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Hiking Boots Or Shoes

Hiking Boots or Shoes: Do I Really Need Hiking Boots?

In This Guide
  • Why You Might Need Hiking Boots
  • When a Trail Runner or Hiking Shoe Works
  • Conditions For Heavy Hiking Boots
  • Alternative Options You May Not Have Considered

The great dilemma – do you really need hiking boots? Or can you use hiking shoes? Or do you even need hiking shoes? This guide will sort it all out for you, but the short answer is that you probably don’t need hiking boots. Hiking shoes or trail runners will be a better bet for most hikers. I’ll walk you through all the options and when it makes sense to use each one. If you want to see which specific models I recommend, check out my current gear page (updated October 2020).

This guide’s recommendations are based on my experience trying lots of different hiking footwear over thousands of miles as a professional hiking guide. My experience is echoed by most long-distance PCT and AT hikers who hike day after day. No gear company pays me to push a specific shoe or solution.

CharacteristicsRecommended ForTop Pick
Hiking Shoes Comfortable and durable Good for hikers wanting protection and good value See Latest
Trail Runners Lightweight and very comfortable Good for hikers wanting most comfort and best performance See Latest
Waterproof Hybrids Dryer with more protection Use for winter or cold weather hiking See Latest
Hiking Boots Heavy but very durable Hikers wanting very long life and maximum protection See Latest

I’m going to explain what really matters in hiking footwear, but if you just want to read about each option, scroll down a bit until you reach the section on Hiking Shoes.

What You REALLY Need in Hiking Footwear

Hiking=shoes Wet
Believe it or not, but your feet may be better protected like this than if they were behind big hiking boots. Photo Sangudo

When you’re picking hiking footwear, these are the factors that are important:

What About Ankle Support?

I’ll brave the wrath of hate mail and say it: ankle support is a myth. On paper, a high-cuff hiking boot biomechanically supports the ankle. But my experience has been that it doesn’t matter. And research has shown that not only does it not matter, but it can even make your chance of rolling an ankle worse. If you’re carrying so much weight that your ankles are buckling, then you’ve got too much weight on your back.  If you roll your ankles a lot, do some ankle strengthening exercises.

Do Water-Resistant Shoes Help?

Waterproofing is another concept that looks good on paper but in practical terms doesn’t do as well. And that goes for “breathable” waterproofing like Gore-Tex too. I won’t go into all the details, but after thousands of miles I can tell you that you only really need it when hiking in the winter.

Instead of keeping water out, let it in. Shoes with very breathable uppers mean that your feet get wet easily, and they also dry quickly. In practical terms, out on the trail, this means that your feet are dryer and are less susceptible to blisters. If you look at any PCT or AT hiker, they almost all use breathable shoes today. So when you choose your hiking footwear, go with breathable uppers and not the waterproof version.

When water-resistant shoes get totally wet, they get waterlogged and heavy. Breathable shoes never get waterlogged.

Don’t Forget About Good Socks

hiking socks
Use proper hiking socks that are seamless with reinforcing and extra cushioning in the high-use areas.

Get a wool sock that is tough and dries quickly. When conditions are sloppy wet, I’ve also used waterproof socks, and they work great. Socks come in different weights that equate to warmth. When it’s hot, go thinner. Also, note that heavier socks can fit tighter in a shoe and cause blisters from too much friction. If you buy hiking footwear for the winter (more later), go a half-size up to allow for thicker socks.

Hiking Shoes – Good Bet For Most People

Hiking Shoe Ventilated
The Merrel Moab hiking shoe, a long-time favorite of many hikers. Notice the beefy soles and uppers, much like a hiking boot. This version is “ventilated” or breathable, allowing water in but also allowing your feet to dry quickly.

Hiking shoes take the best elements of hiking boots and trail runners and combine them into one. They are lighter and more comfortable than hiking boots, but generally offer the same level of protection (minus the cuff around your ankle). Hiking shoes are designed to last longer (about 800 miles or 9-18 months for most folks) than a trail runner but are usually a little heavier because of the extra protection. They’re also a bit stiffer than a trail runner. Overall the durability, lighter weight, and and protection offer the best balance for hikers.

See My Top Hiking Shoe Pick

I took my first pair of hiking shoes on a 14 mile hike in Yosemite right after buying them. Absolutely no issues at all. Very comfortable for the entire hike, my feet felt like they could have kept going, while the rest of me, not so much. – Hiking Shoe Review

Trail Runners – The Best Bet For 3 Seasons

Trail Runner
Trail runners offer the same rugged and aggressive grip while being lighter and more minimal on the upper.

If you want the best option and are okay getting new shoes every 500 miles or so (6-12 months for most folks), go with trail running shoes. They are lighter and more “springy” than hiking shoes. Trail runners have more breathable uppers than hiking shoes, but offer less protection. If you’re bushwacking off-trail, trail runners are probably not the best bet. But the lightness and comfort make hiking feel like you are walking down the street in sneakers.

Some trail runners have problems with durability and will last much less than 500 miles. But you can and should get around 500 miles out of them. Read the reviews before you buy and check out my trail runner pick (used and tested by me).

See My Top Trail Runner Pick

The lines between a hiking shoe and trail runner get more blurry as shoes evolve.

Water-Resistant Hybrids for Winter

Hybrid Winter Boot
A hybrid offers more upper protection and is “almost” a hiking boot.

When I hike in the winter I go with a water-resistant hiking shoe / hiking boot / trail runner hybrid. It keeps my feet warm in the snow and offers good protection. If the snow level is higher I’ll wear a pair of gaiters as well to keep snow from going into my shoe. The life of these is similar to a trail runner but usually lasts longer since most people don’t do as much winter hiking than in the rest of the year.

See My Top Hybrid Pick

Hiking Boots

Hiking Boots
The beefiest option are hiking boots. They’re not light but they are like wearing armor on your feet. This model, the Asolo Fugitive, I used for 8 years before they fell apart.

If you just want the maximum protection and a shoe that will last (potentially) for thousands of miles, go with a hiking boot. I don’t wear them anymore, but when I did they were though as nails. Overall they’re heavier and require more energy to hike with. If you are going off-trail or want something very beefy for all conditions, including winter, a hiking boot is a good choice.

Read My Asolo Fugitive Review

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