How to Choose Footwear for a Hiking or Backpacking Trip
Today’s backpackers have more footwear choices than ever before. Traditional leather hiking boots, lightweight trekking shoes, and in-between fabric-leather hybrid boots each offer advantages and disadvantages.
Pros and Cons of Traditional Leather Hiking Boots
Traditional leather hiking boots have been around for years. Some hikers swear by them; others swear at them.
- Pro: Traditional backpacking boots offer ankle support for rugged conditions, especially for hikers with weak ankles or poor balance.
- Pro: Leather boots are a good choice for hikers with heavy packs.
- Pro: Leather boots are durable and can be resoled and repaired so they last for years.
- Pro: Leather boots are waterproof, and come up high enough above the ankle to keep sand and mud out of the boot.
- Con: Traditional boots are heavy – up to four pounds per pair – making hiking more tiring.
- Con: Leather boots are more expensive than the alternatives.
- Con: Stiff heavyweight boots are more likely to cause blisters; they need to be broken in.
- Con: Leather boots are bulky to pack in luggage.
- Verdict: Not usually necessary, but a good choice for hikers with weak ankles, heavy loads, or those going into rough conditions where durability and support are important.
Pros and Cons of Lightweight Trekking Shoes
Lightweight trekking shoes look and feel a lot like running shoes, but they are usually a better choice because they have stiffer soles with better traction for slippery trails.
- Pro: Trekking shoes are lightweight, which means the hiker exerts less effort to lift them.
- Pro: Trekking shoes pack more easily into luggage.
- Pro: Trekking shoes are less expensive.
- Pro: Trekking shoes are a good choice for hot weather and deserts.
- Con: Because trekking shoes don’t cover the ankle, blister-causing dirt and sand can creep in.
- Con: Trekking shoes don’t offer as much support, making them a poor choice for hikers with heavy packs.
- Con: Hikers with balance issues or weak ankles might need the support of an above-the-ankle boot..
- Con: Trekking shoes aren’t waterproof, making them poor choices for wet or snowy conditions, especially if kicking steps into snow banks is necessary.
- Con: Trekking shoes are the least durable.
- Verdict: Good choice for day hikers and long-distance backpackers with strong ankles who have managed to minimize the weight of their packs.
Pros and Cons of Leather-Fabric Hybrid Hiking Boots
Leather-fabric boots combine the best of both worlds.They are the best choice for hikers who trek in a variety of conditions. Leather-fabric hybrids have leather for support and fabric (usually Cordura) for flexibility and breathability.
- Pros: Hybrid outdoor boots need less breaking in than leather boots. (Note: they can cause blisters if not broken in at least a little).
- Pro: Hybrid hiking boots come up over the ankle, keeping dirt out and offering ankle support sufficient for most hiking conditions.
- Pros: Hybrids are rugged enough to handle uneven terrain, scree, and even kicking steps into snow.
- Pros: Hybrids offer ankle support, those not as much as leather boots.
- Cons: Hybrids are not waterproof, and in wet conditions can become heavy.
- Cons: Hybrids are heavier than trekking shoes, and are not be necessary for day hikers on easy terrain.
- Verdict: Good choice for most backpackers hiking in a variety of conditions.
These three categories of hiking boots give today’s backpackers a choice of footwear for any conditions (although specialty boots are also available for mountaineering and extreme cold). As a rule, most backpackers today choose leather-fabric hybrid boots. Day-hikers lean to trekking shoes, as do ultralight backpackers who prioritize light weight over support or durability. And a few traditionalists stick to leather boots, valuing their stability and ruggedness.