Oh, the great debate between the types of footwear one can consider when heading for an outdoor adventure on foot. Hiking boots and hiking shoes are the traditional choices, whereas trail runners have gained popularity with outdoor enthusiasts in recent years. With literally hundreds of options to choose from for each type of shoe (varying colors, materials, features, and ankle height options), how do you know what to invest your money in? In this post, I’ll break down the pros and cons of each type of shoe, plus give my top recommendations for each category, so you can be confident that in the end, you’ll have chosen the best option for your situation and hiking needs.
*Please note: All of the products listed in this post are my personal tried and true recommendations and may contain affiliate links. You won’t be paying a cent more, but in the event of a sale, the small affiliate commission I receive will help keep this blog running. Thanks!
Table of Contents
TLDR: Which type of shoe is for me?
Footwear should be selected according to the terrain, expected weather conditions and the characteristics of the hiker. Here’s the skinny: if you plan on hiking on rough, rugged trails or plan to carry a heavy load, hiking boots are the obvious choice given their durability and stability. If rugged trails and backpacking are not your thing and you plan to hike mostly on softer terrain, then go with a pair of hiking shoes instead. Why? Increased comfort and less weight. Lastly, if you plan on staying on relatively paved trails or are a more experienced hiker, you could opt for trail runners.
Want more detail? Let’s break it down.
Hiking Boots vs. Running Shoes (Sneakers)
Are you new to hiking or backpacking? As a beginner, I’d recommend going with hiking boots for the mere fact that hiking boots are superior when it comes to stability. Sneakers or running shoes are meant to be extra flexible so your feet can do whatever they want in situations where you want to go fast on very well-paved roads.
This is completely contrary to what you’re doing when you’re hiking. More often then not, you may find yourself on uneven trails with rocks or tree stumps jutting out as obstacles. Protect yourself from this! Hiking shoes provide way better traction than running shoes. I mean, have you seen the bottom of your runners? Traction is pretty much non-existent. Hiking boots normally have thick and deep grooves that bite well into soil and grip securely onto rocky and even wet surfaces. You definitely want that no-slip grip when hiking on trails— you never know what nature will throw at you.
Keeping yourself upright on trails (with or without a pack) takes some coordination and time to establish good form. The wide, thick soles on hiking boots will provide a stable base every step of the way. Say goodbye to that annoying poking feeling at the bottom of your feet as you hike on rocky, tree-stumpy trails.
Why ankle support matters
Hiking boots = ankle support, it’s no secret. Ankle support is especially important for heavier hikers and beginners who are not yet accustomed to walking on uneven terrain. Keeping yourself upright on trails (with or without a pack) takes some coordination and time to establish good form. The wide, thick soles on hiking boots will provide a stable base every step of the way. If you also plan to add a heavy pack to your overall weight, a sturdy pair of hiking boots will be your best bet.
If I ever find myself wanting to go backpacking, trekking up/down a mountain, or know that I’ll be hiking on very rocky trails (vs cement or soil), I’ll always go with my hiking boots. And trust me–I’ve sustained many ankle rolls and even an ankle sprain from not being careful enough and not wearing the right shoe. More protection is better.
Customizing your hiking boot to your needs
Okay, let’s say you’ve settled on getting hiking boots over other shoe types. Given the variety of hiking boots on the market today, how do you know what to pick now?
Well first off, determine what ankle height you’ll need based on the terrain. For treks on rocky, rugged trails, boots will more ankle support would be a better option. Want to be more agile and have more flexibility? Go with something low-cut. (More on all this below.)
From here, you have another choice to make. What type of outer shoe material are you looking for? Hiking boots can be more fabric-y or leathery, and you should make the decision based on what hiking conditions you’ll be facing. Think into the future— do you see yourself crossing snow, streams or deep puddles in moist environments, or do you mostly see yourself hiking in dry desert conditions? Maybe a combination of both? This exercise will help you determine whether you need a waterproof shoe or a more porous and well-ventilated shoe.
Below, let’s break down each ankle cut in detail and reveal my favorite options for low-cut, mid-cut and high-cut hiking boots. But wait! What about trail running shoes? More on that below.
Low-Cut Hiking Shoes
When your pack is light and the trail well maintained, hiking shoes are the best choice. They’re also great for shorter hikes. The ankle flexibility offered by low-cut hiking shoes is useful in situations such as hiking steeper slopes, maneuvering from rock to rock, or hopping over small creeks and streams. This can be trickier when the ankles are more restricted in mid or high-cut boots. Experienced hikers who have better form, coordination and foot placement on uneven terrain (less likely to twist their ankles) can also take advantage of low-cut hiking boots.
Hiking shoe recommendations for WOMEN:
Best ventilated/breathable hiking shoe: Merrell Women’s Moab 2 Vent Hiking Shoe
This super-affordable hiking boot is a great choice for day hikers and casual backpackers who will be traveling through mostly warm and dry climates. Their superior breathability makes them perfect for summer hikes as your feet will remain a lot cooler than with other pairs of boots. If you’re looking for something for wetter terrain, there’s also a waterproof version, the Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator Waterproof Hiking Shoe.
I can totally attest to this–the Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator Hiking Shoe will provide you with a comfortable, “walking on clouds”-like experience on day hikes and casual backpacking (though they may not be the best for longer backpacking trips with heavier loads).
Best waterproof hiking shoe: KEEN Targhee II Waterproof Trail Shoe
A longtime favorite of distance hikers, the Keen Women’s Targhee II Waterproof Trail Shoe has held its top spot in the shoe rankings. Its low price and out of the box comfort makes it an extremely popular shoe. What you’ll notice right away–awesome support and cloud-like cushiness on your feet. Looking to go on longer backpacking trips? This shoe will do the job, even when carrying a medium pack. What also makes this shoe unique is the nearly-impenetrable toe protection, so stubbing toes on rocks and roots on rough trails is a thing of the past!
Hiking shoe recommendations for MEN:
Best overall lightweight hiking shoe: Salomon Men’s X Ultra 3 GTX Hiking Boot
The Salomon Men’s X Ultra 3 GTX Hiking Shoe is a well-known hiker favorite. The shoe’s grip and tread is impressive (much like other Salomon boots) and the cushioned interior provides good support for those longer hiking days. It’s also super lightweight, coming in at about 1 pound 10 ounces. The X Ultra 3 is the only boot you’ll need if you’re planning on mostly doing day hikes, quick summits, and lightweight backpacking. This shoe comes highly, highly recommend by a lot of my hiker friends!
Best waterproof hiking shoe: Merrell Men’s Moab 2 Low Waterproof Hiking Shoe
If you’re looking for more ankle flexibility and want the durability of a hiking shoe, I’d recommend the Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator Low. Similarly to other shoe recommendations on this post, Merrell is renowned for having created the perfect shoe for comfort. This waterproof version will keep your feet warmer, but still breathe fairly well and have added durability and protection. The Moab 2’s have Vibram soles which offer pretty decent traction for a variety of terrain such as rocky and uneven trails, slippery surfaces, wet conditions, and even sand.
Mid-Cut Hiking Boots
If light backpacking or aggressive day-hiking is your thing, then ankle height boots are a great and timeless choice. They also make sense for when you hike on uneven, rocky terrain. In addition to the obvious benefit of increased ankle stability, mid-cut boots also provide other perks including extra skin protection from cuts, bruises and situations where water or mud levels are relatively high (drier feet = happier feet). Mid boots also feature metal lacing hooks at the ankle, allowing for a tighter lacing up top so your boots are more secure in situations that call for the need.
Mid-cut hiking boot recommendations for WOMEN:
Best ventilated mid-cut hiking boot: Merrell Women’s Moab 2 Ventilator Mid Hiking Boot
This super-affordable hiking boot is a great choice for day hikers and casual backpackers who will be traveling through mostly warm and dry climates. Their superior breathability makes them perfect for summer hikes as your feet will remain a lot cooler than with other pairs of boots. If you’re looking for something for wetter terrain, there’s also a waterproof version, the Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator Waterproof Hiking Boot.
I can totally attest to this–the Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator will provide you with a comfortable, “walking on clouds”-like experience on day hikes and casual backpacking (though they may not be the best for longer backpacking trips with heavier loads). Another benefit: they come in wider sizes.
Best waterproof mid-cut hiking boot: Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Hiking Boot
My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort (which is extremely important for those of us who want to prevent blisters from the start). I personally love that they come in toned-down, earthy colors such as black and taupe/sepia.
This is a popular hiking boot for many reasons–its high collar provides wraparound ankle support and excellent stability, not to mention its water resistance allows you to depend on them in all seasons and on varying types of terrain. Overall, the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Hiking Boot is a timeless choice for thru-hiking and day tripping alike.
Mid-cut hiking boot recommendations for MEN:
Best overall mid-cut hiking boot: Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid
Salomon has ingeniously crafted a mid-weight hiking boot built off of their extremely popular trail runners but with added support and protection, providing the ankle stability that backpackers and hikers expect. The Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid has become one of the most talked about hiking boots for men recently, and for good reason. These boots offer so much comfort, great traction/grip, and comes in at a very low weight (under 2 pounds). More importantly, you’re getting a Salomon quality shoe, which tends to last longer with use than other boots in this weight and price range. For day hikers looking to go fast, lightweight backpackers, and even thru-hikers, you really can’t go wrong.
Best waterproof mid-cut hiking boot: Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Hiking Boot
Similarily for the men, the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Hiking Boot wins here. I personally love that they come in more earthy, muted colors such as black or taupe/sepia. Keeping the timelessness and sleekness of hiking boots alive.
This is a popular hiking boot for many reasons–its high collar provides wraparound ankle support and excellent stability, not to mention its water resistance allows you to depend on them in all seasons and on varying types of terrain. Durable, waterproof, and out-of-the-box comfort. Overall, the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid is a timeless choice for thru-hiking and day tripping alike.
Above The Ankle (Off-Trail) Hiking Boots
These bad boys are the boot of choice for people who plan on doing long backpacking trips under heavy loads. They’re great for off-trail or backcountry conditions. Don’t be scared away by their appearance! These boots offer plenty of protection for your feet and ankles, yet are flexible enough at the balls of your feet so you don’t feel like you’re wearing a restricting cast. These types of boots have the ability to mold very well to your feet and provide great comfort, but expect a lengthy break-in period until the sole and heel cup soften. By far, these boots offer superior waterproofing and durability due to their all-leather construction and minimal seams. Many off-trail boots are surprisingly lightweight, thanks to more modern midsole/sole constructions. Thank you, shoe technology!
I don’t have much experience with over the ankle hiking boots, so I have no recommendations at this time. However, I would recommend going to the store and trying some on in-person to gauge stability and comfort before buying.
Trail Running Shoes
A lot of the stuff we talked about is regarding walking on trails. How about running on trails? Round of applause–now introducing, trail runners! These are indeed lighter than hiking boots and often provide better breathability.
The weight of a shoe is important because it impacts your comfort as you move. Running in boots are not comfortable, I can say that with a lot of experience. The body expends more energy as well, since boots are so much heavier compared to trail running shoes. If the circumstances are right (terrain, weather, etc.), trail runners are a great option due to their low weight.
Since trail runners are designed for running, they often don’t have the same level of traction when hiking at a slower pace. When you are hiking, you apply less force on the ground compared to striking while running. Trail runners are designed to provide traction when greater force is applied. Though trail runners make it easier to maintain a brisk pace, regular hikers will find them too unstable under heavy loads or on slippery/rocky terrain.
What are some other benefits here? Aside from being super lightweight, many trail runners offer out-of-the-box comfort. They also tend to be sleeker and have a wider range of colors and designs, for those of you who are more fashion-conscious. If you’re interested in trail running shoes but want the skin protection mid-cut hiking boots offer, consider using low-cut ankle gaiters to keep debris, bug bites, and scratches away.
Top trail running shoe for WOMEN: Altra Women’s Lone Peak 4
The Altra Lone Peak 4’s are incredibly popular trail runners among the lightweight backpacking and trail running community. They’re lightweight, comfortable, quick-drying, and have great traction for rugged mountain terrain. Specific to shoes made by Altra, they are built with a “zero-drop” build, meaning the heel and ball of your foot will be the same distance from the ground. Essentially, this can make it easier to run with ultimately more efficient form. The Altra Lone Peak 4 has a different look and fit due to their wide toe box, but in terms of functionality, they’re trail runner best-sellers.
Top trail running shoe for MEN: Altra Men’s Lone Peak 4
It’s the same story here for men as it is for women. The Altra Lone Peak 4’s are incredibly popular trail runners among the lightweight backpacking and trail running community. They’re lightweight, comfortable, quick-drying, and have great traction for rugged mountain terrain. Specific to shoes made by Altra, they are built with a “zero-drop” build, meaning the heel and ball of your foot will be the same distance from the ground. Essentially, this can make it easier to run with ultimately more efficient form. The Altra Lone Peak 4 has a different look and fit due to their wide toe box, but in terms of functionality, they’re trail runner best-sellers.Most consumers were happy with the longevity of this product’s components; they stated that the elements resisted wear-and-tear while also evoking excellent quality.
Runner ups: Saucony Peregrine ISO
Saucony Peregrine ISO (men and women) have been a no-brainer trail running option for years and they’ve remained at the top of the rankings for good reason. Some of the qualities I love about the Peregrine include its weightlessness, incredible traction power, comfort, and quick drying magic. The Peregrine ISO is a well-rounded lightweight trail runner that will keep your feet happy on the trail– no foot fatigue and no foot pain when hiking through rocky, muddy, wet, grassy, or woody terrain. Versatility for the win.
Recap: Hiking Boots or Trail Running Shoes
- Better foot and ankle protection
- Better durability and traction
- Increased ankle stability
- Great for keeping feet warm on cold-weather hikes
- Ideal for people looking to: go backpacking; hike on rockier, wetter, more varied terrain; for the beginner or heavier hikers
- Heavier and bulkier
- Require break-in period
Trail Running Shoes
- Increased speed and agility
- Increased breathability so feet stay drier
- Little to no break-in period
- Versatile for multiple use
- Great for keeping feet cool on warm-weather hikes
- Ideal for people looking to: go faster; log more miles at a time; or do gentle hikes on smoother trails
- Less support
- Will need replacing more often
If you’re going to invest in only one or two hiking essentials, make a sturdy pair of hiking boots or shoes one of them. It’s like investing in a good bed–just like you spend a third of your life sleeping, you’ll spend so much time on your feet when outdoors, so it’s definitely worth making sure those feet get the comfort and support you need.