Out on the trail, your footwear has a massive impact on your performance. Comfortable, well fitted boots make you feel like you’re flying along the trail. Heavy or badly fitting footwear can cause pain or even injury.
So how do you make the decision of what to wear? There are dozens of options in a myriad of different styles, so let’s go over the varying types of outdoors footwear and how you may want to decide what you wear.
Types of Outdoor 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 One?!
So what is the right piece of footwear for your next trip into the backcountry?
Let’s start with a few universal questions.
Well, what type of trip are you planning? Long or short? What type of terrain? What’s the expected weather? All of this factors into footwear choice.
Next, how much weight are you willing to carry? Weight on your feet saps much more strength than does weight on your back, so the lighter your footwear is, the less tired you’ll be at the end of a day.
What’s the budget? Shoes typically cost less than boots, with a solid pair of trail runners normally costing around $100. Hiking boots easily get over $200. So make sure to consider what you’re willing to spend.
Do you want waterproofing? We’ll have a whole section on that in a bit, but it’s a vital question.
With those questions in mind, here are the basic types of hiking footwear.
For the record, I’ve backpacked in Alaska with nothing more than a bear up pair of Nikes on my feet. I even crossed a the Root Glacier just north of Kennicott with them, though I did mount a set of microspikes first. So what’s the lesson here?
With the right mindset and some basic caution you can absolutely hike, even if your footwear is somewhat… minimal.
And there you have the main categories of hiking footwear and what they’re best for. While there are subcategories in each one, these general categories should be enough for you to narrow down your search by footwear type.
Finding The Proper Fit
The best footwear is the footwear that you don’t notice. A well fitted boot or shoe will feel wonderful.. So what exactly to you want to feel for when trying on boots?
There are a few things you need to do before even trying a boot on.
First, know your size, or at least come ready to have your feet measured. Also remember that your feet are the biggest at the end of the day, so the evening is typically the best time for footwear shopping. Also, even if you’ve owned boots made by a certain company a few years back does not mean the same size will fit this year.
Footwear manufacturers often change the exact cuts of their products, leading to shoes and boots that fit you last year no longer being a good fit with this year’s model. For that reason, it’s always best to try footwear on before buying it.
Next, if you wear a certain kind of insoles, bring them. Insoles can dramatically alter the fit and feel of a boot or shoe.
Third, bring a pair of the socks you plan to wear out in the field. Typically, the best hiking socks are made of some blend of Merino wool. Merino wool is special because it wicks moisture and prevents bad odors. It also stays warm when wet, an indispensible feature in the backcountry.
As a rule, a well fitted boot should fit you heel tightly, but not so much that it’s uncomfortable. A slight amount of slipping on the heel can be okay, but too much will cause blistering. Generally, you want a snug fit on the heel.
Over the top of your foot, you also want a snug fit, but the boot should not be painful or squeezing you. There should be some freedom of movement, but again, the boot should not be slipping.
Finally, we come to the toe box. Your toes should not be able to touch the front of the boot. Test this by walking on a downward slope. Most outdoors shops should have one of these for just this purpose. If your toes touch the front of your footwear, try something else.
I once went on a one month backpacking trip in Wyoming. My boots did not fit me very well, and whenever I took a step on a downslope, my big toes hit the fronts of my boots. After thirty days of this, I had nerve damage and numbness in several toes.
So take the fitment of the toe box seriously. You should be able to wiggle your toes a little bit in the boot or shoe. If your toes are immobile, please try something else.
Footwear fitting really isn’t all that daunting, just make sure it’s comfortable. And remember, that if nothing in the shop seems to fit, it’s okay to go home empty handed and try again later. A properly fitted boot makes your life so much easier.
A badly fitted boot can make a trip miserable.
So take your time and make sure they fit. And finally, wear your boots at home before you actually go hiking! There’s little worse than finding out that your boots chafe or rub in the wrong spot out on the trail. It’s best to find this out at home, where you still have time to fix the error.
Spend some time walking around the neighborhood to break your boots in. When you finally get out into the field
Waterproof or Breathable?
Of all the choices you’ll make when buying outdoors footwear, whether or not to go for waterproofing stands out as a pivotal moment of choice. It’s also hotly debated.
So down the rabbit hole we go.
What are the pros of waterproof hiking footwear?
Waterproof footwear is… well, waterproof. It uses some sort of membrane, often Gore-Tex, to keep water from getting through the footwear to your foot. That sounds great! Dry feet all day long. Waterproof boots especially let you wade through small streams without getting your feet wet.
Naturally, if the water is higher than the footwear, the water proofing no longer keeps the water out. Also, since most waterproof footwear uses a modern membrane, it’s breathable, so it lets your sweat out without letting water in.
Also, if you’ve ever hiked in cold weather conditions, you’ll know that water means cold and cold is bad. If you’re feet simply stay dry, then there’s nothing to worry about regarding snow cover, as long as it doesn’t reach over the tops of your boots.
If snow is a serious concern, try pairing your boots with gaiters, which go up your calves to keep snow, mud, or other debris from getting in. Once snow does get in your boots, brace yourself for cold and unhappy feet!
But here’s where I’ll get controversial.
If it’s not a mid or high-cut boot, waterproofing is really kind of useless. A waterproof hiking shoe or trail runner is simply too short. Even a small puddle will splash over the top and get your foot wet. And even though these waterproof shoes are marketed as ‘breathable,’ if they’re simply soaked through, there is no way that they’ll be breathable enough.
So if you want to enjoy the full benefits of waterproof hiking footwear, I would definitely steer your towards the boot side of the spectrum.
And with that, what are the cons of waterproofing?
When waterproof footwear gets wet, it stays wet. For a really long time.Say you cross a river up to your hips, your boots are getting wet. There is no waterproofing other than a dry suit to keep you dry there. And once those boots are soaked all the way through, they take forever to dry.
That’s because, even though that membrane is somewhat breathable, waterproofing works both ways. There is no way for a membrane to breathe fast enough to dry your feet out. Even worse, waterproof footwear will often hold your sweat in, because the membrane just isn’t that efficient.
Even worse, once the leather or synthetic outside material of your shoes or boots is wet, that breathability stops cold. And your feet then stay wet for days, which can lead to trench foot and foot fungus.
And in that lies the benefits of breathable mesh shoes. They breathe. A waterproof boot gets wet in a river on day one and remains wet until day five of a trip. A trail running shoe gets wet and is mostly dry by the end of the day.
Yes, your feet will get wet in the backcountry. That’s just something I’ve come to terms with. But real health issues begin when your feet stay wet. Also, on a dry day without river crossings, most of the moisture your feet encounter is from your own sweat. A mesh shoe lets that sweat breathe out, keeping your feet dry in the long run.
So what’s the best for you?
It depends on your use of the footwear. If you plan on serious snow conditions, a waterproof boot makes a lot of sense. They’ll keep your feet from freezing. Also, if you don’t think that you’ll be facing any rivers over ankle height, odds are waterproof boots will keep your feet dry very effectively.
But if you’re okay getting your feet wet at every tiny stream, breathable mesh shoes may be your best bet. They dry quickly and the light weight becomes a clear advantage during long days on the trail.
I’ve personally come to the point where I backpack in trail runners. They weigh nothing, and they dry by the end of the day. That’s not to say that boots don’t have their place, ultimately you have to find what fits your feet best.
Care & Cleaning
So you’ve chosen your footwear. How do you care for hiking footwear?
The most basic care instruction I can give, regardless of the type of footwear, is to store it dry. If you get home from a trip and just leave your soaked boots in the basement, they’ll get moldy. That mold will damage the boots and is a health hazard to boot.
So when you take your footwear off, even in the field, remove the insoles, loosen the laces, and allow the shoe or boot to dry for as long as you can. This is best for both your boots and your feet.
Next, try to clean off any mud or debris. This will allow the boot or shoe to dry faster and things like mud will actually cause abrasion to footwear if left uncleaned.
And that’s about it for in field care. Keep the boots as dry as you can and do your best to clean the mud off.
When you get home, remove the insoles and laces and brush your footwear down in a sink or even under a hose. If you choose to wash with soap, be careful to avoid detergents, as they can damage waterproof materials and leather.
A lot of people will also treat any leather footwear with a product like Nikwax, which makes products meant to restore and protect leather. This is fine, and certainly helps if you see full-grain leather cracking, but is unnecessary for suede leather.
Also, never, never use something like Mink Oil on hiking footwear. It’s great for city shoes, but it makes leather much more flexible, meaning that those boots you bought for their ankle support will become soft and lose their support.
And that’s about it for the care of hiking boots and shoes. Store them dry and clean. If they’re made of leather, feel free to treat them with some preservative, but make sure to read the labels first and make sure what you’re about to use is meant for hiking boots.
A well made and well maintained set of hiking footwear should last you a long time. And when your shoes or boots finally do fall apart, they will have carried you over hundreds of wilderness miles.
Some Final Notes
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.