Yes, we backpackers and outdoors enthusiasts will go and fling ourselves into wild long-distance mountaineering no matter what, and whatever should cover our feet seems secondary compared to the thrill of the journey. Hang back one moment in the planning of a hiking trip and you’ll realize the hiking trails in Arizona differ wildly from the hiking trails in Florida and therefore the choice between hiking shoes and hiking boots can have a serious impact on your hiking trek depending on personal preference and the prevalence of rough terrain.
Trail runners may desire lighter weight hiking boots while hikers with fallen arches may be looking for the best hiking shoes for flat feet. Everyone is looking to avoid blisters, but day hikes certainly don’t require the same hiking footwear as long-distance hiking trips do. Personal preference is the name of the game, but that personal preference should be informed by the task at hand. The trail will define the type of hiking footwear hikers are looking for, which is why we’ve prepared this quick guide comparing hiking boots to hiking shoes so you don’t have to worry the next time the backpacker’s call beckons.
Know the design of your hiking footwear
Before you set out your next backpacking excursion, gauge the trail and your own physical requirements. Every backpacker, no matter the destination, will want to look out for some footwear basics like ankle support and ankle protection, midsole support, breathability, cushioning, waterproofing, arch support, solid lacing, and as far as the toe box and footbed go, the sturdier the better.
Depending on the specific difficulty of the chosen trail, the best hiking footwear might be gore-tex or a simple pair of leather boots. Discerning backpackers know how to find the perfect versatile pair of hiking footwear that can handle everything from long-distance treks on rugged terrain to day hiking on flat and open land.
Durability v.s. weight
If you want to compare the central difference between hiking boots and hiking shoes, the defining characteristic will be weight. Some hiking trails where the weather is hot, like in Moab, are much easier traveled with lighter weight shoes. Other trails, like those in Colorado in winter, are much better traversed in waterproof mountaineering boots that can handle both cold and moisture without inconveniencing hikers. Before you go out, make sure you have the right pair of hiking footwear for the specific weather and topographical elements of your chosen trail.
Foot protection while hiking
It’s a given that your central concern whilst hiking, barring an emergency, is going to be your feet. Blisters often plague the unprepared hiker and backpacker. In uneven terrain and bad weather conditions, they often wish they had brought sturdier backpacking boots.
Other issues facing hikers are design features of hiking footwear such as ankle protection, arch support, and lacing. The flexing of footwear in the course of regular use can stress the laces, causing them to break and render the footwear useless no matter how sturdy the original construction. Maybe the sole is tough enough and offers enough ankle support, but if it can’t stay laced to the hiker’s foot, every other design feature is nullified.
With a variety of possible ways to tie and lace them, both hiking boots and shoes depend greatly on their lacing. Most hikers may not think twice about the way their hiking footwear is laced or what kind of lacing is built into it. Like the rest of the shoe or boot, laces should be waterproof and durable. Now and then laces may come untied or get stepped on, and the right pair of laces should be able to handle any of that.
Lighter weight trail running shoes can occasionally be carried by looping the laces through a strap on a rucksack and tying them together. For this super convenient carrying method to work, though, the laces have to be sturdy enough and strong enough to hold together through the jumbling that will certainly occur while hiking. Heavier boots may need to dry out overnight while you’re stopped at the campsite, so make sure their laces can endure the added weight of hiking boots and really take a beating out on the trail.
Heavy-duty and high-quality
There is a constant tradeoff between durability and ease of use for hiking footwear. Day hiking journeys of just a few hours are best tackled with lightweight low-cut hiking shoes, while hikers and backpackers attempting rough and rocky terrain with a heavy load on their back will want sturdier hiking boots built for long-distance trekking. Depending on the degree of contouring and ankle support built into the insole and the top of the chosen hiking footwear, hikers may choose less challenging and less interesting trails. A hiking trip that seemed easy in the planning stages can become insanely difficult in uncomfortable footwear that offers little foot support.
Sometimes hikers and backpackers will choose to wear trail running shoes and bring along an extra pair of heavy-duty hiking footwear for rocky terrain. While it may sound smart, hikers with a bit more forethought and planning can forego the added weight of an unused pair of secondary footwear by matching their desired trek with the right pair of hiking boots or hiking shoes.
In any case, hikers will want versatility from their hiking footwear and search for the best trail shoes that will last years and years. Shock absorption in the heel and cushioning throughout the bottom of the shoe are critical elements to consider. Exterior protective features such as protective rubber toe caps will guarantee that your feet can survive the small hits and snags that are so frequent while hiking. No one wants to restart shopping for footwear after a season or two of hiking. Longevity is an important consideration when purchasing any kind of hiking footwear from lightweight trail running shoes to heavy backpacking boots.
Any kind of hiking footwear should be waterproof. Whether hiking on a sunny day or pushing forward through bad weather or river crossings, the best hiking shoes or boots should be completely waterproof or at the very least water-resistant. Sudden encounters with rain or water features can turn what appeared to be a perfectly good pair of hiking shoes into a nightmare. Coming across a surprise stream or lake on a hike should be a happy occasion, but that won’t be the case if your mind is concentrated on keeping your feet and non-waterproofed hiking footwear well clear of any kind of water.
Anyone who invests in hiking boots must make sure their chosen model is a waterproof boot. Generally one expects a piece of hiking footwear to last, not to buckle or be ruined by a slight bit of water. For serious do-it-yourselfers, shoes can be waterproofed using several methods if the manufacturer hasn’t thought to design the shoe with waterproofing already. Make sure the socks you choose have also been designed with some kind of water-resistant material or treatment, and if they are quick-drying that’s all the better. A waterproof boot can make all the difference in your hiking trip, making some trails or crossings available that wouldn’t be in simpler leather boots.
Waterproofing designs often double as protection against debris and other unwanted material from entering into the footwear accidentally, which as you can imagine would otherwise cause discomfort and even small injuries. On rocky, sandy terrain, protection against debris and effective waterproofing are critical to keeping socks and feet dry and warm. Especially on the more difficult hiking trails, backpackers and hikers will want to have waterproofing and debris protection that is so effective that they don’t even have to think about it. One less thing to think and worry about on the hiking trail means more time to experience the surrounding nature, hiking friends who have accompanied you on your journey, or simply the chance to exert oneself more thoroughly on the trail.
Parts of hiking footwear
The human foot is divided into a few arches, and the right shoe or boot for hiking will provide plenty of support for the entire foot. Ankle support bolsters the back of the foot, as you can probably imagine, while midsole-support lifts the middle of the foot. Insoles support the entire bottom of the foot and the outsole refers to the external bottom section of the shoe or boot. Both should be sturdy and long-lasting.
Low-cut hiking shoes are great if you don’t expect to be going off-trail or into high grass or unchartered territory, but for more rugged trails you may want sturdier higher hiking boots that protect against debris entering your footwear. Ankle sprains can not only cause inconvenience, they can also put an end to your hiking trip or even leave you stranded in a potentially dangerous situation if you’ve taken a hike into more isolated wilderness. High-top boots that offer ankle protection are good protection against ankle sprains, although of course, they can’t guarantee that an accidental sprain won’t happen. According to some medical experts, the best protection against ankle sprains is to develop the muscles and the strength of your ankle.
The toe box is an often-overlooked part of any kind of footwear which refers to the upper part of the tip of a shoe or boot and is generally used to describe the amount of room left for the toes to move comfortably. Depending on personal preference, your chosen pair of hiking boots or hiking shoes can be low-cut or they could reach higher up the leg, but they should always be waterproof and have a large enough toe box for ample movement while maintaining a snug fit.
Brands of hiking footwear
There are many brands of hiking shoes and hiking boots available, but the most popular are, in no particular order, Merrell, GTX, Lugs, and Vasqe for men’s footwear and Lowa and Asolo for women’s footwear. Several different models offer different construction and design advantages for each brand, depending on personal preference.
Merrell manufactures many solid, sturdy models of hiking boots, such as the Moab, that are sure to last through years of rugged mountaineering. They are often designed with waterproofing and offer arch support and ankle protection in uneven terrain. GTX makes dependable hiking shoes and their best models feature gore-tex technology. Lugs, or Lugz, makes long-range hiking boots that are simply designed to project a utilitarian fashion without the extra frills that can be so off-putting in so many other kinds of hiking footwear. Vasque makes both hiking boots and hiking shoes, and even a few types of footwear that blur the line between the two. They also make many popular models of women’s hiking shoes and boots.
Comfort on the trail
Over long distances and rough terrain, the kind of hiking footwear you bring along will make all the difference. Every step on the trail is a physical exertion for your feet, which after all meet the ground beneath you with both pressure and positioning that could potentially wear them out. Arch support and insertable insoles can add or improve to the comfort level of your hiking footwear, and even replace a favorite pair that have been trustworthy and dependable for years but are starting to show some signs of wear and tear.
Depending on specific body styles, previous injuries, and a backpacker’s choice between ultralight packing and carrying heavy loads, additional or heavy-duty cushioning may be necessary to complete the intended trail. Bear in mind that blisters can easily form if you don’t protect your feet with the right kind of shoe or boot that’s been specifically designed to offer foot protection and comfort for hiking trips over a long distance. Normal tennis shoes, for example, are generally designed to keep up with daily walking distances and shorter bursts of exertion, while hiking is a near-constant endurance test for your feet, ankles, and legs.
Rain and snow can add new difficulties for your feet on the trail. Cold temperatures can make your joints seize up, and your feet are often the first part of the body to register a chill in the air since they are extremities and your body naturally can’t circulate blood to them as readily. Water-resistance is critical because, while some hiking shoes and hiking boots are even waterproof or quick-drying, prolonged exposure to water and moisture can be hike-ending if not properly treated. Water blisters can also form if your feet are not kept dry.
Make sure you don’t undermine the potential of your trail shoes or boots by wearing them with the wrong kind of hiking socks. Some shoes are designed by their manufacturers to be worn on the trail without any socks at all, and some have a unique construction that doesn’t allow for socks to be worn. In general, personal preference and the weather will dictate whether you need long, thick, woolen socks to keep your feet warm or shorter, thinner socks that allow for maximum breathability while you hike through the elements.
Some backpacking trips will call for shoes and others for boots, depending on the season and the difficulty of the chosen trail. Savvy hikers should be able to tell what separates a high-quality hiking boot from a hiking shoe, but that doesn’t mean each type doesn’t have its moment. Beyond personal preference in terms of comfort and style, each type has advantages pertaining to weather conditions and the difficulty of the trail. It all boils down to research and planning when deciding between hiking boots and hiking shoes.
Even rugged outdoor enthusiasts who seem to have no desire (or no idea) about fashion still want their outdoor gear to look good, and that goes double for outfitting equipment like clothes and shoes. Some trail shoes and hiking boots are so jam-packed with design features that they can start to look like they came out of a science fiction novel. But most of the bigger manufacturers have begun to design high-functioning hiking footwear that is comfortable, breathable, and supportive all while maintaining a fashionable look that won’t embarrass you if you need to stop at a bait shop or gas station on your way to or from the trailhead.
Many hikers form a special bond with their footwear, especially the solidly constructed models that can serve hikers and backpackers for years and years. Be on the lookout for companies offering lifetime warranties or repair deals, because once you get into the right pair of hiking shoes or hiking boots, you won’t want to give them up until they literally cannot be tied around your feet anymore. It may seem like a simple question but the decision between hiking shoes and hiking boots can make or break the whole rest of your hiking trip, and the decision on specific brands and models of hiking footwear can have an impact on your hiking for years to come.
Bonus tip: Wondering about other options besides shoes and boots? Check out these families who have decided to hike barefoot!