Imagine this, you just ordered a brand new pair of hiking shoes online after glancing at a few buzzwords like: “waterproof hiking shoes” or “great shoes for hiking and backpacking”, but what arrived wasn’t expected at all.
A set of double-lined, insulated, cold-weather hiking boots show up and you get a sinking feeling in your stomach. You’re about to go for a 10-mile hike through a hot and arid desert, in August and it’s too late to exchange them. Not an ideal situation.
Finding perfect hiking shoes or the best hiking boots might sound a bit dramatic. You might be thinking to yourself, “Can’t I just use a regular pair anywhere?”. I used to think this way. I had no idea there was even a difference, to begin with.
When I planned my first backpacking trip, I didn’t know what to look for so I found something that “looked cool” and bought them. Later on, I found out that I grabbed a pair of trail running shoes for Iceland that weren’t exactly waterproof and I ended up having completely water-logged feet the entire last day of my trip. Safe to say I learned my lesson.
I was clueless about the fact that different types of environments and topography lend toward specific attributes of the various hiking footwear available. Who would have thought? haha.
My goal with this article is to share some knowledge that you might benefit from in choosing great hiking or backpacking footgear. I’ll even give a few suggestions at the end for some great shoes on the market that you can check out.
Before I get started I want you to know that there are dissimilarities between hiking shoes, hiking boots, and trail runners. Each type has its advantages which play into this article. Read up on the differences between hiking shoes, boots, and trail runners if you’re unclear. There’s even something called an approach shoe, but let’s not get too technical.
So follow along as I delve into the essential factors of how to find the best overall hiking gear for your feet. Hopefully, after you’ve finished reading this post, you’ll have all the info you’ll need to snatch up the right pair of hiking shoes that’ll keep your feet comfortable and supported on any trail, in any weather, and in any season.
Understanding Terrain-Specific Needs
The first thing to keep in mind when shopping for a good pair of hiking shoes or boots is what you will be navigating over the majority of the time. Are you going to be walking on ugly unkept trails that are sure to be full of surprises, or are you going for a day hike on a well-groomed walkway that hasn’t seen a rock bigger than a golf ball in years?
Any traditional hiking shoe can handle a little bit of everything you throw at it, but the farther you walk, the greater the influence terrain is going to impact your decision. Here are the main types –
1. Rocky Trails
A few rocks here or there aren’t going to be a big deal, but if you’ll be trekking over loose rock or giant boulders in the Rocky Mountains then your feet are going to demand durability as well as protection from the elements.
Try and opt for burly hiking shoes with sturdy soles that also have excellent traction. If you’ll be traversing at a high altitude, look for insulated boots that provide an extra layer of warmth. Navigating uneven surfaces without compromising comfort or support is your main focus here.
For a rugged shoe/boot hybrid that won’t let you down, I would go with the Merrell Moab 3 Mid Waterproof. It’s one of the best-selling hiking shoes out there. It comes with a protective rubber heel and toe cap, a Vibram® outsole, and contours to your foot for a perfect step.
2. Muddy Paths
There are all types of muddy paths in the hiking world, from the thick and dense to the slick and thin. The more popular swampy pathways are usually found in hot and humid locations. Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa to name a few.
The best overall hiking shoe to meet these challenges should be water-resistant and flexible. You’re going to want something that can keep you stable on smooth rocks or shallow streams and dry out quickly after you’ve finished for the day.
They should be lightweight and made from materials like GORE-TEX or eVent. You’ll also want to find a pair that contains an aggressive lug pattern on the outsole for superior grip. This will give you the best chances of keeping your feet the driest and most comfortable in wet and slippery conditions.
Their name might not immediately pop up when you think of top hiking shoes but the Adidas Terrex swift R3 Gore-tex is a great hiking shoe that meets all of the aforementioned criteria. They provide ample grip and will keep your feet dry while simultaneously letting them breathe in a muggy environment.
3. Steep Inclines and Descents
This next category is one that you may not have given much thought to but is quite important. Ask yourself “How steep will the trail be and do I need specialized trail shoes for the incline?” If you’ll be crawling up and over fairly steep trails on your next excursion, the standout component should be ankle support.
You don’t need to go crazy and grab a set of old-school traditional hiking boots, but a pair with substantial ankle padding and support will be required. The last thing you want to do is twist an ankle 5 miles up a mountain ridge without a safe way to get out of there.
Although it’s marketed for hikers, the Scarpa Zodiac Plus GTX is well enough made to double as a mountaineering boot. It’s incredibly durable, form-fitting and includes both Gore-Tex and Vibram technologies. It’s not the cheapest pair of shoes on this list but a single set should last you for years to come.
4. Flat Terrains
I would say the most common landscape hikers walk on tends to be simple and uncomplicated. Usually, hikers just need something comfy they can throw on their feet and head out the door. A lightweight hiking shoe that’s great for the perfect day hike under the bright blue sky and warm yellow sun.
For these types of trails, shoot for lightweight shoes that provide good flexibility and moderate traction. You’ll want to find a low-cut shoe that doesn’t weigh much and contains a lot of mesh or thinner materials. Since you’ll most likely move at an accelerated pace, comfort, and breathability are going to be the most important aspects to look out for.
My ideal type of shoe for the smooth countryside is without a doubt trail runners. They are made for an easy ride out on dirt, gravel, or roads. Shoes like the Hoka Clifton 9 GTX are cushy, breathable, and airy.
Seasonal Considerations and Features
Let’s look into some other important elements when it comes to deciding on the perfect hiking shoe, most notably, the weather. Not all outdoor footwear is created equally. For instance, some hiking boots can be poor choices for extremely hot days due to their weight, liners, and materials.
On the flip side, you won’t be catching any experienced adventurer high in the Alps in a casual hiking shoe or a pair of running shoes. Knowing and checking the capabilities/limitations of our gear is quite important and something you shouldn’t take lightly. Let’s review a few key elements when picking a reliable, yet comfortable shoe that’ll get the job done proficiently.
5. Summer Hikes
Depending on which part of the world you live in, summertime is usually accompanied by dry, warm weather. The days are long and the temperature is high. Your aim here should be to find a pair with features that go well with this type of environment.
I suggest focusing on breathable shoes that contain moisture-wicking properties to avoid sweaty feet and prevent hiking blisters! They don’t need to be water resistant, non-waterproof shoes will do just fine actually. Look for an airy, minimalist design constructed from mesh or other lightweight materials with that sort of “runner” feel or look.
A great pick is the Salomon Techamphibian 5. It’s made of quick drying materials, has a reinforced toe and features a collapsible heel. Great in wet or dry environments alike!
6. Rainy Seasons
Hiking shoes typically come with some sort of water resistance built into them which is great when you need a nice set to face the watery elements in. If you plan on wandering around during the wet season, you’re going to want a formidable and capable shoe.
Unless you’ll be strolling through a tropical environment, I endorse a waterproof shoe that utilizes GORE-TEX lining or similar waterproofing technology for that extra layer of reliable protection against moisture. Something that goes over the ankle as well since you’ll probably be surrounded by deep puddles. Your feet will thank you in the long run, pun kind of intended.
Something like the Merrell Moab Speed 2 Mid GTX hiking boots. They’re lightweight, extremely comfortable, resistant to harsh weather, and feature a bellows tongue that’ll keep out dirt, debris, and of course water.
7. Winter Treks
This one is a little bit trickier. You’ll want to balance out some important factors like: Will there be a lot of snow? If so, how deep? Will the trail be more icy or powdery? How cold is it going to be? etc.
Say you’ll be in very light snow, but it’s going to be near 0 degrees F? (-17 C for all you non-Americans) If so, you’ll need to focus on insulated hiking shoes with added warmth. Maybe a pair that contains added liners for more protection. On the other hand, maybe you’ll be walking through deep snow but the temperature is fairly warmer. In that case, an over-the-ankle fit should take precedence and maybe skip the double-lined boot. Take into account every variable in making the best decision.
The North Face VECTIV Fastpack Insulated FUTURELIGHT Hiking Boots are a solid overall choice. They contain leather uppers, incorporate rocker mid-sole technology to keep you movin’, and are well insulated.
Features and Components For Perfect Hiking Shoes
Here are some additional things to keep in mind when you’re searching for the perfect hiking shoes for any type of trail you may come across. A little bit of extra digging into the specs and components could save you from a bad investment.
This isn’t a huge concern for most, but take a second and think about what the shoes are composed of. Choose ones made of durable, abrasion-resistant materials like leather or synthetic fabrics to get the best bang for your buck and avoid cheap knockoffs or imitations that contain a lot of plastic or flimsy parts.
Your shoes should strike a balance between durability, breathability, and water resistance, depending of course on what you’ll be using them for.
9. Sole Type:
Typically, the softer the outsole, the better the grip on rocks or slippery surfaces, but will wear down quickly. If you’re heading into terrain that requires a lot of rock scrambling, opt for a soft, tacky outsole. If budget and longevity are bigger concerns, go with stronger materials like hard rubber with added carbon for extreme durability.
For a healthy mix of foam and rubber choose those with Vibram soles. Always pay attention to lug patterns (The rigid bumps on the outsole) for grip on varied terrains.
10. Ankle Support:
Many hiking shoes have some sort of minimal ankle support but some prioritize over other hiking shoes on the market. I usually say, when in doubt, go with more, not less, support. Even the most well-versed hiker in the world isn’t immune to spraining their ankle if they take a fateful wrong step.
Evaluate and compare the ankle height and padding to what you think you’ll need on your adventure. The general rule is that higher-cut shoes/boots offer better stability on rough terrain, while low-cut shoes prioritize flexibility.
11. Lacing Systems:
This is a kind of fun bonus you might want to consider. I’ve always gone with the traditional old-school design. You know, just pulling the laces tautly and making the bunny go around the log and through the tree technique. Nowadays, they have fancier options that enable a customized fit.
Locking eyelets and speed lacing for quick adjustments on the go for instance. Supposedly they provide a better foot lockdown all around but I’ve never tried one so I can’t say myself. It’s up to you how complicated you want to get!
Fitting and Comfort Tips
Now for some last tidbits and details to keep in mind in finding the perfect hiking shoes for every trail and season.
- Try on shoes with different types of hiking socks to ensure the right fit. Some people even double up on their socks which will completely change the feel of your shoe.
- Always try to break in new shoes gradually before embarking on long hikes, especially to prevent those nasty and uncomfortable blisters. Click on the following article if you need to know How to Prevent Hiking Blisters.
- When your trying on different shoes, make sure there is sufficient toe room to accommodate foot swelling during those long walks. Sometimes the farther you go, the smaller your shoe seems to feel.
- If you have wide or narrow feet, check for brands that offer a wide toe box or run slimmer than their competitors.
Brand and Model Recommendations
Below are some other recommendations to help you in your search. I also have an article – The Ultimate Guide to the Ten Best Hiking Shoes for Beginners – that reviews great options for those who are just starting their hiking hobby. I cover the best shoes for men, women, and kids, the best water-resistant and the most comfortable.
One of the most popular hiking shoes on the market. They are perfect for various terrains and offer excellent traction, stability, and waterproofing.
Another model you’re likely to see over and over again on popular pathways. These excel in warm climates, providing comfort, breathability, and durability.
A durable choice for challenging trails. They come in premium leather and offer top-notch ankle support, cushion, and waterproofing.
Maintenance and Care Tips
And lastly, some simple and easy tips to ensure your hiking shoes for years to come! If you’d like a more in-depth article on maintaining your fancy footwear, check out my article here on how to maintain your hiking shoes.
- Clean your shoes after every hike with a gentle brush and mild detergent to remove dirt and grime.
- After you’ve finished cleaning them, keep your footwear in a cool, dry place to maintain their integrity and strength.
- You can even re-waterproof or treat leather boots periodically to retain their water-resistant properties. Those shoes can be hundreds of dollars and can last for years as long as you take care of them.
So in conclusion, consider as many factors as you possibly can when deciding on which type of hiking shoe you’ll need. And have fun in doing so! There are so many options out there, it’s truly endless!
Think about and prioritize the specific needs of your hike. Do you need low-cut hiking shoes to make traveling easier or are you worried about money and need the best budget hiking boots you can find? No matter what, just make sure your shoes feel good when you strap those puppies on!
If you do so, you’ll be well-equipped for a fun and engaging outdoor activity without having to worry too much. In the world of hiking, keeping our feet healthy and happy are priority 1. Invest in quality footwear and go explore the world! Happy hiking!