Types of Hiking Footwear
First, let's examine the different kinds of hiking footwear out there. It wasn't so long ago that if you were going hiking, the only options available were big, heavy, and clunky full-leather boots. Now you can choose from boots, mids, shoes, and even trail runners. 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 distance they travel in the least amount of time. 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 10 ounces per shoe, which is only a few ounces lighter than most hiking shoes. Trail runners have 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 to add 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 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. Depending on the model, you can still carry a lightweight pack load comfortably. They are adequate for moderate backpacking and long distance backpacking where the pack load does not exceed 20-30 pounds, but that is also dependent on your personal needs for ankle and back body support. Think of hiking shoes as sturdier, more durable upgrades from trail running shoes. For easy to strenuous day hiking objectives and moderate backpacking goals, these are the best option.
Best Uses: day hikes, hiking, moderate backpacking, long distance lightweight hiking and backpacking.
Hiking boots are classified by their height at 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, and provide much more support and stability in the ankles than a shoe. 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. Full-leather boots will need to be "broken-in," or worn on moderate hikes for shorter distances so as to conform to the shape of your foot and soften up, but leather/mesh hybrids might be comfortable enough out of the box to take on a long trip right away.
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 you might encounter snow.
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 also have special ridges for securing crampons. They are heavier than 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, with a sticky rubber sole and rubber toe rand. They are specifically designed for approaching rock climbing destinations, scrambling on rocky off-trail surfaces, and scaling rocky peaks. While trail runners and hiking shoes are often used as approach shoes, specifically designed approach shoes are often better designed to handle the terrain you are likely to encounter when heading out to go climbing. Also, if you are planning on climbing low 5th-class terrain in your approach shoes you'll need to size them slightly snugger than a typical hiking shoe for better sensitivity on the rock.
Best Uses: climbing approaches, easy to moderate climbing, peak bagging on 4th and 5th class terrain
Key Considerations for Selecting a Shoe for Hiking
Now that you have a better understanding of the types of footwear out there, here some are points to consider when selecting your next pair.
Hiking shoes should be selected based on the most difficult terrain you anticipate hiking. Unless you intend to have multiple pairs, we recommend you simplify by finding a pair 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 the terrain: easy, moderate, or strenuous. For day hiking on easy terrain, a lightweight shoe with minimal support is sufficient, like the Ahnu Sugarpine WP - 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, like the Salomon Ellipse GTX - Women's. For strenuous day hiking and/or moderate backpacking, support becomes more important, and durability as well. In this instance, our Editors' Choice winner, the Oboz Sawtooth Low BDry - Women's is an excellent choice, as is our Top Pick for Comfort, the Hoka One One Tor Summit WP - Women's.
Knowing the terrain you'll be hiking in is a key consideration when selecting your next pair. If you mostly hike on the soft and often muddy trails of the Pacific Northwest, your needs will be different than someone in the desert Southwest. If your goal is to climb the 46 highest peaks in the Adirondaks your terrain is going to be different again (exposed granite slabs anyone?). Purchasing with the terrain that you'll be using your footwear in most often will help steer you in the right direction. If your usual trails are soft and relatively flat, traction might not be much of an issue, but if you're constantly scrambling around steep sandstone rock, something with a very sticky sole, like the Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator - Women's, is a must. Every pair that we tested had varying amounts of traction and tread. The more "aggressive" the tread (deeper lugs, spaced further apart, with funky zig zag shapes), the better the hold your feet will get on steep and loose terrain. Hard rubber soles grip best on trails, whereas softer rubber grips better on rock. While it's rare to find a shoe that works well in a variety of environments, our Editors' Choice winner, the Oboz Sawtooth Low Bry, did come close!
Your footwear achieves water resistance via two ways: a waterproof inner membrane and adding a chemical waterproof treatment to the upper. Gore-Tex (often found as GTX in shoe names) is the most common waterproof/breathable material used in outdoor apparel and footwear, though newer companies, like eVent, are joining the party, and some shoe manufacturers, like Oboz, use a proprietary material. They all have the same function — to prevent outside moisture from entering the shoe while venting the inner moisture (your sweat). As much as these liners attempt to add "breathability" to your shoe, there's no question that they'll keep your feet warmer overall than a pair with a lightweight mesh liner. So the question is, do you need a waterproof shoe? In some cases, maybe not. But if you are hiking for days, or even heading on a long day hike where the weather might change, having a waterproof liner is probably a safe bet. You can always change your socks at lunchtime if your feet get sweaty, but once the whole shoe is wet it's going to be hard going.
Polyurethane (PU) coatings are another layer of protection added to many models. This puts a hydrophobic barrier on top of the upper, helping water bead up and roll off your shoe as opposed to absorbing through the material. While it won't make a mesh shoe waterproof, particularly when crossing a stream, it will help provide protection from a light drizzle or when hiking through wet grass, so look for it in your non-Gore-Tex models. There are also aftermarket products that can help make your hiking shoes more waterproof, like SilNet Silicone Seam Sealer.
Even though we thoroughly compared, tested, weighed, and wore each model in this review, it is up to you to get a proper fit. We all have different shapes and sizes of feet, and even the most "comfortable" pair might not work for you if your foot shape doesn't line up with the manufacturer's estimation. Based on the pairs that we tried in a women's size 10 (and keep in mind also that width can change according to length), the Oboz and Keen brands had the widest fit, and the Hoka One One, The North Face and Salomon brands had the narrowest. The rest were in the middle somewhere.
When it comes to trying on a pair, wear the socks you intend to hike with and also bring any foot bed inserts that you intend to use. 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 a diverse selection of socks to find the best pair for your hiking goals and personal preferences.
Hiking shoes should provide firm support through the arch. In the long run, better support will be more comfort and stable on the trail. Test out the fit around the forefoot and toe box. Can you bend your shoes in stride? Is there enough room in the front for your toes to splay out without rubbing against the sides? And do you have enough room so that your toes don't bash into the end when hiking downhill? Many outdoor retailers will have a ramp you can walk down to test this out. Lastly, your foot should be secure enough so that the heel does not lift up. Even the slightlest amount of heel lift can lead to significant rubbing and blisters if it happens with every step. You might be able to lock your foot down better with proper lacing, but sometimes it's a question of the matchup between your heel ergonomics and the cut.
You should usually size up a half to a whole size larger than your 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 is that "it requires five times as much energy to move weight on your feet as it does to move weight on your back." By this logic, switching from four pound boots to two pound hiking shoes has the same effect as removing ten pounds from your pack. This significant energy savings is an important reason to consider the weight of your 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. While the weight variance between the lightest and heaviest models that we tested in this review was about a half a pound, even that little difference was noticeable to us. There comes a point though when too light might result in a lack of support, such as with the Ahnu Sugarpine WP, but if you can stay under 2 pounds per pair then you're feet will be thanking you.
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 to manage moisture from sweating, wet trails, and rain. In winter boots and shoes, that lining will also provide insulation, but spring, summer and fall hiking doesn't typically require much insulation. 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 a removable (and replaceable) piece that comes in varying degrees of quality. We had some insoles that were throwaway pieces, like the Asolo Outlaw GV - Women's, and others that were as high quality as an expensive aftermarket pair, like on the Oboz Sawtooth Low BDry. Customizable insoles are made of carbon fiber, memory foam, or gel, and can increase the support and comfort level. You can either replace the factory insole, or place it on top, depending on your personal preference or need to reduce the volume of the shoe.
The midsole sits between the insole and the sole of the shoe and provides much of the support. EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) molded midsoles are the most common, and can vary in density from "soft" to "dual-density". Even the densest EVAs feel "softer" than the alternative polyurethane (PU) midsoles and require little to no break-in period, but they won't last as long as eventually the foam packs in.
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 technology 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.
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 hiking 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.
While you might not even notice a well-fitting pair of hiking shoes, you certainly will know if they are ill-fitting or uncomfortable. Take the time to find the right pair for you — there are dozens of manufacturers to choose from and multiple lines within each one. Don't let your footwear ruin your next trip, and have a fun (and safe) time out there!