Before we dig into choosing between the many models on the market, let's ask? Do I need a pair of hiking shoes? Our lead tester recently had a brief conversation with a friend new to hiking. It started something like this:
Friend: Hey, I had a great time on Saturday hiking up to Grey Rock, but my old running shoes were slipping and sliding everywhere on the way down. What should I buy for hiking in? I bumped into a bunch of other hikers, and they were wearing all kinds of things: sandals, running shoes, colorful trail running shoes, leather boots, some type of mesh looking boots, and there were these two guys wearing those toe shoes.
The reply went something like this:
I'm glad you had fun up there. You can hike in any kind of shoes and have a good time, but the more you get out hiking, you'll want to find something that fits your foot well, and handles the terrain you're covering. Some of those hikers have probably figured out what works great for their foot, some may be be trying out the latest craze in footwear, and a good chunk are probably in your shoes snicker making do with what they have while deciding what they want to purchase specifically for hiking.
Key Questions to Guide Your Footwear Decision
Before making your next purchase, be sure to ask yourself:
Where do I plan to hike?
What are the trail surfaces like?
Will I spend much time off-trail?
How much does my pack usually weigh?
How much if any support do I need for my ankles?
Will I get out there in bad weather and in the winter?
Let's take a look at the types of footwear available for hiking. Each is an appropriate choice for hiking and light backpacking depending on your answers to these questions. After detailing the advantages of each, we'll discuss two basic categories of hiking shoes and their attributes. And finally, we'll guide you through fitting and sizing a shoe for your unique foot.
Types of Hiking Footwear
Men's Hiking Boots.
Trail Running Shoes
Trail running shoes have midsoles designed for impact cushioning, flexible soles designed for sensitivity, and are the lightest footwear among these categories. They provide less foot support when carrying a pack than hiking shoes and are not as durable.
They are perfect for backpacking on smooth trails and terrain. Experienced hikers can handle medium loads and rough terrain in these shoes. Waterproof liners make these shoes appropriate for limited amounts of mud and puddles on the trail. Confident hikers will love the agility and weight savings of a low-cut shoe compared to a hiking boot. The Keen Targhee II Mid and Merrell Moab Ventilator Mid, lightweight hiking boot versions of the shoes we reviewed, provide a compromise for hikers that want a little bit of ankle support.
Approach shoes have a softer rubber sole and a closer fit than shoes for hiking. The lacing system is designed to allow lots of tightening, especially at the toe and forefoot, for a snug fit and performance scrambling rocky ridges and steep, technical approaches in the mountains. Some folks with narrow feet find that the snug uppers of approach shoes offer an ideal fit for hiking, but the sole will not be as durable as the products in this review.
How to Choose a Hiking Shoe
So you've decided a low-cut hiking shoe will meet your needs best. Which one should you purchase? Because these products fit into a niche between hiking boots and trail running shoes, they can be divided into two groups that resemble one or the other.
First, we have models that more closely resemble hiking boots. Six of the boots we evaluated are available as a mid-cut boot. As we described above, boots traditionally have a substantial midsole and a full length shank, which support the foot under loads and provide torsional stability. These shoes provide the same foot support as their boot brothers, and the low-cut upper saves several ounces on each foot. Listed below are the models that fall into this category, with the Lowa Renegade offering the most foot support. The Moab Ventilator is one of the lightest shoes (and boots we tested), and offers minimal foot support. These are listed in decreasing order of foot support, which closely correlates to measured weight.
Lowa Renegade II GTX Lo
La Sportiva FC Eco 2.0
Keen Targhee 2
The North Face Hedgehog Hike GTX
Keen Marshall WP
Merrell Moab Ventilator
The Renegade and FC Eco provide the most foot support, and are great choices if you want to carry a medium or heavy pack with a low-cut shoe. The Targhee 2 we consider the best bang for your buck if it fits your foot, and the Hedgehog Hike is the lightest shoe that received a high support score. The Marshall is exceptionally breathable and comfortable, but lacks the support for carrying loads. And the Moab Ventilator treats your feet right in hot, dry weather.
Second, we have four shoes that more closely resemble a trail running shoe. The fit, amount of heel lift above the forefoot, and sole are most similar to traditional trail runners. Folks who come from a running background will find these shoes' fit and feel familiar. These are the lightest products we tested, with the exception of the uberlight Moab Ventilator, which again occupies a class of its own. The categories we use for footwear take a continuum of features, weight and performance into consideration, but there can certainly be an overlap between these types. If these are the shoes you're drawn to for hiking, you'll also want to consider the excellent footwear evaluated in our Men's Trail Runners review, especially the Salomon XA Pro 3D, which has a dedicated following amongst many fast hikers and thru-hikers.
The North Face Ultra 109 GTX
Adidas Outdoor AX 2.0
Salewa Wildfire GTX
The North Face Ultra took home our Editors' Choice Award. It handles both hiking and rough terrain and running very well. Superlight and all leather, the non-waterproof Vasque Juxt is a great option for moving fast in the desert or any other dry climate. The Adidas Outdoor runs and dayhikes reasonably well, but just doesn't play in the same league as the other shoes we tested.
Support & Weight
How much support you need depends how many miles you hike, how smooth or rough the terrain is, and how much weight you are carrying. The further your adventures take you, the more you'll benefit from a shoe with more support and torsional stability, especially if you're moving over rough trails or off-trail terrain. Stiffer, more supportive shoes will also reduce foot fatigue when carrying a pack, and the more you carry the more support your foot needs.
Surely light is right when hiking lots of miles. Modern materials and construction techniques have worked wonders in footwear design, and today's best shoes for hiking deliver support, comfort and performance at relatively low weights compared to only a few years ago. With the heaviest shoe we tested weighing in at 2.7 lbs, and the lightest 2.1, all are pretty darn light. As we've seen though, as ounces are shaved, the product generally becomes less supportive and durable. Our advice is to choose the lightest footwear that meets your needs for support and expectations of durability.
Waterproof Membrane or No?
We all are aiming to keep our feet as dry as possible when hiking. Dry feet are cooler when it's hot out, and warmer when it's cold. Wet skin is also a major cause of blisters, which can ruin a trip. Waterproof breathable membranes will keep your feet from getting soaked while hiking through shallow puddles, small streams, mud and heavy dew. But keep in mind that non-waterproof shoes are far more breathable than their waterproof membrane counterparts. Many hikers have relayed to us the disadvantage of waterproof membranes when hiking in hot weather. If you mostly hike on dry trails, especially in hot weather, choose a shoe available without a membrane and enjoy the better breathability. Waterproof membranes do add warmth to a shoe, and provide great performance for cold weather hiking.
Fitting & Finding Your Size
The comfort and performance of footwear is largely determined by how well the shoes fit your feet. Once you've narrowed down your search, trying on many pairs of similar shoes to find the model and size that best fits your foot is ideal. Some manufacturers' products are known to fit low volume or narrow feet best. La Sportiva has this reputation. Others tend to fit wide feet well, and some manufacturers offer their shoes with width options. The Moab Ventilator is available in wide, and the Lowa makes the Renegade in both narrow and wide.
If possible, visit a local outdoor retailer to try on all the shoes you are considering. Try them on with the type of socks you expect to wear most often, and if you use custom insoles or orthotics make sure you take them along. While hikers that wear boots tend to use moderately thick wool socks, the best fit with their shoe counterparts is usually with a relatively thin wool or synthetic sock.
Finding a well-fitting shoe for your particular foot is even more important for hiking shoes than boots. A boot's higher ankle collars provide more lacing adjustment that can be used to hold the foot in place in the footbed. A narrow foot in a wider shoe will be more difficult to secure than in a wider boot. If you are new to shoes for the outdoors, a 1/2 or full size larger than casual shoes is a good place to start. The Brannock device, which gives both a length and width measurement of your foot when used by an experienced shoe fitter, provides valuable measurements to speed up sizing.
You will want to make sure that the shoe and size you choose captures your foot well, so that there is no sliding of the heel up and down in the shoe. To avoid blisters, the tips of your toes should never touch the front of your shoe. Loosen the laces of the shoe, slide your foot all the way to the front. There should be about ½ inch of space, or your pinky finger width, behind your heel. When lacing the shoe up, slide your heel snugly into the back of the shoe, and lace it up with even tension across your forefoot. Take a hot lap around the store, walk on some stairs or that fancy ramp some stores have, and note the feel and especially how well your heel stays put in the back of the shoe.
As the final decision looms, many folks find themselves torn between two sizes. Our lead tester used to spend a lot of time agonizing over whether 11.5 or 12 would be the better fit out on the trails. Our feet swell a little bit when we're out hiking, especially during long days. A thicker sock or more substantial insole can make a slightly too big shoe fit really well. But a shoe that is too small is just too small. Pick the larger size if you're torn between two.
Fine Tuning the Fit
A little fine tuning can do wonders to achieve the perfect fit. Using a little thicker sock can help folks with low volume feet get a snug fit without having to over-tighten the laces. If you're fitting a shoe you quite like, but have a little bit of heel slip, try a bit thicker sock. Or try a thinner sock with a ½ size smaller. Compare one combo on your right and one on your left as you walk around.
Shoes that have a traditional eyelet, or two close together, at the top of the lacing system provide you the flexibility to experiment with lacing. With these traditional, through-the-shoe's upper eyes, you can pass the lace through either from the inside or outside of the upper. Passing the lace from the outside to the inside of the upper can snug the ankle cuff a bit tighter. Two upper eyes allows you to use one or both.
Lots of hikers replace the stock insole, either from the start or as it begins to wear out, which is often long before the shoe itself is ready for retirement. Thicker or thinner insoles (don't be afraid to mix and match from your current shoes), can help you adjust the fit of a nearly just-right shoe.