I like to think there are three schools of thought when it comes to footwear for the trail. So, let me help you choose the right footwear for your own adventure:
Scenario one: You're heading out for a day hike somewhere between one and five miles that won't last for more than, say, three-and-a-half hours.
Shoe type: Trail runners
Why: They are more comfortable than hikers, with a running platform underfoot, yet they offer the same grip on loose rock, sticks, and other obstacles.
Actual shoe pick: Hi-Tec's V-Lite Women's Lightening HPi ($90, hi-tec.com).Although these are dubbed as a "multi-sport" shoe, they're as comfortable as a trail runner and can handle serious jaunts if you decide that's your speed for the day. The upper may be mesh--which is especially breathable--but it's coated in Hi-Tec's proprietary waterproofing technology, ion-mask, so it's ready to handle soggier climes without creating steamier feet. And, at $90 a pair, these are going to be your wallet-friendly option.
Scenario two: You may up the mileage ante into the low double-digits.
Shoe type: Light hiker
Why: With the same sticky grip as a trail runner, a light hiker is also going to offer more stability and burlier protection from nubby rocks and roots underfoot. Also, you'll like having a toe bumper to protect your little piggies from stubs.
Actual shoe pick: Patagonia Women's Release Gore-Tex ($130, patagonia.com). Slated as a "trail runner," this mesh-and-synthetic leather shoe feels better at slower speeds. It's a little bulbous to try sprinting in which is why it's perfect for day hiking. A Vibram sole keeps it glued to the trails, no matter how loose the rocks are, and mesh vents keep air flowing around your foot all day. Crossing streams? A Gore-Tec membrane and DWR-coating work together to make sure your foot stays dry (as in, they're waterproof) but still breathing. A non-Gore-Tex version is also available (for more arid climates), for $20 less.
Scenario three: Your hike will be longer than 12 miles, and likely include an overnight.
Shoe type: Backpacking boot
Why: Hi-top boots create ankle support that otherwise doesn't exist, keeping your legs strong for longer hikes and your feet more comfortable. The burliness factor is also much higher.
Actual shoe pick: La Sportiva Women's FC Eco 3.0 GTX ($160, sportiva.com). Slip your foot into this hiking boot and you'll feel like it's your favorite running shoe that's already broken in. These are lightweight with an anatomical footbed and all the bells and whistles to keep you comfortable. We hiked these puppies through snow and slush, only to arrive home with dry feet, thanks to a Gore-Tex liner. The grip on rock and even ice was exceptional, while durable rubber in the toe area kept us from stubbing our toes. The only bummer is the laces tended to come untied.
Alicia Carr, assistant managing editor of Outside and managing editor of Outside's Buyer's Guide, is a guest columnist for Gear Girl.