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The first Saturday in June marks National Trails Day (NTD), launched by the American Hiking Society (AHS) and the trails community over two decades ago to recognize national, state and local trails across the country. It encourages NTD-themed muscle-powered events, such as hikes, bike rides and paddle trips, according to Wesley Trimble, the communications and creative director of the AHS. Whether you’re planning to participate or simply want to get hiking-ready for the warmer summer months, you’ll likely need the right gear to get started — among your options is appropriate hiking footwear to keep your feet safe and comfortable, which is “essential” to a pleasant hiking experience, Trimble told us.
“Hiking footwear is literally the foundation of the hiking experience, and no piece of gear is as important as great-fitting, supportive, footwear with adequate traction,” he added.
An important first step to picking out hiking footwear is figuring out what you’re shopping for: what features are best for certain types of trips, the difference between hiking boots and shoes and what to consider before committing to a pair.
LEARN MORE How to shop for hiking footwear
What are the types of hiking footwear?
Good quality hiking footwear is one of the most important pieces of gear to take on any kind of hike: It can provide you with stability, protection and traction, while often being durable enough to last for several seasons. But the different features and types of hiking footwear — namely hiking shoes, hiking boots and trail-running shoes — can make or break your hike.
According to the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) — the oldest conservation and recreation organization in the country — there are a few key differences that define the main types of hiking footwear.
- Trail running shoes typically have stiffer soles, grippy tread and a tighter fit than typical running shoes, but aren’t as long-lasting or tough as its hiking counterparts.
- Hiking boots are more heavy-duty footwear featuring a high ankle collar, durable materials and a stiff and long-lasting sole.
- Hiking shoes take elements of both trail runners and hiking boots to form a low-cut, lightweight and durable shoe.
“Hiking boots will give you more ankle support than a hiking shoe and in very wet areas, they’ll also keep your feet drier,” said Kevin Rosenberg, founder and lead guide of International Adventure Guides. “The tradeoff is that they also weigh more than hiking shoes — if you don’t have ankle problems, aren’t carrying a heavy pack, and aren’t in very wet or snowy conditions, I’d recommend a hiking shoe over a hiking boot.”
“Hiking shoes tend to be heavier and more durable than trail runners so, in general, people will get more miles out of a hiking shoe, but there's something to be said for wearing lightweight shoes for those people wanting to cover bigger distances,” said Trimble, adding that if he isn’t hiking in the cold or in damp conditions, he typically hikes in trail runners for much of the year.
A 2019 survey of Appalachian Trail hikers who started their hikes at various points in the year showed that, of the 365 hikers surveyed, over 75 percent wore trail runners, while about 11 percent wore hiking shoes and less than 10 percent wore hiking boots.
Best hiking footwear in 2021
Whether you're looking for lightweight trail runners for the summer or more heavy-duty hiking boots for technical trails, we’ve compiled some highly rated and expert recommended options.
Best trail runners
These trail runners by HOKA feature a cushioned EVA foam midsole, a grippy Vibram rubber outsole with lugs for a safe grip in both wet and dry conditions and fairly lightweight — weighing just half a pound. Compared to previous iterations of the brand's Speedgoat line, the brand claims this model has a more accommodating medium-width fit in the toe box, a more breathable mesh upper and a more cushioned midfoot support.
In The Trek’s 2019 survey of thru-hikers, Altra’s Lone Peak trail runners were the most popular brand overall and worn by almost one-third of the hikers surveyed. This version features a removable insert that protects the underfoot against rocks, laser-cut holes that can provide drainage if water gets inside of them and a durable midsole cushioning material. Matt Rowbotham, the program manager of Geographic Information Systems at North Country Trail, said he generally goes up a half size for his Altra brand shoes.
These low-cut trail runners are made with a breathable mesh upper and grooved rubber outsoles to prevent slippage on rough terrain. Like most trail running shoes, they feature a rock plate, which is a hard plastic insert between the midsole and outsole to avoid sharp rocks and other objects from injuring the foot. The brand also updated the tongues on this version of the shoe to a more ergonomic, padded and breathable design that won’t cause discomfort and will stay locked in place while walking longer distances.
Best hiking shoes
This durable hiking shoe by Merrell is a good quality and affordable option for light hiking on mostly flat trails. It features a combination of suede leather and mesh uppers that makes it both durable and breathable. The cushioning in the heels absorbs shock and adds stability, while the contoured footbeds provide both arch and heel support. And weighing at just over one pound, it’s a lightweight option for more walking-intensive trails and hikes.
Made with a leather upper and breathable, moisture-wicking nylon mesh liners, the Oboz Sawtooth II hiking shoes are breathable yet still provide protection against abrasions. They feature high-friction rubber outsoles that have both side and underfoot lugs that provide grips in all directions, which can be useful when climbing or consistently stepping on rocky terrain. And if you’re hoping for a low-cut shoe that resists wet conditions for the colder months, Oboz also offers its Sawtooth II with a waterproof membrane construction.
Inspired by the rough terrain of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, these Danner hiking shoes have a durable leather upper and breathable mesh liners. Weighing just 1 pound, these shoes are lightweight and feature comfortable, shock-absorbing EVA midsoles, along with a reinforced external heel counter that provides added support and stability to the heel. According to the brand, most people size down a half to a full size when buying Danner shoes.
Another lightweight option is the brand new Vasque Satoru Trail, which can be a good option for long distance thru-hikes due to its lightweight construction (the shoe weighs about one pound). It features a mesh and durable polyurethane upper, an EVA midsole and Vibram rubber outsoles to provide a stable grip on slick trails.
Best hiking boots
When Trimble decides to wear boots over trail runners, he said he prefers the Altra Lone Peak Mids, which offer the brand’s Balanced Cushioning platform that positions the heel and forefoot at an equal distance from the ground (encouraging low-impact landing) and a toe box that lets your toes spread out naturally while allowing the big toe to remain in a straight position for stability. This option features rugged, grippy outsoles that do well on rocky terrain, while providing over-the-ankle support. For colder weather, Altra also offers a waterproof version of this boot.
If a waterproof boot is a must-have for your trip, this option is HOKA's boot version of its Speedgoat trail runners with an added over-the-ankle support and waterproof GORE-TEX construction. Unlike most other waterproof boots, it’s fairly lightweight (just over 1.5 pounds) so you can move fast while getting durability and protection. It has a 30 millimeter (32 millimeter for men) cushion under the heel for added comfort and support.
This mid-cut hiking boot is a good option for those who prefer breathable footwear with greater ankle protection and a wide toe box. It features a hybrid mesh and leather upper and soft textile linings that can wick away moisture, so it’s quick-drying if your boots do get wet on your hike. Integrated rubber toe caps provide additional protection to your toes and the cushioned EVA midsoles can provide comfort through day-long hikes.
How to shop for hiking footwear
Keeping in mind the differences between trail runners, hiking boots and shoes, experts recommend considering the type of hike you’re planning, the weight of your shoe and the tread when shopping for hiking footwear. But the process for finding the right hiking footwear isn’t as straightforward as it seems — an unexpected fit and a few common misconceptions can have negative effects on future hikes.
There are many water-resistant and waterproof hiking footwear available, which are typically constructed with membrane fabrics like GORE-TEX and eVent. A water-resistant shoe can have several benefits on a hike, from being able to tread through snow and water without it uncomfortably seeping into your feet to keeping warm during the cooler months. However, most of the experts we consulted said they don’t prefer water-resistant or waterproof hiking shoes since they can significantly reduce breathability.
“One of the most common misconceptions is that waterproof boots are better,” said Trimble. He explained that, once feet get wet from sweat or other water coming in from the top of the shoe, “feet will stay wet longer than if using a well-ventilated, non-waterproof boot” since evaporation becomes dramatically reduced. Unless you have a very specific reason (like consistent hiking/walking/running in snowy conditions), Trimble said most people are better off with a breathable, well-ventilated shoe.
If you do need waterproof shoes or boots, Rosenberg suggested “the less venting and stitching the better” to avoid water getting in. But he mentioned avoiding shoes layered with GORE-TEX or similar waterproof membranes in warm weather “as it’ll not only keep water out, but perspiration in.”
The type of hike — and the weather conditions that come with it — can determine your priorities when thinking about footwear. For simple day hikes featuring terrain that isn’t challenging your balance or strength, Andrea Ference, a photographer and mountain climber who runs the travel blog Vagabond Hearts, said she opts for trail runners since they’re “very lightweight, the treads are deeper for moving quickly on the trails without falling and the laces are made to stay tied up.”
For more rugged, uneven terrain, hiking boots can provide more support and protection, especially when hiking in cold temperatures or consistently wet conditions. They also sit higher on the ankle and provide enough support to avoid rolling or injuring it, which can be helpful for backpacking trips when you’re hauling items, and protect your ankles from rocky or sharp surroundings that can cause abrasions — low-cut hiking shoes and trail runners don’t usually provide that level of protection.
When it comes to how high on the ankle your hiking boots should be, “a mid-height boot will cover most trips, but for long distance hikes with heavy packs, you may want a full height boot,” Rosenberg explained.
Trimble recommended asking yourself: “Do you need ankle support for carrying a heavy pack — 35-40 pounds or more, as a rule of thumb — or do you have a history of twisted or sprained ankles?” If the answer is yes to either of those questions, “you might stick with a boot,” he said.
However, the AMC notes ankle support and stability doesn’t just come from the height of the shoe along the ankle — a big factor is the stiffness of the sole and how stable it is. The organization recommends testing the sole’s stability by grabbing the shoe at the front and back and twisting it side-to-side — the harder it is, the more stable it’ll be.
Most hiking footwear is stable enough for most hikers and terrains, but hiking boots will usually have a more stable, stiffer sole that’s less likely to twist and will protect your feet from bruising on rougher terrain, while hiking shoes and trail runners will be easier to navigate moderate trails and won’t weigh down your feet.
Depending on the material, a hiking boot can weigh upwards of 3 pounds.
- The average boot typically weighs around 2 pounds
- Hiking shoes, on the other hand, usually weigh less than 2 pounds
- And trail runners stick to under a pound
Because you’re constantly lifting your feet, a heavier shoe will likely tire you out faster, and a lightweight and flexible sole on a boot or shoe “can help minimize fatigue and allow a more natural gait,” Trimble noted. But, keep in mind, what you gain in choosing a more lightweight shoe you may sacrifice in longevity and durability.
The weight of your gear can make a difference when hiking, especially on your feet, with Rosenberg noting the hiker’s rule of thumb, “A pound on the feet is like five pounds on the back.”
The outsole, or the bottom part of the hiking shoe that makes contact with the ground, is usually made of rubber that’ll grip onto surfaces. The outsoles also typically feature “lugs,” which are the indentations or grooves that give an added grip to the shoe and come in handy when trailing through rocks or rough surfaces.
The midsole, located between the outsole and the upper, is one of the most important parts of hiking footwear since it can provide adequate cushioning and a protective layer between your feet and the terrain. They’re typically made from ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), which is soft and common in most trail or light hiking shoes, or polyurethane (PU), a more durable and heavier option that’s common in heavy-duty backpacking or mountaineering boots but may take a while to break in.
As for the insoles, Ference suggested swapping them out to accommodate your comfort and support levels, especially if you need insoles for specific discomforts like bad knees or flat feet. “It’s worth the financial investment when you will be on your feet for longer periods of time,” she said.
Size and fit
According to experts, comfort is the most important consideration when shopping for hiking footwear. Your feet shouldn’t be sliding around inside the shoe (which can cause painful blisters) and it should never be a tight fit — your toes shouldn’t touch the front of the shoe in any instance.
“Consider your foot width as much as size,” said Trimble. “If you’re consistently getting blisters you’re probably in the wrong boots.” Rosenberg suggested “going to your local outfitter so that you can try on different boots and get expert advice from the shop’s staff.”
Trimble suggested trying on boots in the afternoon since “feet naturally swell throughout the day.” And if you can't decide between two sizes, “always opt for the slightly larger size — it's better to have slightly larger than too small,” he said. A good place to start is a half size larger than what you’d wear everyday and Trimble noted you should “have a thumbs width between your longest toe and the front of the boot.”
Walking around with the shoe before buying can help you determine whether the size and fit is comfortable. “Notice if you feel any rubbing or tight-fitting sections in the boot,” Trimble said, adding that they should feel “supportive but not restrictive in any way.” You should also pay attention to your heel when walking around. “If your heel slips when walking, it's a sign the shoes might be too large or the heel shape isn't right for your feet,”
While some hiking boots may need some break-in time, typically “how they fit in the shop is usually how they’ll fit after a few weeks of use,” said Rosenberg. “If they don’t feel comfortable now, they won’t feel comfortable after wearing them for weeks.” Additionally, bring along the socks you intend to wear with the hiking shoes. “There’s no sense trying on a hiking [shoe] while wearing dress socks,” he said.