Owning a comfortable pair of hiking boots or hiking shoes is an essential part of exploring fantastic outdoor locations on your own two feet. The three key factors that will determine the kind of footwear you’ll need are: terrain, distance and pack weight. Aside from getting the right type of footwear, proper fit and break-in time are also essential steps to keeping your feet happy, mile after mile. In this comprehensive hiking boot guide, we’ll cover the most common types of hiking footwear and provide helpful tips on caring for your new gear.
Hiking footwear can be divided into four main categories: trail shoes, light hiking boots, midweight hiking boots and heavy-duty mountaineering boots. To get the best footwear for your activity, you should start by determining what type of hiking you'll do most. Of course, if you frequently alternate between shorter hikes and long-distance trekking, you’ll probably benefit from owning a few different pairs. Let’s take a look at your options:
Designed to provide a mix of lightweight support, moderate cushioning and stable traction, trail shoes are ideal for short hikes (about 1-5 miles) on mild terrain with little elevation gain. Because they offer good support, trail shoes are also a great choice for day-to-day casual wear, too.
Geared toward short and medium hikes (about 1-10 miles) on easy to moderate terrain, light hiking boots offer a little more support than trail shoes without much added weight. This type of boot is usually a good choice for most well-maintained trails. Light hiking boots are suitable for mild to moderate elevation gain, but not technical ascents or extremely rugged terrain.
Ideal for extended hikes (10 or more miles) and trekking over rougher terrain, midweight hiking boots provide increased support and cushioning. Because they offer better support for carrying a heavy pack, backpacking boots generally fall into the midweight category. Mid hiking boots are capable of taking on more elevation gain and fairly rugged terrain, although they’re still not ideal for technical alpine ascents or ice climbing.
Offering maximum support and foot protection, mountaineering boots are extremely durable and provide the most ankle protection. These boots have thick, stiff soles designed for difficult mountain topography and significant elevation gain. Most boots in this category are waterproof, and some include insulation to protect feet in cold, windy and wet conditions. Many mountaineering boots are compatible with crampons, which makes them suitable for traversing ice and snowpack.
With all types of hiking footwear, durability and foot protection is always a high priority. For this reason, hiking footwear is crafted of more rugged materials than casual shoes. The tougher the construction, the more break-in time will be required.
Hiking shoes and hiking boots made using a combination of nylon and split-grain leather or suede are lightweight and moderately durable. Mesh panels are frequently included to add breathability. Footwear made from split-grain leather or suede is also lighter and less expensive than full-grain leather boots, which is ideal for casual hikers. Break-in time is usually minimal. Some light hiking footwear is quite comfortable out of the box, but it’s still a good idea to start with a few short walks to be sure. If you plan on hiking in rainy or snowy conditions, consider looking for a pair with a waterproof breathable membrane, such as Gore-Tex®.
Boots made of full-grain leather offer the most durability and weather resistance. Backpacking boots and mountaineering boots that feature full-grain leather are also heavier, less breathable and require more time to properly break in. The break-in process on heavier boots should be done incrementally. Start with short walks around the neighborhood. You can also wear your new boots around the house for a few hours at a time. Next, take them on several shorter hikes, until you feel confident they’re well broken-in. It’s never a good idea to take a brand-new pair of boots on an extended trek.
Not all hiking shoes and boots are waterproof, and that’s okay. If you prefer hiking in mild conditions, you should be fine with standard footwear. However, if you think you may encounter wet or snowy conditions, waterproof footwear is the way to go. Below are the three main types of weather protection.
Waterproof breathable linings like Gore-Tex® fabric can be built into hiking shoes and boots to prevent moisture from passing through permeable materials and reaching your feet. These linings usually have sealed or taped seams for even better protection from encroaching moisture.
Even though linings like Gore-Tex® will keep the inside of your shoes and boots dry, they don’t prevent the exterior materials of your boots from absorbing moisture. Wet boots can become increasingly heavy, so it’s a good idea to treat the exterior of your boots with a DWR (durable water repellent treatment) for another layer of protection. This will also reduce wear and tear. We’ll cover this in more detail a little later.
Full-grain leather footwear may include an external waterproof coating, such as wax, oil or a DWR. However, if a boot is poorly constructed, leaks may still occur. Check the seams on waterproof leather footwear for signs of weakness (like loose threads or missing stitches). Realize that even “waterproof” leather may allow some moisture to pass through if it becomes soaked for extended periods.
This refers to manufacturing techniques that enhance waterproofness, such as sealing or taping seams and using special stitching. Waterproof construction is usually combined with another type of weather protection, such as a waterproof lining or DWR.
Quality construction is just as important as using good materials. Low-quality manufacturing can lead to leaks, rips, splits, delamination and premature wear. For this reason, if you plan on doing extensive hiking, it’s a good idea to avoid off-brand hiking footwear. Of course, all shoes and boots wear out eventually. If your boots have a lot of use, always give them a close inspection before heading out for an extended trip.
The sole of a shoe or boot is usually either stitched or cemented to the midsole and upper. Boots with Goodyear welt construction are very durable and can be resoled. Cement construction, on the other hand, is less expensive than welt construction. Cemented bonds tend to wear more quickly, however.
There are several types of lacing systems found on hiking boots, depending on the intended use of the boot. Below are some common lacing styles:
The height of the upper helps determine the ideal use for a specific boot. Generally, taller boots offer more support for difficult terrain and heavier pack loads. Low-profile shoes are best for shorter hikes.
Low-profile trail shoes don't offer significant stability on rugged terrain and may not be ideal for challenging, multi-day hikes. However, lightweight hiking shoes are better suited for short distances on well-maintained trails.
Mid hiking boots provide increased stability for the foot and ankle on rougher terrain. They also provide better protection from debris, such as small rocks and brush. Mid boots allow you to walk easily, but may not be ideal for extremely steep, aggressive terrain.
This style covers above your ankle and provides superior support on rough, uneven alpine terrain. High boots also provide the most stability when you’re carrying a heavy pack. Generally, high-cut boots take the longest to break in. All mountaineering boots fall into this category.
There are several support layers in hiking shoes and boots, including the insole, midsole, shank and outsole.
A soft, cushioned insert that can usually be removed and replaced. The insole is also the part of a shoe that provides arch support. If your boots don’t offer enough arch support, you can usually replace the insoles with better quality inserts or custom-made orthotics.
A layer of shock-absorbing material that helps dampen impacts on rugged terrain. It can be made from a variety of materials:
A stiff piece of material inserted between the midsole and outsole to provide torsional stability. In some boots, the shank may be placed inside the midsole. In hiking boots, the shank is usually made of either a composite material or steel. Lightweight trail shoes typically don’t include a shank.
Most modern hiking soles are made of thermoplastic polyurethane or another type of synthetic rubber. Boots and shoes designed for hiking have all-terrain soles that usually include a pattern of protruding treads, also called lugs. The more aggressive the lug pattern, the better the traction will be on loose, muddy and uneven terrain. Trail shoes usually have shallower lugs to reduce weight and increase flexibility. Proprietary soles like Vibram® can provide even more traction and durability. For this reason, Vibram® outsoles are used by many leading hiking footwear brands, including Asolo, Vasque, Merrell, Columbia Sportswear and The North Face.
Even with all the bells and whistles, if a boot doesn't fit, it won’t be very comfortable on the trail. Check out these hiking boot fit tips to help you find a pair that will work well for you.
Since hiking boots and shoes are designed to be used off the beaten path (or at least off the roads and sidewalks), they offer some features not found in most urban footwear:
A boot rand is a tough rubber guard that runs along the outer edge of a boot or shoe, which may include a rubber toe cap or “toe rand.” A rand is designed to provide added protection and reinforce high-wear areas, which can also increase the life of the footwear.
Tongue gussets link the tongue to the upper of the boot or shoe to prevent water, dirt, small rocks and other trail debris from getting into the footwear.
Thick, padded collars provide additional ankle support and comfort on the trail.
Moisture-wicking linings like Cambrelle® and Dri-Lex® help absorb sweat and keep feet dry. Some footwear linings and insoles also include a built-in antimicrobial treatment to fight odor.
Thanks for reading our hiking boot guide. For more information on gear, hiking tips and what to bring on a hike, be sure to check out our Hiking Guide.