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Reasons why hiking shoes (also called trail shoes) are the best choice among hiking footwear types
Lightweight. "One pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back."This is a popular adage among hikers which originated from the successful expedition of Mount Everest in 1953. This conclusion brought about many succeeding research and studies which seems to support the same inference. It implies that even the smallest increments in weight on the feet have a significant impact on the energy cost.
Lightweight hiking shoes usually weigh around 1,000 grams per pair. They are often made with synthetic materials as they are light and not too bulky. Nowadays, hikers prefer a footgear that is lightweight because it is less tiring. It also allows them to walk more miles. This preference led some brands to introduce speed hiking shoes to individuals who want to cover great distances. Shoes for fast hiking require an ultralight pack and gear.
Comfortable. It is essential for footwear to be comfortable. Hiking shoes can provide you the same comfort you get from mid-top hiking boots without being too restrictive.
Arch support. Hiking shoes come in a variety of midsoles and insoles. The midsole takes care of the cushioning while the removable insole allows the user to personalize the support they need. The arches of the foot support body weight and work with bones, ligaments and tendons in the body to create a springlike propulsion. Having hiking shoes that promote good arch support helps you perform at your best.
Ankle flexibility. This feature of a trail shoe comes in handy when ascending or descending slopes. It allows your ankles to move freely, thus helping develop your muscles naturally.
Ankle support. Hiking shoes are often judged about the ankle support they can offer. The debate whether ankle support depends on the ankle height of the shoe or the strength of one’s ankle has been ongoing for a long time now.
Most people have lost the mobility and elasticity of their foot and lower limbs because they are used to walking on flat surfaces. They have been using the same muscles every day resulting in range-of-motion (ROM) problems. It is like your brain and body forgot how to use them.
Restricting ankle movements often results in heels popping up off the ground earlier (one reason why blisters occur). It also strains your arches. Simple physics indicate that when a moving system is unable to do its job (allowing movement of the ankles), the action has to be shown somewhere else.
The human brain has its ways of protecting you from injury. If you train your muscles to work together, your ankle ROM improves in no time.
Minimalistic. One of the key features of a shoe designed for hiking is its minimalistic design. Depending on the brand and style, you can have a good feel of the ground on your hiking shoes. The more minimal the drop (height difference between the ball of your foot and the heel) is, the faster your foot develops its muscle strength.
Flexible. You can wear your hiking shoes while traversing a mountain or walking in a park (and any other casual setting). It does not compromise the low-profile look you desire.
Durable. Hiking shoes are constructed using durable materials. They are built to be tough against abrasions, rugged terrains and rocks.
Cheaper. The price of hiking shoes can go as low as $50 to more or less $200 depending on the brand and technologies featured. You just need to know what to look for and what to ignore when purchasing one for yourself. If you're particularly looking to buy budget-friendly ones, please see our page about the best cheap hiking shoes.
Minimal-to-no break-in required. One of the many qualities of a hiking shoe is that it does not need extended break-in time. Some shoes do not even require breaking in. It is mainly because of lighter materials used and the not-so-restrictive design.
Day hiking shoes are the preference of many as it often requires little-to-no-break-in period. They usually flex easily and are meant for light loads only.
Breathable. When you hike under the warm or hot weather, it is essential to choose a breathable pair. Some hiking shoes are built with a mesh upper to allow maximum breathability. Others can wick away moisture. When you need to traverse wet grounds, a breathable construction enables the absorbed water to dry out quickly.
How do hiking, backpacking, trekking and mountaineering differ from each other?
Nowadays, exploring the outdoors is something that has been gaining the interest of many. Some use the outdoors to escape from the hassles of the city, relax and unwind. Others have the passion and are always looking for the excitement of reaching and completing a summit. Whether you are hiking, backpacking, mountaineering or trekking, witnessing nature’s breathtaking beauty gives you a sense of accomplishment.
To help you pick the right adventure and the footwear it requires, it is important to know the characteristics of hiking, backpacking, trekking and mountaineering and how they differ from each other. These four have varying degrees of complexity, technical and physical requirements.
Hiking is a long-distance walk. This activity usually lasts for a half to a full day, depending on the route chosen. Routes are marked and maintained. It also requires minimal equipment use. Most of the time hikers complete the activity in the same place where they started while others end on a different point.
These are trips with a duration of three to ten days. This activity requires a little more preparation than hiking as you carry your pack, tent and food. There are backpacking shoes designed to help you with heavier loads and have stiffer midsoles.
Trekking takes multiple days and is often completed in remote, undeveloped areas. Trekkers have the chance to mingle with the community and learn about their culture. In some cases, treks are arranged by agencies that take care of the paperwork and permits needed. There are also guides or porters (for longer treks) that accompany a group.
What differentiates trekking more from backpacking is that you will not always be camping. There are lodges or small cabins along the way that accommodates trekkers. Moreover, treks do not start and end at the same point. Sometimes, your trek ends 100 miles away from where you started.
Mountaineering is a challenging activity. Amounts of physical and technical training are needed before tackling this kind of venture. It also takes multiple days (even months) to complete. The objective is to reach the highest peak of a mountain and you have to be able to survive in case there are snowstorms.
It is imperative that an individual should be at his/her best health condition before taking part in a mountaineering journey. Remember that you are journeying to the highest peaks which have lower levels of oxygen. You have to endure the challenges and survive.
What to look for in my future hiking shoes
Upper materials. Before deciding on your next pair of hiking shoes, you may familiarize yourself with the different materials used for the upper. The most common materials used are:
- Full-grain leather. It is the toughest and most resistant to the elements. Water-resistant models offer less breathability and flexibility. This type is heavier than other materials.
- Split-grain leather. It is a bit more breathable than full-grain leather. It is often paired with nylon mesh which requires a lot of stitching. Also, this type is lightweight and less expensive.
- Nubuck leather. It gives you the benefit of both full-grain and split-grain leather. Commonly used for quality lightweight hiking shoes and hiking boots.
- Synthetic. These are lightweight, dry quickly and breathable. However, they are not as durable as leather.
- Knit. Certain hiking shoes feature a knitted upper construction. These hikers are designed to offer a snug fit, flexibility, lightness, and breathability.
Comfort. Research the types of cushioning available. The most common midsoles of hiking shoes are made from Polyurethane (PU) and Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA). There are also brands that offer their patented midsole that features various technologies. These midsoles vary in thickness, support and level of comfort.
Polyurethane (PU). The building block of PU is called the diisocyanates. This compound is handled with utmost care and mixed with a variety of chemicals to produce a broad range of products. The result is known to be lightweight, comfortable, durable and flexible.
Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA). EVA can be foamed in two ways. The typical one is using an expansion machine. It is done by mixing the EVA compound into a putty-like consistency then rolled into sheets. It is loaded into molds, stacked and heated in a huge press. More raw materials are added to the mold to make the EVA harder while a blowing agent is used to make it softer. The other way of foaming EVA is through an injection machine. EVA acts as a spring, provides cushioning, is resistant to UV and hardening and does not absorb water.
Outsole (Lug sole and tread patterns). It is beneficial to understand the purpose of lug and tread patterns on your future pair of hiking shoes. Different patterns yield varying results on the trail.
Treads are the part of the outsole that comes in contact with the ground. The have different shapes to be able to grip the ground. Each pattern, whether triangular, rectangular or square-shaped, has varying degrees of resistance. Choosing a circular pattern provides more traction as it disperses water rapidly and does not create a wall. Adding snipes on the tread design also increases resistance. The tread depth and spacing of the hiking shoes are also worth checking. The raised treads are called lugs.
Weight. A significant consideration in selecting a shoe for hiking is its weight. Keep in mind that the primary determinant of the shoe weight is the materials used. Expect that there are trade-offs when it comes to the durability of a lighter shoes and heavier hiking shoes.
Support. There are two types:
- Ankle Support. There has been no significant difference between the support given by low-top hiking shoes and mid-top/high-top hiking boots. What evidence suggests is that those who wear hiking shoes that are low cut get to benefit more as they are wearing something lighter, less expensive and more comfortable. The key is ankle strengthening and exercises.
- Arch Support. The arches of the foot help distribute weight evenly when walking on uneven surfaces. There are foot shapes that require more arch support than the others.
How do I determine my arch type?
The most straightforward test known to determine your arch type is by dipping your feet into the water and resting them on cardboard. If the whole foot is printed on the board, the foot is low-arched. Otherwise, if the front and back are the only visible parts, the foot is high-arched.
- Low Arches. These are also called flat feet. Those with low arches have little-to-no-arch so that the entire foot touches the ground.
- Normal/Neutral Arches. The gait is efficient and normal. A clear space is visible where the arch is.
- High Arches. Sometimes, the foot is narrower than usual and the arch runs across the entire foot.
Now that I know what my arch type is, how would I know the best hiking shoes for me?
- If you have high arches, hiking shoes that have extra cushioning will help. They compensate for the lack of shock absorption.
- If you have neutral arches, you can wear a variety of hiking shoes. You can opt for a pair that has arch support, cushioning and is shock absorbent. Doing so can prevent pain and promote comfort.
- If you have low arches, select hiking shoes that would give you maximum stability.
Plates/Shanks. Check the plates or shanks when selecting your next pair of hiking shoes. These are inserts positioned between the midsole and outsole. They provide additional support and protection.
Fit and Sizing. Hiking shoes from across brands may have inconsistent sizes so do not get caught up in the numbers. Sometimes, you have either to go smaller or bigger than the size you usually wear.
Hiking shoes with a good fit do not slip on every side. You should be able to wiggle your toes and not feel any pains while trying your shoes on. Another consideration to take is the volume of your foot. Volume is how the foot fills the shoe. Inserts often fix the issues regarding it.
Waterproof or not waterproof? The best waterproof hiking shoes work well in cold and wet environments. However, a waterproof shoe may be counterproductive in warmer conditions. Though waterproof lining brands still claim breathability, it is not as breathable as a non-waterproof boot. And remember that hot and sweaty feet are prone to having blisters.
Depending on the upper construction of the hiking shoes, some linings are naturally water-resistant. Leather, for instance, is naturally water-resistant. It is best that leather hiking shoes are treated well to avoid cracks and increase their durability. Fabric shoes, on the other hand, tend to degrade quickly than leather. They are made water-resistant by applying the correct treatment.
Water resistant, water repellent and waterproof
In hiking shoes, the waterproofing ability is a subject of importance. How does the three differ? Water resistance is the ability to resist water penetration to a certain degree, but not entirely. A water-resistant labeled shoe means that a light substance has been applied to improve its resistance to water. Meanwhile, water-repellent is a step up from water resistance. Footwear or devices are coated with water-repellent substance and have a high chance of standing up against the water using nano-technology. The coating could either be inside, outside or both surfaces of the upper. The pores of the fabric remain open. Alternatively, waterproof is defined as being impervious to water.
Choosing the best hiking shoes that fit perfectly
Pick at least three hiking shoes to try on. There are a lot of hiking shoes out there and selecting one for you might be a very tough job. You may have some recommendations from your friends on which brand they think is best for you but do not stop there. A particular brand may work well with your pal, but not for you. Ask around and check the internet for the specifications and technologies of the hiking shoes. It helps a lot if you can narrow down your selection to at least three pairs of hiking shoes.
Go to a local retailer and try them on. Once you have narrowed down your selection, have a feel of those hiking shoes. Go to your local retailer and try the shoes on. Visit the store late in the day as your feet tend to swell because of the days’ activities. If possible, have your feet measured even if you already know your size. Check the width, length and arch of your foot.
Wear your socks and bring your orthotics (in case you use one). When you fit your future pair of hiking shoes, replicating the fit and feel when you hit the trail is recommended. Ensure that the thickness of the socks matches your hiking shoes. Bring your orthotics to help you decide if the fit is right for you.
What is the best hiking sock for me?
There are a few considerations when selecting the best hiking sock. Think of the height of the sock you want because it serves as your protection against the lining of your shoes. It can also safeguard you against rocks and other ground elements. Some socks offer additional cushioning which adds comfort to your foot.
The fabric of your sock is essential too. Wool is the most popular material. Wearing it prevents he foot from getting too sweaty. Other known fabrics are polyester, nylon, silk and spandex. When trying on your socks, look for a snug fit. Not a tight one.
Can I wear cotton socks with my hiking shoes?
Indeed, cotton may feel cool on your skin during the hot weather. However, wearing cotton socks on your hikes is detrimental to your foot. Cotton is highly moisture-absorbent. So once your feet sweat, it absorbs the moisture and holds it against your foot. This increases the likelihood of having blisters.
Is it important that my hiking sock fits my foot well?
No matter how well your hiking shoes fit you, if your socks are ill-fitting, it can still hamper your enjoyment on the trail. Socks that rub against your skin can cause blisters.
Walk around with the hiking shoes on. Spend some time with the hiking shoes you're about to purchase. If possible, walk around the store. Look for a test ramp and walk on it. Take the stairs, walk up and down. Before you do the laces and when the heel is settled, check for the length. There should be a finger width space between the heel and the shoe. Next, lace up the footwear making sure that the ankle is securely locked in. This time, check for width. The sides should not feel pinched nor does it slide.
What do I need to check while testing my hiking shoes?
- Heel lift when ascending
- Toe bumping into the front while descending
- Any pressure or pain points while walking
Things to know before deciding on hiking shoes to buy
Know how ready you are. People have always underestimated hiking. It might be the easiest among trekking, backpacking and mountaineering, but it still requires an amount of stamina, endurance and strength. Do not be afraid to take baby steps. Before you set forth on that trail, ask yourself these questions:
How long can I walk?
Hiking is not just merely taking a leisurely walk in the mountains while enjoying the beauty of nature. There are differences in altitude and temperature along the way and these have a significant effect on your body and breathing mechanism. Keep in mind that walking on pavements is different from walking on rugged terrains with varying altitude.
Do I have ankle problems?
When you hike, you put your lower leg to so much work. Foot fatigue is inevitable. You must be prepared for the worst trail. Traversing uneven grounds can stress your foot even if you are wearing the best pair of hiking shoes out there.
Am I mentally, emotionally and biologically ready?
You might be wondering why it is important to know your status in those aspects. There are cases when one decides to go on a hike but in the middle of it, the person backs out feeling so tired and afraid because the trail seems never-ending. This happens when a beginner has not thought of hiking seriously. If you have serious medical predicaments, talk to your doctor first before setting foot on the trail.
The duration of the hike. Hikes usually last for a full day depending on the hikers’ pace and selected trail routes. If you are a novice hiker, it is best that you start with short, easy hikes to give your body a feel of what hiking is. Gradually take on higher levels of hiking once you have built your fitness and readiness. Assess the hiking shoes you are checking out if they can give you a comfortable ride throughout your hike. Remember that shoes made for hiking have different support, comfort and technologies.
The level of difficulty. There are rating systems out there that help a hiker decide if a peak is within his abilities. Do remember that they are subjective, making quite a number of ratings inconsistent. Some matrices consider the length, hard pitches, difficulty and ascent time. If you have climbed in North America, you might have heard the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) and the National Climbing Classification System (NCCS). The difficulty of the hike makes a difference in selecting your next pair of hiking shoes. You will need to consider if the technologies featured on that hiking shoe can help you overcome the terrain.
Hiking solo or with a group. Whether you choose to go hiking solo or in a group, there are many guidelines you have to follow. When you hike with a group, always minimize your noise and if there are children, ensure that they are controlled modestly. This is to give respect to other hikers who went exploring to look for peacefulness and quietude. Likewise, when you hike alone, assess yourself. Make sure you are familiar with the trail and ascertain if you are confident and brave enough to go alone.
The weight of your pack. The load you carry has the most impact on you during your hikes. Practice packing light and avoid bringing things that are not necessary.
The weather. Before you set forth on your hiking journey, make sure to check the weather forecast. It can help you trim down the stuff you need. Moreover, some hiking shoes perform best on wet, muddy trails while there are some that do not have the waterproofing ability and delivers well on dry, well-maintained grounds.
Fine-tuning the fit of your future hiking shoes
Some may find it very challenging to find the right hiking shoes for them. There are a few tricks that can help improve fit for some common foot types.
What are the most common foot types?
- Wide Feet. For the ladies, you may try fitting men’s footwear. They tend to be wider. Another tip for those with wide feet is to change how you lace your hiking shoes. If your feet are on the broader spectrum, check out the best trail shoes for wide feet.
- Narrow Feet. Use a thicker insole. You may also want to revisit your lacing technique.
- Narrow Heel. For men, if possible, try on women's hiking shoes. They have a slightly narrower heel which can yield more comfort.
- High instep. Add arch support.
Customize your insoles. Hiking shoes have removable insoles. If you are not satisfied with the default insoles of the pair, consider aftermarket insoles. It can help you achieve a snugger fit. Hikers who travel in damp areas and have sweaty feet often replace or remove their insoles to reduce odor.
Lacing techniques for hiking shoes and why learning them is important. Knowing how to lace your hiking shoes properly might sound very elementary, however, this can make or break your adventure. Lacing your footwear too tight may give you pain points even on the shortest distance while lacing it too loose might not give you the support you need. Also, opt for a model that has many eyelets. It will help you adjust the shoe to better conform to your foot.
There are lacing techniques designed to relieve pressure points, lock the heel and depends on the volume of your foot. You may have heard of the surgeon’s knot. This technique allows users to customize the pressure on the upper and bottom parts of the shoe. This knot is also used to prevent a heel slip. To do a surgeon’s knot, you wrap the lace around each other twice.
The toe-relief lacing helps relieve the pressure on your toes. Skipping the first set of hooks can do the trick. There is also the overhand knot which is used to lock off and reduce tension below the knot. Adding overhand knots keep the laces tight. The window or gap lacing helps to alleviate unwanted pressure on the top of your foot. This technique creates a gap on the pressure point.
Hiking shoes care and maintenance
Cleaning your pair of hikers: Why is it necessary?
When you go on a hike, you expose your hiking shoes to so much dirt, mud and other filthy elements. Leaving them behind on your pair can cause its early degradation. You might be exhausted after a hike, but it is best to clean them sooner than later.
Cleaning your hiking shoes will depend on its materials. There are models that feature a Gore-Tex lining, leather upper, mesh fabric or synthetic upper. Some of them come with a product information sheet or a manual upon purchase. Others brands have their maintenance procedures in their physical store or website. Follow the care instructions carefully so extending the life of your hiking shoes will be a piece of cake.
Each brand has their way of cleaning and maintaining their product. However, you will still find procedures that are common across multiple brands.
Mud and debris removal. Commence cleaning by removing the dirt or mud from your hiking shoes. Shaking, tipping the pair upside down and carefully banging the soles can help remove loose mud, dirt and small rocks.
Use a soft-bristled brush. You may have heard and read this tip plenty of times now. Using a soft-bristled brush enables you to vigorously brush the stain on your shoes without damaging the material. Keep in mind that you do not need any specialized equipment to clean your hikers. Do not forget to remove the laces and other removable pieces before cleaning.
When should I use a hard-bristled brush?
If the soles of your shoes are caked in mud, you may use a hard bristled brush to remove the hardened soil. For the most stubborn mud, it is okay to use a blunt tool to chip away the substance. Likewise, removing those dirt gives the sole its full traction.
Remove Insoles. After a rigorous hike, your feet become sweaty and may leave some salt perspiration inside your hiking shoes. It is advisable that you remove the insole and clean them separately. Wet insoles harbor bacteria and can eventually stink if not cleaned dutifully. Some insoles, especially aftermarket insoles, have their care instructions so you might want to check with the manufacturer the correct cleaning procedure. A general rule is to wash them with warm soapy water and let them air dry.
Treatment. Read the guidelines on your hiking shoe manual before using any waterproofing treatment. When water drops do not bead up on the surface of your shoes for hiking, it needs a reapplication of the waterproofing treatment. This is a pretty straightforward way of determining when you already need it. Though it takes time before a pair needs a reapplication, it might be good to know when and what to do when you need one. Just keep in mind that this treatment is applied to a damp or wet shoe.
My hiking shoe has a Gore-Tex lining, do I need to apply waterproofing treatment?
No. When you apply a waterproofing treatment to your Gore-Tex hiking shoe, it might hamper its breathability. You can simply wash your hikers and still keep it waterproof. Gore-Tex claims that as long as it is not punctured, it remains waterproof. Before applying any treatment, it is best to consult the manufacturer to get the best out of your hiking shoes.
Why do I need to apply conditioner on my leather hiking shoes?
Applying conditioner on your leather hiking shoes maintains its finish and life. This treatment can be applied using your fingers or a soft cloth. Always check the manufacturers’ care instructions on what type of leather conditioner you can use on your shoes made for hiking. Suede and nubuck leather do not require conditioning. Remember to use a conditioner cautiously. Too much conditioner can soften the leather, reducing its support.
Drying. A rule of the thumb is to dry your shoes at normal temperatures. Do not dry them at extreme temperatures as they can weaken the adhesives, damage the consistency of the leather or even shorten the lifetime of your pair. If you want to dry them quickly, you may use a fan to assist drying.
To ensure that the insides are dried, you may stuff newspapers or cloth to absorb moisture. Consider replacing the stuffed newspapers at intervals especially when the insides are heavily soaked. To remove salt perspirations, wipe the inside with a cloth soaked in warm water.
Storage. After cleaning and drying your hiking shoes, store it in a dry and well-ventilated environment. Do not store them under direct sunlight. If you are not hiking for a long time, you can stuff newspaper inside to keep the shape of your shoes.
Frequently asked questions
What are hiking shoes?
Hiking shoes are the low-cut version of hiking boots. They have flexible midsoles and are usually lightweight. They are best used for day hiking and require a minimal-to-no-break-in period.
Are trail runners different from trail shoes?
Yes. Although these two terms are often used interchangeably like they are the same footwear, they are different. Trail running shoes are for runners who train or like to run on both natural surfaces and dirt trails. Its soles can hold out mud and rocks to ensure the runners safety. Trail running shoes are usually more responsive and bouncier. Trail shoes, on the other hand, are your hiking shoes. They are meant for those carrying extra weight. It renders lateral ankle support and cushioning.
Can hiking shoes provide support?
The answer to this question relies on how you define and how much support you need. Hiking shoes are considered to be the low-cut version of a hiking boot, so whatever support you can get from a boot, you can get from a hiking shoe. The main difference is their style. The more you build your lower leg strength, the less likely you are to opt for a shoe that is mid cut or high cut, mainly because of comfort and weight. It also boils down to how experienced you are in tackling various types of terrains.
Where can I buy hiking shoes?
There are a lot of ways on how you can purchase your hiking shoes. You may visit a local retailer in your area. Browsing the internet yields many results. You can trim down the search results based on your needs and desired level of comfort. If you are a loyalist of a particular brand, do not be afraid to explore other brands that manufacture shoes for hiking.
15 best hiking shoes
- The North Face Ultra Fastpack III Mid GTX
- Oboz Sawtooth Low
- Merrell MQM Flex
- Adidas Terrex Swift R2 GTX
- Vasque Breeze III Low GTX
- Vasque Juxt
- The North Face Hedgehog Fastpack GTX
- Salomon OUTline GTX
- Merrell Moab 2 GTX
- Salomon X Ultra 3 GTX
- Keen Targhee III Waterproof
- Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator
- Keen Voyageur
- Adidas Terrex AX2R
- Merrell Moab 2 Waterproof
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