Hiking is a great way to explore the outdoors, and having the right footwear is essential to ensure a comfortable and safe experience! With so many options available, it can be overwhelming to choose the right footwear for your hiking needs.
It used to be that the only footwear option for hikers was a hiking boot. That has changed, as nature lovers have demanded more variety of footwear, much of it trending on the lighter side or being more conducive to trail running.
In this article, we will compare hiking shoes, hiking boots, hiking sandals, and trail running shoes to help you make a decision that your feet won’t regret.
Hiking shoes vs. boots vs. sandals vs. trail running shoes
I always say “don’t skimp on your hiking shoes or boots” and that means not settling for the wrong type of footwear. The terrain, weather conditions, and personal preferences all play a role in determining which type of footwear is best suited for the hike. In this section, I’ll briefly examine the differences between hiking shoes, hiking boots, hiking sandals, and trail running shoes.
Hiking shoes are a great option for those who want something lightweight and flexible. They are designed to provide good traction and support for light to moderate hikes, since they are typically made with breathable materials that keep feet cool and dry in warm weather. They are also a good choice for those who prefer a simpler, more minimalist approach to hiking.
- Easy to travel with
- Can accommodate ~75% of typical hikes
- No ankle support
- Soles are typically softer – so not as good on sharp rocks or other hazards
- People who want to hike on well-maintained trails in good conditions
Hiking boots are the most traditional option for hiking. Tried and true, they offer more stability and protection than hiking shoes and are designed for deeply rugged terrain. Such protection is often seen when boots are made with waterproof materials, and they also offer better ankle support and structure than hiking shoes. This makes them a very good choice for those who are prone to ankle injuries.
- Provides ankle support
- Might be waterproof
- Options for strong, steel shanks and soles for protection
- Should always pair them with longer socks
- Hikers tackling tougher or unpredictable trails, or ones that may be rocky or wet
Hiking sandals are the perfect option for those who want the most breathable and lightweight option out there! Designed to provide good traction and support for light hikes in warm weather, hiking sandals are typically made with quick-drying materials to keep feet dry in wet conditions. They are also a good choice for those who want to easily transition between hiking and water activities.
- Comfy, cool, and the most breathable
- Great if you might be going in water
- No protection against things like rocks, branches
- Less foot and ankle support
- People who won’t be on intense trails, or those who might be in and out of water like canoeists or kayakers
Trail Running Shoes
Trail running shoes are a good option for those who want a more versatile option that can be used for both hiking and running. Made to provide good traction and support for both activities, trail running shoes are typically made with lightweight and breathable materials to keep feet cool and dry. They also offer good shock absorption and flexibility, which is essential for what’s in their name- trail running!
- Relatively all-purpose
- Like a hiking shoe, less ankle support
- Designed to be cool, so maybe not ideal in cold weather
- People who want to run, jog, or speed-walk their walk through a trail
Choosing the Hiking Footwear
The type of terrain you will encounter on your hike is a very important factor to consider when choosing your footwear! Hiking boots are best suited for rough and rocky terrain where ankle support and protection are necessary. Hiking shoes on the other hand are ideal for less challenging terrain such as well-maintained trails or light hiking. Hiking sandals are similar, though they are more breathable and perfect for hot and dry environments. Trail running shoes, on the other hand, can take a few obstacles but are really designed for running on smoother, heavily-trodden trails with minimal obstacles.
The type of activity you plan to engage in is another factor to consider when choosing your footwear! If you plan on carrying a heavy backpack, hiking boots might be the superior choice as they provide the best support. You will be shocked how quickly you can turn an ankle when there is some extra weight on your back.
Hiking shoes are an excellent choice for day hikes or light backpacking trips where you won’t be carrying a heavy load. Hiking sandals are suitable for activities such as river crossings or beach hikes, and trail running shoes are designed for all things running or brisk walking.
Sometimes, you might want footwear that can crossover into other uses that have little to do with a hiking trail. Maybe you are on a European trip, hiking in Switzerland, but want the footwear to be attractive enough to go in to a nice restaurant or a church on occasion. This is where you might want to err on the side of a hiking shoe that could be not perfect but suitable with some khakis. Or maybe you plan to do some hiking but also want that shoe to be something you can use at the beach with your kids. A hiking sandal might then be the right choice.
A Few Suggested Brands and Models
While I have written other articles that examine hiking boots, shoes, and sandals in more detail, I wanted to provide a few recommendations here for folks who were looking for guidance.
Some of the most popular hiking shoe brands include Merrell, Salomon, and Keen. Merrell offers a range of hiking shoes, including the Moab and the Chameleon, both of which are known for their comfort and durability. Salomon’s X Ultra 4 GTX hiking shoe is a popular choice for its top-of-the-line waterproofing and traction. I recommend Keen’s Targhee III hiking shoe, another popular option, known for being very affordable while sporting great breathability, a nice wide fit, and support. It also offers a touch of ankle coverage which makes it almost a crossover boot.
Hiking boot brands such as Vasque, Danner, and Lowa are well-known for their quality and durability. Vasque’s Sundowner GTX hiking boot is a classic high-end option that has been around for decades, known for its comfort and support. Lowa’s Renegade GTX Mid hiking boot is a nice versatile option that offers both support and flexibility. For all-purpose use, I recommend Danner’s Mountain hiking boot which is used by many and known for its durability and style.
Hiking sandals are ideal if your plans have you on both trails but also in water. Popular brands include Chaco, Teva, and Keen. Teva’s Terra Fi Lite hiking sandal is another popular choice, known for its traction and support. Keen’s Newport H2 hiking sandal is a versatile option that can be worn both on and off the trail. I recommend Chaco’s Z Cloud hiking sandal, a comfortable and durable option that can handle a variety of terrain and will last for a long time.
Trail Running Shoes
Trail running shoes are a lightweight and flexible option for those who prefer to move quickly on the trail. Popular brands include Salomon, Altra, and Hoka. Salomon’s Speedcross 5 trail running shoe is a popular choice for its traction and durability. Hoka One One’s Speedgoat trail running shoe is a phenomenal versatile option that offers both cushioning and stability. I recommend Altra’s Lone Peak trail running shoe, one that gives you a little more cushion and support than many of the minimalist shoes on the market today.