How to Choose Footwear for Hiking
By Sandra Saathoff
Hiking and backpacking are relatively simple activities. We travel along adventurous routes with everything we need on our backs, but unlike the critters native to the wild, we don’t have sturdy hooves or hardy pads. We look to shoes or boots to protect our feet. And if we don’t choose wisely, what should be a fun time can be halted by sore — or even injured — feet.
Lucky for us, there are plenty of footwear options — shoes, boots, and minimalist footwear — so let’s take a look at some of them.
Shoes vs. boots
The debate between proponents of boots or shoes can get quite heated at times, with strong opinions on both sides. Boot proponents tout the longevity, ankle protection and support for weight carrying, while shoe proponents point to lighter weight, comfort and quick-drying benefits. In the end, it’s about finding the right option for your feet. And being open to change can be a good thing. Let’s dive deeper into the options.
Long trail thru-hikers, backpackers doing thousands of miles in a season, introduced many in the community to the concept of hiking in shoes, rather than boots. When trying to hike big mileage each day, they found that the energy expended wearing the lighter trail runners was significantly less than when wearing a heavier boot — and when you’re on your feet for 10–12 hours a day or more, that’s a big deal. A survey of 2020 PCT thru-hikers found that trail runners and hiking shoes are preferred.
Trail runners are basically running shoes that have been beefed up with more aggressive support and traction to deal with the more variable conditions of trails vs. roads. They are lightweight and flexible, which allows your feet to feel the terrain for nimble movement. They have fabric or mesh construction for breathability, which means they get wet immediately when submerged, but also dry quickly. They do not, however, offer protection for ankles or much protection for feet from rocks, brush or other abrasive perils on trail. Trail runners may not be the best option for those carrying heavier packs of over 35 pounds, as their support is not designed for that purpose. Weight: about 1.25 pounds per pair. Cost: $75–$150 retail, but check outlets and slightly used options for cost savings.
Hiking shoes are the middle ground between trail runners and boots. They look a lot like trail runners but are designed with more structural support and longer-lasting soles. The soles are stiffer than trail running soles and the shoe weight is slightly heavier, but what they offer in durability, foot support and overall ruggedness is where they shine. Hiking shoes generally feature tougher construction that offers more protection from trail obstacles and a toe cap that can save you from a painful toe stub or the drop of a light rock, but they still offer no ankle protection. The more aggressive and durable sole lugs are great for traction in variable conditions and can help you comfortably tote a light to mid-weight backpack up and down mountains. Weight: about 1.5 pounds per pair. Cost: $100–$150 retail, but check outlets and slightly used options for cost savings.
Traditional leather hiking boots are built to last thousands of trail miles. They feature a hard sole and deep tread and often hit above the top of the ankle. This protects from rocks and brush on trail. Contrary to popular belief, the collar is not for ankle support; instead, that comes more from the stiffness of the sole. Its resistance to flexing holds the foot in place and allows a neutral position when hiking over terrain. While leather boots generally take time to form to the foot, wearing them at home for an hour a day can result in a boot that feels nearly custom and, with care, can last many years. Leather boots can even be taken to a shoe repair shop to be resoled as needed, to extend their life.
Synthetic hiking boots feature many of the same benefits, but in a less expensive and less durable material. Over time, the uppers of synthetic boots fray or develop holes, much like their shoe counterparts. However, non-waterproof versions are much more breathable than leather, which makes them cooler than their leather counterparts, potentially making them more desirable in summer than winter.
Boots come in a couple of different heights: some just over the ankle and others a bit higher up the calf. Which one is right for you is purely a personal choice, with higher boots providing more protection against bumps, bruises and abrasions, as well as keeping rocks, sticks and snow out, but adding weight to your feet.
Weight: 2.5 to 3 pounds per pair. Cost: $125–$400 retail, but check outlets and slightly used options for cost savings.
Not everyone chooses shoes or boots; some prefer sandals or something like a Vibram five-toed shoe that mimics being barefoot on the trail. Some people even like hiking barefoot, building up the callouses and connecting intimately to the trail with their feet. It’s all about what works for you. If you decide to go minimalist, just be aware that you’re sacrificing the protection that shoes or boots provide and plan accordingly. Try your option on short outings before you take a longer trip.
Waterproof or not?
With waterproof footwear, your feet are likely to stay dryer, at least in the beginning, when the waterproofing is new and the day young. After time, the coating wears and no longer works. There are aftermarket options for reinstating at least some level of waterproofing, either with a spray or rub-in product, but assume that if you encounter days of rain or lots of puddles, your feet will be wet and it will take quite some time for the boots to dry. In the hot summer, waterproofed footwear leads to hot feet, as it’s less breathable than a non-waterproof option. With non-waterproofed footwear, if you walk in water or wet grass and bushes, you will have wet feet. But your feet will stay cooler in summer and the shoes will dry faster. Like so many things, it’s a personal choice. If possible, maybe it’s best to have both options available. Waterproof boots work well with snowshoes in winter.
Regardless of your footwear choice, manufacturers do not tend to provide a high-quality insert with good arch support. If you find that your feet are overly tired or sore during or after hikes, you might consider an aftermarket insert. Companies like Superfeet offer a variety of options suited to different activities and needs. The extra support and cushion can make a huge difference in extending the comfort and mileage of your outings.
Determining the best setup for your feet is not something you can do online — at least not entirely. Articles may provide a general direction (shoes vs. boots) or some guidelines about which options are best for wide feet, narrow feet, or feet with bunions, but there is no substitute for going to stores and trying on footwear. Many outdoor stores have terrain slopes you can walk on to see how the footwear performs going up and down and on rocks, as well as flat surfaces. You’re looking for an option that locks your heel into place without slippage and provides enough width for the ball of your foot. You want it sized so that your toes are not bumping up against the front of the boot, but have at least a half-inch of space, especially when going downhill (hiking in too-small boots is a great way to lose toenails). It may take trying on several pairs of boots or shoes to find what feels best, but you’ll thank yourself for your patience once you get to the mountains. And if you value being able to try on all those shoes, consider buying them in-store, rather than online, and supporting those local businesses.
Caring for footwear – making it last
You’ve invested significant dollars in your footwear. To make it last as long as possible, here are a few tips:
- Dirt grinds away at materials and causes wear. When you return from the wild, give your footwear a gentle bath.
- Take out the insoles and air them out, letting them dry fully.
- Remove laces and use a soft cloth to wipe away any dust and a scrub brush to gently remove other dirt from the boot uppers and soles.
- Take into consideration the material your footwear is made of. With leather, brush off mud while it’s still wet. Mud sucks moisture from leather and leaves it less pliable over time. Use a ph-balanced leather soap and conditioner. For synthetic trail runners, you may be able to just toss them in the washing machine and let them air dry.
- Dry your hiking boots or shoes at room temperature. Heat extremes are not kind to any materials.
When is it time for new footwear?
When the tread on the bottom is no longer aggressive enough for safety on your chosen hikes, it’s time to look for new shoes. When the cushion in the shoes has compacted and you find your feet sore after hikes that don’t normally make your feet sore. When the boot has holes in it that impact the stability and support it provides. When the footwear is no longer doing the job you bought it to do. How long that takes depends on the quality of the initial purchase and the number of miles spent on your feet. It may be a season; it may be several years.
Before you toss your footwear in the garbage, think about some options for extending its life instead of adding it to the landfill.
- Consider transitioning your hiking boots to winter. Even if the tread is worn, by adding yaktrax or snowshoes, the boots may be serviceable for another few years of outdoor play.
- Shoes that are no longer supportive enough to carry a backpack might be fine for walking the dog or doing errands.
- A friend just getting into hiking might love to put a few more miles on your boots if they aren’t too far gone. Or even consider donating them to a lending gear closet or youth organization. This is an especially good option for kids who have outgrown their boots before wearing them out.
- Some companies collect shoes and recycle them into other things: secondhand clothing, fiber for home insulation, carpet padding, tracks and playground floors. A quick Google search will help you determine where you can take shoes to be recycled.
While we’ll never be as adept on trail as the mountain goats we like to spot, manufacturers have spent a lot of time and money developing an abundance of options from which to choose. It’s just a matter of taking the time to find what works best for your feet and soon you’ll be dancing on the trails.