Hiking boots are critical to your comfort and performance on the trail, but this no longer means a stiff and burly model that will weigh you down. The trend is toward lighter materials that still offer decent support, and waterproof boots are the most popular by far (many are offered in a non-waterproof version for hiking in hot or dry climates). Our picks for the best hiking boots of 2017 below are broken down into three categories: lightweight boots for day hiking and fastpacking, midweight options that work well for most backpacking trips, and heavyweights for rough terrain or hauling a large load. For more information on choosing the right boot, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks. It you prefer to go even lighter and faster, see our articles on the best lightweight hiking shoes.
Weight: 2 lbs. 13 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (Gore-Tex)
What we like: Tough and supportive but decently light; great lacing system.
What we don’t: Possible foot fatigue if you’re carrying a heavier pack.
Women’s: Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX
In terms of all-around performance for serious day hiking and backpacking, the Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX is our favorite boot on the market. It’s well built, not too heavy, not too light, and very comfortable. Yes, you can find burlier models for the alpine or minimalist boots that mimic trail runners, but the 4D 2 GTX has very few weaknesses and should make most hikers happy. The original Quest 4D was a favorite of ours for years, and the “2” doesn’t deviate much from the winning recipe.
Drawing heavily from their trail running base of knowledge, Salomon has made this midweight boot feel light on your feet (even lighter than the listed 2-pound 13-ounce weight). A nimble midsole and footbed, along with a supportive fit that’s aided by an excellent lacing system, are big helpers. Heavy hauling backpackers may want to look elsewhere, however, as the relatively thin underfoot protection can lead to some foot soreness when carrying big loads. It’s also important to note that the Quest’s fit a little more snug than a boot like the Lowa Renegade below, so it might not work for those with wide feet. But if the Quest’s fit, we don’t think there’s a better option out there... Read in-depth review
See the Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX
Weight: 2 lbs. 7 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (Gore-Tex)
What we like: Light and comfortable; enough support for most backpackers.
What we don’t: Not the toughest construction.
Women’s: Lowa Renegade GTX Mid
The Lowa Renegade has the look and feel of a traditional hiking boot at an impressively low weight. Unlike the nimble and more modern Quest above, the leather Renegade offers better isolation from the ground and feels more planted and sturdy. It does give up a little of the fun factor and performance fit of the Quest, but the trade-off is worth it for those carrying a heavy pack or wanting more underfoot protection from rocky trails.
Lowa kept the weight down in part by moving some of the stabilizing duties to a very effective external polyurethane frame. This makes the Renegade perform like a true backpacking boot while weighing less than 2.5 pounds. More, its leather upper is relatively thin, which saves ounces and reduces break-in time. The sacrifice of all this lightening is a lack of long-term durability—high-mileage users have reported needing a new pair nearly every year. But they keep coming back for the comfortable feel and the right balance of weight and support. And it’s easy to find a good fit as the Renegade is made in narrow, regular, and wide widths.
See the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid
Weight: 1 lb. 15 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (M-Select Dry)
What we like: Comfy and lightweight.
What we don’t: Lacking in durability and support for long backpacking trips.
Women’s: Merrell Moab Mid WP
For day hikers that stick mostly to maintained trails, our top budget pick is the Merrell Moab Waterproof. What makes this boot so popular is its comfortable, lightweight feel and reasonable price. For $130, you get a waterproof membrane (an upgraded Gore-Tex model is available for $150), good cushioning underfoot, and trusty Vibram outsoles. The boot doesn’t offer as much support as we prefer for carrying a heavy load or use on rocky or rough trails, but its mid-height construction is great for most day hiking and casual exploring.
If you have don’t need the waterproof membrane, the Moab also is offered in a non-waterproof, highly breathable option: the Merrell Moab Mid Ventilators. What both models lack is top-level durability: the exposed mesh isn't as tough and the outsoles seem to break down a little faster than a more expensive boot. But the Moab is only about half the price of the options above and we think offers the right mix of performance and comfort for most weekend adventurers.
See the Merrell Moab Mid WP
Weight: 2 lbs. 0 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (Gore-Tex)
What we like: Hiking shoe weight but with ankle support.
What we don’t: Thin underfoot and less stable than the Quest 4D.
Women's: Salomon X Ultra Mid II GTX
Built like a trail-running shoe but with added ankle support and protection, the Salomon X Ultra Mid 2 is our favorite ultralight hiking boot option for fastpackers and thru-hikers. The boots are ultra-flexible and feathery light, weighing as little as most low-top hiking shoes, but retain decent toe protection, a stable chassis, and grippy lugs. If weight and moving fast are your most important considerations, we heartily recommend the X Ultra Mid 2.
Naturally, there are a few compromises that come with trimming weight. The most significant is the lack of underfoot protection, which is even thinner than the Quest 4D above. The X Ultra also doesn’t sit as high on the ankle as the Quest and isn’t as supportive over technical terrain or when carrying a heavy pack. But it beats out other ultralight options like the Altra and Adidas below in long-distance comfort and traction. To cut even more weight, the X Ultra 2 also is offered in a low-top hiking shoe.
See the Salomon X Ultra Mid II GTX
Weight: 2 lbs. 14 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (Gore-Tex)
What we like: Excellent fit, impressive support for the weight.
What we don’t: Flimsy laces.
Women’s: Scarpa R-Evolution GTX
Italian company Scarpa makes serious gear for the alpine, but we were pleasantly surprised at how well the R-Evolution GTX combines trail performance and comfort. Sporting Scarpa’s Sock-Fit design, the boot offers a glove-like fit along with impressive support and stability. Scarpa replaced the traditional tongue with a stretchy fabric that’s filled with memory foam, and then stitched it directly to the boot’s upper. The result is absolutely zero material bunching along the top of your foot when you lace up, and a very comfortable, close fit. The stretchy Schoeller fabric also enables you to tighten the laces a bit more than usual without the feeling of being pinched—a bonus over technical terrain.
Overall, the build and construction of the R-Evolution are top-end (Scarpa still manufacturers much of its footwear in Europe), with a good looking and durable suede upper and meaty Vibram grips. The one oversight is cheap and flimsy laces, but thankfully those are an easy upgrade and fix. Outside of the laces, we can’t recommend the Scarpa’s enough for a midweight leather boot that’s hiking and backpacking ready... Read in-depth review
See the Scarpa R-Evolution GTX
Weight: 2 lbs. 11.7 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (Gore-Tex)
What we like: Best-in-class protection and comfort.
What we don’t: Pricey and overkill for easy terrain.
Women’s: Arc’teryx Bora2 Mid GTX
Arc’teryx makes some of the best outerwear on the market, but is a relative newcomer to footwear. Our favorite from their hiking lineup is the Bora2 Mid GTX, which features a unique 2-piece construction with a removable stretch bootie (the $50 cheaper version without the "2" has sewn-in liners that cannot be removed). Over a multi-day backpacking trip in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, we were impressed with how well the design works in warm conditions and on rocky terrain. The liner was breathable and fit like a comfortable sock, and the tough outer shell offered great protection and gripped well on slickrock.
What are the downsides of the Bora2? The most obvious is cost—at $330 it’s by far the most expensive boot on this list. More, the boot’s strengths on rocky and rough trails aren’t as apparent on a standard path, so it’s overkill for many hikers. For the right person, however, it’s totally worth it. The Bora2 offers the protection and grip of an approach shoe with the comfort of a lightweight trail boot... Read in-depth review
See the Arc'teryx Bora2 Mid GTX
Weight: 3 lbs. 1 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (Gore-Tex)
What we like: Great mix of comfort, weight and support.
What we don’t: Quality control issues with eyelets and laces.
Women's: Vasque St. Elias GTX
Appearances can be deceiving with the Vasque St. Elias. What may look like a leather clunker from a distance actually is a fully modern boot that people love. Most impressive is the mix of support and comfort. With a heavy pack on, the EVA midsole and TPU shank offer enough stability and cushion for putting on serious miles, but if you’re only heading out for a day hike, the boot is reasonably flexible and nimble. More, the St. Elias is a good value, undercutting its primary competition above by $40 even with its tough, nubuck leather build.
The St. Elias, however, gets bumped down our list for a couple reasons. The first is the laces and eyelets, which feel on the cheap side and have a tendency to give out. You can solve this by upgrading the laces and taking care when tightening, but it’s not something you should have to deal with out of the box. And the second is fit, which is narrow for people with wider feet (Vasque does offer a wide version to accommodate). These issues aside, the St. Elias is our favorite hiking boot from Vasque and a nice mid to heavyweight option.
See the Vasque St. Elias GTX
Weight: 2 lbs. 3 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (Keen.Dry)
What we like: Great budget option.
What we don’t: Not very secure on rough trails.
Women's: Keen Targhee II Mid
Despite its affordable price tag, the Keen Targhee II Mid is a proven option for day hiking and light backpacking. The construction is surprisingly tough with a good-sized toe cap and leather upper, and the boot sits just high enough on the ankle to offer decent rollover protection. It’s still a clear step down in stability and ankle support from a boot like the Salomon Quest, but the Targhee II is significantly cheaper and offers sufficient grip and comfort for most subalpine adventures.
The Targhee’s main competitor is the Merrell Moab above, and they're both great options for established trails. The Moab gets the edge in weight, but the Targhee's leather upper material is a little more durable. Again, it is worth noting that both boots are budget-oriented designs, and if you’ll be hauling serious weight or hiking is rough conditions, we suggest spending up for a stronger design. But for weekend warriors and day hikers, the Targhee II is a fantastic choice. And a tip on fit: Keen recommends ordering a half size larger than your typical boot size.
See the Keen Targhee II Mid
Weight: 2 lbs. 12.4 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (Gore-Tex)
What we like: Burly combination of an approach and alpine shoe.
What we don’t: Not everyone will like the stiff build and runs warm.
Women’s: Salewa Mountain Trainer Mid GTX
Resembling a mix between an approach shoe and an alpine boot, the Salewa Mountain Trainer Mid GTX is designed for rough trails and harsh conditions (Salewa is a mountaineering and climbing company first). The boot features a protective rand that wraps around the entire lower section of the boot for total isolation from rocks, snow, and other trail debris. A further nod to the company’s climbing background is the lacing system, which extends all the way to the toes (most hiking boot laces end at the middle of the foot). This makes it easy to customize the fit, which is great for those with a wide forefoot and narrow heel or vice versa.
The Mountain Trainer is most at home in rough environments, such as hikes above treeline or scrambling over rocks off trail. On a regular path the boot can feel heavy and overly stiff (this can be a benefit for those in need of strong lateral stability). For most hikes and backpacking trips, we still prefer the Salomon Quest, and the Arc’teryx Bora2 gets you similar levels of toughness but with a nimbler feel and better breathability. But for all-out protection and 4-season usability, it’s hard to beat these Salewas.
See the Salewa Mountain Trainer Mid GTX
Weight: 1 lbs. 6 oz.
Waterproof: Partial (NeoShell)
What we like: It’s a mid-height trail-running shoe.
What we don’t: Less protection and support than a traditional boot.
Women’s: Altra Lone Peak 3.0 NeoShell Mid
Many lightweight hiking boots are inspired by or share characteristics with trail runners, but the Altra Lone Peak 3.0 NeoShell Mid literally is an over-the-ankle trail-running shoe. The “Mid” is new, but the Lone Peak line has been popular with thru-hikers and fastpackers for years. We tested the standard Lone Peak 3.0 and came away impressed with its roomy toe box, zero drop profile, and cushioned ride, and the same applies here. The NeoShell model adds a waterproof upper material (the boot isn’t fully waterproof like a Gore-Tex design, however) and modest toe protection in a boot that’s by far the lightest to make our list.
At 20 ounces for the pair, the Lone Peak is best for those that pack very light and travel fast. The average weekend warrior with a 30+ pound backpack should stick to a traditional design that will provide far better stability and protection. All in all, we consider the Salomon X Ultra 2 to be a better compromise between weight and trail performance. But if you don’t mind the flexible build, the Lone Peak delivers comfort, ankle protection, and solid weather resistance at the same weight as a trail-running shoe.
See the Altra Lone Peak 3.0 NeoShell Mid
Weight: 3 lbs. 0.6 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (Gore-Tex)
What we like: Durable upper material.
What we don’t: Stiff and heavy.
In sharp contrast to the light and flexy Altra above, the Asolo Fugitive GTX follows a much more traditional boot design. And for some of our most demanding trips—including trekking through Nepal and Patagonia–the Fugitives were absolutely bomber. Their stiff construction and thick mid and outsoles isolate you from rocks, and the boots work well in 4-season conditions for snowshoeing or even light mountaineering. As tough boots go, the Fugitive is highly recommended and even costs the same as the Salomon Quest and Lowa Renegade above.
With the burly construction comes more weight, and at over 3 pounds for the pair, they’re considered a heavyweight boot by today’s standards. Unless you need the ultra-tough build, the weight can be a downside over long distances (we prefer the Salomon and Lowa options for most of our backpacking needs). However, if you need a boot made for the alpine and like the stiffness and protection, the Fugitive remains a classic.
See the Asolo Fugitive GTX
Weight: 1 lb. 13 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (Gore-Tex Surround)
What we like: Fast and light; awesome breathability for a waterproof shoe.
What we don’t: Low ankle height isn’t very supportive.
Women’s: La Sportiva Synthesis Surround GTX
The La Sportiva Synthesis is all about moving fast, with a sub 2-pound weight, mid-ankle height, and aggressive stance. In many ways, the shoe acts like a waterproof trail runner—for better or for worse. It won’t weigh you down covering long distances and the breathability is very good (more on that below), but the Synthesis can feel soft and unsteady over uneven terrain. If you’re young with spry ankles and don’t mind the feel of the trail under your feet, this is a viable lightweight option.
The big news with the Synthesis GTX is the use of Gore-Tex’s Surround technology. The waterproofing design not only breathes out the top of the foot like a traditional waterproof boot, it also releases air and moisture through the bottom of the footbed and out the porous sides. It’s the real deal for maximum ventilation on the trails. Unfortunately, its $180 price tag is just too steep considering the level of trail performance (we think the Salomon X Ultra 2 is better overall and $15 cheaper). But the Synthesis may be worth the extra cash for those that put a high value on breathability.
See the La Sportiva Synthesis Surround GTX
Weight: 1 lb. 12.2 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (Gore-Tex)
What we like: Light and very comfortable.
What we don’t: Best for easy terrain.
Women’s: Adidas Outdoor Terrex Swift R Mid GTX
Adidas may not yet be on the radar of the average outdoorsperson, but they have an impressive (and growing) line of hiking and trail-running gear. We like their Terrex Swift R Mid boot for longer day hikes and low key backpacking trips with its lightweight, flexible construction and Gore-Tex waterproofing. At well under 2 pounds for the pair, it’s the second lightest model to make our list, and resembles more of a tall sneaker than a true hiking boot. What this translates to is a very comfortable fit right out of the box and decent but not overwhelming trail performance.
Our primary complaint with the Terrex Swift is the speed laces. While they can be great for trail-running shoes and make it easy to take them on and off, we find them less appealing for a hiking boot. Over long miles and with a pack on, an imprecise fit can become magnified, and the single-pull design doesn’t allow much in the way of customization. And as an overall design, we prefer the more stable X Ultra 2, which costs the same but has a stronger chassis and better traction.
See the Adidas Outdoor Terrex Swift R Mid GTX
Weight: 2 lbs. 0.5 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (Gore-Tex)
What we like: Lightweight and very comfortable, even during extended use.
What we don’t: Lack of toe protection and a bit pricey.
Women’s: Lowa Innox Mid GTX
Lowa is best known for its more traditional Renegade hiking boot, but we love the lightweight Innox GTX Mid. For those who like to move fast on the trail and cover ground, the Innox are light on the foot, comfortable, and offer more support than you might think for a boot of this type. In many ways, they're a taller version of the Salomon X Ultra. The Innox is also waterproof and breathable with a Gore-Tex lining.
What type of hiking is the Innox GTX Mid best suited for? We’ve used them extensively on maintained trails that aren’t too rocky and they’ve become a go-to boot for this type of use. One notable omission on the Innox GTX is the lack of a rubber toe guard up front (or much protection around the sides), so you will feel any serious contact with rocks or roots. We wouldn’t recommend these boots for scrambling or off-trail hiking in tough conditions, but they’re fantastic on established trails... Read in-depth review
See the Lowa Innox Mid GTX
Weight: 2 lbs. 13 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (Keen.Dry)
What we like: Light and comfortable at a good value.
What we don’t: Runs warm in the summer months.
Women’s: Keen Durand Mid WP
With plenty of comfort and support for day hikes and overnight or weekend backpacking trips, the Keen Durand Mid WP hiking boots hit the sweet spot for the everyday outdoorsperson. The boot sits a little lower on the ankle than some of the more serious options like the Salomon Quest 4D 2 above, but offers sufficient protection from rocks and roots with a thick rubber toe cap and a polyurethane midsole.
The Durand is assembled in Keen’s Portland, Oregon, factory, which is admirable considering the significant manufacturing shift overseas. It's well-made, and we've had exactly zero durability issues after nearly a year of consistent use. The waterproof liner is an in-house design, and combined with the Nubuck leather upper, we found it to not breathe as well as others in its class. Otherwise, the boot is excellent for everything from wet weather hiking and mild weather snowshoeing when a little extra warmth is appreciated... Read in-depth review
See the Keen Durand Mid WP
Weight: 2 lbs. 0 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (Omni-Tech)
What we like: Leather and waterproof hiking boot at a bargain price.
What we don’t: Not very breathable and limited support.
Women's: Columbia Newton Ridge Plus
As bargain-priced hiking boots go, you would hard-press to find a better option than the Columbia Newton Ridge Plus II. It’s consistently on sale for well under its $90 retail price, yet has a leather upper and a completely waterproof, seam-sealed design. More, the padded collar and tongue offer good comfort right out of the box. Against the competition, trail performance falls short of even the budget-oriented Targhee and Moab, with only a light amount of ankle support and limited breathability through the leather upper. This is not a boot we’d take on a 10-day backcountry trip, but performance should be completely adequate if you stick to moderate trails or are visiting the occasional national park. And the more casual slant makes it the best boot here to pull double-duty for daily wear.
See the Columbia Newton Ridge Plus II
|Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX||$230||Midweight||2 lb. 13 oz.||Yes (Gore-Tex)||Nubuck leather / mesh|
|Lowa Renegade GTX Mid||$230||Midweight||2 lb. 7 oz.||Yes (Gore-Tex)||Nubuck leather|
|Merrell Moab Mid Waterproof||$130||Lightweight||1 lb. 15 oz.||Yes (M-Select)||Leather / mesh|
|Salomon X Ultra Mid 2 GTX||$165||Lightweight||2 lb. 0 oz.||Yes (Gore-Tex)||Suede leather / nylon|
|Scarpa R-Evolution GTX||$239||Midweight||2 lb. 14 oz.||Yes (Gore-Tex)||Suede leather|
|Arc'teryx Bora2 Mid GTX||$330||Midweight||2 lb. 12 oz.||Yes (Gore-Tex)||PU coated textile|
|Vasque St. Elias GTX||$199||Heavyweight||3 lb. 1 oz.||Yes (Gore-Tex)||Nubuck leather|
|Keen Targhee II Mid||$135||Lightweight||2 lb. 3 oz.||Yes (Keen.Dry)||Nubuck leather / textile|
|Salewa Mountain Trainer Mid||$239||Midweight||2 lb. 12 oz.||Yes (Gore-Tex)||Suede leather|
|Altra Lone Peak 3.0 NeoShell Mid||$160||Ultralight||1 lb. 6 oz.||Partial (NeoShell)||Mesh|
|Asolo Fugitive GTX||$240||Heavyweight||3 lb. 1 oz.||Yes (Gore-Tex)||Suede leather / nylon|
|La Sportiva Synthesis Mid GTX||$180||Lightweight||1 lb. 13 oz.||Yes (Gore-Tex)||Mesh / leather|
|Adidas Terrex Swift R Mid GTX||$160||Lightweight||1 lb. 12 oz.||Yes (Gore-Tex)||Synthetic|
|Lowa Innox GTX Mid||$210||Lightweight||2 lb. 0 oz.||Yes (Gore-Tex)||Synthetic|
|Keen Durand Mid WP||$180||Midweight||2 lb. 13 oz.||Yes (Keen.Dry)||Leather / textile|
|Columbia Newton Ridge Plus II||$90||Lightweight||2 lb. 0 oz.||Yes (Omni-Tech)||Leather / mesh|
- Hiking Boot Categories
- Hiking Boots vs. Hiking Shoes
- Stiffness and Stability
- Lacing Systems
- Hiking Boot “Upper” Materials
- Midsole Types
- Outsoles and Traction
- Toe Protection
Boots in this lightweight category are, not surprisingly, light and flexible but tough enough for a longer day hike or short overnight backpacking trip. Options range from the budget-friendly Keen Targhee II to the light and fast Salomon X Ultra Mid 2. Waterproof liners are the norm, but they’re typically the less expensive type (read: non Gore-Tex). Materials used in the construction trend toward a heavy use of mesh and nylon with leather mixed in. This keeps cost and weight down, but doesn’t make them as durable as some pricier full-leather options. You also won’t see as stiff of a structure, as the boot’s shank and support won’t be very substantial. As long as you’re not carrying a heavy pack, that shouldn’t be a deterrent.
Midweight boots are skilled compromisers, with enough support to carry a heavy load but without feeling like someone stuffed lead in your socks. It’s a rapidly growing category, reflecting demand from backpackers and serious day hikers for a light but capable option. It's also home to some of our favorite boots (the top 2 picks are midweight). Solid support underfoot makes the boots a bit stiffer than your day hikers but not excessively so. Because of the quality of materials and construction techniques, prices in this category usually start at around $200. At that price point, the quality of the waterproof bootie improves and you’ll typically find GTX (Gore-Tex) in the name.
Stiff, tough, and incredibly reliable, boot legends of the past were made in the heavyweight category. Classic models like the Asolo TPS 520 and Zamberlan Vioz GT remain popular for those wanting a full-leather design, but the shift towards lighter weights in boot construction has expanded the category to include models like the Asolo Fugitive GTX.
In general, heavyweight boots are built for tough, rocky trail and long slogs and heavy backpacking packs (they are a great choice for those with weak ankles). While the thick upper materials and Gore-Tex make for excellent performance in the wet and snow, they will run warm in hot conditions (some prefer a non-waterproof leather boot instead). Their solid structure also takes some of the strain out of long ascents by keeping the heel from dropping at each step, and makes them often friendly with strap-on crampons for light mountaineering. A final tip: don’t pick up one of these boots and head directly to the trailhead for a long trip. Spend the time to break them in and you’ll have a backpacking footwear partner for years to come.
From a quick look at our comparison table above, it’s clear that hiking boot weights vary a lot. You can choose an over-the-ankle design anywhere from over 3 pounds to less than half that in the case of the Altra Lone Peak 3.0 NeoShell Mid (essentially a trail runner with higher ankles and waterproofing). What’s equally obvious is how the various weights have an impact on a boot’s performance. To start, while the correlation isn’t perfect, a lighter boot generally will offer less support and lateral stability. If you’re carrying a heavy pack, this can present a problem, but for thru-hikers or minimalists, going lightweight can be a great idea.
Whenever we can, we try and keep the weight of our boots to a minimum, providing enough comfort and support for the weight of our pack and the conditions, but without having to lug around anything extra. Depending on the trip, this can mean a lightweight trail-runner style for fastpacking all the way up to a burly boot like the Asolo Fugitive GTX for trekking through Nepal. If you’re going to choose one boot to do it all, our top-rated Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX does a great job balancing weight and performance.
One of the first decisions in choosing hiking footwear is selecting either an over-the-ankle boot or low-top shoe. Each style has its respective strengths, and we use them interchangeably for hiking and backpacking trips. We’ve found that hiking shoe models vary just as much as the boots listed above, so you can choose from stiff and supportive down to light and nimble.
In the end, the differentiators are ankle protection and stability. For rocky terrain, water crossing, snow, and for carrying a backpacking pack, a boot is our preferred option. But the low-top style trims away material and weight, making it the clear choice for those focused on moving fast and light without a large pack. There isn’t a definite right answer in this debate, but the weight of your gear and the conditions you’ll be hiking in can make the decision a lot simpler.
In general, a hiking boot is designed to be stable, which typically involves a piece of hard plastic inserted between the midsole and outsole, known as a shank. The length of the plastic can vary from just under the arch to the full-length of the boot, depending on intended use. The benefit of a stiff boot is that the heel will not drop on an ascent, which helps reduce calf fatigue. This is why the stiffness of a boot will increase along with its technical abilities, culminating in extremely unyielding mountaineering boots that can better handle long summit pushes. On the other end of the spectrum, some lightweight boots do not have this additional structure, instead resembling a tall, flexible hiking shoe.
For day hikes on flatter or less technical terrain or if you're aiming to move fast and light, we can’t recommend a lightweight and flexible hiking boot enough. Shoes like the La Sportiva Synthesis or Salomon X Ultra Mid are standouts for these uses. As your trips get longer and your pack gets heavier, a more substantial boot that increases ankle support is a better decision. Look to the Lowa Renegade or Salomon Quest 4D 2 for a great all-around option that is equally adept at conquering summit peaks and multi-day backpacking. On the extreme end, heavyweight boots like the Asolo TPS are excellent for hiking in areas that require maximum support: off-trail bushwhacking, traversing an exposed area or trekking over rough ground.
The vast majority of hiking boots are waterproof, and the security from a surprise deluge on a backpacking trip is reason enough for most folks to choose a GTX (Gore-Tex) model. To make these boots waterproof, most designs have a waterproof and breathable bootie inserted between the outer fabric and interior of the shoe. Gore-Tex liners are the most popular and have the brand cachet, but even in-house technologies like Keen’s Keen.Dry are similar in terms of waterproofing performance (it’s breathability where they’ll differ). In addition, a water-repellent coating is added to the boot to help bead up and shed water droplets.
Most hiking boots are waterproof, but does that necessarily mean they should be? It’s nice to have waterproofing so your feet don’t get wet walking through mud or crossing a stream, but all the waterproofing does on a spring or summer backpacking trip in Canyonlands is make your feet hot and sweaty (we cover breathability in greater detail below). And an argument can be made that your feet will eventually get soaked no matter the waterproof design in truly wet and miserable conditions. As an alternative, some backpackers turn to non-waterproof shoes with gaiters over the top for weather protection. While this won’t keep water from entering at the sides, the boots will dry much quicker. And the gaiters keep water, snow, or trail debris from entering over the top of the boot.
Our take on waterproofing is that it’s best for most folks, and particularly those that venture out in mountainous regions where water on the trail or a rainstorm always are possibilities. The designs aren’t perfect, but a quality waterproof lining will keep you reasonably dry in all but the worst weather. And if you hike in the shoulder seasons, the extra layer adds some insulation from the cold. But hikers in uniquely hot and dry places like Arizona and Utah may be best served with a non-waterproof model, no matter how few options there are on the market. Two that we like are the Merrell Moab Ventilator (a sibling of the Moab Mid WP on this list), and Lowa Zephyr, essentially a Lowa Renegade with its Gore-Tex liner removed.
No matter what marketers say, making a boot waterproof inherently impacts breathability. By keeping water from entering from the outside, less moisture (your sweat) can quickly and easily escape from the inside, which means all forms of waterproof footwear can run warm in the summer months. There are, however, big differences between boot models in their ability to ventilate.
We’ve found that heavyweight leather boots with a Gore-Tex lining are often the worst performers, while the new Gore-Tex Surround in the La Sportiva Synthesis and the two-piece design from Arc’teryx Bora2 (see our in-depth review) are standouts in terms of ventilation. In between, the Scarpa R-Evolution, Lowa Renegade, Salomon Quest 4D 2, and Lowa Innox all perform decently with their nylon and leather construction and Gore-Tex liners, and are completely suitable for summer backpacking trips. The cheaper membrane in the Keen Durand Mid boot fell short of those pricier options in our testing. Alternatively, if you are willing and able to ditch the waterproof lining altogether, the Merrell Moab Ventilator Mid and Lowa Zephyr Mid mentioned above are great options for casual hikers and backpackers, respectively.
Laces are an overlooked feature on hiking boots but play an important role in fit and comfort. If a shoe has a poor lacing system prone to loosening, you’ll find yourself having to readjust constantly on the trail or dealing with hot spots and blisters. If the culprit is just the laces themselves, it’s an easy fix: there are many quality replacement laces available (and can usually be found at a local outdoors shop). But if the system doesn’t hold your foot or fit very well, we recommend looking elsewhere. For this reason, we are hesitant to recommend the single-pull speed lace designs from Salomon and Adidas. Although convenient, it can be more difficult to customize fit, which can lead to discomfort over long miles and when wearing a heavy pack.
As you upgrade to more aggressive designs, the lacing systems also should advance. Notable upgrades for boots include locking hooks near the bend at the ankle, such as what you get on the Quest or Renegade boots. These hooks keep the laces in place extremely well, which increases comfort and on-trail performance.
The type of material used in a shoe’s upper, which is the fabric that connects to the rubber outsole, correlates directly with its durability, water resistance and ability to breathe. Most often, a boot or shoe will be made with a mix of synthetic (typically nylon), mesh, and leather. There are exceptions, particularly at the high-end with one-piece leather constructions. As we mentioned above, Arc’teryx is one brand that breaks from the mold completely with a separate rigid thermolaminated outer that connects directly to the sole. Below we spell out the pros and cons for the most common materials used for hiking footwear.
Synthetic Nylon and Mesh
Woven nylon as well as open mesh nylon panels are common on entry and mid-level boots to aid in breathability. They’re not as well known for their durability but do a great job of cutting weight. More, the fabric can absorb moisture faster than a leather boot. Exceptions include the Salomon Quest 4D, which is made of tightly woven nylon panels that have comparable levels of durability to some Nubuck leathers despite a lot of exterior stitching.
Nubuck and Suede Leather
Made of full grain leather, but given a brushed finish that has a suede-like feel, Nubuck leather is a common site on mid-range boots. The softer touch leather is lighter and more flexible than traditional, glossy full-leather options, but the thinner construction isn't as durable. It is, however, more durable than most nylon mesh inserts, and as a result, it’s common to find a mix of Nubuck leather and mesh, with the leather bits giving the boots a little extra toughness. Additionally, Nubuck leather tends to breathe better than full-grain leather and isn’t as prone to showing scuffmarks thanks to its brushed finish.
This type of upper is most often found on tough, heavyweight boots. You’ll find one-piece leather uppers on high-end boots like the Asolo TPS 520 or in Danner’s boot collection. These designs are not light or as breathable, but are incredibly tough and water resistant. They do require some maintenance to keep the leather in good shape, but they’ll reward those cleaning efforts with a construction that is built to outlast everything else on the market. As an added bonus, some boots like the Danner Mountain Light can be re-soled, so you don’t need to replace the whole boot once you wear down the lugs.
While wearing hiking boots, it’s common to carry a decent amount of weight, which puts a lot of stress on your feet. Combined with the rubber outsole, the midsole plays the essential role of shock absorber from impacts and provides an additional layer of protection from sharp rocks. Depending on the design, midsoles vary from very thin (fastpacking boot like the Lowa Innox) to stiff and substantial (full leather hiking boot). Most include EVA foam, PU, or a combination of both in their construction.
The majority of light and midweight hiking boots use EVA foam in the midsole. The cushy soft material takes some of the sting out of your heel or midfoot impacts and is also extremely lightweight. Not all EVA should be treated equally, and the proprietary versions can vary from super soft to mildly stiff. For logging serious miles on tougher terrain, we prefer a firm and supportive midsole as opposed to too much cushioning. Those overly-soft midsoles also have a tendency to break down over time, much like a road running shoe. In general, you pay more for an improved midsole design and a higher quality EVA compound.
For tougher applications or when it’s a priority to isolate your feet from rough impacts, manufactures will use a PU or polyurethane midsole. This durable foam is far less cushy than midsoles with only EVA but will last longer and better handle a heavier load. In addition, they’ll keep their shape longer and won’t be prone to compressing like EVA. Boots like the Asolo TPS 520 Evo use a polyurethane insole, but the material’s popularity is expanding to mid-range options—despite the extra cost—with the Lowa Innox GTX being a recent example.
The motivation behind upgrading from a flimsy cross trainer to a real hiking boot or shoe often is for improved traction. In a way that more casual footwear can never match, hiking footwear is leaps and bounds better when the going gets rocky, slippery and steep. And much in the same way that Gore-Tex dominates the market for mid to high-end waterproofing, Vibram inhabits a similar space for outsoles. Not all Vibram models should be treated as equals, however, as the rubber manufacturer tailors their designs for the specific footwear and brand. Some have much larger lugs underfoot for serious grip in mud (Vasque St. Elias), and others prioritize sticky rubber for scrambling over rocks (Arc'teryx Bora2). There are also more entry-level options that just do well on easier trails, like the lugs you’ll find on the bottom of the Merrell Moab boots and shoes. The lesson is it's worth taking a look at the lug depth and description of the compound type to find out where a specific outsole will perform best.
Salomon is one brand that doesn’t outsource their traction needs. Instead, they use their in-house ContraGrip brand for all of their boots and shoes models. And with years of experience in everything from trail running to hiking, they aren’t short on expertise. The level of quality and performance is in-line with the Vibram offerings across the board, from anything from their fast-and-light X Ultra Mid hiking boots to the burly Salomon Quest 4D 2 backpacking boots.
Toe caps or rubber rands cover the front of many hiking boots, and we consider them an essential element of backpacking boot design. These thick pieces of rubber are there to keep your toes in one piece should you accidentally—and in our case, eventually—kick a rock on the trail. Some standouts from our list above include the Arc’teryx Bora2 and Salewa Mountain Trainer, which have protection that wraps completely around the front of the foot. To cut weight, some manufacturers will occasionally take away this feature, including the otherwise excellent Lowa Innox GTX boots. Speaking from experience, we’d prefer that Lowa included one after catching and bruising a toe on a rock hiking in Utah’s Cedar Mesa. If you go lightweight, toe protection is one area where you may sacrifice.
Getting a proper fit can be a real pain, and in many cases the blame is a generic, flat insole. Thankfully, removing your stock insoles is super easy, and replacing them with an aftermarket model that’s specific to your foot size and shape can remedy most shoe maladies. New insoles can provide more or less volume to fill out the shoe, improve the fit under the arch, and increase or decrease the cushion and impact shock. We recommend checking out Superfeet insoles for their wide selection of options and trusted reputation in daily shoes, ski boots, and hiking footwear.