Footwear is worn to protect the foot from extraneous trauma and harsh weather conditions. It is also expected to offer comfort, be durable and support mobility in various environments.
Whether you go for an easy day hike where only having some basic knowledge and gear is required or a long backpacking trip where a long list of packing items is recommended, functional, comfortable, and reliable hiking footwear is a must.
What are the most important characteristics to look for when selecting your hiking boots? Good fit is probably the most important feature of any hiking footwear – your footwear just needs to fit your foot. Regardless of how functional it may be on paper, well-fitting or ill-fitting boot can make or break your entire experience on the trail. Additionally, among the most important characteristics of a hiking boot are good traction, shock absorbency, waterproofness, breathability, good foot and ankle support, stability, light weight, and durability.
Functional trekking shoes are so good that you don’t feel the performance. Their main features of functional hiking shoes include comfort, performance, protection, support and shock absorption. Technical materials, components, and designs are important for an optimally functional shoe.
Types of hiking footwear
There are several types of footwear suited for the trail. Among them:
- barefoot and minimalist shoes
- hiking sandals
- trail-running shoes
- hiking shoes
- hiking boots
- backpacking boots and
- mountaineering boots.
Each of them has its pros and cons, depending on the terrain and characteristics of the trail, season, weather and temperature, distance and duration.
Hiking sandals are a good choice for summer trekking expeditions. Trail-running shoes, cross-trainers, and the like are popular and quite suitable below the snowline. But make sure they provide adequate traction, and consider the need for ankle support, especially if carrying a heavy pack. Good shock-absorbing heels are excellent for downhill travel. Trail runners are not suitable for snow.
If you plan to cross high passes, take along substantial boots for snow and cold or you risk serious frostbite. Substantial leather-and-fabric hiking boots with shock-absorbing heels are good for the hills. For high-altitude treks, you might consider taking two pairs of boots, a light, flexible pair and a more substantial pair for rugged terrain. For the substantial pair, make sure there is enough room to comfortably accommodate an extra pair of socks for the cold regions. In snow or wet weather, you’ll need appropriate waterproof boots. You might also want to try the footwear out at home on terrain similar to that in the place you intend to hike.
Once you have a well-fitting, comfortable shoe, the secret of foot care is in the socks. Good hiking socks carefully blend wool and other hi-tech fibers and yarns to absorb perspiration, reduce friction, and provide better protection for the feet. This way, they prevent blisters, maceration, and other skin problems and conditions. Cotton socks are no good for hiking and backpacking because of some of cotton’s inherent properties such as high moisture absorbency and relatively long drying time.
For best result in cold conditions, you’ll need to layer your socks. The classic layered sock system consists of two pairs. The outer pair, usually thicker and woolen to provide cushioning and insulation, should be changed frequently. Synthetic socks as thinner inners worn under heavier outers wick moisture away from the feet and allow the feet and the inner socks some movement inside the outer socks, decreasing stress and preventing blisters. There’s no need of wearing a sock system in warm conditions – a thin liner sock will absorb less moisture, dry faster, and will keep your feet cooler.
Your socks need to fit well without any loose fabric. Moreover, they need to fit your boots as well. Waterproof socks are good for cold conditions. Don’t use them in warm environments. In warm conditions, the socks will keep your feet too hot leading to wetting the feet from the inside. Take enough pairs for the journey. Change socks at least once a day, keeping a pair drying outside the pack, if you are having trouble with your feet. Wearing clean socks not only feels good but also helps you avoid skin problems (because of the lack of dirt and moisture). Active prevention is a much better option than cure because it’s easier and less costly as it requires less time and effort.
Gaiters protect your feet against pebbles, mud, snow, etc., from getting into your boots. Knee-length gaiters can be very useful when there is still snow in the backcountry and when bushwhacking while wearing shorts. Select a not too heavy model with waterproof fabric below the ankle and breathable fabric above to keep you dry and comfortable. For those who prefer full protection, there are rugged, abrasion-resistant, and fully waterproof gaiters suited for hiking in the toughest terrain. Such models are popular among climbers and mountaineers. The downside is that they aren’t very breathable and require regular attention – you’ll have to check and maintain the level of water resistance. Lightweight gaiters are breathable and comfortable and provide a basic level of protection. They are easy to put on and are preferred by people who travel light such as ultralight hikers.
Barefoot and minimalist shoes
Barefoot shoes usually come with thin, flexible, and grippy sole, neutral heel, and a spacious toe box. They offer scant cushioning and most people find that barefoot shoes aren’t suitable for rugged terrain. In short, they try to mimic what it is like to be barefoot. Though minimalist shoes are something in-between sneakers and barefoot shoes, they are closer to the barefoot design. They are lightweight, thin, flexible, and offer no arch support. Minimalist shoes offer minimal cushioning in the midsoles and the heel as sometimes (in the case of the “zero-drop” shoes) your heel and forefoot are at the same level. Barefoot and minimalist shoes have been relatively popular since 2009 after the publication of the book Born to Run. They’re much less popular now but there are still people who prefer wearing minimalist and barefoot shoes because of the advantages they might have over other hiking shoes.
Advantages of barefoot and minimalist shoes
- Deliver as close to a true barefoot experience as possible – walking barefoot is natural for humans. Moreover, you can feel the ground beneath your feet (the so-called “proprioception“). As a result, you gain natural sensory feedback.
- Gradually strengthens the muscles of the feet and legs. Left without support from shoes, the muscles in the feet get stronger.
- Can potentially decrease the incidence of certain foot injuries such as plantar fasciitis.
- Barefoot and minimalist shoes are fast to dry when wet.
- They encourage low-impact gait, which is more natural than the typical heel striking when wearing standard shoes. This is not always positive because it puts more strain on the Achilles tendon (it may not be beneficial if you are more susceptible to Achilles tendon injuries).
- Some models are really versatile footwear suitable for a variety of indoor and outdoor sports and activities like hiking, running, weight lifting, water sports, etc.
- Minimalist shoes are lighter than trail runners, hiking boots and shoes. This might result in reduced foot fatigue.
- They are very compact and packable, which makes barefoot and minimalist shoes ideal for travel.
Disadvantages of barefoot and minimalist shoes
- It takes time for your feet to adapt to such kind of shoes; wearing less supportive footwear like barefoot shoes might cause injuries if used too much too
- Barefoot shoes don’t offer enough protection to the feet (it’s probably just enough not to get cut) and, since the sole is so thin, you can feel almost everything including rocks, and sharp objects.
- If you care about aesthetics, you’ll be unimpressed with the way most models of barefoot and minimalist shoes look.
- They might be too hot as it warms up, which results in excessive sweating. Barefoot shoes often aren’t breathable enough, which makes them unsuitable for warmer conditions.
- It doesn’t take long before they start to smell (sometimes it takes a month or two while on other occasions it may take up to 6 months before they start to smell).
Hiking sandals are ideal for low-intensity summer trips. In fact, many backpackers consider hiking sandals preferred footwear for summer hikes. The most important condition for an enjoyable experience is that your sandals fit properly and provide a cushion when walking. They offer enhanced breathability and the comfort of barefoot-like experience. Your feet stay dry and cool (which means also reduced chances to suffer blisters) and you can feel the terrain much better than when wearing shoes. You don’t have to take off your sandals when fording rivers and streams so river crossings become easier. Moreover, when wet, your sandals will get dry much faster than any other kind of hiking footwear, especially if the straps are made of synthetic leather or nylon webbing.
Surprisingly to some, there are durable hiking sandals that last years taking on any kind of abuse. There are also models that offer additional support and stability. They come with a solid footbed and a toe strap. Keep in mind that there’s a tradeoff between support and weight so lighter models usually are less supportive than heavier sandals.
Though sandals are best for some casual hiking on well-maintained trails, durable hiking sandals, with shock-absorbing outsoles that provide good grip on rough surfaces and rimmed edges that protect the feet from bumping against rocks and stones, are suited for longer and more difficult hikes.
The biggest disadvantage of wearing sandals on the trail is that you feel uncomfortable when walking in areas where there are plants with prickly leaves. So, make sure you avoid prickly vegetation especially when hiking through forests, deserts, and areas with a semi-arid climate. Thorny shrubs and cacti are among the plants to avoid. Other considerations include but are not limited to weight (some models are really heavy), dirt (yes, your feet will get dirty no matter how careful you are), and scree slopes with broken rocks and debris. Another limitation of hiking sandals is that they are no good for hiking in winter conditions.
Advantages of hiking sandals
- Best for casual hiking on well-maintained trails; versatile and suitable for a wide range of outdoor activities like walking, camping, rafting, kayaking, travel as well as a water shoe for the beach.
- Perfect hiking footwear for summer and hot weather hikes; suitable for 3-season hikes.
- You don’t have to break them in because hiking sandals are usually comfortable right out of the box.
- Offer enhanced breathability and barefoot-like experience so that you can feel the terrain better.
- Good hiking sandals are supportive of your feet, cushion against rough surfaces, and offer excellent grip and traction on rugged, steep, stony trails.
- Easy to slip on and off.
- Easy to take care of.
- They’re water-friendly and what’s more, you don’t have to take off your sandals when fording rivers and streams.
- Hiking sandals dry faster than other types of hiking shoes.
Disadvantages of hiking sandals
- Uncomfortable for hiking in areas with prickly vegetation.
- Some models are really heavy.
- Your feet will get dirty no matter how careful you are.
- Hiking sandals are no good for scree slopes with broken rocks and debris.
- You inevitably get pebbles, mud, and stuff in your sandals and it can be really irritating when stones slide between your feet and the sandals.
- No good for snow, ice, and cold conditions and environments, in general.
- Most models don’t look very aesthetically (which shouldn’t be a big problem if you use them solely for outdoorsy adventures).
- Your feet are exposed to UV light so you need to use sunscreen to prevent sunburns.
Lightweight trail runners are a great choice for hiking, backpacking, and trail running. Comfortable and much lighter than most other types of hiking footwear, which reduces foot fatigue (some scientists claim that 5-6 times more energy is required to move weight on the feet versus weight in a backpack) and energy spent. Trail-running shoes feature a breathable mesh upper which is suppler than leather or heavy-duty nylon but tends to prematurely rip and fray. It’s better if your shoes have a reinforced toe cap for better foot protection. To protect the foot from hard and uneven surfaces, shoes may feature a soft foam midsole or rigid outsole. Midsole foam absorbs impact and is normally made of EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) or PU (polyurethane) foam, which is more resilient but heavier and more expensive.
Though trail running shoes are suitable for 3-season hiking and backpacking, they’re best for summer trails and warm weather, especially if they aren’t waterproof. In this case, your feet will stay cooler, foot sweat will more easily evaporate, and your shoes and socks will dry faster after getting wet. In warmer weather and in prolonged wet conditions, footwear with high air permeability (i.e., a mesh upper) is overwhelmingly preferable to waterproofness because waterproof footwear is ineffective at keeping your feet dry in such conditions. The reason is that the breathability of waterproof fabrics is inadequate to keep up with normal rates of perspiration, and, with moderate use, the fabric’s waterproofness will be compromised. Remember that wet feet are prone to blisters and always try to keep your feet dry if possible.
A lot of hikers avoid wearing trail runners for long and difficult trails because of the widespread notion that trail running shoes are only suitable for short and easy trails with light loads. Well, this notion isn’t true because there’s a bunch of people who use them with heavy loads and/or on long and challenging trails without experiencing any big problems. So, for the majority of people, it’s more of a psychological problem rather than a physical one. However, keep in mind that if you have weak ankles and want to avoid any possible ankle injuries, you’ll have to either strengthen them before any long hiking trips or grab a pair of heavier boots that offer more support and stability.
Trail running shoes are perfect for three-season conditions but they aren’t suitable for winter hiking, ice, snow, and climbing up rock. You need some stiff-soled boots to help you keep balance when walking on icy, snowy, and slippery surfaces. Such trails often require crampons, snowshoes or microspikes and you can’t use them on trail runners. Prolonged off-trail walking with trail runners isn’t recommended either (unless you have strong, flexible ankles) since you’ll need durable footwear that will better protect your feet.
Advantages of trail running shoes
- Highly suitable for warm and wet conditions and environments.
- Trail runners dry faster than most other types of hiking footwear.
- Highly breathable for dry and cool feet.
- Trail running shoes offer lightweight comfort and flexibility, which results in less effort and energy spent.
- Ideal for multi-day hikes on well-maintained trails or off-trail terrain.
Disadvantages of trail running shoes
- Not suitable for cold, winter, snow, ice, and climbing up rock. Moreover, you can’t use crampons, snowshoes, and microspikes with them.
- Trail runners have a short life span in general (there’s a tradeoff between weight and durability) and what’s more, they aren’t as durable as a pair of rugged hiking boots or shoes.
- You need to have strong ankles for hiking trips.
- Not so good for non-maintained trails as well as rough, hilly, and slippery trails where grip, traction, and stability are crucial.
- You have to avoid muddy terrain when wearing trail running shoes.
Hiking shoes 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 but lighter than backpacking boots, they are suitable for hiking and backpacking with moderate load or on rough terrain. A pair of good trekking shoes also ensures ankle support and stability necessary if you are prone to ankle sprains or don’t have enough experience on difficult or long-distance trails. Trekking shoes aren’t recommended for winter hiking, especially on hard snow, ice, and steep terrain.
Waterproof hiking shoes are especially useful when hiking in colder conditions, although they are useless if you have to walk for days across wet terrain. In such a case, your feet will get wet for sure no matter what type of trekking shoes you’d wear so you’d better choose breathable mesh footwear which will get dry faster.
There are different ways of drying a pair of trekking shoes, but some of them are much more preferable than others. Just let your footwear air dry if you want to keep wearing it on your future trips. If at home, keep them in a cool and dry place to dry slowly with the insoles removed and the tongues fully open. Proper drying takes time and patience so avoid forcing it. Don’t dry them by a fire, next to a car heater or a house radiator because excessive heat makes leather harden and split.
You can clean your waterproof shoes with a soft brush on the outside and a damp cloth on the inside but be very careful when doing this – the membranes are very thin and fragile – don’t be too brisk or rough. In addition, it can be very useful to know more about the materials and components of a shoe as well as about the overall anatomy of a trekking shoe.
Advantages of hiking shoes
- Trekking shoes are good for rough trails and when scrambling off-trail.
- Suitable for areas with scree slopes, fresh snow, and rocky uneven trails.
- Great for bushwhacking, scree or talus slopes, and bouldering.
- Good choice for hiking in muddy/cool conditions.
- Waterproof models will keep your feet dry in wet conditions. Keep in mind that they can’t do the same in prolonged wet weather.
Disadvantages of hiking shoes
- Trekking shoes aren’t suitable for very cold weather, snow, and ice.
- Waterproof hiking shoes aren’t very breathable and don’t offer good ventilation.
- Wet hiking shoes take more time to dry than trail runners, sandals or barefoot shoes. Waterproof models take even longer to dry.
Hiking shoe care: a short guide
A pair of good hiking boots can last and be functional for many years. However, usually proper care and maintenance make the difference between long-lasting boots and a disappointment. So, make sure to learn a few tricks that can extend the life of your trekking shoes.
Proper cleaning will make your shoes not only look good but will also make your feet feel good. You need to hand wash your shoes if they are made of synthetic fabrics and materials like canvas (including mesh). Remove the laces before cleaning (wash them separately) and use mild soap, soft brush, and water.
Nylon is famous for its durability and breathability. To keep it breathable, don’t use creams, polishes or silicone solutions that might block the pores of the fabric. Use only soft brush or damp cloth and water if necessary.
If you want to preserve your leather shoes, keep them dust-free at all costs. Otherwise, the grains of dust will cut into the leather and damage it. Use dry or damp rag to wipe the dust. Use soft brush to remove mud. Moisturizing soap can be used to the outside of the shoe. Suede leather doest like water (water can cause cracks and stains) so when cleaning suede use only a dry brush or a sponge. Nubuck is very vulnerable to wear and staining. It is more absorbent than some other leathers so adding a protective coat with a quality waterproofing spray will be a good protection against moisture. Use dry brush or a sponge for cleaning. There are also spray products and special cleaners compatible with various kinds of shoe materials.
Conditioning and polishing
Always condition your hiking shoes with a suitable conditioner to the type of leather used to make your shoes. Try not to apply too much conditioner so that the leather can absorb it without feeling greasy. Polishing conceals scratches and adds color, shine, and extra protection. You can choose among four basic forms of polish: cream, liquid, paste, and wax. Some forms of polish like paste or cream polish also act as conditioners so if you any of these, you won’t need to use conditioners.
Drying takes time. The best way to dry out a pair of trekking shoes is to allow them to air dry. Excessive heat can harm your shoes (high temperatures damage leather, linings, and adhesives) so avoid drying them by a fire, unless it is extremely important to get them dry fast. It is also not recommended to dry them next to a car heater, oven or a house radiator. However, you can stuff a newspaper (or kitchen paper) inside the shoes to reduce the moisture and to accelerate the drying process. The paper will wick the moisture out of your shoes. For best results, replace the newspaper regularly (when it gets wet) and keep the shoes in warm, dry, and well-ventilated area.
Maintaining waterproof hiking shoes
Waterproof hiking shoes are waterproof because they don’t allow moisture to leak inside. A pair of shoes is waterproof because the uppers are treated with a chemical called durable water repellent (DWR). This coating wears off over time so you’ll need to regularly re-treat your footwear to maintain water-repellency. You can use wax or oil as well as a waterproofing spray. The latter is best for more delicate leather while the former is used primarily for nylon, leather or mixed materials. The best you can do when waterproofing trekking shoes is it to always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Proper storing is no less important than cleaning and conditioning. When not in use, keep your hiking footwear in a cool dry place. Use shoes trees to maintain the shape of leather shoes when you are not wearing them. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes and are usually made of plastic or wood. Wooden shoe trees are more expensive but can help to absorb moisture and eliminate odor.
There’s a specific way to clean, maintain, condition, polish, and waterproof different kinds of shoe fabrics and materials. That’s why it is important to learn more about hiking shoe care.
Hiking boots are mid-cut footwear that is warmer and offers more ankle support and stability (the models with stiff cuffs just above the ankle) than sandals, trail runners, and trekking shoes. The ankle support prevents sprains and protects the ankle in case of falls. Hiking boots are a popular choice for off-trail hikes as well as among those who need additional support and safety.
Quality hiking boots usually have thick rubber soles for extra protection against rocks and other sharp objects. Deep thread or lugs ensure excellent grip and traction when hiking through areas with scree slopes, fresh snow as well as when navigating a steep descent or carrying a heavy pack on difficult terrain. Durability is another one of the main characteristics of quality hiking boots. Padded scree collars and gusseted tongues prevent water and trail debris like small pebbles, rock fragments, and scree from slipping inside your boot. Protective toe bumpers made of abrasion-resistant materials (usually rubber) protect the foot from bangs, scrapes, and other trail hazards. Hooks above the eyelets help to lace them tightly around the ankle.
Hiking boots are preferred footwear for less than ideal conditions. Warm, insulated boots will keep your feet toasty in snowy climates and sub-zero temperatures. Waterproof hiking boots are made from waterproof material or from leather coated with a DWR. Designed to keep the feet dry and warm when paddling through streams, sloshing through bogs, and tramping through wet grass, waterproof boots should also come with breathable uppers that allow sweat to evaporate. Maintaining dry feet on the trail can keep your spirit high.
Keep in mind that hiking boots are relatively heavier, less breathable, and somewhat restrict your mobility in comparison to most other types of hiking footwear. Moreover, it takes longer to dry them.
Advantages of hiking boots
- Hiking boots with stiff cuffs offer extra ankle support and stability.
- Provide enough traction and balance for off-trail hikes and rough terrain.
- Perfect for bushwhacking, puddles, and mud.
- They are warm and are suitable for cold conditions.
- Waterproof boots ensure water protection. They’re also good for crossing creeks, swamps, and flooded areas.
- Durable and rugged; proper boot care and maintenance can extend their life considerably.
Disadvantages of hiking boots
- Some people find them too heavy especially in comparison to trail runners. Heavier boots equal more energy spent.
- Hiking boots don’t breathe easily.
- It takes more time to get them dry.
- Solid and firm hiking boots take more time to be broken in.
- Heavier and more solid hiking boots limit ankle roll and restrict mobility.
Backpacking and mountaineering boots
High-cut with better balance and ankle support, durable, protective, and designed to carry heavier loads. Heavier than sandals, trail runners, hiking boots and shoes, they feature a full-grain leather upper, thick rubber outsole, and highly constructed midsole with PU foam, rock plates, and a sturdy toe bumper. They’re probably best suited for winter and off-trail hiking so if you are carrying a heavy pack over rugged terrain that may lack trails (especially in cold weather conditions), heavy-duty backpacking boots are a good choice because they provide more stability, support, and motion control.
Don’t be lulled into the false sense of security a pair of boots can give you. It’s empirically proved that a lot of problems arise when boot wearers have this false sense of security believing that their footwear will protect them in all situations and in any conditions. This increases the rate of ankle injuries, especially for users of expensive boots. Keep in mind that although indispensable in some weather conditions and situations, heavy footwear has modest breathability and causes premature fatigue and general clumsiness. This can be a huge drawback, especially for those hiking in 3-season conditions with a light pack. Considering them for long trips on an even terrain isn’t very smart either unless you go to a place with steep hardpacked snow.
Hiking in cold weather in snowy and icy conditions requires stiff-soled boots that provide insulation from the frozen ground. While backpacking boots are suited for forests and tundra, mountaineering boots are best suited for negotiating steep terrain in harsh conditions. The mountaineering boots have stiff soles so you can wear technical climbing crampons with them. So they should be your top choice if you’re doing glacial travel or spending a lot of time at higher elevations. Leather isn’t the top choice for manufacturing mountaineering boots anymore as nowadays plastic shells are much more typical for them. In general, the new designs are stuffed with various hi-tech features.
Advantages of backpacking and mountaineering boots
- Excellent footwear for winter, forests, and tundra.
- Warm, suitable for cold conditions.
- Offer better balance, ankle support, stability, and motion control.
- High upper supports and protects the ankle.
- Have stiff soles so they can be used with crampons.
- Mountaineering boots are the best choice for glacial travel and higher elevations.
Disadvantages of backpacking and mountaineering boots
- Require considerable time to be broken in (excluding new models of plastic mountaineering boots).
- Backpacking boots can be bulky and less agile. They restrict mobility, are heavy, and can be uncomfortable and tiring.
- Can give you a false sense of security. This often results in injuries that can be avoided.
- Once wet, they take longer to dry.
- The most expensive types of hiking footwear.
Always choose your hiking footwear according to the surface, weather conditions, distance of the trail and most importantly – according to your own preferences. You need boots or shoes that fit well your feet. Remember that fit is strictly individual and the same pair of shoes that can be very comfortable for someone might be extremely uncomfortable for someone else.
There are various options, though most people prefer traveling lighter. The best option for them is to choose trail runners because they’re lightweight, breathable, and provide the most flexibility and comfort. Some like cross-country and off-trail hiking. They would obviously need heavier boots providing extra ankle support, stability, and better protection when walking on rough and uneven surfaces. In colder weather, waterproof hiking boots will keep your feet drier. In prolonged wet weather, your best option is a pair of hiking sneakers or trail-running shoes.
For a long time, there has been a debate between proponents of lightweight and heavyweight footwear for hiking and backpacking. Though you might be hesitant about which one is better, the answer is simple: stick with what works for you and makes you and your feet happy!
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