Gear Basics: Footwear for Hiking & Backpacking
This guide to footwear includes tips on what to look for when purchasing, as well as a list of my favorite hiking shoes, boots and socks.
Thankfully, heavy and clunky leather boots are no longer the only choice for backpacking footwear. What you choose should be based upon the type of hiking you do and what you find to be most comfortable. All feet are different, and what works for others may not be the best for you.
Types of footwear
Hiking boots are the most durable option and provide the most protection for your feet, with ankle support, stiffer soles and overall sturdy construction. They are generally recommended when you’ll be carrying moderate to heavy loads and/or traversing rough terrain. They tend to be heavier and less breathable, and usually need to be broken in before a trip.
Hiking shoes are the middle ground between hiking boots and trail runners. While some styles are simply low-cut versions of sturdy hiking boots, most models are lighter and more flexible than boots. They tend to be slightly stiffer (and heavier) than trail running shoes. Hiking shoes are available in both waterproof and non-waterproof styles.
Trail running shoes are becoming increasingly popular, especially with thru-hikers on long distance trails due to their high level of comfort and lighter weight. Most models are non-waterproof, utilizing mesh in the upper for breathability and faster drying time. Due to the lighter materials used, they tend to not last as long as traditional boots or shoes.
Fit: Well-fitting footwear is critical to comfort on the trail. Take the time to get fitted and try on several pairs to find the best fit for you. Plan to try on shoes later in the day after your feet swell, and use the socks you’ll wear while hiking. If you use aftermarket insoles, be sure to bring them when getting fitted. Walk around to get a good feel for fit, and if a store has an incline or simulated rock to use, try it out to make sure your toes don’t hit the end of the shoe on a decline. How you lace your shoes can have an impact on fit as well. Look up lacing tips for accommodating various fit issues.
Waterproof versus non-waterproof: Consider wearing waterproof shoes or boots in cooler wet weather to keep your feet warm and dry. Otherwise, there can be significant advantages to wearing non-waterproof footwear for three-season use. They tend to have mesh uppers, which increases breathability to keep your feet cooler and are much less likely to cause blisters due to sweaty feet. They also dry faster than waterproof shoes.
Traction is extremely important to keep from slipping on the trail. Look for footwear with good tread (large lugs spaced across the bottom) and a “sticky” rubber outsole.
Weight: the saying “one pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back” is true. Carrying more weight on your feet uses more energy and can lead to muscle fatigue, so look for the lightest option in whichever type of footwear you choose.
My favorite footwear
I’m a complete convert to trail running shoes and boots over regular hiking boots, and I’m not a runner. My feet used to get overheated and sore easily on hikes, with my toes squished in the typical toe box of a boot. Most trail running shoes use mesh on the top and sides of the shoe, and have a wider toe box to give your feet a more natural alignment when hiking. I find that the zero drop feature has relieved the pain I used to feel in the balls of my feet. Zero drop means that the toes and the heel are at the same height, with no “drop” for the toes. I even wear them when crossing streams. The mesh allows the water to drain out, and the shoes dry quickly. Bonus: there’s no need for camp shoes since these are so comfy to wear. I loosen the laces for wearing around camp and to make them easier to slip on and off. So, after wearing these on a few hikes, I retired my hiking boots.
- Altra Olympus trail running shoes
These are my favorite hiking shoes. Olympus zero drop trail runners have a high stack height… perfect for keeping your feet from tiring on long trail days, especially on rocky trails.
- Altra Lone Peak Hiker hiking boots – waterproof
I wear these lightweight waterproof boots during the rainy season in the Pacific Northwest (which is pretty much anytime except summer). They are a bit more padded than the Lone Peak trail runners, but are just as comfortable.
- Altra Lone Peak Hiker hiking boots – mesh
I also have a pair of lightweight boots for use in warmer weather. After having ankle issues due to a pinched sciatic nerve, these mids provided extra support for backpacking in the summer. The mesh uppers keep my feet from getting overheated, and they help drain water when I need to ford streams.
A great sock may save your feet from blisters when paired with a comfortable shoe or boot.
Fabric: Most hiking socks use merino wool mixed with spandex for stretch and fit. Wool wicks moisture well (preventing sweaty feet), doesn’t retain smells as much as synthetics, and provides good cushioning. Synthetic polyester or nylon socks are another good option. They tend to be more durable and faster drying, but do have a tendancy to hold onto odor longer. Avoid cotton, which doesn’t wick moisture and stays wet longer.
Sizing: Make sure to get the right size – socks that are too small will tend to slip down and may lead to pressure points, while socks that are too large can bunch up and cause blisters. Cushioning adds comfort but it also adds warmth. In cooler weather, the warmth may be needed, but it can lead to sweating in hot weather.
Height: Choose the height for a sock based on the conditions and footwear they will be worn with. To prevent skin from rubbing on footwear, keep the height of the sock above all parts of the shoe. Crew socks are the most popular option, providing coverage of your ankle and the lower portion of your calf. While good for wearing with hiking boots in most seasons, they can be a bit warm on a hot day. Ankle socks work well with hiking shoes, trail runners and some low-cut boots.
My favorite socks
- Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew Cushion Socks – Women’s Purchase from REI | Purchase from Darn Tough
These wool socks are extremely durable, fit well without being too tight, and have a lifetime warranty.
- Injinji Crew Liner Socks
For cold weather, I use these liner socks with toes underneath a larger pair of wool socks.
- Wigwam Merino Lite Crew Socks – Women’s
I wear these socks in one size up from my normal socks so I can layer these over liner socks.
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