Hiking footwear can generally be divided into four main categories: trail shoes, light hiking boots, backpacking boots and heavy-duty mountaineering boots. To get the best footwear for your activity, start by determining what type of hiking you'll do most often. 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, hiking shoes (also called trail shoes) are ideal for shorter hikes on mild terrain with little elevation gain. Because they offer good support, hiking shoes are also a great choice for day-to-day casual wear, too.
Light Hiking Boots
Geared toward longer hikes on easy to moderate terrain, light hiking boots offer a little more support than trail shoes without much added weight. Light hiking boots are usually a good choice for most well-maintained trails. These boots are suitable for moderate elevation gain, but not technical ascents or extremely rugged terrain.
Ideal for extended hikes and trekking over rougher terrain, backpacking boots provide increased cushioning and durability. Because they offer better support for carrying a heavy pack, backpacking boots generally fall into the midweight category. Midweight 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. Although these boots are excellent for mountaineering, they are probably overkill for most day hikes.
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.
Nylon, Split-Grain Leather and Suede
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 Lining
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.
Hiking Boot Height
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.
- Hiking shoes (also called trail shoes) don't offer significant stability on very 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-cut 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.
- High-cut hiking boots cover above your ankle and provide 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.
Hiking Boot Soles
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 support layers in hiking shoes and boots, including the insole, midsole, shank and outsole.
Insole and Midsole
The insole is 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. The midsole is a layer of shock-absorbing material that helps dampen impacts on rugged terrain. It can be made from a variety of materials, including:
- Compression-molded EVA (Ethyl Vinyl Acetate) midsoles are made of expanded EVA foam that provides good shock absorption.
- Injection-molded EVA (Ethyl Vinyl Acetate) midsoles are made from melted pellets of EVA. They offer a more uniform density from heel to toe compared to compression-molded EVA.
- PU (polyurethane) midsoles are lightweight and offer cushioning, shock absorption, flexibility and good durability.
- TPR (thermoplastic rubber) midsoles offer lightweight durability and flexibility.
A shank is 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.
Finally, the outsoles of 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 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.
- Your boots should feel snug around the ball and instep of your foot, but loose enough so you can flex your foot forward comfortably. Rock onto the balls of your feet and then back on your heels. This motion should not make your feet feel restricted.
- You should be able to wiggle your toes comfortably inside the toe box. With the right amount of room in the toe box, you’ll be able to spread your toes for stability and to allow for the small amount of natural swelling that occurs when you hike. A little extra room in the toe box will also prevent restriction on your circulation.
- As you walk, your heel should stay in place inside the boot (assuming your boots are laced correctly). If your heel shifts around a lot as you walk, it can cause blisters and discomfort. This is a sign that your boots are too large or wide for your feet.
- When you are trying on or breaking in a new pair of hiking boots, be sure to wear the same socks that you would wear on a hike.
- Don’t be afraid to customize. Getting different insoles, wearing better socks or changing your lacing technique may help you achieve a better fit. If you have high arches, for example, consider investing in a pair of insoles with added arch support. Medium-weight or heavy-weight hiking socks can help protect feet from blister-causing abrasion. Lacing your boots differently can eliminate pressure points and prevent hot spots on the top of your foot.
- Although new hiking boots and trail shoes will fit better after breaking them in, no amount of break-in can fix a pair that doesn’t fit right in the first place.
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.
Hiking Boot Linings
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.
- At the very least, brush all dirt and debris off your hiking boots after each use. Layers of caked-on dirt and mud will make your footwear wear out faster.
- Nylon and mesh uppers can be washed with mild dish soap and warm water. Avoid using harsh detergents, as these can break down synthetic fabrics over time.
- If your boots get soaked, fill them loosely with newspaper or paper towels and let them dry in a warm place. Don’t place your footwear near an open flame, stove or other heat source. This can damage or weaken your boots.
- Leather boots can be cleaned with a gentle leather cleaner, dried completely and then rubbed with neatsfoot oil or another leather conditioner to prevent the leather from drying out. Oiled leather will naturally repel water and dirt. Suede boots can be wiped clean with a moist rag, allowed to dry and treated with a suede proof or DWR treatment designed for hiking boots. Periodically cleaning and re-treating your hiking boots and shoes can significantly extend the life of your footwear.