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Choosing the Best Hiking Footwear – 5 Paramount Factors of an Informed Decision

The right choice of hiking footwear is what makes or breaks your outdoor adventures.

You know the saying “Every travel begins with the first step”, right? What they don’t tell you is that another one comes right after the first, and another, and… In other words, you’ll “feel” the wrong choice of hiking footwear with every rock you step on, every puddle and tree root.

And what’s more important, it’s not just about the hike, it’s about your overall health.

The delicate mechanism of bones (52 of them) that is your foot makes for 25% of all the bones in your body. The 33 joints are secured in by over 100 ligaments, tendons and muscles.

Best Hiking Footwear: Anatomy of the foot
The anatomy of the foot

A good hiking trip begins at the shoe store, so let’s make sure it’s a smooth sail from the get go.

Quick Content Overview

For the sake of better navigation through the article, let’s list everything we’ll talk about.

Here’s a quick rundown:

  • We’ll start by answering the burning question of hiking shoes versus boots
  • Then we’ll factor in your potential surroundings
  • How to determine a proper fit will come next
  • Then we’ll deal with different types of hiking footwear (one by one)
  • Finally, we’ll talk about water resistance – an issue that’s widely misunderstood

Buckle up, it’s gonna be a rough ride.

1st Factor – Hiking Shoes vs. Boots

Both options have their pros and cons so, naturally, they’ll fit entirely different specters of outdoor activities.

Best Hiking Footwear: Hiking Boots vs. Hiking Shoes
Boots or shoes?

Hiking shoes offer more flexibility and are lighter than boots, but they’re outmatched when it comes to support.

You want hiking shoes on your feet if:

  • You’re hiking shorter distances
  • You intend on sticking to well-defined and maintained trails
  • Your load is not all that heavy
  • You’re an experienced hiker
  • Your leg muscles already pack enough power to withstand the stress of hiking without having to rely on your footwear too much

Hiking boots will provide stiffer construction, more support and protection. The trade-off is the overall weight you’ll be putting on your feet.

Hiking boots are your best bet if:

  • You’re embarking on a longer hike
  • The terrain promises a decent challenge
  • You’re just an occasional hiker or a beginner
  • You leg muscles aren’t quite there yet so you need every bit of support footwear can give you
  • You’re prone to things like tweaked knees and rolled ankles

Finally, let us mention the fact that very few hikers think about – sometimes the best option is neither of the two. There are alternatives to hiking footwear (tactical boots come to mind) that are somewhere in-between.

Often, they offer the support of a hiking boot and the flexibility of a trail runner. Just something to have in mind…

2nd Factor – Surroundings Trample Everything

If you decide to read just one of these five facts, this one should definitely be your top choice.

Best Hiking Footwear: Hiking boots
Meeting the elements

Choosing the right hiking footwear for the terrain you’ll be encountering puts the P in paramount. Getting it wrong, on the other hand, is a quick recipe for disaster.

Let’s get specific:

  • Well kept trails merit lighter, low or mid-cut footwear. You can go with full/split-grain leather comboed with meshy patches for better breathability.

They won’t be waterproof so, if needs be, you can always complement them with a pair of GTX socks. You won’t need a superior traction here so you can opt for flexibility rather than stability when it comes to outsoles

  • Rougher trails will call for sturdier hiking shoes or ankle-high boots depending on the level of “rough”. You can still go with the same material combination with some climate-depending changes.

You’ll want waterproof liners for wet conditions and well-ventilated, porous ones for desert-like surroundings. Half-shanks and plastic tapered midsoles will give you enough protection without sacrificing flexibility. Hard-core hikers use lightweight hiking shoes or even trail runners for these outback excursions, but it’s best to trade up unless your feet are rock-solid hiking machines.

  • Off-trail hiking spells leather uppers, proper support above ankles and the stability of a rigid sole.

Here, I’m talking proper hiking boots without exceptions. Just make sure you break them in properly since they’ll definitely take their time with that

  • Mountaineering is the ultimate test for your boots and legs. We want full-grain leather, excellent traction, minimal seams and some insulation to match.

Mountaineering boots are crampon compatible, they go high above the ankles and feature stiff nylon midsoles

3rd Factor – Getting a Proper Fit

There’s a “fit-myth” circulating for as long as I can remember. Maybe you’ve heard it; a tight fit is the right fit.

Not exactly right…you want a SNUG fit and that’s an entirely different story.

Here are some of the problems your tight footwear might bring upon:

  • Stress to your tendons and joints
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Blisters
  • Corns
  • Ingrown/blackened toenails
  • Hammer toes…

The list just goes on and on…

Here are a few tips on how to test if the shoe/boot is the right fit:

  • Tip 1: Try out new shoes for size only in the afternoon or the evening. Feet swell up throughout the day, so a comfortable fit in the morning usually means trouble in the afternoon
  • Tip 2: Be sure to test your new shoes wearing the same socks you’re most likely to use during your hike
  • Tip 3: Take the insole out and see if it matches your foot in width and length
  • Tip 4: Before lacing up, your index finger should effortlessly slip in between your heel and the back of the shoe
  • Tip 5: Feel your foot going forward as you lace up
  • Tip 6: There should be no rubbing in the heel area. That part of the shoes must move as one with your feet

4th Factor – Most Common Types of Hiking Footwear to Choose From

Here’s what the market currently offers (4 main options of hiking footwear):

Best Hiking Footwear: Types of hiking footwear
Different types of hiking footwear
  • Hiking boots – They offer max protection from nasty terrains and creepy crawlies you might encounter.

Solid and thick soles also give great stability and pronounced lugs ensure proper traction and grip. Ankle support they offer is unparalleled, which will especially come into play as the weight of your load increases. They’re durable, usually 100% waterproof and made compatible with orthopedic insoles.

  • Hiking shoes – They’re a lighter version of hiking boots in general. They feature a lower cut and offer more flexibility, but (as we mentioned) won’t provide as much protection, support or stability.
  • Trail runners – They’re very breathable, give good grip on moderate terrain, dry quickly and enable you to hike as fast as possible.

They break almost instantly and cause way less fatigue on prolonged outdoor adventures.

  • Approach shoes – Made for approaching the climbing area, they’re something between a trail runner and a climbing shoe.

They offer optimal toe protection, good grip on wet, slippery rocks and good breathability. The soles are usually very strong and the shoe dries super fast and can be laced mad-tight like dedicated climbing shoes.

5th Factor – Should I Go Waterproof or Not?

“You can’t go wrong with a good pair of waterproof hiking boots” is the usual piece of hiking wisdom. Well, I beg to differ.

Water resistance has its merits, of course, but I’ve found a lighter option to be superior in a number of scenarios.

Depending on circumstances, your feet are getting wet one way or the other, so you’ll want something that’ll dry quickly. Heavy-duty GTX hiking boots certainly don’t fit that description. Once wet on the inside, they’ll take days to dry up.

Lightweight meshy shoes or even trail runners will get wet right away, but they’ll be completely dry in the morning.

So, it comes to your own preferences, or to put it even better, “preferences” of your trail.

“6th Factor” – Summing It Up

Well, we went over some of the crucial points in picking out the right footwear for the occasion.

Apply these criteria, choose wisely, hit the road and enjoy reconnecting with Mother Nature.

See you on the trail (or off, if you have the right boots for the job)!

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Published by Bram Reusen
Bram Reusen is a Belgian travel photographer, writer and the founder of Travel. Experience. Live. He now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA. From backpacking and adventuring to slow travel and cycling trips, Bram focuses on nature and adventure travel. His passions are hiking in national parks and sampling craft beers.

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