When I started planning my first backpacking trip, the first thing I did was look into hiking boots. I was convinced that they were superior to the hiking shoe, and as someone with self-proclaimed “weak ankles” I thought they were my only option. I do love my hiking boots and they are solid as a rock, but I have since started training with lower-topped shoes to actually strengthen my ankle; not just prevent further injury.
I’ve found that my boots are also not as comfortable on hot days or shorter day hikes, and instead opt for my hiking shoes or even simple pair of sneakers.
So, should I take hiking boots backpacking? In short, you don’t have to limit yourself only to hiking boots when going backpacking. There is a delicate balance depending on the terrain, weight of backpack, your level of comfort and ankle strength which determines what kind of shoe or boot you will want. This balance differs person-to-person and its important that you do your research, test out some options and find what works best for you.
The Hiking Boot Ankle Support Myth
First of all, I want to clarify that I have nothing against hiking boots! I love my boots and wear them readily – but it is important to understand that they are not always the best choice of footwear.
Many wrongly believe that hiking boots provide the best support for your ankles and therefore must be worn when carrying a heavy pack, such as on a backpacking trip. While high-top boots do provide excellent stability out on the trail, they limit your range of movement in the ankle somewhat, and limited movement can lead to injury.
If you do not have a problem with ankle pain or a recent sprain, then there is no need to purchase hiking boots for your next backpacking trip – you may prefer a hiking shoe instead. In general, I’d say stick to what you know and what works well for you – test them with your heavy pack walking around the garden or town for half an hour and see how it feels.
If you are certain that you have weaker ankles or have recently injured an ankle, then you may want to consider using boots for an upcoming backpacking adventure; but your long-term goal should be to properly strengthen the joint through dedicated exercise and movement to recover full mobility. (See study results here)
Hiking Shoes vs Boots vs Trail Running Shoes for Backpacking
The three main contenders for backpacking footwear are hiking boots, hiking shoes and trail running shoes. Each have their differences and relative merits for various types of backpacking trip, and backpacker preference.
Pros: Best for heavy backpacks, can handle rough terrain and river crossings, more durable.
Cons: Legs tire more easily, some thicker soles provide less grip on rocks, reduce ankle mobility.
A decent pair of hiking boots should last you up to 1,000 miles of trails. They are still the most popular type of footwear on long thru-hikes and harsh terrain, thanks to their rugged build and superior support for heavy packs.
Most hiking boots will feature a full GoreTex or similar waterproof coating, yet still maintain breathability to help manage sweat when out on the trail. The benefit of this is that you can hike in muddy, wet, and snowy terrain and keep your feet completely dry – especially if you chose a high-top boot which protects you way above your ankle.
Conclusion: You should consider a hiking boot if you are planning a long-distance or several multi-day hikes through challenging terrain, and need footwear which will go the distance.
Pros: Good for day hikes, short multi-day trips and warm climates. More flexible soles provide good grip on rocks. Ankle has more mobility than in a boot.
Cons: May leak on river crossings or muddy/boggy earth. Weak ankles might twist more easily. Soles generally less durable than sturdier hiking boots.
Hiking shoes are becoming ever more popular as more people take to the trails. A decent pair of hiking shoes is adequate for most people who enjoy day hikes or longer trips around a well-known area. They are also preferred by those hiking in warmer climates as they are much more breathable than a heavy boot.
Whilst they tend to feature the same waterproof exterior and breathable lining as hiking boots; the cut is below the ankle joint so you may find your feet getting wet if you are in particularly wet ground. An alternative is to remove your shoes completely and dry them off before you put your shoes back on – but this is not always ideal if there are sharp rocks or unknown elements underfoot.
Conclusion: Hiking shoes are perfect for enthusiastic hikers who want the most versatile footwear for a range of trails. They are also a good choice for hikers wanting to start strengthening their ankles and increasing mobility in the joint – just take extra care!
Trail Running Shoes
Pros: The most lightweight option. Thinner soles provide excellent grip on loose terrain. The most breathable for hotter climates.
Cons: Less durable than hiking shoes or boots. Do not provide adequate support for a heavy backpack. Can cause injury if the ankle is prone to twist or sprain.
Trail running shoes are something that hikers should work up to, and not leap on straight out of the gate. As the name may suggest, they are a specific type of shoe that best suits people used to and comfortable with trails!
They do provide an excellent option on lighter hikes and there is no denying that they help you move swiftly and effortlessly over the trail; but they are not suitable for heavy backpacks and you may end up injured if you attempt this.
Many backpackers wear hiking boots or shoes and bring a pair of lightweight trail runners with them in their pack. They don’t add much weight and are a great choice for day hikes from base camp or exploring smaller side-trails where you wouldn’t want to bring your heavy backpack.
Conclusion: Trail running shoes are a great option for light hikes and hikes in hot climates. They provide excellent mobility for your ankles but the user should do some test hikes with them before attempting them out in the bush. Take them as your second pair on a backpacking trip for mini off-trail adventures!
Suze’s Hiking Boot and Shoe Recommendations
Hiking Boot – Lowa Renegade Mid GTX
I cannot rate these boots highly enough! They were my first pair of proper backpacking boots and I wore them every single around South America – whether out on a multi-day trail or walking around town with my heavy backpack on. They only slightly started to show signs of wear, and I had easily walked over 1000 miles in them. I loved them so much I recently bought the exact same pair, in a different color.
These are a mid-height boot with a fully-waterproof exterior and a good breathable lining. They are a little on the heavier side compared to other models, but they kept my ankles fully supported no matter which terrain I backpacked through. They also come in an excellent range of colors, which isn’t an essential feature but it is a very nice touch.
The Renegade Mid boot is probably one of the more expensive boots you can buy, but the superior nubuck leather construction and waterproof yet breathable Gore-Tex lining are totally worth it for me.
More info: lowaboots.com
Hiking Shoe – Salomon X Ultra 3 GTX
Salomon consistently make excellent footwear, and I chose these as a hiking shoe because they are still waterproof and lightweight; but rugged enough for rough terrain and a fair sized pack. They are an excellent choice for day hikes and even some multi-day – but they aren’t the most comfortable with a super heavy pack.
I wear these when I am headed out for a day or two and want something which allows me to stay quick on my feet, but ready for whatever the day may throw at me. The quick-lace system took a little getting used to but now that I have the hang of it, I really like it. They are significantly lighter than a decent pair of hiking boots so my legs don’t tire as easily, which is a nice plus.
All in all, these are considered midway between a hiking shoe and trail running shoe – definitely one to add to your collection!
More info: salomon.com
How much should I spend on hiking boots?
Hiking boots can range in price from $20 to upwards of $200. It is definitely worth investing in a good quality pair of boots which you know will last you a long time.
Try to choose a dedicated outdoor footwear brand when buying boots, as they spend time and money making their shoes to the highest standards to provide excellent support. You can get a good quality pair for $100-$130 easily – and keep an eye out for discounts and clearance sales to get your desired pair more cheaply.
Do I need waterproof hiking shoes?
If you are hiking anywhere with a good chance of prolonged rain or river crossings, then you will definitely want a pair of shoes which will keep the water out. There is nothing worse than wet socks, it can be incredibly uncomfortable and bad for your feet. Choose a good quality brand whose shoes are both waterproof and breathable, to let the sweat perspire out of the shoe and not create dampness from inside.
Do I need high top hiking boots?
There are three typical styles of boot: High, mid and low cut. High-top boots cover most of your ankle so they provide excellent stability on longer trips; but as we have discussed in this article, that may not always be best for you.
If you have a pair of boots that work for you but are wearing through, then look for the same pair or similar model – if its not broke don’t fix it! High-top boots are certainly useful if you have river-crossings or snow to hike through, as they will keep your feet dry.
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Suzie Hall has a passion for all things wild and is a scuba diver and Orcalab researcher based in Hanson Island off the north coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. She spends most of her time exploring this great wide earth and her travels have taken her to some remarkable locations including Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan and the wild British Columbia coast. Fueled by a drive to protect our wild spaces and their inhabitants, Suzie works in conservation projects around the globe and lives to write about the amazing people, places and wildlife she encounters.