The shoes are personal. Truly staff. GearJunkie’s Nicole Qualtieri delves into the issue of hiking boots versus footwear and lays bare many valid answers on both sides of the argument.
In 2014, I hiked a 150 mile section of the Continental Divide Trail on my own. This was my first long distance hike and I had a lot to learn about shoes.
I started this hike with a pair of hiking boots. I finished it in a pair of trail runners. Since then, I have spent the vast majority of my time outdoors hiking.
I also have a pair of sturdy, stiffer boots for those days trail runners just don’t cut it. I have had the same pair for almost 7 years. I don’t wear them often, probably less than 10 days a year.
But they are perfectly run and reliable when needed. I dread the day when I will have to replace them; boots are just another kind of commitment.
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And as the Hunt & Fish editor of GearJunkie, I have had the privilege of having a parcel shoes and boots to try on. Too much, really. I walk on and off piste. I flinch and jostle myself. I pack both heavy weight and no weight at all. And I have the privilege of knowing a lot of people who do similar things.
Here is what I gleaned from my free time and from the experience of the wide variety of very knowledgeable outdoor people that I am fortunate to have around me.
Shoes: the pros
When I talk about shoes related to hiking, I usually mean running or shoes specific to hiking. I definitely have friends who hike the Chucks. But that’s not most of us.
We can make a slight exception for hiking-worthy sandals like Tevas or Chacos here. Many people simply put on sandals for long hikes in hot weather. But I broke my toes on rocky hikes, and it sucks. Protecting your feet can be the difference between a very unpleasant hike and a good hike.
Aside from the exceptions, a good pair of hiking shoes has a few things that most boots can’t beat. The first is the lack of weight. And for long distances, reducing the weight on your feet is a real boon.
If you have joint problems or weaknesses in your legs, weight reduction is essential for comfort. I got serious knee problems for years, and I’ve been able to stay more active thanks to super-soft, lightweight hiking boots.
Another thing I love about trail runners is their ability to dry quickly on the fly. Mesh, GORE-TEX, synthetics and more combine to prevent water from entering or drying out very quickly.
It also lends itself much better to keeping the feet ventilated in hot weather. I’m wearing summer weight merino socks and haven’t had a blister years with this method.
I will add that personally I do not limit hiking shoes to low top sneakers. Most brands offer a wide variety of mid-top and high-top sneaker-style â€œbootsâ€. If a boot looks like a sneaker, works like a sneaker, and has the price of a sneaker, it’s a goddamn sneaker.
Shoes: the disadvantages
Most people will talk about the lack of ankle stability when they talk about their reluctance to buy hiking shoes or running shoes.
I will counter that by saying that a boot does not necessarily guarantee this stability. I rolled my ankles into the boots and shoes. However, when I wear a sneaker that gives my foot what it needs in terms of support, I don’t tend to roll my ankles. I recommend an ankle brace if you have particular problems; it will provide legitimate support.
That said, most shoes lack stiffness. This proves to be difficult if you are an off-trail hiker who can sometimes move from place to place. It can also be problematic for people who need a latest rather than a shock-absorbing fluffy impact.
And while you can find plenty of affordable options, I don’t expect my trail runners to last longer than a summer to fall season. Most companies say their shoes will travel around 500 miles. But if you’re an active mountain nerd like me, I’d say terrain dictates more wear than mileage.
Boots: the pros
As much as I love my sneakers, I love boots as much. My boots come out when my needs change. This is usually when I’m going to be spending more time off trail than on trail, when it’s colder, and when the terrain can impose a bit more protection than your average hiking shoe.
And of course, boots run the gamut, and they do it a bit more variably than shoes.
A high, stiff boot will provide exceptional support when off-piste or in rocky terrain. Plus, a high insulated boot will keep your feet warm while avoiding stones.
Some people also prefer a stiffer boot when carrying heavy weights. Extra support and highly defined traction could be a real lifesaver on alpine, rocky and snowy terrain.
Boots also allow for a greater variety of specialized activities. For example, mountaineering and hunting specific boots tackle many problems that a shoe simply cannot solve on the softer terrain they are designed for. And their variety of materials is wider, from leather to highly technical synthetics.
Boots are truly the 4 Ã— 4 of the shoe world. If you get off the trail for whatever reason, boots are probably in your future.
Boots: the disadvantages
You can spend $ 200 for a decent hiking shoe or over $ 500 for a shoe that will more specifically meet the demands of heavy terrain.
The special nature of the boots makes them a bit more of a pocket rag than your average hiking shoe. But, the top quality you pay for usually lasts a lot longer than your typical shoe.
Most boots are heavier than shoes and tend to retain more heat. Denser materials support the foot and ankle, but they are often thicker and less breathable.
Boots also require a more specific break-in period. If they don’t require a break-in period, they’re probably what I would call athletic shoes, and you can expect their long-term durability to not be impressive. The blisters are not abnormal during the break-in period, so keep the sessions short at first.
A general rule of thumb that I keep is to walk 30 miles with my boots on before taking them on a hard day outside. This can wear them at home, at the grocery store, and for general errands. If you are style-conscious, this can be a dramatic but necessary trip to the dark side of street fashion.
Equipment that complements boots and shoes
Beyond shoes, you can protect and enhance your hikes with a bit of next-level gear that will add support, comfort, and consistency to your time outdoors.
Thinking of stability, the number one item that will absolutely help you in your quest to avoid rolled ankles is not a pair of boots; it is a pair of trekking poles.
If I hike more than a few kilometers, the poles go with me. If I pack weight, the sticks go with me. If the ground is rough, I bring my poles. And if I don’t need them, I can put them away and put them in my bag for later.
Think of it like adding an extra pair of legs to your repertoire. As a trekking pole carrier you instantly become a mountain mule. Escape your bipedal ways. You will not come back.
Another level up for your hiking routine is adding merino wool to your sock drawer. And yes, you can wear it all year round. Sock brands like Swiftwick and damn hard make extremely light woolen socks that will take the swamp off your feet.
If you have blistering problems, change your socks first. Much cheaper and often an easy fix.
The latest addition that changed my hiking routine was the use of Superfeet soles in most of my shoes. They go in my hiking boots, my hunting boots, my cowboy boots and everything in between.
If you need good foot support, don’t expect to get it out of your shoe without an upgrade. Orthotics got a parcel better and more affordable. Save yourself the agony and invest in the right insole. This. East. Value. This.
Should I be hiking in boots or shoes?
A good pair of shoes provides the necessary support, protection from the elements, and the comfort that allows them to be forgotten. Thanks to technologies such as waterproofing, injection molding, synthetics, etc., we live in an age where footwear has never been more variable and personalized.
The right choice is the one that works best for you. If you are hiking the trails for a day, a hiking or trail running shoe is probably your best bet. If you’re heading into cold or wet conditions, hitting off the trails, or needing great stability, fork out the extra cash for a nice pair of boots.
And if you’re like me, you might just need a few options in your wardrobe. Personally, I invested money and break-in time on my boots 6 years ago. And since I use trail runners for most of my outdoor hikes, my boots take less beating and they’re there when I need them. Win-win.