If you’re no stranger to the backcountry, you’ve likely done research on some of the best footwear for keeping your feet supported, dry, and warm in a variety of hiking environments. The most important part of being a responsible hiker is protecting your feet to avoid hazardous falls and potential injuries. Regular sneakers or tennis shoes are designed for more controlled surfaces. When you brave the outdoors, however, you need a specially designed shoe or boot to protect you throughout various kinds of terrain or environmental conditions.
For years, hikers and trail runners have scratched their heads over one highly debated topic: hiking shoes vs. hiking boots. We want to get to the heart of this footwear feud. With our help, you can take the next step in deciding which footwear solution is best for you and your lifestyle as well as the direction to provide advice to your friends and family on the trail.
Lace up, because we are about to finally reveal the advantages and disadvantages to choosing hiking shoes over hiking boots, and vice versa.
The Essential Differences Between a Hiking Shoe and a Hiking Boot
The technologies in your hiking footwear may seem insignificant, but it’s no small job protecting the 26 bones in each of your feet. Whether your parents started you young or you stumbled into this great outdoor activity on your own, you probably realized the value of specialized footwear to keep you going for miles going uphill, downhill, cross country, or over a blend of landscapes.
The most important feature of any hiking footwear is that it must provide adequate ankle support. Rolling hills and uneven terrains are expected when you head out on a new expedition, so you should equip yourself accordingly. Let’s explore the fundamental differences between a proper hiking shoe and boot.
There are a few classes of the hiking shoe, but the three primary styles are approach shoes, trail runners, and trail shoes. Nonetheless, hiking shoes have been growing in popularity in recent years. These trail innovations provide a great compromise between comfort and functionality, serving as a low-cut alternative with added flexibility. Do read our tips on how to select the top hiking shoes to keep you safe on the trail.
Though they look very similar to regular sneakers or running shoes, they typically feature lugged soles to enhance traction and help you move easily over a wide variety of grounds, such as mud, sand, rocks, or gravel. Unlike sneakers, hiking shoes have a broad range of internal and external features to provide superior foot protection. They commonly feature durable upper materials and stiff construction to keep your foot rotation limited.
You can usually find hiking shoes in light-, rugged-, or off-trail varieties. Though boots have been one of the more reliable choices for avid hikers, the concept for hiking shoes was first proposed in the first half of the twentieth century. Common features include toe guards, midsole absorption, internal shanks, and varied lug patterns.
Though there are boots for almost every type of outdoor activity, the hiking boot is one of the most tested and trusted footwear solutions for backpacking and mountaineering. Unlike the hiking shoe, hiking boots feature higher support to keep you from rolling your ankles as you power down treacherous terrain.
Hiking boots are designed to carry heavier loads thanks to their more durable construction and stiffer midsoles. The outsoles feature deeper, thicker lugs for added stability. Best of all, many heavyweight mountaineering boot styles feature crampon compatibility, so you can safely cross snow, ice, and other wintery obstacles. Other styles include light hiking boots and backpacking boots. Check out our piece on the best hiking shoes for wide feet for more options.
Advantages to Choosing Hiking Shoes
Although boots have long been known as the go-to for trekkers, hiking shoes are slowly becoming a favorite of the hiking community. Not only do hiking shoes combat the concerns of weight while hiking, but they also provide the flexibility you cannot find in a rigid boot. Let’s explore some of the most well-known advantages to choosing a hiking shoe.
- Weight: Hiking shoes are extremely lightweight. For thru-hikers and trail runners, shedding weight is a constant battle. Featuring lighter construction materials, such as synthetic or textile uppers, polyurethane foam midsoles, mesh, and ultralight rubber varieties, hiking shoes enable backpackers to move quickly so they can accomplish longer trails in a shorter amount of time.
- Flexibility: One of the greatest benefits to choosing hiking shoes is their flexibility. These shoes come in a wide range of cushioning choices, including barefoot, minimal, moderate, and maximum levels. They are the equivalent of a burlier running shoe, with some of the inherited protection qualities of their durable boot counterparts. Best of all, the midsoles are typically made of flexible materials such as polyurethane foam or EVA foam.
- Cost: The financial investment of selecting the best hiking footwear should not come down to price, but we understand why it would be an underlying component of your difficult decision. Hiking shoes are typically much more affordable than the traditional pair of hiking boots, so you can save on your initial investment if you are leading into lightweight hiking.
Disadvantages to Choosing Hiking Shoes
From what we have learned so far, hiking shoes are excellent for saving money and hiking lighter than ever before. What we have noticed, however, is that you sacrifice a lot of other valuable amenities when you select the lighter, more cost-effective option. Let’s take a closer look at some valid reasons for why hiking shoes may not be the ultimate solution for you.
- Terrain: Fans of hiking shoes and trail runners will probably tell you that hiking shoes can compete with hiking boots any day, but the fact of the matter comes down to protecting your ankles from more than just rolling. With hiking shoes, you run the risk of exposing your ankles to the constant abuses of the environment. Whether you’re bushwhacking, crossing a river, or scaling potentially dangerous cliff faces, your ankles are one misstep away from incurring a serious injury, even with the added protection of gaiters. Shoes of this kind are better utilized for shorter hikes on mild to moderate ground with minimal elevation gain, but the technologies in every brand of shoe are continuing to evolve. We wouldn’t be surprised if hiking shoes gain more advanced protection qualities as well as inventive product materials to fortify traction.
- Longevity: The softer rubber used in manufacturing the tread of the most prevalent brands of hiking shoes tends to wear down quickly. Most avid hikers will be lucky to get more than a single season of use out of their shoes. The materials used to create the lightweight construction also tend to break down quickly. Whether you’re planning on hiking the PCT or the Appalachian Trail, you need to realistically consider your experience level and speed before making your final decision. Several months and thousands of miles spent on an intense journey can wreak havoc on a seemingly reliable shoe. The most important of all factors is the season you intend to hike.
- Seasonality: Hiking shoes are first and foremost a three-season solution. Serious climbing in the colder months calls for a shoe or boot with insulation that will keep your feet warm even in subfreezing temperatures. We do not suggestion hiking shoes, because their lightweight construction restricts the insulating fabrics they use. Furthermore, your ankles would be exposed to dangerous temperatures that could pose serious health risks such as frostbite and amputation.
Advantages to Choosing Hiking Boots
For many years, hiking boots were the standard in protective footwear for dedicated mountaineers and hikers. Hiking boots provide the ankle protection you need to navigate rough terrain as well as the support to carry heavier pack weights. Let’s explore the factors involved in these time-tested choices.
- Protection: One of the most important factors in adequate protection that you will ever learn as a hiker is torsional rigidity. The more rigid construction found in any high-quality hiking boot provides more stability than you can find in a hiking shoe. If you plan on hiking rough and uneven trails, a hiking boot may be the better choice for your intended type of trekking. The medium to high collars found in hiking boots tend to keep out snow and other extreme environmental debris.
- Longevity: Some of the most common materials used to manufacture high-performance hiking boots is leather, nylon, and suede. The tread, however, features more durable rubber than that found in the construction styles of trail runners or lightweight hiking shoes. You can count on hiking boots to last you longer. Though the cost of quality is significant, we are confident that if you do a lot of research and fit evaluations, you will find value in the investment of a pair of boots.
- Seasonality: Hiking boots are an excellent choice for serious hiking in any season. We love that hiking boots perform as well in the summer as they do in the winter, but they may be overkill on lighter, shorter hikes with not a lot of elevation gain. Nevertheless, you can choose between backpacking or mountaineering styles to combat the trails that few might brave in the cold.
Disadvantages to Choosing Hiking Boots
Hiking boots are still a widely popular choice for avid day hikers or backpackers. Even though they typically last longer than shoes and can provide protection from a broader range of environmental hazards, there are some drawbacks to choosing a standard. Let’s take a closer look at why you may second-guess the traditional choice.
- Comfort: It should be no surprise to hikers at any experience level that hiking boots take much longer than shoes to break in. Another thorny fact in choosing hiking boots is that they cost a lot to maintain in order to keep their optimum form for performance. If you are willing to take the possible pain of transitioning into new hiking boots, we still believe that boots are a reliable option for hikers of any caliber. Though the midsoles are not as flexible, you may find their rigidity to be a blessing on long, rough hikes.
- Resistance: If you have already done some research on the common components of hiking boots, chances are that you have already realized that the “waterproof” claim or water-resistant capabilities may come at a price. Many kinds of hiking boots boast waterproof qualities at the expense of ventilation. In short, this sacrifice means that you run the risk of sweating profusely, thus increasing your vulnerability to blisters. You can combat this vulnerability by investing in high-performance socks. Beware of cotton socks that also restrict your feet from breathing.
Tips for Finding a Pair that Fits
For the most accurate determination of which footwear solution may be best for you and your intended applications, we suggest that you get a professional fit assessment. The natural biomechanics of your feet play a major role in the decision of choosing between hiking shoes and hiking boots, and it is not a role to take lightly.
We also suggest that you break in your shoes or boots before your first trip to avoid sore feet or the risk of very painful blisters. The last thing you want is to be halfway up a trail when you discover a hot spot on the bottom of your foot.
As we have learned, hiking shoes are an excellent choice for a trail runner or day hiker that wants to move quickly and with ease. These hikers like to stay as light as possible and understand that their shoes won’t last forever. Hiking boots, on the other hand, will last a long time, sometimes years or decades depending on quality. Last, but not least, be humble by remembering your background, experience level, expectations, and projected level of use. See more tips on how to keep yourself safe when hiking and be prepared for anything.
The most important aspect to deciding which footwear solution is best geared toward you and your motivations is staying safe as you discover the unchartered territories we all dream of exploring. Protect yourself well by choosing the optimum product for your terrain of choice. Do you think there are any essential advantages or disadvantages we forgot to mention? If so, please let us know in the comments below!