Best Hiking Shoes and Boots of 2018
When preparing for a backpacking trip, choosing footwear will be one of the most important gear decisions you'll make. Blisters, strained muscles, and scrunched toes can quickly ruin any backpacking trip, so this is an area where testing and experience go a long way.
At CleverHiker, we almost always backpack in lightweight trail runners on our spring, summer, and fall trips. They keep our feet nimble, don’t give us blisters, dry quickly, have excellent traction, and don’t exhaust our legs over long days of hiking. They also don’t require a break in period and last for 500-700 trail miles.
That said, footwear is a highly personal choice, so we recommend finding what will work best for you. Below we discuss the critical considerations for purchasing backpacking footwear and recommend our top choices for trail runners, hiking shoes, and hiking boots.
For more of our top gear recommendations, have a look through these popular CleverHiker Backpacking Gear Guide links:
CRITICAL FOOTWEAR CONSIDERATIONS
COMFORT AND FIT - This is the most important consideration when choosing hiking footwear. Different people need different things in shoes (wide vs. narrow, arch support, heel-to-toe drop, etc), so finding what makes your feet happy is critical. If your shoes don’t fit your feet, you'll have pain with every step and your backpacking trip will quickly become a bust.
WEIGHT - Weight is a surprisingly important consideration for footwear, and one of the reasons we prefer lightweight trail runners over heavy backpacking boots. Weight carried on your feet zaps 4-6 times more energy than weight carried on your back. So swapping a 3-pound pair of boots for a 1-pound pair of running shoes is the energy saving equivalent of removing 8-12 pounds from your backpack. Needless to say, that’s a really big deal. Also, nimble feet lead to less muscle fatigue, less stumbling, and over time can help avoid knee and hip flexor problems.
PRICE - We tend to be willing to spend a bit more for quality footwear because it's tied so directly to the enjoyment of our backpacking trips. Comfort and fit usually trump cost in our books, but we recommend a variety of quality options in our recommendations below.
SIZING - Feet tend to swell over long days on the trail, so it’s almost always a good idea to buy footwear at least a half size larger than your normal shoes.
TESTING - You’re going to take thousands of steps on any backpacking trip. You really need to know that your footwear will fit comfortably and won’t cause blisters. We recommend, at very least, buying your footwear a few weeks before any hiking trip and spending as much time as you can in them, making sure they work for your feet.
TRACTION - Traction is one the most important parts of quality backpacking footwear. Picture yourself hiking along a narrow ledge with shifting gravel beneath your feet. Knowing that your footwear will hold and keep you from slipping is crucial, especially over washed out or exposed sections of trail. We heavily factored quality traction into all of our footwear recommendations below.
WATERPROOFING - If you’re hiking for multiple days in wet conditions, your feet are going to get wet no matter what type of footwear you're wearing. That's just how it goes. Moisture in the air will make it hard for anything to stay dry. Rain will drip down your legs and seep into your shoes. Sweat and condensation will build inside your footwear soaking your shoes from the inside out. And even if you could mitigate those other factors, "waterproof" footwear will develop small holes and tears over time which allow water to seep in.
In addition, when "waterproof" footwear gets wet, it tends to be very heavy and take a long time to dry. For those reasons, we almost always backpack in non-waterproof, quick dry, lightweight trail runners during our spring, summer, and fall backpacking trips. If it's going to be wet or we plan to cross a moderate amount of snow, we bring heavy wool socks to keep our feet warm while we hike.
BREATHABILITY - This is another critical consideration when choosing footwear and one of the principle reasons we hike in trail runners. Your feet are going to sweat a lot when you hike, especially on warm days. If that moisture doesn't have an easy way to escape, it will make the skin on your feet soft and prone to blisters. Shoes that are highly breathable are generally not waterproof and will get wet quickly when it rains. But, they also dry quickly too.
DURABILITY - One downside to trail runners is that they tend to be less durable than hiking shoes or boots. Generally speaking, trail runners last around 500 miles, hiking shoes around 750 miles, and hiking boots around 1000 miles. If you hike a lot and value footwear that will last for many years, you may prefer a hiking shoe or boot that will live longer than almost any pair of trail runners. Also, when choosing a trail runner or hiking shoe, try to avoid large sections of unsupported mesh, which can wear out quickly.
ANKLE SUPPORT - Ankle support is one of the most widely contested topics among backpackers when discussing footwear. If you want proof, read through the comment section of our post: 5 Reasons To Ditch Your Hiking Boots. This is a highly personal choice and we have our own opinions on the matter. In general, we feel claims of ankle support in backpacking footwear are wildly exaggerated. In order to get true ankle support you need high top footwear laced tightly around your ankles, which most boot wearers don't actually do. In our opinion, most people in athletic condition with healthy ankles carrying light to moderate loads don't really need additional ankle support for backpacking.
SOLES - We look for trail running shoes with relatively thick and well-cushioned soles so we don't feel every rock under foot. Trail runners tend to have more flexible soles which can help prevent blisters. Alternatively, hiking shoes and boots tend to have more rigid soles, which will last longer and offer more protection from the rocks below their feet.
HEEL-TO-TOE DROP - Traditional shoes usually have a noticeable drop in height from their heel to toe with the idea that it increases your running efficiency. Some trail runners have "zero drop," meaning your foot is the same distance off the ground from heel to toe. Proponents of zero drop claim that it puts less stress on your body and more closely emulates a natural running style.
Best Lightweight Trail Runners
We’ve hiked thousands of miles in trail running shoes over some of the toughest terrain on the planet, including the Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, and the entire PCT. Trail runners are by far our top choice for almost every 3-season backpacking trip we take. In addition, trail runners are also the most common footwear choice for thru-hikers tackling long distance trails like the AT, PCT, and CDT.
We feel that trail runners have the best balance between weight, durability, comfort, and breathability. They dry quickly when wet and are far less likely to give us blisters. In certain conditions, like heavy winter snow, we'll opt for more substantial footwear, but trail runners are by far our top choice for trail travel.
While we feel trail runners provide the best advantage and comfort for us, everybody’s feet are different. Below are our recommendations for the best lightweight trail runners, but later we'll give some good options for hiking shoes and boots.
WEIGHT: 1 lb. 3 oz (pair)
Saucony recently released the new and updated Peregrine 8's and we're pretty excited about the new design features. We've been backpacking for years in previous models of the Peregrines and we love their incredible traction, comfortable padding, roomy toe box, and soft sole. They dry quickly and are comfortable right out of the box. The 2018 redesign we're most excited about is the beefed up lugs on the bottom of the shoe for increased traction, which we thought was already pretty dang good. The Saucony Peregrine is a well-rounded lightweight trail runner that should keep your feet happy on the trail.
WEIGHT: 1 lb. 5 oz. (pair)
The Altra Lone Peak 3.5 are incredibly popular trail runners in the thru hiking community and for good reason. They are lightweight, comfortable, and feature a very roomy toe box. The Lone Peaks have a cushy sole, dry quickly, and have great traction for rugged mountain terrain. Altras are built with a zero-drop build, meaning the heel and ball of your foot will be the same distance from the ground (more on this above). Altras can look a little goofy, but as far as functionality goes, they're at the top of the list for trail runners.
NOTE: Altra is releasing a new updated Lone Peak 4.0 late this summer and we'll be excited to get them on the trail. The most significant updates to the 4.0 seem to be a grippier sole for improved traction and a more durable upper. Full review to come soon.
WEIGHT: 1 lb. 8 oz. (pair)
The Brooks Cascadia 12 trail runners are very popular among the thru hiking community. They have a comfortable sole and a more durable upper mesh section, but they're a bit heavier than the shoes we prefer to hike in. The toe box is quite roomy, the traction is adequately grippy, and they feel comfortable on foot. The rock shield in the sole ensures you won't feel every rock on the trail, while the Pivot Point system helps adapt to varying terrain. One area where the Brooks Cascadia 12 really hold up is in their durability. Our biggest downside is that they don't dry as quickly as we'd like. With an already heavier trail weight, a long dry time can zap energy.
WEIGHT: 1 lb. 5 oz. (pair)
The La Sportiva Bushido has been a staple in the trail running community for a long time. They have awesome traction, feel very stable on rough terrain, and offer a toughness and durability that may be lacking in other trail running shoes. Our biggest issue with the Bushido’s is that we find their soles to be a bit stiff. This makes them a great choice for those wanting more protection under foot, but we find them to be a bit less comfortable until you break them in. La Sportiva Wildcat trail runners are also a popular trail runner.
Best Lightweight Hiking Shoes
For those who aren't quite sold on wearing trail runners on a backpacking trip, but don’t want to carry the weight of hiking boots with every step, may find a hiking shoe to be a good middle ground. In general, hiking shoes have a tougher, more durable construction than trail runners. With less unsupported mesh and often made with a leather and mesh combo, they’ll generally last longer. Although their soles tend to compress less, you will almost always notice a more rigid and stiff sole than a trail runner. This can be a good thing if you don’t want to feel the rocks under your feet, but will also mean less comfort and flexibility.
Depending on the model you choose, many hiking shoes are built to be more water resistant. As we mentioned above, this may also mean they take longer to dry on multi-day trips. Below we recommend our favorite hiking shoes that balance weight, comfort, and functionality.
WEIGHT: 1 lb. 10 oz. (pair)
The Salomon X Ultra 3 Low is a burly trail ready shoe with a comfortable fit, awesome traction, and more durability than their trail runner counterparts. The Ultra 3's come with their signature one-pull quick lacing system, which can take some getting used to - people either love it or hate it. We found these shoes to need a bit more time to break in when compared to others. Also, the toe box is more narrow, so those requiring a wider fit may want to look elsewhere. Salomon does offer this shoe in a waterproof GORE-TEX model. Though heavier than what we usually wear on the trail, what you get in the Salmon X Ultra 3's is a burly, durable, and well-built hiking shoe. If you want more ankle support, they also offer this shoe in a mid height model.
WEIGHT: 1 lb. 15 oz. (pair)
If you're not quite sold on hiking in trail runners and want the durability of a hiking shoe, we recommend checking out the Merrell Moab 2 Vent Low. Merrell has really nailed comfort with this shoe as it's comfortable right out of the box with its cushy soles and tongue. The combination of suede leather and mesh allows your foot to breathe like a trail runner but have the durability and protection of leather. The Moab 2's have Vibram outsoles which offers decent traction, though we felt some of our trail runners outperformed the Moab 2 in this area. For a couple more ounces, Merrell also offers this shoe in a waterproof version.
WEIGHT: 1 lb. 15 oz. (pair)
The North Face Ultra 110 GTX hiking shoe offers trail-ready comfort right out of the box. They are lined with waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex, which make them a great choice for a wet and muddy day hike. The combination of leather and tight mesh make this shoe a more durable option than the trail runners listed above. The Ultra 110 shoe has a solid and varied lug pattern, offering great traction on varying terrain. The soles of these shoes are stiffer than some others, which offers great under foot protection, but can take a bit longer to break in. Another popular hiking shoe from North Face with similar weight and functionality is the Hedgehog Fastpack GTX hiking shoe.
Best Lightweight Hiking Boots
Though many backpackers have transitioned to trail runners or hiking shoes in the last few years, there is still a strong section of the backpacking world that prefer the durability, protection, and ankle support of backpacking boots.
One of the only situations we use hiking boots is for winter conditions when snow is present and temperatures are cold. We also may use them on extremely slippery or unstable ground, like rocky ocean shoreline.
Keeping weight down with hiking boots is still very important. Just remember if you’re buying “waterproof” boots, make sure to read our waterproofing section above because many users get disappointed by their performance on multi-day backpacking trips. Hiking boots have gotten a lot lighter over the years so if you're the type of person that needs the additional ankle support, below are some good options to keep weight down.
WEIGHT: 2 lb. 2 oz. (pair)
The Moab 2 Mid Ventilator is one of the most popular hiking boots and for good reason. They're relatively lightweight for a hiking boot, affordable and durable. Like many Merrell products, these are comfortable right out of the box. Made with a combination of suede leather and breathable mesh, this boot will last for years of trail pounding. They also offer the Moab 2 Mid in a waterproof version, however we still prefer the increased breathability offered in the Ventilators. If you generally require a roomier toe box, Merrell offers the Moab 2 boot in a wide model, which we love.
WEIGHT: 2 lb. 13 oz. (pair)
The time-tested Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX hiking boot has the burliness of a go-anywhere hiking boot with the chassis of a running shoe making it a stable yet comfortable fit. We'd hardly call footwear nearing 3 lbs. lightweight - nor would we take this out on a 3-season backpacking trip - but for a hiking boot that you can take on a winter backpacking trip or off trail across technical terrain, the Quest 4D 3 GTX boots are a great option. In the new iteration of this popular boot, they've made the lug pattern even more aggressive for outstanding traction. The GORE-TEX lining will help keep your feet dry in wet or muddy conditions, however like all waterproofing, it will break down over time. If you're looking to shed some ounces and don't need the high ankle support, Salmon also offers the Salmon Quest 4D 3 Mid GTX.
WEIGHT: 2 lb. 7 oz. (pair)
The Lowa Renegade GTX Mid is a widely popular option that offers great stability and protection for a mid height boot. For this level of support, the upper collar still feels comfortable and cushy. The GORE-TEX liner kept our feet dry on day hikes, thought water soaked into the leather making them feel heavier than we'd like. Like most hiking boots, we'd take these out on rainy day hikes with moderate loads, but would be hard pressed to take the Renegades out on a multi-day backpacking trip. Lowa offers the Renegade GTX Mid in regular, narrow, and wide options, making them highly customizable.
We hope this guide helps you determine what footwear will work best for you. If you found this guide helpful, please share on social media and click the little heart button below to give us a digital high five!
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