The choice of footwear when we go hiking should be made based on a number of factors. I will cover the various types, why you would choose them, their intended uses, and what types should be avoided and why.
What type of terrain are you going to be hiking?
Snow or ice
Flat or very steep
What season will you be hiking?
After you have considered what type of footwear you should review the options. Perhaps you will need more than one type of hiking footwear. There are also types that should be avoided. Some types may be prone to injury and should not be used under any circumstances.
Let’s review some of the more popular types and their intended purpose.
Medium weight general purpose hiking boot
These can be either all leather or a combination of leather and nylon. Typically have firm soles, with aggressive traction and grip. They are normally just above ankle height, provide adequate protection from rain, snow and mud. When treated they will keep your feet dry and comfortable. When traveling across rocks and uneven terrain they will provide the necessary support to protect your arches from undo strain keeping foot fatigue to a minimum. They can be used to kick steps in snow and ice gripers can be attached with added traction on steep snow slopes in fall and spring.
The Asolo on the left is the author's choice as it has goretex and protective welts for snowfields.
Lightweight hiking shoe
These are typically nylon construction, light weight, have flexible soles and aggressive traction and grip. They have limited ankle support; you cannot waterproof them. They are very useful when used on light and moderate hiking terrain without snow. They can be very good choice for summer trails that are well groomed and traveled.
Trail Running Shoe
These are specialized shoes designed for train running. They are very similar to a road running shoe with the exception that they have a more aggressive grip with improved traction. People who buy these shoes do so for the purpose of tail running.
Notice the aggressive grip on the bottom shoe to reduce slipping on trails.
These are very stiff, heavier, full ridged soles that are designed for mountaineering. They can withstand colder temperatures, have welts that allow mounting of full crampons for climbing ice and snow. They can be either classic full leather, combination of nylon and leather or full plastic similar to ski boots. They are not very comfortable hiking to a climb and due to their weight and full rigid sole. They are not useful as a general hiking boot.
-On left nylon composite boot fitted with crampons
-Boot on right classic all leather boot.
A lot of inexperienced and new hikers begin using street running shoes when they begin hiking. The main reason is they have a pair kicking around, they want to explore nature and have not thought much more about the terrain they may encounter. Their trusty running/court shoe should do just fine right? Well, lets take a closer look. Running shoes are designed for smooth surfaces and roadways not hiking trails. Although you may get by on a few hikes, your first muddy trail, snow field or talus crossing will make you realize that you need a sturdier pair of hiking boots.
Sandals and flip flops
Sandals and flip flops are designed for beaches, casual walks on the street or around town. They are not designed to be worn in the back country with exception to when you arrive at a campsite. There are a number of reason you should NEVER wear this type of footwear during a hike. I have seen people wear these on regular occasion especially in the summer and I am continually amazed. There are a lot of injuries from people who wear flip flops while hiking.
No foot protection – fully exposed toes and foot.
No sole support
No traction or grip
No protection from rain, mud or snow
No ability to keep feet warm
Clearly no foot protection
These 5 toe footwear are popular as the foot fits snugly into the shoe giving superior grip and tactile ability. They provide more protection than sandals and flip flops but have not arch or sole support therefore provide no protection from sharp rocks. They are also useless to kick step in snow. There use should be limited to groomed trails or around the campsite.
The type of footwear you choose for your typical hiking trails should be based on what has already been covered. If you change the type of terrain you hike then you should consider a change of footwear. Hiking is no different than any other activity, and you should prepare and be equipped accordingly. Do your research, ask fellow hikers what they choose adn why. Your decision should take in to account: Terrain, Weather expected, Season, Comfort, and Protection.