Hiking Boots Vs. Hiking Shoes

Hiking Boots vs Shoes

If you’ve done any hiking at all, especially in a changeable climate, you know that your choice of footwear is crucial. Many casual hikers start out thinking their regular sneakers will work fine on the trail but quickly learn otherwise. For hiking on any terrain that’s not completely flat, groomed or manicured, you need proper hiking boots or hiking shoes. What’s the difference between hiking boots and hiking shoes? Which is the best choice?

Hiking Boots

Ankle support and/or protection from the elements are the two main reasons hikers choose a boot over a shoe. There are a variety of models on the market designed to meet the needs of different types of hikers; the challenge is finding the one that works best for your purposes.

Pros: Good ankle support, protective on rough terrain, good traction, durable, warm

Cons: Heavier than shoes, take time to break in, take longer to dry when wet, harder to pack

Many people still think of hiking boots as somewhat forbidding, heavy, stiff-soled, bulky boots that are overkill except for serious long-distance hikers. However, they have become much more user friendly and streamlined in recent years thanks to advances in manufacturers’ designs and materials.

For example, if you are a recreational hiker who aspires to do only moderate day hikes, you should choose a lighter, softer, well-cushioned boot that allows your foot to flex, much like a shoe. If, on the other hand, you regularly hike up and down steep mountains with rocky terrain, you would be better off with a heavier boot with stiffer soles and sides as well as a reinforced, protected toe area. Heavier, stiffer boots are better for long-distance or overnight hikes, especially when you’re carrying a backpack with more than a few pounds in it. Sturdier boots protect your feet by absorbing punishment meted out by the trail.

Hiking boots are an obvious choice for rainy or snowy conditions because their high tops can be tucked under waterproof pants or gaiters to keep the moisture out. Hiking boots made of leather or GORE-TEX® are warmer as well.

You must break in a new pair of hiking boots before you hit the trail. Blisters caused by new, unyielding leather are normally just a nuisance in everyday life, but can become a calamity on a remote trail.

Hiking Shoes

As more and more casual hikers hit the trails, hiking shoes have become increasingly popular in the last decade or so. Given their close association with sneakers and their out-of-the-box comfort, they are an obvious choice for recreational hikers. There is also a rugged version with reinforced soles and toes known as trail runners.

Pros: Comfortable, light, nimble, quick-drying, don’t require breaking in, easy to pack

Cons: Little ankle support, less protective on a rough surfaces, less durable

Hiking shoes are softer and more flexible than hiking boots, aren’t as tricky to fit, and don’t need breaking in. They are a good choice for dry weather and gentler terrain, though some proponents argue they’re also better in wet conditions than hiking boots. Their argument is that hiking shoes are typically made of a breathable material that dries more quickly than leather. Thus, they leave your feet in better shape after a hike.

While less durable than hiking boots, hiking shoes are a particularly good choice for travelers since they’re lighter, more compact than boots, and easier to pack. There is a versatile sandal variety popular with warm-weather hikers because it can also be worn in water, which is handy for a trailside cooling-off dunk. But a hiking sandal is a nuisance on a scree-laden trail as debris constantly gets lodged in the shoe which is uncomfortable, to say the least.

Fit: Hiking Boot Vs. Shoe

The most important quality in a hiking shoe or boot is the fit! The boot needs to be comfortably snug to support your foot, particularly your heel. At the same time, it needs to provide space around your toes as well as room for your feet when they swell (which will happen during hot, strenuous hikes). Depending on the manufacturer’s design, you may have to go larger than your normal shoe size. If you’re shopping online, do your homework by scrutinizing the retailer’s sizing charts and fellow customers’ online reviews.

Hiking shoes are easier to fit because they’re softer and mold to your foot more readily than a leather boot. Sizing is similar to an athletic shoe and should offer snug heel support, arch support, and extra room for your toes.

When you try on a boot or shoe, check the support by rolling your ankles from side to side. Walk around the store and keep the boots on as long as possible to ferret out any pressure points or other discomfort. If they’re not right, take them off and try another pair — or four. Every hiking boot is different, designed to fit different types of feet; be patient until you find the right pair. And wear the hiking socks you’re actually going to wear hiking when trying on boots.

And Don’t Forget Hiking Socks

Experienced hikers will tell you that hiking socks are at least as important as the boot. Similar to the wrong boots, the wrong socks can cause excessively sweaty feet, sore heels, abraded ankles, and blisters, leading to a miserable hiking experience. Socks should fit snugly and smoothly, wick moisture, and provide plenty of cushioning.

While comfortable, supportive footwear should be a top priority as you plan for a successful hike, keep in mind that proper clothing and safety gear is important as well. Choose terrain you can handle, bring plenty of water and food, and observe trail etiquette. And bring a friend: hiking with a human or hiking with your dog makes your adventure not only safer, but also more enjoyable.

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