What are the differences between hiking shoes and hiking boots? Which option is better for me?
If you’ve done any hiking at all or if you’ve been planning to go on a hiking trip, you’ve probably asked these questions before.
Any experienced hiker will tell you that your footwear choice is extremely important.
Even casual hikers will start off with regular sneakers, ultimately finding out that boots would’ve been a much better choice. Other hikers might start out thinking their boots will work out perfectly but soon find out otherwise.
What many hikers don’t realize is that your choice of hiking footwear is crucial and that you must carefully decide what you’re going to wear.
Plus, there’s a wide range of styles and options to choose from when looking for the right footwear, so you really have to do your due diligence when choosing the right hiking shoes or hiking boots for you.
Luckily, your choice only boils down to 6 key factors: durability, ankle support, weight, cost, waterproof material, and fit.
Below, I’ve provided an overview of each of these factors. You can use this information to help yourself make the perfectly right choice for your hiking footwear.
Hiking boots are designed with durability in mind, usually lasting for thousands of trail miles. This is especially true if they have hard rubber underfoot, a deep tread, and a leather upper (not an upper made from a combination of leather, fabric, and/or mesh).
Without these features, hiking boots are more likely to wear out.
On the other hand, the durability of hiking shoes greatly varies. Although they typically last longer than trail runners, another popular footwear option for hikers, they’ve got nothing on hiking boots when it comes to durability and longevity.
Hiking shoes, whose uppers are generally made up of a combination of leather and fabric, begin to wear out and fray over time, usually in the heel.
All in all, hiking boots are the winners in the durability category.
Protection and ankle support
How much ankle protection and support you need will depend on the terrain you’ll be hiking and the amount of support your ankles will need.
Unlike hiking boots, hiking shoes don’t protect your ankles from scratches and abrasion, which can be an issue if you’re hiking through brushy or rocky surroundings or anywhere with potentially sharp objects.
Next, we need to consider ankle support. Although a lot of hikers believe that a high ankle collar is the most important quality when it comes to ankle stability, this is simply not the case, although it certainly helps.
Instead, ankle support comes from the sole’s stiffness, especially its resistance to side-to-side flexing (aka torsional rigidity).
You can test your shoe’s torsional rigidity by holding it at the front and back and twisting the shoe. The more difficult it is to twist, the better its stability and torsional rigidity.
Hiking shoes and hiking boots both provide an adequate amount of stability for the majority of hikers and terrain types.
But because hiking shoes, in general, more easily flex across the toes and forefoot than boots, they’re easier to use on moderate hiking trails. However, on rougher, more challenging trails, hiking boots provide more stability.
If you have strong ankles with no history of ankle injuries and you pack relatively light (maximum of about 30 pounds), you can get away with either hiking shoes or hiking boots for moderate hikes.
However, if you’re hiking through rough terrain, carrying a heavier load, and/or have experienced trouble with your ankles in the past, hiking boots might be the way to go.
The weight on your feet greatly influences how much energy you’re able to expend while hiking. According to some studies, hiking with extra weight on your feet requires substantially more energy than carrying the same amount of weight on your back.
So the old notion that “one pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back” might actually have some truth to it.
The number of ounces on your feet does matter, especially if you want to hike great distances quickly and with minimal effort.
When it comes to weight, hiking shoes are the clear winner. And as hikers gain more experience on the trials, they usually realize the benefits of hiking shoes.
According to a 2021 study by The Trek, only 7% of hikers starting a thru-hike were wearing hiking shoes in the beginning of their trek, while 16% were wearing hiking boots. By the end of the hike, the numbers had evened out, with 9% of hikers wearing hiking shoes and 9% wearing hiking boots.
This shows that, as hikers progressed through the trail, they realized the benefits of hiking shoes over hiking boots—most probably their weight benefits.
Even heavier hiking shoes tend to weigh less than lightweight hiking boots, showing the significant weight difference between the two types of footwear.
Cost is another important factor you need to consider.
You can expect a decent pair of hiking shoes to cost somewhere between $100 and $150. But hiking boots, especially high-quality all-leather boots, can easily cost twice as much as that or more.
That said, the total cost over a long period of time will depend on how frequently you hike. For example, if you hike hard and often, you’ll likely pay less with one pair of quality boots than with multiple pairs of hiking shoes.
If you don’t plan to go on frequent hikes and you just want to hit easier to moderate hiking trails, hiking shoes might be the better option.
Both hiking shoes and hiking boots are made of waterproof material, featuring a layer of Gore-Tex or similar material that blocks water from entering but allows some sweat to escape.
This makes them ideal for wet and muddy conditions, but the material can make you feel hotter and sweat more in drier locations.
That being said, neither is 100% waterproof. That’s because a fabric with full waterproofness would have no breathability.
Although hiking shoes and hiking boots aren’t fully waterproof, they can do their job in wet environments—at least for a while.
You do have to be careful about sand, dirt, and other types of grime from contaminating your footwear’s delicate waterproof membrane and affecting its ability to keep the inside and outside dry (from sweat and water from the outside).
The most reliable way to keep your footwear dry and waterproof is to clean them as much as possible.
Taking all this into consideration, there’s no obvious winner when it comes to waterproof capabilities.
However, height could be a consideration when comparing your options. High-ankle boots, for example, will help, but they can be less safe if you lose your footing.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve opted for hiking boots or hiking shoes; fit is always of paramount importance.
So, how do you know if a pair of shoes or boots properly fits?
First, your feet should be snug inside, not moving around the inside of your shoes while hiking. Otherwise, your feet will be vulnerable to blisters, which can make for a very uncomfortable or painful hiking experience.
Also, your toes shouldn’t be hitting the front of your shoes or boots, even when you’re going on steep descents.
Because your feet will expand throughout the course of your hike, you shouldn’t be afraid to go up about half a size. This will ensure that you have ample amounts of room for your toes while keeping your feet snug and locked in.
To determine fit, you may want to try multiple pairs of boots and shoes. If a pair isn’t the right fit for you, don’t hesitate to return it. The trouble of returning it will pale in comparison to the hassles resulting from poorly fitting footwear.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What kind of socks should I wear?
When choosing socks for your hiking trip, you need to consider these 4 qualities:
- Sock height – The ideal sock height protects against scratches and abrasion from your footwear, as well as your surroundings.
- Fabric – Most hiking socks are made of merino wool, which is probably the most ideal material. Others feature polyester or nylon.
- Cushioning – The amount of cushioning on your shoes or boots affects your warmth and overall comfort.
- Fit – Fit isn’t only important for shoes or boots. It’s also essential for socks. Poorly fitting socks can result in blisters.
2. What companies make high-quality hiking shoes and hiking boots?
There are several manufacturers that produce high-quality hiking footwear.
It’s best to look for companies that specialize in making hiking boots or hiking shoes or are strongly dedicated to making this type of footwear.
Some of the best-known brands for hiking footwear are Merrell, Salomon, KEEN, Oboz, LOWA, Scarpa, Zamberlan, La Sportiva, Altra Running, and Arc’teryx.
3. Does hiking footwear stretch over time?
Hiking boots or hiking shoes may stretch a bit with wear, but this should be of little to no concern. This just means they’re becoming more snug and fitting better.
Leather, a common material for boots, naturally responds to outside and inside conditions by stretching or easing a little bit.
This applies not only to hiking footwear, but to all kinds of shoes.