Trying to determine whether hiking shoes or hiking boots are best for your outdoor adventures isn’t easy.
Although hiking boots and shoes seem very similar, they each have their own unique advantages and disadvantages. In this article, we’ll put hiking shoes and hiking boots in a head-to-head match-up so you can figure out which option is right for you.
Hiking boots are your go-to option when durability, waterproofing, and ankle support are your top priorities.
However, if weight savings, breathability, comfort, or cost are a concern, hiking shoes are likely the better choice.
What is a hiking shoe?
Designed to look and feel a lot like your standard tennis shoes, hiking shoes are a lightweight, comfort-focused option for outdoor adventure. They tend to have more rugged outsoles than what you’d find on a tennis shoe, but they’re just as nimble underfoot.
When compared to their high-top cousins, hiking shoes are relatively new on the scene. They first hit the market a few decades ago and they have since become a popular choice among day hikers and lightweight backpackers in places like Acadia National Park.
In reality, there’s no ideal use for hiking boots as some models are versatile enough for a variety of situations. However, most folks find that they’re more suitable for shorter adventures or situations where you’re not carrying a lot of weight on your back. That’s because they don’t offer much by the way of ankle support or durability.
What is a hiking boot?
The traditional footwear choice for outdoor adventure, hiking boots are high-top shoes with thick outsoles that are crafted specifically for use in rugged terrain.
Hiking boots have been around for hundreds of years. But, the high-top leather hiking boot style really took shape in the years after World War I. During this time, cobblers, such as Vitale Bramani of Vibram fame, began making the rubber lug sole boots that we know and love today.
That being said, hiking boot design and style have changed quite a bit over the years. While the classic boot was a high-top full-leather shoe with a thick outsole, modern designs can be relatively lightweight and pliable.
As with hiking shoes, there’s no one context where hiking boots excel. Nevertheless, some people prefer to use them on longer adventures or in situations where you’ll need to carry a heavy pack, such as on a Yosemite National Park backpacking trip.
Fit & comfort
When it comes to fit and comfort, everybody is different. However, as a general rule, most folks will find that hiking shoes allow for a much more comfortable trekking experience.
Much of this added comfort comes from the fact that hiking shoes are quite similar to the shoes that many of us wear every day. While most people don’t spend their days walking around in heavy leather boots, many people are accustomed to wearing sneakers and other footwear that’s similar in shape and size to hiking shoes.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and you will certainly find some super comfortable hiking boots out there. But, hiking shoes are usually the more popular option when it comes to comfort on the trail.
Winner : Hiking shoes because they are similar in construction and build to the shoes many of us wear every day.
If you’re worried about injuries on the trail, footwear with plenty of ankle support, in addition to your trusty hiking poles, is a must.
Due to their high-top construction, hiking boots tend to provide more ankle support than your standard pair of hiking shoes. Since hiking boots can wrap completely around your ankle, they act as a natural brace to stabilize your lower body as you walk.
That being said, ankle support isn’t determined solely by the height of your boots. In fact, boots with stiff soles provide more support for your ankles when carrying a heavy hiking backpack.
When it comes to stiff outsoles, hiking boots tend to blow hiking shoes out of the water. Indeed, the majority of hiking boots come with fairly stiff outsoles, which go a long way toward stabilizing your ankles on tricky terrain.
Winner : Hiking boots because they have high tops and stiff outsoles which provide plenty of support for your ankles as you walk.
No one likes to invest their hard-earned money into a piece of gear only to have it fall apart after a few trips. So, getting shoes that are durable enough to withstand the rough-and-tumble nature of the backcountry is essential.
In footwear, durability is directly linked to the materials used to create the shoe itself. For example, boots and shoes made with leather or synthetic leather materials tend to be more durable than those made with textiles or mesh.
As a result, hiking boots, which tend to be made from leather and synthetic leather, are usually the more durable option. On the flip side, hiking shoes are often made from mesh and textiles in order to cut weight and promote breathability. Unfortunately, shoes made from mesh and textiles are usually more likely to rip and tear with frequent use.
Furthermore, hiking boots made from leather and synthetic leather tend to provide more protection for your feet and ankles. That’s because they are better able to shield you from sticks, rocks, and other debris on the trail than the textiles found on hiking shoes.
Winner : Hiking boots because they are usually made from more durable materials that provide enhanced protection for your feet and ankles.
If there’s one thing that’s sure to make you uncomfortable on the trail, it’s wet boots and hiking socks. Therefore, having a set of shoes or boots that’s waterproof can have a major positive impact on your hiking experience.
Simply put, low-top hiking shoes are more likely to fill up with water if you step into a puddle or stream. That’s because their shorter height makes it easier for water to simply fill in over the top of the shoe.
As a result, hiking boots, which tend to be taller, are better when it comes to keeping your feet dry during river crossings. While there are exceptions to every rule, high-top boots are the clear winner when it comes to waterproofing.
Winner : Hiking boots because they are more likely to have higher tops that can keep your feet dry on the trail.
Breathability & ventilation
Sweaty feet are no fun, so having breathable shoes is imperative when hiking in hot weather.
Breathability in footwear generally depends on the materials used to make the shoe itself. Footwear that’s made from thin, highly porous materials, like textiles and mesh, tends to be more breathable than footwear made from thick leather.
Thus, mesh and textile hiking shoes tend to perform much better than their full-leather boot counterparts.
Additionally, the fact that most hiking boots have fairly high tops doesn’t do much to help with breathability. Since most hiking shoes have a low-cut structure below your ankle, you can expect enhanced breathability from them when trekking in muggy conditions.
Winner : Hiking shoes because they are made from lightweight, highly breathable materials like textiles and mesh.
There’s an old adage in the outdoor industry that says that 1 pound of weight on your feet is equal to 5 pounds of weight on your back. While this might sound a bit like an exaggeration, this saying is based on real research conducted by the US Army back in 1984.
While the research is a bit old at this point, its message still holds true today. Simply put, extra weight on your feet puts more pressure on your body and causes you to expend more energy. So, reducing the amount of weight on your feet is important if you plan on doing a lot of hiking.
What does this all have to do with hiking boots and shoes?
Well, hiking boots, on average, tend to weigh a whole lot more than hiking shoes. This extra weight is a result of the bulky outsoles and thick materials used to create hiking boots in the first place. On the flip side, hiking shoes are generally much more nimble and lightweight.
So, there’s a clear difference in terms of weight savings between hiking boots and hiking shoes. If you’re a keen lightweight hiker, this extra weight could make a difference.
Winner : Hiking shoes because they are made with lighter materials that lead to superb weight savings on the trail.
Last but not least, the cost is always a concern when shopping for gear. Of course, with hundreds of different hiking shoes and boots on the market, it’s impossible to say that every single hiking boot is more expensive than every single hiking shoe.
However, you’ll generally find that hiking shoes tend to be much more affordable than their boot-style counterpart. These cost savings mostly come from the fact that the textiles and mesh fabrics used to make hiking boots are much more affordable than the leather in hiking boots.
So, in general, you can expect to pay about $80 to $150 for a pair of hiking shoes, yet $125 to $350 for a pair of hiking boots.
Winner : Hiking shoes because they are often half the price of comparable hiking boots.
Gaby is a professional mountain guide with a master’s degree in outdoor education. She works primarily in the polar regions as an expedition guide, though she can be found hiking, climbing, skiing, sailing, or paddling in some of the world’s most amazing places when not at work.