How to Choose Hiking Shoes: Complete Guide

How do you pick a great pair of hiking shoes? Here’s a look at some of the top factors that you should take into consideration when you’re shopping.

There’s nothing more exhilarating than heading out into nature, hitting an open trail and seeing where it leads you. Hiking is an incredible activity. It’s a great way to get some exercise, explore nature’s majesty, and just get away from it all, even if just for a little while.

Whether you’re planning a multi-day trek or a short afternoon excursion, and whether it’s along a mountainside, in the woods, or along a shoreline, if you’re going hiking, you definitely want to take the time to ensure you’re properly prepared.

While a water bottle, trekking poles, a pack, and a first aid kit are all important, there’s one item that trumps all the rest: your footwear. If your feet aren’t happy when you’re hiking, it doesn’t matter what other type of gear you bring along; your trek probably isn’t going to be a success.

If your heels are covered in blisters, your toes are soaking wet, your ankles keep rolling, and you’re slipping and sliding everywhere, you’re going to be absolutely miserable.

You’ll have no trouble finding a pair of hiking shoes; just head to any sporting goods store or online retailer and you’re bound to find an endless array of options to choose from.

While it might be tempting to pick the most “stylish” pair of shoes you find, there are several other factors that are a lot more important than the look of the shoes.

So, how do you go about picking a great pair of hiking shoes? Here’s a look at some of the top factors that you should take into consideration when you’re shopping.

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Figure Out the Style

Just like there are sneakers that are meant for different activities, there are different types of hiking boots designed for different types of trekking. Consider the type of trail you’ll be hitting before you purchase your shoes. For example, the type of shoes you should use for steeper, rockier trails will be a lot different than those that you should use for more casual hikes.

There are three basic styles of hiking boots:

  1. Light hiking. As the name suggests, light hiking shoes are meant for light hiking; day treks on relatively calm terrain, for example; however, they provide better stability than standard sneakers.
  2. Backpacking boots. If you’re going to be going out on a multi-day trek across changing terrains, or even if you’re going for a day trips, but you plan on switching up the local, backpacking boots are your best bet. They’re made to be used on a various types of terrains, so they’ll provide you with the support you need, no matter where you’re trekking.
  3. Mountaineering boots. If you plan on hitting arduous terrain; snow-covered trails, steep and rocky cliffs, etc., these are the type of hiking shoes you’ll want to invest in. Mountaineering boots are constructed of heavy duty materials, offer deep yet narrow treads for better grip, and provide the proper support for your ankles.
The most important purchase for hiking?
The most important purchase for hiking?

The Fit is Essential

What’s the most important factor to consider when you’re shopping for hiking shoes? – The fit! If your shoes are too tight and pinch your toes or if they’re too loose and keep flipping on your heels, you’re going to be miserable; hence why the fit is essential.

We strongly suggest actually going to a store instead of shopping online. While you can find lots of different options at online retailers, you can’t try them on, and when it comes to hiking shoes, you absolutely need to try before you buy.

With that said, it’s also important to note that you shouldn’t just assume that the size you normally wear will do, as the fit can vary; for example, while you may normally be a size 10, the hiking boots you’re interested in may fit you better in a size 9. The length of the shoe isn’t the only thing you want to take into consideration; the width is super important, too.

There’s only one way to ensure that your hiking shoes will fit you properly, and that’s by trying them on. An important note: make sure you wear a pair of socks that you plan on wearing when you hit the trails to get a good idea about the fit.

If the socks you’re wearing while you’re shopping are thin but you plan on wearing thicker socks on your trek, you might be in for a big (and not a pleasant) surprise.

Consider the Material

The material your hiking shoes are constructed of is another extremely important factor to consider. Choose the wrong type of fabric and your feet can end up feeling like they’re trapped in a damp swamp.

The following materials are most commonly used for hiking shoes:

  • Full-grain leather. Full-grain leather is extremely durable and does a good job of resisting water penetration, making it suitable for heavy-duty treks. However, despite the durability, it isn’t the most breathable materials; plus, it’s pretty heavy.
  • Synthetic materials. Examples of synthetic materials that are usually used for hiking shoes include polyester and nylon. They’re light-weight, breathable, they dry pretty fast when they’re wet, and they’re relatively easy to break in; however, they aren’t as durable as other materials.
  • Split-grain leather. Comprised of a combination of leather and synthetic materials, split-grain leather is lighter than full-grain leather and more durable than straight synthetics. The downside: split-grain isn’t as waterproof or durable as full-grain leather, and it’s heavier than full synthetic shoes.

When selecting the material for your hiking boots, consider what type of setting you will be hiking in, as well as the climate.

Consider the terrain you will be hiking in
Consider the terrain you will be hiking in

Cut is Important, Too

The cut of your hiking shoes is another very important factor that you’re going to want to consider. Choose the wrong cut and you could end up getting pebbles stuck in your shoes or twisting an ankle.

The three main cuts include:

  • High-cut. High cut boots come up around the ankles, providing the support you’ll need on rigorous terrains. Additionally, they prevent debris from falling into your shoes. If you’re planning on doing adventurous treks, high-gut shoes are the way to go.
  • Mid-cut. Mid-cut hiking shoes come up to just below the ankle, providing a bit of support in that area, and they also can help to cut down on the amount of pebbles, sand, and other debris that gets trapped inside your shoes. Furthermore, they’re more flexible than high-cut shots, but they don’t offer as much support.
  • Low-cut. Lastly, there’s the low-cut hiking shoe. As the name indicates, the shoes sit low on the foot, below the ankle; similar to a pair of standard running sneakers. While they offer great flexibility and are lighter than the previously mentioned cuts, low-cut hiking shoes provide virtually no support for the ankles and debris can easily slip inside. We suggest low-cut shoes for simple treks.

Pay Attention to the Padding

Just as important as the fit, the style, and the cut is the padding that your hiking shoes offer. You want to make sure that you’ve got enough padding to shield you from blisters.

The tongues of the shoes should provide plenty of padding so keep chaffing on the top of your feet down and to prevent your feet from feeling as if they’re being cut by the laces.

The padding along the ankle is important, too. Your ankle doesn’t contain a lot of fat, but it folds and flexes continuously; therefore, padding plays a key role in protecting your ankle from blisters.

Opt for a pair of shoes that feature enough padding to properly secure the shoes around your heel, thereby preventing excessive movement around your ankles; this will help to minimize chafing.

Another key area for padding is the ankles. The heels are notorious for blisters, especially if your shoes aren’t properly broken in. While friction between the heels and the shoes is almost impossible to avoid – especially if the boots are stiff and new – you can cut prevent the risk of blisters by investing in a pair of shoes that offer a decent amount of padding along the heels.

Check Out the Treads

The treads of the shoes provide traction and stability, and it goes without saying that you want to be as stable as possible when you’re hitting the trails.

Check out the treads; the deeper, yet narrower they are, the more stability they’ll provide. In addition, you’ll want the soles to be made of slip-resistant materials to reduce your chances of slipping on wet rocks, leaves, or patches of snow and ice.

Summing It Up

When you’re shopping for hiking shoes, considering the type of hiking you’ll be doing (the terrain, the distance, etc.) is essential so that you can purchase the right height, style, and material.

Trying on the shoes to ensure they are comfortable – really walk around in them to give them a good test run – is an absolute must. Also, make sure you wear socks that are similar to what you plan on wearing when you hit the trails while you’re shopping.

The right pair of hiking shoes can be the difference between a happy trek and a miserable one.

Jake is an explorer, he loves all types of outdoor pursuits such as hunting, fishing & hiking. Jake has been a full-time writer & blogger for many years now and he's here to share his passions with the BeActiveOutdoors readers. Contact Jake@beactiveoutdoors.com

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