When looking to buy new footwear for your hikes, you can choose between boots, half boots, shoes, more protection, less protection, and with waterproofing and a breathable membrane (or not).
An ample range of materials makes it possible to choose exactly the right solution, but your dream hiking shoes need to sync with how and where you hike, making the choice even more complicated, but have no fear as we are here to help.
Overall, keep in mind that choosing your hiking footwear is a matchmaking process that depends on a combination of external (type of hike, where you hike, terrain, weather, pack weight, etc.) and personal factors (physical condition, experience, foot shape, etc.).
WHAT ANY GOOD HIKING AND TREKKING SHOE SHOULD PROVIDE
Hiking shoes are all about protection. Taking any walk through nature means youâ€™re stepping on or over rocks, roots, etc., making it crucial to choose footwear with a reinforced rubber toe that protects the front of the foot, a heel protector that protects the back, and side and instep protections. Without these protections, you risk injury and can lose confidence on complex terrain, which makes you less safe.
These reinforcements also serve to support the foot, which becomes essential on hikes up slopes, for example. With a normal sports shoe the foot pushes the shoe toward the slope and hampers movement; footwear designed specifically for hiking keeps both the shoe and foot firmly in place and makes it possible to handle all types of terrain safely.
Also important: hiking shoes protect more than just the foot. They also support the ankle, which is why regular or high boots are often the right choice. Weâ€™ll talk about other styles â€“like the low and mid bootsâ€“ later.
Any sport footwear must have a sole that allows freedom of movement. However, on the mountain, the sole becomes more than just about movement and should specifically provide safety and physical integrity.
Many leading brands use Vibram and its different soles to fit their models. But there are also others that design and manufacture their own soles for complete toe to heel support, like Five.Ten and its Stealth rubber, Salomon with its Contagrip soles, and HaglĂ¶fs with its Asics rubber.
Itâ€™s easy to find hiking footwear at a low-range market priceâ€¦but donâ€™t trust the soles. Remember that quality and performance are directly related to safety when youâ€™re on the mountain.
Like with all mountain gear, the breathability/waterproof question is always an essential one to ask.
On the one hand, you need to keep comfortable, dry and prevent overheating, and for that you need shoes that can breathe.
On the other hand, you need to protect yourself from the elements when youâ€™re outdoors. Not just rain or snow; in the mountains you can easily come across mud, puddles, rivers to cross, meadows wet with morning dew...
Membrane-covered footwear partially solves this problem, because it allows air in while keeping water out. But remember that, while these boots can breathe, they donâ€™t provide as much breathability as footwear without a membrane.
The solution? Choose a less sturdy model without a membrane if you usually hike in warm, wet areas along relatively easy paths.
Anywhere else, we repeat: safety and protection should always come first.
This is really the result of all the above. A shoe that provides grip in all situations, that protects the foot from impacts, friction, terrain, and inclement weather, that makes it possible to carry a heavy load, that keeps you safe in tougher environments like the forest and mountain.
This sometimes means sacrificing a bit of:
Let us explain: it doesnâ€™t mean that you should be uncomfortable.
Comfort is important not only because you enjoy an activity more if youâ€™re comfortable (itâ€™s what we all preferâ€¦) but also because painful footwear along with chaffing and blisters make you walk with less confidence and increase the chances of an accident.
Comfort is important once you choose the type of footwear you need: if you need a boot, youâ€™ll look for a high-performing model that youâ€™re comfortable wearing, but youâ€™d never choose a sneaker and risk having no protection for your feet just because theyâ€™re comfortable to wear.
Not only that, but the footwear available today is nothing like it was in the past and has evolved far beyond those painful boots that made you suffer while you broke them in. Todayâ€™s hiking boots are just as comfortable (sometimes even more so) than any sneaker, donâ€™t hurt, and fit like a glove.
This is important to stress at a time when comfort is sometimes taken more seriously than safety, a misunderstanding influenced by speed and a handful of professionals. Itâ€™s important to remember that these athletes are in fantastic shape and have the technique and experience most of us lack; moreover, they rarely carry packs with them.
Whatever choice you make, safety must always be the most important factor behind your decision.
MID BOOT, HIGH BOOT, OR SHOE?
Hiking shoes (we also include here the most durable trail-running shoes for ultras, like La Sportivaâ€™s Ultra Raptor) are, of course, very comfortable; unlike running or other types of sports shoes, they come up to right below the medial malleolus to provide ankle support, less than what youâ€™d get with a boot, but protection nonetheless.
Their low-cut design increases breathability.
Does that mean they should be used for hiking and trekking? Of course, thatâ€™s what theyâ€™re designed to do. Does that mean they work in every situation? The short answer is no.
- Hiking shoes are more lightweight and agile. This has its advantages, but also its drawbacks.
- The low-cut design fails to protect the ankle well. While this doesnâ€™t really matter on easy terrain or short excursions, the support a boot provides is crucial on longer, more tiring treks. Everyone knows what itâ€™s like to be on the mountain when you feel like your ankles double with every step because you have no energy left. These shoes can also cause issues when youâ€™re carrying a heavy backpack.
- Obviously, this will depend on each individualâ€™s physical shape and experience. In no case can a professional or someone with extensive experience and excellent physical shape be compared to an occasional hiker in more or less good shape. Before buying the same gear as the pros and copying what they do, truly assess your level to evaluate whether youâ€™re really up to the challenge.
- If you use trail shoes for hiking, keep in mind that the sole is softer. This is good for walking on trails, uneven terrain, and for experienced, strong hikers who like to â€śfeelâ€ť the terrain. But for the majority of hikers who only go off-path once in a while, they will fare better with the protection and safety of a somewhat more rigid soles.
- Hiking boots, on the other hand, are heavier and less agile, but they also provide enhanced protection and stabilize the body when carrying a heavy backpack. And let's not forget that there are different boot heights, and the mid boots, the happy medium between two extremes, are the SUVs of hiking footwear.
- The highest boots are multifunctional, offer the greatest protection, and can be used easily for non-technical mountaineering.
- The bootâ€™s height does more than just protect the ankle: it provides a protective barrier between the foot and the elements (mud, rain, snow, humidity, etc.)
IN SHORT: WHEN SHOULD YOU USE A HIKING SHOE OR A BOOT?
Like we said, everything from external factors to physical shape, technique and experience comes into play when choosing the right hiking footwear. But overall:
- Hiking shoes are a great choice on short hikes in good conditions and carrying little or no weight.
- A boot is your best choice on longer hikes and in poor, cold and wet conditions, uneven mountain terrain, and multi-day thru-hikes carrying heavy loads.
- If itâ€™s not possible to get both types of footwear, choose mid hiking boots to get the best of both worlds.
A membrane or a perfectly designed boot or shoe does little good without the right socks. Socks are what comes into direct contact with your skin, and they therefore must have a seamless (flat seam) design and be made from materials that wick away moisture and regulate cold and heat.
Never wear normal socks, socks with seams, etc. Youâ€™ll only pay for it later with chafing, blisters and discomfort.