Are Hiking Boots Necessary? | Can You Wear Running Shoes?

are hiking boots necessary?
Image Credit: Tim Foster

For beginner hikers, it can be quite overwhelming to get prepared to spend time in the wilderness. You see these hikers with their big fancy hiking boots and you’re probably wondering if it is really necessary to invest in them. Let’s dive into that.

Hiking boots are not a requirement for good, safe hiking. Certain trails and terrain will be easier to trek over when wearing proper shoes and if you plan on doing a lot of hiking, they will definitely come in handy. But in many cases, trail running shoes, hiking shoes, or other athletic shoes will be just fine.

There are a lot of options out there these days and it can be tough to decide what is right for you. Here, I will walk you through what you need to know to make the best decision.

What are hiking boots?

There are no regulations when it comes to shoemaking, but hiking boots are easy to recognize. REI defines them as heavyweight shoes with thick soles. They are usually made with thick protective materials like leather, have high ankle support, and have stiff and sturdy soles to protect and grip a variety of terrain.

Hiking boots are usually very long-lasting shoes and are the most protective option for your feet. They keep your feet warm during cold times of the year and are usually waterproof and mud-wicking (meaning mud won’t stick so easily and ruin your shoes).

Wearing hiking boots has a few drawbacks though, primarily that they tend to be quite heavy. The weight can make a huge difference when hiking for long periods of time.

Additionally, you will have to break them in and form them to your feet because they are so stiff when new.

What are the alternatives?

There are many types of footwear appropriate for hiking. It is beneficial to know what shoes to avoid and what the best alternatives to boots are.

Shoes to avoid using on the trail include any kind of non-athletic shoes, any designer sneaker, and walking shoes. You may think walking shoes would be okay since hiking is just walking, isn’t it? But walking shoes are made to cushion your feet for straightforward walking whereas hiking requires more technical maneuvers. Walking shoes don’t have the right support for that and can cause injury more easily.

The best alternatives to hiking boots are trail running shoes and hiking shoes.

Trail runners have a thicker sole than regular running shoes capable of protecting your feet against the rough terrain but are worn tighter around your foot providing flexibility and agility.

Hiking shoes are somewhere between trail runners and hiking boots. They are highly protective and often waterproof (or at least resistant) with thick soles and ankle support. They are lighter than hiking boots and flexible like running shoes.

That’s a lot of information, can you break it down for me?

I sure can! Here is a table with all of that information boiled down:


Hiking BootsHiking ShoesTrail RunnersOther Athletic Shoe
DescriptionMade from thick, protective material (usually leather) Thick and sturdy soles High ankle support WaterproofMade from thicker but breathable materials (usually not including leather) Thick and sturdy sole Usually waterproof (or at least water-resistant) More flexible than hiking bootsThicker and more sturdy soles than regular athletic shoes Made for gripping terrain when running Flexible materialThin soles Form-fitting Low to no ankle support Includes sneakers and tennis shoes
ProsVery long-lasting Highly protective in all terrain and weather Supportive DurableProtective against the elements Flexible and breathable Lighter than boots Fairly durableComfortable Versatile Very flexible and breathable LightweightFlexible Inexpensive
ConsExpensive Need to break them in HeavyMore expensive than a normal shoe Not as long-lasting as bootsDo not last long Not as protective against nature No ankle supportThin soles Less traction Will not last long on trails No protection
BrandsTimberland SalomonMerrell KeenLa Sportiva AltraNike Adidas

So, how do you pick the best shoe for you?

In order to figure out which pair of shoes is the best option for you, there is a lot to consider. You will need to ask yourself a series of questions about your body type, experience, and goals. Answering these questions not only helps you pick a good shoe but also prepares you for what is to come. The following information should help you figure it all out.

What is my experience level?

Some expert hikers walk the entire Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) barefoot, or close to. But those people are crazy and hiking barefoot is not for most people. The lighter and thinner the shoe, the more expert-level knowledge you need to keep from injuring yourself.

Newer hikers will benefit from wider and more sturdy shoes when starting off. When you are new to carrying a backpack and traversing the sometimes dangerous terrain of a trail, it can be easy to get off balance or tire your feet out. So investing in a proper pair of hiking shoes or hiking boots may be best.

But there are many more factors, experience level is just a small one. As you gain more hiking experience, you will start to understand your own needs and comfort levels.

How far do I want to hike and how fast do I want to go?

Speed and the distance you are able to cover can be important factors in ensuring you have a safe hike. The longer the hike, the more important these factors become.

According to the Mountain Tactical Institute, every additional 1% of your body weight slows your speed by 6 seconds per mile. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, every 1.5 lbs slow you down 6 seconds.

If you are through-hiking and need to hike a specific distance, those 6 seconds a mile can add up over the days. But if you are a leisurely day hiker, these seconds won’t mean much, as long as you can get safely back to the trailhead before the sun goes down.

Wearing heavier hiking boots uses up more energy which can slow you down and make you more tired in the long run. At the same time, hiking boots will last a long time, so if speed is not important to you, boots will help you cover more distance in the long run.

What is my body type and how much weight am I carrying?

A study conducted by the US Army in the 1980s found that “one pound on your feet is five pounds on your back”. And if you ask any hiker, they will probably agree. Heavy hiking boots can weigh you down substantially. Depending on your body type, this may or may not be beneficial.

Smaller body types and lighter bags will not benefit from wearing big hiking boots. Hiking shoes or trail runners will be the better lightweight option.

Bigger body types and heavy pack sizes call for a heavier, more sturdy shoe and therefore should look at getting hiking boots.

When carrying a lighter bag, the weight of your shoe will make a big difference. So if you know you will not be carrying more than 20% of your body weight, wearing a lighter shoe will be just fine.

You can find lighter-weight hiking boots, but they will most likely still weigh more than hiking shoes or trail runners.

If you have an above-average or larger body type, it may be better to get a bigger boot to help offset the weight on your body. A bigger boot will give you more stability and absorb more shock with every step, meaning your feet won’t have to work so hard.

What kind of terrain will I be trekking over?

Trails come in all shapes and sizes ranging from flat and well maintained to wild and full of obstacles. You may even be thinking about doing some trekking in heavy wilderness with little to no trail.

For easy, dirt walking trails, any athletic shoe should be fine. You just need something supportive enough to make you comfortable.

As soon as you start to hike on trails with rocks, tree roots, boulders, and other small obstacles, you will need a shoe with a thicker sole as it will protect your feet.

The more dangerous and wild the trail is, the bigger and more protective shoe you will need.

Your feet are highly sensitive. The thinner the soles the more your feet will feel leading to more tired feet, blisters, and bruises.

The thicker soles of hiking shoes, trail runners, and hiking boots will take away the feeling of each individual rock and other textures on the ground, keeping them from getting exhausted and also protecting you from the potential injuries from trekking on uneven ground.

Will I need protection from wildlife?

Something else to be aware of is the kind of wildlife you may encounter and what kind of protection you will need against it. Some hikers prefer to wear thicker boots to prevent injury from wildlife like rattlesnakes.

If you know you will be hiking around venomous snakes or other dangerous creatures, it may be a better idea to wear hiking boots with thicker material as they could provide additional protection.

But not all boots will completely prevent you from snake bites or other dangerous wildlife, so if this is something you need to think about, ask your local outdoor store for suggestions on additional protection.

What is my budget? How long do I want my shoes to last?

Trail running shoes only last about 500 miles or less whereas hiking boots can be expected to last about twice that, depending on how well you take care of them.

The cost is about equal since hiking shoes and trail runners will cost roughly $100-$150 whereas good hiking boots will cost $200 or more.

Can I hike in running shoes or run in hiking shoes?

You probably want versatility when looking into investing in footwear, but it is important to wear the right pair for the right activity to avoid injury.

It would not be a good idea to run in hiking shoes or boots as they will not give you the lightweight flexibility you need to run well on the trails.

You can hike in running shoes, but only on easy terrain.

Running shoes are made to lightly grip the pavement and lessen drag and resistance. You will not want to wear these when trail running or hiking because the soles will be too thin to protect you against rough terrain. Your running shoes will also degrade much more quickly due to the additional grip needed on trails.

Trail running shoes are made with thicker soles that will grip the trail better and protect your feet against the rocks, stones, and branches you will likely be running over. It is best to invest in trail-specific running shoes for this matter.

What are some real-life examples?

Hiker 1

Hiker 1 is a 140 lb woman preparing to hike all 300 miles of the Colorado Trail. She will be carrying 25 lbs on a well-traveled trail. She knows that it might rain or even snow during her trip, but for the most part, it will be sunny. Her best option is a water-resistant or waterproof hiking shoe. They will protect her if the weather changes and give her the flexibility and durability she needs to walk all 100 miles without any worries.

Hiker 2

Hiker 2 is a 220 lb man preparing for a two-day hike in the Olympic National Park. He will be carrying a bag of only 10 lbs but the weather tends to be quite wet and the landscape is very lush and wild. He goes on these kinds of hikes often so his best option is to invest in proper hiking boots. They will keep his feet dry and protected against the rough trail and will last him a few years.

Hiker 3

Hiker 3 is a 170 lb man planning to do many day hikes around the desert landscape of Sedona, Arizona. He will be carrying light daypacks and the weather will be very hot. The best option for Rod is trail runners. They will provide him with protection against the rocky ground, but keep his feet cool. He doesn’t need any additional protection against the elements and they have enough support to keep him comfortable and hiking for long periods of time.

Conclusion

In conclusion, there are three main types of shoes we mentioned here: hiking boots, hiking shoes, and trail runners.

Hiking boots are a great option for people who have larger body types, for people carrying a lot of weight at slower speeds, those hiking in more wild terrain, and those who want a durable, long-lasting shoe. It is not necessary to wear a hiking boot when hiking, but they will provide more stability, durability, and the greatest protection against the elements. They are more expensive but they will last longer and provide the best ankle support.

Trail running shoes are the best options for trail runners as well as short-distance, easy hikers carrying little to no weight and people hiking in hotter climates. They provide a thick sole for protection and grip on the uneven terrain, are worn tightly around the foot providing flexibility, and provide a good level of breathability for sweat-wicking.

Hiking shoes are the best option for most people in between. They have thick soles to protect against the elements, are worn more tightly around the foot for flexibility, can provide different levels of ankle support and water resistance, are cheaper than boots, and last longer than a trail shoe but shorter than the hiking boot. Hiking shoes are great for all distances and most terrain.

One final thing to keep in mind is, just as you have different shoes in your closet for different occasions, the same goes for hiking shoes. You can, and probably should, have different pairs of hiking shoes for different occasions. Some days you may want to go on a leisurely hike through rough terrain and require hiking boots. Some days you will hike up a mountain and back and will want to wear hiking shoes.

Just remember that it takes time to find the shoe that allows you to feel comfortable, and will withstand your preferred amount of wear and tear.

Good luck out there and hike on!

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