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How to Select the Right Hiking Footwear for Happy, Comfy Feet

Three images featuring hiking footwear from the article below including Salomon trail runners, Asolo backpacking boots and Merrell hiking boots.

Starting new hobbies can be expensive, but when it comes to hiking, your footwear is probably one of the most vital pieces of equipment you can purchase. So, which shoe or boot should you get? Let’s figure it out!

Getting serious about hiking means investing in a reliable, yet comfortable, pair of hiking boots or shoes. A good pair can last you hundreds, or even thousands, of miles, depending on the amount of hiking you do and the type of terrain you prefer. We’ll help you choose the right footwear for all your hiking adventures.

A Few Considerations & How to Find the Perfect Fit

A man trying on hiking boots at a shoe store.
Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock.com

Before you drive down to your local outdoor sports store, you’ll want to consider the following:

  • How often you hike: This will make quite a difference in the type of boot you need to purchase. For example, if you only go on one or two half-mile hikes at your local trail per month, a lightweight, lowcut hiking shoe might be your best option. If you head out for multiday hikes, though, a better, sturdier high-cut boot made of stronger water-resistant material will be best.
  • The seasons and terrain: Some people only hike once or twice each summer, while others enjoy trekking every season—rain, snow, or shine! The type of terrain over which you plan to hike, and the weather conditions you’ll likely face, are both factors when choosing the right boot.

Any experienced hiker will tell you that what you have on your feet is the most crucial gear you can own. That’s why finding the right size is essential!

A boot that’s a perfect fit has room for your toes to breathe and doesn’t cramp them. The shape and padding inside will give you a good starting point, but you’ll need to break them in before taking them out on the trail.

When it comes to size, you might have to change it up. For example, you might always wear a size 8-1/2 in sneakers, but that same size in a hiking boot might be very different. So, don’t worry too much about sticking with a number.

Also, keep in mind blisters usually occur because of poorly broken-in boots, along with friction between your skin and the boot. Stiffer boots are harder to break in, and if you feel rubbing while trying them on, you’ll definitely feel pain while out on the trail.

Your friend who’s been hiking for years might swear by a certain brand that just won’t cut it for the shape of your foot. This is why trying everything on is the most vital factor in choosing a hiking shoe or boot.

How to Select the Perfect Hiking Boots or Shoes (and Socks)

Two people wearing their warm cushioned smartwool hiking socks.

As we mentioned previously, there are a lot of things to consider when choosing the right hiking footwear. Here are some things to do and keep in mind while you look:

  • Try them on in-store: This is important with any pair of shoes, but especially hiking boots. So, instead of ordering online, head to your local outdoor store, like L.L.Bean or REI. Try on multiple styles and compare competing brands. You can likely still purchase the pair you like best online, but you’ll know how they fit and what size to get.
  • Bring Inserts, braces, or foot orthotics: Be sure to bring anything you’d normally wear with you when trying on boots or shoes.
  • Walk around in the store: Trying on is only one part of the process. You’ll also want to walk around the store and check for any rubbing, pinching, or bothersome seams. Everyone’s feet are different, so it’s important to feel for any flaws in the shoe that don’t mesh with yours. What rubs now will really burn after several miles.
  • Climb stairs and inclines: Outdoor sports stores will often provide synthetic replicas of small mountain-like inclines so you can really feel the boot in a similar environment. Your toes shouldn’t rub the front while descending, and your foot should stay in place while going up an incline. Stairs and ramps are a good option for this, too.
  • Bring the right socks to the store: You’ll also want to make sure you have the right socks with you before trying on a pair of boots. Read on for our recommendations!

When selecting the right socks, you want to consider a couple of factors, including their height. It should coincide with the height of your boot. The other thing to consider is the amount of cushioning, which affects warmth and comfort.

You’ll also want to know more about the fabric (merino wool is our top choice) and that the sock will fit your foot snuggly without rubbing.

These reasons are precisely why we love Smartwool socks. They’re made of merino wool and have superb cushioning that really fends off blisters. Their breathability is excellent for hot days, but they’ll keep those toes warm on the coldest days, too!

Feel free to choose from any sock height that works for you, but we almost always go with a crew-cut, like these for women, as they land well above the ankle and provide comfort against boot rubbing. Plus, a fresh pair will keep your feet warm at night.

Of course, guys can get them, as well.

Now that you know a little more about socks, it’s time to take a look at all the different types of hiking footwear, from lightweight trail runners to sturdy backpacking boots.

Trail Running Shoes

A young couple out on a morning trail run while wearing their comfy Salomon brand trail runners.

Trail running shoes are great for any runner interested in switching things up from the pavement to hiking trails. The soles are built for moving fast along dirt, mud, roots, and anything beyond asphalt, and the overall weight of the shoe is much lighter than a boot.

Don’t let the weight of these shoes scare you off, though—they’re still rugged enough for the outdoors.

Although they’re designed for running, many hikers swear by trail runners because they’re so lightweight, which is great for thru-hiking. However, you’ll learn that replacing often is inevitable.

Salomon trail running sneakers also offer an aggressive grip fit for the trail and most weather conditions. What we love most about them is you can go from road to trail easily as they work on various terrains.

Hiking Shoes

Two guys out on a hike, walking along a fallen tree with their grippy Merrell hiking shoes.

Hiking shoes are basically a low-cut version of hiking boots or a more rugged version of trail runners. They’re great for shorter hikes, but some use them for longer days due to their lightweight and comfort.

If you’re looking for something on the more moderate side, with durable construction that will last, a hiking shoe might be your best bet. You’ll see a lot of people wearing these casually, too.

Merrell Hiking Shoes are popular in the hiking community due to their comfort, quality, and durability on the trail.

Day Hiking Boots

Two girls out hiking along a dense trail wearing their comfortable and sturdy Merrell hiking boots.

Hiking boots range anywhere from mid- to high-cut. This refers to the height of the cuff on a boot. A mid-cut boot typically rises just above the ankle, whereas a high-cut falls a few inches above the ankle.

Some swear by high-top style boots for ankle support, while other hiking enthusiasts prefer something a bit more flexible, like a low- or mid-cut.

Most hiking boots flex easily, but do require some break-in time. While they lack some of the stability found in a rugged backpacking boot, most hikers appreciate the give of these lighter versions.

The Merrell Moab Hiking boots are amongst some of the most popular hiking boots available on the market. The synthetic material combined with the Gore-tex membrane means you can hike in all weather conditions with comfort and dry feet.

Backpacking Boots

A young couple out hiking while wearing their durable Asolo backpacking boots.

Backpacking boots are about as rugged as it gets. While they’re made for multiday hikes in the rural backcountry, many avid hikers would never buy a high-cut boot of this stature, mainly due to their heavy weight.

However, there’s something to be said about the support and durability these boots offer that you won’t get with other types. These beefy boots are great for most weather conditions, and they’ll last you several hundred to thousands of miles before falling apart.

If you’re worried about cold feet and plan to do any off-trail hiking, these might be for you. Keep in mind, though, you’ll really need to break these in before your hike to ensure your foot is well molded by the time you head out.

Asolo is a trusted brand that provides some of the most high-quality boots on the market. As far as water resistance and beefy material go, these boots are gold.

Hiking Sandals

Two women outdoors getting ready to go kayaking, while wearing comfortable Keen hiking sandals.

Hiking sandals are becoming more popular thanks to their ability to keep your both feet safe and cool. They’re great for hiking when it’s hot out, or if you plan to cross any rivers during your hike.

There are closed- and open-toe hiking sandals, and each has different pros and cons. Whichever you choose, be sure to invest in a quality pair with thick and durable soles.

Keens are by far the most popular brand of closed-toe hiking sandals on the market. From comfort to practicality, you’ll find these sporty sandals check all the boxes. You’ll love them out on a hike, at the beach, or even while running errands on warm summer days.

Hiking sandals are handy to have, but not in place of a solid pair of boots or runners. Once you really get into hiking, you’ll likely want a pair of each, so you’re ready for any hike.

If you’re just getting started on your hiking adventures, selecting the right footwear is crucial. Armed with these shopping tips, you’ll not only be able to choose the perfect pair of shoes or boots for your feet, but for the terrain you plan to explore. Happy trekking!

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »
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