Do I need a hiking boot? Will a hiking shoe work for me? I hear all those Appalachian Trail thru-hikers are wearing trail running shoes these days, should I? (Thru-hikers hike long-distance trails from one end to the other. First coined for those hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia all the way thru to Maine, the moniker is now commonly used for hikers tackling any of a number of long trails). No doubt, the trend throughout the outdoor world is for lighter, increasingly minimalist footwear. So let's take a minute, and ask… Do I need hiking boots?
A Subjective Note from the Author
As a matter of personal usage and preference, I generally prefer low cut trail running shoes without waterproof lining for long and lightweight "fastpacking" missions, and a mid-weight shoe with ankle support and a waterproof lining for trips with either inclement conditions or heavier pack weight. The added weight penalty you pay when wearing high top hiking boot does get you added support, protection, and waterproofness. Depending on your intended application, having options to choose from can be a good thing, so let's dive into what makes a good hiking boot and why we would want to choose it over the lighter weight models.
For hiking off-trail, the ankle protection is much appreciated. A sprained ankle can happen quickly with one misstep in the backcountry and seriously damper a hiking experience. Higher ankle collars laced snug around our ankles decrease the chances of this occurring. Furthermore, one sharp stick in the lower shin or one ankle bone banged on the talus is one too many for me. I enjoy being able to rubberneck a bit more, knowing that I don't have to scrutinize each foot placement the same way I would have to if wearing less supportive shoes. And my boots usually last a few years instead of a few months, proving to be more valuable in the long run.
Types of Outdoor Footwear
Here at OutdoorGearLab, we have footwear reviews of everything from flip-flops to mountaineering boots, but when we're talking about shoes or boots we'd want to wear out on the trail, there are probably about four categories of outdoor adventure footwear you'd want to choose from. Let's take a look at each. As you read through this summary, carefully consider the type of terrain you travel, how much support and ankle protection you desire, and whether waterproofing for the wet and cold is important to you.
The name pretty much says it; trail runners are designed for running off the pavement. Low cut and lightweight, the soles are soft but have aggressive lugs for traction. Most have very light and breathable mesh uppers and aren't durable. Often trail running shoe have only a thin EVA midsole, so rocks and pointy things can potentially bruise your feet. Experienced backpackers with strong ankles and light loads often use these on long backpacking trips, compromising on stability and durability for the lighter weight.
Salomon makes a popular line of trail runners with GORE-TEX linings that are popular with thru-hikers. Thru-hikers wearing trail runners usually get about 400 miles before they're coming apart at the seams or the sole is worn down flat.
Low in weight, and more durable than trail runners, hiking shoes fit a gap between trail runners and hiking boots. More of these shoes are available with waterproof linings, and the soles are often a harder, more durable Vibram rubber. Additionally, a stiffer midsole provides support and protection from pointy things underfoot. Their uppers often are heavier and more durable, and some are even full leather. Several of the most popular hiking shoes are low-cut version of the same boots we test here. Lots of experienced hikers and backpackers use hiking shoes in almost any kind of terrain. These are folks with strong feet and ankles and lots of practice placing their feet in just the right places. Hiking shoes can be the ticket for off-trail travel on talus, offering great ankle flexibility. Conversely, they provide no ankle support when things go wrong. Thru-hikers that use hiking shoes often get 600 miles before the uppers start coming apart, or the soles delaminate from the uppers.
If you're planning to use technical crampons, you need a mountaineering boot. Footwear in this category is big, burly, and stiff (and insulated for cold winter temps.) They have full-length shanks, a full height ankle collar, durable full leather construction, and integrated gaiters. Mountaineering boots are sometimes chosen for hiking when the user is carrying very heavy loads thru gnarly terrain and weather. They often have a slightly rockered sole to help in walking comfort, but the stiffness from the full shank will never give as comfortable of a hike as a hiking boot.
Hikers with concerns about twisted ankles, or previous ankle injuries, will want a stable, supportive boot. Hiking boots are generally more durable and provide better foot and ankle protection on rough, rocky trails. They range from mid to high-cut and often have a stiff shank incorporated between the midsole and outsole. If you hike on slippery trails with lots of roots or other obstacles, boots are the ticket. They will also keep your feet dry and comfortable when the trails are inches deep in mud or slush. Traveling off-trail in rough terrain demands boots, and in areas where snakes and other critters lurk, footwear that covers the ankle provides additional peace of mind. While your mental image of hiking boots might be hot and heavy, all-leather behemoths that take 5 years to break in, modern hikers utilize new technologies to provide similar protection and stability to the older models at a much lower weight and increased comfort.
Types of Men's Hiking Boots
Hot weather day hiking? The Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator Mid, at 2.4 lbs, is incredibly lightweight and breathable, but offers meager performance in support, water resistance, and durability. If you are hiking predominantly in hot and dry climates, the lack of waterproofness will allow your feet to breathe better and will allow the boot to dry faster. Powering out miles day after day, with a heavy pack in the soggy North Cascades? The Asolo Power Matic 200 GV, weighing 4.125 lbs, is stable, durable, and extremely waterproof, but isn't very nimble. These two boots are as different from each other as apples and oranges. The products we compared in our review span a wide range considered under the same umbrella term of "hiking boot." While our award winners highlight the top of the crop, it's important to also focus in on the performance metrics that are important to you.
Hiking boots are commonly categorized into three groups — lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight categories — according to their weight, ankle stability, and the foot support provided. This classification system is a helpful starting point to find the appropriate type of boot for your hiking needs.
Today's hiking world seems to be trending toward lightweight boots, as heavyweight boots are now seen much less frequently on trails. As technology for boots and backpacking gear, in general, becomes more weight-efficient, the need for big and burly boots is decreasing. Even some midweight hikers are advertised as "lightweight" by their manufacturers in an attempt to fit this inclination. Our selection of boots for this review includes the most popular lightweight and midweight hikers in order to reflect this market trend.
These focus on comfort out of the box and minimalist construction to keep weight low. The ankle collars are typically cut lower than traditional boots and offer minimal ankle support. If you want a model that is light and comfortable from day one, and you do not plan to carry much more than snacks, water, and a jacket, the products below are for you. Have you been hiking for years, and value the lightest footwear with some ankle support?
- Merrell Moab 2 Vent Mid
These have more substantial construction: higher ankle collars, burlier midsoles and shanks, and heavier, more durable uppers, often all leather. More the traditional backpacking boot, these models provide increased ankle stability and foot support for carrying loads and traveling rough terrain. Planning to be out and about for many days carrying all your gear?
These boots are much heavier, much more durable, and supremely waterproof. Full grain leather uppers, paired with burly TPU midsoles that focus on support rather than lightweight cushioning, create boots that handle the roughest terrain. As backpacking gear continues to get lighter and lighter, the utility of heavyweight hikers is diminishing. The only boot that fits into this category is the Asolo Power Matic 200 GV, a boot that feels more like a work boot that would be useful to trail crews or those whose support or protection needs are worth the weight penalty and break-in period these boots will require.
Each of these products is one we would recommend to a friend for a particular need. In our individual reviews, we discuss which activities each product is best suited for. While some of them, especially the Salomon Quest 4D 2, will excel just about anywhere you take them, others, like the Adidas Terrex Scope High GTX, are terrain specialists.
Waterproof membrane or no?
All of the products we tested for this review have a waterproof breathable membrane. Many are also available in a version without a waterproof membrane. Do you mostly hike on dry trails, and avoid bad weather days? If so, the added breathability of a model without a membrane will be more comfortable and cooler in warm weather. Do you splash through puddles and mud, and get out there rain or shine? You need waterproof footwear. Waterproof breathable membranes will also increase a product's warmth if you hike when it's cold out.
All else being equal, light is right. The old adage that a pound on the foot is like five pounds on the back rings true, and you will definitely notice the added weight after a long day. However, your legs, ankles, and feet might not be ready for lighter footwear. Heavier models generally provide more stability and are more durable. Once you've identified how much support you need, try to choose the lightest option available that you feel meets your needs and fits your foot well.
Fitting & Finding Your Size
There is no substitute for trying on many pairs of boots to find the one that fits the unique shape of your foot. Some manufacturers' footwear tends to fit narrow or low volume feet better, as seen in the Adidas model. Other manufacturers, like Merrell, tend to fit wide feet well, and the Targhee II has wide as an option. Find your local outdoor retailer and try on as many models as possible. Experiment with different sock combinations. Ask to have your foot measured with a Brannock device, which measures both the length and width of the foot. This device in the hands of an experienced shoe fitter provides a perfect starting point for sizing your boots.
If you do not have access to a local retailer, visit the website of the manufacturer. Many provide instructions for fitting their footwear. Other manufacturers offer advice on the sizing of various models relative to your commonly-worn size. For example, Keen's website has this Fit Tip for the Targhee II: "This style is running a 1/2 small. We suggest ordering a 1/2 size larger than your usual size!"
When sizing a boot, first check that there is enough room inside. Your toes should not touch the front of the toe box when laced up. With the shoe on your foot and all the lacing loose, slide your foot forward so that your toes actually do touch the front of the toe box. You should be able to just insert your index finger between the heel of your foot and the back of the boot. That's about 1/2 to 5/8 of an inch. The most important bit here is to try on the boots with the type of sock you plan to wear. If you have orthotics or plan to use Superfeet or other insoles, try your boots with these too. If you feel uncertain, and many people find they are between two sizes, choose the larger size. Most of us experience minor swelling in our feet after a long day hiking. If you have a boot that is too small, there's very little you can do change that.
Fine Tuning the Fit
Do not be afraid to experiment to fine tune the fit of your boots.
Experienced hikers sometimes replace the stock insoles in their footwear with Superfeet, or add a thin insole in addition to the stock insole. Changing up the insole, or adding a thin one underneath is a great way to make your footwear fit a bit more snugly. Don't be afraid to mix and match the insoles from your outdoor footwear. One of our testers often replaces the insoles in his running shoes with the ones from his hiking boots and adds thicker-than-stock insoles to his hiking boots. As you might guess, he has a low volume foot, and this trick makes his shoes and boots fit a little more snugly.
Some hikers prefer a polypropylene liner sock and a thick wool sock in all their boots. This has been a traditional approach to avoiding blisters. Other hikers prefer a snug-fitting boot with a thin wool sock. Once you start wearing your boots, try a few socks to find out which one works the best for you. Models that initially fit well with a thin sock may require a thicker sock for the same fit after you put some miles on them. We highly recommend trying out some hiking-specific socks inside your hikers. This hiking boots review was completed almost entirely in socks consisting of merino wool/nylon/elastane materials for improved breathability, wicking capabilities, and temperature regulation. For full descriptions and comparisons of top-rated socks to pair with your boots, check out our complete review of Men's Hiking Socks.
One of the more advanced fine tuning tips applies to lacing. Many products now use eyelets that provide a positive lock on the lace. The Quest 4D 2 has locking middle eyelets let you lace the lower boot tight, and the ankle collar loosely, or just the opposite. Some hikers employ a Heel Lock tying technique to snug up the heel cup, reducing slippage in the heel. The Targhee II has a special eyelet that also tightens the heel cup. For models that do not have locking eyelets, you can achieve the same results by using multiple laces. You can also tie a friction-based Surgeon's Knot (just double or triple the basic overhand loop you likely use when tying your shoes normally) after snugging up the lower foot, which will isolate the lower part of the lacing system from the top. This allows you to then lace through the middle and upper eyelets and cinch up the ankle collar tightly without squeezing your lower foot tightly. You may need longer laces, or two pairs of shorter ones to accomplish these tricks. Have fun experimenting, your feet will love you for it!