How To Buy Hiking Footwear

Hik­ing Footwear is what you put on when the pave­ment ends and your out­door adven­ture begins. It’s the inter­face between your body and the trail, so it’s impor­tant to make the right deci­sions about footwear before you pur­chase. Stubbed toes, sore feet or a blis­ter can ruin an out­door expe­ri­ence faster than near­ly any­thing else. As footwear becomes more advanced and options pro­lif­er­ate, find­ing the right shoes may be confusing.

The fol­low­ing top­ics will help you deter­mine the best hik­ing footwear for your next walk in the woods.

Cat­e­gories of Hik­ing Footwear: Hik­ing Footwear has evolved into a vari­ety of cat­e­gories each spe­cial­ized for dif­fer­ent trail activ­i­ties. Many cat­e­gories of hik­ing footwear are good for more than one activ­i­ty, depend­ing on your spe­cif­ic needs. For exam­ple, a Trail Run­ner could be used for Trail Run­ning, Day Hik­ing, and Ultra­light Back­pack­ing – depend­ing on ter­rain, ankle strength, and pack weight.


Name              Descrip­tion What it’s good for Who should buy it
Approach Shoes A light, low-top shoe with a grip­py sole Rock climbers walk­ing off-trail to a route or boulder Climbers. Day-hik­ers.
Trail Run­ners A built-up run­ning shoe with an aggres­sive tread. Trail Run­ning, Day-Hik­ing, Ultra­light Backpacking Trail Run­ners, Day Hik­ers, Ultra­light Backpackers
Trail Shoes A heav­ier, stiffer, low-top hik­ing shoe. Day-Hik­ing, Ultra­light Back­pack­ing, Backpacking Day-Hik­ers, Ultra­light Back­pack­ers, Backpackers
Hik­ing Boots – Mid Height Slight­ly heav­ier, more sup­port­ive footwear that extends halfway up the ankle Day Hik­ing, Backpacking Day-Hik­ers, Backpackers
Hik­ing Boots – Full Height Heavy boots that come all the way up the ankle and offer opti­mal support. Day Hik­ing, Back­pack­ing, Light Mountaineering Day hik­ers with bum ankles, Back­pack­ers, some Mountaineers
Minimal/ Bare­foot-Style Shoes Min­i­mal shoes that offer unique fit, com­fort, and pos­si­bly health benefits. Day Hik­ing, Trail Run­ning, Ultra­light Backpacking Bare­foot Enthu­si­asts, Day Hik­ers, Ultra­light Backpackers
Moun­taineer­ing Boots Big, rigid, heavy, warm boots that accom­mo­date crampons Moun­taineer­ing Moun­taineers


Ankle Height: Hik­ing footwear fea­tures dif­fer­ent lev­els of ankle sup­port for dif­fer­ent needs and activ­i­ties. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, heav­ier pack weights, more dif­fi­cult ter­rain, and weak­er ankles sug­gest more ankle support.

  • No Ankle: Approach Shoes, Trail Run­ners and Trail Shoes have almost no ankle sup­port. They pro­vide lit­tle pro­tec­tion for poten­tial ankle sprains and strains. They’re good for indi­vid­u­als with strong ankles, loads under 30 lbs, and gen­tle to mod­er­ate terrain.
  • Mid-height: Mid-Ankle hik­ing boots often fea­ture ankle sup­port that cov­ers most of the talocrur­al joint (the big joint that pokes out of your ankle). They pro­vide mod­er­ate pro­tec­tion against ankle sprains and strains and are a good choice for peo­ple with weak­er ankles, loads under 50 lbs, who are explor­ing mod­er­ate or chal­leng­ing terrain.
  • Full Ankle: Full-Ankle hik­ing boots and moun­taineer­ing boots fea­ture a tall, stiff sleeve that ful­ly sup­ports the entire ankle, extend­ing well above the talocrur­al joint (the big joint that pokes out of your ankle). They pro­vide max­i­mum pro­tec­tion against ankle strains and sprains. They are a good choice for peo­ple with strong or weak ankles, loads up to and exceed­ing 1/3 body weight, who are explor­ing chal­leng­ing or extreme ter­rain in bad weather.

Veg­an Friend­ly: A sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of hik­ing footwear is man­u­fac­tured with leather, fibers or glue derived from ani­mal sources. Unless specif­i­cal­ly labeled “Veg­an Friend­ly,” assume your footwear has some ani­mal-derived com­po­nents. Veg­an footwear is becom­ing increas­ing­ly com­mon, though.

Com­po­nents: Hik­ing Footwear is com­posed of sev­er­al basic com­po­nents. By under­stand­ing the dif­fer­ent options avail­able for each com­po­nent, you can select the best vari­ety of hik­ing shoe for your out­door activity.

  • Out­sole: The out­er sole of the shoe is the part that makes con­tact with the trail. Most peo­ple refer to this as the “sole.” Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, shoes with deep­er fis­sures between the raised points of the sole (aggres­sive tread) are bet­ter suit­ed for achiev­ing trac­tion on loose, wet, vari­able trail sur­faces like the steep mud­dy trails of the Pacif­ic North­west.  Shoes with shal­low­er fis­sures between the raised points of the sole (a less aggres­sive tread) are bet­ter for achiev­ing trac­tion on slick, con­tigu­ous rock sur­faces, like the slick­rock trails of the Inter-Moun­tain West.

◦      Spe­cial Sole Fea­tures: Besides dif­fer­ent treads avail­able, Out­soles can be equipped with a vari­ety of spe­cial fea­tures that make them unique­ly suit­ed for dif­fer­ent activ­i­ties. Some of the most com­mon fea­tures are:

▪      Cram­pon Com­pat­i­bil­i­ty: Some full-ankle hik­ing boots and most moun­taineer­ing boots fea­ture raised lips on the front and rear of the out­sole to assist in affix­ing a cram­pon to the footwear to nav­i­gate steep, icy terrain.

▪      Rock plate: Some hik­ing shoes fea­ture a strong, rigid plas­tic plate in the mid­dle of the sole to pro­tect the ten­der arch of the foot from sharp, point­ed rocks. This fea­ture is most com­mon on trail run­ners with thin midsoles.

▪      Dif­fer­ent Sole Com­pounds: Many com­pa­nies offer dif­fer­ent sole com­pounds and con­fig­u­ra­tions. The old­est and best known is Vibram, but com­pa­nies like Five Ten are giv­ing Vibram a run for their mon­ey with com­pet­i­tive soles of their own. Some soles are designed specif­i­cal­ly to grip well in the water, and some are designed to be “non-mark­ing,” to pro­tect floors and boat decks from unsight­ly black car­bon stains.

  • Shank: The shank is a rigid piece of plas­tic or met­al that stiff­ens the out­sole of the shoe. A few dif­fer­ent vari­eties of shanks are com­mon in hik­ing footwear:

▪      Full vs. 3/4 shank – Heav­ier, more sup­port­ive footwear typ­i­cal­ly includes a rigid shank that runs the entire length of the shoe. You can tell if a shoe has a full shank because it’s impos­si­ble to bend it in half. Heavy-duty back­pack­ers, win­ter back­pack­ers and moun­taineers typ­i­cal­ly use full-length shanks to reduce fatigue and enable them kick steps into snow slopes and to use ice-grab­bing spikes called “cram­pons.” Most hik­ers and back­pack­ers pre­fer the lighter and more flex­i­ble footwear with a 3/4 length shank, or no shank at all.

▪      Plas­tic vs. met­al shank – Most shanks in mod­ern hik­ing footwear are plas­tic. Some heavy moun­taineer­ing boots use a met­al shank for extra strength and dura­bil­i­ty, but this is not a com­mon fea­ture in lighter hik­ing shoes.

▪      No shank – Most barefoot/minimal and train run­ners have no shank at all. Shoes with­out shanks are lighter and more flex­i­ble (you can tell because they bend in half eas­i­ly), but offer less sup­port and less pro­tec­tion from sharp rocks.

  • Mid­sole: The mid­sole forms the bar­ri­er between the out­sole and the liner/footbed and cush­ions your feet from the impacts of the trail and the sharp sur­faces of pointy rocks and debris. There are a few com­mon mate­ri­als used in mid­sole design, each with slight­ly dif­fer­ent prop­er­ties. The two most com­mon are:

◦      Polyurethane (PU)  Foam: The denser and more durable of the two, PU foam pro­vides slight­ly less ini­tial cush­ion­ing, but lasts longer. 

◦      Eth­yl­ene vinyl acetate (EVA) Foam: EVA is slight­ly less dense than PU and does­n’t last quite as long, but it pro­vides slight­ly greater ini­tial cushioning.

  • Welt: This is the tech­nique used to bond the out­sole to the oth­er com­po­nents of the shoe.
  • Not resolable: Most mod­ern hik­ing footwear has an inter­nal “Goodyear” style welt. This welt is strong, water resis­tant, light and inex­pen­sive. The only dis­ad­van­tage is that when the sole wears out, the entire shoe must be discarded.
  • Resolable: Some heavy hik­ing boots fea­ture an exter­nal “Nor­we­gian” style welt. You’ll know it if you can see clear­ly that the out­sole of the boot is stitched on.  Most shoes with this style welt can be resoled, which means that when the sole wears out, you can have it removed and replaced by a pro­fes­sion­al cobbler.
  • Upper: The footwear’s upper is the top por­tion of the shoe that you can see. It encas­es your foot and ankle, and pro­vides sup­port and pro­tec­tion for your out­door adventures.

◦      Fab­ric Uppers: Shoes made from syn­thet­ic fab­rics — includ­ing rugged Cor­du­ra fibers — are strong, dry quick­ly, and are gen­er­al­ly lighter and more flex­i­ble than those with any oth­er type of upper construction.

◦      Mesh uppers: Some fab­ric uppers are made of a loose­ly woven mesh mate­r­i­al. These uppers offer supe­ri­or breatha­bil­i­ty for hot cli­mates and indi­vid­u­als who have extra sweaty feet.

◦      Leather Uppers: Leather uppers are strong, durable and long-last­ing. They tend to be heav­ier, more expen­sive and less breath­able than fab­ric uppers, though they often pro­vide more support.

◦      Plas­tic Uppers: Full moun­taineer­ing boots often fea­ture a rigid, plas­tic upper to pro­tect from intense cold and ice.

◦      Insu­lat­ed Uppers: hik­ing footwear designed for cold weath­er use is often equipped with syn­thet­ic insu­lat­ing fills like Pri­maLoft or 3M Thin­su­late. These keep feet toasty on win­ter hikes, but are too warm and heavy for sum­mer use.

  • Lin­er: The lin­er of your hik­ing footwear plays a cru­cial role: It wicks away the large quan­ti­ty of mois­ture your feet nat­u­ral­ly pro­duce. If this mois­ture isn’t rapid­ly removed, it can cause blis­ters, odor, and fun­gal infec­tions. No one wants swampy feet!

◦      Spe­cial­ized Lin­er Mate­ri­als: Cool­max and oth­er spe­cial fab­rics offer enhanced wick­ing for folks with super-sweaty feet, or hik­ers who expect to trav­el in hot, humid climates.

  • Footbed: The footbed is some­times called the insole. Most hik­ing footwear, with the excep­tion of min­i­mal and bare­foot-style shoes, includes a remov­able insole. A remov­able insole is use­ful because most shoes dry more rapid­ly with the insole out. Hik­ers with espe­cial­ly sweaty feet, or those who trav­el in damp envi­ron­ments, may need to remove and replace insoles often to reduce odor.

◦      After-mar­ket Insoles: A vari­ety of after-mar­ket insoles are avail­able to pro­vide more cush­ion­ing, to cus­tomize the fit of a shoes and cor­rect anatom­i­cal prob­lems. Con­sid­er an after-mar­ket insole to achieve a slight­ly snug­ger fit if your shoes are less than a size too big, or on the advice of a physician.

  • Clo­sures: Even the age-old rit­u­al of tying your shoes has advanced!  Some clo­sure meth­ods are bet­ter for dif­fer­ent users and for dif­fer­ent activ­i­ties. There is no one “best” clo­sure – only the ones that’s best for you.

◦      Vel­cro: For hik­ers with arthri­tis, mobil­i­ty issues, or for bud­ding young hik­ers who haven’t learned to tie shoes yet Vel­cro offers a huge degree of inde­pen­dence. Vel­cro clo­sures aren’t the most secure, so they are an uncom­mon choice for hik­ers of aver­age mobility.

◦      Zip: Zip clo­sures are also well-suit­ed for hik­ers with mobil­i­ty issues, and are some­times found on win­ter hik­ing boots.

◦      Pull on: Pull on clo­sures offer the great­est degree of con­ve­nience, and the low­est pos­si­ble weight, but the least cus­tomiz­able fit. They are often found on water shoes, or bare­foot-style min­i­mal footwear.

◦      Lace: Lace clo­sures are the old­est form of footwear clo­sure.  With end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties for skip­ping eye­lets and dif­fer­ent lac­ing styles, laces are the most ver­sa­tile clo­sure avail­able. They are not the light­est, and any­one who has suf­fered a bro­ken lace or an untied shoe can tell you that they are prone to failure!

◦      Con­tin­u­ous loop sys­tems: These clo­sures are made from a con­tin­u­ous loop of mate­r­i­al thread­ed through the eye­lets, with an adjustable mech­a­nism at the top of the shoe to tight­en or loosen the loop. Boa tech­nol­o­gy is one exam­ple of this type of clo­sure. These clo­sures pro­vide a secure, cus­tomiz­able and con­sis­tent fit.

Water­proof or Not? Water­proof boots are out­stand­ing com­pan­ions on wet, mud­dy trails, for fre­quent stream cross­ings, for heavy dew, and even to keep feet warm in cold weath­er. How­ev­er, any water­proof­ing reduces the breatha­bil­i­ty of hik­ing footwear, and slows the rate at which it dries, mak­ing it poten­tial­ly less com­fort­able in warm climates.

  • Waterproof/ Breath­able Mem­branes: GORE-TEX and eVENT mem­branes incor­po­rat­ed in leather and fab­ric hik­ing footwear pro­vide ver­sa­tile, breath­able water pro­tec­tion in a vari­ety of cli­mates. If you’ve got a waterproof/ breath­able mem­brane in your footwear, you should remem­ber to clean them reg­u­lar­ly to main­tain the breatha­bil­i­ty of the mem­brane, and be care­ful to ensure any boot treat­ment you use is com­pat­i­ble with the membrane.
  • Water­proof­in­gs For Leather: Though shoes with leather uppers can include waterproof/breathable mem­branes, coat­ed leather is extreme­ly water-resis­tant by itself. Some hik­ers even feel that coat­ed leathers are more breath­able than waterproof/breathable mem­branes.  How­ev­er, water­proof coat­ings on leather boots must be reap­plied fre­quent­ly and require reg­u­lar clean­ing and main­te­nance in order to remain effective.
  • Not Water­proof: Shoes with­out any water­proof­ing let water in eas­i­ly, but they also let it out eas­i­ly. They dry more rapid­ly than most water­proof shoes, so, para­dox­i­cal­ly, can keep your feet dri­er in very wet climates.

Aver­age Weight: The aver­age weight of your cho­sen hik­ing footwear is one of the most impor­tant fac­tors to con­sid­er, since the weight of your footwear has a huge effect on your over­all enjoy­ment of your time out­side. Every pound you place on your feet is rough­ly equiv­a­lent to plac­ing 5 pounds in your pack. The cumu­la­tive effect of lift­ing extra weight on your feet adds up to hun­dreds of pounds over the course of your hike, so care­ful­ly bal­ance the fea­tures you want in your footwear with their aver­age weight.