How to choose the best footwear for your hike
There's a lot of debate online about hiking boots vs. hiking shoes, but it's not as simple as one or the other. There are different types of boots and shoe, and then there's trail running shoes, ultra-light trainers and hiking sandals to think about too. Would you know how to choose appropriate footwear for your hike? We'll be exploring types of footwear, the pros and cons of each, and how to make sure you choose the right footwear for your needs.
Let's start with hiking boots...
Alot of people online will tell you that boots are unnecessary and you should swap for trail runners, but it's really just personal preference. Boots are great in colder months because they are thicker and warmer, but in Summer this makes them uncomfortably hot and can lead to sweating and blisters. Buying a boot with breathable material will reduce the risk of blisters in comparison to a leather boot, but they will be less waterproof. Leather boots will keep the water out if you're splashing through puddles, more so than any other hiking footwear, however they do not dry out very well. If you get water over the top of your leather boot, you'll end up with puddles in your shoes for the rest of your hike, and a high chance of blisters. Not good for a multi-day hike!
One of the great things about hiking boots, is how sturdy they are. Boots give your ankles more protection and have tough soles; great for hikes on uneven rocky ground. I wore my hiking boots for 600 miles along the Appalachian Trail, whilst Chris switched to his trail runners. Chris complained of sore, aching feet on the rocky sections because his trainers bent over each rock, sending pain up through his foot. I had a lot of cushioning, which protected my feet from the rocks, but after a couple of days rain my feet were covered in blisters.
Boots are best for - cold, but dry hikes on uneven ground.
Hiking shoes have the sturdy sole and thick padding of a boot, but without the ankle support. This is great if you want more freedom and mobility, and also means you won't get blisters around your ankles, which can happen in tight fitting boots. Some hiking shoes are more like trainers in their appearance, with breathable sides and a slender fit, whilst others almost as heavy as boots. Heavier shoes tend to take longer to wear in, but the padding will eventually mold around your foot to create the perfect fit. Lighter shoes allow you to feel the ground and focus on your foot positioning better, and they are easier to break in, but they don't last as long. If you're thinking about buying hiking shoes for a potentially wet hike, we'd recommend shoes protected with Gortex, as they'll be more waterproof. Hiking shoes dry out quicker than boots, but not as fast as trail runners.
Hiking shoes are best for - long hikes and uneven ground.
These are basically running trainers with more grip. Trail runners are becoming increasingly popular with hikers because they wear in really quickly and are very breathable. Designed for high impact running, they still have some padding and a comfortable fit, however they do not last as long as hiking shoes or boots. Trail runners are not waterproof, so your feet will get wet quickly in puddles and rain, but they dry out extremely quickly. This makes them a good option for short, wet hikes, as you can dry them out overnight. The main con with trail runners is that the soles are more flexible and will bend over rocks, which can cause pain in your feet if hiking on uneven ground.
Trail runners are best for - shorter hikes, and wet, muddy conditions.
Ultra Light Trainers
Ultra-light trainers are similar to trail runners, but much lighter in weight with less grip. They are mainly worn by runners and ultra-runners, but can be worn hiking if you're used to wearing them. As they are so minimalist, they have no waterproofing and no padding, so would not be recommended as a first pair of hiking shoes. However, ultra-runners love them because they allow you to take notice of your gait and to feel where you are putting your feet. You'll be able to feel every rock and stone underfoot, which is not ideal for untrained feet on a long hike. However this is great for runners because it helps to increase awareness of any aches and pains, so you can focus on improving your biomechanics and posture. Some hiking shoe brands are starting to make ultra-light hiking shoes, which have more grip on the soles, but we'd still recommend trying them on and sticking to short hikes initially until your feet and ankles are adapted to them.
Ultra-light trainers are best for - people who are adapted to minimalist shoes, and short distances on even ground.
Sandals aren't particularly comfortable for long or challenging hikes as straps can cause rubbing and blisters, but they are a great back-up on multi-day hikes as they can be used as camp shoes in the evenings and are relatively lightweight. Due to the exceptionally fast drying time, they are great for river crossings and flooded paths, but be aware of any debris as they don't provide protection to your feet. Hiking sandals are great for sightseeing holidays and Summer vacations involving a lot of walking, because they provide a lot more support to your feet than normal sandals and have fairly decent grip on the soles.
Hiking sandals are best for - shorter hikes in hot weather, or as camp shoes on multi-day hikes as they can be changed into quickly for river crossings and flooded sections.
Ultimately, choosing footwear for a hike is dependent on the terrain, length of hike and weather conditions you'll likely face. Whichever option you decide on, make sure you try them on and are happy that they fit well. If your shoes are uncomfortable in the store, they will be much worse after several miles on uneven ground. It's always worthwhile trying your shoes on with the socks you'll be wearing when you hike, to see if they still fit well. Hiking socks are great because they reduce sweating, odor and blisters, but they are thicker than normal socks so will feel different in your shoes. Once you've bought your new shoes, make sure you wear them in before going on a long hike. If in doubt, take extra blister plasters in your hiking pack!
What do you think about this article? Do you have a preference for hiking footwear? Leave a comment below!