Hiking Shoes Vs. Hiking Boots: Which Is Right For You?

Two person walking on pathway between plants

If you consider yourself to be a true-blue hiker, you’ll know that there are a couple of gear that you can’t live without. One of the most important pieces of gear that a hiker should pay attention to is a pair of hiking footwear. Many people thought that they could brave the great outdoors with just a regular pair of sneakers, but they sooner learn the hard way.

For hiking on any outdoor terrain, whether it’s groomed or manicured, you need the proper outdoor footwear.

When it comes to outdoor footwear, there’s a great debate between hiking shoes vs. hiking boots. If you have been wondering about the differences between the two, then you’re not alone. For this post, we’ll discuss the differences between hiking boots and shoes.

By the end of the article, hopefully, you’ll figure out which type of footwear will work best for you.

Hiking Shoes Vs. Hiking Boots

What’s the difference between these two types of outdoor footwear? Here are some key features that you should look at.

The Upper Construction

A pair of hiking boots does a great job of keeping your feet dry and warm while you’re outdoors. Thanks to the outer leather material that extends well above the ankles, effectively sealing your feet against the outdoor elements.

Merrell hiking shoes

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High-quality hiking boots are generally constructed with a one-piece leather which minimizes the chance of leaks through the seams or stitching. The best pairs are usually made from high-grade, thick leather. Boots also feature a thick top collar and a widened tongue area to prevent pebbles and debris from going inside the boot. Most hiking boots also come with a specialized lacing system that allows quick and tight lacing.

In comparison, hiking or trail shoes are generally equipped with waterproof features. Perhaps the most common way to improve a pair’s waterproofing capability is to use water-resistant materials such as Gore-Tex. Unlike hiking boots, trail shoes utilize more synthetic material in addition to some leather. The leather used in trail shoes are usually of lower quality and thinner when compared to boots.

Outdoor shoes also feature modified tongues and padded collars to prevent debris from coming inside the footwear. However, since most outdoor shoes feature a low-cut design, they provide lesser protection and make you feel more vulnerable to soaking when compared to high-cut boots.

However, many trail shoe advocates argue that low-cut shoes feature better ventilation compared to boots. Because of this, both the feet and shoe will dry more quickly.

The Outsole

Boots have a thicker outsole that is usually constructed from a carbon-rubber compound. This gives the boot an edge against sneakers and trail shoes when it comes to firmness. Additionally, the outsole of the boots generally have lugs that have a thickness of about 6-8mm.

Hiking boots

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The lugs are arranged in a specific pattern in order to enhance the boot’s contact area to the ground. In fact, combining a specific tread pattern with the right type of rubber requires a very specialized process. In result, many footwear companies source their outsoles from specialty companies.

Makers of hike shoes, on the flip side, are integrating different types of rubber with the harder, sturdier carbon rubber when designing outsoles. This is to give the outsoles a “stickier” property that allows the shoes to have an enhanced grip. However, the grip on trail shoes is more geared towards on-the-fly traction. It doesn’t offer the same level of traction at a slower hiking pace.

Although the outsoles of a hiking shoe are designed for uneven trail conditions, the outsole that’s found on boots is more likely to be more durable and longer-lasting.

The Midsole

The top portion of the outsole in a hiking or backpacking boot contains a thick midsole that is usually made from durable polyurethane. The midsole adds height to a shoe or boot and most importantly, it provides the much-needed shock absorption.

In most cases, the midsole that’s found on a hiking boot will be much thicker when compared to a backpacking shoe.

Man standing near cliff edge

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A hiking shoe will likely feature a less durable synthetic material for the midsole. The most commonly used material for midsole is the EVA (ethyl vinyl acetate). This is a very good material especially for outdoor conditions – thanks to its excellent tensile strength & shock cushioning with high toughness.

For an outdoor boot, it may rely more on a sturdy outsole for better cushioning, shape, and toughness. On the other hand, the design of a hiking shoe will have more emphasis to the midsole which tends to be thicker than the outsole.

In some hiking or backpacking boots, they will have a design feature called “shank.” This is basically a stiff material that’s either made from plastic, metal or carbon fiber. Some hiking shoes will have a shank in the midsole as well but to a lesser extent. The shank is designed to add stiffness to a boot or shoe. This is especially beneficial for trail shoes since it adds overall stiffness since the outsole is not that thick or stiff. However, this also means that a pair of trail shoes will weigh less than half of some hiking boots.

Ankle Support

One of the more apparent differences between shoes and boots is that the latter extends up to or even over the ankle joint. This distinctive design of the high-top boot provides solid ankle support and essential to preventing ankle sprains.

However, based on many studies, there exist no significant differences between high-top and low-top footwear when it comes to ankle support. Researchers also pointed out that those who have previous sprains are more vulnerable to sprains, regardless whether he’s wearing a boot or shoe.

For preventing sprains, you will need an actual ankle brace. As far as we know, a boot along will not be enough to resist the force of a twisting ankle. If you actually want to prevent ankle injuries, you should focus on strengthening your ankles.

Heavyweight Vs. Lightweight

The most obvious advantage of hiking shoes versus a hiking boot is the lighter weight.

The more weight you carry, the more energy you expend while carrying it. We all know that. However, the weight that we carry on our feet is much more significant.

According to The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher, “Weight is even more important on the feet than on the back.” The weight on your feet will expend about 4-6 times more energy than the weight on your back. So you can save yourself a lot of energy just by swapping a 3-lbs pair of boots for a pound of backpacking shoes.

On a short day hike, the difference in weight might not be a big deal, but if you’re going for a long-distance trek, your feet and calf will likely respond to the extra weight.

The Comfort Issue

Boots have rigid and hard soles that are designed for stability. The closed design also provides superior water resistance and protection from debris. However, boots are not the most comfortable, especially in relation to ventilation.

Person sitting on rock near mountain

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With the closed design, you are sacrificing breathability which can be rather uncomfortable if you are hiking under a hot sun. Plus, it makes your feet more vulnerable to blisters. I don’t know about you, but blisters are the worst. Most boots also require a break in period which means the first few hikes can be rough.

On the other hand, many trail shoe manufacturers have always made comfort a priority. The lightweight nature plus the superior ventilation all adds up to a more comfortable outdoor footwear.

Which Footwear Is Best For You?

There are literally hundreds of hiking shoes and hiking boots to choose from.

If you want a light, comfortable, and breathable footwear that will help you feel the trail more acutely, a good pair of backpacking shoes would be a good option. On the other hand, if you want better stability, durability, and overall protection, it’s hard to go wrong with a good pair of outdoor boots.

Of course, there’s also the option of getting both. This allows you to interchange hiking boots and shoes depending on factors like hike duration and terrain.

Hiking shoes vs. hiking boots, which one do you prefer? We’d love to have a discussion going so feel free to sound off in the comments.

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