Updated: Aug 15, 2020
One of the most common questions hikers ask is, "What type of shoes should I wear to hike?" It's a great question and absolutely the place you should start as a beginning hiker. However, the question is almost always followed by, "I don't want to spend too much money."
Hiking is one of the most inexpensive activities you can do. Therefore, you shouldn't scrimp when it comes to getting your most important piece of equipment - your shoes. A well fitting and appropriate shoe means you don't ever have to think about your feet. An ill fitting pair can potentially turn a 'walk in the park' into misery.
Shoe choices for hiking include high top hiking boots, low top hiking boots, and trail running shoes. Let's explore when each is appropriate.
A traditional hiking boot gives you great stability with a stiff sole, good traction, and ankle support. This type of shoe is best when traversing uneven terrain and slippery or unpredictable surfaces. You will feel the most secure in a boot and it really is the most versatile since it can be worn in any environment. Hiking boots are also the most durable choice. A good pair will be your trusty companion for up to 1000 miles.
Most styles also come in a water resistant model. Complete water proofing can result in a hot shoe and won't let your feet dry. Damp feet are the enemy! Therefore, you want to make sure the shoe has the ability to ventilate and still be water resistant or water proof.
The downside to hiking boots is that they can be heavy, although the technology is changing all the time. When shopping for hiking boots, make sure you are looking at boots that are actually for hiking, not trendy stylish boots that won't offer support or may have too much heel. Explore brands at an outfitter store, such as REI, and get properly fitted.
Don't be surprised when the sales person recommends you purchase at least one half size larger than usual. Feet swell when hiking and you want to make sure you have plenty of room. You don't want your toes hitting the front of the boot when you are walking downhill or you'll have black and sore toenails. Take advantage of the small boulders they have to try the shoe on and make sure the toes don't hit the end of the boot when pointed down.
While there are many brands out there, my favorite is Oboz. They have a neutral heel cup and offer great stability. Ultimately, it depends on personal preference so make sure you have plenty of time to try them on in the store and walk around for a bit.
A low top hiking shoe is a great option for fairly even terrain and mostly dirt or soft paths. It gives you the stiff sole of a hiking boot which helps withstand small rocks and pebbles. It is also a good option for travel when you will be walking on cobblestones which can tire and bruise the feet. This model lacks the full ankle stability of the high top so the risk of twisting an ankle is higher in this type of shoe.
All considerations of fit apply to the low top shoe including buying at least a size bigger and making sure your toes have plenty of room. Low topped shoes also have the option of water resistance/proofing. These shoes travel well as the lower profile makes them a more versatile everyday shoe, they are more lightweight and take up less room in the suitcase. Again, there are many options. My personal favorites are Merrell and Oboz. Try on several different models to find what works best for you.
The lightest and most breathable type of trail shoe is a trail runner. While not water proof, it is quick drying. What it lacks in stability it makes up for in agility and traction. If your balance is good, these shoes keep you nimble on the trail.
This shoe option will hold up for about half the distance that hiking boots will. Because the have more mesh and less structure, they will wear out sooner. However, the mesh keeps your feet cooler than the other types of shoes.
Since these are the most versatile style option and lightest in weight among the three types, they are the best for travel. While stiffer than a running shoe, you will feel the stones under your feet after a long day on a rocky trail. While some claim that trail runners are less prone to inflicting blisters, I've seen them tear up feet on strenuous trails like the Grand Canyon, especially when hiking in the rain because they aren't waterproof. However, to minimize weight and maximize comfort, these are great options. Hoka makes a super comfy trail runner with a wide toe box to accommodate swollen feet after hot miles.
No matter which type you choose remember, buy a half-size or more (mine are 2 sizes bigger than my fashion shoe size!) to give your feet room to spread. Make sure the toes have plenty of room and don't touch the end of the shoe. For a comparison of the latest models, see the Clever Hikers top 10 picks for 2019.