Light hiking shoes aren’t just for day hikers anymore.
Patagonia bills the Rover ($125) as a light hiker, a trail runner, and an approach and rock-climbing shoe. Amazingly, it can do it all—and well. Taking a ten-mile trail run? No problem. The Rover's four-millimeter heel-to-toe drop made it seem like a more protective version of our favorite minimalist shoe. Same with fast-paced day hikes: it felt like an "exceptionally protective sneaker," according to one tester. But the Rover impressed us most when we went climbing. The tacky rubber outsole smeared on 60-degree granite inclines, and the defined edges in the toe box had one tester scaling 5.7 routes without missing his standard—and cramped—climbing shoes one bit. 7.7 oz
Merrell Grassbow Air
BEST FOR: Speed demons.
THE TEST: "It made me want to run" was how one tester summed up the Grassbow Air ($100) after a few weeks stomping around New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The low weight and highly breathable mesh combine for a speedy feel, while a beefed-up heel counter and thin but aggressively lugged outsole provide just enough support to travel quickly (with light loads) over varied terrain. Our tester wouldn't recommend wearing it with a 40-pound pack, but he loved it on long, fast hikes with lighter loads. "Perfect for weekend summit pushes," he said.
THE VERDICT: Like reaching camp before the rest of the group? This is your shoe. 11.2 oz
BEST FOR: Minimalists carrying bigger packs.
THE TEST: Conventional wisdom says that the gnarlier the trail, the heavier the boot. Keen upends that thinking with the Marshall ($110), a lightweight, very breathable low-cut hiker that punches far above its weight thanks to burly armor. On trails in the Tahoe National Forest, our tester loved the stable shank and dense midsole. "There's enough support to wear with a pack," he said. "But it still let me feel the terrain." The trademark toe cap kept his feet safe from protruding roots and rocks, while the lugged soles kept their grip during an icy hike up Devil's Peak.
THE VERDICT: Great for pack mules with strong ankles. 12.3 oz
BEST FOR: Creek crossers.
THE TEST: One of our testers has a thing for jumping off waterfalls. His top requirement in a shoe: it can't slip when things get wet. At this, the watershoe-on-steriods Lotic ($100) is the best on the market. The tacky Vibram outsole kept its grip on submerged rocks during creek crossings and waterfall scrambles in Northern California's Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. "I felt like a gecko," our tester said. Mesh-backed drain ports in the soles let water out without allowing debris in. The ports also make them ideal for SUPing and kayaking. Caveat: the mesh upper is tough but thin, so don't expect a lot of support.
THE VERDICT: The footwear of choice for amphibious hikers. 10.8 oz
Scarpa Mystic Lite
BEST FOR: Hikes that end with scrambling.
THE TEST: The Mystic Lite ($119) was designed as an approach shoe that could be worn around town, but we found that it performed best charging through rough terrain like a beast. Our tester plowed into brush and debris during day hikes in Colorado's Arapaho National Forest and the foothills outside Boulder without any damage to the shoe's tough nubuck leather upper. The understated armoring includes double stitching, a rubber rand around the toe, and steel eyelets punched into the leather. All that and the interior felt as soft on the foot as any in this category, apart from the Salomon X Ultra (below). Said one tester: "It felt like an old favorite right out of the box."
THE VERDICT: Fits wider feet best. Loves to bushwhack. 12.6 oz
Salomon X Ultra
BEST FOR: Long hikes and tender feet.
THE TEST: Copious interior cushioning made the X Ultra ($120) stand out from the crowd of hikers we put through the paces. "They feel so soft inside," one tester remarked, "it's like walking in a Lexus SUV." The added padding on the upper hugs the foot from the top and sides, providing a great combo of comfort and support. We took the X Ultra on 15-mile hikes in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area and finished with our feet feeling fresh. And while you'd think the shoe would be a bit wobbly with such a thick sole, we found it to be surefooted, even when we were sidehilling, thanks in part to the way the heel flares out for added stability. One warning: the speed laces have a tendency to loosen up on downhills, so you might need to tighten them regularly.
THE VERDICT: So comfortable you'll want to keep them on when you get to camp. 14.4 oz
Five Ten Aescent
BEST FOR: Fast approaches, light climbing.
THE TEST: The Aescent's ($110) leather exterior and stiff sole give it enough oomph to survive off-trail approaches, and the company's famously sticky rubber outsole means you probably won't have to switch to your climbing shoes for mellower routes. "I hiked down to the beach, then bouldered on the rocks jutting out," reported our tester, who took the shoes on a trip up the Northern California coast. "They kept their grip on the wet stones, and the stiff soles were really protective on the hard stuff."
THE VERDICT: Rock rats will love it, but it's also good-looking—and comfortable—enough for everyday wear or as your go-to hiking shoe. 12.3 oz
Aku Transalpina GTX
BEST FOR: Multi-day trips with a medium to heavy pack.
THE TEST: Our tester literally took his pair out of the box at a trailhead on California's Mount Shasta. His preliminary assessment: "A perfect fit." That sentiment held over the course of the trek to the summit. While other hikers were getting heel blisters on the steep grind up Shasta's avalanche gulch, the Transalpina's ($229) external reinforcements prevented hot spots by locking our tester's feet in place. The boots shone on the descent as well—the pulley lacing system let him ratchet down the fit and prevent toe bump.
THE VERDICT: More supportive than the Ecco (opposite), thanks to the plastic exoskeleton that cradles the midfoot and heel. 24 oz
Helly Hansen Fryatt Low HT
BEST FOR: Midcut support in a low-top.
THE TEST: After almost 200 total miles in the Sierra, one tester declared that the waterproof-breathable Fryatt ($120) felt "like a glove—made by Ferrari." You can cinch down the nearly full-length lacing for off-camber trails, while the midsole and reinforced upper let our tester carry a 50-pound pack without blowing out the shoes (or his feet). And the traction? "Amazing," he said. "Never had a slip until the temp hit 20 degrees and ice covered everything."
THE VERDICT: A high-octane trailblazer for hikers who don't need a ton of ankle support. They breathe just fine for a waterproof shoe, and nearly as well as a water-resistant one. 12.3 oz
Ecco Biom Terrain Plus GTX
BEST FOR: Long treks; hikers who need support.
THE TEST: After our tester hauled a 53-pound pack up Mount Whitney on a two-day summit push, he dubbed these boots ($230) "lightweight heavy-duty hikers," due to their low weight-to-support ratio. "I usually wear insoles for my flat feet, but I didn't miss them on this trip," he said. "I felt great, even carrying a heavy load." The outsole won points for holding its grip on wet terrain, while the tougher-than-cowskin yak leather proved supremely resilient. "Except for a few scuffs on the toe cap," said our tester after the trip was over, "these still look new." Smart: Ecco added a rubber insert on the outside of the ankle to protect your sensitive ankle bones from would-be offenders on the trail.
THE VERDICT: A tough, lightweight boot that can handle big loads and plenty of run-ins with rocks—its overbuilt toe cap is like a little fortress for you piggies. 19 oz