The Beginner’s Guide to Hiking Shoes & Boots

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Hopefully, you have never had to experience the blisters, discomfort, and pain that accompanies hiking with the wrong kind of shoe. But if you have, you know the importance of choosing the right footwear for the occasion. Here is how to pick the perfect hiking shoes to make your next adventure as painless as possible.

Types of Shoes for Hiking

hiking-boots
Photo by Joanna Nix-Walkup

First, decide which kind of shoe to purchase. Hikers have several options:

  • Hiking boots: These have the most stability and support for challenging terrain. If you have weak ankles or knees, you will be carrying a heavy backpack, or you are a beginner, consider hiking boots.
  • Hiking shoes: These are lighter and offer less ankle support. Most are waterproof, and many can double as trail running shoes. Choose these if you prefer lighter shoes, you are an experienced hiker, you will not be carrying heavy loads, or you are taking a shorter day hike on an easy trail.
  • Mountaineering Boots: These are designed for use with crampons during high mountain hiking and glacial travel. They usually have a higher reach and are designed to provide warmth in colder climates. Consider these if you are hiking in snowy or rugged terrain.
  • Trail Runners: These are the most lightweight and lowest cut of all. They are less durable and less sturdy: however, if you are an experienced hiker and you want a lightweight option that will help you move fast, trail runners are a good choice.

Related Article: How To Pack Your Backpack For Hiking

Choosing the Right Fit

hiking shoes
Photo by Steve Buissinne

Once you know your shoe type, make sure you can find the right fit.

  • Wear the same types of socks to the store that you will be wearing on the trail. Many hiking socks are thicker than average cotton socks, and that will affect your fit.
  • Your index finger should fit between your heel and the back of the shoe before lacing it up.
  • Once your shoes are laced, make sure your toes do not touch the front of the shoe and your heel does not slip when you walk. Keep in mind that when you are hiking, your feet will swell due to increased blood flow. You should have enough room in the toe of the shoe, and your heel should not slip; otherwise, say hello to blisters.

Shoe Anatomy and Material Choices

Uppers determine a shoe’s weight, durability, water resistance, and breathability. They are made up of:

  • Full-grain leather (durable and very water-resistant)
  • Split grain leather (a mix with nylon mesh; it is lightweight, more breathable, cheaper, and less durable)
  • Nubuck leather (a buffed full-grain that resembles suede and has more flexibility than full-grain leather)
  • Synthetics like nylon, polyester, and synthetic leather (cheaper and less durable, but break in faster and dry quicker than leather)

Midsoles provide cushioning and shock resistance to your feet. They are made up of:

  • EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate), which is lighter, cheaper, and provides more cushion. It is the most common type.
  • Polyurethane, which is firmer and more durable. It is found in pricier hiking boots.

Outsoles are made up of rubber. They determine how much traction you have.

  • Some backpacking/mountaineering boots might also have carbon or other materials to add stiffness.
  • The lug pattern in the bottom of the shoe (which provides traction) needs to be widely spaced.
  • Consider waterproof outsoles when you will be in wet or snowy conditions, but if not, you might want a more breathable material.

Related Article: Wide Open Spaces: Get Started Hiking!

Overview

To find the right shoe for your needs, you will need to decide which shoe style you prefer. If you are a beginner, prone to injury, or you will be hiking on difficult terrain, you should pick a hiking boot with stiffness and stability. If you will be day hiking or on gentler terrain, consider lighter weight hiking shoes.

Once you find a shoe that fits you right and has the right materials for your budget and needs, you will be well on your way to your next hiking adventure – hopefully with minimal blisters on the way!

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