Every hiker and backpacker who has ever stomped lugs on dirt can tell the same sad story of painful blisters and bashed toes. In search of a solution, we evaluated 37 hiking shoes and boots that are new for spring 2018. The Tecnica Forge GTX ($250), the first-ever heat-moldable hiking boot, was a clear favorite. A 30-minute fit session creates a custom fit that made the Forge the most comfortable boot we tested, and in a boot that still offers legitimate support and traction for serious backpacking. Plus, it’s waterproof. Several other boots outperformed the Forge in certain situations (see our runners-up, below) but the Forge’s combination of comfort and rugged construction won out and, we think, justifies its $250 price tag, which is in line with other boots we tested that don’t have as many features.
What Should I Know Before Buying Hiking Shoes and Boots?
Over the past five years, companies have shortened the break-in period that hiking footwear used to require. Hiking shoes and boots are also getting lighter without compromising stability on rough, uneven terrain. Still, if you’re planning to log a lot of miles off-trail or if you expect to spend most of your time walking rough, rocky paths (like Pennsylvania’s boulder-strewn section of the Appalachian Trail or Maine’s stony, rooty summits), then you’ll want a boot or shoe with some beef underfoot.
Here are some other factors to consider:
Weight: The lighter your footwear, the less tiring it’ll feel over many miles. Ultralight boots weigh between ten and 13 ounces. Heavy mountaineering models range from 20 to 27.
Ventilation: Meshy fabric panels, like those found on Five Ten’s Access Knit, vent sweat and keep feet cooler on hot hikes. They also help shoes dry faster once wet. Gore-Tex Surround technology even builds breathability into the soles by incorporating waterproof vents that funnel out heat and moisture. The impressively breathable La Sportiva Stream (our best boot for weekend backpacking) features a proprietary version of Gore-Tex’s Surround technology.
Waterproofness: Waterproof shoes and boots keep water from soaking your feet by incorporating a thin membrane, usually Gore-Tex, eVent, or a proprietary material, that keeps water out while letting sweat escape. But all waterproof membranes reduce ventilation, so we don’t recommend them for people who hike mostly in dry or hot climates.
Internal Support: Over the past couple years, new plastics and constructions have given rise to foot-saving features that are lighter and more versatile. Stiff shanks (of hard plastic or, sometimes, steel) used to be the standard way to keep mountaineering and backpacking boots from collapsing under heavy loads. (Like an I-beam, the shanks reinforce your foot’s platform.) Now, though, most companies are using rigid midsoles made with TPU, ESS, and other plastic compounds to do the same job. These materials are better—they’re lighter than older shanks and can be molded together to create zoned support. Often, they’re stiffer in the heel and arch but flexible under the ball of the foot to permit a more natural stride. Lightweight shoes for trail running and day hiking generally skip the full, shank-like midsole but may include a smaller rock plate made of TPU or similar materials that shield your tender midfoot from bruising rocks and roots.
Outsole Traction: In general, smooth soles and those with thin sipes—grooves cut into tread lugs—do well on smooth or wet surfaces. Deep lugs work best for loose rock and mud.
How We Picked the Best Shoes and Boots for Hiking and Backpacking
As a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail in 2002, I started with anvil-heavy leather boots, switched over to ultralight trail runners, and ended up in the middle ground with a sturdy hiking shoe. Today, I live in northwestern Colorado, at the foot of the Park Range and a short drive from the sandstone canyons of the Colorado Plateau. Hiking is a weekly activity. I’ve also spent the past decade reviewing outdoor gear, hiking all over the world testing footwear and adventure equipment.
For this test, I researched more than 80 shoes and boots new to the market for 2018 and sent 37 styles to a team of 17 testers. They are mostly recreational hikers who went on day hikes and backpacking trips, although the group included a mountain hunter who carried 60 pound loads over rough, off-trail terrain in Colorado’s Zirkel Wilderness and two people who hike primarily through slot canyons and washes.
Our Favorite Hiking Shoes and Boots, Ranked
Gear of the Year
Tecnica Forge GTX ($250)
A mid-height boot weighing 21 ounces, the waterproof Forge is a substantial backpacking boot. Its midsole combines soft EVA foam, which helps its Vibram Megagrip lugs conform to uneven trail surfaces, with a hard ESS/EVA plastic rock plate that buffers sharp terrain. The cuff uses a wrap design instead of a traditional tongue. And it comes in two versions: We tested the Forge GTX, which is made of nubuck (a buffed leather), but there’s also the Forge S GTX, made of synthetic leather that Tecnica says is more durable and costs $20 more. Both versions are built for rigorous overnight hikes on technical trail with moderate to heavy loads, and both offer an innovative approach to comfort: These boots can be heat-molded to your feet, which basically makes them custom-fit footwear.
The 30-minute process takes place at Tecnica retailers, who warm the boots in a mini-oven similar to those used by boot fitters who mold alpine ski boots. The heat softens the boots and lets them wrap around every bump, curve, and hollow of your feet; as they cool, the boots harden to maintain their new foot-hugging shape. The process simultaneously creates custom footbeds (eliminating the need to buy aftermarket insoles) and a custom upper. The Forge taught us that what we thought was a good fit in mass-produced shoes isn’t the best it can be. Custom molding closes the gap between good and great.
If you have weird feet, this boot is your holy grail. The heat-molding accommodates heel spurs, sixth toes, and differences between right and left kickers. But the big surprise was how much it impressed our “normal”-footed tester, who doesn’t have a history of fit problems. The heel slippage that he’d assumed was unavoidable? It disappeared. Pressure points on ankle bones or the outside of his toes? There were none. Hiking for ten straight hours with a 60-pound pack, one tester experienced no blisters, hot spots, or soreness. That was even true on sloping paths that put more pressure on one side of the ankle than the other. And that was true right from the start: “There’s absolutely no break-in period needed for this boot,” says our tester. “Instead of using your trail time to make the boot fit your foot, you do it before you go, in the shop.”
The Forge is also a solid, supportive boot. The rock plate stood up to hours of off-trail hiking while hunting in Colorado’s Park Range, and the fat lugs on the Vibram outsole provided good traction on slick roots and gravelly paths. The waterproof Gore-Tex membrane worked as advertised in wet and snowy conditions, though we wouldn’t recommend the Forge for people who hike mostly in hot, arid terrain, such as California’s Sierra or the desert Southwest—that Gore-Tex will give you clammy feet.
We tested the nubuck boot and noticed some scuffing on the toe after hard, off-trail hiking in the Rocky Mountains of northern Colorado. Hikers who use them for occasional backpacking trips, mostly on-trail, should be fine with the nubuck’s durability, but if you go backpacking for many weeks every year or log lots of off-trail miles, you should consider the synthetic leather option. And we think the Forge is worth its $250 price: You don’t run the risk of buying a boot that turns out to be uncomfortable. In that sense, the Forge offers a great insurance policy.
Best Hot-Weather Day-Hiking Shoe
Five Ten Access Knit ($130)
This low-cut hiker is made using a novel, one-piece knitted upper that’s extremely breathable and almost seam-free. It isn’t waterproof—in fact, the upper is quite porous—but it is light, at nine ounces, and features Five Ten’s famously sticky Stealth rubber outsole. It’s ideal for hot-weather day hikes in both wet and dry climates.
On hot hikes in Moab’s slickrock canyons and on several of Colorado’s talus-covered summits, the Access Knit’s extra-high tongue kept sand and debris from working its way into the shoe. And the super-sticky Stealth Phantom rubber outsole (a proprietary compound developed by Five Ten) grips like Velcro on rock—no surprise from a company known for its climbing shoes. The Access Knit’s airy upper kept my feet cooler and drier than anything else in our test. Even meshy hiking shoes like the Keen Targhee Vent felt like saunas compared to the Access Knit, and only sandal hybrids like the Chaco Outcross battled sweat as well. But neither of those offer the long-haul comfort or stability of the Five Ten. Another benefit of the breathable mesh: It dries superfast. The Access Knit was great in wet locations, too. I wore them while beachcombing on California’s Central Coast and for creek walks in the Colorado Rockies and liked how they drained water and dried overnight. Neither environment left even a scuff on the reinforced toe.
The Access Knit’s heel cup feels supportive—I carried 25-pound packs without noticing my foot slipping or sliding inside the shoe—and after six-hour hikes in California’s Santa Lucia Mountains, my feet still felt fresh. That said, it is best suited to light daypack adventures. If you’re carrying heavier loads (more than 30 pounds) on technical terrain, I recommend the ten-ounce Arc’Teryx Konseal FL ($165), a shoe that offers a smidge more stability for moderate loads (it has a TPU insert built into the midfoot). And our testing team found max support in the Salewa MTN Trainer ($199 for GTX, $169 for non-GTX), a low-cut model that actually performed better than many bigger, heavier boots in terms of stability and load support. Neither ventilates as well as the Five Ten, however.
Best Lightweight Boot
La Sportiva Stream ($199)
At just 14 ounces, the Stream is a mid-height, waterproof boot that probably belongs in the ultralight category. But it punches way above its weight class: A TPU insert protects against rocks, and its grippy Vibram outsole was great in rooty, rock-jumbled trails during testing in Colorado’s Zirkel Wilderness. We were especially impressed by how the Stream manages sweat. Most waterproof membranes feel hot and clammy—they keep water out but also trap a fair amount of sweat inside the boot. The Stream, however, uses a unique version of Gore-Tex’s Surround technology, which builds breathability into the sole of the boot. It’s waterproof and comfortable on warm, dry days, making it ideal for day hikers who want extra ankle support, as well as weekend backpackers and hikers who carry 35-to-55-pound packs.
The Stream isn’t the only boot to use a Gore-Tex membrane and Surround technology, but La Sportiva worked with Gore to develop an exclusive version of Surround that uses a perforated midsole. This boot actually feels cool and comfortable in dry conditions—almost as breathable as a nonwaterproof boot. In fact, one self-described GTX hater raved about it and made this his go-to footwear for both dry and wet conditions. To be clear, it doesn’t ventilate as well as the Access Knit, but it stood out among waterproof options and should keep your feet comfortable in a wide range of weather conditions.
I couldn’t believe how much traction and support the Stream offered, given its light weight. Most boots this light feel too soft and insubstantial, but when I loaded my pack with 50 pounds of gear for a family overnight, I enjoyed perfectly adequate support. It’s worth noting that the Stream was the Cinderella boot of the test: Everyone hoped it would fit, but its narrow, low-volume design didn’t work for all feet. Try them on before you buy.
One other lightweight, mid-height hiker challenged the Stream: the Under Armour Verge 2.0 Mid ($165). It’s lighter than the Stream by an ounce, and its Michelin Oc outsole bested the Stream in cold, icy conditions. The Verge also has an ESS rock plate built into the midsole that provides more protection against rough rocks and roots. If traction is a top priority or if you regularly hike in rugged terrain, the Verge might be a better option. (Like the Stream, it’s also narrow, especially through the toes.) But the Verge isn’t nearly as breathable as the Stream.
Best Boot for Heavy Loads
Scarpa Kailash Trek GTX ($235)
At 22 ounces, this mid-weight, waterproof boot is built for extended backpacking with heavy, 45-to-65-pound loads and uses a graduated midsole that’s stiffer in the heel and forefoot (for support) but more flexible toward the toes (to facilitate a natural stride).
Hikers who regularly carry heavy packs are accustomed to needing stiff, clunky boots—because soft, springy footwear tends to collapse under a big load. The redesigned Kailash Trek makes that compromise obsolete. Its graduated midsole delivers more cushion than most hard-duty boots, but the sturdy outsole, TPU-reinforced toe, and ankle-propping cuff support monster loads. One tester who loaded his pack with 55 pounds of trail-maintenance tools and trekked off-trail across tangled hillsides called it “a sneaker-like boot that hikes like a mountaineering model.”
The Kailash Trek has a Gore-Tex waterproof membrane, which felt clammy when hiking on rainless days in Vermont’s Green Mountains, typical of the waterproof/breathable boots we tested. Only the Stream offered appreciably better moisture management and doesn’t support heavy loads as ably as the Scarpa.
This boot’s narrow forefoot created a hot spot on the outside of one tester’s foot, the area many skiers refer to as the sixth toe. He also commented that the ankle flexion sometimes felt too soft. That easy flex, which felt great on smooth trails, was a liability with a heavy pack on technical terrain. That wasn’t a problem with packs weighing 50 pounds or less, but when he combined a heavy pack and technical footing, our tester wished for a stiffer cuff. The Aku Tengu Lite, below, provides more stability and support in those situations. Still, hikers who generally stick to established trails when they carry big loads should be happy with the Kailash Trek. And they’ll be thrilled that its support comes with sneaker-like comfort.
Best Boot for Off-Trail Hiking
Aku Tengu Lite ($280)
Stiff-soled and waterproof, this mid-height backpacking boot ventures into the mountaineering category. The midsole combines double-density EVA with a rigid nylon and EVA last designed to support weighty packs. But it has a lot to offer non-alpinist backpackers, too: At 18 ounces, it’s impressively light, and it features a nifty inner gaiter that keeps rocks, leaves, and twigs from working their way inside the boot. That makes the Tengu Lite ideal for hikers who routinely explore off-trail.
The built-in bootie is waterproof, soft, and stretchy, like lightweight neoprene, and hugs the ankle to keep water and debris from trickling inside. That flexibility and the Tengu Lite’s narrow, chafe-reducing heel pocket help it stay comfortable over hours of wear.
The Tengu Lite’s rigid midsole offers little in the way of cushioning but acts like armor on broken terrain. One tester especially appreciated that protection while hiking for seven hours over jagged rocks and nests of roots near Aspen’s Maroon Bells, where the boots' Vibram outsole provided reliable traction on wet and dry rocks. It provided a stiff platform that also felt solid and secure on uneven surfaces, like the microwave-sized talus on 10,774-foot Hahns Peak in northern Colorado. We recommend the Tengu Lite for anyone who needs to support heavy loads in lumpy, off-kilter terrain and wants to seal out sand, pebbles, snow, and other detritus when venturing through thick vegetation and onto debris-strewn mountainsides.