Whether you’re a day hiker, overnight backpacker, yo-yo hiker, thru-hiker or just completely new to the idea of hiking, choosing the right hiking footwear will make all the difference for any trail you seek to pursue.
Particularly, you will need really good hiking shoes or boots when trailing on rough, un-manicured terrains. It is either that or you risk having black toenails, blisters, sprained ankles or other serious injuries.
Sandwiched between hiking boots and shoes are other subtypes of hiking footwear such as hiking sandals and trail runners. However, we seek to demystify the intricacies of hiking shoes and boots as well as expound on when to wear either of the two.
Broadly speaking, hiking footwear come in three main forms namely low-cut, mid-cut and high-cut models. Hiking shoes fall under the low-cut models while hiking boots and backpacking/mountaineering boots fall under mid- to high-cut models respectively.
The choice for either of the form factors should be made after accounting for the type of terrain or distance you seek to embark on.
Other worthy mentions that slightly differ from the above include gaiters, barefoot or minimalist shoes, and hiking sandals.
The upper is simply the part of the shoe that encases the foot above the sole and is further made of parts such as the quarter, vamp, eyelets, tongue, and the toe cap or toe puff. Typically, hiking shoes and hiking boots don’t differ much on the structure of the upper section of the footwear.
However, you can expect the hiking boot uppers to be firmer, more durable and rugged unlike in most hiking shoes. The uppers will impact on the shoe’s weight, water resistance and breathability aspects depending on the material used.
You can expect uppers made of split-grain leather, full-grain leather, Nubuck leather, Suede, and synthetic leathers (Polyester or Nylon). There’s also a good number of options in the market with waterproofing linings and membranes.
Hiking boots with leather uppers are especially preferred due to the abrasion-resistance, durability, and water-resistance qualities of the leather material.
Notably, hiking shoes will favor breathability instead of waterproofing to allow for quicker, longer and nimbler hiking while most hiking boots focus on waterproofing and overall protection over rough terrains.
This is the section between the upper and the outer sole of the shoe that is mostly made of Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) and/or Polyurethane (PU).
Hiking boots are mostly designed around providing adequate foot support, shock absorption, and stability. Hiking shoes on the other hand are built around flexibility and comfort. Therefore, you might find better-cushioning midsoles in hiking shoes unlike in hiking boots.
To prevent your ankle from spraining, rolling or twisting, your footwear of choice should be well-fitting and offer some degree of ankle support. Mid- to high-cut hiking boots will tend to offer the best ankle support as compared to hiking shoes, which provide little to no support whatsoever.
Hiking boots wrap around the ankles to offer support while a generously-padded collar may also be in place to improve on ankle support as well as provide comfort. The improved ankle support goes a long way especially when carrying heavy loads over long distances.
Firstly, you can expect most hiking boots to be a little heavier than hiking shoes. However, a good number of brands are making light, fashionable and functional boots at affordable rates so you don’t have to be held down by heavy hiking boots.
Related: The Best Hiking Boots for Men
That said, if you intend to carry a heavy backpack (50-60lbs), then wearing mid-weight or heavy hiking boots would be more ideal for you as opposed to hiking shoes. Hiking boots will offer much better ankle support when carrying heavy backpacks on a wide variety of terrains.
On the other hand, hiking shoes are best suited for day hikes where you don’t have to carry very heavy loads with you. An afternoon’s long walk in the woods that doesn’t require any pack? Hiking shoes or even lighter hiking sandals will work just fine.
A key thing to remember is that your loaded backpack should not surpass 20 percent of your body weight.
Proper care and maintenance of your hiking shoes and hiking boots are required so that you can get the most value and performance out of them. This can be achieved by cleaning, regularly conditioning and polishing your shoes as well as storing them in a cool dry place.
Cleaning has to be done meticulously as some parts of the shoes might lose their waterproofing or breathability qualities or even get damaged. To maintain breathability, keep off creams, silicone solutions or polishes as they tend to block the fabric’s pores.
Hiking boots pose a slight challenge when it comes to cleaning and maintenance since they will mostly feature leather and fabric uppers. Luckily, you don’t have to clean your boots after every trek. Instead, just use a toothbrush or a soft brush and rag to get rid of any loose dirt and grit.
If further cleaning is necessary, dampen the brush in lukewarm water and scrub out the dirt stains from the boot. Next, remove the insoles (if possible), undo the laces and leave to air dry at room temperature.
When the boots are completely dry, you can apply your conditioner or waterproofing spray of your choice. However, do keep in mind that too much conditioner on your full-grain leather boots will overly soften them and compromise on their overall protection.
Also, to preserve your leather hiking boots, you must keep them dust-free at all times as dust cuts into the leather.
Most hiking shoes are far less demanding when it comes to cleaning and maintenance as their components are made of washable materials. Those made of fabrics can be easily hand-washed while others are also just as easy to clean using a soft brush, water, and soap.
Remember to dislodge as much dirt or mud before cleaning the hiking shoes with water.
Always air dry your hiking shoes or hiking boots since exposing them to excessive heat may damage the leather, adhesives, fabrics, and linings. A clever trick to speed up the process is to stuff some old newspapers into the shoes to absorb some of the moisture.
Under NO circumstances should you dry them by a fire, car heater or house radiator!
Hiking shoes and hiking boots vary in terms of materials used to make them and thus you should learn more about footwear care for a better hiking experience. Of equal importance is that you should always take off your shoes without stepping on the collar as this weakens the heel panel and may cause heel slippage over time.
Whether a boot or a shoe, good quality footwear should offer a snug fit around your foot (more so at the heel) and wiggle room for your toes as well as ankle support if possible. Different manufacturers will have different sizing depending on the design of the shoe, so pay close attention to the sizing charts and online reviews.
Looking around for the perfectly fitting hiking shoes or boots will pretty much follow the same guidelines and procedures.
Initially, you must have your feet measured to get their right size, width, and even arch length, all of which can be done at your nearby shoe store using a Brannock Device.
A good time to shop for shoes is in the afternoon or evening when your feet have swollen, as they naturally do. This will ensure that the boots or shoes won’t tighten during the day due to heat and so on.
Take your time testing out the hiking shoes or boots by walking around the store to ensure there are no potential stress points, hot spots or general discomfort within them.
As for online shoppers, most retailers will allow returns if you haven’t used the shoes outside so feel free to try them extensively at the comfort of your own home.
You should also wear hiking socks that you intend to wear during your hike with the shoes/boots. Wool-made wicking socks and orthotic inserts can also greatly improve the fitting of the footwear, especially in hiking boots.
Commonly, new hiking boots may cause blisters on your feet due to their unforgiving leather components. Therefore, it is paramount that you take time to break-in them before hitting the trails.
Shoe stretchers do come in handy in softening the leather upper and in effect preventing hot spots that usually cause blisters.
You can break in your new hiking boots by wearing them for short walks around the office, mall or your home. Then you can opt to carry some weight and increase mileage as you prepare to take on your hiking trail of choice.
Applying conditioner to your new full-grain leather boots will greatly lessen their break-in period.
While hiking boots require some break-in period, hiking shoes are ready to go right out-of-the-box.
When it comes to deciding on which hiking footwear to wear or even buy, the fit should be at the top of your checklist. Also, if you want to go for long-distance hiking trails then the sturdiness of your footwear should come a close second.
It’s always good practice to try out both – hiking shoes and hiking boots – to see what works for you. However, many well-seasoned hikers and outdoorsy enthusiasts will agree that each of these footwears have their own strengths and weaknesses as is detailed below.
Hiking shoes are definitely not the best for winter hiking but they tend to be more comfortable than your typical hiking boots. They come in all shapes and colors; in fact, hiking shoes have become a part of everyday wear for most people.
To distinguish from the fashion-first and the functionality-first variants in the market, be sure to check for practical aspects such as waterproofing ability, arch support, lacing style, and stitching.
Hiking shoes are perfect for;
Hiking shoes closely resemble sneakers at first glance and are usually very comfy, lightweight and agile to move around in. They offer a comfortable fit out of the box without the need for any break-in period.
They perform best in dry weather and on easy-to-moderate trails and may even be more breathable than hiking boots. However, hiking shoes are less durable and they also lack adequate ankle support and protection over rough surfaces.
Generally, hiking boots are less heavy when compared to mountaineering and backpacking boots. Plus, they offer incredible performance on trails of moderate difficulty.
A good quality pair of hiking boots should have properly-stitched soles, waterproofing components, stiff foot support, good traction, and a reliable leather/synthetic leather upper.
Related: The Best Hiking Boots for Women
You will want to wear hiking boots when;
Additionally, hiking boots have more pronounced lugs that will provide unparalleled traction on slippery surfaces such as muddy and snow-covered terrain. You will also be well protected in boots from crawling critters such as snakes as opposed to when wearing hiking shoes.
Hiking boots will suffice for moderate winter hikes if and only if you don’t intend to do so for multiple days. Otherwise, you are better off investing in some good quality backpacking or mountaineering heavy boots and gaiters, particularly those with adequate insulation.
Also, do keep in mind that hiking boots take time to break in, are harder to pack, are costlier and heavier than hiking shoes, and will probably take longer to dry when wet.
Hiking boots are preferred by most people for their durability, ankle support, excellent traction and protection on rough, uneven terrain. On the other hand, hiking shoes are well in their league when it comes to being easily packable, fashionable, lightweight and quick-drying.
Clearly, a coin toss won’t do in settling this fiery debate. Thus, we recommend that you consider other useful features such as ankle support, weight, waterproofing ability, protection and so on when picking which hiking footwear to go for. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.