Happy Feet: How to Choose the Best Footwear for your Hiking Trip

Having the proper footwear is one of the most important things you can do to be well-prepared for a hiking or backpacking adventure. Exactly what the proper footwear is will depend on the activity you’re doing, your hiking or backpacking experience, and personal preference. That said, we can generally divide our desired footwear types into three categories: hiking boots, hiking shoes, and trail runners.

So, what differentiates these three different styles of footwear and which one should I use for my Apogee trip? A range of features, but we’re going to focus on four: support, weight, traction, and water resistance. 

Support generally refers to how much external buttressing the footwear provides for your foot and ankle. The more support a piece of footwear provides, the more it helps the wearer’s musculature bear a load. This often manifests as a taller upper/more ankle support and a stiffer footbed/bottom of the footwear. Generally speaking, hiking boots provide more support than hiking shoes and hiking shoes provide more support than trail runners.

Weight, unsurprisingly, refers to how much each piece of footwear weighs. Why is weight important? Because you’ll be picking your feet up and putting them down a lot on a hiking or backpacking trip and the heavier your footwear is the more energy you’ll use during an activity. Generally speaking, hiking boots are heavier than hiking shoes and hiking shoes are heavier than trail runners.

Traction refers to how well a piece of footwear helps you get a grip on whatever you’re walking on or hiking over. Hiking and backpacking often take you over varied types of terrain (from grass to dirt to gravel to solid rock) and being able to be sure of your footing no matter what is underfoot is an important component of enjoying your activity. There is less variation between footwear types in this category. By virtue of having larger and deeper tread patterns than sneakers and tennis shoes, hiking boots, hiking shoes, and trail runners are all designed to offer better traction across a wide variety of terrain.

Water resistance refers to the degree to which a piece of footwear repels water from the outside. You can have hiking footwear that is fully waterproof, water resistant, or neither. Because of the materials involved, highly waterproof footwear does not breathe as well as less waterproof footwear; meaning that your foot may build up more sweat in waterproof footwear. Having water resistant or waterproof hiking footwear is certainly not essential for hiking and backpacking; you can find hiking boots or hiking shoes that are either waterproof, water resistant, or neither, but most trail runners are not waterproof. Some people actually prefer to have hiking footwear that isn’t water resistant because they would rather the benefits of highly breathable footwear knowing that your feet are going to get wet regardless (whether from rain/snow or sweat). This is why the type of sock you use is so important.

A few additional words about socks, we recommend a medium-weight hiking sock, something that is tall enough to cover your ankle (either a micro-crew or crew), snug-fitting, has some cushion, and is made of either synthetic material or wool. Cotton socks, while cozy, are not the best option for hiking and backpacking because they stay wet for a long time and don’t insulate when wet in the same way that synthetic and wool socks do.

Now that you know what sets these types of footwear apart, which one should you choose for your Apogee trip? First, check the Packing List for your trip – for some trips we’ll specify which of these three types of footwear you’ll need (many of our backpacking trips require hiking boots). If your packing list gives you the choice between hiking boots or hiking shoes, think about what you might want to do with the shoes beyond your Apogee trip – do you want to go on to use them for backpacking, where you’re carrying a heavier pack and may need the extra support that a boot provides? Or are you going to use them for day-hikes where you’re not carrying multiple days’ worth of gear and where something lighter like a hiking shoe would be more comfortable?

Once you’ve made the decision between a boot or a shoe, think about where you’ll be hiking to decide if you want waterproof/resistant footwear. For example, if you join us for a hiking trip here in New England (like our Maine’s Downeast Explorer trip), there’s a good chance you’ll be hiking in the rain some days and through puddles on others. But if you join us out west (like our Colorado’s Rocky Mountains adventure), where it’s drier, waterproofing isn’t all that necessary. Finally, if you just can’t decide, feel free to give us a call and we’d be happy to recommend something to you!

If you can find some time for a shopping trip, truly the best way to get a pair of hiking footwear is to go to an outdoor gear store to actually try on several styles and/or brands. Every type and pair of footwear is going to fit a little differently and there’s no substitute for actually trying several on to know for sure which you like the feel of the best. Wherever you go to buy your hiking footwear, make sure to bring along a pair of the socks that you plan to wear while hiking and backpacking. Note that pretty much every pair of footwear you try on is going to feel stiff and tight at first. That will fade with time (more on this below).

No matter what brand and style you decide on for hiking footwear, it’s just as important to get them well ahead of your trip so that they can be properly broken in before you hit the trail on your Apogee adventure. The best way to break in new hiking footwear is to get out and get hiking! 

Start with wearing your new footwear around the house or taking short walks in them for 20 minutes at a time. As your feet get used to your new footwear and as your footwear starts to loosen up, transition to longer walks outside and across more varied terrain. Your goal should be to have your hiking footwear somewhat broken in by the time you start in on your trip’s Recommended Training Schedule – and then wear them for all most or all of the activities indicated in your Recommended Training Schedule.

Believe us when we say that you’ll thank us later! Stiff new footwear on new hiking feet on the second day of your trip is not a good time! In fact, that very situation can lead to hotspots, blisters, and other injuries that can seriously curtail, or even end, your adventure.

Any of the following brands of hiking footwear have served families well in the past: Merrell, Keen, Vasque, Solomon, The North Face. REI also has some interesting house-brand options. We hope this brief guide can help steer you in the right direction for your next footwear purchase – happy hiking, and we’ll see you on the trail!