How to Pick Hiking Shoes
After researching dozens of hiking shoes, we tested the ten best hiking shoes for every situation. Our favorite pick at any price, the durable La Sportiva Genesis offered the best stability, traction, and comfort of any of the hiking shoes we tested. It's slightly less durable, but the Best Hiking Shoe for Most People is the Salomon X Ultra 2 GTX because it has the best mix of features for most types of use. If you're on a budget, the Merrell Moab 2 can often be found on sale has been trail-tested as a can't-go-wrong choice.
How we identified the best hiking shoes
In preparing for this review, I went into multiple outdoor outfitting shops and spoke with staff to get advice on how to choose the right footwear. I also spoke with certified hiking guide Colin Garritty. As a member of the ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides), Garritty has been taking people out on single and multi-day hikes for the past 5 years. He also belongs to the Canadian Ski Guide Association and is a professional member of the Canadian Avalanche Association.
I have also previously reviewed hiking boots for the product review site Wirecutter. What I learned there is that many of the same must-have features that apply to hiking boots also apply to hiking shoes.
In researching the best hiking shoes, we read reviews from Switchback Travel, Outdoor Gear Lab, Outside Online, Clever Hiker, GearWeAre, Adventure Junkies, Gear Institute, Section Hiker and Backpacker. We also scoured Amazon, REI and Backcountry to see what consumers had to say. (It’s worth noting that on three occasions the Amazon listing for a particular shoe did not have the correct model information in the description).
We found that many of the same models kept popping up in gear reviews. We also found that there were some gaps in these lists. We think this is because 1) models that consumers loved that weren’t widely reviewed by major media sites and 2) some of the new 2018 models haven’t been widely tested by other gear review sites yet.
Taking all factors into account, we compiled the most worthy competitors into our own best-of list and hit the trail. We tested every men’s and women’s model around Squamish BC, which took us up mountains, through the woods and over some creek crossings. All in all, we put on around 100 miles wearing all the hiking shoes on our list.
First things first: there is no “best choice for everybody” when it comes to footwear.
Given the variety of foot shapes, personal preferences, climates and end-uses, there isn’t one pair of hiking shoes that will work for all people (although there are a couple of pairs that come close). When you’re choosing the best footwear for your feet, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
Fit is the most important factor in selecting the right footwear.
Choose footwear that matches with your particular foot shape. Do you have wide feet? A high instep? Low volume feet? A lot of shoe stores will measure your feet and let you know the type you’ve got.
Once you’ve found a style that complements your foot shape, sizing is just as key. The salespeople I spoke with offered me a few pointers on fit. Find the pair that offers your toes about a half-inch of wiggle room. It helps to take the insole out of the shoe and stand on it. Heels should be snug to the back of the shoe wall, with just a little room for up-and-down movement. Walk around before hitting the trail and make sure your toes aren’t hitting the end on a downslope and that there aren’t any pressure points that will outlast a bit of break-in time. REI has some more tips to help you get the best hiking shoe fit.
For day hiking and light backpacking, hiking shoes can be just as sturdy as boots, yet allow for more controlled movement on the trail.
"Match your footwear to the activity you’re doing."
This is the advice that Garritty had for us. Choose shoes that are designed for the thing you plan to use them for, whether that’s hiking, running or climbing.
There’s been a recent shift to make hiking footwear lighter, more nimble and closer to street shoes. Everyone seems to be in trail runners these days.
But, there are a lot of cases where a hiking shoe is the better option. From what Garritty told me, most people will benefit from the added sturdiness, stability and protection that is present in a pair of hiking shoes. And, if you’ve got few pounds on your back, you’re going to find your body doing less work in a pair of hiking shoes than it would were you wearing trail runners.
The shoes on our list are good for day hikes, groomed trails, and light backpack weight. For backcountry hiking or backpacking, in most cases, it’s better to go with the added protection of a boot. Travelers will find some good options here too, with hiking shoes being more versatile and easier to pack than boots. And, for long days spent walking on city streets, lightweight hiking shoes offer more support and cushioning on hard concrete than many sneakers do.
What you should look for in a hiking shoe
Why do you need a special shoe just for hiking?
Won’t any old shoe do? Garritty told me that a good shoe is going to lessen the burden on your body. Whether it’s your pack weight or loose rock, a good shoe will help you better navigate the terrain and make your body work less hard. They’re also going to reduce risk of injury by providing stability and support.
What’s a good price to pay for hiking shoes?
All the shoes on our list range from $100 to $200. In this price range, you can get a sturdy, dependable pair of shoes that should last you a handful of years (depending on how much they’re worn). An all-leather shoe is typically going to outlast a leather-synthetic hybrid, but it’ll cost a little more too. If you’re planning on hiking only a few times a season, $100-ish will do it for a good pair, especially if you find the best prices on models (like listed in our guide). If you’re really going to be putting in the miles year after year, it’s worth spending the extra money for a pair on the more durable end of the spectrum to ensure your shoes won’t need replacing after a season.
Here’s the criteria that every good pair of hiking shoes must have (aside from price):
Without comfortable shoes, the other features won’t matter. A little break-in time is usually needed (especially with the stiffer, leather models) but after a few miles, hiking shoes should be forming to your feet well and not causing any issues. We made sure to include models that were praised for their cushioning and fit. We also narrowed the scope to lightweight hikers. Inversely, we stayed on the lookout for any complaints that noted heel rubbing, blisters, hot spots or pressure points.
When a good pair of hiking shoes is going to cost, at minimum $100, quality matters. As Garritty put it, “It’s a good feeling to have something on your feet that will last.” We thoroughly searched reviews looking for signs of poor construction. If plenty of reviewers experienced broken gromets, torn laces, sole separation or anything else that pointed to poor quality, that model was eliminated from the list.
It’s a common misconception that a hiking shoe doesn’t provide the same kind of support a hiking boot does. Support comes from the mid-sole (the layer sandwiched between the outer sole and the upper) and any good hiking shoe will have the right balance of cushioning, support and stability.
There are a lot of obstacles on the trail that can be painful when bumped up against, like tree roots and sharp rocks. Toe protection is a must on a good pair of hikers. Side, ankle and underfoot protection is a big bonus too if you’re hiking on anything other than a groomed trail.
No one wants hot feet on the trail, and a good shoe will have some type of breathable technology working to keep feet cool. Breathability and waterproofness are often at odds with each other, with the most breathable shoes not being waterproof and vice versa.
But, if a pair of shoes doesn’t breathe (no matter how waterproof they are), they aren’t going to be suitable for hiking in the summer months, and that just won’t cut it.
Whether you need waterproof shoes depends on the climate that you’ll be hiking in. If you’ll be sticking to warm, dry climates, a GORE-TEX shoe is overkill and likely will overheat your feet. But, if you’re in a damp climate or going to be crossing creeks, waterproofing your feet is smart so you won’t slog away in wet-socked feet. In almost all cases, some level of waterproofness is needed and it allows you to wear your shoes almost year-round. We made sure not to include models where the waterproof system didn’t pass a real world test.
At some point on the trail it’s likely that you’ll come across loose or wet rock and you’ll want a shoe that’s going to keep you upright. Garritty cautioned against expecting the shoe to do all the grip-work though, saying, “You shouldn’t be taking steps expecting a shoe to do anything for you. Proper foot position will get you the traction you need.” That said, we kept an eye out for shoes that were lauded for their stick-to-the-trail ability, and ones that were consistently criticised for poor traction.
Other tips and footwear tricks
Break in your new shoes
As Garritty put it, “If you don’t break in certain shoes, they’ll break you in.” It’s a good idea to put a few miles on your shoes before hiking to prevent blisters and rub spots. Running errands, walking the dog or just wearing them around the house should be enough to prevent a painful mistake. Make sure your shoes fit first, though. We’ve found that with the exception of places like REI and Zappos, many retailers have difficult or no return policy for lightly worn shoes.
Lace your hiking shoes properly
Poorly laced shoes can be downright dangerous. Rolling an ankle, for instance, is completely preventable with snug, tightly tied laces. If there are any pressure points on the top of your foot, skip a set of eyelets to offer some relief. If a set of laces won’t stay tied no matter how tight you tie them, or you’re having fit issues with your shoes, REI has a video tutorial that offers some helpful tips.
Wear hiking socks
The socks you wear make a big difference. Wear the wrong socks and you’ll regret it. Wear the right ones, and your feet will remain dry and comfortable all day. Merino wool or synthetic blends designed specifically for hiking are most recommended. Wearing a regular gym sock might work, but we’ve heard so many stories of blistered heels, hot spots and sweaty feet that we think it’s worth investing the $20 for a pair that should last for years. Some brands have exceptional guarantees (Darn Tough and Icebreaker guarantee their socks for life) while others have a decent enough warranty that you’ll be happy buying one pair every few years.
Take care of your hiking shoes
If you want your shoes to last, you need to look after them. Wearing them through muck, water and dirt and then throwing them in a closet until the next time you head out is going to destroy them. Outside Online has some great advice for extending the life of your hiking shoes.
Colin, Garritty, ACMG hiking guide, in-person interview, May 22, 2018.
Curious about what shoes made our Top Ten?
Read Treeline Review's Best Hiking Shoes of 2018 full comparative review here.