Hiking 101: Pick Your Footwear

A step-by-step guide

Let your hike dictate how rugged or lightweight you want your footwear to be. Vasque's Talus UltraDry boots walk the line between both. (Paul Vincent/Vasque)

I learned how to pick hiking footwear by wearing a lot of the wrong gear. 

Case in point: A few years ago, I was gearing up for a four-week trek in the Everest region of Nepal. We had our sights set on the Three Passes Trek, a 120-mile loop crossing three 18,000-foot passes through the heart of the Himalayas. Imagining nightmarishly icy and rocky trails, I packed my stiffest ankle-height trekking boots—blocky, sweaty, Humvee-like clunkers. As it turned out, the trails were mostly mellow packed dirt winding through sleepy Sherpa villages. I ended up shamefully hauling those overbuilt trekking boots in my pack the entire way like a complete rookie, opting instead for a pair of mellow trail shoes.

Since you probably won’t be packing backup boots on most of your hikes, selecting the right pair is key. For some hikes, that means a pair of lightweight trail running shoes. For others, it means a big, burly boot. 

Here’s how to choose:

What to Wear on the Trail

You may ask yourself: Do I need a meaty hiking boot or just a simple, low-cut trail shoe? As a general rule, you’ll be the most comfortable wearing the boot that’s adequate—not overbuilt—for the conditions you’ll encounter. 

First, consider your climate. If you’re hiking in the desert or dry western climes, ditch the waterproofing (boots with materials like Gore-Tex, Outdry, and other membranes). You’ll rarely need it, and because waterproofing reduces breathability, it will make your feet more prone to blisters and stink. But when sustained storms and boggy trails (or repeated shallow stream crossings) are likely, a waterproof boot is essential. 

Next, think about your pack weight. If it’s more than a quarter of your body weight, you’ll probably need a stiff, sturdy boot, and likely one with a mid- or high-cut collar. You’ll need the stability on descents and on rocky ground. Mostly toting a light daypack? You can get away with a low-cut, flexible shoe, which will be much more comfortable. Look for shoes tagged “light hiker” or those with an EVA foam midsole. 

Then, consider the distance. The longer the trek, the stiffer and more supportive you’ll want your boot to be. Your feet will become fatigued after many miles on soft foam, especially on rougher turf; a stiffer sole lets them relax and let the boot do the work. 

Finally, think terrain. Rocky or uneven terrain calls for a stiff boot with a higher cuff for ankle protection, for both preventing sprained ankles and blocking stony blows to the side of your foot.

Can’t decide? The ultimate hedge is a waterproof light hiker, like the Vasque Talus UltraDry. These lightweight boots come with a higher collar for more ankle support and protection and a soft, running shoe–like midsole made of foam. It’ll be too much boot for some days and not enough for others, but it’ll be just right for most. 

What to Wear in Camp

After a hard day on the trail, all you want to do is take off your boots. You’ll definitely want something else to put on while shuffling around camp. Plus, changing into camp shoes gives your sweaty boots a chance to dry out.  

For summer camping, nothing beats an ultralight pair of sandals. Any old flip-flops will do. If your camp will be rocky or wet, you might consider something a little more substantial, like Teva’s Original Universal.

If camp will be cold, bring a pair of insulated booties—they’re incredibly warm, light, and compressible. Ideally, you’ll want a waterproof bootie with a nylon sole that can handle some shuffling over rocks.

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