Hiking Boots vs Hiking Shoes:
Table of contents
These days, there are dozens of different types of hiking footwear out there—day hikers, thru-hikers, trail runners, barefoot shoes, low hiking shoes, approach shoes, backpacking boots, mountaineering boots. The terminology can make your head spin (and that’s before you even get into features and materials). If you’ve been searching for hiking footwear recently, you may be wondering what the differences are.
The good news is that all of the footwear listed above can be broken down into two main umbrellas: hiking boots and hiking shoes. In this article, we’re going to break down the key differences to help you decide which one is best for you.
But first, let’s talk about the question on everyone’s mind: Do you really need special shoes for hiking anyway?
Why is hiking footwear so important?
Hiking is what some people refer to as “Type II Fun.” It can be hot. It can be wet. It can be cold. It can be tiring. It can be dirty. You might spend half the day scrambling up steep, endless switchbacks and the other half trekking through ankle-deep water. If you don’t have the right footwear, you’re going to be hot and tired at best. At worst, you’ll be miserable and injured.
It’s worth the investment to get shoes that are designed specifically for the job
The roots of hiking boots
They tended to have higher tops and were made with rugged metal hardware. The lace-up process was often a Herculean task that involved tugging at your ankles for 10 minutes to get your foot inside the boot.
That said, for all their clunkiness, early hiking boots did their job beautifully. They kept you warm, they kept you dry, and they kept you protected. Not only that, they were tough enough to survive an apocalypse. This ad says it best:
Not only that, they weren’t exactly what you’d call “stylish.”
In fact, they were so unstylish that sometimes the manufacturers had to make fun of themselves:
In short, the hiking industry got the memo.
Within a matter of time, the trails started crawling with a new generation of comfortable, lightweight hiking boots—and they even looked good on your feet.
As more time passed, they got even lighter, more flexible, and more comfortable. And then one day, lo and behold: The hiking shoe emerged.
What are hiking shoes?
The best hiking shoes are made with high-performance features that allow them to be lighter and more flexible without compromising their effectiveness on the trail. These items include things like protective upper materials, high-grip lug patterns, waterproof coatings, sock-like booties, and other hiking-specific elements.
What's the difference between hiking boots and shoes?
Still, there are some key differences.
- Thicker uppers
- More leather materials
- Traditional boot design
- More rugged
- More stable
- All-season hiking
- Thinner uppers
- More knits & mesh materials
- Sneaker-style design
- More lightweight
- More versatile
- Hikers who prefer a lightweight feel
- Spring, summer & fall hiking
With higher tops and some of the toughest uppers available, they tend to be a bit more stable than hiking shoes, which makes them especially good choices for people who need extra ankle support, or beginning hikers who are still developing their foot skills.
Hiking shoes, by contrast, are a bit thinner with lower tops and knit or mesh components that often make them stretchier and more flexible. They feel a bit lighter on your feet and the materials allow them to be a bit more breathable. They don’t offer the same degree of support as full-sized boots but their versatile styling offers hikers a look that can go from trail to tavern more smoothly.
People who like that extra-secure feeling when they hike often prefer boots, whereas hikers who like a more lightweight, flexible feel may prefer hiking shoes.
Which footwear is best for you?
- What you’re doing: Will you be primarily hiking on dirt, gravel, or pavement? How technical is the terrain? Will you be day hiking, backpacking, or thru-hiking?
- Where you’re doing it: What’s the climate like? Is it hot and dry or wet and rainy? Will there be mountains and rivers or beaches and deserts?
- Who you are: Are you a beginner, intermediate or advanced hiker? How hard do you like to hike? How fast do you like to go?
All of these questions will factor into the footwear you choose. To make it simple for you, we’ve put together a list of footwear recommendations based on different adventures you may be planning.