To find the best hiking shoes out there, we researched and evaluated over 65 different pairs. After selecting the most intriguing and highly rated models, we bought each one in a women's size 7. There is always variation in shoe brands with width, length, and shape, so it's a good idea to check the correlating European size if you are looking at European shoe brands, as the conversion is not always consistent. The Salomon X Ultra 3 GTX - Women's runs noticeably longer than the rest of the group. Shoes that run a little short are the Merrell Moab 2 WP and the Merrell Siren Edge Q2 WP. It wasn't enough of an issue to require an exchange, but something to keep in mind if you run between sizes.
For our latest test, we hiked around Bend, Oregon as winter transitioned to spring, through snow showers, rainstorms, and perfect sunny days. We tested these shoes on ice, snow, mud, sand, rock, and dirt. We put dozens of miles on each pair, comparing them back to back on short loops, and donning backpacks to see how they fared with weight on longer treks. We hiked up scree-covered buttes and traversed the high desert. Shoes are rated on the following metrics: Comfort, Support, Traction, Water Resistance, Weight, and Durability. Here is how we specifically scored and tested each metric.
When determining the comfort of a hiking shoe we primarily compared the comfort level of the midsole. Some models are more comfortable because they favor the shape of one person's foot over another. For example, a narrower shoe will likely feel too tight for someone with a wider foot. We did note if there are pressure points from the laces and/or tongue and if our toes fell asleep, but our goal is for the rating to reflect something that we all experience regardless of foot shape. With that being said, we also make recommendations for what shape of foot each model will work best accommodate.
For support, we looked at several components of the shoe: the arch support (both internal and the insole), lateral support, and support provided by the lacing system. Arch support is somewhat relative to the shape of each foot; too much can make a shoe uncomfortable for those with high volume feet. However, a good hiking shoe should provide some foot support to prevent fatigue and fallen arches over time. We rated the lateral support based on hiking experience (did the sole cave in on us, did we feel unstable on rocky ground, did our ankles cave in at all), and we also twisted each pair - in a motion similar to wringing out a towel - to determine stiffness. Finally, we evaluated the lacing and adjustability on each pair, which affects how effectively we can secure our ankles and minimize heel lift.
There are also several aspects that go into our traction score. A hiking shoe should provide traction on a variety of terrain, both going uphill and downhill, and on off-camber surfaces. We noted if we had any slippage issues on the trails, and then took all the shoes out at the same time and went up, down, and across rock slabs, wet logs, and rubbly cinder cones in each pair. We noted how sticky, soft or hard the rubber was, and the effectiveness of the tread pattern on different surfaces.
We tested these shoes around Bend, Oregon, which is notorious for moody and stormy spring weather, and this spring did not disappoint! There were plenty of rainy mornings, wet bushes, and mud puddles to help determine water resistance. We also performed a ten-minute bucket test with each pair to determine the effectiveness of the waterproof liner, weighing the shoes before and after to see how much moisture the uppers absorbed.
Manufacturers state their product's weight in a variety of shoe sizes, so we weighed each pair on a calibrated scale to have a relative measurement that we could compare. Lighter shoes tend to create less fatigue over time and can be more agile for fast hikes.
While we hiked many hours, hundreds of miles and thousands of vertical feet in our field testing of these shoes, most hiking shoes fail around 300-500 miles, which we could not achieve in our testing time frame with this many pairs of shoes. However, we examined each pair closely for any signs of wear or weak spots and also researched online user reviews to see if there were any consistent patterns of wear. We were also able to examine some well-used pairs in our friends' shoe racks to get a sense of how they fared in the long term.