As an avid hiker who has logged thousands of miles on trails all across the globe, I know that having the right hiking shoes can make or break your trekking experience. Your shoes serve as the critical link between you and the trail, so investing in a high-quality, well-fitted pair should be a top priority for every hiker.
In this comprehensive guide, I’ll share my expert advice on finding the best hiking shoes for your needs. We’ll explore the key types of hiking shoes, their best uses, factors to consider when choosing a pair, and much more. By the end, you’ll have all the knowledge you need to spot the ideal hiking shoes to bring you comfort, support, and adventure out on the trail. Let’s get started!
Kinds of Trail Shoes
When it comes to hitting the trail, you have several options for footwear. The type of hiking shoe you choose depends largely on the terrain you’ll be traversing and the kinds of activities you plan to partake in. Here are some of the main categories of hiking shoes to consider:
- Hiking Boots
Hiking boots offer the most ankle support and stability for backpackers and long-distance hikers carrying medium to heavy loads (25+ lbs). They extend above the ankle and use stiffer midsole materials to prevent rolling. Hiking boots are heavier but provide excellent protection. I recommend them for:
- Multi-day backpacking trips
- Hiking with a heavy pack (25+ lbs)
- Rocky, uneven terrain
- Cold weather trekking
Popular styles: Day hiking boots, backpacking boots, mountaineering boots
- Hiking Shoes
Hiking shoes (also called trail shoes) are low-cut, lightweight shoes that provide freedom of movement and flexibility on the trail. They’re more breathable than boots and preferred for warm weather, but lack ankle support. Best uses include:
- Day hiking
- Warm weather trekking
- Light to medium weight backpacking (15-25 lbs)
Popular styles: Low-cut hiking shoes, ventilated hiking shoes, fast-drying mesh hiking shoes
- Trail Runners
As the name suggests, trail runners are designed for running or fast hiking on dirt paths and easy to moderate trails. They prioritize lightness, speed, and agility over things like support and protection. Ideal for:
- Trail running
- Speed hiking
- Day hiking smooth, established trails
- Backpacking under 15 lbs
Popular styles: Minimalist/barefoot trail runners, stability trail runners, all-terrain trail runners
- Approach Shoes
Approach shoes resemble athletic sneakers and climbing shoes blended together. They excel at scrambling up rocky slopes with grippy soles but also work well for everyday wear. Perfect for:
- Hiking to climbing locations
- Scrambling up steep, rocky terrain
- Casual everyday wear
- Day hikes with minimal loads
Popular styles: Sticky rubber approach shoes, all-terrain approach shoes
- Hiking Sandals
Hiking sandals offer open-air breathability for hot climates while providing toe protection and sticky tread for the trail. I recommend them for:
- Hiking in very hot/humid climates
- River crossings, water activities
- Casual day hiking on easy to moderate trails
Popular styles: Sport sandals, water-ready hiking sandals, minimalist hiking sandals
Hiking Shoes Best Uses
Now that we’ve covered the main types of hiking footwear, let’s explore in more detail the ideal conditions and activities for hiking shoes specifically. Here’s a breakdown of when hiking shoes really shine on the trail:
For thru-hikers covering hundreds or thousands of miles on long-distance trails, every ounce counts. Hiking shoes save significant weight compared to bulky boots. Their low-cut style also enhances freedom of movement and makes stream crossings easier. Prioritize lightness, breathability, and flexibility in a pair of hiking shoes for epic thru-hiking journeys.
- Backpacking with Medium to Light Loads
On overnight backpacking trips with pack weights under 25 pounds, hiking shoes strike the perfect balance of comfort, support, and weight savings. Look for durable upper materials and a stiff yet cushioned midsole. Waterproof hiking shoes can be useful to keep feet dry.
- Fast Hiking
When you want to cover ground quickly over easy to moderate terrain, lightweight hiking shoes are the perfect pick. Seek out fast-drying mesh materials and advanced cushioning technologies that aid momentum. A sticky traction outsole also helps maintain speed over varied surfaces.
- Day Hiking
For single-day hikes without heavy packs, low-cut hiking shoes allow your feet to move freely while providing essential traction and toe bumper protection. Breathable day hiking shoes keep feet cooler and comfier as you rack up the miles.
- Trail Running
Trail runners built on hiking shoe platforms add cushioning and aggressive tread for smoothing out a run over rugged topography. A sticky outsole grips dirt and rocks while you challenge your speed limits. Select flexible uppers that move naturally with your foot strike.
- According to Different Weather
- Cold Weather: Insulated, waterproof hiking shoes with lined interiors will keep your feet warm and dry during cold weather treks. Look for waterproof membranes like Gore-Tex and warm insulation rated to your expected temperatures.
- Hot Weather: Well-ventilated, fast-drying mesh hiking shoes will keep your feet cool and sweat-free in hot climates. Focus on breathability and air flow over insulation.
- Wet Weather: Waterproof hiking shoes keep your feet dry in soggy conditions. But also look for drainage ports to discharge excess moisture and quick-drying materials that won’t stay soggy long.
- According to Different Feet
- Overpronation: Motion-control hiking shoes provide medial support and firm cushioning for overpronators. Dual-density midsoles prevent rolling of the feet.
- Plantar Fasciitis: Cushioned hiking shoes soften impact to relieve pain from plantar fasciitis. Arch support and shock-absorbing midsoles are key features.
- High Arches: Cushioned, flexible hiking shoes conform to high arches without uncomfortable pressure points. Seek soft, shock-absorbing cushioning and breathable linings.
- Wide Feet: Find hiking shoes with toe boxes wide enough to splay toes naturally without squeezing. Try brands that offer wide size options.
- According to Different Terrain
- Rocky Terrain: Durable, protective hiking shoes with reinforced toe caps and sturdy midsoles excel at rocky trails. Shank plates add stiffness for stability. Sticky rubber outsoles provide tremendous traction on loose rocks.
- Slippery Rocks: Soft, sticky rubber compounds offer unbeatable grip on wet granite and other slick rocks. Vibram, MegaGrip, and other top rubber outsoles resist slipping.
- Sandy Terrain: Light, ventilated hiking shoes work well in flowing sand where excess weight can become tiring. Look for integrated gaiter attachments to keep sand out.
- Bushwhacking/Off-Trail: Burly leather or synthetic hiking shoes stand up to brush and uneven terrain with ample toe protection and stability features. Water-resistance prevents moisture from soaked vegetation.
- Bunions/Foot Issues:
For bunions, hammertoes, corns, and other foot issues, seek hiking shoes with:
- Wide toe boxes and forefoot that don’t squeeze toes together
- Soft, flexible uppers that don’t rub painfully against bumps
- Removable insoles you can swap for orthotics
- Extra cushioning and shock absorption
Key Considerations When Choosing Your Best Hiking Shoes
By now you should have a solid understanding of the different hiking shoe types and their ideal uses. Next, let’s go over the key performance factors and features to evaluate when shopping for a pair of best hiking shoes:
- Support and Weight
The midsole material largely determines the support level and weight of a hiking shoe. Lightweight EVA foam offers cushioning at the cost of durability. PU cushions while retaining some firmness. Polyurethane blends balance cushioning and stability. Denser ESS shanks add torsional rigidity for medium to heavy loads. Find the right balance for your intended distances and pack weights.
- Water Resistance
Waterproof hiking shoes employ membranes like Gore-Tex or proprietary coatings to block external moisture while allowing vapor to escape. But waterproofing comes at the cost of breathability and weight. For mild climates or conditions, non-waterproof hiking shoes emphasize ventilation and lightness. Assess expected precipitation, stream crossings, and sweatiness to guide your choice.
- Toe Protection
Toe bumpers defend against painful stubs on rocks down the trail. Hiking shoes use rubber caps, thermoplastic urethane (TPU), or composite materials. Assess how rocky and technical your typical trails are to gauge the level of toe protection needed. But some degree of bumper guarding is recommended for most hiking shoes.
No two feet are exactly the same, so finding the best hiking shoes fit is critical. Here are some fitting tips:
- Shop late afternoon when feet are most swollen
- Try both shoes on with hiking socks
- Ensure a thumbnail’s width at toes to prevent jamming
- Heel should be snugly cupped without lifting
- Lace up beginning lightly, then snug up evenly
- Walk around on various surfaces to assess comfort
- Break shoes in before longer hikes to mold fit
For the best stability and traction, your hiking shoe’s fit should be snug but not uncomfortably tight. If rubbing or pressure points persist through break-in, try a different model or wider size. Don’t size up too much, as performance suffers with oversized shoes. Take the time to test different brands and styles to discover the optimal hiking shoe fit for your feet.
FAQs | Best Hiking Shoes
What are the most important factors when choosing hiking shoes?
The three most critical factors are fit and comfort, support/cushioning, and outsole traction. You want a snug, pressure-free fit, adequate stability/cushioning for your weight and pack load, and grippy traction to maintain adhesion on varied terrain.
Should I choose hiking boots or shoes for multi-day backpacking?
For pack weights over 25 lbs on rugged terrain, hiking boots offer critical ankle support and torsional stability. Under 25 lbs on well-defined trails, hiking shoes provide sufficient cushioning while saving weight. Assess your specific trip variables.
How do I break in new hiking shoes?
Start by wearing them for short walks around town. Check for any hot spots or rubbing issues. Then do some short, easy hikes under loaded conditions. This allows the shoes to gradually mold to your feet. Address any fit problems before longer journeys.
What do I do if my hiking shoes are too narrow?
First try lacing them differently or loosening up the laces. You can also remove the insoles and insert thinner replacements to gain space. If they remain too narrow, exchange them for a wider size or different brand better suited to your foot width.
How do I clean muddy hiking shoes?
Start by knocking off any dried clumps of mud. Rinse the shoes with a hose or faucet to remove remaining dirt. Use a small amount of gentle soap if needed. Take out and clean the insoles separately. Stuff shoes with newspaper to absorb excess moisture, then air dry fully.
When should I replace my hiking shoes?
Inspect the outsoles and look for worn lugs and smooth patches. Uppers often show signs of excessive wear like holes or ripped material. Cushioning and support also deteriorate around 500-600 miles. If you notice any of these issues, it’s time for replacement.
Can I use trail runners for hiking?
Trail runners work fine for day hiking easy to moderate trails with minimal weight. But for backpacking and tougher terrain, trail runners lack the support, cushioning, and protection of true hiking shoes. Get purpose-built hiking shoes for more demanding hikes.
Are waterproof hiking shoes hotter?
Yes, waterproof membranes and coatings reduce breathability, so waterproof hiking shoes will be warmer, especially in hot weather. Prioritize ventilation and moisture control over waterproofing for hot climates.
Should I wear hiking shoes a half-size larger than normal shoes?
No, hiking shoes should fit very similarly to your athletic shoes. At most, size them just slightly larger to accommodate foot swelling and downhill toe impacts. But sizing up excessively leads to slipping, loss of control, and injury risk.
What socks are best to wear with hiking shoes?
Look for hiking socks with moisture-wicking fibers like wool or synthetic blends. Cushioned hiking socks protect feet and enhance comfort over long miles. Ensure a smooth inner weave to prevent friction. Carry an extra pair to change into to stay dry.
Conclusion | Best Hiking Shoes
I hope this guide has prepared you to take on the best hiking shoes shopping journey with knowledge and confidence. There are many high-quality hiking shoes on the market equipped for all different types of adventures. By understanding hiking shoe types, construction, ideal uses, and your personal needs and preferences, you can zero in on the perfect pair to bring you many happy miles on the trail.
Trust in these expert tips, but also listen to your own feet. Comfort is paramount. Safety and performance features help immensely but mean nothing if your shoes cause pain. Be choosy in your selection, properly break them in, and your best hiking shoes will mold to your feet to become natural extensions of them. The ideal hiking shoes do more than just protect—they connect you intuitively with the trail to maximize confidence, stability, and enjoyment every step of the way.
Happy hiking! Let me know if you have any other hiking shoe questions as you continue your search. I’m always happy to help fellow foot travelers find their sole mates. Here are some blogs you can find interesting: