Choosing what to wear on a hike is essential to having a good and safe time outdoors. Since your feet will be doing most of the work, footwear is arguably the single most important item to choose on your next adventure. There are many schools of thought on the type of footwear one should use on a hike and, while a lot of it comes down to personal preference, there are some situations where one type of shoe can definitely be more comfortable, and, more importantly, safer than another.
Most hiking footwear can be divided into four categories: sandals/open-toe footwear, trail runners, hiking shoes, and hiking boots. We will look at each category, break down the pros and cons of each, and talk about what hikes, terrains, and situations each type is best suited for.
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I love the versatility, lightweight build, and breathability of sandals. I have been rocking the same pair of Teva Original Universal Sandals for the past five years and have walked on all types of terrains with them, from sandy beaches to high-mountain glacial scree. While sandals offer fantastic flexibility and quick drying, they are noticeably lacking in the foot-support department, providing little to no protection from rocks, twigs, or bugs on the trail.
Moreover, they often provide inferior grip compared to other footwear, and are thus not always the safest choice when hiking on unstable or slippery terrain. While this issue can be partially solved by purchasing hiking-specific sandals, these sandals are often heavier and bulkier. Liz has the Teva Hurricane Sandals which are definitely heavier duty than the Teva Originals.
Overall, sandals provide exceptional breathability and moderate comfort, making them the perfect choice for easy or even slightly challenging hikes in warmer conditions. They also make for excellent camp shoes, post-hike recovery shoes, or perhaps even an “emergency” shoe to carry as a backup option on longer trails with water crossings.
A few years ago, I started the 8-mile Thornton Lakes hike in North Cascades National Parks with a pair of hiking shoes but, at the first water crossing 0.2 miles in, I got my shoes soaked. I luckily carried my Teva sandals with me and completed the hike with them, including steep sections and a snow field. Was it the most comfortable option? Probably not. Was it doable? Absolutely.
Trails runners have exploded in popularity over the last ten years. At the core, trail runners are road-running shoes with reinforced grippier soles, a sturdier toe box, and sometimes heavier heel counters. However, over the last few years, trail runners have diverged more from traditional running shoes and are now easily distinguishable.
Most trail-running shoes favor breathability and lightweight materials over waterproof fabrics, with the ladder being very similar to conventional “hiking shoes.” As the name implies, trail-running shoes are optimal footwear if you intend on maintaining a fast pace on a trail, but they are also well-suited for regular trail walking.
Liz has recently purchased a pair of The North Face Vectiv Infinite and has truly enjoyed hiking medium and long-distance trails with them. Trail runners are often incredibly flexible, and light, and provide that “bouncy” feeling often sought after by runners thanks to their cushy midsoles. They are also ready to wear as soon as you buy them, and they require no ”breaking-in.”
However, plenty of alternatives are available for those who prefer stiffer, more responsive fits. While they offer more ankle support and protection than sandals, trail runners are still inferior to most hiking shoes and boots in that department. Moreover, one common complaint is their durability, especially with repeated use on loose rocks and icy/muddy conditions. I tend to limit my use of trail runners to easier trails or hikes with limited scrambling/climbing, and I generally wear them only on warm to hot days.
However, many people love wearing trail runners on long-distance and multi-day hikes. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference, but, in my opinion, hiking shoes or boots are a safer option for first-time or beginner hikers on most trails. I have used trail-running shoes hiking in Watkins Glen, NY in the spring and found them to be the ideal footwear for the trail and the season.
It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between certain “rugged” trail runners and hiking shoes. For many, hiking shoes represent a slimmed-down, lower version of hiking boots. In the case of my most recent hiking shoes, the Columbia Redmond, these shoes are literally hiking boots that have been “cut” to have a lower profile, while maintaining the same sole, heel counters, and toe cap.
Hiking shoes are generally heavier, sturdier, more protective than trail runners, and more often waterproof. However, all this comes with decreased breathability, increased weight and bulk, and generally a “stuffier” feel in warmer weather. I have been gradually increasing my usage of hiking shoes across most of my hikes, especially in the colder season and at higher altitudes.
While their ankle support is inferior to hiking boots simply by the nature of their build, their foot protection from rocks, twigs, and other dangers remains virtually identical to boots and much superior to trail runners. Moreover, most hiking shoes are sturdy enough to use with microspikes when the trail gets icy.
Unlike hiking boots, hiking shoes are generally lighter and easier to pack and travel with. As a pro tip, unlike boots or some “flashier” trail running shoes, they also usually make for great trail-to-town shoes if you don’t have time to change between your hike and your dinner plans.
The classic, time-tested choice that has served generations of outdoor enthusiasts and will continue to be one of the most popular choices among hikers. Praised for their ultimate ankle support and foot protection, a pair of hiking boots was the first thing we bought for our first “serious” adventure a few years ago.
While most non-leather hiking boots today no longer require the painful “breaking-in” period, the first few miles in a new pair of boots will likely be a little more uncomfortable and will often result in some short-lived blisters, no matter how good the fit is.
While this should not discourage you from buying or using hiking boots, I would highly discourage anyone from embarking on a multi-mile challenging hike with brand-new hiking boots. Any new footwear, no matter the type, should be first tested before any major hike, but hiking boots are especially known to be unforgiving to new users. On the other hand, hiking boots are an excellent choice for those who require enhanced ankle support and superior protection from the elements.
Most hiking boots are also either waterproof or water-resistant. While eventually rain will still find a way into your foot in the long run waterproof hiking boots are the optimal choice to keep your feet dry during simple water crossings, scattered rain showers, or muddy/snowy trails. And, like hiking shoes, boots are ideal for microspikes, and just in general can offer some of the grippiest soles out there. Boots are my first choice during most winter hikes, especially if I know the trail will cross deep snow.
I have used boots in the summer even for multi-mile trails such as Trolltunga in Norway, but only if I am certain I will encounter snowy conditions and unpredictable temperatures. While hiking boots are generally the most expensive option (with prices often ranging from no lower than $50 to upwards of $500), they are also the most durable hiking footwear, usually lasting over 1000 miles.
We have used different boots over the years and the best boots for you really depend on the type of terrain you are hiking the most. One pair of boots that Liz has loved wearing (shown in the picture below) is an older Salomon boot similar to the Salomon Quest Element.
Overall, choosing the appropriate footwear is arguably one of the most important decisions you will make when deciding what to wear on your next hike. There are no one-size-fits-all suggestions, and ultimately the decision will depend on your comfort level, expertise, and the conditions on the trail.
Sandals are excellent and versatile options for light and moderate hikes in warmer climates. Trail runners are ideal for fast-paced trails and less-technical treks, while hiking shoes and boots provide excellent support and protection, usually at the expense of breathability and weight.
No matter what shoes you decide to wear, the most critical thing is to ensure that they provide a comfortable fit that will last for the duration of the trail.
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