9 Expert Steps to Choosing the Right Hiking Shoes

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Choose the Right Hiking Shoes or Boots With These 9 Expert Steps

Hiking shoes and boots are an investment for your feet and overall mood while out on the trail. Wear the wrong shoes and an otherwise beautiful experience out in nature can turn into a nightmare focused around the pain and discomfort in your feet.

Plan ahead and choose the right pair of hiking shoes for your next outdoor adventure.

We’ll be straight up, hiking boots aren’t cheap.

If you want to invest in your feet we recommend you learn these simple tips to saving money starting today.

1. Determine the Type of Hiking for the Right Pair of Hiking Shoes

There are hiking shoes and boots best suited for every style of hiking. You may find yourself doing all types of hiking, which in this case there is no one perfect pair of hiking shoes or boots. We recommend choosing a pair of shoes based on the type of hiking you plan to do most.

Light Hiking Shoes are great for day hikes on well maintained trails with easy to moderate terrain.

Day Hiking Boots are best for moderate to rough trails or someone who like a little extra support around the ankle and overall stability.

Backpacking Hiking Boots are best suited for multiple days of hiking with a heavy load, trekking on and off trails ranging from easy to rough terrain.

Mountaineering Boots are used for hikes across extremely rocky terrain, snow, and even glacial trails. They’re often fitted with crampons, metal plates fixed to the bottom of each boot with spikes for ice and rock climbing.

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2. Consider the Materials Used

Synthetic

Commonly made from polyester, nylon, PU, and other plastics. Lightweight, generally more flexible making shoes comfortable out of box, quick to dry, but not very water resistant as synthetics tend to absorb moisture. Waterproof options are available with the use of a membrane.

Full Grain Leather – Almost always cow hide

This is the heaviest material. With that said leather is incredibly durable and resists wear from both rough terrain and harsher elements.

The thicker the leather the stiffer the boot. It’s up to you weather or not you prefer a very stiff boot with maximum support and protection or a leather hiking boot with a bit more flexibility at the cost of lesser durability.

While leather is effective at keeping your feet dry in wet conditions it falls short in breathability.

Split-Grain Leather – Synthetic & Leather

Many companies implement both synthetic and leather in their hiking shoes and boots. The benefit is a lighter weight, more flexible hiking shoe or boot at a lower cost with greater breathability.

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3. Opt for Lighter Hiking Shoes If You Can 

A pound on your feet is 5 pounds on your back. Seriously.

While we all love getting caught up in the technical features of a boot we have to keep in mind the amount of weight we’re putting on our feet.

I own both light hiking shoes and backpacking boots. The backpacking boots are significantly heavier. To the point where I would never choose to wear them on a normal day hike unless I had no other choice.

You may like the concept of nearly indestructible leather hiking boots, but you may not be cool with 3.5 pounds on your feet! Following the classic hiking rule of “1 pound on your feet is 5 pounds on your back” is surprisingly accurate. A pair of heavy boots with an already heavy pack is generally undesirable.

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Before you make the plunge be sure to consider the amount of weight you’re willing to deal with.

4. Choose Between Waterproof & Ventilated Hiking Shoes

Leather and membrane bound synthetic hiking boots keep feet dry. The downside is that waterproofing can inversely cause your feet to retain more heat, causing excess sweat, and leading to the moisture you didn’t want in the first place. This isn’t always the case, but it’s a factor to consider.

Depending on you as a person and the general weather of where you hike will ultimately dictate whether or not waterproof shoes are necessary.

If you hike along dry terrain with low humidity you probably don’t need waterproof hiking boots. If you frequent stream crossings and live in an excessively humid climate you may want to consider waterproof shoes.

You can always opt for waterproof socks and hiking shoes that quick dry.

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5. Pick Your Cut

Low Cut

Low cut falls at or below the ankle.

This is a common feature found among light hiking shoes and trail running shoes. They’re lighter, allow more flexibility, and overall they’re more comfortable.

The down side is that they lack the stiffness and ankle support of heavier duty boots, meaning you’re more prone to twisted ankles and slipping on loose terrain when under load.

A low cut also means more vulnerability to trail debris entering your shoes. I can personally attest to this as I’ve had to take my day hiking shoes off mid trail to empty out debris on more than a few occasions.

Mid Cut

Here’s the happy medium that covers just above the ankle. This style boot offers a stiffer mid sole and supports the ankle from twists and sprains.

Alongside more balance, trail debris is less likely to enter your hiking boots.

High Cut

You may feel the lack of flexibility with this cut, but otherwise your feet and overall balance will feel pretty munch unmatched compared to the previous cuts.

Enjoy maximum stability and near invincibility with this style of high strapped hiking boot while traversing over the roughest terrain.

This cut is also preferred for backpacking. The stiffness of the sole and robust ankle support help relieve the weight of your pack and better stabilizes you from accidental slips and ankle twists.

As you may have already guessed, this cut also challenges the most invasive trail debris from entering your hiking boots.

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6. Buy a Pair of Hiking Socks

If you’re investing in hiking shoes you probably already own hiking socks. If not, you should!

Hiking socks add compression to different parts of your foot for increased stability. They’re also made from wool and synthetic material to help regulate heat and wick moisture away from your foot, preventing blisters.

The type of socks you wear hiking may affect the comfort of the shoe you choose.

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I personally wear Drymax Lite Hiking Crew Socks and absolutely love them. They keep my feet dry and fit firmly around all the right parts of my feet allowing me to hike further and more comfortably.

They’ve lasted me several hundred miles and have yet to throw out a pair.

7. Try On Your Hiking Shoes with Your Hiking Socks

When it comes to shoes you can never be truly sure of the fit until they’ve been on your feet and you’ve really walked around in them.

Firstly, measure each foot and choose 1 whole size up from the larger foot. You want your hiking shoes or boots to fit nicely around the ball of your foot while your heel experiences no slippage.

You also want a good amount of toe room for the times your feet will inevitably swell. This will prevent bruised toes and toe nails falling off.

If you wear hiking specific socks they’ll probably be thicker than your typical everyday socks. You might also be wearing sock liners which adds even more thickness to your foot. Be sure to wear the socks you use on the trail when testing your new hiking shoes. 

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What happens when I forget to pack my hiking shoes and socks.

8. Consider the Break In Period

Most light or day hiking shoes don’t require any real break in period. You can essentially wear them comfortably straight out of the box.

This isn’t necessarily true for hiking boots, especially ones made with full grain leather and heavier, stiffer synthetics.

While at a physical location of REI employees had Shelby and I walk around the entire store to test the fit and comfort of new shoes. They continued to recommend that we wear our new shoes in and around the house and out and about in normal everyday life before hitting the trails.

This “break in” period helps soften leather and add flexibility to tough synthetics before you subject your feet to rough terrain. Without a break in period you’re more likely to get blisters, hot spots, and other uncomfortable surprises.

The break in period is a patience game and shouldn’t be rushed.

Take your time wearing your new hiking shoes or boots and listen to your feet during this process. You’ll be happy you did.

9. Add Insoles, Shims, or Wedges If You Need Added Comfort

Your top pick for hiking boots might have everything you want, but when you try them on the fit just isn’t right.

BUMMER.

But wait! Before you rule out your top pick you may want to try different insoles, shims, or wedges. These are inserts you either add or replace within your hiking shoes to add or take away material to best fit your foot.

Do I believe this to be true? Yes, yes I do. Why? Because I was the internet buyer who bought a pair of hiking shoes online without physically trying them on first.

When my Merrell Men’s Moab Ventilator’s arrived in the mail I was beyond excited to wear them out on the trail. I immediately took them on a hike without trying them on first.

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The end result were large painful blisters around my heels and ankles. I immediately felt I was out $100. I gave them 2 more chances and both times I encountered hot spots and blisters in the same areas. I was less than enthused about my online purchase.

While shopping for my 2nd pair of shoes I decided to go to a physical store. I chose REI. While trying on different boots I mentioned my frustration with ordering hiking shoes online and that’s when I was told about inserts.

I added a pair of shims to my Merrell hiking shoes and guess what? No. More. Blisters. They were comfortable! Just a little extra layer of material made a world of a difference in fit and comfort.

I suggest you do your homework and try inserts before you give up on your dream pair of hiking boots.

Moving Forward!

Learning to make these 9 smart considerations before purchasing a pair of hiking shoes or boots will give you the most informed decision.

A good pair of hiking boots isn’t cheap, but a good pair will last years and pay dividends when it comes to comfort out on the trail.  This is an area you don’t want to skimp on.

Know what type of hiking you generally do, follow these steps, and continue to thank yourself time and time again as you continue to hike smartly and comfortably.

Now that you’re grounded (pun intended) make sure you brush up on the 10 essentials of hiking and staying hydrated while out on the trail!

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About the Author

Nathan Bernal is the co-founder, editor, and author of We Who Roam. As a life long adventure and gear enthusiast Nathan combines fun and expertise when out exploring the natural world. He's here to share his knowledge and inspire the adventurer in you.

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