Hiking Boots versus Trekking Shoes: Choosing Hiking Footwear

Conventional wisdom may be conventional, but is it always wise? In backpacking, conventional wisdom tells hikers to wear hiking boots, but with advances in technology, lighter gear is available, and many hikers find that with lighter backpacks, traditional boots aren’t always necessary.
Today’s backpackers have more footwear choices than ever before: traditional leather hiking boots, lightweight trekking shoes, in-between fabric-leather hybrid boots, and even sandal-shoes. Choosing the right hiking boots or trekking shoes can mean the difference between a successful, pleasant and fun hike and foot torture. Here are some considerations.

Traditional Leather Hiking Boots: Pros and Cons

Traditional leather hiking boots have been around for years. Some hikers swear by them; others swear at them.

  • Pro: Traditional backpacking boots offer ankle support for rugged conditions, especially for hikers with weak ankles or poor balance.
  • Pro: Leather boots are a good choice for hikers with heavy packs.
  • Pro: Leather boots are durable and can be resoled and repaired so they last for years.
  • Pro: Leather boots are waterproof, and come up high enough above the ankle to keep sand and mud out of the boot.
  • Con: Traditional boots are heavy – up to four pounds per pair, which makes hiking more tiring.
  • Con: Leather boots are more expensive than the alternatives.
  • Con: Stiff heavyweight boots are more likely to cause blisters, and they need to be broken in.
  • Con: Leather boots are bulky to pack in luggage.
  • Verdict: Not usually necessary, but a good choice for hikers with weak ankles, heavy loads, or those going into rough conditions where durability and support are important.

Lightweight Trekking Shoes: Pros and Cons

Lightweight trekking shoes look and feel a lot like running shoes, but they are usually a better choice because they have stiffer soles with better traction for slippery trails.

  • Pro: Trekking shoes are lightweight, which means the hiker exerts less effort to lift them.
  • Pro: Trekking shoes pack more easily into luggage.
  • Pro: Trekking shoes are less expensive.
  • Pro: Trekking shoes are a good choice for hot weather and deserts hiking.
  • Con: Because trekking shoes don’t cover the ankle, blister-causing dirt and sand can creep in.
  • Con: Trekking shoes don’t offer as much support, making them a poor choice for hikers with heavy packs.
  • Con: Hikers with balance issues or weak ankles might need the support of an above-the-ankle boot..
  • Con: Trekking shoes aren’t waterproof, making them poor choices for wet or snowy conditions, especially if kicking steps into snow banks is necessary.
  • Con: Trekking shoes are the least durable.
  • When used in deserts and grasslands where thorns and grass-seeds abound, shoes with mesh sections can allow debris to penetrate through the shoe, which can cause blisters.
  • Verdict: Great choice for day hikers. A viable choice for long-distance backpackers with strong ankles who have managed to minimize the weight of their packs.

Leather-Fabric Hybrid Hiking Boots: Pros and Cons

Leather-fabric boots combine the best of both worlds. They are the best choice for hikers who trek in a variety of conditions. Leather-fabric hybrids have leather for support and fabric (usually Cordura) for flexibility and breathability.

  • Pros: Hybrid outdoor boots need less breaking in than leather boots. (Note: they can cause blisters if not broken in at least a little).
  • Pro: Hybrid hiking boots come up over the ankle, keeping dirt out and offering ankle support sufficient for most hiking conditions.
  • Pros: Hybrids are rugged enough to handle uneven terrain, scree, and even kicking steps into snow.
  • Pros: Hybrids offer ankle support, though not as much as leather boots.
  • Cons: Hybrids are not waterproof, and in wet conditions can become heavy.
  • Cons: Hybrids are heavier than trekking shoes, and are not necessary for day hikers on easy terrain.
  • Verdict: Good choice for most backpackers hiking in a variety of conditions.

These three categories of hiking boots give today’s backpackers a choice of footwear for any conditions (although specialty boots are also available for mountaineering and extreme cold weather). As a rule, most backpackers today choose leather-fabric hybrid boots. Day-hikers lean to trekking shoes, as do ultralight backpackers who prioritize light weight over support or durability. And a few traditionalists stick to leather boots, valuing their stability and ruggedness.

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