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.
Zero drop: a feature where the toes and the heel are at the same height, with no “drop” for the toes. I find that zero drop shoes relieve the pain I used to feel in the balls of my feet and are the only type of shoe that I will wear now.
Mesh uppers: most trail runners utilize mesh uppers for breathability and to help prevent overheating. They allow water to drain so the shoes dry quickly. I even wear them when crossing streams – after continuing to hike in them, my socks are still damp but there’s no water sloshing around in the shoe.
My favorite footwear
I’m a complete convert to trail running shoes 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. Bonus: when backpacking, there’s no need for camp shoes since trail runners are so comfy to wear. I loosen the laces for wearing around camp and to make them easier to slip on and off.
I’ve tried multiple brands of trail runners, and Altras work the best for me based on the zero drop feature and wide toe box.
Altra Olympus 5 trail running shoes: These are my favorite hiking shoes due to the maximum cushioning… perfect for keeping your feet from tiring on long hiking days, especially on rocky trails. Purchase from REI Co-op: Women’s Men’s
Altra Olympus 5 GTX Hiking Shoes: New for 2022, these waterproof Olympus hiking shoes utilize GoreTex and leather uppers for increased water resistance and durability. Purchase from REI Co-op: Women’s Men’s
Altra Lone Peak Mids – Mesh Uppers: These mids have more coverage than trail running shoes but aren’t as bulky as most hiking boots. Purchase from REI Co-op: Women’s
Altra Lone Peak ALL-WTHR Mid Hiking Boots: These mids are similar to the version listed above, but are waterproof. Purchase from REI Co-op: Women’s
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 may lead to pressure points and cold feet, 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 shoes or boots. 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. Mid crew or ankle socks are a good option when worn with hiking shoes and trail runners.
Liner socks: Wearing two layers of socks can reduce the risk of getting blisters since they eliminate the friction of the outer sock against your skin. They are also good for cold weather hiking, which is how I use them. I like to layer wool liner socks with wool hiking socks, making sure that they aren’t too tight since tight socks lead to cold feet. For the outer layer, I wear socks that are one size larger than I normally wear.
My favorite socks
Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew Cushion Socks: These wool socks are extremely durable, have moderate cushioning, and include a lifetime warranty. Purchase from REI Co-op: Women’s Men’s; Purchase from Darn Tough: Women’s Men’s
Silverlight Hiking Socks: These built-to-last socks utilize silver fibers in the fabric mix to create a bacteria- and odor-free sock with light compression for a comfortable fit without feeling too tight. Purchase from Silverlight
REI Co-op Merino Wool Lightweight Hiking Socks: Generously cushioned and high quality, these hiking socks cost less than similar options. Purchase from REI Co-op
REI Co-op Wool Liner Socks: These wool liner socks are thin yet warm and work well with socks worn over them in cold weather. Purchase from REI Co-op
REI Co-op COOLMAX EcoMade Liner Crew Socks: With fabric made from recycled water bottles, these liner socks are designed to keep your feet cool and dry. Purchase from REI Co-op
Injinji Crew Liner Socks: These toe socks are made of a lightweight fabric blend designed for layering and help to prevent blisters on toes. Purchase from REI Co-op
Showers Pass Wool Waterproof Socks: These waterproof socks are comfortable to wear while keeping your feet dry in all conditions – even when submerged in water. These are a great option when your hiking boots or shoes are no longer waterproof. Purchase from Showers Pass
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