One of the most popular subjects, when it comes to hiking gear, is footwear. Traditionally, a hiker would choose between different styles of boots, but a boot it would be. Of course, they could choose between a hiking boot, a backpacking boot, and a mountaineering boot, but that’s about as much variety as you would get. Today, the discussion of footwear has broadened to incorporate a variety of choices to suite every hiker’s needs and preferences.
That variety has also made choosing the right footwear immensely confusing. If you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, you could end up a very unhappy hiker on the trail. Did you just get on your favorite outdoor website and hyperventilate over all of the footwear options? Don’t stress, we’ve got you covered.
Boots are the most traditional form of hiking footwear. Compared to everything else out on the market they offer more stability and protection, but they also carry more weight than all of the other options. If you’re looking for strong ankle support, stability, and protection against rocks, stones, sticks and snakes, then boots are probably your best bet. Boots are offered as hiking boots (lightest, least support), backpacking boots (mid-weight, mid-support), and mountaineering boots (heavy, high amount of support). So even within the boot category, manufacturers give you plenty to choose from.
Advantages: high amounts of support and durability, stiff mid-soles, good protection, most are waterproof, can accommodate heavy loads, good in most weather conditions, some can accommodate crampons.
Trail shoes are basically one step down from hiking boots, not in quality, but in weight and support. Trail shoes are low-cut with flexible insoles. Oftentimes they take the form of trail-running shoes, which offer lightweight support on the trail. Trail shoes are still protective and offer a large amount of cushion for your foot, but are not as intense as boots.
Advantages: lightweight support, durability, flexibility, protection, plenty of cushion.
Disadvantages: not water/weather proof, not as much support and protection as boots.
Minimalist shoes are more of a lifestyle choice than a footwear choice. The most famous minimalist shoe is the Vibram Five Fingers, but there are plenty more on the market in a variety of styles. Many ultralight backpackers choose to wear minimalist shoes on long-distance hikes because of their incredibly light weight. Those who do choose this style, however, warn that it’s something you have to ease into. Minimalist shoes condition muscles and ligaments in your feet, ankles, and calves that normal trail shoes or hiking boots don’t. The transition from traditional shoes to minimalist ones needs to be a slow and intentional process, otherwise there is a risk of injury. Although this type of shoe doesn’t offer much support, it trains the muscles in your foot to support itself, resulting in less injury. If you’re looking for something that’s extremely lightweight, builds strength in your foot muscles, and brings you closer to the ground, then minimalist shoes are for you!
Advantages: ultralight, flexible insoles, low-cut, builds foot muscles, easily drains water, light protection.
Disadvantages: no traditional support, takes training to use.
Sandals, such as Chacos, have become a hot topic, especially on the Appalachian Trail. There are many hikers switching over to this lightweight option and never looking back. Chacos are highly breathable and they last for a long time; one hiker claims that one pair lasted 1,200 miles on the AT. Since they are open-toed shoes, they offer a lot less protection from your surroundings, but there are many AT hikers who swear by them. If you’re looking for something that’s non-restrictive, lightweight, and breathable, then Chacos are your shoe. It might be a good idea, however, to wear socks on long-distance hikes because of the rubbing caused by the straps.
Advantages: breathable, long lasting, durable, lightweight.
Disadvantages: less ankle support, less protection, poor protection against weather.
Now that you understand what footwear options are available, you can make a better-informed choice when you make your next purchase. You want your feet to be happy out there, so treat them kindly!