Hiking boots or shoes: the great debate

The great hiking boots or shoes debate has been raging for years. On one side, the seasoned veterans who were born wearing boots and, just like a wild west gunslinger, plan to go out with their boots on. In the far corner, are the fans of slipper-like hiking shoes that gently cradle their feet like a newborn mother holding her child, keeping it safe from all danger.

But who is right?

Well, both camps.

Let’s burrow down deep into the reasons why you might choose boots over shoes, or vice versa. Think of i as a grand voyage of the innards of your hiking footwear, but without the sweat and foul odours that come after long days on the trails and hillls.

First question:

What is the difference between a hiking boot and a hiking shoe?

Right now, it would be easy to reply with an unhelpful, flippant comment that would have you clicking the back button faster than a dog with a very large bone.

In general, and apart from the low cut upper, hiking shoes tend to be softer and more flexible than hiking boots. Now, this isn’t always the case – take my Merrell Moab 2 boots as a fine example of boots that have plenty of flex and protection to boot. I’m sorry, bad joke.

merrell moab 2 hiking boots
My Moab 2 boots. They’ve taken a good beating over the years.

They’re also designed with less challenging terrain in mind. This is one apsect I won’t budge on. Over the ast few years Jake and I have trialled many forms of footwear designed for rugged terrain. In fact, years ago I wore a pair of flip flops up a mountain. An actual mountain. That didn’t end well.

Another key difference is the protection afforded by each.

Shoes have lower uppers which equals less ankle support. When travelling over uneven ground your ankle joints are placed under a huge amount of pressure as they compensate every time you slip, or your foot is jarred in all directions by a loose or undulating surface.

Whilst shoes do provide far more ankle support than trainers (runnning shoes, or sneakers, for our American friends), they are rarely as joint friendly as boots.

Beofre we move on it’s important to say some running shoes can be repurposed for hikes, after their running days are well behind them. But only if they have the enough traction left in the soles and you’re not going to be hiking hard, uneven routes. Sometime back I tested my Lone Peak Altra shoes as an alternative to boots. The post is well worth a read if you have a pair of these trainers lying around.

My Altra Lone Peak running shoes. Now long gone, but not forgotten.

That’s the basics.

Ah, not quite. In the main, hiking shoes tend to be less expensive than thier big boot cousins. Many outdoor gear manufacturers produce models that cover the full footwear spectrum, with the shoes being cheaper than boots. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, shoes are just boots with the ankle support chopped off! Less material, less money.

There are many more differences, which we will cover off in the next sections.

TL/DR

A quick summary of this first section:

  • Hiking shoes tend to have softer soles
  • They also have less ankle support than boots
  • Shoes are better than trainers, or sneakers, although some exceptions exist
  • Hiking and walking on less rugged, even terrain probably don’t need boots
  • Boots tend to be more expensive than shoes (I know that’s not always the case and there’s an explanation in the final paragraph of the last section)

Weight

Another key difference between the two options is how much they weigh. On average, boots tend to be heavier unless you’re looking for ultralight hiking gear in which case you’ll find some incredibly light boots available to buy.

The heaviest hiking boots are made of leather and are designed for seriously hard terrain. Breaking them in takes time, but they give far more protection and cushioning to your feet when on long treks such as thru-hikes. But weighty footwear doesn’t necesarily equl durability.

Modern synthetic materials can be ‘nearly’ as tough as leather.

On the whole, shoes are lighter and I can’t guide you on this point. The terrain you’re crossing combined with the load you’ll carry in your backpack will determine your choice and the weight.

TL/DR

  • Hiking shoes tend to be lighter than boots
  • Ultra light hiking boots are far lighter than most shoes
  • Manmade materials are lighter than leather

Leather vs synthetic materials

That last paragraph bring us nicely on to the choice of materials. Boots and shoes can be manufactured from either leather or synthetic materials. To be honest, I haven’t seen many manufacturers offering leather hiking shoes and I can only assume this is due to lack of demand.

Take a look in any outdoor gear store and you’ll have a hard time finding leather shoes. Sure, there are a few brands but they ain’t pretty!

The most obvious questions are: do you want a pair of synthetic shoes that are easy to clean, have a long life and lower cost than boots? Or do you want leather footwear which, when cared for, may well last you many years?

My personal choice is heavy, leather boots for long hikes when I carry heavy weight on my back and a pair of shoes for those shorter, less intensive walks.

TL/DR

  • Not many manfacturers make leather shoes
  • They tend to be ugly (there, I said what was in the back of your mind)
  • Synthetic (man made) shoes are easier to care for. Period washing off of cow dung and mud is all you really need to do to maintain them
  • Price. Shoes tend to be less expensive

Ankle support

And so we come to one of the most debated features that differentiate boots from shoes: the ankle cuff. Helen of Troy’s face launched a 1,000 ships; arguments over ankle cuffs have launched millions of heated conversations over which is best. Sorrry Helen, but old boots really are more interesting than your face.

Before we dive in, it must be noted that shoes do give a degree of support to those tired and twisted talus (it’s Latin, I was getting bored of seeing the word ankle on the screen). But it’s probably not enough if you’re a long distance hiker or, as mentioned earlier, carrying a large, heavy ruck (we’ve got a training guide for that…)

As a general rule of thumb, shoes are a better option if you’re moving over even, or slightly rugged, terrain. If you’re going to hiking anywhere else, especially up large hillls or even mountains, then opt for a pair of boots.

Walking shoes will be just fine for scrambling alone cobbled paths.

Trust me on this – your ankles will thank you later in life.

One other thought: I’ve used boots for hiking in many countries and environemnts and, to be honest, they feel cumbersome when moving over well trodden trails. Now, I tend to wear a lighter, more flexible shoe for walking trails.

Any additional advantage of a high cuff comes when you hike in the rain. Water is more likely to make its way into your low profile shoes, which is something to bear in mind. But there’s nothing stop you from wearing a pair of gaiters to keep your feet dry.

TL/DR

  • High ankle cuffs found on boots give more of the vital support you need when you’ve got a heavy pack on your back
  • Shoes are a better option for trails and beaten routes
  • Lower chance of water ingress into boots when walking through pools of water and deep puddles
  • Boots are best suited to broken, uneven terrain

Wrapping it all up

I can’t tell which is the best option: hiking boots or shoes! Even if you only skimmed the TL/DR read sections you’ll find plenty of information to help you make an informed decision when choosing footwear for your hikes. So what are you waiting for? Go get your shoes, or boots, and hit the trails.

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