Choosing the Best Hiking Shoes and Boots

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Choosing the Best Hiking Shoes and Boots

Choosing the Best Hiking Shoes and Boots
Photo via Alan Levine

Have you enjoyed the outdoors recently?

Since the world went upside-down in 2020, more people have picked up physical activities such as running and hiking. Fresh air feels fantastic, and hiking is one of the best activities to get you out on your feet. 

But what exactly should you wear on those feet? One of the worst thing inexperienced hikers do is hit the trails with low-quality footwear. That opens up a sea of uncomfortable possibilities, including soreness and blisters.

That said, choosing the right footwear – whether hiking shoes or boots – can pay for itself after just a few trails.

In this article, we’ll review types of footwear, when to choose what footwear, how to find your fit, and how to prevent and treat sore feet. By the end of the article, you’ll have enough information to find your next pair of boots or shoes.

Types of Hiking Footwear

There are many types of footwear that hikers may use, including hiking boots, trail-running shoes, hiking shoes, and snow boots. Some hikers may also use running shoes, sneakers, or hiking sandals. 

Below are descriptions of each type of footwear:

Hiking Boots

Hiking boots are high-cut and often surround and protect the ankle. Light hiking boots, or “day hiking boots,” are often flexible.

Heavy hiking boots, sometimes known as “backpacking boots,” are stiffer and more supportive of the ankle. Hiking boots are made with water-resistant or waterproof fabric, leather, or synthetic material.

Trail-Running Shoes or Hiking Shoes

Trail-running shoes are designed for runners who run on natural paths such as mountain trails, while hiking shoes are similarly designed for hikers who want a low-cut, lighter shoe than a boot. Both types of shoes are made with fabric or synthetic material, and they are rarely water-resistant.

These shoes have as much tread as boots, and sometimes more.

Snow Boots

Snow Boots
Photo via Rosmarie Voegtli /Flickr

Snow boots are designed for anyone hiking, walking, or snow-shoeing in the snow or ice. These boots are high-cut between the ankle and knee. They are always insulated and waterproof, made with leather or synthetic materials.

They are usually softly cushioned inside the boot to provide both comfort and insulation in cold weather situations.

Running Shoes and Sneakers

Running shoes and sneakers are designed for walking or running in urban settings with paved roads. They are low-cut and made with fabric or synthetic materials. They have a smooth tread.

Hiking Sandals

Hiking Sandals
Photo via Virginia State Parks /Flickr

Hiking sandals are semi-open shoes designed for day hiking, urban hiking, or hiking through water (like The Narrows in Zion National Park).

Some hiking sandals have open toes and others are closed-toed.

Choosing the Right Hiking Footwear for Your Adventure

We all know the person who is willing to “rough it” in any type of shoes that remotely fit.

Some of you reading this article may have been that person at one point. A lengthy case of achy or blistered feet can change one’s outlook quickly, however.

Ultimately, choosing the best hiking shoe or boot for your particular adventure depending on the adventure itself, your desired comfort level, and willingness to adjust your budget.

While each hiker may choose their preferred type of footwear, below are the suggestions and considerations for each type of footwear.

Hiking Boots

Lighter hiking boots are often designed for day hiking or for carrying lighter backpacks, while heavier hiking boots are intended for more strenuous hiking such as backpacking.

Heavier boots require more time to “break in” than their lighter counterparts.

Some popular hiking boots include:

Men’s Hiking Boots

Women’s Hiking Boots

Trail-Running Shoes or Hiking Shoes

Trail-running shoes are becoming popular among hikers due to their lightness. However, some hiking shoes are sturdier.

Casual hikers going on a day hike and/or carrying lighter backpacks may choose these types of shoes. They will usually be lighter-weight than their boot-style counterpart.

Many hikers prefer train running or hiking shoes because of their comfort and maneuverability as well.

Some popular trail-running and hiking shoes include:

Men’s Trail-Running Shoes and Hiking Shoes

Women’s Trail-Running Shoes and Hiking Shoes

Snow Boots

Snow boots are used instead of hiking boots when the hiker is walking in deep snow, across ice (such as ice climbing), or requires crampons – metal plates with spikes that are often used when rock climbing or walking on ice .

If you are planning a snowy hike, you will want these shoes to keep their feet warm and dry.

Also, you will want to invest in a pair of thick, warm, comfortable socks. Even the most sturdy and water-resistant models can still let snow, ice, rain, and other water slip through.

Running Shoes and Sneakers

Running shoes and sneakers are designed for smooth, paved roads, not for unpaved trails or rocky paths. Hikers living and hiking in large cities (like New York or Chicago) may prefer to use these shoes for urban hiking.

Also, if you are only planning to occasionally hike short, well-maintained trails, you might be need an actual hiking boot or shoe.

Instead, a simple pair of running shoes or sneakers might work for you. Cross-trainers that can be used at the gym might also be an effective choice.

If you plan on hitting more varied terrain on a regular basis, though, it might be worth investing in dedicated hiking footwear.

Hiking Sandals

Hiking sandals are popular as supplementary footwear. Some ultralight hikers prefer to wear them as their main hiking footwear.

Most hikers may want to carry one pair with them when crossing a stream or relaxing at the campsite after a day of strenuous backpacking.

The ever-popular Crocs can even be considered in this category. They might not be the shoe you want to wear while hiking on the trail, but it’s incredibly comfortable afterwards (especially if you are camping after your hike).

They also make for great, light-weight shoes to wear to while taking a shower in a public bath house.

What To Consider When Buying the Best Hiking Shoes or Boots for Your Particular Situations

Keeping Your Hiking Boots Clean
One consideration to keep in mind when buying hiking boots or shoes in how easy they are to clean (Photo via Alejandro Mallea /Flickr)

Though you can buy hiking footwear online, it is best to visit a store in person and try everything on. Some sporting goods stores like REI offer a fitting session by appointment, which is recommended. First-time hikers should make this appointment.  

When you try on the shoes or boots, walk around the store for a few minutes and pay attention to a few things:

  • Are you able to naturally bend the ball of your foot?
  • Is the shoe or boot secure around your foot?
  • The shoe shouldn’t twist in the middle. Is the heel stiff and firmly holding your heel?
  • How easy is the shoe to clean, especially after a muddy hike?

If you are going to go backpacking, bring your bag with you and fill it with weight for the true feel of the shoes. It’s important to simulate the real experience of hiking or backpacking as much as possible when selecting new footwear.

And finally, do you feel like it is the right fit for you? A quality pair of hiking boots can last hundreds of miles, so you want to make sure you are choosing a pair that fits your style, personality, schedule, and plans.

What is “Appropriate Footwear” When Hiking?

If you read enough articles about hiking, camping, or even fishing, you are bound to see the term “appropriate footwear.”

While it may seem like common knowledge, the reality is that of the roughly 50 million Americans who hike each year, a decent percentage does not invest in hiking-specific footwear.

Yes, a decent pair of tennis or athletic shoes can handle most modest hikes, but the results of mixing varied, rough terrains with cheap, ill-fitting shoes can be painful.

“Appropriate footwear,” then, refers to any and all of the following:

  • The Right Size: Wearing shoes an entire size too large or small is not only uncomfortable – it can lead to blisters, rolled ankles, or other injuries.
  • The Right Style: As we listed above, there are specific styles of hiking shoes or boots for each season, terrain, and hike length. While you can handle most terrain in a solid pair of athletic shoes, a dedicated pair of hiking boots or shoes is always going to be a better option.
  • Avoid the Wrong Style: Likewise, trying to wear wing-tip dress shoes on a five mile in-and-out trail isn’t a good idea.  

Is There a Difference Between Men and Women’s Hiking Footwear?

Aside from standard variations in marketing (color, style, etc.), there are some structural differences to consider between men and women’s hiking shoes and boots.

Women’s hiking footwear is generally designed differently than men’s hiking footwear. Some key differences include sizing (women’s feet are often smaller than men’s) and width (as women’s feet are also often more narrow than men’s). 

Conversely, women’s feet generally tend to be higher than men’s feet, however. This is due to relative calf size and balance issues.

That said, these are simply general rules and they certainly do not apply in every situation.

If you happen to like a hiking boot or shoe that does not align with the gender designation, the best bet would be to test the shoe out in person before buying. If it seems to fit and you can move around comfortably, then you should be fine.

How to Prevent and Treat Sore Feet When Hiking

Safety Precautions When Hiking
Practicing safety when hiking, even in a good pair of shoes, is important (Photo via Kitty Terwolbeck /Flickr)

Sore feet are almost inevitable after long, strenuous hiking. Even the best footwear, fitness, and precautions will only go so far. Likewise, it’s easy to develop blisters or roll an ankle.

A good, high-quality pair of hiking boots or shoes can help cut down the soreness and potential injury, but there are a few other helpful hacks you can follow to help cut down on discomfort:

First Aid Kits and Bandages

While hiking, it is always a good idea to bring a first aid kit, which includes bandages. The Adventure Medical Kits Sportsman 100 Medical First-Aid Kit is compact and light-weight, so you can easily fit it in whatever travel pack you are using.

Also, while not often considered a “serious injury,” blisters are the most common problem for hikers, especially those wearing lower-level footwear or shoes that are not designed specifically for hiking.

Some hikers help slow down the effects of friction by applying a bandage over the blistered area. Additionally, you may apply moleskin padding and blister prevention tape to problem areas before a hike.

In an absolutely pinch, some hikers have even been known to use duct tape as a bandage. While this isn’t the preferred method, it may still be better than allowing your shoes to brush against your skin repeatedly.

If you want to be prepared before you hit the trails, we recommend grabbing items like the Adventure Medical Kits Blister Medic, especially if you are going to be out for multiple days.

Hiking Socks

Darn Tough Socks for Hiking
Darn Tough makes some sock that are, well, darn tough… (Photo via Premier Angler)

Wearing the correct socks can help prevent friction and blisters in the first place. Pairing them with a quality hiking shoe will go a long way.

Hikers frequently choose to wear wool socks instead of cotton, which can increase blisters. You may prefer wool or synthetic socks, but the most important thing is that the sock is smooth and does not wrinkle easily. Doing so can cut down on the friction and keep you on the trail even longer.

Darn Tough makes an excellent sock for hiking, fishing, camping, etc. There are lots of great options, but the Darn Tough Hiker Full-Cushion Midweight Boot Socks is one of the most versatile. It is made to wear with a boot, but can easily be paired with trail or athletic shoes.

It’s also comfortable for cold night, so you can wear them while camping in your tent or for long nights on the lake or river.

Insole Inserts: An Added Layer of Protection for Your Hiking Shoes and Boots

Wearing an insole, or insert, may increase your hiking comfort while providing structural support for your feet.

There are multiple types of insoles, and it is smart to discuss this option with a trained staff member at a sporting goods store. This type of support can reduce common foot problems that increase soreness, such as heel slippage. 

Also, regardless of how high quality your shoes are, damage can occur. I had a great pair of Columbia hiking boots that faded after a couple years. Wearing them without insoles now will inevitably lead to blisters and sore soles.

How to Treat Sore Feet After Hiking

Once your feet have been strained through strenuous activity, it is time to restore your muscles and renew your foot’s happiness. Here are a few ways to treat sore feet after a long hike. However, we recommend you consult a doctor if you have more questions about treating foot soreness.

Foot Massage and Stretching

You can roll your feet over a massage ball to reduce muscle strain.

If you don’t have an official massage ball, you can use a baseball or tennis ball. Massaging your own feet with your hands is also soothing.

Afterward, practice some yoga moves to stretch out your feet muscles. While it might not be for everyone, yoga is one of the best exercises you can do as your body gets older. If you haven’t given it a fair shake, it’s definitely worth a try.

Ice, Epsom Salts, and Foot Baths

Soaking Feet After Hiking
Soaking feet after hiking, fishing, or camping is a great way to reduce inflammation (Photo via Aaron Schultz/Premier Angler)

Since much of your soreness will come from muscle inflammation, you may find relief by putting your feet in an ice bath. You may also apply an ice pack or frozen water bottle to your feet.

Other hikers soak their feet in a warm Epsom-salt bath. After a recent camping and fishing trip, I had a couple foot blisters and immediately soaked my feet upon returning home. After two soaks, the inflammation went down and my feet felt “normal” again.

You can get a fairly inexpensive foot bath at your local big box retailer or pharmacy for under $30. A simple bag of off-brand Epsom salts can run around $3.

If you want scented, name-brand salts, you can get an 8 lb. bag for $5-6.

Rest and Recovery

Resting After Long Hike
Photo via Marco Verch Professional Photographer/Flickr

Sometimes, our muscles have been so strained that we must rest before resuming physical activity. This is true of hiking just as any other outdoors activity. Camping, fishing, and even bird watching can wear the body down.

To actively recover from a strained muscle, it is best to consider gentler, lower-impact activities such as yoga or swimming, which will give stressed muscles time to recover in preparation for the next hike.  

Just as fishing has many health benefits, hiking has even more. If you plan on spending a significant amount of time outdoors, though, it is important to take care of your physical and mental health even when you aren’t on the water or the trails, though.

That means taking time for some much-needed rest and relaxation.

Final Thoughts on Choosing the Best Hiking Shoes and Boots

In summary, we’ve reviewed types of footwear, when to choose what footwear, how to find your fit, and how to prevent and treat sore feet.

If you follow the advice above, it’s likely that you will find your foot far more comfortable moving forward. So make sure you grab the best shoe or boot for hiking and hit the trails!

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