The momentum in hiking footwear is moving away from bulky boots toward lightweight shoes and even trail runners that are faster and more comfortable. You do lose some ankle support when carrying a heavy pack or traversing rocky trails, but the weight savings and feathery feel are worth it for many. We break down the important features like waterproofing and stability in our buying advice, which can be found below our picks. For more information, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks. For more footwear options, we’ve also written about the best hiking boots and trail-running shoes.
Weight: 1 lb. 13 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (non-GTX available)
What we like: Great mix of lightness, durability, and on-trail performance.
What we don’t: Rough trails can lead to tired feet.
Women's: Salomon X Ultra 2
The Salomon X Ultra 2 GTX is our top lightweight hiking shoe of 2016, combining a feathery feel with impressive on-trail performance. It has the traction, stability, protection and waterproofing needed for day hikes, quick summits and lightweight overnights. For durability, the Salomon X Ultra 2 is built on an EVA midsole and trusty Contragrip rubber. Inspiration for the design came from Salomon’s well-known trail runners, so the shoe features their single-pull speed laces, aggressive stance, and multidirectional lugs.
The lightweight construction does mean you’ll feel the ground underneath you a bit more than with stiffer hiking shoes like the La Sportiva FC Eco 2.0 below, but your feet still have sufficient protection with a rubber toecap. Compromise is usually a bad thing, but deftly balancing the support of a hiking shoe with the agility of a trail runner has made the X Ultra’s a huge hit, spawning a range of waterproof and mid-height models... Read in-depth review
See the Salomon X Ultra 2
Weight: 1 lb. 8 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (non-WP available)
What we like: Good support and a great price.
What we don’t: Not the most durable upper material.
Women's: Merrell Moab Waterproof
These may not be your long distance or ultra-rugged hiking shoes, but there is a lot to like about Merrell’s flagship Moab. First and foremost is the price, which sits at $120 for the waterproof model (the very popular non-waterproof Merrell Moab Ventilator is only $100). Featuring Dura leather and mesh panels, these hiking shoes are both cheaper and lighter than any other model on the list, and are all the casual day hiker will likely ever need.
A Vibram outsole, thick EVA midsoles, and nylon shanks absorb shock and provide decent cushioning over rocks and roots. Nylon mesh inserts breathe decently, but are also more prone to tears than boots with more leather acreage, so it's probably best to avoid too much scrambling or off-trail hiking. As a nice bonus, the Moab is offered both in a regular and wide width and runs pretty true to size.
See the Merrell Moab Waterproof
Weight: 1 lb. 15 oz.
What we like: Lightweight but stable while hauling a pack.
What we don’t: Treads wear relatively quickly.
Women’s: The North Face Ultra 109 GTX
The North Face may list the Ultra 109 GTX as a trail-running shoe, but we think it checks all the boxes for a quality lightweight hiker: it has a stable platform, excellent traction, and good foot protection. The midsole even has a shank and rock plate, which serve to not only dampen harsh impacts but also increase stiffness. We’ve used the shoe for both day hiking and backpacking—with a load up to 40 pounds—and have found it to be very comfortable.
The only way that the Ultra 109 reminds us of a trail runner is tread life, and the relatively short lugs are starting to wear after only a couple months of use on rocky and rough trails. The rest of the shoe is holding up well, however, and with a price tag of $120, the Ultra 109 is one of the best values on this list.
See the North Face Ultra 109
Weight: 1 lb. 10 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (non-GTX available)
What we like: Fast and light.
What we don’t: Speed lace design can be finicky.
Women's: Adidas Terrex Swift R GTX
We’d be lying if we said we expected an Adidas shoe to make our list of top hiking footwear, but the Terrex Swift R has done just that. With a nimble and lightweight design that lets you move quickly even over rough terrain, the Terrex Swift is a fine option for ambitious day hikers. It’s looks like Adidas took some inspiration from Salomon’s popular trail-runners, sharing a similar style and single pull lace design, but they’re differentiated with a more substantial, hiking-friendly build and bigger lugs. As with the Salomon’s, we’re not completely in love with the single pull laces, which don’t allow you to tune the fit in the same ways as traditional laces. Otherwise, the Adidas’ have a quality build with a Gore-Tex waterproof bootie and decent toe and heel protection. It all adds up to a surprising but justified 4th place finish.
See the Adidas Terrex Swift R
Weight: 1 lb. 15 oz.
What we like: You get a lot of shoe for the price.
What we don’t: Occasional quality control issues.
Women's: Keen Targhee II WP
Not to be confused with any other brand, the Keen Targhee II don't have a very aggressive look but get the job done in terms of performance. The shoes feature a leather upper, Keen’s signature wide forefoot and prominent toe protection. At just under 2 pounds, the shoes are not the lightest on paper, but it takes getting them on your feet to really appreciate just how nimble they feel.
The comfort that Keen is well known for is evident right out of the box, and only gets better over time with the moldable footbed. Beefy lugs on the outsoles are middle of the pack performers and do well in both wet and dry conditions. Tack on a great price, and you can easily understand why Targhee II’s have been so popular for so long. Sizing runs a little small, and Keen rightly suggests going up ½ size for this style.
See the Keen Targhee II
Weight: 2 lbs. 1 oz.
What we like: Casual looks but serious traction.
What we don’t: May be too stiff for some.
Women's: La Sportiva FC ECO 2.0 GTX
Don’t be fooled by the casual looks or long name: the La Sportiva FC Eco 2.0 GTX is a serious hiking shoe. Standing out in this crowd of muted colors and utilitarian designs, these boots are downright stylish, mixing a mostly tan leather upper with some splashes of color and mesh paneling. That 100% recycled nylon mesh in the uppers helps with breathability, but as with most waterproof hiking shoes, it’s still sauna prone in warmer weather. Vibram River outsoles deliver solid traction, and a lug design shared with La Sportiva’s excellent trail-runners works great on steep descents. Plan on a little break-in period for the stiff leather construction, but that’s not all bad news, because the Eco 2.0 GTX is perfectly acceptable as supportive daily wear.
See the La Sportiva FC Eco
Weight: 1 lb. 14 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (non-GTX available)
What we like: Reasonably light, stable feel.
What we don’t: Despite the name, not the best for the ambitious fastpacker.
Women’s: The North Face Hedgehog Fastpack GTX
Fastpacking is at the core of the lightweight footwear movement: it’s all about covering as much ground as possible while carrying the least possible weight. The North Face isn’t shy about targeting this group, with their Hedgehog Fastpack shoes. Is the Hedgehog best for fastpacking? We’d say no. But the shoe is very nicely made and actually has a wider appeal to the general hiking crowd with a stable feel, good underfoot support and Gore-Tex waterproofing. The mix of leather and mesh is quite durable as well. If your focus is an ultralight overnight trip, we still prefer the performance of our top-rated Salomon X Ultra 2, but the Hedgehogs are well made, offer good traction in mud with their aggressive Vibram rubber, and are plenty tough for long days on the trail.
See the North Face Hedgehog Fastpack
Weight: 2 lb. 1 oz.
What we like: Tough build, comfortable underfoot.
What we don’t: Lacing system could use an upgrade.
Women's: Vasque Breeze 2.0 GTX
With a stable but nimble platform, the Vasque Breeze 2.0 is a thoroughly modern hiking shoe. The Vibram rubber is a big contributor, providing excellent traction without a clunky feel. And as we've come to expect from Vasque, construction, fit and comfort are all excellent.
Mesh panels have been creatively distributed throughout the shoe’s upper for impressive breathability, despite the Gore-Tex construction. It's still not cool in the summer, but they've clearly made an effort for it to be tolerable. Vasque also manages to retain a lot of protection for the toes and heel—plenty sufficient for established trails and even mild off-trail use. Our biggest complaint is that the lacing system isn’t up to the same caliber as the rest of the shoe and doesn't secure very well over the top of the foot, nor are the eyelets as strong as many of their competitors. Fix that, and this otherwise solid shoe will quickly move up the list.
See the Vasque Breeze 2.0 Low
Weight: 2 lbs. 1.4 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (non-WP available)
What we like: Sturdy, grippy and quite comfortable.
What we don’t: A little slow and ungainly in this crowd.
Women's: Oboz Sawtooth Low BDry
Based in Bozeman, Montana, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Oboz footwear is noted for its stability and traction. Their Sawtooth Low shoe, which is also offered in a mid-height boot, is clearly built for the rough trails you’ll find in the Rockies. It’s not the lightest shoe around and isn’t recommended for the fast hiker, but we’ve found it to be a great solution for folks looking to upgrade in stiffness and support from their Merrell Moabs.
Part of this sturdiness can be attributed to their proprietary heel counter, which holds its shape well and keeps you steady even over off-camber and rough terrain. Available in either the waterproof BDry model or a non-waterproof version for $25 less, breathability is decent as long as the temperatures don’t get too hot, thanks to offsetting panels of mesh and leather. Overall, the Sawtooth may not be sprightly, but it’s well-built, has a solid platform and feels secure on your feet.
See the Oboz Sawtooth Low
Weight: 1 lb. 9 oz.
What we like: Supremely light; long-distance comfort.
What we don’t: A step down in stability and toe protection from a true hiking shoe.
Women's: La Sportiva Wildcat
Four years ago, I decided to take a chance on the La Sportiva Wildcat’s as my daily trail runners. Quickly, I expanded their use to fast-moving summer day hikes thanks to the excellent shock absorption and breathability. I’m not alone, as the Wildcat has garnered a lot of praise over the past few years, helping propel trail-running shoes fully into the hiking footwear market. The outsole design, optimized for trail running over varied and rough terrain, is equally at home on the rocky and rooty hiking trails in the Cascades. Notably, we’ve also seen the shoes on a number of PCT thru-hikers.
One warning in turning to a true trail-runner style for hiking: the minimalist toe cap does not offer nearly as much protection as a traditional hiking shoe. For us, the sacrifice has been worth it, despite a few sore toes, and we continue to turn to our trusty Wildcats for trail runs and day hikes throughout the summer months.
See the La Sportiva Wildcat
Weight: 1 lb. 15 oz.
What we like: PU frame brings great support at a low weight.
What we don’t: MSRP feels too expensive.
Women's: Lowa Renegade II GTX Lo
Cutting the top off the legendary Lowa Renegade boots, the Renegade II GTX Lo hiking shoes retain the excellent weight-to-support ratio in a trimmer package. Retailing for over $200, they are unquestionably expensive, and, honestly, we recommend trying to get them on sale. For the extra dough, you do get a polyurethane frame, which acts like an exoskeleton, bringing added rollover stability. You also get a fully leather upper, which is tough and water resistant. The footbed has perforations, not unlike the back panels on some backpacks, to further exhaust feet fumes; however, the Gore-Tex bootie and leather construction do restrict ventilation. Overall, with great support at a sub-2 pound total weight, the Renegade II Lo’s are a nice lightweight option for hikers.
See the Lowa Renegade II GTX Lo
Weight: 1 lb. 7 oz.
What we like: Super comfortable footbed.
What we don’t: Low ankle height is tricky on rocky terrain.
Women's: Brooks Cascadia 11
Already in its 11th generation, the Brooks Cascadia trail shoe has developed a loyal following among trail runners and hikers alike. Some models have been better received than others (the 10th generation, for example, had its share of detractors), but the plush and cushioned underfoot feel and long-lasting traction make the Brooks a compelling day hiker. Its natural competitor on this list is the La Sportiva Wildcat above, and between the two, we prefer the Wildcat for its superior stability. The lower ankle height makes the Cascadia feel less secure over rockier sections. That said, our Cascadia’s haven’t had the tread wear issues that occasionally crop up with the Wildcat. In the end, the Cascadia is a great shoe for day hikes on smoother surfaces, particularly if you’re the type to break into a mid-hike jog.
See the Brooks Cascadia 11
Weight: 2 lbs. 0 oz.
Waterproof: Yes (non-GTX available)
What we like: Super tough with great breathability for a waterproof shoe.
What we don’t: Overbuilt for day hikes; traction favors rocks over muddy trails.
Women's: Arc'teryx Acrux FL GTX
Throwing out the book on how shoes are built, the Arc’teryx Acrux FL GTX is generating a lot of buzz for its outside-the-box design. Rather than being constructed as a single item, the shoes have two parts: a soft liner and tough outer shell. The liner is essentially a waterproof sock and delivers unparalleled levels of fit and glove-like comfort. Technically the Acrux FL are approach shoes, but they earn a spot on this list as great day hikers with superior traction over the rocky stuff.
Waterproofing duties fall to the liner, and the combination of very limited seams and a Gore-Tex membrane means they’re top performers in terms of water protection and ventilation. Springing for the Acrux2 allows you to remove the liners, but that model costs you another $50. Either shoe is pricey and overkill for some, but the Acrux sits atop our list in terms of sock-like comfort and innovation for a waterproof hiking shoe.
See the Arc'teryx Acrux FL
|Salomon X Ultra 2 GTX||$145||1 lb. 13 oz.||Yes (non-GTX option)||Synthetic|
|Merrell Moab Waterproof||$120||1 lb. 8 oz.||Yes (non-WP option)||Dura leather / mesh|
|The North Face Ultra 109 GTX||$120||1 lb. 15 oz.||Yes||PU coated leather / mesh|
|Adidas Terrex Swift R GTX||$135||1 lb. 10 oz.||Yes (non-GTX option)||Synthetic leather / mesh|
|Keen Targhee II WP||$125||1 lb. 15 oz.||Yes||Leather|
|La Sportiva FC Eco 2.0 GTX||$150||2 lbs. 1 oz.||Yes||Nubuck leather / mesh|
|North Face Hedgehog Fastpack GTX||$120||1 lb. 14 oz.||Yes (non-GTX option)||PU Leather / mesh|
|Vasque Breeze 2.0 Low GTX||$150||2 lbs. 1 oz.||Yes||Nubuck leather / mesh|
|Oboz Sawtooth Low BDry||$135||2 lbs. 1.4 oz.||Yes (non-WP option)||Nubuck leather / mesh|
|La Sportiva Wildcat||$110||1 lb. 9 oz.||No||Nylon mesh|
|Lowa Renegade II GTX Lo||$210||1 lb. 15 oz.||Yes||Nubuck leather|
|Brooks Cascadia 11||$120||1 lb. 7 oz.||No||Synthetic mesh|
|Arc’teryx Acrux FL GTX||$230||2 lbs. 0 oz.||Yes (non-GTX option)||PU coated nylon textile|
- Lightweight Hiking Footwear Categories
- Ankle Height
- Hiking Shoe "Upper" Materials
- Midsole Types
- Outsoles and Traction
- Best Uses
For the vast majority of day hikers, and even a good number of backpackers and thru hikers, a hiking shoe that falls just below the ankle is the perfect match. These shoes are stiffer and more substantial than a trail runner for carrying a light load over mixed terrain, but not feet draggingly heavy like a full-on boot. More, hiking shoes often have a tougher construction than trail runners, with increased use of leather and durable nylons as opposed to mesh. Protection from obstacles like rocks and roots come courtesy of rubber toe caps and medium-stiff midsoles. Hiking shoes also are great options for folks needing a substantial shoe for daily wear, just be aware that the outsoles will wear faster on pavement.
If moving fast trumps all else, choose a trail runner. These shoes are gaining popularity for being the ultimate lightweight option, even becoming a common sight on the PCT and AT. In fact, one trail runner, the Brooks Cascadia, became so popular on the PCT that fellow thru hikers would look for the signature tread pattern to verify which path to follow.
But these types of shoes are really not intended as backpacking footwear, and even Brooks has tried to distance themselves by placing a message on their website discouraging the use of the Cascadia’s for backpacking. Trail runners are flexible and super comfortable, but don’t provide much ankle support when you’re carrying a heavy load, and have minimal toe and underfoot protection. For fast day hikes or for experienced minimalist trekkers, however, a trail runner remains an excellent option. We've included a couple great hybrid trail running and hiking options in this article, but you can checkout our favorite trail-running shoes for a complete breakdown.
The third option has a relatively narrow focus: climbers or hikers that need a grippy shoe to tackle steep rocky terrain. Many rock climbers will use an approach shoe on the hike in (hence, the “approach” name), and swap out to a true climbing shoe when the going gets vertical. Approach shoes are easy to spot: they have a large rubber toe rand and a sticky, low profile rubber compound underfoot for maximum grip on rock. The shoes can be plenty comfortable on day hikes, especially a crossover style like the Arc’teryx Acrux FL, but aren’t what we typically recommend as a daily driver. The treads aren’t as secure on muddy hiking trails and they’re not as comfortable underfoot for long trail days. If, however, your day hikes include a lot of scrambling or low grade rock climbing, an approach shoe is an excellent choice.
Arguably, the most important change in modern hiking shoe technology is the movement to lightweight designs. Tough but thin fabrics and a shift from over-the-ankle boots to low-top shoes have made putting on major miles a lot easier. It’s no surprise most thru-hikers now choose a hiking shoe over a traditional leather boot. Many of the shoes on our list weigh 2 pounds or less for a pair—by comparison, a backpacking boot like the Asolo TPS 520 tips the scales at nearly 4 pounds. And on your feet, the weight is even more apparent. True, the drop in ounces sometimes impacts long-term durability, but there are still a number of compelling hiking boots for traditionalists and those needing the extra support. For most, a lightweight shoe is a much better partner for day hikes, peak bagging and minimalist overnighters. And as long as the rest of your gear is equally light, there are very few sacrifices.
Once you narrow your hiking footwear search, you may be considering the GTX question: do I need waterproofing or not? In theory, waterproofing is a nice security blanket if you’ll be hiking in the mountains. The extra protection that comes with a waterproof and breathable membrane inserted into the shoe is great for creek crossings, surprise rainfall or if you hit snow on an early season trek. But the extra layer adds weight, impacts breathability pretty significantly (discussed below), and the designs aren’t always perfect. We’ve found Gore-Tex models to work consistently well, and many in-house designs perform similarly keeping water out (breathability is a different story), including the Merrell and Keen shoes on this list.
Whether or not you need waterproofing often comes down to a personal choice. Are you a summer-only hiker or live in a warm and dry area? We’d recommend a non-waterproof shoe in most cases, and some of the best ventilating shoes are the Vasque Inhalers for serious treks (you can see our full review of the shoe here), and the Merrell Moab Ventilator for non-technical trails. But if you get into the alpine regions or would benefit from the added protection and modest insulation waterproofing provides, we’d lean the other way. The great news is that most shoes on our list are offered in both varieties. Expect to pay about $20 to $30 more for the addition of waterproofing.
The truth about waterproof liners, even expensive Gore-Tex booties, is that they don’t breathe well—just as a waterproof jacket won’t be as breathable as a comparable non-waterproof version. Simply put, waterproof and breathable membranes restrict a shoe’s ability to pull moisture away from your sweaty feet as efficiently as a non-waterproof upper. Not all non-waterproof shoes should be treated equally, however. Footwear that features thinner fabrics and a lot of mesh will increase moisture transfer and airflow, which will keep feet less sweaty in hot weather as well as dry out soggy socks far more quickly.
Gore-Tex Surround, which is designed to bring 360 degrees of breathability by venting out the insole of the shoe, is an intriguing, if expensive, concept. It’s been well received in a few models, including the La Sportiva Synthesis, but performance will always fall short of a shoe made mostly of mesh. No matter your final decision, we encourage you to at least give non-waterproof footwear a thought before selecting your next pair of hiking shoes.
As the hiking boot market diversifies with a growing number of lightweight and flexible styles, the fundamental differentiator between boots and shoes becomes all the more relevant. Ankle height, then, not only defines a boot or low-top shoe, but also may be the only difference between certain models. Take our top pick, the Salomon X Ultra 2. It tough but lightweight construction makes it a standout hiking shoe, but there is a mid-height X Ultra 2 boot that is equally excellent. Choosing one or the other is largely a decision based on personal preference and the type of hiking or backpacking you’ll be doing.
To start with the obvious, a hiking boot will always be heavier than the equivalent hiking shoe. The extra acreage to cover the ankle does add precious ounces, so for the true ounce counter that wants to feel as light and nimble as possible, there is only one choice: hiking shoes. For the rest of us, the decision is a little more complex. For boots, protection from rocks while scrambling and the extra rollover stability that comes from a snug fit around your ankle are really worth it over rough terrain or if you’ll be carrying a heavy pack. For backpacking, we often lean towards a boot unless we’re keeping things light or we’re familiar with the terrain and know it’s less technical. But for day hiking or covering serious ground, it’s hard to beat the freedom and comfort of a low-top hiking shoe.
Hiking shoe upper material is not the most exciting topic, but checking the construction can give helpful insights into its performance. The type of material used will correlate directly with a shoe's durability, water-resistance and ability to breathe. Most often, hiking and trail shoes are made with a mix of nylon, mesh and leather to balance cost and longevity. Arc’teryx is one brand that breaks from the mold completely with a two-piece design that has a separate rigid thermolaminated outer and a flexible inner liner (we gave their mid-height Bora2 hiking boots a full test). Below, we spell out the pros and cons for the most common materials used for hiking footwear.
Synthetic Nylon and Mesh
Woven synthetic (often nylon) as well as open synthetic mesh panels are commonly used to aid breathability. These materials are not as well known for their durability, but they do a great job of cutting weight. Exceptions include the Salomon X Ultra 2, which is made of tightly woven synthetic upper that has comparable levels of durability to some Nubuck leathers.
- Pros: Breathable, cheaper and lightweight.
- Cons: Less durable and less water resistant.
Made of full grain leather, but given a brushed finish that has a suede-like feel, Nubuck leather is a common sight on heavier duty hiking shoes. The softer touch leather is lighter and more flexible than traditional, glossy full-leather options, and is more durable than most nylons. It does fall short in breathability, however. As a result, it’s common to find a mix of Nubuck leather and nylon mesh for abrasion resistance and breathability, including the Merrell Moab and La Sportiva FC Eco 2.0 GTX.
- Pros: More breathable than standard leather, light and flexible, resists scuffs.
- Cons: Not as breathable as thinner nylons or synthetics.
Digging a little deeper into the shoe's construction, we'll look at midsole construction next. Its importance lies in cushioning your feet, working as a shock absorber from impacts, and providing an additional layer of protection from sharp rocks. Depending on the design, midsoles vary from very thin (minimalist trail runner) to stiff and substantial (burly hiking shoe). Most include EVA, TPU or a combination of both in their construction.
Foam EVA midsoles are a common site on running and hiking footwear. The cushy soft material takes some of the sting out of your heel or midfoot impacts and is also extremely lightweight. While nearly all shoes on this list use some sort of EVA, 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 breakdown overtime, much like a road running shoe. In general, you pay more for an improved midsole design and a higher quality EVA compound.
Thermoplastic polyurethane, (mercifully) shortened to TPU, is a durable plastic commonly found in performance-oriented light hikers. Shoes that use TPU underfoot are often less cushy than those 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. Because both midsole types have valid applications and TPU is more expensive, it’s common for a manufacturer to use a TPU frame or shank for stability and toughness and add in EVA underfoot to increase comfort.
The motivation behind upgrading from a flimsy cross trainer to a true hiking shoe is often for improved traction. In a way that more casual footwear can never match, hiking and trail-running 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. Their name is synonymous with solid grip and traction in a variety of terrain. 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, and others prioritize sticky rubber for scrambling over rocks. 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.
Salomon is one brand that doesn’t outsource their traction needs. Instead, they use their in-house ContraGrip brand for all of their hiking and trail-running models. We’ve found 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 2 hiking shoes to the burly Salomon Quest 4D 2 backpacking boots.
Footwear Stiffness and Stability
As a reflection of the push for lighter gear in all facets, hiking shoes are moving away from the traditional stiff construction of a hiking boot in favor of flexibility and a nimble feel. All hiking footwear (excluding some minimalist trail runners) does retain a degree of stiffness thanks to built-in shanks or internal supports. These features are part of what separate a hiking shoe from a super flexy cross trainer or road running shoe.
For day hikes on flatter or less technical terrain, we can’t recommend a lightweight and semi-flexible hiking shoe enough. Shoes like the Keen Targhee II or even the La Sportiva Wildcats are standouts for these uses. As your trips get longer and your pack gets heavier, a more substantial shoe still wins out for us. Look to the Lowa Renegade II GTX Lo or La Sportiva FC Eco 2.0 for great all-around options that are equally adept at conquering summit peaks and multi-day backpacking.
Hiking Shoe Features
Hiking trails, even well maintained ones, are full of rocks, roots and other potential hazards, so we almost always recommend a hiking shoe with some type of toe cap. Lacking any protection on the front of your shoes can lead to a trip ruining impact when you inevitably look up from the trail to enjoy the scenery. Hiking shoes typically have a full rubber toe cap, but trail runners sometimes have a trimmed down version or none at all—one of the compromises in opting for a minimalist shoe.
Easily overlooked, laces, as well as the lacing system of hooks and eyelets, play an essential role in fit and comfort. If a shoe has a poor lacing system that is prone to loosening, you’ll find yourself having to readjust constantly on the trail. If the system itself doesn’t secure your heel very well, the up and down walking motion will create hot spots and blisters. If the culprit is just the laces themselves, it’s an easy fix: there are a number of good quality replacement laces available. But if the system design doesn’t hold your foot very well, we recommend looking elsewhere.
Some models, including the Salomon X Ultra 2 and Adidas Terrex Swift R, have a single-pull lacing system. The design is totally convenient and we’ve had no more issues with durability than a traditional lace. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that you aren’t able to adjust the fit between eyelets, so the fit will be equally tight across the entire foot. Those with finicky feet that need to fine tune their laces to be comfortable may be best served avoiding quick lace designs.
Just like with running shoes, the stock insoles that come with nearly every hiking shoe generally are cheap. For some, this might not make a difference, but for others it’s what separates comfort from misery. Thankfully, removing your 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.
The most common use of any of the trail shoes we’ve tested and recommended above is day hiking. A day hike clearly isn’t the same for each and every person, but can include anything from short distances on local, established trails to summiting 14ers or other non-technical climbs. The built-up, stiffer hiking shoes on our list will be best as the difficulty level and mileage increases. It’s also good to be realistic about your abilities and needs (some may even find a stable hiking boot more suitable for all forms of hiking, despite the weight penalties).
Lightweight Backpacking and Thru-Hiking
When you’re not carrying a lot of weight in your pack, a lightweight hiking shoe can pull double duty as backpacking footwear. The lower shoe height does make you more prone to rolling an ankle, which is why we always err on the side of recommending a boot if you are hauling a larger pack. If you keep your pack weight down and avoid bushwhacking, a lightweight hiking shoe is a great overnight trail partner.
As we’ve touched on above, many of the light hikers on our list are popular with thru-hikers looking to cover serious miles each and every day. The flexible designs don’t require any break-in and can stand up to use day-after-day. Typically, you won’t get as many miles out of a trail shoe as you would a hiking boot, but the speed advantage wins out for most thru-hikers nowadays.
If you’re planning to both trail run and hike in your shoes, we highly recommend getting a true trail-running style like the La Sportiva Wildcat or Brooks Cascadia. The other options, even including the lightweight Salomon X Ultra 2 and Vasque Inhaler, aren’t as comfortable with a running gait and favor stability over a flexible platform.