Best Hiking Shoes for Long Distance Backpackers

Old school backpacker

Old school backpacker

Myth: Real hikers wear boots

When I first started backpacking I made a classic mistake. The first thing I did was run out to the gear store and buy a pair of heavy duty $200 leather hiking boots.

When I thought of what a backpacker looked like I envisioned the iconic 70s era backpackers from my Dad’s old Backpacker Magazines… with their huge external frame packs, sturdy leather “waffle stompers” and tree branch hiking sticks.

But it wasn’t long before I learned the error of my ways.

Leather boots are the worst type of footwear for a long hike! They are hot, heavy and stiff… and despite the myth that they protect and “support” your feet, they do more harm that good.

There are many better alternatives to heavy leather boots for comfortable hiking footwear.

Tips for choosing a better hiking shoe:

Find a shoe that fits your foot shape. Everyone’s feet are shaped differently, so finding the right shoes is not as easy as asking your friend what shoes worked well for them, because they may have tall narrow feet with a square toe box when you have flat wide feet with a triangular toe box. Have your feet professionally measured and then find a shoe that fits your specific foot shape.

The lighter weight the better. Remember back in the 80s during the “aerobics craze” when women wore ankle weights to increase resistance while walking or jogging? Wearing heavy trail boots is no different. The heavier your shoes the harder you will have to work to lift your feet with every single step. Leather hiking boots typically weigh more than 3 lbs each. You want trail shoes that weigh less than 1.5lbs each.

Buy one size larger than normal. If you carry a backpack (even a lightweight one) for a long time your feet can swell temporarily and sometimes even grow permanently. (My feet have grown from size 12D to 13EEEE since I started long-distance backpacking). A larger size shoe gives your feet room to grow. Also consider shoes in Wide (2E – 4E) widths to allow for foot flattening and sideways expansion.

Make sure they are breathable. Most lightweight hiking shoes come with strategically placed mesh panels to allow for better airflow and ventilation around your feet. This is good because hot, sweaty feet can cause painful blisters.

Replace the insoles. The “stock” insoles that come with most hiking shoes are junk. They provide little cushioning and usually fall apart after just a couple hundred miles. My favorite replacement insoles are Montrail Enduro Soles. Another popular insole is Superfeet (I hate Superfeet because they are too stiff).

Choose the right socks. A lot of backpackers immediately gravitate toward heavy wool “hiking socks” because they provide a lot of extra padding (but they are also thick, hot, heavy and sweaty). If you’re carrying a light pack and wearing the right shoes and insoles it’s not necessary to have a thick sock. I like to hike in ankle-height, lightweight running socks like those from Smartwool and Wrightsock.

The Best Types of Shoes For Lightweight Hiking

* Pros and cons refer to each category of shoe in general, not the specific models pictured.

New Balance 708

New Balance 708

Trail Running Shoes

Pros:
* Ultra lightweight
* Highly breathable
* Flexible and comfortable

Cons:
* Not very durable (only last 400-500 miles)
* Expensive ($80+ per pair)
* Minimal ankle support


Merrel Moab Ventilator

Merrel Moab Ventilator

Cross Trainers My Choice

Pros:
* Lightweight and comfortable
* More support and protection than trail runners
* More durable than trail runners (last 600 – 1,000 miles)

Cons:
* Expensive ($80+ per pair)
* Heavier than trail runners
* Only partial ankle protection


Patagonia Release

Patagonia Release

Lightweight Hiking Boots

Pros:
* Full ankle protection
* Sturdier sole than trail runners
* Good transition from traditional boots

Cons:
* Typically not as breathable as runners
* Heavier than runners and cross trainers
* Expensive ($100+ per pair)


Teva Terra-Fi 3

Teva Terra-Fi 3

Hiking Sandals

Pros:
* Lightweight and highly breathable
* Fewer areas to rub and cause blisters
* Very fast drying

Cons:
* No protection from rocks and trail debris
* Feet dry out and get sunburned (need socks)
* Bad for hiking in snow, rain, lose rocks


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23 Responses to “Best Hiking Shoes for Long Distance Backpackers”

  1. Diana Christopulos Reply March 6, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Good stuff, Eric. Now a word from an old lady who did the AT. Really recommend the Asolo lightweight hiking books because the soles are stickier than most, providing traction on wet rocks. This was really helpful on the AT, which can have a pretty tricky footbed. It helps those of us whose legs are not as strong.

  2. Thanks for this, Eric. I note you assign the value “support for ankles”. Most folks would interpret this as a sort of cuff that comes up and holds your ankle steady in relation to the foot part of the shoe. In my opinion, the best “support for ankles” is actually a shoe with stable heel counters. I have had my best experience with New Balance trail runners, because the website I use to view their offerings will state, for each model of shoe, its shoe volume, true sizing, and that all important, “stable heel counter” notation. I made an experiment with Vasques recently, and they felt good, fit right, and lasted well, but had “rolly” heels. That is, when I put my foot down, the shoe would easily allow it to either roll right or left. It was not a stable feeling. The NBs I choose don’t do that. You couldn’t roll your foot right or left on a flat surface unless you deliberately worked at it. While you can always set your foot down badly in a bad bad place and sprain your ankle in them (or even boots!), your footwear should not encourage rolling over in otherwise “safe” situations. I believe NBs with stable heel counters have saved me from ankle woes over the past 7 years I have worn them. My 2 cents. Two Legs

  3. Before I began a hike of the AT I purchased a pair of hand made leather boots from a guy in NH. They are awesome boots, very well made and only have about 200 miles on them, and will probably never get any more milage for the reasons you stated. I have gone to NB low cut Trail shoes with Superfeet insoles of which I typically get 1000 miles from. I use the ankle high Smart-wool socks, they breathe well, dry quickly, and don’t get too funky too soon!

  4. Erik … great advice! I used Montrails in ’08, and got 1,000 on my first pair. One trick that worked well for me was to also have a pair of sandals that I used for stream crossings. I found it very easy to change to my sandals, cross a stream, then switch back to my Montrails. I also carried an extra pair of insoles for the times when my Montrails did get wet. Changing socks and insoles allowed me to keep hiking while the rest of the shoe dried out.

  5. Good advice on going light. I also might suggest a really ultra-light option, although this is not for everyone. I prefer going barefoot and carrying light shoes or sandals. It helps if the trail is well worn. I’ve backpacked the Inca Trail (about 25 miles to Machu Pichu), jungles of Borneo (leaches can be a problem) and the Everest trail (until it got a bit cold at about 14,000 feet), all barefoot. No damage to my feet and definitely no blisters.

  6. Really terrific job with this blog. With regard to shoes, my own inclination is towards a British company Inov-8 whose Roclite 295, or their 315 or 330 models are all pretty great shoes and especially with online sales going on for last years gear, some real bargains are to be had at the moment. I also find myself drawn to some of the trail running shoes like Sportiva Cross Lite shoes. I think you get less mileage out of them but the quality while they last is really noticeable. My own love affair with the gore tex ended when i took some Asolo Fugitive GTX’s — a great boot — on a ten day trip to Haiti with an NGO and the lack of breathability almost killed my feet. Those kinds of boots are great for rain or snow day trippers, but not much good for distance beyond that, unless of course you have camp shoes that you can quickly change in to after a leisurely day’s hike.

  7. Call me Captain Contrary, but I prefer the waffle stompers. They weigh more, but not much in the grand scheme. And if you saw how slashed up the leather and soles are from the way I stagger through the scree, you’d know why I don’t want thinner materials guarding my dogs. Then again, I also like external frame packs and often carry 70lb loads due to unreliable water sources in my favorite haunts. Keep in mind, a properly fitted external frame makes lugging monster loads relatively easy. Yeah, I look like the Creature From 1975, but you’d be surprised how well “old school” can work.

  8. Her is my take on ‘ankle support’.

    If you really want to immobilize an ankle and protect it from a sprain or heal an injury you will need to immobilize the leg up to the knee. Fiberglass casts (go to any hospital ED after the injury) are widely available. Danner Boots used to make a logging boot (with steel spikes in the tread) that laced all the way up to the knee.

    What I believe needs to be addressed is that you need to keep the tread of the shoe directly under the foot. Shoes/boots need to be built so this happens. It starts with a stable heel but needs to also be present under the ball of the foot.

    By holding the foot in the shoe you minimize the lateral movement that is out of line with the tread. This helps to prevent over rotation and injury to the ankle.

  9. Hey Erik, great article! You mention a lot about choosing a light-weight shoe that fits the form of your shoe well, which is important–although don’t make the mistake I made: Avoid wearing Vibram Five-figner KSO Trek’s for backpacking trips! Although the shoes are a dream when it comes to running by allowing one to realize their natural gait, there is nothing natural about backpacking. With an added 20-40 pound load on your back, having arch support is essential and going the barefoot route just does not cut it.

  10. Erik, I usually use a hiking boot that has served me well but I have the biggest problem with sticks, dirt and rocks getting into my boots or cross trainers. What type of gatters do you suggest. I was thinking that gatters with a strap that goes under the shoe would not be good since you\’d end up stepping on it and breaking it.
    Jeff

    • Jeff, I’ve never been a fan of gaiters myself but I know some hikers have held their gaiters down with little velcro patches sewed to the gaiters and glued to the sides and back of their shoes. There are also some gaiters that hold themselves in place just by friction. One brand of gaiters that is popular among chics and runners (and dudes who are secure in their sexuality) is Dirty Girl Gaiters. They are available in lots of flamboyant patterns and are pretty popular on the trails.

  11. Hi Erik.

    How do you handle stream crossings? I don’t see “camp shoes” on your gear list. I know a lot of light weight hikers just trudge through the stream and let their shoes drain and dry off while on the trail. This makes sense unless you are doing a late day crossing. Any advise?

    • @ Terri: I do the same thing, I just walk through streams with my shoes on. My hiking shoes are lightweight and breathable so they dry pretty quickly. I’ve tried crossing in bare feet, socks, and camp shoes before and none of them seem to provide a stable enough grip on the bottom (which is usually slippery rocks or sharp stuff that pokes your feet).

  12. Nice take on the topic, I agree. To me a successful foot system is more than just finding the right shoes, it has has been finding the correct combination of four things: shoes, insoles, socks, and gaiters.

    I had the shoes dialed in but still had some toe blister issues. Then I discovered Injinji socks. Problem solved there. Then to deal with some over pronation issues I got some custom insoles – aches and pains gone. Then I found the perfect lightweight and durable gaiters that could handle the gnarly terrain I like to play on.

    Finally, – FINALLY – my feet are happy. It only took about 10 years to come up with the right mix!

  13. Sandals all the way!! My feet get really sweaty when hiking and i prefer to wear light socks ( cheap dress socks) and sandals. Keens generally bust out after 3-5 hundred miles, but $50 chacos can endure multiple thru-hikes on a single pair!! wear thicker socks when its cold, and grocery bags under the socks keep your feet dry in the snow. I’m a big fan of the Vibram soles on the chacos too. you don’t even have to think about river crossings or rain, and just loosen the straps when wearing them around camp!

  14. Good overlay. A few more details to add to your discussion–

    I hike in straight up running shoes–might want to add this choice to your list.

    The second thing to choose in your footwear is what type of motion control you want. Google the wet foot test. Or even better go into a legit running shop if you can find one.

    You should probably mention that a stay or any form of foot ‘protection’ that isn’t flexible bleeds efficiency out of your stride. So there’s another trade off between ‘protection’ and efficiency and weight.

    Also, you might want to dig up the bio-mechanical research behind the above—IIRC each ounce on your feet is about 7 on your back, in terms off energy expenditure.

    Hermes

  15. I got a pair of Merrell Moab XCR boots in Harper’s Ferry on my 2010 thru. I still use them, probably have about 1800 miles on them at least. The upper does separate at the front, so I punched a hole through the sole and upper and reattached it at 3 points with sewn parachute cord. Works great, and the sole still has plenty of wear left.

  16. very informative, i’m a trekker who uses sandal on hiking trips and most of the time my friends would ask me why i’m only wearing sandals. “because it’s lightweight” and it’s the obvious reason.

  17. I have a question Eric, whats your opinion on the minimalist footwear? I’m trying out the Vibram 5 fingers at the moment. they take a bit of getting used to but I think they’re going to replace my sandals. still won’t be very good for colder weather, but they have a whole line i might see if another type is a bit warmer. But as a lightweight goes at least i’m saving weight and space on not totting socks. lol

    • @Paul: I have never tried the 5 Fingers myself, but I have met hikers who were in a world of pain after trying to wear them on multi-week hikes. I imagine if you start out wearing them on shorter hikes and build up to longer distances incrementally over time you can probably toughen up your feet enough to get used to them. But I wouldn’t want to wear them as primary footwear on a thru-hike without a backup plan.

  18. Thanks for your informative writeup. Can you please tell me Which is the best light weight Hiking Boots for Appalachian trail?

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