How to Find the Best Hiking Boots, Shoes, or Sandals

Today, the design of hiking shoes and boots are much more specialized than they used to be, venturing into all sorts of categories, like trail running and alpine mountaineering. It’s wonderful that there are so many choices out there, but that’s also what makes the entire process all the more confusing.

The type of hiking shoes you eventually settle on will coordinate with the type of hiking you do, which is why you need an idea of where you’ll be hiking and what the conditions will be.

In this article, we’ll take you through the main types of hiking footwear and also explain a few less common options for specific types of exploring. We’ll explain the main components of hiking boots and talk about the materials most commonly used. Then, we’ll help you find the right fit and teach you what to look for to quickly assess quality.

Types of Hiking Footwear

The three main types of hiking footwear are hiking shoes, day hiking boots and backpacking boots. Which type you choose will depend on where you’ll be hiking; the time of year and weather; how much you’ll be carrying on your back; and how experienced a hiker you are. There are also different types of advanced or hybrid shoes that are worn when mountain climbing, winter hiking or rafting.

A Note About Women-Specific Footwear

Certain outdoor gear is unisex, but footwear is specifically designed for men or women for a reason. Men’s hiking boots tend to have thicker ankle areas, so women may find the ankles in women’s hiking boots more comfortable. Women’s shoes are also cut more narrow, specifically in the heel, which can help keep your heel in place and prevent slippage. Having a snug heel is also important in trail running shoes because it provides extra ankle support.

Here are a few resources worth checking out for Women’s hiking footwear:

Hiking Shoes

Hiking shoes – as opposed to hiking boots – are low-cut (similar to athletic sneakers) and have flexible midsoles. Some hiking shoes looks similar to running sneakers (though they’re built differently), while others will look like a low-cut version of hiking boots. You don’t want to carry a lot of weight when wearing hiking shoes because they’re not designed to support heavy loads.

Hiking shoes are great for easy-to-moderate day hiking on well-defined trails, and lightweight versions can withstand longer treks if you’re going to be trail running. Trail running shoes are the lightest and most flexible type of hiking shoe, and it’s important to note that they usually have the least amount of protection and support.

Seasoned hikers who have a lot of strength in their lower body may be able to wear hiking shoes on longer, rugged trails or when carrying heavier weight.

Trail Runners

Trail runners are a type of hiking shoe, but they’re deserving of their own section. Here are a few details specific to trail runners:

  • Lightweight trail runners will have minimal grip, but you can find more rugged styles and off-trail runners with traction close to regular hiking shoes.
  • Some trail running sneakers have a sticky rubber component that makes it easier to grip wet logs and rocks.
  • Trail runners are specifically designed to grip as you’re moving fast, so they could lose traction if you slow down – when you slow your stride, the physics of the shoe changes.
  • There’s almost no break-in period at all, other than simply getting used to a new pair of shoes.
  • Since trail runners are made of lighter, more flexible material, you’ll have to replace them more often than your regular hiking shoes or boots.

There are a lot of different options if you want hiking shoes or boots that are light enough for trail running. For example, you can find lightweight day hiking boots that you won’t have trouble running in, and there are also high top trail running sneakers that provide extra ankle support.

Day Hiking Boots

Day hiking boots can be either mid- or high-cut, and they’re meant for day hikes or short backpacking trips if you’re going to be carrying a light-to-moderate load. They’re flexible and break-in pretty quickly. They don’t have as much durability or support as heavier duty backpacking boots, though, so if you’re going on a major hike, they’re not the best option. Also, beginner hikers who don’t have a lot of strength in their ankles, feet and legs may want to wear day hiking boots even for light hikes, as they’ll help prevent injury better than hiking shoes.

Backpacking Boots

Backpacking boots are specifically meant to be worn when you have a heavy load on your back, and they’re the best choice for a multi-day trip through the deep backcountry. Most backpacking boots are high cut to give the ankle extra support. Since these types of boots are more durable and supportive than other types of hiking shoes, and because they have stiffer midsoles, they’re meant for long-term travel whether you’re on or off the trail.

Give yourself plenty of time to break-in backpacking boots before wearing them on a major hike. Wear them as much as possible for two weeks prior to your trip.

The following is a guide to our best resources for specific boot types and conditions:

Specialty Hiking Shoes

Sometimes the outdoor adventure sport or activity you’re planning doesn’t call for such a traditional hiking shoe or boot. There are several specialized options available to suit your situation, including the following:

Hot Weather Hiking Boots

If you are looking for something specific to hot weather, ventilation is key. The follow guide will focus your search:

View the Top Hot Weather Hiking Boots

Composite Toe Hiking Boots

For more durable outdoor hiking and working (think Forestry Service, Peace Corps, Outward Bound):

View the Top Cold Weather Hiking Boots

Steel Toe Hiking Boots

For truly protective hiking boots, opting for a steel toe is a good insurance policy for your toes:

View the Top Steel Toe Hiking Boots

Approach Shoes

These climbing-hiking shoe hybrids are used by climbers who need to make their way over rocky terrain in order to get to the climbing site (to “approach” the climbing site, which is why they have that name).

  • Special lacing that extends toward the toe, which gives the climber more control
  • Protective rands (we’ll explain what they are a bit later)
  • Rubber soles that are specifically designed to be sticky for rock scrambling

Mountaineering Boots

These hardcore backpacking boots are designed to be used in alpine settings and extreme conditions, like crossing glaciers, ice climbing, and winter trekking. While you may hear the terms “backpacking boots” and “mountaineering boots” used interchangeably, it’s important to know the conditions you’ll be hiking in so that you get the boots with the most protection.

  • Removable liners
  • Stiff design that can be used with crampons
  • Tall uppers for more support and warmth
  • Waterproof shells
  • May include synthetic insulation to keep you warmer

Water Shoes and Sandals

This footwear is best to wear on slot canyon hikes and rafting trips when you’re going to be heading out on side hikes. The outsoles usually have both sticky rubber for improved traction on slippery rocks and hard rubber to make them more durable. When shopping for water shoes, make sure there’s plenty of drainage and toe protection. You can view our round-up of the top hiking sandals, or our brand specific guides below:

Chacos Hiking Sandals

Chacos is a very popular brand of hiking sandals, founding in 1989 for casual outdoor fun.

View the Top Chacos for Hiking Here

Winter Hiking Boots

Sometimes winter trekking doesn’t require boots that are as rugged as alpine mountaineering boots – walking on some ice and through snow on a semi-flat trail is a lot different from scaling a glacier. Here are a few things to keep in mind when shopping specifically for winter hiking boots:

Insulating materials will provide warmth without bulk, and you want to aim for 400-800 grams of insulation. For extra cold hikes, look for double-layer insulation instead of single-layer

  • Mid- or high-cut boots will provide support and keep snow out.
  • Look for waterproof materials; rubber lowers; and leather uppers. Or, in a pinch, you can waterproof your current hiking boots with a spray (it takes 24 hours to work).
  • Removable liners are a must-have because you can take them out to dry if they get wet.

Leg Muscles vs Type of Hiking Shoe

The more time you spend hiking, the stronger your feet, ankles, knees and legs will be. As you develop “hiking muscles” in your lower body, you can shave some support off your footwear by choosing lighter hiking shoes. Always make sure to be safe, though – even an experienced hiker can slip on a rugged scramble and twist an ankle, and an injury like that can quickly get dangerous in the backcountry.

Weight

The heavier your boot is, the more your legs have to work. Keep this in mind if weight on the trail is an issue or if you want to get through certain hikes quickly – there may not be a need to wear backpacking boots when day hiking boots provide plenty of support, for example.

Important Components

Knowing the detailed components of hiking shoes will help you further narrow your choices. Each area of the hiking shoe or boot is designed for the type of hiking you’ll be doing. For example, trail running shoes will be made of more lightweight, flexible materials than backpacking boots.

Cut

We talked about cut a little bit when we went over the different types of hiking shoes and boots, but let’s run through it again in more detail:

Low-Cut

  • Similar look to running shoes
  • Best for casual, lightweight hiking on well-maintained trails
  • Makes you more vulnerable to ankle injury

Mid-Cut

  • Improves balance
  • Offers more ankle support
  • Provides more of a buffer between you and debris from the trail

High-Cut

  • Provides the most balance and ankle support
  • Best for adventurous hikers on dangerous terrain
  • Can be used on- and off-trail

Internal Support

Plates

  • Thin, semi-flexible inserts between the midsole and outsole
  • Keep feet from being bruised by rocks or roots

Shanks

  • 3- to 5-millimeter inserts between the midsole and outsole, above the plate
  • Adds stiffness and the ability to bear heavier loads to the midsole
  • Vary in length to cover half or full midsole

Midsoles

The midsole is the part of the hiking boot between the ground and your foot. This is where you’ll find the cushioning that will protect your feet from the shock of impact. The midsole materials determine how stiff the hiking shoe is.

You might not think you want a stiff hiking shoe, but it’s actually best for long or rugged hikes. Rocky, uneven terrain is easier to handle with stiffer boots –a stiff midsole can actually keep your more comfortable and stable than a flexible midsole on a challenging hike. Stiff boots prevent your foot from wrapping around things like rocks and roots every time you step.

There are two common materials used in the midsole

  • Ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA): Cushy, light and low cost. Varying densities throughout the midsole offer more firm support in areas that need it (like the forefoot).
  • Polyurethane: Durable and firm, often used in backpacking and mountaineering boots.

Outsoles

All hiking shoes have rubber in the outsoles, and sometimes an additive like carbon is included in backpacking and mountaineering boots to make them even tougher. A harder outsole can make the boot more durable, but it can also make the shoe feel more slick if you’re off-trail.

Heel Brake

  • The heel zone area that’s separate from the arch and forefoot
  • Lowers your chance of sliding as you go down a steep descent

Lug Pattern

  • Bumps for traction, located on the outsole
  • Wide-spaced lugs have good traction and shed mud
  • Backpacking and mountaineering boots have deep, thick lugs, which help with grip

If you’re going to be hiking during the winter, you’ll want to look for boots that are compatible with crampons, which are metal traction devices that attach to your boot, making it easier to move over slick terrain. You can also find hiking boots that have accommodations for snowshoes.

Uppers

The “upper” of a hiking boot refers to the upper area. The main job of this part of the boot is to protect and support your foot thanks to a snug fit. The materials that are used in the upper affect breathability, durability, water resistance and weight. Here’s what you should know about the common materials found in hiking boot uppers:

Full Grain Leather

  • Better durability, abrasion-resistance and water-resistance
  • Not as breathable or light as other materials
  • Allow a lot of break-in time before your trip
  • Commonly used in backpacking boots (longer trips, heavier loads, rugged terrain)

Nubuck Leather

  • Full grain leather that’s been buffed to look like suede
  • Durable and resistant to both abrasion and water
  • Somewhat flexible, but still requires a lot of break-in time prior to a long trip

Split Grain Leather

  • Made with part-leather and part-synthetics
  • Less costly than other materials
  • Usually combined with nylon or nylon mesh for a breathable, lightweight hiking shoe
  • Not very abrasion- or water-resistant

Synthetics

  • Includes nylon, polyester and synthetic leather, which are often found in modern hiking shoes
  • More lightweight than other materials, quick break-in time, low cost and fast-drying
  • May show signs of wear faster than other materials because there’s more stitching on the exterior of the boot
  • Not as water-resistant as other materials

Waterproof

  • Waterproof membrane, like eVent, Gore-Tex (GTX) or OutDry, between the lining and the outer layer
  • Feet stay dry even during wet conditions
  • Locks out moisture, but allows vapor to escape so socks don’t get saturated with sweat
  • Often has an anti-microbial treatment to prevent odors
  • The waterproof membrane reduces breathability a bit
  • Best for hiking in cold, damp, muddy, snowy or wet weather
  • Slightly higher in weight than other types of hiking shoes

You may also find some uppers that are made with vegan-friendly materials, meaning there aren’t any animal byproducts or ingredients.

If you’re going to be wearing your hiking shoes or boots only during dry, warm weather, look for a lightweight pair that has a lot of ventilation and extra mesh in the upper.

More Features

  • Gusseted Tongue: This type of tongue connects to the upper, which keeps debris, dirt, rocks and water out of your shoe
  • Padded Collar: A thick collar that improves ankle support and comfort
  • Rand: A tough rubber guard either on the front of the shoe or around the entire edge that reinforces areas of high impact to offer protection and increase the shoe’s lifespan

Finding the Right Fit

The last thing you want to do is hit the trail in a pair of hiking shoes that don’t fit right – even a quick hour-long hike can become a painful experience, ending with blisters, sores and aching toes. Hiking shoes should be snug all over without being tight (if you can’t wiggle your toes, your shoes are too tight).

Once you find a brand that fits well, stick with them – they usually use the same foot model over and over, so you’ll have an easier time finding a similar fit when you’re ready for a new pair.

Here’s what else you need to know about finding the right fit.

Sizing

The best way to find your true size for hiking shoes is to visit an outdoor store and have them measure your arch, length and width. Outdoor shops have specially calibrated devices to help find your size. A specialist will also be able to assess your foot volume, which is another important component of getting the right fit.

In order to double-check that your hiking shoes are the right fit, remove the insoles and stand on them. You should have some space between your big toe (or your longest toe) and the end of the insole – a thumb’s width is ideal. Alternatively, you can keep them unlaced and stand upright, slide your foot all the way forward so that your toes touch the front, and then try to put an index finger between your heel and the back of the shoe.

Tying Strategies

Your knot strategy can affect how your boot fits. For example, a heel lock tying strategy can prevent heel slippage, which is when your foot moves forward as you step, forcing your toes against the front of the boot and/or rubbing your heel against the back of the shoe. Try different lacing strategies to see if they improve the fit.

Tips for Trying on Hiking Boots

When shopping for hiking boots, it’s best to try them on at the end of the day, because this is when your feet are swollen and it’ll prevent you from buying too-small shoes. Also, try on your hiking boots with the hiking socks you’ll be wearing, as well as any orthotics you use.

Walk around the store a bit to see how the boots feel after a few minutes. Ask for a slant board, too, which is a small board with an incline that you can walk on. Outdoor stores often have these, and they’re extra helpful to assess if there’s any heel slippage as you descend.

Problems to Watch Out For

There are a few things you definitely don’t want to feel when trying on hiking shoes:

Bumps or seams that you can feel
Pinching in the forefoot
Space above the top of your foot even when laced firmly
Toes that touch the front of the boot when you’re on an incline

Checking for Quality

Some of the more well-known hiking shoe brands are known for quality, but if you want to know how well-made your shoes or boots are before you buy them, here are a few things to check:

  • The connections between the different parts of the shoe should be tight without any weak spots.
  • If you’re able to twist the boot (like how you’d wring a towel), the midsoles are too soft. (Lightweight trail runners will be more flexible, though.)
  • Make sure the heel is firm instead of soft or squishy.
  • The stitching shouldn’t have any missed spots or loose threads.
  • Leather should be smooth throughout – check for abrasion, unevenness and thinning.
  • The lugs – the bumps on the outsole that provide traction – should be thick and solid. If the lugs are soft or spongy, they’ll wear down quickly.
  • Laces should be made of braided nylon and the eyelets should be sturdy.

Last Thoughts on Finding the Right Fit

Keep in mind that you might not find everything you need in just one hiking shoe or boot, especially if you’re going to be doing a few different types of hiking. For example, you may want a pair of lightweight trail runners for fast walks or jogs on your favorite flat trail, then switch to heavier hiking shoes or day hiking boots for your longer hikes on the weekend. Think about the two (or more) types of adventure sports and hiking you do regularly and get the shoes to match.

Hiking Shoe Review Directory

The following is a full A-Z listing of ALL of our published reviews on hiking shoes and boots, broken down by brand. 

Asolo Hiking Footwear

Chaco Hiking Footwear

Columbia Hiking Footwear

Danner Hiking Footwear

Five Ten Hiking Footwear

Keen Hiking Footwear

La Sportiva Hiking Footwear

Lowa Hiking Footwear

Merrell Hiking Footwear

Oboz  Hiking Footwear

Patagonia Hiking Footwear

Vasque Hiking Footwear

Salomon Hiking Footwear

Scarpa Hiking Footwear

Under Armour Hiking Footwear

Zamberlan Hiking Footwear