The foundation of any hiking kit is solid, dependable footwear — something with a grippy outsole, a breathable, abrasion-resistant upper and just enough cushioning to provide comfort while maintaining trail feel.
You've no doubt heard of hiking boots, but there are two popular types of footwear you'll commonly see on the trail: hiking boots and hiking shoes. And before you invest in a pair of either type, it's important to know which one will suit you best.
Hiking shoes are lightweight wonders.
The biggest advantage hiking shoes have over boots is their weight. By losing the mid-height of a traditional boot, you're shaving ounces off each pair, resulting in a decidedly lighter hiking experience. With a lower silhouette, you're also getting more breathability and freedom of movement, but at the cost of less protection for your ankles. So if you have sensitive ankles or have had injuries in the past, think twice before switching to a low-profile pair.
An additional benefit of opting for a hiking shoe is lighter travel — since they're less bulky, less heavy and still kitted out with the same waterproofing and durability as their full-sized counterparts, hiking shoes are easier to stuff into your favorite weekender, luggage or travel backpack.
Hiking boots provide more protection and comfort.
Hiking boots are full-sized footwear made with stability and support in mind. When you’re backpacking, or you’re just taking on black diamond terrain during a day hike, hiking boots are there to lend more ankle support and reinforced protection.
A good hiking boot will provide enough comfort and protection to keep you out on the trail for as long as you'd like, without weighing you down or causing discomfort. Common features in hiking boots are deep, grippy lugs (traction-giving bumps on the outsole), durable features like toe guards, abrasion-resistant materials and weather-proofing tech like Gore-Tex. The way to tell if a boot is good for hiking is, frankly, how it feels: even if it's billed as the best boot to ever hit the trail, if it doesn't work with your foot shape, it's not going to cut it.
Are trail running shoes good for hiking?
Sure, you can get by just lacing up a pair of trail running shoes for a quick hike but there’s a reason both trail running shoes and hiking shoes exist as separate categories: they serve different needs.
The most noticeable difference between hiking shoes and trail runners is the weight capability of the shoes. Hiking shoes are designed and constructed to be able to better hold up under a heavy load, like an overpacked hydration pack or daypack. Trail runners are typically made with lighter upper fabric, thinner rubber in the outsoles and more breathable materials, which make them more nimble on the trail, but also less able to stand up to the wear and tear that a hiking shoe can handle. Hiking shoes also typically have beefier lugs and are more sturdy and robust throughout the midsole and upper.
Which is for you? It's all about the ankles.
The best way to determine whether hiking shoes or boots are better for you is to try them both. But there are some rules of thumb to set you on the right path.
If you've got sensitive ankles or balance issues, go for a boot. If you're speedy and inclined toward lightweight gear, slip on some hiking shoes.
Here are a few of our favorite hiking boots and shoes to consider. Check out our full hiking boot and hiking shoe buying guides for more advice on picking out the perfect pair.