Whether you’re a weekend hiker or a die-hard hiking fan, you probably know how crucial it is to wear proper footwear while you’re walking across uneven footpaths. A lot of casual hikers quickly learn that they just can’t use their regular sneakers for a serious outdoor adventure. To traverse terrain that’s not flat, manicured, or groomed, one needs a pair of quality hiking boots or hiking shoes.

Fortunately, today’s market offers a number of different types of hiking footwear. These include mountaineering boots, approach shoes, low hiking shoes, barefoot shoes, trail runners, thru-hikers, and lightweight hiking shoes for day hikers. While all of these different types can make anyone’s head spin, all of them fall into one of two main categories – hiking shoes and hiking boots.

However, for newbie hikers, it can be very difficult to make a choice between these two main categories. Remember – the wrong footwear is guaranteed to lead to debilitating black toenails and painful blisters, while the right boots (or shoes) make it easy to traverse thousands of miles without any problems. So, should you get yourself a pair of hiking boots or hiking shoes?

To help you out, we’ll break down the key differences between these two popular types of hiking footwear. By the end of the article, you should be able to make the right decision and get yourself a pair of hiking boots or hiking shoes that will serve you for the years to come.

What Are Hiking Boots?

what are hiking boots

Hiking boots and trail go together like bread and butter – they have a long and rich history. Years ago, leather boots were the only kind of hiking boots you could get. These were large, bulky mixtures of rubber and leather – it’s what our parents and grandparents used for their day hikes into the “Great Outdoors”.

The goal of such boots was to protect one’s feet at all costs. They were made with rugged metal hardware and tended to have higher tops. In addition, lacing them up was sometimes a time-consuming and burdensome task – but you simply had no other choice.

However, even with all their faults, early hiking boots were a crucial and inseparable part of every backpacking trip. A leather boot kept your feet protected, dry, and warm. Wearing these meant you could traverse any kind of terrain, no matter how steep or difficult it was.

Obviously, old hiking boots lacked in certain departments. Not only were they very hard to break in, but also stiff, heavy, and sometimes quite ugly. The demand for more comfortable models grew as time went by, and this type of footwear slowly started to evolve.

In just a couple of decades, the hiking trails around the world started crawling with hiking boots that weren’t only good, but great. They started offering better ankle support. Their weight went down, and they became more comfortable and flexible. They also became equipped with materials that provide extra cushioning and more protection – just what you need when you want to hit the trail.

What Are Hiking Shoes?

what are hiking shoes

In the simplest of terms, hiking shoes are actually a modern (and very successful) spinoff of the good-old boots. A modern hiking shoe (often called a trail runner) is a versatile piece of hiking footwear and often resembles sneakers used by athletes. However, these provide better protection, cushioning, and traction – hiking in them is both safe and comfortable.

The best hiking shoes, or trail runners, are made out of premium materials that make them more flexible and lighter than your standard hiking boot. These perks do not compromise their efficiency on the trail, however. Some of the high-performance features found on a modern trail running shoe include a sock-like bootie, a waterproof coating, a high-grip lug pattern, a protective upper material, and similar hiking-specific components.

In short, hiking shoes or trail runners are nimbler, lighter, easier to pack, and also easier to break-in. In addition, they’re the best trekking buddies for those who often hike in warm weather. When it’s hot outside, moving in trail runners is much easier, and your feet will stay dry and cool.

As expected, the biggest disadvantage of trail runners is their durability. In other words, an average pair of trail runners will have to be swapped for a new one after some five hundred miles of use. Of course, this number totally depends on the wearer’s definition of “this shoe can’t be used anymore”. We’ll talk more about the differences between hiking shoes vs hiking boots in terms of durability later on.

Hiking Boots vs Hiking Shoes – The Differences

In terms of durability and comfort, both types of footwear provide good endurance and cushioning. The best backpacking boots and trail running shoes offer protection from trail hazards and can withstand most weather elements. In addition, both types look much more stylish than their predecessors.

However, there are still some key differences between these types of footwear, and that is precisely what so many hiking newbies want to know more about. In the next part of the article, we’ll be comparing hiking shoes and boots in a number of different categories.

Ankle Support & Stability

Many hikers agree that ankle support is one of the most important factors to keep in mind if you’re a hiking beginner who is not yet accustomed to traversing rugged terrain. In addition, ankle support plays a huge role when you’re carrying a heavy backpack. In such circumstances, boots will always be the best choice.

In fact, comparing hiking boots vs trail running shoes in terms of ankle support doesn’t actually make a lot of sense. This is because most trail runners and hiking shoes don’t come over one’s ankles at all (they’re “low-cut”). For that matter, it’s pretty safe to say that a hiking boot will always provide better foot and ankle protection – it’s as simple as that.

Things become a bit trickier when it comes to stability – it all depends on the midsole found in a particular piece of footwear. For example, trail runners with quality polyurethane midsoles are exceptionally stable. However, most hiking shoes will feature lightweight and soft EVA midsoles – wearing such a shoe will never make you feel as stable as wearing a regular boot.

So, in terms of stability and ankle support, boots are a better choice. If you still want to buy a pair of trail runners but don’t want to compromise on stability, look for the ones with polyurethane midsoles.

Weight

The next important factor you’ll have to consider is the weight. Obviously, most trail running shoes will sport a lighter weight than most backpacking boots. Keep in mind that the weight of your footwear is vital – it has a huge impact on the comfort of your outdoor adventure, whether it’s a day hike or a thru-hike.

Another important thing to keep in mind here is that heavier apparel also has an effect on one’s heart rate. When you’re trekking, you want to keep your heart rate somewhere between 40% to 70% of its maximum capacity, since staying in this range allows one to endure for longer. If you’re setting out on an 8-hour outdoor adventure, you certainly don’t want to get tired in just one hour because you’re carrying all that extra weight.

Unlike most boots, hiking shoes are made out of light materials and are, therefore, a clear winner in terms of overall weight.

Durability

If a particular piece of footwear is well-made (i.e. with high-quality glue and sturdy stitches), its longevity will mostly depend on the materials. And when it comes to hiking footwear, almost every boot and shoe will be made either out of leather or synthetic materials.

Unlike boots, hiking shoes are almost never made out of leather. This is because that type of material is way too heavy for the trail runners, which need to be nimble. For that matter, a hiking shoe is never a good choice for exceptionally rocky terrains, where it could easily be subject to abrasion.

However, a lot of hiking enthusiasts only walk smooth forest trails (which are sometimes even paved). For these, a regular hiking shoe or a trail runner is a better choice due to its lower weight. Still, boots provide unmatched durability and are your best option if you need footwear that you’ll be able to use for years to come.

When talking about the longevity of boots and shoes for trekking, we also have to pay special attention to the durability of their midsoles. If you often hike with a heavy backpack, you’ll want to wear quality boots – with time, the extra weight increases wear and tear, which is something a boot will be able to handle. The midsoles found on trail runners quickly lose cushioning (they’ll become flat), as they’re not engineered to withstand heavy loads.

Waterproofing & Breathability

As it turns out, breathability and water-resistance are quite interconnected when it comes to hiking footwear.

Waterproofing is undoubtedly a concept that looks wonderful on paper. However, in reality, it doesn’t do as well. This goes for Gore-Tex as well, which is often advertised as the best type of waterproofing technology.

As far as we’re concerned, the only individuals who genuinely need a waterproof hiking boot or shoe are thru-hikers who often go on long-distance adventures in cold weather. For all others, our advice is to simply get wet instead of trying to keep the water out.

If this sounds like nonsense, keep in mind that shoes with breathable uppers may allow your feet to get wet more easily but they will also dry faster. In practical terms, this translates to your feet being dryer and, therefore, less susceptible to blisters when you’re out on the trail.

Unless you really need a pair of waterproof shoes, you’re better off without them. Always keep in mind that the Gore-Tex membrane can drastically decrease the breathability of trail runners. Also, don’t forget that a trekking boot comes higher on one’s leg (going over the ankle – boots are never “low-cut” like shoes) and it, therefore, covers more skin.

In summary, choosing a boot or shoe that’s breathable rather than water-resistant is a much better decision for most people. If you’re doing a lot of winter hiking, on the other hand, get yourself a pair of waterproof boots – these will keep your feet protected from freezing wind and rain.

Traction

Unlike shoes, hiking boots offer excellent traction – with soles made out of rubber, they grip onto rocky surfaces like no other type of footwear. In addition, a good trekking boot will have deep and thick lugs, and these bite well into all types of soil.

Standard trekking shoes, on the other hand, aren’t that great when it comes to traction. Since they’re primarily designed for paved nature trails and forest trails, they feature outsoles that are less sticky and have less aggressive lugs.

Even though they’re designed for running in rough terrains, trail runners are even worse in terms of traction during regular hiking adventures. This is because they’re designed to provide sufficient traction only when a large force is applied, which is not something that takes place when you’re hiking instead of running.

Hiking Shoes vs Hiking Boots – The Verdict

It goes without saying, but hiking boots are a better choice when it comes to technical terrain. A shoe will never protect your foot as well as a regular boot – these are much more rugged and protective. They protect one’s feet with a mixture of metal, rubber, and leather components. This also makes them more durable – with proper care, a pair of hike boots can last for years.

In addition, this type of footwear features tougher uppers and higher tops. This, in turn, makes them more stable than trail runners. Hiking boots are a particularly good choice for folks who need additional ankle support, as well as for first-time hikers, many of whom are still in the process of developing their foot skills.

Hiking shoes, on the other hand, are more flexible and stretchier due to their mesh components and lower tops. Not only does this make them more breathable, but also lighter on one’s feet. However, keep in mind that waterproof shoes take longer to dry – you don’t really need a pair if you’re not into winter hiking.

While a shoe can’t really give your foot the same stability and protection as a regular trekking boot, it is far more versatile – the stylish look of modern hiking shoes allows outdoor enthusiasts to use them both inside and outside the city.

Recommendations Based on Hikes

This is what I wear for the following routes or day hikes:

  • Camino de Santiago – hiking shoes, it is mostly paths
  • Wicklow hills – depends, if I know it is a boggy route than boots, otherwise shoes
  • West Highland Way – boots, it can get boggy – though many disagree with me here
  • Pennine Way – boots, it gets wet
  • Ben Nevis – boots, it can be fairly rocky and I really need the ankle support on the way down

Most of the time I will be wearing hiking shoes and only wear boots when I know it is going to be wet underfoot or rocky – I don’t care much if it is raining either is fine.

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