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 midweight 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 off-trail hiking, however, the benefit of having the extra support of a mid or even high top hiking boot is readily apparent. Despite coming in with a higher weight, this penalty is offset by improved ankle protection while on uneven ground or a heavy pack weight, even more so if you have both to contend with!
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. Increasingly, companies are innovating and beginning to blur the lines between trail runners and hiking shoes, which leads to our next, more robust footwear option.
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 and more durable Vibram rubber. Additionally, a stiffer midsole provides support and protection from sharp rocks underfoot. Their uppers often are heavier and more durable, and some are even full leather. Several of the most popular hiking shoes are a 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 five 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. While we consider both of these models to be "hiking boots" they occupy complete opposite ends of the spectrum and are noticeably different from each other.
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 to reflect this market trend.
Outsole- This is what most people think of when they hear sole. It is the outermost layer of the boot sole that comes in contact with the ground. It connects with the upper via a rand that wraps around the sole.
Midsole- This is the layer of material between the rubber sole and inner material of the boot, which reduces impact and shock.
Insole- Also known as a footbed, this removable insert helps with arch support and shock dampening. These can be replaced with aftermarket products for a better fit.
Upper- This is the material that covers the toes, top and sides of the foot as well as the heel. Historically made from all leather, most modern hiking boots are made from several pieces of either natural or synthetic materials.
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?
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, will excel just about anywhere you take them, others, like the Adidas Terrex Scope High GTX, are terrain specialists.
Waterproof membrane or no?
Almost 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 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 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!
Care and Feeding
Some actions increase the life expectancy of your hiking boots, from routine cleaning to pre-treating known wear areas.
Leather hiking boots benefit in waterproofness and durability when a leather treatment is applied. The leather uppers of the Power Matic 200 and Zodiac benefit from a leather treatment. While the GORE-TEX membranes keep your feet dry inside, the leather on these products soaks up water. This not only makes your boot less breathable and more cumbersome but repeated wetting and drying cycles cause the leather to become less supple over time.
Nikwax offers a complete line of leather and fabric conditioners, including products for suede, nubuck, and full grain leather. These come in spray-on versions, or in liquid versions that are applied with a sponge. Atsko SNO-SEAL, a beeswax-based waterproofing for leather, is time tested and works great. Apply it by rubbing it on, and gently heating with a hair dryer to melt it into the leather. Leather conditioners need to be reapplied every few months to yearly, depending on how many miles you put on your footwear. Nikwax products that are designed for synthetic fabrics work well on lightweight hikers that have mixed materials uppers. Using a fabric treatment that maintains the DWR of synthetic materials on the upper means, they absorb less water, remain more breathable, and dry quicker.
One of the most valuable tricks for prolonging the life expectancy of your footwear is applying a seam sealer to the stitching in high wear areas. Spend $8 for a tube and 20 minutes applying it to high-wear seams doubles their lifespan. It might not look pretty, but you'll be glad you gripped 'em. Uppers commonly wear out on the seams on the inside and outside of the forefoot, where the boot flexes with each step. The Asolo Power Matic 200 GV has a one-piece leather construction here and doesn't suffer this wear. All the other models have seams in these areas. Regardless of the type of materials and thread used, these are weak points. Small amounts of dirt and sand work their way into these seams and act like internal sandpaper on the thread. These areas are also prone to scuffing on rock and roots. Applying Seam Grip, or a similar sealer, to these regions, keeps out dirt and sand, increases scuff resistance and has the added benefit of keeping water out. If you plan to abuse your footwear by surfing scree slopes or traversing rocky areas, applying a seam sealer to every visible thread on the upper is an excellent idea.
Boots get muddy and dirty, inside and out, but cleaning them of mud and sand prolongs their life. A soft bristle brush and warm water perform the trick best on the outer boot. Using the least pressure necessary, remove all visible mud, dirt, and debris. Do your best to let wet boots dry slowly, out of direct sunlight.
Also, be sure to remove your insoles and clean them, and when you're on the trail, always take them out at the end of the day, or even each time you take your footwear off during the day. Shake any debris from the inside of the boot, and remove anything that's stuck to the bottom of your insole. Warm water and a soft brush is the best way to clean your insoles as well. Resist the urge to put shoes or boots in the washing machine, and never put them in the clothes dryer. Insoles that are super funky benefit from a gentle cycle in the washer, but let them air dry. At this point, it is often best to replace the insole with a new one.
And a final note: boots and extreme heat do not mix. We're all guilty of drying them by the campfire from time to time, but the soles melt off if you're not careful. Additionally, leather that dries too fast becomes hard and brittle. If you feel you have to, do not place your boots any closer to the fire than where your bare hand is comfortable for the same amount of time. It's much better to hike another day in damp footwear than to hike another day in a half-melted boot duct taped to your foot. We know, we've learned the hard way! The trunk or back seat of your car is also a danger zone for boots when it's hot and sunny out. The temperatures here in midday sun cause the soles to delaminate from the uppers in no time at all. Footwear thrown into plastic totes in the back of a truck suffer the same sad fate.
Gaiters - Gaiters are a wonderful way to prevent debris from getting in your boots that cause discomfort or even blisters. See our complete gaiter review.
Insoles - Insoles are essential to help give the proper arch support needed for a long time spent on your feet. They can also take up or free up space if the fit is slightly tighter or looser than you would like. The Superfeet Green Premium Insoles is an example of a comfortable aftermarket insole and can help with the foot ache at the end of a long day of hiking.