Philip Werner, former New Hampshire wilderness guide and founder and editor of the hiking website SectionHiker.com.
What could be better than hiking through a beautiful wooded area…or up a mountain trail…on a bright sunny day? Lots of people are discovering the joy of hiking these days. But before you hit the trail—any trail—make sure you have the right footwear to hike safely and comfortably. Things to consider when you are shopping…
Style of hiking shoe. Matching the type of shoe to the distance and terrain is critical for both enjoyment and safety.
Trail runners are essentially running shoes with a more rugged sole for unpaved surfaces. They’re especially lightweight, so they are good for longer distances on smooth terrain. If you don’t plan on trail running, a lighter-duty hiking shoe provides a little more structure but with minimal weight—good for well-groomed trails.
Above-the-ankle stiffer-soled boots have more support and structure for uneven grass, gravel or rocky terrain. An in-between low boot option called “mids” offers protection from debris without the bulkiness of a full boot. Getting rocks between your sock and shoe is a common annoyance with low-sided hiking shoes, unless you wear them with gaiters that protect the lower leg.
Other hiking footwear features worth considering: A sturdy toe box or internal shank can provide foot protection, especially when hiking over rocky terrain. And the weight of the shoe or boot can affect how fatigued you become on long hikes—every ounce adds up when you are walking 10,000 steps or more on a five-mile hike.
Material. Different materials are appropriate for hiking in different seasons and conditions. Footwear made mostly or entirely from synthetic materials are lighter and more breathable, allowing heat to escape and your feet to breathe. Footwear that feature mesh panels is especially breathable and potentially very light, but unless they’re made with GORE-TEX or a similar material, they won’t be waterproof. If you hike early in the season, when snow may still be on the ground or winter runoff is filling streams, you will need waterproof boots to keep your feet dry. Leather provides great durability but can be more expensive and heavier than synthetics and must be properly treated to be waterproof.
Comfort. Some people like the sensation of having their toes splay out with each step, as they do when walking barefoot. Others prefer a tighter toe box to contain their feet. No matter your preference, make sure there’s some room in front of your toes—otherwise your feet will feel cramped when you hike downhill and you can bruise your toes and toenails. Best: When trying on hiking shoes, walk up and down an incline. Outdoor-gear stores often have a ramp set up for customers to test the fit.
Arch support. Support is always critical with hiking shoes, but it is especially important if you’re prone to the painful condition plantar fasciitis or other foot conditions. Helpful: If the hiking boots or shoes you like don’t provide enough arch support, add a pair of Superfeet insoles (about $50).
Distance and difficulty. The longer or more challenging the hike, the more solid and protective the shoe should be and the more important its weight becomes.
The best hiking footwear options—all available for men and women…
Best trail runners: Salomon Sense Ride 4s are excellent off-road running shoes. They provide all-terrain grip…are lightweight—about eight ounces…breathable…and provide a reasonable amount of underfoot cushioning. $120.*
Best value shoes and mids: Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator Shoes and Mids hold their own when compared with pricier footwear. They’re durable and provide stability and protection without sacrificing cushioning and comfort. Mesh panels make the Moab 2 breathable and quick to dry, but they are not appropriate for snow or wet patches. Available as a hiking shoe or a mid and in wide and standard sizes. $100 for shoes…$110 for mids. A waterproof Moab 2 also is available for men and women in shoe and mid styles. $145 for shoes…$155 for mids.
Best mids for waterproof comfort: KEEN Targhee III Waterproof Mid combines the traction and support of a hiking boot with the flexibility and comfort of a hiking shoe. The exterior is mostly leather, which provides stability and a shoelike feel. Additionally, the leather is waterproofed and there is an internal waterproof membrane, but they are not particularly breathable—your feet may get hot on summer hikes. The toe box is roomy, and they are built off KEEN’s traditional wider footwear form. $150.
Best boots for protection and support: Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTXs are fantastic hiking boots that provide excellent stability, traction, water-resistance and durability. You can feel confident wearing these boots even on long jaunts through the wilderness. They’re strong and protective but also light and comfortable, with GORE-TEX membranes that keep out water without sacrificing breathability. $230.
Best combination of style and performance: Zamberlan Vioz GTXs provide the traditional look of Italian-made leather hiking boots. They’re durable, waterproof and comfortable, but as with other leather boots, they’re expensive…heavy—more than three pounds per pair…and not especially breathable. $295 to $350 depending on style.