Hiking is an activity that can easily be enjoyed by just about anyone due to the variety of terrain available. If you’re a beginner, you can find more mellow, short hikes that are not too steep or technical. If you’re a hiking veteran, you can find the steepest, gnarliest hikes leading you to the middle of nowhere, sleeping under the stars listening to the many sounds of nature. Whatever terrain you may choose, dependable hiking footwear will be your best hiking partner.
Below are some of the common types of footwear for hiking you’ll come across while shopping.
- What type of hiking footwear do you need?
- Are there different types of materials to choose from?
- What features make up a hiking boot or shoe?
- How do you know if the fit is right?
Types of Footwear for Hiking
There are three main types of footwear when it comes to hiking; hiking shoes, hiking boots, and backpacking boots. The differences between these three categories will vary between the boot’s height, durability, protection, and support.
Hiking shoes are generally going to be the most lightweight and flexible compared to hiking boots and backpacking boots. Although these characteristics are appealing because heavy boots can fatigue the legs more quickly, hiking shoes don’t often offer as much support as hiking boots or backpacking boots.
Who should buy Hiking shoes?
- If you are going to be sticking to day hikes and shorter hikes where the routes are well-maintained with minimal obstacles to tackle and are not carrying a lot of weight, a pair of hiking shoes like the Lowa Renegade GTX Lo may be the right fit for you.
- If you are an avid hiker you have most likely built up the strength in the muscles you use most when hiking (feet, ankles, calves, and legs) so a pair of hiking shoes would be suitable as you are not relying on your shoes to provide a lot of support.
- For beginner hikers who have not yet gained the strength in these hiking muscles or someone who is prone to rolling their ankles, hiking shoes may not be the best choice for you. You will want footwear with more support and protection such as a hiking boot.
Backpacking or trekking boots are made to withstand multiple days of back-to-back use while carrying heavy loads. These boots are going to be durable, dependable, taller than hiking boots and a bit stiffer too. Generally, backpacking boots are the burliest of the three as they are made to withstand all kinds of terrain and weather conditions.
Who should buy backpacking boots?
- You will travel through rain and shallow creeks one day and snow and puddles of mud the next.
- You want boots that offer more protection than hiking boots.
- You have multi-day trips planned and will be hiking with a heavy backpack.
Often, backpacking boots will include features such as a toe and heel groove that are compatible with crampons or snowshoes so you really can travel on all kinds of terrain.
These boots will generally require a bit of break-in time and may not fit like a slipper out of the box. With this break-in period, it is suggested to give yourself at least 2 weeks to get a feel for your new boots so you don’t end up with bloody, blister-covered feet 2 days into your 8-day adventure.
For those embarking on burlier expeditions, mountaineering shoes such as the models shown below may be your winner. These boots are designed to be worn in alpine environments where extreme conditions may be present.
Mountaineering shoes will be:
- taller for optimal ankle support and protection
- stiffer (midsoles) to accommodate crampons should they be necessary
- equipped with waterproof shells to keep out the elements like rain and slush
- insulated to keep feet warm when the conditions turn for the worse
- equipped with removable liners so they can be aired out after a long day
Picking the Appropriate Gear
Picking the right hiking boot begins with the adventures you plan to embark on. If you only plan to do the occasional day hike here and there, beefy backpacking or trekking boots will not be necessary for you. Ensuring you are equipped with the appropriate gear will enhance your outdoor experience—and make sure it’s a positive one.
Once you’ve figured out the optimal hiking footwear for your adventures, you can get your shop on…and maybe even pick a great hiking backpack too.
Hiking Footwear Materials
Like a running shoe, a hiking boot is made up of a variety of materials that will impact its weight, breathability, durability, and waterproofness. The hiking boot upper (the piece of material that is either sewn or glued to the midsole of the boot) can come in multiple different materials which are listed below.
- Full-grain leather is the most durable of the seven materials. It is abrasion-resistant and water-resistant which is why it is used most often for backpacking boots. This material is designed for durable boots that will be carrying heavy loads while traveling on rugged terrain for multi-day excursions.
- Split-grain leather is commonly used for lightweight, breathable shoes and will often be paired with nylon or nylon mesh to enhance its lightweight and breathable qualities. Although usually more cost-friendly, split-grain leather is not as resistant to water and abrasion like full-grain leather is. For this, some split-grain leather boots will be equipped with waterproof liners to make up for the lack of water resistance.
- Nubuck leather is the same material as full-grain leather except that it has been buffed to give the appearance of suede. Like full-grain leather, nubuck leather will also be water and abrasion resistant but unlike full-grain leather, it will also be slightly flexible.
- Synthetic materials used to make hiking boots include polyester, nylon, and synthetic leather. Although synthetic materials may show wear sooner than a durable leather boot, they are more lightweight, dry faster, and don’t take as long to break in. These materials generally cost less than leather and are more commonly used for hiking shoes rather than hiking boots.
- Hiking boots that are labeled as waterproof will most often be manufactured with a waterproof membrane such as Gore-Tex which is also commonly used for other outdoor gear like jackets.
- For the vegans of the world, there are even some hiking boots that are made with vegan-friendly materials. Vegan boots are harder to come across and can sometimes be mislabeled. Some boots that are labeled as “made with vegan materials” are made with a variety of glues that are not guaranteed to be vegan-friendly.
- Some mountaineering boots that are meant for use in colder climates like hiking on snow and glaciers are equipped with synthetic insulation. These boots are made to keep your feet warm so your time spent in the mountains isn’t cut short due to cold feet.
Anatomy of a Hiking Boot or Shoe
Hiking boots are similar to running shoes when it comes to their anatomy. There are many features including rands, midsoles, outsoles, support components, and a boot’s crampon compatibility that influence the overall product.
If you’re planning to go exploring somewhere where there is a high chance that you will be exposed to wet terrains like shallow creeks or sloshy, mud puddles, a pair of boots that are equipped with rands may be for you. This feature will offer extra protection from water when the terrain is extra muddy and wet as well as protect the boot’s leather from abrasion when the terrain becomes rocky and rough.
A hiking boot rand can be found on waterproof/breathable boots. This is the wide, rubber wrap that is found around where the upper meets the midsole although sometimes the rand only encircles the toe of the boot.
While shopping for your next pair of hiking boots, keep in mind if you wish to use crampons for any excursions. Some crampons, such as the strap-on type, will be compatible with nearly all types of boots. Others, like the step-in or hybrid type, will only work for certain boots. If you’re going to be needing crampons for a future expedition, it is best to figure out which style of crampon you will be searching for and base your boot shopping on that knowledge.
Some crampons are only compatible with a boot that has a groove on both the toe and heel of the boot. Other crampon styles will require a boot with a much more rigid sole, so make certain you are sure of the equipment you will be needing in order to have compatible equipment!
Should you wish to learn more about the other types of technical features of a hiking boot, you can read more about insoles, outsoles, and support components in our guide to pick the perfect running shoe.
How’s the fit?
The fit of your hiking boot will play the biggest role in the selection process. If you’re going to be spending multiple hours or even multiple days on your feet, you want to be as comfortable as you possibly can.
To ensure you pick the right fitting boot, here are a few good tips to keep in mind:
- A comfortable pair of hiking boots should feel snug when laced up. You want your foot to feel secure but not so tight that you can’t wiggle your toes.
- When you’re trying on hiking boots, it is best to go at the end of the day because our feet swell throughout the day. If you try on a pair of hiking boots at the start of the day it may feel very different compared to at end of the day once your foot has swelled slightly. Going at the end of the day can avoid the chance of purchasing a pair of boots that are, in fact, too small.
- If you have a pair of hiking socks that you plan on wearing during your trip, bring them along while shopping. Trying on boots with thicker hiking socks will give you a better idea of the fit. Guessing if that little extra space will suffice once you have a thicker pair of socks on isn’t the best route.*Be prepared. Bring your hiking socks and any insoles or orthotics you will be using on your trip so you can ensure you are purchasing the right boot.
- Whether you’re trying the boots on in a shop or have just received a new package in the mail, walk around in the boots and get a feel for them. If there is a set of stairs nearby or an inclined surface, walk up and down a few times; stand with your feet together and bend your knees.
- If you feel any discomfort at all while wearing the boots around, they are not the right boot. Any little bump or pinch may create serious blisters and hot spots and can potentially ruin a trip by cutting it short due to discomfort.
- When shopping online for hiking boots, it may be best to go with a brand you are familiar with so you are aware of the sizing.
You’ve Picked Your Footwear, Now What?
Once you’ve settled on a snazzy, new pair of hiking boots, get out there and explore!
As mentioned earlier, some boots may require a break-in period, if that’s the case, wear them around your house (before they’ve gotten all dirty obviously), take the dog for a walk, or go exploring in the woods near your house. Your hiking boots are going to be your closest partner for your next adventure so get to know them and get comfortable in them.