Choosing the right footwear is vital to the success and enjoyment of any hiking or backpacking trip. You need to have the right footwear to protect your feet from injury and to help face whatever the trail might throw at you– but what is the right footwear? Is it boots? Shoes? Sandals?
The debate over whether hiking boots, hiking shoes, or trail runners are the most appropriate footwear for hiking is a passionate one that incites lively debate by enthusiasts on all sides of the matter. The truth is that there is no one correct answer and that you need to make the decision for yourself based on your comfort levels and what you need from your footwear. But how do you make this decision? What are the actual biomechanics of boot use versus shoe use, and how do you separate myths and misbeliefs from the truth about footwear choice?
Footwear Options | The Science | Making The Decision
What Are Your Footwear Options?
To understand your footwear choices, you need to understand what these different options actually are. Each type of footwear has some standard features designed with the trail in mind. We’ve given an overview of the different types of footwear available here, but to talk about how to choose, we need to go over what each one does.
Hiking boots are thick, sturdy ankle-length (mid ankle, and high ankle) boots that are usually made of leather or thick, rugged nylon. Their soles are lugged for support, their deep grooves and chunky ridges built to provide stability on even the most treacherous terrain. Boots are often given waterproof treatments to keep out the weather. These are the heaviest footwear options.
- Most protective to rocks, debris, wildlife, etc
- Warmest options available
- Most waterproof option
- Heaviest option
- Generally the most expensive option (though quality budget options do exist)
Popular hiking boot models include the Merrell Moab 2 MID Hiking Boot, and the La Sportiva Saber GTX Hiking Boot. We have also reviewed the Vasque Talus XT GTX Boot, the Garmont Integra High WP Thermal Hiking Boot, the Garmont Pordoi GTX Hiking Boot, and the Salomon Quest 4 GTX Hiking Boot mentioned above.
Trail runners are light, often weighing a little more than a pound per pair. They typically have soles that are still lugged, but the height of the sole is less than what you typically see in a boot. They are usually made from lightweight synthetic materials and are stiffer than a typical shoe but not as stiff as a boot or a hiking shoe. You may also find ultralight trail runners. These resemble running shoes closely, but generally have a more robust tread for better traction on dirt, mud, snow, and gravel. They may come in waterproof options, very breathable options, or something in between.
- Lightest option available
- Generally less expensive than boots
- More breathable options available
- More feeling with the ground
- Least protective option when it comes to rocks, debris, wildlife, etc
- Less waterproof than most boots
- Generally less supportive than boots or shoes
Trail Running Shoe Examples:
Popular trail runner shoe models include the Merrell Trail Glove 5 Sneaker, the New Balance Nitrel V3 Trail Running Shoe, and the Saucony Excursion T11 Running Shoe. We have also reviewed the Salomon Speedcross 4 Trail Running Shoe and the Garmont 9.81 Bolt Trail Runner.
Hiking shoes are essentially hiking boots that have been cut down below the ankle. They offer many of the same benefits as hiking boots, although their soles are typically less rugged than the traditional boot sole. They are often constructed of the same leather or durable nylon as taller boots and are built to withstand tough trail conditions.
- Lighter than boots
- Generally less expensive than boots
- Great middle ground between boots and trail runners
- Generally a little heavier than trail runners, making them not ideal for running
- Waterproofing is to ankle height
- Less protective than boots
Hiking Shoe Examples:
Popular hiking shoe models include the Salomon X Ultra 3 Low GTX Hiking Shoe, the KEEN Targhee II Hiking Shoe, and the Merrell Moab 2 Hiking Shoe.
What Does Science Say?
If you look at the body of biomechanical research that surrounds shoe choice, you will find that most research supports the idea that shoes and boots are largely interchangeable during strenuous activity if injury (like sprained ankles) is your selecting factor. Both field tests and lab tests show that when it comes to ankle mobility protection, boots and shoes are just about the same. Boots however have the advantage of covering the ankles more for rocks, snakes, snow, etc.
In a large longitudinal study done in the US, military physical training in both boots and shoes resulted in similar levels of foot and ankle-based injury. This suggests that the ankle protection afforded by the high shank of a boot isn’t as vital as many hikers think. This is backed up by biomechanical tests of boots and shoes, showing similar results. In step tests, hiking boots and hiking shoes performed almost equally well, with no identifiable factors pointing to one offering better protection than the other.
Additionally, there is substantial evidence that boots in particular have issues related to their weight and stiffness that can cause undesired effects on the trail. Boots are designed for foot protection and traction, but their weight means that the effective mass of the foot increases. This leads to increased rotational inertia, which in turn increases the muscle load, the energy spent during walking, and the rate of fatigue– all of which may contribute to increased risk of injury (small study). In a study comparing boots, shoes, and weighted shoes, it was demonstrated that weight alone is responsible for up to 70% of the extra energy cost associated with boot-wearing, which is what could lead to possible increased risk of injury.
Stiff boots that limit the ankle’s range of motion can cause you to compensate involuntarily by changing your knee movement, which leads to earlier knee fatigue. This suggests that the advantages of limiting your ankle’s movement might not outweigh the disadvantages. Stiff-soled boots also limit movement in the forefoot, which could potentially lead to metatarsal damage in high-impact situations. While this isn’t directly related to hiking, stiff skiing boots have also been linked to tarsal tunnel syndrome with repetitive wear and stress.
Additionally, paresthesia- the feeling of pins and needles in your feet- is much more common amongst boot-wearers. While research suggests that wearing orthotics in your boots can help reduce the risk of some injuries, insoles will not help with the issues caused by weight and stiffness.
But crucially, none of this research says that boots are bad. Instead, you need to look at the bigger picture and understand that boots’ utility is circumstantial. There are some scenarios where boots might be highly preferable for the same things that make them disadvantageous in other circumstances. Boots do offer superior protection against thorns, rocks, and brambles. That stiff sole can be a lifesaver since it offers a wider base for stability. You have to weigh out your choices when choosing footwear– boots add weight, but they also add protection. That might be enough to sway your decision.
Foot Anatomy And Footwear Choice
In addition to the biomechanical research, it’s also helpful to understand how the foot and ankle work when choosing footwear. The human foot is unique in that it has a series of arches that help distribute weight and provide an effective springboard for the push-off phase of walking or running. Without these arches, we would not be able to efficiently walk upright. Your feet are naturally strong, resilient, and resistant to injury, and if you’ve been hiking a while, it’s likely that your ankles are, too.
Your ankle is made up of several different bones, joined by ligaments and tendons that cross over in front and behind to make the joint. Numerous muscles connect to the ankle as well, which are hypothetically what high-top shoes and boots protect. But orthopedic surgeons note that the best way to prevent ankle sprains is to strengthen them through exercise.
Considering toe position is also important when choosing footwear, because if you’re forcing your toes into a narrow, tapered toe box, you are actually impeding your natural balance. When your big toe is constrained and forced into an abnormal position, you lose some control over your ability to shift your weight back and forth. Think about balancing on narrow trails or traversing rocky paths, and you can immediately see why this is a problem. Toe springs– that’s the upward curvature of the toe box— can also cause problems as the unnatural upward flex of the toe tends to weaken the foot muscles.
What all this means is that you should choose footwear that:
- Allows your foot to flex naturally
- Fits your hiking / trail needs
- Lets your ankle have a decent range of motion
- Allows you to position your toes naturally
- Has a low or flat toe box
As noted by the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, people don’t all respond the same way to footwear features because we all have our own unique gaits and weight carriage. So a shoe that works great for you might be a poor fit for your buddy. Ultimately, you need to be familiar with the way you walk and your body’s specific needs.
Making The Decision
Now that you’re more familiar with the mechanical aspects of what hiking footwear can do, there are other things to consider before putting on a pair of shoes for the trail.
For many hikers, this is a key element of footwear choice. Boots, hiking shoes, and trail runners wear out at different rates. A good pair of boots can last more than 1,000 trail miles, but even the most durable trail runners might wear out after about 500 trail miles. The trade-off for that lightweight construction is that you’ll start to see signs of damage sooner. Depending on your activity level, you could find yourself going through several pairs of trail runners a year– or even on a single hike, if you’re a thru-hiker!
Personal Hiking Style
There are lots of little elements that can help you decide on what type of footwear to choose. How fast do you like to hike? Trail runners might be better for a quick pace, or if you’re on a longer hike and want to reduce weight. Does your body type mean that additional leg support, like that offered from a hiking boot, might make your hike more comfortable? It’s important to ask yourself how the shoes you choose contribute to your overall experience as a hiker.
If you’re brand new to trail use, especially if you’re brand new to backpacking, you might like a more rugged shoe option to help keep you upright as you learn to balance with a heavy pack.
If you’re hiking in the snow, you should use hiking boots. This is an important safety precaution. The high ankles on hiking boots will keep snow out, which means that your feet stay dry and warm and you don’t have to be as concerned about frostbite. Wet feet during a winter hike are a serious concern.
But if you’re a three-season hiker, you might take a different approach to keep your feet dry. In warmer conditions, a more breathable footwear style might be better at keeping your feet from getting swampy. Your sock choice can also make a big difference here, too, so don’t feel like you have to switch to trail runners if you prefer the stability that boots or hiking shoes provide.
Big, chunky soles are great for rough terrain. But If you hike primarily on well-groomed trails, you don’t need all that chunk and might prefer a lighter option. If your trail is often wet or slippery, you might like the stability of a lugged sole, or you might prefer the nimbleness that comes from trail runners.
You may also desire strong foot protection from the little things nature throws at you. Higher boots may provide better protection from thorns, rocks, poison ivy, biting insects, and other nuisances. And while the likelihood of snakebite is low, if you’re hiking in venomous snake territory, boots can offer you protection and peace of mind.
What About Waterproofing?
Here’s the thing about waterproof boots: They all still have holes in them for your feet and laces, and waterproof treatments don’t last forever. If your boots do get drenched, you now have a new problem. Your boots are now even heavier. Hiking shoes and trail runners, however, typically have lighter construction and include more breathable fabrics. This means that they are less water-resistant but dry more quickly.
The Most Important Factor
Taking all of that information into account, the most important aspect of footwear choice is this: Are the shoes or boots comfortable for you, and do you feel secure walking in them? No matter what the purported benefits might be, if you’re uncomfortable in a particular pair, don’t wear them.
Ultimately, the choice of hiking footwear is up to you– but it’s a decision you should make with as much knowledge and information as possible. It’s also important to remember that your decision doesn’t have to be final. You can try out different styles and have different pairs of footwear for different hikes. So long as you put both comfort and safety first, you should be fine in whatever shoes you choose!
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about