Hiking Boots, Shoes, and Sandals: How to Choose

woman crossing stream wearing hiking boots
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Good footwear is one of the most crucial components of a good day of hiking. Nothing’s going to ruin your trail time faster than a foot injury.

There are three main categories of hiking footwear: boots, shoes, and sandals. Aside from the obvious aesthetic and build differences, the main distinguishing factors come down to their levels of support and protection provided. To pick one, think about your most common use cases. Where are you hiking, when, and what are you carrying while you do?

“If you’re wearing a big backpack for a multiday hike, you need more stiffness and ankle support, but if you’re just going for two hours, you don’t need that much,” said Brian Beckstead, co-founder of shoe company Altra.

But hitting some rocky paths doesn’t necessarily equate to a chunky boot. Ultimately the decision doesn’t come down to terrain but to personal preference. Some people hike for months in lightweight trail-running shoes—case in point, Altra’s Lone Peak trail runner is the most popular shoe on the Pacific Coast Trail. Others want the ankle support of a larger boot even on shorter hikes, and some want to feel the air on their toes.

Regardless of which style you go for, you want it to fit well. “The fundamentals of fit are pretty universal,” said Brian Hall, director of product development for hiking boot company Vasque. “You are looking for something that matches your foot shape closely, then dialing in the closure for the most comfort and performance.”

“Your initial reaction for comfort is more important than any other category or qualification within the shoes,” said Beckstead. “Once you find the category of shoe that you want based on your needs, try on several within that category and find the one that is the most comfortable.”

That doesn’t just mean take a walk around the store. “You need to think how they’ll feel at mile 12 or on day 7,” Beckstead said. “If you’re out on a six-day trek or all-day hike, coming up with blisters or friction can be really bad.”

And don’t forget about socks. While we won’t address the socks with sandals debate, with any shoe, wearing the wrong socks can mitigate any benefits and exacerbate potential areas of discomfort. Ensure you’re wearing a synthetic or merino hiking sock with enough padding and height for your footwear.

Can’t choose? There’s hope for you.

“If you are an active hiker or have intentions of being one, you will most likely end up with a quiver of outdoor footwear,” Hall said. “It is common to have a pair of rugged boots and a good pair of hiking sandals, covering the spectrum of trails and seasons you hike in. If you want to be more minimalistic, go with the most versatile option, which is a lightweight hiking shoe that will do a lot of things well.”

Boots

Hall describes boots as “the gold standard for support and protection. Even lightweight boots will provide more ankle support than a shoe.”

The higher level of protection provided by a boot means they’re better for more rugged environments, rougher terrain, and colder weather. If you’re carrying a heavy bag on a long, probably multi-day trek, you want a boot. Boots can also be better for newer hikers whose feet may not be strong enough yet to handle uneven terrain without the extra support. 

There are degrees of hiking boots within this category as well. Mid-rise boots are usually lighter and better for less intense hikes, while higher-rise models provide the most ankle support but also the most weight. (Once you get into a low rise, that’s technically a hiking shoe.) Backpacking boots are stiffer on the bottoms for the ability to tackle any terrain and higher up on the ankle to support you while carrying heavier loads. 

On a cautionary note, boots will have the longest break-in period of any of these options. You can’t just pop them on out of the box and go. Make sure you have enough time before you hit the trail to get them comfy.

Shoes

Trail shoes are the most versatile option on this list, making them a great choice for hikers who want something light and mobile without sacrificing support. “A lot can be done in a product like this,” said Hall. “They’re great for more experienced hikers who have good foot and ankle strength and proprioception from lots of time on trails or for the newer, more casual hiker on less technical terrain.”

Beckstead notes that Altra and other trail-running brands have seen more and more use by hikers drawn to the combination of versatility and comfort.

“One great thing that has changed over the past 10 to 20 years is that people have more options than ever,” said Beckstead. “Those lanes of what a hiking shoe versus running shoe is used to be very defined, and now they’ve blurred. Some people get confused by that blurriness but I think it’s great that it provides options for the consumer that we’ve never had in the past.”

Shoes generally don’t require much of a break-in period, but you’ll still want to take a new pair for a test walk around your neighborhood just to make sure.

Sandals

While you shouldn’t be taking to the trail in plastic flip-flops, a good hiking sandal has an important place in the hiking footwear arsenal. You need to make sure your feet are strong enough, and Beckstead mainly recommends them for more experienced hikers. But if you think you’re ready, a sandal can be an excellent choice in a hot environment or when you’re going in and out of the water, or even if you hate feeling constrained.

“People want that freedom, that fresh air; it feels good,” said Beckstead. “I’ve hiked some pretty gnarly trips in Chacos or even a more minimal shoe.” If it’s a warm day, you aren’t putting on a lot of miles, and you have the opportunity to cross a river or hop in a lake for a swim, it’s time to pick up a sandal.

“There are no hard and fast rules here,” said Hall. “It is important to be honest with yourself about your experience on trails, ability level, and your fitness. Some people climb mountains in sandals, and others walk in the local park in boots. Choose what makes the most sense for you.”

Ultimately, as long as your feet are happy, you’ve made the right choice.

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