Hiking Footwear: Types and Features (Guide + Infographic)
Whether you go for an easy day hike where only having some basic knowledge and gear is required or a long backpacking trip where having an in-depth knowledge of mixing and matching clothing as well as a long list of packing items is recommended, comfortable and reliable footwear is a must. So, what are the most important characteristics to look for when selecting your hiking boots? Good fit is probably the most important feature of any hiking footwear - your footwear just needs to fit your foot. Regardless of how functional it may be on paper, well-fitting or ill-fitting boot can make or break your entire experience on the trail. Additionally, among the most important characteristics of a hiking boot are good traction, shock absorbency, waterproofness, breathability, good foot and ankle support, stability, light weight, and durability.
Types of hiking footwear
There are several types of hiking footwear. Among them: sandals, trail-running shoes, hiking shoes, hiking boots, backpacking boots, and mountaineering boots. Each of them has its pros and cons, depending on the terrain and characteristics of the trail, season, weather and temperature, distance and duration.
Hiking sandals are a good choice for summer trekking expeditions. Trail-running shoes, cross-trainers, and the like are popular and quite suitable below the snowline. But make sure they provide adequate traction, and consider the need for ankle support, especially if carrying a heavy pack. Good shock-absorbing heels are excellent for downhill travel. Trail runners are not suitable for snow. If you plan to cross high passes, take along substantial boots for snow and cold or you risk serious frostbite. Substantial leather-and-fabric hiking boots with shock-absorbing heels are good for the hills. For high-altitude treks, you might consider taking two pairs of boots, a light, flexible pair and a more substantial pair for rugged terrain. For the substantial pair, make sure there is enough room to comfortably accommodate an extra pair of socks for the cold regions. In snow or wet weather, appropriate waterproofing material is needed. You might also want to try the footwear out at home on terrain similar to that in the place you intend to hike.
Once you have a well-fitting, comfortable shoe, the secret of foot care is in the socks. Good hiking socks carefully blend wool and other hi-tech fibers and yarns to absorb perspiration, reduce friction, and provide better protection for the feet. The classic layered sock system consists of two pairs. The outer pair, usually thicker and woolen to provide cushioning and insulation, should be changed frequently. Synthetic socks as thinner inners worn under heavier outers wick moisture away from the feet and allow the feet and the inner socks some movement inside the outer socks, decreasing stress and preventing blisters. There’s no need of wearing a sock system in warm conditions - a thin liner sock will absorb less moisture, dry faster, and will keep your feet cooler. Your socks need to fit well without any loose fabric. Moreover, they need to fit your boots as well. Waterproof socks are good for cold conditions and are not recommended for warm environments. In warm conditions, the socks will keep your feet too hot leading to wetting your feet from the inside. Take enough pairs for the journey. Change socks at least once a day, keeping a pair drying outside the pack, if you are having trouble with your feet. Wearing clean socks not only feels good but also helps you avoid skin problems (because of the lack of dirt and moisture). Active prevention is a much better option than cure because it’s easier and less costly as it requires less time and effort.
Gaiters protect your feet against pebbles, mud, snow etc., from getting into your boots. Knee-length gaiters can be very useful when there is still snow in the backcountry and when bushwhacking while wearing shorts. Select a not too heavy model with waterproof fabric below the ankle and breathable fabric above to keep you dry and comfortable. For those who prefer full protection, there are rugged, abrasion-resistant, and fully waterproof gaiters suited for hiking in the toughest terrain. Such models are popular among climbers and mountaineers. The downside is that they aren’t very breathable and require regular attention - you’ll have to check and maintain the level of water resistance. Lightweight gaiters are breathable and comfortable and provide a basic level of protection. They are easy to put on and are preferred by people who travel light such as ultralight hikers.
Many backpackers consider hiking sandals preferred footwear for summer hikes. The most important condition for an enjoyable experience is that your sandals fit properly and provide a cushion when walking. They offer enhanced breathability and the comfort of barefoot-like experience. Your feet stay dry and cool (which means also reduced chances to suffer blisters) and you can feel the terrain much better than when wearing shoes. You don’t have to take off your sandals when fording rivers and streams so river crossings become easier. Moreover, when wet, your sandals will get dry much faster than any other kind of hiking footwear, especially if the straps are made of synthetic leather or nylon webbing. Surprisingly to some, there are durable hiking sandals that last years taking on any kind of abuse. There are also models that offer additional support and stability. They come with a solid footbed and a toe strap. Keep in mind that there’s a tradeoff between support and weight so lighter models usually are less supportive than heavier sandals.
Though sandals are best for some casual hiking on well-maintained trails, durable hiking sandals, with shock-absorbing outsoles that provide good grip on rough surfaces and rimmed edges that protect the feet from bumping against rocks and stones, are suited for longer and more difficult hikes.
The biggest disadvantage of wearing sandals on the trail is that you feel uncomfortable when walking in areas where there are plants with prickly leaves. Other considerations include but are not limited to weight (some models are really heavy), dirt (yes, your feet will get dirty no matter how careful you are), and scree slopes with broken rocks and debris.
Lightweight trail runners are a great choice for hiking, backpacking, and trail running. Comfortable and much lighter than most other types of hiking footwear, which reduces foot fatigue (some scientists claim that six times more energy is required to move weight on the feet versus weight in a backpack). Trail-running shoes feature breathable mesh upper which is suppler than leather or heavy-duty nylon but tends to prematurely rip and fray. It’s better if your shoes have a reinforced toe cap for better foot protection. To protect the foot from hard and uneven surfaces, shoes may feature a soft foam midsole or rigid outsole. Midsole foam absorbs impact and is normally made of EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) or PU (polyurethane) foam, which is more resilient but heavier and more expensive.
Suitable for summer trails and warm weather, especially if they aren’t waterproof, your feet will stay cooler, foot sweat will more easily evaporate, and your shoes and socks will dry faster after getting wet. In warmer weather and in prolonged wet conditions, footwear with high air permeability (i.e., a mesh upper) is overwhelmingly preferable to waterproofness because waterproof footwear is ineffective at keeping your feet dry in such conditions. The reason is that the breathability of waterproof fabrics is inadequate to keep up with normal rates of perspiration, and, with moderate use, the fabric’s waterproofness will be compromised. Remember that wet feet are prone to blisters and always try to keep your feet dry if possible.
A lot of hikers avoid wearing trail runners for long and difficult trails because of the widespread notion that trail running shoes are only suitable for short and easy trails with light loads. Well, this notion isn’t true because there’s a bunch of people who use them with heavy loads and/or on long and challenging trails without experiencing any big problems. So, for the majority of people, it’s more of a psychological problem rather than a physical one. However, keep in mind that if you have weak ankles and want to avoid any possible ankle injuries, you’ll have to either strengthen them before any long hiking trips or grab a pair of heavier boots that offer more support and stability.
Trail running shoes are perfect for three season conditions but they aren’t suitable for winter hiking, ice, snow, and climbing up rock. You need some stiff-soled boots to help you keep balance when walking on icy, snowy, and slippery surfaces. Such trails often require crampons, snowshoes or microspikes and you can’t use them on trail runners. Prolonged off-trail walking with trail runners isn’t recommended either (unless you have strong, flexible ankles) since you’ll need durable footwear that will better protect your feet.
Hiking boots and shoes
Hiking shoes differ from trail runners in the stiffness of the midsole. Although a bit heavier, the stiffer flex provides a more solid platform when walking on rough trails, and it helps prevent bruising the bottom of the feet from stepping on sharp rocks. Heavier than running shoes but lighter than backpacking boots, they are suitable for hiking and backpacking with moderate load or on rough terrain. A pair of good hiking shoes also ensures ankle support and stability necessary if you are prone to ankle sprains or don’t have enough experience on difficult or long-distance trails. Hiking shoes aren’t recommended for winter hiking, especially on hard snow, ice, and steep terrain.
Hiking boots are mid-cut footwear that is warmer and offers more ankle support and stability (the models with stiff cuffs) than sandals, trail runners, and hiking shoes. They’re a popular choice for off-trail hikes as well as among those who need additional support and safety. Hiking boots are suitable for hiking through areas with scree slopes, fresh snow as well as when carrying a heavy pack on difficult terrain. Keep in mind that they’re relatively heavier, less breathable, and somewhat restrict your mobility in comparison to most other types of hiking footwear.
Waterproof hiking boots or shoes are especially useful when hiking in colder conditions, although they are useless if you have to walk for days across wet terrain. In such a case, your feet will get wet for sure no matter what type of trekking shoes you'd wear so you'd better choose breathable mesh footwear which will get dry faster. There are different ways of drying a pair of hiking boots or shoes, but some of them are much more preferable than others. Just let your footwear air dry if you want to keep wearing it on your future trips. If at home, keep them in a cool and dry place to dry slowly with the insoles removed and the tongues fully open. Proper drying takes time and patience so avoid forcing it. Don’t dry them by a fire, next to a car heater or a house radiator because excessive heat makes leather harden and split.
You can clean your waterproof boots with a soft brush on the outside and a damp cloth on the inside but be very careful when doing this - the membranes are very thin and fragile - don’t be too brisk or rough. There’s a specific way to clean, maintain, condition, polish, and waterproof different kinds of shoe fabrics and materials. That’s why it is important to learn more about hiking shoe care. In addition, it can be very useful to know more about the materials and components of a boot as well as about the overall anatomy of a hiking shoe.
Backpacking and mountaineering boots
High-cut with better balance and ankle support, durable, protective, and designed to carry heavier loads. Heavier than sandals, trail runners, hiking boots and shoes, they feature a full-grain leather upper, thick rubber outsole, and highly constructed midsole with PU foam, rock plates, and a sturdy toe bumper. They’re probably best suited for winter and off-trail hiking so if you are carrying a heavy pack over rugged terrain that may lack trails (especially in cold weather conditions), heavy-duty backpacking boots are a good choice because they provide more stability, support, and motion control. Having said that, don’t be lulled into the false sense of security a pair of boots can give you. It’s empirically proved that a lot of problems arise when boot wearers have this false sense of security believing that their footwear will protect them in all situations and in any conditions. This increases the rate of ankle injuries, especially for users of expensive boots. Keep in mind that although indispensable in some weather conditions and situations, heavy footwear has modest breathability and causes premature fatigue and general clumsiness. This can be a huge drawback, especially for those hiking in 3-season conditions with a light pack. Considering them for long trips on an even terrain isn’t very smart either unless you go to a place with steep hardpacked snow.
Hiking in cold weather in snowy and icy conditions requires stiff-soled boots that provide insulation from the frozen ground. While backpacking boots are suited for forests and tundra, mountaineering boots are best suited for negotiating steep terrain in harsh conditions. The mountaineering boots have stiff soles so you can wear technical climbing crampons with them. So they should be your top choice if you’re doing glacial travel or spending a lot of time at higher elevations. Leather isn’t the top choice for manufacturing mountaineering boots anymore as nowadays plastic shells are much more typical for them. In general, the new designs are stuffed with various hi-tech features.
Always choose your hiking footwear according to the surface, weather conditions, distance of the trail and most importantly - according to your own preferences. You need boots or shoes that fit well your feet. Remember that fit is strictly individual and the same pair of shoes that can be very comfortable for someone might be extremely uncomfortable for someone else.
There are various options, though most people prefer traveling lighter. The best option for them is to choose trail runners because they’re lightweight, breathable, and provide the most flexibility and comfort. Some like cross-country and off-trail hiking. They would obviously need heavier boots providing extra ankle support, stability, and better protection when walking on rough and uneven surfaces. In colder weather, waterproof footwear will keep your feet drier. In prolonged wet weather, your best option is a pair of hiking sneakers or trail-running shoes.
For a long time, there has been a debate between proponents of lightweight and heavyweight footwear for hiking and backpacking. Though you might be hesitant about which one is better, the answer is simple: stick with what works for you and makes you and your feet happy!