Before we dig into choosing between the many models on the market, let's ask: Do I need a pair of hiking shoes? One tester had a brief conversation with a friend new to hiking. It started something like this:
Friend: Hey, I had a great time on Saturday hiking up to Grey Rock, but my old running shoes were slipping and sliding everywhere on the way down. What should I buy for hiking in? I bumped into a bunch of other hikers, and they were wearing all kinds of things: sandals, running shoes, colorful trail running shoes, leather boots, some type of mesh looking boots, and there were these two guys wearing those toe shoes.
The reply went something like this:
I'm glad you had fun up there. You can hike in any kind of shoes and have a good time, but the more you get out hiking, you'll want to find something that fits your foot well, and handles the terrain you're covering. Some of those hikers have probably figured out what works great for their foot, some may be trying out the latest craze in footwear, and a good chunk are probably in your shoes snicker making do with what they have while deciding what they want to purchase specifically for hiking.
Key Questions to Guide Your Footwear Decision
Before making your next purchase, be sure to ask yourself:
Where do I plan to hike?
What are the trail surfaces like?
Will I spend much time off-trail?
How much does my pack usually weigh?
How much if any support do I need for my ankles?
Will I get out there in bad weather and in the winter?
Let's take a look at the types of footwear available for hiking. Each is an appropriate choice for hiking and light backpacking depending on your answers to these questions. After detailing the advantages of each, we'll discuss two basic categories of hiking shoes and their attributes. And finally, we'll guide you through fitting and sizing a shoe for your unique foot.
Types of Hiking Footwear
Check out our review of Men's Hiking Boots for the best boots available today.
Shoe vs. Boot
A common question for beginner hikers is: Should I choose a low-cut shoe or mid-height boot? A pair of hiking boots often weighs several ounces to a pound more than shoes, but weight is one of several considerations. The conditions, distances to cover, and personal ankle and foot strength are all important factors. Boots provide more protection from mud, snow, and water, and they are a necessity for rough terrain with heavy loads. Hiking boots are also warmer than a low-cut shoe.
Best Uses for Hiking Shoes
"Hiking" covers a whole range of fun-on-your-feet adventures, including day hikes requiring minimum essentials. These could be strolls on maintained trails or many miles covered at speed in rough terrain and everything in between. Hiking also encompasses short backpacking trips with light or medium loads or long fastpacking trips where paring down the weight becomes a priority.
A Note on Pack Weight
We often refer to light, medium, and heavy loads for hiking and backpacking. Light refers to everything up to 20 lbs. This covers day hikers and some of the ultralight backpacker and thru-hiker folks. By medium loads, we mean 20-35 lbs. It's a noticeable amount of weight to carry, and footwear offering good foot support is important. Anything more than 35 lbs is heavy. Most folks want boots for these loads.
Day hiking is where hiking shoes shine. When the plan is to start and finish on the same day, the essentials carried are minimal. A water bottle in hand, a rain jacket tied around your waist, and a camera in your pocket. A small pack with extra clothes, maps, camera gear, snacks, and water is still quite light. For these hikes, comfort and weight are of primary importance to most of us. All the shoes reviewed here are good choices for day hiking. Consider the terrain and conditions you hike and choose from the shoes that match your needs. Your final choice depends on personal preference and what shoe fits you the best. The comfortable and lightweight HOKA ONE ONE Tor Summit is an excellent choice for day hiking.
Fast hiking refers to being ambitious about the amount of ground you want to cover in a day. These trips are not running adventures, though sometimes a flat section encourages you to step on the gas for a few minutes. Our testers spent a lot of time evaluating these shoes on hikes in the Sierra mountains, where we covered lots of ground and altitude at a brisk pace with intermittent running stints in the flats and downhill sections.
The foot support offered by hiking shoes is a better choice for most than the lightweight cushioning offered by trail runners. The aggressive and stiff-soled Salomon X Ultra 2 GTX became our go-to shoe for fast hiking that covers a lot of off-trail terrain in dry, wet, and loose sediment. The Terrex Swift R GTX fit the ticket for mostly good trail where the urge to run takes over.
Backpacking with Light or Medium Loads
Hiking shoes are perfect for carrying medium and lighter packs on maintained trails. Hikers that occasionally head out backpacking for a few nights pack light and the support and durability offered by a low-cut model is a perfect choice. Experienced backpackers with strong ankles cruise through rough terrain in shoes designed for hiking as well and find medium pack weights reasonable with the support provided. The North Face Ultra 109 GTX, our Editors' Choice winner, is an excellent shoe for multi-day backpacking trips.
If you take a trip on the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trail, you'll see most thru-hikers wearing low-cut hiking shoes, with trail running shoes the second most popular choice. Thru-hikers (those who are hiking extreme distances) place a premium on weight and comfort when choosing a shoe vs. boot and enjoy more foot support and durability than trail runners offer. The robust Keen Targhee II is a popular shoe for thru-hiking and long trips with light loads. This shoe has a stiff sole with excellent support and a full leather upper that can take a beating.
How to Choose a Hiking Shoe
So you've decided a low-cut hiking shoe meets your needs best. Which one should you purchase? Because these products fit into a niche between hiking boots and trail running shoes, they can be divided into two groups that resemble one or the other. Several models we reviewed have mid-cut versions which resemble hiking boots, yet the low-cut versions are often closer to trail runners.
First, we have models that resemble hiking boots. Four of the boots we tested are designed and constructed similar to hiking boots. As we described above, boots have a substantial midsole and a full-length shank, which support the foot under loads and provide torsional stability. These shoes are made for hiking without the expectation of picking up the pace and running flat or downhill sections. With the exception of the Columbia Redmond, each of these models has a substantial shank between the midsole and outsole. They are listed below, from most supportive to least starting at the top.
Keen Targhee 2
Merrell Moab 2 Waterproof
Asolo Agent GV
The Targhee II provides the most foot support and feels the most similar to a hiking boot's burly support. This shoe's low price and low cut with a supportive sole make it popular for thru-hikers. The Moab 2 is close behind and features great traction for a variety of surfaces, but doesn't excel in support and stability under medium loads.
Second, we have six shoes that resemble a trail running shoe. The fit, amount of heel lift above the forefoot, and sole are most similar to traditional trail runners. Folks who come from a running background find these shoes' fit and feel familiar. These shoes are more lightweight in general, although the hiking-only Asolo and Columbia models are lightweight as well. The categories we use for footwear take a continuum of features, weight, and performance into consideration, but there is an overlap between these types. These shoes are listed below in the order of weight, with the most lightweight model at the top.
Adidas Terrex Swift R GTX
The North Face Ultra 109 GTX
La Sportiva Synthesis Mid GTX
HOKA ONE ONE Tor Summit WP
Salomon X Ultra 2 GTX
The North Face Ultra took home our Editors' Choice Award. It handles both hiking in rough terrain and running. Lightweight, breathable, and all leather, the non-waterproof Vasque Juxt is a great option for moving fast in the desert or any other dry climate. The Adidas Terrex Swift R GTX is super athletic and lightweight, but doesn't offer tons of comfort. The Tor Summit is thick and bulky, but its comfortable sole and shock absorbing superiority over the others allow it to take off in flat and descending sections.
Support & Weight
How much support you need depends on how many miles you hike, how smooth or rough the terrain is, and how much weight you are carrying. The further your adventures take you, the more you'll benefit from a shoe with more support and torsional stability over rough trails or off-trail terrain. Stiffer, more supportive shoes also reduce foot fatigue when carrying a pack, and the more you carry the more support your foot needs.
Light is right when hiking lots of miles. Modern materials and construction techniques have worked wonders in footwear design, and today's best shoes for hiking deliver support, comfort, and performance at low weights compared to a few years ago. When we last reviewed this type of shoe in 2015, the heaviest shoe weighted 2.7 lbs and the lightest was 2.1 lbs. With the heaviest shoe we tested in 2017 weighing 2.4 lbs, and the lightest 1.85 lbs, these shoes are dropping ounces as a trend. Our advice is to choose the lightest footwear that meets your needs for support and expectations of durability.
Waterproof Membrane or No?
We are all aiming to keep our feet as dry as possible when hiking. Dry feet are cooler when it's hot out, and warmer when it's cold. Wet skin is also a major cause of blisters, which ruin a trip. Waterproof breathable membranes keep your feet from getting soaked while hiking through shallow puddles, small streams, mud, and heavy dew. Keep in mind that non-waterproof shoes are far more breathable than their waterproof membrane counterparts. Many hikers have relayed to us the disadvantage of waterproof membranes when hiking in hot weather. If you mostly hike on dry trails or in hot weather, choose a shoe available without a membrane and enjoy the better breathability. Waterproof membranes do add warmth to a shoe, and provide great performance for cold weather hiking.
Fitting & Finding Your Size
The comfort and performance of footwear are largely determined by how well the shoes fit your feet. Once you've narrowed down your search, trying on many pairs of similar shoes to find the model and size that best fits your foot is ideal. Some manufacturers' products are known to fit low volume or narrow feet best. La Sportiva has this reputation. Others tend to fit wide feet well, and some manufacturers offer their shoes with width options.
If possible, visit a local outdoor retailer to try on all the shoes you are considering. Try them on with the type of socks you expect to wear most often, and if you use custom insoles or orthotics make sure you take them along. While hikers that wear boots tend to use thicker wool socks, the best fit with their shoe counterparts tends to be a thin wool or synthetic sock.
Finding a well-fitting shoe for your particular foot is even more important for hiking shoes than boots. A boot's higher ankle collars provide more lacing adjustment that is used to hold the foot in place in the footbed. A narrow foot in a wider shoe is more difficult to secure than in a wider boot. If you are new to shoes for the outdoors, a 1/2 or full size larger than casual shoes is a good place to start. The Brannock device, which gives both a length and width measurement of your foot when used by an experienced shoe fitter, provides valuable measurements to speed up sizing.
You want to make sure that the shoe and size you choose captures your foot well so that there is no sliding of the heel up and down in the shoe. To avoid blisters, the tips of your toes should never touch the front of your shoe. Loosen the laces of the shoe, slide your foot all the way to the front. There should be about ½ inch of space, or your pinky finger width, behind your heel. When lacing the shoe up, slide your heel into the back of the shoe, and lace it up with even tension across your forefoot. Take a lap around the store, walk on some stairs or that fancy ramp some stores have and note the feel and how well your heel stays put in the back of the shoe.
As the final decision looms, many folks find themselves torn between two sizes. Our feet swell a little bit when we're out hiking, more so on long days. A thicker sock or substantial insole makes a slightly too big shoe fit well. But a shoe that is too small is too small. Pick the larger size if you're torn between two.
Fine Tuning the Fit
A little fine tuning does wonders to achieve the perfect fit. Using a little thicker sock helps folks with low volume feet get a snug fit without having to over-tighten the laces. If you're fitting a shoe you quite like, but have a little bit of heel slip, try a bit thicker sock. Or try a thinner sock with a ½ size smaller. Compare one combo on your right and one on your left as you walk around.
Shoes that have a traditional eyelet, or two close together, at the top of the lacing system provide you the flexibility to experiment with lacing. With these traditional, through-the-shoe's upper eyes, you can pass the lace through either from the inside or outside of the upper. Passing the lace from the outside to the inside of the upper snugs the ankle cuff a bit tighter. Two upper eyes allow you to use one or both.
Lots of hikers replace the stock insole, either from the start or as it begins to wear out, which is often long before the shoe itself is ready for retirement. Thicker or thinner insoles (don't be afraid to mix and match from your current shoes) help you adjust the fit of a shoe.