Whenever I’m out with other hikers, it doesn’t take long for the hiking shoes vs boots conversation to begin. Why? Because when you’re hiking, what you wear on your feet, determines whether you have a comfortable hike or a painful one.
Before my first ever hike, my scout leader insisted that everyone should wear a pair of hiking boots. I assumed that every hiker wore hiking boots, just as every cyclist rode a bicycle. But it turns out that hiking shoes are a suitable piece of outdoor apparel to put on your feet too.
Most distance hikers I’ve met do indeed wear hiking boots, and while guiding hiking tours I always recommended hiking boots to my groups. This was because a lot of our trails included rocky terrain with steep climbs and tricky descents. The kind of terrain that most of my groups were not used to.
But are hiking boots always better than hiking shoes? Let’s take a closer look.
- Hiking boots vs shoes: what’s the difference?
- Hiking boots vs shoes: which is better?
- Hiking boots vs shoes: things to consider
- Hiking boots vs shoes: the verdict
Hiking boots vs shoes: what’s the difference?
In general hiking boots are heavier than hiking shoes. The extra weight is due partly to the extra features that hiking boots have and partly to their more durable construction.
The most significant difference between hiking boots and hiking shoes is the amount of ankle support they provide. Hiking boots have stiff and padded uppers that lace around the ankle. Comparatively, hiking shoes offer very little ankle support.
Both hiking boots and shoes should provide plenty of comfort. Afterall, uncomfortable footwear is useless footwear! However, this isn’t always the case and comfort levels can vary wildly from brand to brand as well as the style of footwear you choose. Add in personal preference and individual foot shape and finding the optimal comfort levels can be more challenging than it should be.
Generally speaking, hiking boots tend to take a little more time to ‘break in’ meaning that they may not feel immediately comfortable. That said, most hiking boot brands claim out of box comfort, and breaking boots in really should be a thing of the past. Hiking boots also tend to be more stiff through the soles which can feel a little clunky and restricting to start with. Additionally, the nature of boots means that your feet are more cooped up. Therefore, if you have awkward shaped feet it can be difficult to find a pair that works with you rather than against you.
Conversely, hiking shoes often have a thinner, more flexible midsole and sole with upper fabrics that are also less stiff. This combination of materials and construction makes them (in general) very comfortable to wear straight out the box. Additionally, hiking shoes don’t have to deal with housing and protecting your ankle joint. The benefit of this is that there are fewer areas to rub against and cause friction. Finding comfortable hiking shoes for those with irregular shaped feet is usually much easier than finding comfortable hiking boots.
All that said, if you find a pair of hiking boots that work for your feet they should feel great and provide as much comfort as hiking shoes.
Hiking boots are typically constructed with more protective features. These features include reinforced toes and heels. They also have 3-5mm shanks sandwiched between the mid and outer sole; these make boots more adept at carrying heavy loads, and plates that protect the underside of your foot. Hiking shoes do have some protective features, but they don’t offer the same level of protection.
Many hiking boots feature outsoles with deep multi-directional lugs and hard-wearing rubber that grip on most surfaces. Many hiking shoes also have grippy outer soles made from the same materials as hiking boot outsoles, but they tend to have less aggressive lugs which mean that they don’t deal so well with mud and debris.
The best hiking boots are made from strong and sturdy materials. Hiking boots are often made with leather uppers (including suede and nubuck) or heavyweight synthetic fabric. Although hiking shoes often have split leather-uppers, very few have full leather uppers. Most hiking shoes don’t contain leather at all (or it’s synthetic alternatives) because it’s too heavy for fast hiking. Instead, the best hiking shoes are constructed with thinner synthetic fabrics that are more breathable and flexible. This includes synthetic knits, mesh, and GORE-TEX to provide waterproofing.
Different types of hiking boots
Of course, hiking boots come in many shapes and sizes. When you look closely, you’ll notice there’s a big difference. The main types of hiking boots include:
Day hiking boots
Day hiking boots are designed for day hikes and short backpacking trips. They usually have a shorter break-in time than other boots. Day hiking boots include mid-cut hiking boots, which lace around the lower ankle, and high-cut hiking boots, which lace above the ankle.
For multi-day trekking, backpacking boots have thicker shank inserts to bear the weight of a heavy pack, as well as plates and more cushioning in the midsole. Backpacking boots have a higher cut and are more durable. The upper material varies between boots, but it’s often less breathable.
A more popular choice for day hikes and hut-to-hut hiking is lightweight hiking boots. They’re usually made from synthetic materials which are more breathable than regular hiking boots. Although supportive, lightweight hiking boots are not the most durable and will wear quickly if hiking with a heavy pack.
Mountaineering boots look similar to backpacking boots, but some types have an even higher cut. Mountaineering boots have much stiffer soles and uppers and often contain insulation. They should be waterproof and are usually crampon compatible.
Different types of hiking shoes
Aren’t all hiking shoes the same? Actually, there are many types of hiking shoes too. Some are sturdy enough to rival lightweight hiking boots; in fact, hiking shoes are sometimes listed as low-rise hiking boots in product descriptions. Meanwhile, others are designed for fast and light movement. Types of hiking shoes include:
Approach shoes are a hybrid that closes the gap between a hiking shoe and a climbing shoe. They’re light enough to put into a backpack once you’ve started the main climb, comfortable enough to hike from the camp to the wall, and grippy enough for vertical scrambling and basic climbs.
Trail running shoes are lighter and more breathable than regular hiking shoes. They have an outer sole that’s designed to grip whilst moving quickly, and many have a rock plate which protects the underfoot from impact. They’re usually made with mesh or knit uppers which are breathable but wear more quickly.
These are low-cut hiking shoes, usually made from synthetic materials, and weigh less than a kilo per pair. Most have a flexible midsole that saves weight but still provides comfort and protection.
Barefoot shoes are the lightest type of hiking shoes, often under 500g a pair. They’re designed to fit like a glove with a wider toe box, soft uppers and a thin but grippy outsole. They have minimal (or no) cushioning in the midsole. Minimalist hiking shoes are similar but tend to have a thicker, more protective mid and outer sole.
Hiking boots vs shoes: which is better?
Hiking boots pros and cons
Pros of hiking boots
- Offer better ankle support which can increase stability and help to prevent injury
- Additional protection in the toes and heels
- Very durable, hiking boots have a long lifetime (depending on the type of boot and the brand)
- Cushioning in the midsole
- Great traction from the deeper lugs
- Suitable for most terrains
- Keeps out a lot of trail debris
- Suitable for all seasons (depending on the breathability of the upper fabric)
- Can cross shallow streams without taking them off (depending on the waterproof rating)
Cons of hiking boots
- Less breathable
- Heavier and bulkier than hiking shoes
- Stiffer and less flexible than hiking shoes
- Most require a break-in period
- Usually more expensive than hiking shoes
Hiking shoes pros and cons
Pros of hiking shoes
- Lighter than hiking boots – saves energy on long hikes
- More flexible and less restrictive
- Better for fast hiking
- Many don’t need breaking-in
- Suitable to wear off the trail too
- More breathable – great for late spring to autumn hikes
- Tend to be cheaper than hiking boots – a sensible choice for first-time hikers or kids
- A compromise between regular trainers and hiking boots – great for people who are new to hiking footwear
Cons of hiking shoes
- Minimal ankle support
- Tend to be less durable
- Often less waterproof (depending on the uppers)
- Not much protection from trail debris (it can get in through the tops of the ankles)
- Your feet will probably get wet in stream crossings
Hiking boots vs shoes: things to consider
As you can see, hiking shoes have almost as many advantages as hiking boots. However, what you end up choosing highly depends on lots of other things as well. So, if you’re still trying to choose between the two, you’ll need to ask yourself the following questions:
Where are you hiking?
Are you hiking on an even trail in your local country park or climbing a mountain? Is there snow and ice on the ground, or are you walking over dry fields? Because of their additional features, hiking boots are better than hiking shoes for uneven terrain, challenging trails, and cooler weather but they’re not necessary on gentle terrains.
Do you need extra stability at the ankles?
Does the type of terrain you’re hiking on mean that you’ll benefit from extra stability? Do you know that your ankles are a weak point (perhaps a previous injury)? Or, are you new to hiking on uneven terrain? If so, consider hiking boots instead of hiking shoes.
Are you carrying a heavy pack?
A heavy pack changes the way you hike and increases the impact of each step. Your ankles are therefore more likely to suffer on downhill sections. Although ultra-lightweight hikers may prefer hiking shoes, hiking boots are better than hiking shoes for most backpackers.
What will the climate be like?
Generally, hiking shoes, particularly trail running shoes, are best for hot and dry conditions while hiking boots are best for cold and wet weather. However, that’s a fairly general rule that doesn’t always apply. Even in hot weather, you might want a bit of ankle support depending on the trail and your physicality. In that case, you could compromise with a pair of lightweight hiking boots. Similarly, hiking shoes are fine for cold but dry weather assuming you pair them with warm socks.
How fast do you intend on moving?
Are you fastpacking? Do you have a lot of miles to cover in a short amount of time? If speed is important, opt for lightweight hiking shoes or trail runners instead of heavier hiking boots.
How far do you plan to hike?
Are you trekking a long-distance trail or going on a day hike? Are you aiming to cover 20 miles or 5? On long day hikes, you’ll want a compromise between weight and comfort. On multi-day treks, you’ll want to consider durability too.
Is weight important?
Yes, to an extent. If you want to cover a lot of distance in a day, you don’t want heavy hiking boots tiring your legs. But, if you plan to hike day after day, you should consider comfort and durability above weight. Mid-weight hiking boots are a good compromise for thru-hikers, but anyone counting the grams will be better off with a pair of lightweight hiking shoes.
Hiking boots vs shoes: the verdict
Even after years of hiking, I’m still on the fence. Ultimately, I’d recommend hiking boots for some activities and hiking shoes for others. If you have the space and budget for both, that’s definitely the best solution.
On a personal note, I often hike with a heavy pack on steep, rocky, uneven terrain where it’s very easy to twist an ankle. On these trails, traction and stability are my top priorities so hiking boots are my preference. Recently, I hiked one of my local trails in a pair of minimalist trail runners, and the difference was notable. I had to pay far more attention to how and where I placed my feet, and my legs were sorer than usual after the hike.
Additionally, for me durability and comfort are usually more important than weight. Therefore, on a multi-day hike with a heavy pack, I’ll always choose a pair of hiking boots over hiking shoes. I also like that hiking boots keep more grit and scree out than hiking shoes – although, I admit that gaiters would do an even better job.
That said, in hot weather and on easy trails, I prefer the breathability of trail runners. I also prefer to travel with hiking shoes over hiking boots because they’re so much lighter and more comfortable off the trail.
For most people, the conclusion to the hiking shoes vs boots debate will depend on what you’re used to and what trails you usually hike. Some people find hiking boots too restricting while others will benefit from the additional ankle support and foot protection. If you only hike mountains, mountaineering boots will be the smartest choice, but if your hikes are mostly on well-maintained trails, hiking shoes will probably be more comfortable.
Overall, a sturdy pair of hiking shoes will be suitable for most people. But, if any of the following apply to you then you should at least consider hiking boots:
You hike long distance or multi-day trails
- You usually hike on uneven terrain
- You’re progressing from easy to more challenging trails
- Your ankles are a weak point
- There’s often mud, snow, and stream crossings on your hiking routes.