier.
Heavier boots are great for more difficult terrain. They are supportive, sturdy and have better traction. If you have weak ankles, heavy and supportive hiking boots are a lifesaver.
However, they may slow down your pace, making you heavier and less nimble on your feet. They will take a lot more breaking in than lightweight boots. Ensure you have enough time to properly break in your boots before your long hikes.
Once you’ve checked the fit of your shoes, it’s time to test them out. Walk up and down stairs, around the house and carrying a bag – while wearing the socks you will be using for hiking.
Try to keep them on for a good few hours. If they don’t get any more comfortable or worse, start to get uncomfortable, try a different pair.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming your boots or shoes just need to be broken in. While yes, the leather will soften, your boots should be comfortable from the get go with enough space around your feet and no pressure points. The leather may feel stiff but that should be the maximum discomfort you feel.
While most boots and shoes are designed to be water resistant, fully-waterproof shoes are another story.
Waterproof shoes have a protective barrier which repels water. As long as the water doesn’t get in over the top of your boot, you should happily be able to wade through streams and rivers keeping your feet and toes dry. However, this waterproof barrier may not be breathable, leaving your feet damp and hot.
Consider the terrain of your hike. If you know you will be wading through streams then waterproof shoes are a must. If you’re expecting the odd light rain shower, then waterproof spray will be just fine.
Breathable boots will keep your feet cool and comfortable in warmer temperatures and prevent blisters. As blisters thrive in hot, moist environments, a breathable pair of boots are essential – keeping your feet healthy and pain-free.
Contrary to belief, it is possible to find breathable but sturdy and supportive hiking boots. Look out for a mesh upper and remember that if breathability is a priority, waterproof may have to take a backseat.
If you decide breathability is more important than waterproofing, invest in something quick drying and light, like trail runners.
If your hiking boots are falling apart mid-hike, you’re not going to have a great day. Hiking boots designed to tackle hundreds or even thousands of miles are more expensive but worth it.
If you’re only heading out for a short time or every once in a while, get yourself a pair of trail runners. These are comfortable and lightweight, but not particularly durable.
The importance of durability depends on the duration of your hike and the terrain.
Another bone of contention amongst hikers is ankle support.
While it’s widely believed that the more ankle support you have, the better (as you’re less likely to roll over onto your ankle).
Boots that climb too high above the ankle can restrict your movement and stop your ankles from strengthening. To build muscle and strengthen tendons, the ankles need to move naturally.
It depends on the severity of the terrain you are going to be hiking on, as well as your own personal preference. If you need extra support in the ankles, prioritize this in your shoes. If you’re going to be hiking on loose or uneven rocks, ankle support is a must.
The soles of hiking boots are almost always made from thick, bouncy rubber. Vibram is the most popular manufacturer of soles, producing soles from a mix of rubber, carbon and silicon.
The terrain will determine the sole type you need. Thick soles with sharp angles in the grooves are good for mud, while smoother soles have more surface area contact with the ground – ideal for slabs of rock.
The insole is something that needs attention. If your feet are flat, or your arches very pronounced, opt for a hiking boot with a removable insole. This way, you can fit your own insole to suit the shape of your foot. Insoles are usually bouncy and supportive.
The heel-to-toe drop is the difference in height between the heel and toe. Most shoes are designed with a slightly raised heel, encouraging you to strike the ground in the middle of your foot.
Shoes with a high heel-toe-drop will encourage you to strike the ground heel first. Any shoes with a ‘zero drop’ will encourage you to walk with more of a barefoot strike.
While there’s evidence to suggest that zero drop shoes are better for long walks and hikes, it depends on your own individual gait.
While heel striking has been said to contribute to knee injuries, a zero drop also has drawbacks. If you suffer from pain in the forefoot, a lower drop shoe will be more suitable. Those with pain in the achilles or heel will fare better with a traditional heel-toe-drop.
Lacing your Boots
You may not have given your laces much thought since you learned to tie them back in school, but your laces can make or break your trip. There’s a few different ways of lacing and tying your boots – each with different effects.
This can stop your heel from slipping. These knots hold fast and are created by winding your laces round each other twice, before wrapping them around the hook. Do this for the top two sets of hooks only, and your ankles and heels should feel extra snug.
Ideal if your boots create pressure points at the top of your foot. Also called Box lacing, Window lacing alleviates pressure and helps give the top of your feet some room.
Unlace the boots down to the hook below the pressure point, go straight up to the next hook before crossing the laces over and continuing to lace as normal. This will create a ‘window’ in your boot.
Toe-relief lacing which perfect if your toes are claustrophobic or shoes a little tight. Totally unlace your boot and, when you lace it back up, leave out the first set of hooks. This will take some pressure off your toes and make you more comfortable.
Picking the Right Socks
The right socks are almost as important as the right shoes, although they’re not quite as heavy if you want to carry a spare pair!
Hiking socks can be complex. Buying socks too thick in hot temperatures will result in sweaty feet and, you guessed it, blisters! Socks too thin in too cold a temperature will result in chilly toes and perhaps even frostbite.
The amount of cushioning you have on your socks is important. The perfect amount of cushioning can prevent blisters, and make your shoes more comfortable. Socks made from merino are a very popular choice. These absorb moisture and keep you warm, perfect for multiple days’ hiking in colder temperatures.When it’s warmer, lighter cushioned socks are best. Ensure your socks are longer than your hiking shoes to prevent the sides of your shoes rubbing and your sock slipping down into your shoe.
Breaking in your Boots
While some brands will claim their shoes don’t need breaking in, I always recommend breaking in your shoes. Softening the leather before you head out on a hike will only do your feet good. You may come to regret it if, 10 miles in, you feel as if you are wearing planks of wood around your feet!
To break in your shoes, wear them casually around the house. Begin by walking around while you drink your morning coffee or vacuum the living room, and build up to shorter walks. Your boots will be stiff initially and this is normal. Wear the same socks you will be wearing on your hike.
After a few small hikes, increase your distance to full day. They should feel comfortable by this point with the leather fully softened.
While boots can be broken in fast, don’t do this at the expense of your feet. I recommend giving yourself enough time to break in your boots properly so you’re ready to conquer your long hikes with no worries of sore feet.
Care and Maintenance
Your hiking boots will be exposed to bad weather, dirt and water, so it’s essential to take care of them. They need to be regularly cleaned, and waterproofed before first use. Leather conditioner will prevent your boots from cracking and soften them.
After use, take out the laces of your boots and brush off any dirt with a hard bristle brush. There’s a range of shoe cleaners on the market, but a damp paper towel and dish soap should do the trick!
Before first use, spray your boots with a waterproof spray – a variety of which can be found online. Waterproof spray is effective on both leather and fabric boots and, while it won’t totally waterproof your boots, it will stop rain from damaging the leather. Follow the instructions for maximum effect.
Blisters can go from a minor annoyance to full blown agony in a matter of minutes. While the right fitting shoes will stop you from getting blisters, sometimes you need a little extra help.
Blisters are formed by friction and moisture. Minimizing both of these will prevent blisters and make your hike a hell of a lot more comfortable.
As with anything, preparation is key. Break your boots in properly to sufficiently soften the leather before you go.
Well-designed hiking socks will protect your feet by wicking moisture and drying quickly, alongside hidden seams. They will also have added cushioning in places where blisters usually form.
Finally, blister bandaids are a miracle. Carry some blister bandaids with you and make sure you use them on the areas you feel ‘hotspots’ starting to appear. These will pad up the area and stop blisters forming as you walk.
Other options to prevent blisters include powders to dry your feet, or gels which provide a protective barrier against friction.
Whatever you choose you wear on your feet for your next hike, remember that your footwear is one of your most important pieces of gear. Pick something comfortable and reasonably light. One of the most vital things is to test out your footwear before actually going into the field for real.
The exact style of footwear you choose, boot or shoe, waterproof or breathable, really isn’t as important as how well the thing fits your foot. A poorly fitted boot leads to pain and even injuries. So take some time and care when picking exactly what you buy.
My personal recommendation is to go for the lightest footwear you can manage without losing functionality. Weight on your feet has more impact on your body than does weight in your backpack. That’s not to say we all need to be minimalists backpacking in trail runners, but wearing backpacking boots on a light day hike is pointless.
Whatever footwear you end up buying, make sure to get out there and put some miles on it! We learn our best lessons by actually hiking. Only by spending time in the field will you discover the footwear solution that truly works best for you.