Huge, heavy boots are a thing of the past. If your normal routine involves short outings, mellower trails, or lightweight packs, steer toward low-cut, breathable, flexible trail shoes. If stuffed packs, overnighters, or craggy summits are more your style, consider stiffer trail shoes or boots with taller, more supportive ankle collars. For off-trail or rocky terrain, look for ironclad uppers made from materials like synthetic or full-grain leather. Can't tell if a shoe is designed for day hiking or backpacking? Do the flex test by grasping the toe and heel and bending them together. The stiffer the sole, the better it is for heavy loads and tricky terrain. Do you really need a waterproof shoe? That depends. If you live in the Northwest or New England, or often hike wet and muddy trails, then yes. But if you live in the Southwest or the Rockies, and are rarely out for more than a few hours, a water-proof shoe is probably overkill.
This year's winner is the Patagonia Drifter A/C. As our testing began to wind down, one fact became glaringly apparent: The Drifter had accumulated the most mileage. It excelled on 90 percent of our trail adventuresfrom mellow afternoon outings to weekend backpack trips (with loads up to 25 pounds) and every ramble in between. Stiff sole to push up steep ascents? Check. A toothy Vibram tread that stuck to everything from loose scree to slick rocks? Yup. The break-in period was (almost) instantaneous, thanks in large part to generous ankle and heel padding. And throughout it all, dry feet. The "A/C" stands for air-conditioned, and the breathable fabric panels lived up to their billing. Note: If you most often hike in soggier climes, consider the waterproof Gore-Tex version ($140).
16.8 oz; patagonia.com
Support: 4.5 (out of 5)