Top 5 Hiking Shoes For Lightweight Backpackers

hiking shoes

Lightweight hiking shoes are best for three-season hikes on established trails with a total pack weight of 35 pounds or less. If your pack weighs more than that, please don’t go out and buy a pair of heavy boots. Reduce your pack weight instead and your feet will thank you.

I have worn the same model of hiking shoes (Merrell Moabs) since 2006. But, I didn’t want to write an article entitled “The Single Best Hiking Shoe” (even though I think they may be). So I’ve included four other popular hiking shoes in this list to give you a few more options.

These shoes have been on the market for several years, receive consistently high ratings at online retailers like REI.com and Amazon.com and I see them a lot on the trails.

Merrell Moab Ventilator Hiking Shoes

Merrell Moab Ventilator

I have worn Merrell Moab Ventilators on all of my hikes for the last seven years. These are one of the most popular shoes among long distance backpackers and thru-hikers. I highly recommend them.

Average Weight (Pair): 30 oz
Wide Sizes Available: Yes
Price: $90

Buy (Mens): Amazon.com, REI.com, Campsaver.com
Buy (Womens): Amazon.com, REI.com, Campsaver.com

Salomon XA PRO 3D Ultra 2 Hiking Shoes

Salomon XA PRO 3D Ultra 2

The Salomon XA PRO is the shoe I see hikers wearing second most (behind the Merrell Moabs) out on the trails. These shoes have been around for years and are an excellent choice for lightweight backpacking.

Average Weight (Pair): 28 oz
Wide Sizes Available: Yes
Price: $130

Buy (Mens): Amazon.com, REI.com, Campsaver.com
Buy (Womens): Amazon.com, Campsaver.com

New Balance 510 Hiking Shoes

New Balance 510

New Balance shoes are a popular choice for ultralight backpackers and hikers on a budget. They are not as durable and long-lasting as the other shoes on this list, but they are lightweight, comfortable and inexpensive.

Average Weight (Pair): 24 oz
Wide Sizes Available: Yes
Price: $65

Buy (Mens): Amazon.com
Buy (Womens): Amazon.com

KEEN Targhee II Hiking Shoes

KEEN Targhee II

KEEN shoes have a unique shape (similar to a Dutch Clog) which cradles your feet and provides good arch support. This brand is known for comfort and has a cult following among day and section hikers (but some long-distance backpackers have reported durability issues).

Average Weight (Pair): 32 oz
Wide Sizes Available: No
Price: $120

Buy (Mens): Amazon.com, REI.com
Buy (Womens): Amazon.com, REI.com

Merrell Moab Mid GORE-TEX Hiking Boots

Merrell Moab Mid GORE-TEX

If you are looking for a shoe that is more like a boot, the Merrell Moab Mid GTX provides ankle support and a waterproof membrane while retaining the comfortable design and materials from the popular Moab Ventilator.

Average Weight (Pair): 34 oz
Wide Sizes Available: Yes
Price: $120

Buy (Mens): Amazon.com, REI.com, Campsaver.com
Buy (Womens): Amazon.com, REI.com

There are lots of other good hiking shoes, but these are some of the most popular choices.

Socks and Insoles

High quality socks and insoles are just as important for foot comfort as a good pair of lightweight hiking shoes. Here are some good options for hiking socks and insoles:

Hiking Socks

Hiking Insoles

Have a question about lightweight hiking shoes or a recommendation based on your own experiences? Please post your comments below…

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

51 Responses to “Top 5 Hiking Shoes For Lightweight Backpackers”

  1. I strongly disagree on the suitability of Keens. Their propensity for sole separation from the upper has become epidemic. This, on top of their terrible customer support of thru-hikers, make them a non-starter. I had complete separation on one shoe and partial on the other within 2 days of starting the PCT. Customer service brushed aside my request for expedited service on the trail and demanded photographic evidence, filling out of a long form (which asked for information about the shoes that wasn’t printed on the label) and then said they would begin processing my request in 10 days. I finally got a credit from their web store in about 2 weeks. Never again. I had very good luck with Brooks Cascadias and a lot of people were wearing them on the PCT this year. The Salomons (I used them, too) were less cushioned and the heel linings fell apart after a short time (10 days). My daughter had the same experience with the linings over a slightly longer period.

    • @3Cats: One good thing about buying shoes from a hiker-friendly retailer like REI.com is their easy return policy. I have seen hikers bring in a pair of ratty shoes, even after several hundred miles of use, with a complaint about comfort or durability and they replaced them on the spot. Not sure what their return policy is by phone, but I imagine it would be easier than dealing directly with the manufacturer.

      How many miles were you able to get out of a pair of the Brooks Cascadias?

      • All true about customer service, Erik, but the main point is that Keens fall apart with startling frequency. I used my Cascadias for about 400 miles before having to get off for the season and they showed virtually no signs of wear. I highly recommend them. Thanks for all you’re doing to improve the long-distance hiking experience!

      • This very morning in the Wall Street Journal there was a piece on REI’s new restriction on their returns policy.
        It’s still available without question though for the first year and forever for defective goods.

        Would you use the Merrells for JMT?

        • OldGreyGoose: Thanks for the heads up on REI. I’m glad to hear the return policy is still in effect for the first year. That should be enough time to put most gear through it’s paces.

          I have used the Merrells on the JMT and they work great. If you don’t mind wet feet get the Ventilators. If you want to try and keep your feet dry you can go with the Goretex version.

          But I find that trying to keep feet dry when crossing creeks and walking through snow is an uphill battle. I don’t even bother anymore. I just walk through the creeks with my shoes and socks on and keep on trucking, squishing along until the sun dries them out.

          One good thing about the ventilators and other breathable shoes compared to those with a waterproof liner is they do not trap moisture inside (when it comes in over the top of the shoe). So when they do get wet they dry quickly afterward.

          • Hi Eric,

            On your advice I’m about to buy the Moab’s.
            I notice your link from Merrell Moab Ventilator Hiking Shoe links to Merrell Moab Ventilator Cross-Training Shoe. Are they the same shoe?

            Thanks

          • @OldGreyGoose: Yes, they are the same. The Merrell Moabs come in four different configurations:

            – Ventilator Lowtop (super breathable)
            – Ventilator Midtop (super breathable)
            – Goretex XCR Lowtop (waterproof liner)
            – Goretex XCR Midtop (waterproof liner)

            I prefer the Ventilator Lowtops for most of my hiking.

    • I agree my keens fell apartbalso. I will never buy another pair.
      Sole separation and leather fell apart

    • I read that I should buy shoes 1/2 to 1 size larger for a thru hike because my feet will swell. Is this true? I bought a pair of shoes which are too large. I am training in them and my footwork is bad because the fit is sloppy even with extra thick socks. Should I use shoes that fit or shoes that are too large for the John Muir Trail?

      • @Kirbys Mom: It is true that your feet may swell on a long hike. However, I feel that getting a wider shoe is sometimes more beneficial for foot swelling than a longer shoe. Going a full size up means a longer shoe with more room for your foot to slip around, in as you’ve noticed. One thing you can do to take up space in the shoe while you are training is to get a thicker insole (or even two thinner insoles). You could even start your hike with this setup, and then remove one of the insoles to create more space as your foot swells. Or, if your shoes are available in wide or extra wide versions, you may want to get the same size or just a half size larger than you normally wear, but in a wide width. With wide shoes, you can use the laces to cinch it down around your foot and hold it in place a little better than with long shoes while your feet are normal, and as your foot swells just loosen up the laces.

  2. The Merrill Moab Ventilator shoes I got a few months ago are one of the best pieces of hiking gear I’ve ever bought. If only I’d known about them years ago. Why did experienced hikers and store employees as recently as 2012 tell me I needed to wear those awful old cinderblocks? Anyone want a good deal on some Lowa and Oboz boots?

  3. Like the last set, I’m antsy about my ankles simply from the decades of experience (falls/heavy rucking over terrible terrain etc)I had in the Army.

    I use jungle boots for shorter hikes but these make a lot of sense for serious distance hiking.

  4. I use both the Moabs & the XA-Pro. The Salomon’s are a little more technical & are stiffer underneath for rocks than the Moabs. I use them for backpacking. I took the Moabs to the shoe shop & they added a layer of hard rubber in between for $25 that significantly improved the protection underneath. Both shoes are very comfortable.

  5. I agree with you on the Keens — have a pair of lowtops I enjoy using in the desert or anywhere I don’t expect to be doing shallow stream crossings or hiking in the rain.

    But couldn’t disagree more on the Salomans. Bought a pair of mens XA Pro 3D GTX mids last year. Hiked around the ‘hood for a few weeks, then took them to the Bob Marshall Wilderness for a 60-miler last August. Very comfortable when properly laced, but I noticed the trick cinch-up laces kept slipping. I finally put a mark on the lace to convince myself it was really slipping and that I wasn’t just not tightening it up enough.

    Secondly, and more importantly, I noticed my feet getting wet. “Hmmm, I thought, this can’t be. These are brand new Gore-Tex boots, expensive and highly rated online.” So I wrote it off to figuring I must have somehow let water get up over the top on a stream crossing (even though I’ve been doing this for 20+ years and KNOW when that happens.) When I got home I bought some nikwax spray and doused them.

    Then I submerged them in a utility sink, up pretty high along the sides but nowhere near the top, so no water could enter that way. I held them there for five minutes, with a piece of tissue paper in each one to detect leaks. All was well, no leak.

    So I put them on and walked for a half hour and my socks were soaked very quickly. Obviously the water had seeped through the fabric barriers and was waiting for the compressing weight of my body to squeeze it out into my sock.

    Like a dummy, I STILL took them on a February trip to the Arizona desert, because I loved the comfort. As luck would have it, the ground was blanketed in snow (Superstition Mountains), and I spent three days with drenched feet. Miserable.

    This was both shoes, so it’s not a matter of “they left the goretex out of one by accident” or anything like that. Salomon has gotten their last shoe-dollar out of me. Replaced with some TNF Havoc GTX Mids that have been flawless in water, snow, etc. on the last couple of trips.

  6. Salomons have always been my favorite. They don’t last the longest but sometimes I would have liked a stiffer sole but that’s one reason that they are so comfortable.

    I can’t remember why anymore but I like the Sole insoles more than the Superfeet I tried 5ish years ago.

  7. i’m a huge fan of the Solomon XA Pro 3d they breath well dry out fast. my only problem with them is that they collect quite a bit of dust in them but its a worthwhile tradeoff.

  8. I’m a huge fan of Keens and have never had a problem with them. My first pair finally separated this summer after 7 years of daily wear, and I continued to wear them for 2 weeks until I could replace them.

    I’ve owned a pair of NB, but I keep going back to Keens. I just find them to be more comfortable than any shoe I’ve used.

    Jester, (Wizards of the PCT film) who did the CDT last year used Keens and according to the new movie only swapped out once. I sent him an e-mail to ask him how many he used, and if he had any problems.

    Jesters answer on Keens used on the CDT (used with permission):

    “Marty — I actually went through 4 pairs, but mainly because that’s what I was planning to do. In other words, when I switching out the shoes I could have gone a lot farther on the ones I was switching from.
    I would say, though, to plan for three pairs minimum. You could stretch it to two; with three you’ll probably end up with the last pair still in good enough shape for back home or weekend hikes or the beginning of the next trail.”

    As for REI, their policy is more for the people who are abusing the policy. A friend of mine on the PCT had some problems and REI overnighted her a replacement. (Treking Poles)

  9. Erik, thanks for your 2013 gear list e-mail
    always get a kick out of new gear and updated products. cannot thank you enough for doing the research.

  10. I’ve gone the other way on shoes- I use the super thick but not heavy Hoka Mafate. They dry quickly, cushioning is pillow like and you don’t need other inserts. I use rayon from bamboo socks or microfiber dress socks. two pair if its cold. I never have blisters. The Mafate is sized a bit small. I probably am a realistic 9.5-10 and wear 11-11.5 in Mafate. I find them cheap on ebay. They last me about 400-500 miles with the cushioning going first then delalination of sole.

  11. Hi Erik. Thanks for all the good info you supply. Unfortunately, none of the shoes listed come in women’s narrow. I have an extremely narrow heel and long foot.(My husband calls them ski’s, bless his little heart.) I end up having to wear the heavier boots. The best fitting ones, so far, are New Balance WW978GT. I sure wish these manufactures would start catering to narrow feet. If anyone out there knows of a lighter shoe/boot that would fit a narrow foot, it sure would be appreciated.

    • @Vicky: I feel your pain. I have the opposite problem (extra wide feet) and for most of my life it was impossible to find good shoes in wide widths. Luckily in the last several years shoe manufacturers have started to catch on and offer wide sizes. Hopefully they will start to do the same for narrow feet. New Balance is the best I know of when it comes to weird sizes. Have you tried the New Balance 968s? They look like they might be a bit lighter and more comfortable than your 978 boots (and they are available in Women’s 2A width.)

    • Vicky try La Sportiva Wildcats for narrow feet.Just started wearing them and they are a dream.Might not get the mileage but the comfort facter is unreal.Light,dry fast and grippy sole.

  12. Hi Erik, Great site. thanks for sharing so much great info. I’m on my 2nd soon to be 3rd pair of Moab Ventilators. love these shoes. Mostly just use them for day or short overnight BP trips. I scored a brand new pair by luck at a REI used gear sale in 09′ for $40 and have been hooked since. At that time I was getting ready to go to Nepal and I wasn’t really looking for a hiking trail type “shoe” but the shoe fit great and cost/value for those Vibram sole’s was too good to pass up on. Took them to Nepal (i did the Annapurna circuit) but ended up leaving the Moab’s in hotel storage and using my older broken in Merrell boots i knew wouldn’t be a problem especially since we were crossing a 17,800 ft pass which could have snow/ice. I’m a big guy and also have a couple of screws and & pins in one of my ankles so I’ve always chosen to wear hiking boots when i’m doing longer trips. However, I’ve seen the “Light” and would love to do the JMT or another longer trip in the Moabs. I might just have to trial and error by maybe trying the Mid-tops while I continue to work on getting my pack and some extra body weight down.

  13. None of the above shoes meet my weight (or flexibility) requirements–they are all WAY too heavy. Since I’ve been spoiled by hiking in lightweight Inov-8′s since 2006, I wouldn’t dream of adding that much weight to my footwear.

    • Lollygag: Which model of Inov-8s do you like? How many miles on average do you get out of a pair before they wear out?

      • Indeed Inov-8′s are not the longest lived shoes. So far I’ve used Mudrocs, Terrocs, Trailrocs, Mudclaws, F lites, and another model I can’t recall. Usually I get 500-ish distance hiking miles and some non trail life as city chore shoes after that.

        One time I had a pair blow out on the sole after 250 miles, a bit premature but I did not whine to the company as overall they have impressed me immensely.

        Once I used the gossamer light racing version of the Mudroc and got an expected 200 miles, but those shoes were sublime to hike in. Usually I try to buy on clearance last years model instead of paying full retail, and I keep many pairs in progressively larger sizes on hand before a sizable distance hike.

        A distance hikers shoes are key and this is no place to take shortcuts. If you try a lighter shoe, you will be astounded at what a difference it makes.

        This company always had light shoes, but their latest shoes are super light, many at 150 grams and I’ve not tried their latest greatest offerings. However the local running store claimed huge mileage on some they were testing (like 2000) but I’m not sure which model they are touting or what kind of use they are subjecting it to…

  14. It occurs to me that the climate I hike in may shorten my shoe life as I hike on the PCT, mostly Sobo in Washington mainly but also Oregon.

    While I’m super comfortable distance hiking in the rain, my shoes spend alot of time notably wet which does seem to accelerate wear.

  15. For the all time best socks that I have ever found try Darn Tough Socks.

    Darntough.com
    Amazon.com

  16. Just pulled the trigger on a pair of Merrell Moab Gore-Tex XCRs. I also have wide feet and my last gamble on a $225 pair of Asolo’s (Fugitive GTX) was a bust. Super stable boot, but too heavy for anything beyond a day trip and man did those things tear my feet up. Stiff, narrow, and heavy. After about 100 miles I’ve basically retired them. Shame, waste of money, but lesson learned. I’m getting into more long distance trips and as a bigger guy I need both width and moderate support without going over the 1 lb-per-shoe barrier. I chose the Gore-Tex model since I need an all-season shoe at this point; if I were to do a thru-hike I would go with the ventilator lows. So glad they come in wides!

    By the way, great blog Erik. Well-organized and practical.

  17. I really love hiking and i’m also a huge fan of the Solomon XA Pro 3d.But one problem is its weight.If anyone out there knows of a lighter shoe/boot that would fit for me, it sure would be appreciated.

  18. Erik, any suggestions on shoes and insoles for flat feet? I’m constantly plagued with foot pain while on the trail, and since I’m a photographer and often carry heavy gear loads, I’m concerned the lighter hiking shoes might not be tough enough.

    • @Joseph: I don’t know much about flat feet specifically. Maybe someone else who has experience with that can chime in. Some of the lighter weight running shoes (like the New Balance) have a thinner, more flexible sole that may not provide enough shock absorption for carrying heavier loads. But the heavier-duty shoes (like the Merrel Moabs) have a pretty substantial Vibram sole, similar to a boot. Combined with the right type of orthotics for your flat feet, they might do the trick.

      • Thank you! Trying to track down a pair locally so I can try them on and feel them out!

        • @Joseph: Did you manage to get some good suggestions on flat foot shoes. I am flat foot too and my foot pains while on the trail.. I am planning for another backpacking trip in a month or so.. please advise

          • Bhavna, I have super flat and wide feet. I am female but wear a pair of the men’s size 7.5 wide Moab Ventilators and they are the most comfortable boots I’ve ever had. I’ve had them about 5 months now and while I have done some nice day hikes in them, I just did my first backpacking trip this past weekend. Worked like a charm. The Keens in this article actually flared my plantar fasciitis, as they have a very high arch. I do need inserts now and am unsure where to buy them but figured I’d share my experiences anyway.

  19. Erik, do the Moabs stretch out at all? How do you like them to fit?

    • @Rob: I haven’t really noticed the Moabs stretching out too much. Perhaps they do, but I haven’t noticed. I do find them to be very forgiving shoes though. They never feel tight or constricting. The inside of the shoe has a pillowy, comfortable lining that fills up the volume of free space and cradles my foot, but does not abrade against them. And they are available in wide sizes, which is good to make extra room for foot-swelling on long hikes.

      The only downside of these shoes, in my opinion, is the sole. I get about 800 miles of out of a pair. At that time the shoe is still in immaculate condition, but the sole has worn down. If Merrell could put a more long-lasting sole on these shoes, who knows how long they could last. But, even with the current sole, they are still pretty long-lasting compared to other hiking shoes. The mid-sole is also very stiff, so upgrading your insoles is a good idea (like Montrails or Superfeet) to keep the bottom of your feet from getting sore.

  20. I generally wear a women’s 8.5 but like the fit of a 9 in the moab for foot swelling for long distance hiking. I’m a little weary of going any bigger than that because I have a narrow heel that tends to slip if I do so. Do you think a half size bigger to start off with is enough? Or what do you recommend?

    Also, darn tough socks are the way to go! Made in the USA and unlimited lifetime warranty. Smartwool fall apart super easily in my opinion. No comparison in my book.

    • @Olivia: When it comes to making room for foot swelling I think width is more important than length. You may want to just go up a half size, but switch to Wide (EE) width. I’m not sure if the heel will be too wide, but it seems to me that most of the extra width is in the toe-box. I got a few pairs of Darn Tough wool socks for my winter boots this year and they are great. I look forward to trying some of their lighter weight socks for hiking this upcoming season. Thanks for the suggestion.

  21. I have a bad back and plantar fasciitis. So I am trying to go as light as possible on my backpack and its contents, and go for whatever shoe is the absolute best for my feet, regardless of weight.

    They say that one pound on your feet is equal to 5-7 lbs on your back. That is a bit misleading I think. It may be true for the work you are giving your legs, but it is not true for what is going on with your back. My back will give out long before my legs get tired.

    Just my two cents.

    • @Chris: You should go with the shoe that feels most comfortable to you. Weight is not the most important aspect of a shoe (fit is). But, what gives heavy shoes their weight is the use of thick, inflexible materials which cause foot pain by artificially constraining the foot and preventing it from achieving a natural range of motion. Chances are that the most comfortable shoe for you will also happen to be lightweight.

    • Chris, I also have a bad back and plantar fasciitis! I have degenerative disc disease in my back and was told I wouldn’t make it to age 30 without surgery (I’m going to be 35 this year). Stretching every day without fail helps most (twice a day if you can) and I see a chiropractor every two weeks. The Keens listed here flared my PF very badly but the Moabs are extremely comfortable and lightweight and SOLID. I just carried a 30 pound pack for our first backpacking trip this past weekend and my chiro was very impressed by the state of my back despite that, as she had lots of misgivings about me doing it. Good luck whatever you choose but you can’t go wrong with the Moabs for the issues you list here, IMO.

  22. I noticed there are several style options for superfeet insoles. Do you have any insight on the differences? I see the green ones most often.

    • @Bday: Superfeet has a lot more colors and styles now than they did when I used to wear them. I have worn the green, orange and blue versions. The green seem to be the most popular among hikers. The Superfeet Website lists the differences between the models. Two specs to take into consideration are the Profile (the height of the arch support) and Volume (the amount of space in the shoe the insole takes up). The green is high profile/high volume, blue is med profile/med volume, and so on…

      Personally, I prefer Montrail Enduro Soles over Superfeet. In addition to keeping your foot in an anatomically correct position they offer better cushioning and shock-absorption.

  23. Hey Erik, What do you think of the Salomon XT Wings 3?

    • @David: I’ve not seen the Salomon XT Wings 3 in person so I can’t say much about them. But from looking at them online my first impression is that they do not seem to offer any big advantages over the Salomon XA Pros, which have a longer track record.

  24. Hi Erik, Nice article. Just wondering, have you ever trek to South East Asian countries, where the terrain are usually muddy & you have to cross rivers with slippery rocks? Are your recommended shoes suitable?

    I’m from Malaysia & the most famous hiking shoe here is known as ‘Adidas kampung’. Cost around $3.00. Good durable shoe but not much on everything else. So I’m thinking of buying a ‘proper shoe’ this time. :-)

    • @Jaque: I have never been to Asia, but I have hiked in some big-time mud (in Colorado) and crossed a lot of creeks (in the Sierra). The shoes I wear (Merrel Moabs) do not have the grippiest sole, which is one of their weak points. For some reason, I’m not sure why, the shoe designers decided to make the lugs oval-shaped instead of square. Because of this, they are not so great on slippery surfaces. But, I like the rest of the shoe so much, and haven’t found anything else better, that I still wear them everywhere.

  25. Mileage obviously varies from one to another – I have put so many miles on my Keen Targhees I am finally wearing through the Vibram soles; They have been great for me. Just as I can’t say they all last, certainly others can’t say none of them do. I have a very wide forefoot and an average heel – the Keens have the perfect fit for me and perhaps that is the reason they have worn so well.

  26. Just wanted to add in on REI… they dont have a return policy its actually a satisfaction garuntee and its now for a year, which is still very reasonable. But you can be turned away if you have used them beyond life expectancy of a product. Please please don’t take advantage of such a great company by just swapping out gear or shoes for new stuff because you can. Hopefully they can be around for years to come.

Leave a Reply