When it comes to choosing hiking footwear, ideally you want something that is comfortable, relatively lightweight and built to handle the conditions in which you will be doing most of your rambling. However, there is no panacea – no one model to rule them all. Factors such as foot type, injury history, pack and body weight, and the dictates of the environment in which you will be hiking, should all be considered when deciding on what footwear is right for you.
In the article below I look at the strengths and weaknesses of the principal options (i.e. boots, hiking shoes, trail runners, and sandals), as well as provide a rundown of recommended brands and a timeline of my own choices over the past three decades. For those interested, in the companion piece to this article – Trail Runners Vs Hiking Boots: A 30 Year Perspective – I address why I prefer the former option for three-season backpacking trips, examine the commonly held belief that boots provide a greater degree of stability and support than low-cut trail shoes, and finally delve into why your choice of footwear should be considered as a part of an overall lightweight approach to backpacking.
Full-grain Leather Boots
High-cut full-grain leather boots are overkill for all types of backpacking trips, with the possible exception of excursions into snowy, sub-freezing environments. Even in those conditions, I prefer to go with a mid-cut synthetic/leather model (see below).
Ballpark Weight – 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs) and up.
Upper Material: Full-grain leather
- The most durable, waterproof, and warmest of all backpacking footwear.
- Quality leather hiking boots represent excellent long-term value for money – if you take care of the leather upper and replace the sole when needed, a single pair can last for years and thousands of miles (see My History below).
- Require a long break-in period.
- Initially expensive.
- Little to nothing in the way of breathability. Poor option for warmer climates.
- They take forever and a day to dry when soaked.
- As the heaviest option, full-grain leather boots take a toll on your energy stores, particularly during longer trips. Note the oft-quoted axiom that ‘each pound (0.45kg) on your feet equates to at least five pounds (2.3kg) on your back‘.
Leather Boots – My History:
I wore leather hiking boots on all of my backpacking journeys from the late 1980s through to the end of the last century. This included extended trips in a diverse collection of regions including Alaska, the Middle East, Patagonia, Scotland, Central America, New Zealand, the Alps, and the Pyrenees. One single pair of Scarpas lasted me thousands of miles and, thanks to a couple of resolings, virtually an entire decade.
Synthetic/leather (aka. composite) boots have been one of the most popular choices in backpacking footwear for many years. The waterproof uppers consist of synthetic or a fusion of synthetic and leather materials such as suede or nubuck. The midsoles are generally made of shock-absorbing EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) or polyurethane. And, finally, the hard-wearing rubber outsoles are characterized by aggressive directional lugs that are grippy in slippery and/or rugged terrain.
Ballpark Weight: Generally weigh between 0.9 kg (2 lb) and 1.4 kg (3 lb).
- They require less time to break in, and are significantly lighter, more breathable, and dry quicker compared to their full-grain leather equivalents.
- In regard to durability, on average I’ve gotten around 900 (1,448 km) to 1200 miles (1,931 km) out of each pair, which is less than full-grain leather boots, but far more than trail runners.
- The stiffer toe box and sole unit mean that they are superior to trail runners when it comes to kicking steps in the snow; a particularly handy feature during the early spring, when temps are on the rise but there is still quite a bit of snow around in the higher reaches of mountainous areas.
- In comparison to leather boots, they can’t be resoled and offer less in the way of long-term waterproofness (Note: Most composite hiking boots have a breathable waterproof membrane, which generally works well at first, but which gradually loses effectiveness after extended usage).
- Compared to trail running shoes, they are heavier, less breathable, and take longer to dry.
Mid Cut or High Cut?:
I’ve always preferred mid-height models over high-cut versions due to the fact that they are lighter, allow for greater ankle flexibility, and in my experience, sacrifice nothing in the way of protection or stability. On the contrary, I find the mid-height models to be less cumbersome when negotiating uneven terrain.
“Don’t higher boots provide a greater level of waterproofness?”
Technically speaking, yes. Practically speaking, not so much. If I’m hiking through snow in sub-freezing conditions day after day, I’ll combine the mids with waterproof breathable gaiters and lightweight rain pants.
Synthetic/Leather Boots – My History:
Mid-cut composite boots are what I usually wear for extended trips in snowy, consistently below-freezing conditions when keeping my feet dry is a priority due to the risk of frostbite. Over the last two decades, I’ve owned various pairs of including the Montrail Sabino Trail Mid GTX (no longer made), and most recently the Merrell Moab2 Mid Boots.
Mid Synthetic/Leather Boots Recommendations:
- Merrell Moab2 Mid Waterproof boots – Men’s (36 oz / 1.02 kg) and Women’s (32 oz / 0.91 kg)
- Salomon X Ultra Mid GTX Boots – Men’s (31.6 oz / 0.9 kg) and Women’s (29.4 oz / 0.83 kg)
- Vasque Breeze AT Mid GTX Boots – Men’s (43 oz / 1.22 kg) / Women’s (36 oz / 1.02 kg)
- La Sportiva Pyramid GTX Boots – Men’s (34 oz / 0.96 kg) / Women’s (27.8 oz / 0.79 kg)
- Keen Targhee 3 Waterproof Mid Boots – Men’s (35 oz / 0.99 kg) / Women’s (28.4 oz / 0.81 kg)
- Hoka One One Sky Kaha GTX Boots – Men’s (36 oz / 1.02 kg) / Women’s (30 oz / 0.85 kg)
“Hiking shoes” are basically a hybrid of synthetic/leather boots and trail running shoes. They have a low-cut profile like the latter but boast similar – though usually slightly less robust – materials in the upper, midsole, and outsole to the former.
Ballpark Weight – 25 oz (0.71 kg) to 32 oz (1 kg)
- Compared to boots they are lighter, break in more easily, dry quicker, and the lower cuff height lends itself to a greater range of ankle flexibility while sacrificing little to nothing in the way of support or stability.
- Compared to trail runners, hiking shoes have a tougher construction – the outsole and midsole are stiffer, and the protective toe caps and synthetic/leather upper hold up better in rough, abrasive terrain.
- In regard to long-term durability, I’ve generally gotten between 800 mi (1,287 km) to 1,000 mi (1,609 km) out of each pair of hiking shoes I’ve owned, compared to an average of around 500 miles (805 km) for trail runners.
- Compared to trail runners they are heavier, less breathable, take longer to dry, and due to the sturdier outsole, provide slightly less tactile feedback.
Making the Transition:
If you’re keen on making the switch from boots to low-cut footwear but aren’t confident that trail runners will provide the support and protection you may require, give hiking shoes a try first. They cost about the same as trail runners and provide many of the same qualities as synthetic/leather boots but in a lighter, less bulky package.
“Should I Go For a Waterproof Model?”
No. Most hiking shoes sport a waterproof membrane similar to the synthetic/leather boots mentioned above. However, when it comes to low-cut hiking shoes (and trail runners) I always avoid models with a waterproof membrane. Why? Because in three-season conditions I want a shoe that is relatively breathable and quick-drying. A waterproof liner impedes both of these qualities.
Hiking Shoes – My History:
Even though I prefer trail running shoes (see below) in most three-season environments, I occasionally us Merrell Moab2 Ventilators for extended trips in rugged terrain such as the traverses of Southwest Tasmania Traverse and Bolivia’s Altiplano. Why? Because I know that irrespective of the conditions these shoes will last me at least 800 miles (1,287 km). That means one less thing to worry about in places where the chances of you finding quality replacement footwear are minimal to non-existent. In my mind, this fact alone makes them worth the roughly 25% weight penalty compared to trail runners in such scenarios.
Hiking Shoe Recommendations (non-waterproof):
Trail Running Shoes
Trail runners are my go-to footwear for three-season hiking. Unless I’m planning an extended trek in very rugged terrain with no chance of replacement footwear or undertaking a winter trip in well below freezing temps, chances are I’ll be wearing trail running shoes. Personally speaking, they strike the right balance between comfort, support, stability, grip, weight, and breathability.
Ball Park Weight – Trail runners come in a wide range of weights from just under a pound (0.45 kg) to 1.6 lb (0.73 kg).
Advantages: Lightweight, breathable, quick-drying, no break-in time.
Disadvantages: Generally speaking they are less stable, less grippy, and roughly 50% less durable than hiking shoes or lightweight synthetic/leather boots.
“How do Trail Runners Differ from Normal Running Shoes?”:
Trail runners have stiffer and more supportive midsoles, gripper outsoles, and the uppers usually offer superior protection in the form of synthetic overlays in key areas such as the toe box, lower sides, and heel. On the flip side, road running shoes are often more cushioned, breathable, and (almost) invariably lighter. If most of your hiking is done on relatively smooth, well-maintained trails (e.g. the Pacific Crest Trail), then road running shoes can be a viable footwear option for backpacking. In rugged and/or off-trail conditions, most hikers find that trail running shoes are worth the fairly minimal weight penalty.
“Should I go for a waterproof model?“:
No. See “Hiking Shoes” above for details.
Trail Running Shoes – My History:
I’ve been wearing low-cut hiking shoes and trail runners for the past twenty years. In regard to the latter, my all-time favourite model was the Montrail Hardrock which I wore almost exclusively between 2004 to 2009. They were a bit heavier than most of the current models (around 26 oz if memory serves), but by every other criterion, they were fantastic. On the durability front, I regularly got 800 miles out of each pair before they needed to be retired. Since the demise of the Hardrocks in the late 2000s, I’ve used various models including the Altra Lone Peaks and La Sportiva Wildcats, but my go-to for most of the 2010s has been the Brooks Cascadia (Click here for my long-term review).
Trail Running Shoe Recommendations
For more details on each of these recommended models, see section 5 of Boots Vs Trail Runners: A 30 Year Perspective:
- Altra Lone Peak 4.5 – Men’s (21 oz / 0.6 kg) and Women’s (17 oz / 0.48 kg)
- Altra Superior 4 – Men’s (15.8 oz / 0.45 kg) and Women’s (13.2 oz / 0.37 kg )
- Brooks Cascadia 14 – Men’s (21.4 oz / 0.61 kg) and Women’s (19 oz / 0.54 kg)
- Brooks Caldera 4 – Men’s (23 oz / 0.65 kg) and Women’s (20.6 oz / 0.58 kg )
- Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 – Men’s (21.6 oz / 0.61 kg) and Women’s (18.4 oz / 0.52 kg )
- Inov-8 Terraultra G260 – Men’s (18 oz / 0.51 kg) and Women’s (18 oz / 0.51 kg)
- La Sportiva Bushido 2 – Men’s (21 oz / 0.6) and Women’s (17.6 oz / 0.5 kg )
- La Sportiva Ultra Raptor – Men’s (24 oz / 0.68 kg) and Women’s (21 oz / 0.6 kg)
- La Sportiva Wildcats – Men’s (25 oz / 0.71 kg) and Women’s (21 oz / 0.61 kg)
- New Balance Minimus 10V1: Men’s (14.8 oz / 0.42 kg) and Women’s (12.6 oz / 0.36 kg)
- Nike Wildhorse 6: Men’s (22.8 oz / 0.65 kg) and Women’s (17.6 oz / 0.5 kg)
- Salomon XA Pro 3D – Men’s (26.5 oz / 0.75 kg) and Women’s (21.2 oz / 0.6 kg)
- Salomon X Ultra 3: Men’s (25.8 oz / 0.73 kg) and Women’s (22.4 oz / 0.64 kg)
- Saucony Peregrine 10 – Men’s (21.4 oz / 0.61 kg ) and Women’s (18.6 oz / 0.53 kg)
- Topo Athletic Terraventure 2: Men’s (21.4 oz / 0.61 kg ) and Women’s (18.6 oz / 0.53 )
High-end sports sandals generally boast adequate cushioning, arch support, and lugged outsoles. If you have strong ankles, a light load, and are walking on a well-groomed trail, they can be a functional option. That said, personally I’ve found them to have too many limitations (see below) to be a via option for most of my backpacking trips.
Ball Park Weight: 1 lb (0.45 kg) to 2 lb (0.9 kg)
- Best ventilation of all footwear means that blisters will largely be a thing of the past.
- Due to the comparative lack of material, sandals are also the quickest drying of all footwear options.
- Lightweight – although often there isn’t much difference in weight compared to trail runners.
- Traction-wise they are usually on a par with top-of-the-range hiking shoes and trail runners.
The big one is no protection for your feet (particularly the toes) when hiking in rocky and/or overgrown terrain. Thorns, poison oak/ivy, slippery roots, and loose rocks, all become more of a consideration when you are hiking in sandals. You also need to be more aware of sunburn in hot and exposed environments, and as you’d suspect, sandals aren’t that great for negotiating snowy terrain. “But what about those thru-hikers that swear by sandals?” Take a look at where and when they do the majority of their hiking. Nine times out of ten it is on well-maintained trails in three-season conditions. (Note: There are definitely exceptions to this last point, most notably, the Tarahumara of the Copper Canyon region in northern Mexico. In three decades of hiking around the world, I have never met stronger hikers, and they traditionally do most of their running/hiking in simple huarache sandals).
Sports Sandals – My History:
I’m a huge fan of sports sandals. In fact, when I’m not in the wilderness, they are what I have on my feet more than 90 percent of the time in my dual homelands of Australia and Mexico. That said, I virtually never use them on backpacking trips due to their above-mentioned limitations in rugged terrain. “What about when you are doing a trip with lots of river fords?” If a ford is that difficult that it requires footwear, chances are you should keep your trail running or hiking shoes on. They will provide you with superior traction and protection from moving rocks and/or underwater debris than will any hiking sandals.
Sports Sandals Recommendations
- Teva Hurricane HLT2 – Men’s (20 oz / 0.57 kg) and Women’s (15.6 oz / 0.44 kg) – I’ve been using Tevas for decades, and I’ve always found them to offer a good balance of arch support, durability, light weight, price, and comfort. If you’re looking for a little more in the way of cushioning, try the Teva Terra Fi 5 (26 oz / 0.74 kg).
- Chacos Z/1 Classic – Men’s (29.8 oz / 0.85 kg) and Women’s (21.2 oz / 0.6 kg) – By no means the lightest option, but the comfortable footbed, aggressive outsole, durability, and signature strapping system that passes through the sole have made the Classics a favourite among sandal-wearing long-distance hikers, including Renee “SheRa” Kirkpatrick and Brian “Beardoh” Ristola.
- Chacos Z/Cloud – Men’s (30 oz / 0.85 kg) and Women’s (21 oz / 0.6 kg) – The Cloud model includes an extra 5mm of cushioning compared to the Chaco Classic.
- Keen Newport H2 Sandals – Men’s (28 oz / 0.79 kg) and Women’s(28 oz / 0.79 kg) – Hybrid sandal/trail running shoe which sports a toe cap and multiple straps which cover most of the foot.
- Bedrock Cairn 3D Adventure – Men’s (17 oz / 0.48 kg) and Women’s (17 oz / 0.48 kg) – Comfortable, uber-light, very grippy, zero-drop, little in the way of cushioning. For minimalists and/or folks that aren’t fussed about arch support. I’ll occasionally wear them on short day hikes, but more often than not prefer the extra arch support and cushioning provided by the Tevas.
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