How to Choose Hiking Footwear
Start by considering distance, the type of terrain you'll be hiking and potential weather conditions. Hiking shoes (a.k.a. trail shoes) are fine for shorter hikes on easy terrain, but not ideal for very long distances or challenging terrain. For longer treks and more rugged topography, consider hiking boots or backpacking boots. For extremely rugged alpine terrain and technical ascents, a pair of mountaineering boots is definitely the way to go. If inclement weather could be in the forecast, a pair of waterproof hiking boots is worth the added investment.
Check out our Hiking Boot Guide for more information on choosing hiking footwear.
Hiking Boot Fit and Break-In Tips
- Get the Right Size: Hiking boot fit is extremely important in order to avoid discomfort and potentially blister-causing friction. Before buying new boots, feel free to consult our Shoe Sizing Guide to help you determine your most accurate shoe size.
- Sizing Up: Many people prefer hiking boots that are a half or full size larger than their normal shoe size. This helps accommodate thicker hiking socks without discomfort. If possible, try on your boots with the socks you'll be wearing when you hike. When sizing a pair of boots, lace them up and slide your foot all the way forward, as if you were on a decline. If your toes are jammed up against the front of the boot, you need a larger size. Of course, your foot should also feel secure inside the boot once it’s snuggly laced.
- The Right Stuff: Footwear manufacturers create insoles based on average foot shape, but let's face it: Every foot is unique. Some people require more or less arch support than others. If your new boots are lacking in arch support, consider purchasing a pair of replacement insoles designed for high arches.
- Boot Break-In: Before taking them for an extended hike, always wear your new shoes or boots for a few shorter walks or while running errands around town. Most new footwear requires minimal break-in time. Heavier backpacking, trekking and mountaineering boots require more break-in time than lightweight trail shoes. Full leather hiking boots usually require the most break-in time, but typically last the longest.
As with any outdoor sport, hiking is much more enjoyable with the proper footwear and clothing. Hiking shorts and pants from brands like Columbia Sportswear and Mountain Hardwear offer great features like inseam gussets for freedom of movement, cargo pockets and lightweight-yet-rugged fabrics. Hiking shirts may feature additions like built-in UPF sun protection, mesh vents for breathability and fast-drying fabrics. Convertible pants with zip-off legs are another great option for adding versatility and convenience. Other items worth adding are a brimmed hat for extra sun protection and a lightweight, weather-resistant shell for potential bad weather.What to Wear Hiking
Those white cotton socks, although great for everyday wear, are usually sub-optimal for the trails. Hiking socks from brands like SmartWool, Bridgedale and Lorpen are constructed of breathable, moisture-wicking fibers like merino wool, alpaca, nylon and high-performance polyester. Hiking socks are typically available in three styles: lightweight (for day hikes and hot summer conditions), midweight (for moderate terrain and distances) and heavyweight (exta cushion for long-distance treks, heavy pack loads and rugged terrain).
The length of your hike and the conditions will determine whether you need a simple, lightweight daypack or a full-sized backpack. Backpacks from brands like Gregory and Mountain Hardwear typically range in size from about 20 to 60 liters, with 30L (about 1800 cubic inches) being one of the most popular sizes for day hikes. If your plans call for a summertime day hike, you'll likely only need a medium-sized daypack to carry the essentials. Most packs beyond 40L are designed for alpine climbing and backpacking. If you plan on traversing mountainous terrain, heading into the backcountry or experiencing adverse weather, a larger pack may be needed to stow the necessary gear.
Check out our Backpack Guide for more detailed information on sizing and fitting a backpack.
Over the past few years, trekking poles have started to become standard equipment for many hikers. Trekking poles and walking sticks can help maintain balance and stability, especially during ascents and descents. They may also reduce strain on legs and joints, as well as aid in stream crossings and navigating slippery terrain, ice and snow.
Types of Trekking Poles
- Anti-shock trekking poles feature a special spring mechanism inside the shaft that compresses slightly as weight is applied to the pole. This helps dampen shock and reduce strain on wrists. The shock mechanism can usually be switched off when needed.
- Standard trekking poles are usually slightly lighter and somewhat less expensive than anti-shock poles. Even though standard poles do not absorb shock, they still provide the same level of added stability.
- Walking sticks and hiking staffs are single poles designed for hiking on easy to moderate terrain. A single pole won’t provide quite as much added stability as a pair of trekking poles but can still be beneficial. Whether you choose to hike with a pair of poles, a single pole or none is simply a matter of personal preference. Try out a few options and see what works best for you.
For more information and tips on sizing your trekking poles, take a look at our Trekking Pole Guide.
Anytime you plan on hiking away from civilization, navigation could come into play. Getting lost can happen to anyone, even when following designated trails. Before starting a hike in an unknown area, consider getting a topographic map of the area and a compass, or carry a GPS device. Of course, a map and compass or GPS unit won’t help if you don’t know how to use them properly. At the very least, consult a trail map and sign in on the trail log (if available) before setting out, and pay close attention to your surroundings and any divergent trails. For great information on backcountry navigation, check out Backcountry Attitude.
Preparation and Hiking Safety
Obviously, hiking on a local trail within city limits won’t require nearly the same level of preparation as a month-long trek down the Appalachian Trail. However, being well-prepared and knowing your limitations are two big factors when it comes to hiking safely. If an unexpected injury or other bad situation does arise, it’s important to be ready with a first aid kit, survival kit and the knowledge to use them. The golden rule: Always tell someone where you're going and when you plan to get back.
What to Bring on a Hike
Although you don’t need a lot of gear for most hikes, there are still a number of essentials you don’t want to overlook. What you bring will also change depending on how far you’re planning to hike, the type of terrain you’ll be navigating and potential weather conditions you might encounter. Using a checklist is a great way to make sure you don’t forget anything important before heading out. If you don’t already have a list, our Hiking Checklist is a good place to start.
Difficulty and Distance
Many designated trails have a degree of difficulty and a distance. Some also have a trail map and other pertinent information at the trail head. More remote trails may not have any visitor info, but maps and information about the trail could still be available online or in a guidebook. If you haven't done much hiking before, consider starting out on an easy or moderate trail for your first few outings. The most difficult trails are either very long, include challenging terrain and/or involve significant elevation gain. As mentioned before, it’s important to research beforehand, know your limits and be alert for changing weather, wildlife and other hazards. Never hike difficult, remote or unknown trails alone.
A sudden change in weather is something that can catch people off guard and unprepared. When venturing into the great outdoors, always plan for any weather eventuality. Just because it’s supposed to be 80 degrees and sunny for your late-spring hike doesn’t mean the conditions couldn’t change to cold and rainy, or even snowy, depending on where you’re hiking. Some regions, such as the Rocky Mountains, are more prone to unexpected changes in weather, so plan accordingly. Be ready with enough gear to at least make it through one or two nights out in the wilderness, should you become lost or stranded.
- The Golden Rule: Always tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back, even if you aren’t hiking alone.
- If your new boots have a measurably larger volume than your foot or don’t offer enough arch support, you may get a better fit with replacement insoles.
- If you’ve purchased heavy-duty leather hiking boots and find your heel lifts slightly, this is likely to stop after some wear. Leather boots typically contour to the heel as the boots break in.
- Always carry more water than you think you will drink. Dehydration can turn a hike deadly in a matter of hours. It’s also a very good idea to bring along some way to purify water, just in case you need to refill your supply outdoors.
- If hiking with dogs, keep them leashed for their own safety. Wildlife and other dogs can both be potentially dangerous to an unleashed pet. Many national parks do not allow pets on certain trails and areas, so be sure to check before your trip.
- Always pack a small flashlight or headlamp, just in case you get delayed or stranded after dark. Pack a whistle to help signal rescuers in an emergency.
- Snakes love to sun themselves on trails, so be sure to watch your step when hiking in snake country. Some areas of the US also contain other potentially dangerous wildlife, including bears, cougars, wild pigs, deer and moose. Be aware of the risks before hiking in a new region.
- Always research the trails you'll be exploring beforehand or talk with someone who knows the area, such as a park ranger or guide.