Types of Hiking Footwear
There are several different popular options for hiking footwear, with the main differences being how much the shoes weigh and how supportive they are under different pack loads. Here is a breakdown of the most common footwear worn while hiking and backpacking:
Trail Running Shoes
Trail running shoes are designed for running on a variety of terrain, such as dirt trails and uneven surfaces like granite or sand. They are not designed with hiking in mind, but have become a great option for hikers looking to maximize the time and distance traveled. Trail running shoes are only offered in low cut designs and are constructed with soft rubber soles for flexibility while running, thick tread patterns for managing trail terrain, and breathable, lightweight mesh or nylon uppers. Waterproof trail runners used to require a hunt, but now, nearly half of the trail runners sold by major retailers are waterproof, which increases their versatility. Unless you are choosing a minimalist trail running shoe, many weigh in at around 1.5-2 pounds- similar weight to hiking shoes. The intended use for trail running shoes lends to less protection around the toes, more sensitivity under foot, and agility that is rarely achieved by hiking boots. These shoes are typically comfortable straight out of the box and require no break-in period. It should be noted that the light weight construction and design offers very little to no support under a pack load and these shoes do not last for very many miles.
Best Uses: trail running, lightweight hiking and backpacking, short day hikes on easy terrain
Hiking shoes provide a happy medium between the simplicity and light weight of trail running shoes and the durability and support of hiking boots. They have semi-aggressive tread patterns, similar to trail running shoes, but with more durable construction and Vibram (or similar) rubber soles. Ankle support is minimal with low-cut designs, but support is gained from sturdy sole construction and less flexibility in the outer materials. Some models incorporate inner shanks that run the length of the shoe adding support and stability. Toes are protected by rubber toe-caps making travel over rocky terrain more enjoyable. Many models are offered in both waterproof and non-waterproof options. Choosing a waterproof option when not needed (depending on conditions and climate) may add weight and reduce breathability, but adds versatility throughout the seasons and when hiking in various environments or locations. Hiking shoes require little to no break-in period and often last longer than trail running shoes. This makes them a better value if you intend to do more hiking than trail running and find yourself moving across moderate terrain. With shoes, a lightweight pack load may be carried comfortably. Shoes are adequate for moderate backpacking and long distance backpacking where the pack load does not exceed 20-30 pounds, but is dependent on your personal needs for ankle and back body support. Think of hiking shoes as sturdier, more durable upgrades from trail running shoes. Plus, hiking shoes and trail running shoes are often only ounces apart in weight. For easy to strenuous day hiking objectives and moderate backpacking goals, these are the best option for hiking with lighter weight, semi aggressive tread, and features lending to support and durability.
Best Uses: day hikes, hiking, moderate backpacking, long distance lightweight hiking and backpacking
Hiking boots are classified by their height on or above the ankle, harder rubber soles, and durable construction with leather or similar materials. A common misconception is that all hiking boots are heavy, but many modern models weigh in around 2-3 pounds; this is only ounces more than most hiking shoes, yet they provide much more support and stability in the ankles. Hiking boots range on a wide spectrum of light hikers to traditional, heavy-duty backpacking boots. Boots are best used when you plan to carry a pack exceeding 20-30 pounds.
Best Uses: day hiking (added ankle support), backpacking with loads heavier than 20-30 pounds, hiking in rough terrain or off-trail, spring or summer hiking where snow will be encountered
Mountaineering boots are best suited for high alpine environments, winter hiking and climbing, and general mountaineering (especially in snow). They are constructed with full shanks and very stiff soles. The design is similar to a hiking boot in that it rises above the ankle, but mountaineering boots are much burlier and less flexible. Mountaineering boots have multiple layers- an insulated inner lining, incorporated gaiters, and waterproof linings. They may or may not cater directly to climbers with design features that accommodate climbing accessories such as crampons. The weight will exceed that of hiking boots, but the features are vital to mountaineers and ice climbers who spend time traveling across snow and ice.
Best Uses: high alpine travel, winter hiking and climbing, general mountaineering
Approach shoes are similar in design to trail running shoes and hiking shoes but have the addition of sticky rubber sole. These are specifically designed for approaching rock climbing destinations, scrambling on rocky off-trail surfaces, and scaling rocky peaks. Trails are often minimally maintained or defined, calling for a supportive shoe that is capable of cross-country travel and the ability to climb easy to moderate rock terrain. While trail runners and shoes for hiking may be suitable in many cases, approach shoes are better designed to handle the terrain you are likely to encounter when heading out to go climbing. Some hiking shoes, like the Vasque Grand Traverse- Women's are marketed as offering some features of approach shoes while maintaining an overall design and construction of a shoe for hiking. We found that the sizing varies enough between an approach shoe (sized snug) and a hiking shoe (sized loose) that they excel best with their specific designs and are not best to cross over between hiking and climbing approaches.
Best Uses: climbing approaches, easy to moderate climbing, peak bagging on 4th and 5th class terrain
Key Considerations for Selecting a Shoe for Hiking
Hiking shoes should be selected based on the most difficult terrain you anticipate hiking. Unless you intend to have multiple pairs of hiking footwear, we recommend you simplify by finding a pair of shoes that is versatile enough for almost all of your hiking. Determine your primary use: day hiking, backpacking, or both. Now, determine the difficulty level of terrain: easy, moderate, or strenuous. For day hiking on easy terrain, a lightweight shoe with minimal support is sufficient. Consider a shoe like the Ahnu Sugarpine Air Mesh - Women's. For day hiking moderate terrain or for easy to moderate backpacking, a shoe that is durable and possibly waterproof with good traction is ideal. Consider a model like the Merrell Moab Ventilator - Women's or Salomon X Ultra GTX. For strenuous day hiking and/or moderate backpacking, support becomes more important, and durability as well. Consider the Salomon Ellipse GTX - Women's and Merrell Siren Sport.
Trails weave themselves across diverse landscapes worldwide. Maybe you plan to hike in your home state where you are familiar with the terrain, or do you plan to hike cross-continental trails like the Pacific Crest Trail? For the most versatile hiking shoe, comfort is key! But important considerations include the necessity for semi-aggressive to very aggressive tread, water resistance, and tongue designs.
Tread on shoes, just like tread on bike or car tires, manages the terrain under foot. When hiking across steep or loose terrain, a more aggressive tread will keep you moving forward efficiently and effortlessly. When hiking on well-developed trails, an aggressive tread is not necessary. Cross-country travel and backpacking are well supported by semi-aggressive to aggressive tread patterns. Muddy terrain or prospective rain calls for more aggressive tread. The most aggressive tread in our review is on the Salomon X Ultra GTX - Women's.
Water resistance is measured by the shoes' ability to keep water out and to keep your feet dry. Hiking with wet feet often leads to discomfort and blisters. If you plan to hike in a wet region, foresee encountering summer rain storms on the regular, or will hike trails that include creek crossings, water resistance is an important feature.
Tongue designs include bellowed tongues and gusseted tongues. A bellowed tongue is designed to keep debris out of the footbed. Fully gusseted tongues are designed to keep both water and debris out. A bellowed tongue is often sufficient for easy to moderate hiking in dry terrain. A gusseted tongue is preferred on moderate to strenuous terrain or where water and snow will likely be encountered. The Merrell Moab Ventilator has a bellowed tongue and the Salomon Ellipse GTX has a gusseted tongue. Both are suitable for a wide variety of hiking styles and destinations, although the Salomon Ellipse GTXs proved to keep water out better than the Moab Ventilators.
Two ways to make a shoe waterproof is either by using a waterproof membrane lining or adding a chemical waterproof treatment to the upper. Gore-Tex is the most common waterproof and breathable material used in outdoor apparel and footwear. GTX is short for Gore-tex and is incorporated into the name of shoes like the Salmon X Ultra GTX and the Salomon Ellipse GTX that use this material as a liner. Proprietary variations of waterproof fabrics are also used in some designs such as the Oboz Yellowstone shoes. An alternative to waterproof/breathable materials is to apply a chemical waterproof treatment - this is best reserved for reapplication after long term use of the shoes as opposed to purchasing a non-waterproof shoe and then personally applying a waterproof treatment.
Waterproof protection keeps feet dry from weather, snow, and creek crossings. In the past, waterproof membranes have reduced breathability of a shoe, but modern materials such as Gore-Tex are designed to be both waterproof and breathable. One major downside of waterproof shoes are the lengthened drying times of the shoes should they become drenched in water or worn during a river crossing. During our tests, we found that shoes like the Salomon Ellipse GTX and Ahnu Sugarpine Mesh remained entirely dry after walking through shallow (1-3 inches) water.
Lacing systems and eyelet patterns are responsible for keeping shoes on our feet. Imagine how easily a shoe would come off or an ankle would twist if not securely fastened with a lacing system. All hiking shoes offer one of two systems: traditional laces and quick lace cord systems.
Traditional laces are what 99% of us are accustomed to using- cotton, nylon, waxed, or unwaxed strands of fabric that weave across the top of the foot.
Quick lace cord systems also weave across the top of the foot but instead of coming to a knot and bow at the top, they are secured with a plastic cord lock and then excess cord is tucked under to keep out of the way. Unlike traditional lacing systems, the quick lace cord systems use an extra durable strand, such as Kevlar. The downside to this system is the inability to easily repair in the wilderness or at all. Replacement and repair requires a specialist. This system is easy to use but is not as easy to customize along the top of the foot.
In either system, laces run through eyelets or holes along both sides of the tongue. These holes may be securely lined with metal grommets, created with webbing, metal rings, or hooks. Most of the shoes in our review offer a combination of these eyelets. The forefoot, where the most flexibility is necessary, often has minimal pressure. Webbing, fabric enforced holes, and metal grommets are the least intrusive to the stride. The middle of the lacing system will often have the highest strength eyelets for maximum security and durability. Metal grommet lined eyelets, metal rings, or metal hooks are commonly placed above the top center of the foot. And lastly, the highest laces will run through high impact eyelets that will not tear out or degrade from being pulled on every time you lace or loosen your shoes. Finding a lacing system that is comfortable against the top of your feet, prevents intrusion into your skin, is unlimiting to stride and flexibility, and allows your shoes to be secured is critical. Luckily, hiking shoes are designed and constructed with all of these considerations and it will only come down to preference and personal comfort when choosing the best lacing system for your hiking adventure.
Proper lacing begins with a well-fitted shoe. Kick the heel back and lace the shoe with tension but not tightness. Like a musical instrument's strings, the laces should maintain tension throughout. To add security while hiking, you may choose to tighten the laces lower or higher so that the foot does not shift while in motion.
Even though we have thoroughly compared, tested, weighed, and extensively evaluated hiking footwear, it is up to you to get a proper fit. We have provided an assessment of how each individual shoe fits- sizes run large or small, wide or narrow- but nothing can take the place of physically trying shoes on. However, we can guide you in the fitting process.
When trying on hiking shoes, wear the socks you intend to hike with and also bring any foot bed inserts that you intend to use in the shoes. If you are unsure about specific socks or inserts, consider the conditions you will be hiking in. Are your feet typically cold? Wear insulating socks made of wool. Are your feet typically warm? Wear synthetic socks that wick moisture away. Socks can also help with width sizing- thick socks for narrow feet, thin socks for wide feet. Try out the diverse selection of socks to find the best pair for your hiking goals and personal preferences.
Hiking footwear should provide firm support through the arch. In the long run, better support will lend to more comfort and stability on and off the trail. They shouldn't bend in the middle of the sole- the soles of the shoes should be firm enough to withstand uneven terrain. Test out the fit around the forefoot and toe box. Can you bend your shoes in stride? Does the shoe prevent natural foot contortions while hiking? And lastly, a shoe should secure your foot so that it does not lift out of the shoe. This may be addressed with proper lacing, but the design around the ankle will be the primary cause. You want your toes to be able to wiggle around in the front but you do not want excess length so that your feet slide forward while hiking.
Hiking footwear should usually be sized up a half to a whole size larger than casual shoe size. Active feet expand in size, and accounting for this before you get on the trail is important. Trying on footwear in the afternoon is better than trying on footwear in the morning, as your feet have had a chance to warm up over the course of the day.
The old mantra of mountain goers states, "It requires five times as much energy to move weight on your feet as it does to move weight on your back." Sir Edmund Hillary stated this after an Everest expedition and science has validated it. By this logic, switching from four pound boots to two pound shoes has the same effect as removing ten pounds from your pack. This significant energy saving is the single most convincing reason to consider the weight of hiking footwear.
At OutdoorGearLab we generally advocate lighter gear because it can allow you to move faster and freer on your adventures. We have found that this also applies to footwear. Though heavy boots have a purpose in specific applications, the light weight of a shoe is preferred.
Anatomy of a Hiking Shoe & Materials
Understanding the different components of a shoe can also help you to better understand the materials used in construction. Why is this relevant? Hiking shoes, and most other shoes for that matter, are advertised with a lot of jargon to highlight materials and construction methods to assure you, the hiker, that your shoes are suitable. But if you don't know what all of the jargon means, the highlighted aspects of the shoes become irrelevant. Below is a breakdown of the parts of a hiking shoe, from top to bottom, and the recommended materials to look for.
The upper is essentially all of the material above the rubber sole. It refers to the main materials used to keep your feet protected from the elements. This part of the shoe should offer breathability and is also the most important when considering water resistant qualities. Abrasion will test this material's strength and durability, so opt for materials that are abrasion resistant or can withstand high use, such as abrasion resistant mesh, leather and synthetic leather, and suede. Solid leather uppers tend to be the most durable and long lasting but will be the least breathable if not mingled with complimentary fabrics.
The interior of a shoe is lined so that the hiker is not relying on the upper and sole to provide all comfort and support. The lining and insole marry together to provide you with support underfoot, comfort all around, and then influence the size and shape of the inside of the shoe. Another important role of the lining is to serve as a water barrier and to also manage moisture from sweating, wet trails, and rain. An awesome technology to seek is antimicrobial linings- these minimize fungus and bacteria as a result of moisture. Both pairs of Merrells in our review are lined with Aegis antimicrobial solution. Lining is responsible for insulating your foot as well. Summer hiking doesn't require much insulation, but if you intend to hike in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall or end up shopping for a heavier duty boot, consider the insulating properties of the lining. Common lining materials are synthetic fabrics, polyester mesh, abrasion resistant fabrics, and waterproof linings. A waterproof lining is comparable to wrapping your foot in a plastic sock before putting it in your shoe, except this technology is already designed into the lining to keep your feet dry from outside water contact.
Insole, Midsole, and Outsole
The insole is what your foot rests on. It is the lining material directly under foot. Insoles are often removable and replaceable. Molded EVA is the common factory insole that comes in the shoe upon purchase. Customizable insoles for increased ergonomical support and comfort are made of foam. Carbon fiber, memory foam, and gel are the common materials used to construct insoles that can be formed and fitted to your feet. These will either replace or stack on top of factory insoles, depending on your personal preference and desired level of arch support.
The midsole, sits between the insole and the sole of the shoe. This provides much of the support. EVA molded midsoles are the most common. EVA stands for ethylene vinyl acetate. Basically, it is a plastic foam-like material that can be more or less dense before constructed into a shoe. The more dense the EVA midsole is, the longer the break in period will be. Typically, hiking shoes utilize an EVA material that is soft and flexible to ensure immediate comfort. In contrast, a hiking boot will utilize a dense EVA or polyurethane alternative to ensure more support under weight and durability that comes along with a break in period.
The sole, or outsole, is the bottom part of the shoe that makes contact with the trail. This is often constructed of a hard rubber that is capable of maintaining traction and stability on a variety of terrain conditions from mud to dust to snow. Most of the rubber soles in our review are non-marking rubber. This means that they will not scuff indoor floors or rocks. There is a lot of technicality in the construction of the various rubbers found on the soles. Proprietary rubber blends are designed to provide the highest degree of stability, shock absorption, and traction. Softer rubber will offer better grip on smooth surfaces but will also wear out at a faster rate. Harder rubber will offer less sticky traction on smooth surfaces but will endure long term wear better. Tread patterns that have various size and shape of lugs, or cleat like features, tend to offer better traction than uniform patterned tread. The most important factor to consider with the sole of a hiking shoe is that it is constructed of a durable rubber, with some flexibility, and with non-uniform tread patterns.
The insole, midsole, and outsole are the key factors for comfort and support. While the midsole and outsole are not customizable, the insole can be customized to offer added support and comfort.
All of the shoes in our review have some degree of toe protection. The best toe protection is offered by a rubber toe cap. Toe protection is necessary on most hiking trails as you will likely encounter hard surfaces to bump and kick your toes into. A rubber toe cap is the coverage of rubber or similar firm material that covers the toe area. It is often reinforced with an inner form to create a stiff toe area. This reduces the risk of pain and discomfort from unintentional toe contact with external things such as rocks and also strengthens the shoe from potential damage.
A bellowed tongue or gusseted tongue? Both a bellowed tongue and a gusseted tongue prevent debris and water from sneaking into the inside of your shoe from the top. The tongue is sewn into the main body of the shoe, under the lace eyelets and at the base to eliminate any gaps for debris to get in through. This is a worthy feature to seek. All of the shoes in our review have either a bellowed tongue or a gusseted tongue.