Summertime is a special time for so many hikers and backpackers. Everyone hits the trail in the pursuit of making memories that are worth remembering and sharing with friends and colleagues. In the last a few posts, we first discussed and compared the features of convertible pants and shorts giving you valuable information about these two types of bottoms and a starting point before planning your summer hiking trip(s). Then, you got familiar with the five golden rules for summer hiking as well as the various ways of water treatment on the trail. Our latest post concerned night hiking with its pros, cons, and dangers. Following the recent summertime line of our blog, we continue with one of the most important components of every serious hiker’s gear – hiking footwear. As we emphasized in our article about hiking footwear, the most important features of quality backpacking footwear are good fit, durability, breathability, waterproofness, stability, shock absorbency, good traction, light weight, etc.
The main debate over the last few decades has been between lightweight and heavyweight footwear. But is it so for summer hiking? The rest of this text is aimed at helping you decide what kind of footwear to choose for your summer hikes.
Types of Hiking Footwear
Wearing sandals is close to going barefoot. In fact, there is much evidence that going barefoot is better for the feet than wearing shoes. To be suitable for walking any distance, hiking sandals need to fit properly, support the feet, cushion against hard, rough, and hot surfaces, and grip adequately. Essential features of good sandals are thick, shock-absorbing soles with a shaped platform that supports the foot; a deep tread for grip; a strapping system that holds the heel and forefoot firmly; and rimmed edges that protect the feet from bumping against rocks and stones. Straps made of synthetic leather or nylon webbing absorb little moisture and dry quickly. This makes them a good choice for wet-weather use. They are usually fastened by hook-and-loop fabric or clip buckles. In general, hiking sandals’ weight is comparable to the weight of hiking shoes.
Hiking sandals are best suited to warm or dry conditions. Some experienced hikers use sports sandals even on rugged, steep and stony trails in the heat. Sandals offer unmatched breathability so that your feet stay dry and cool. This means more comfort for your feet added to the reduced chances to suffer blisters. Additionally, you can ford rivers and streams without the need to take off your shoes and they will get dry much faster than any other kind of hiking footwear. It’s also quite easy to maintain sandals in good shape as they don’t need any special care.
They’re fine on trails and most rocky terrain but not so good in prickly vegetation. For example, in deserts you need to take great care to avoid cactuses, while in forests, thorn bushes can be a problem. Wearing sandals in the fields lush with grass also isn’t very comfortable.
They are a great choice for hiking, trekking or trail running. Comfortable and much lighter than hiking shoes, hiking boots or backpacking boots, this type of footwear reduces foot fatigue. Shoes designed for trail running make ideal lightweight backpacking footwear. Construction usually features mesh uppers for breathability, shock-absorbing midsoles, and strong heel. For better foot protection, you might want to consider trail-running shoes with reinforced toe cap.
They’re a good choice for summer trails, dry or wet. Running shoes are usually designated as suitable for easy to moderate trails with light loads. However, empirical data shows that you can use them on trails with heavy loads too without experiencing any considerable problems. Lightweight running shoes are breathable enough to ensure dry and cool feet on hot summer days; sturdy enough to make sure that they last even some challenging trails; and will dry faster than all other types of hiking footwear (excluding hiking sandals) after getting wet.
Although recommended for summer hiking (unless you decide to go to the Himalayas or somewhere else where the terrain is rough, snowy, and slippery), trail-running shoes have some limitations too. For example, you need to spend some time preparing your body before hiking some long trails, including strengthening your ankles. Doing this will give you better endurance and will make you less prone to ankle injuries.
Photo by Brodie Vissers
They differ from trail runners in the stiffness of the midsole. Although a bit heavier, the stiffer flex provides a more solid platform when walking on rough trails, and it helps prevent bruising the bottom of the feet from stepping on sharp rocks. Heavier than running shoes and sandals but lighter than hiking boots and backpacking boots, they are suitable for hiking and backpacking with moderate load or on rough terrain.
The advantages of trekking shoes are comfort and weight. Since most kinds of hiking shoes are not waterproof, they are relatively breathable which makes them quite a reasonable choice for summer hiking on rough terrain. In addition, they will protect your feet much better than sandals on trails with spiky vegetation.
Trekking shoes can cope with most terrain except for steep, hard snow and ice. Waterproof hiking shoes don’t offer good ventilation – on the one side they will protect your feet from wet weather, but on the other side, your feet will sweat in the hot summer days on the trail.
They offer better ankle support when carrying a heavy pack or hiking on rough terrain. However, this is valid only for boots with high, stiffened cuffs (and not for boots with soft cuffs). But the stiff ankle support restricts foot movement too much and some hikers have to loosen the clips to let their ankles flex fairly normally. For traversing steep, rugged terrain, you need strong, flexible ankles, shock-absorbing midsoles, and lightweight, flexible footwear.
Hiking boots are suitable for steep terrain, giving more control and stability. Good for summer hikes in an altitude where you’ll have to negotiate steep terrain often covered with snow and ice.
Too heavy and usually waterproof, hiking boots can’t be a good choice for summer hiking unless you go to a place with steep hardpacked snow. Wearing them in the summer on an even terrain in hot weather will be beneficial neither for your feet nor for your morale.
Photo by Dan Gold
They are thick and sturdy, however, too stiff and heavy for most backpacking, though some traditionalists prefer them. High-cut with better balance and ankle support, designed to carry heavier loads. If you are carrying a heavy pack over rugged terrain that may lack trails (especially in cold weather), heavy-duty backpacking boots are a good choice because they provide more stability, support, and motion control.
Good for snow and ice climbing. They are good for long periods of crampon use – the type carried out on alpine snow ascents in summer.
Wearing heavy footwear is uncomfortable and tiring. Moreover, backpacking boots can require considerable breaking in. Additionally, they offer the least breathability in comparison to the other types of hiking footwear making them unsuitable for summer hiking (especially in hot weather). In general, wearing substantial footwear such as backpacking boots is not recommended in summer unless you go for a hike in an altitude.
You have several options for choosing the best hiking footwear for your summer hiking trips. Depending on the terrain, distance, weather, and your own preferences, you can choose wearing sandals, trail-running shoes, hiking shoes, hiking boots or backpacking boots. For rough and snowy terrain, hiking boots and backpacking boots are heavy favorites. For hot weather, the choice is usually between sandals and trail-running shoes, although trekking shoes can be also a good option. Whatever your favorite, avoid waterproof shoes and boots because in the summer heat they will probably do more harm than good.