Hiking shoes are the most important piece of gear outside of sunscreen you can invest in that will make or break your hiking career or short-term ambitions. A properly fit shoe for the mission will keep your feet happy and yourself happy and there is no worse experience and no further cause to early retirement of hiking than a miserable and painful experience full of undue and unnecessary suffering. We’ll guide you through the plethora of hiking shoes, options, fitment, and sizing and help you know what to look for and understand your options. Read on for all the practical details on choosing the best pair of hiking boots or shoes for YOUR feet.
What are hiking shoes?
There are four major styles of hiking shoes on the market and several alternatives that many people use.
First, there is the classic leather hiking boot – often a bit heavy, cumbersome but incredibly supportive and protecting.
Second, we have the common hiking shoe – a half-boot type – heavier and more durable than sneakers but not quite as cumbersome as the classic tall hiking boot.
Third, the ever-popular Hiking Sandals. A durable sandal with full support on the foot and great for water crossings.
Finally, we have the up and coming “Trail running” style shoe that is really taking off. These are more of a running shoe – so they’re extremely light but durable and efficient. Lots of people hitting the trails today are foregoing the heavy boot and shoe and opting for trail running shoes for this very reason. (ultralight!)
Most importantly, hiking shoes are simply shoes that fit the mission to help you conquer the trail and do so without injury, pain, and misery.
What are the best hiking boots?
The best hiking shoes you can find are shoes that are properly fit, designed for the mission and comfortable to wear. These will change depending on the season, hike, trail, weather, and mission. It’s important to not fall into a one size fits all trap and use the right gear for the right mission. Your feet, legs, and your sanity will thank you.
If you order online, stick with well-known brands that have a good warranty and shopping experience. Make sure you can return if they don’t fit or if they fail prematurely.
Stores such as REI usually have an amazing return policy and a great fitting department. If you’re new to hiking, visiting your local outdoors and the sporting store is a wonderful place to start. But keep reading on so you know what to look and ask for.
Understand your gait & arch
Shoes should primarily provide stability. Without stability, you’re incorrectly transferring the energy of your step and potentially causing injury. One major way stability is designed into the shoe by understanding your ankle and foot alignment. The right shoes will support your gait and help better transfer, manage, and control impact energy giving you a much better and more comfortable experience.
Tips to figure out your gait
You can inspect your current shoes or boots and look for wear patterns to find your pronation, neutral or natural supination. When I started running early on I just assumed a nice pair of sneakers was all I needed but I wore them out super quick on the inside edges – almost extremely so. This wear is a sign of overpronation. After finding shoes that are “supportive” – indicative of overpronation support I stopped having wear problems on the outside of my shoe and they started lasting longer and more importantly, I stopped having knee problems and shin splints. I had to get “Extra support” shoes to make it through my training and as I’ve progressed, I’ve been able to adjust to more neutral shoes and classic boots without suffering.
For those with supination or underpronation, your shoe will often wear out on the outside edge first – close to the middle or pinky toe and through the heel. For under pronators, a shoe with more cushioning and increased shock absorption may be your best bet. Super heavy and flat hiking boots should be avoided.
With a neutral gait, your shoes should almost wear down the center or heal. If you find yourself wearing heels flat you may want to focus more on walking with a flatter gait vs heal strike.
The good thing is, while over and under pronation can be genetic, much of it is relieved with the actual act of hiking. Hiking builds up strength and muscles, while you may have to start out with a high support shoe for non-neutral gaits you may build strength and work your way towards more neutral shoes as you progress in your training and endurance.
When you go shopping for shoes, ask your shoe fitter to check your gait and correctly fit you to a shoe that supports you. If you can’t make it to a shoe store, as your friend or family member to watch you stand and take steps to see how your gait is. A terrific way to do this is at a gym on a treadmill where you can walk at a brisk pace in a stationary space. Recording it on your phone for playback is a great way to see it as well.
Here is a simple video to help you understand over/under pronation and your gait.
When most people think of fitting shoes, this is probably the most frequent concern over the actual length and width of the shoe. Many think arch support or lack thereof is the “sole” reason they experience pain, discomfort or how they feel a shoe should fit. Listen to your gut here. Yes, you should have arch support if you have high arches and if you have flat feet – you may want less overall arch support so you don’t feel pressure or increase the risk of blisters. Arch support should be a fitting factor along with your gait. It’s the combination of knowing your gait and the arch support that will give you a comfortable shoe fit.
How should hiking shoes fit?
Proper hiking shoe fitment will mean the difference between joy and suffering. This extended fitment guide will teach you all the measurements of your feet and how to fit them or adjust your shoes accordingly.
- Calf Circumference – For full-size hiking boots or boots with gaiters you will want to make sure that the circumference of the opening is comfortable around your calf but can be tightened enough with laces to fit socks and ensure debris, water and insects can’t fit in.
- Shoe Height – Shoe height will vary depending on your personal preference and mission. Less a matter of fitment as long as your calf circumference fits correctly but more of an issue of support, balance, and protection.
- Ankle Circumference – For taller shoes or boots you want to make sure that when laced up you don’t feel pressure here. Ensure that when you walk in odd strides or step up and down steps that you have a snug fit here but no adverse pressure. If you do any ascents or descents this will be miserable if not fitting correctly. If you have to loosen laces too much to relieve this pressure you may cause other problems. Some boots will have an outside lace snap and fewer lace crossing here to help alleviate the pressure. It all depends on your measurements and comfort.
- Oblique Girth of foot – Same as ankle circumference above, if the shoe is too tight or too much pressure here you will be miserable. It should feel snug with socks on and not cause blisters or soreness.
- The big girth of foot – Continuing along the same lines as the prior two measurements this is where in addition to lace tightness the thickness and girth of the tongue comes into play. You don’t want this too loose or you will feel foot lift inside your shoe and that is a sure-fire way to blisters on the bottom of your foot. It should be snug. In all of my hiking, this has been the least of my problem areas other than nature getting inside. This is a good part of the foot to protect with gaiters if you’re walking in areas with heavy thorns/insects or dirt & debris.
- The small girth of foot – Good fit, room for socks and no feeling of a floating foot. You shouldn’t feel the front of your foot lifting up in your walking gate or ascending/descending.
- Length of toe box/tomb – If you’re growing – size it up a bit to ensure a season out of your shoe. If you’re an adult or done growing then make sure you have plenty of room so your toe isn’t up against the toe box or mashed into the front of your shoe. Good soles for shoes are important here – i have a “big” big toe so I often get blisters in shoes that allow for too much movement. I use tape and good wicking socks to help alleviate this and padded insoles seem to help as well (big toe rests in more rather than wiggle around on top)
- Width – Width of your foot. To snug – you’re running a too narrow of a show – slide around and you’re running too wide. While you can measure the precise size most companies simply size on a narrow to wide size.
- Length – Length of your foot in shoe sizes. This varies between men and women, children and adults and Europe vs the US. Why, I have NO clue. Shoe companies don’t even have a uniform sizing even when you have a measured foot!
Keep in mind that hiking sandals typically don’t have much support or options for fitment other than an elastic stretchy lace system or leather clip. They may be best for warm water crossing, beaches, short trails and experiences where you may be doing more than hiking such as kayak trips and such.
Proper shoe Sizing
Almost any shoe store, outdoor store or department store will have these devices laying around. They’re great for getting a base shoe size per US measurements in length and width.
Measuring length – Ensure that the shoe is the proper length of your foot and that you have plenty of room for your toebox. If you’re still growing, a half size larger may get you extra time out of your shoes. If you’re already full-grown, ensure that your toe isn’t snug as you want some room.
I prefer to measure my length and width while standing up and wearing my favorite hiking socks. If it’s for a winter hike, I wear thicker wool socks. If it’s for my summer/spring hikes then I wear thinner wicking socks. I use a different shoe for different seasons as I prefer ankle support & taller boot in winter and low profile shoe or trail shoe in the summer. I sweat like crazy so wicking socks helps keep my feet cool and dry. These socks can be thinner than classic wool hiking socks so ensure that your foot doesn’t slide around or fit loosely as that can lead to painful blisters.
The width of your shoe usually isn’t measured by most brands precisely but categorized as narrow or wide. If you find yourself getting callouses and blisters on the outside of your foot or pinky toe (small toe) then you’re probably running too narrow of a show.
Please keep in mind that many shoemakers deviate from these exact measurements and your measurement by these devices should be as a guide to where you start shopping from. Don’t order online blindly without having tried the shoes for the correct fitment. Please note, some manufacturers even change their sizing between years. It’s an unforgiving industry at times!
How to choose proper trail shoes
No guide would be a good guide if we didn’t help you choose the best shoe for your next hiking adventure. This part of the guide is less about choosing the right fitment, but rather understanding the materials of the shoe and what that means for performance, fit and durability.
Material – Leather, Height, Waterproof or open shoe. Leather shoes may require more maintenance and proper caring to last a full life but because of this, they can be extremely durable and long-lived. Synthetic materials will often be water-resistant and quick drying. Technology has brought shoes a long way. A hybrid shoe can provide the best of both worlds – Synthetic materials to allow your shoot to remain cool and dry and leather to offer support, protection, and re-enforcement. I use a pair of Keen Hiking Shoes for most of my Texas hikes because of their combination leather & breathable materials.
Sole – Traction, ability to be replaced/repaired. Full-size hiking boots tend to be bulky and heavy on the soles while providing extra durable protection. Great for high alpine summits of extremely sharp and rugged terrain. Some shoe companies provide sewn insoles so they can be replaced by a cobbler. Midsize hiking boots retain some durability in the sole but usually switch to a sneaker style traction which extra thickness for durability. Trail running and cross-trek style shoes will be just like sneakers with more grip, the lightest & most nimble options.
Lots of companies will offer optional insoles to provide further padding & comfort in the shoe. Replaceable insoles are sometimes an option to get multi-season use as you can go to a smaller/flatter insole for winter with thicker socks and vice versa for summer.
Laces – I focus on durability, ease of tying, and lace lifetime. I prefer a rope-like lace over old school flat cotton laces. I do lots of hiking in Texas and the deserts of the southwest. Burs, stickies, and thorns just destroy the classic flat cotton/cloth laces while the rope ones hold strong. I’ll typically double knot these since their downfall is they can come lose more easily. Make sure that your laces are always in good shape, keep a spare pair in your vehicle or nearby so if you break them you won’t have a miserable hike back with a loose shoe. Rope ones can often be tied around gear or used a “survival cord” so its easy to bring along without incurring added weight.
Waterproof hiking shoes – Are they waterproof? Quick Drying? Open design such as water keens for lots of water crossing and trekking? My personal preference is a closed shoe for anything with distance. I’ll use my open keens if I know I’ll be exploring along creeks, waterfalls and extremely muddy areas. I’ll just put some effort into keeping them clean since mud/dirt can be aggravating. Use every water crossing opportunity to keep these clean. If it’s a multi-day hike I’ll put more effort into fast-drying shoes & wicking socks vs using my water shoes. (Remove shoes if possible to cross streams when safe to do so).
How to maintain hiking shoes
There is no better way to ruin a good pair of shoes or greatly reduce their life by not maintaining your gear. The process is simple.
- Keep dry – The most important part of keeping your shoes in top shape is to keep them dry. If they get wet, always air them out. Never store in enclosed space if wet/moist
- Unlace when not in use – Get into the habit of unlacing your shoes to remove them. You want the laces to preserve the fit and not git into the habit of just pulling your shoes off and trying to smash your foot in. Take the time to loosen up the laces and let them breathe. When you put them on, tighten them back up.
- Foot powder – reduce smell/fungus potential. Foot powder can help reduce smell, keep them dry and remove the risk of athletes’ foot and other fungal issues.
- Leather treatment – treat and maintain leather – condition leather boots to keep them soft, supple and in top shape. Re-treat periodically and after intense use. Follow manufacturer recommendations. Some may already be pre-treated or sealed and not need further treatment.
- Store flat in airy, dry, moderate temperature – Don’t just pile your gear into a box and leave it in a hot attic. If you’re no longer using them – recycle, share or give them away vs storing them where the materials will break down and potential for damage increases.
Hiking in Snow, shrubs and prickly things? Gaiters can help protect your legs and prevent nasties from getting inside your shoes. These are a fantastic option to keep in your bag and use only when necessary. Great for low profile shoe use and still having calf and ankle protection.
Hiking on Ice? “Cramp Ons” will give you traction and just wrap/strap/clamp around your shoe. These are usually universal in size – adult/child or men/women – Some are adjustable. Make sure you only use these on proper terrain and follow mfr safety recommendations.
Inserts – Add some padding, increase support or replace worn out & damaged inserts. Many of the specific shoe companies will sell fitted insoles and inserts for their specific shoes as well.
Where to buy hiking shoes
Proper fitment is paramount. It’s much easier to get properly fit for boots at a store and pay retail pricing and then purchase your favorite boots or shoes online to save in the future. Many retailers will often price match the major online stores as the products are usually fixed price by the manufacturer, to begin with.
My boots are always in stock at Amazon and since I have prime I can get them on the same or next day. Hard to beat that.
Here are some recommended shoes for men and women that I’ve had experience with and friends and family have recommended.
Hiking shoes for men
Please remember that different companies may have varied sizes and shapes even though they list “men’s 11.5” – they may be slightly bigger/smaller and have variation in size.
Hiking shoes for women
Women’s hiking shoes tend to come in more colors and options. Same fitment, features and proper sizing is important.
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I’m a 40 something father of two girls who loves the mountains, still plays in the sand and enjoys being in the great outdoors. The mountains are always calling my name.
“Wilderness is a necessity” – John Muir