When to Wear Hiking Boots or Hiking Shoes

Footwear Basics

Plastic Hiking Boot: Mountaineering-specific with a hard plastic shell that easily interlocks with gaiters and crampons.

Hiking Boot: Over-the-ankle protection for stability and traction as well as protection against weather and trail elements like snow or scree. The height can extend well above the ankle (high) or just over (mid).

Day Hikers: Rugged low-top pieces with aggressive tread for grip, some midsole toughness, and hard rubber toe cages. Basically trail runners on steroids.

Trail Runners: Paired-down day hikers, with aggressive, grippy tread but less bulk and protection from the elements, especially along the forefoot and the toe. Solid support under foot with some midsole heft.

Approach Shoes: Basically sneakers, with nominal protection from the elements and a grippy—but not aggressively-treaded—sole.

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You are looking for new outdoor kicks, and your Pavlovian hiker's instinct points you toward boots. Except you start researching and suddenly the options fall like an avalanche: hiking boots, expedition hikers, GORE-Tex and plastic shells, day hikers (medium- and low-top), trail runners, approach shoes, trail runners, those funkly Vibram Five Toe almost-barefoot rubber hybrids... .

Deep breaths. We'll get ya through.

Basically, the lighter and more comfortable the shoe, the less tired you'll get on the trail. The rule of thumb (not to mix metaphors) is that every pound you wear on your feet translates to at least triple the weight in your pack. A pair of lightweight hiking shoes generally weighs in at under two pounds per pair, while a heavy-duty pair of leather boots weighs around five pounds a pair. Stick a ten-pound bag of sugar in your backpack and walk around the neighborhood. Then take it out. That's the difference a pair of shoes can make in energy expended over several miles. It's not rocket science—the more weight on your feet, the more energy required with each step.

For casual walks in the backcountry, almost any well-built tennis shoe with a rugged tread will suffice. However, consider a modern day hiking shoe designed specifically for trail use. Key features include high-friction rubber soles that grip, not slip, and an aggressive tread. Hiking shoes have a somewhat thicker, stiffer midsole than running shoes, so they provide better protection and support for your feet, and day hikers also come with a bit of hard-rubber armor around the forefoot and the toe—fantastic protection from stubbing your toes when you miss a protruding rock on the trail. If you are walking in wet conditions, consider a shoe with a waterproof/breathable inner liner. Synthetic mesh uppers are lighter than leather, and are fine for most casual hikes, although leather sheds water better and is generally more durable. Many hiking shoes have reinforced toe rands, so they offer more protection than traditional tennis shoes. Trail runners take durability down a notch, sacrificing the bulky protective elements in day hikers for weight savings. Oh, and the term day hiker is something of a misnomer—for lighter weekend outings when your packs weights less than 45 pounds, hiking shoes make for a sane alternative to Hummer-style hiking boots.

If you are hiking with a heavy pack (50-plus pound), kicking steps in the snow, ice climbing, or navigating variable terrain like scree, then consider a high-top hiking or mountaineering boot. They have the advantage of a stiff sole (in case you need crampons), additional ankle support, and extra foot protection in rocky terrain.

Best advice? Go with what works. If you've got weak ankles, boots seem like a sensible option. Carrying little weight and consider yourself sure-footed, perhaps nothing more than a light pair of sneakers (as many AT thru hikers can attest). Day hiking daredevil with strong feet? Embrace the barefoot running movement with one of the minimalist shoes on the market. It ain't necessarily what's right...it's what's right for you.

Buying Tips:
Your feet swell as the day goes on, so try on new footwear with that in mind—a perfect fit in the a.m. might translate into an uncomfortable fit six hours after you set out. And remember that the sock you wear is critically important. When you shop for a new boot or shoe, bring along the socks you intend to wear on your excursion. Sock technology (fibers and knitting technique) has made incredible advancements in the past decade. Avoid cotton; stick with synthetic, wool, or other natural fibers. And those susceptible to blisters should also consider a sock liner—a thin sock you wear between your feet and your thicker hiking socks, which offers another barrier to the friction that typically forces you to bust out the mole skin.

Published: 3 Jan 2011 | Last Updated: 9 Jun 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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