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7 Different Types of Hiking Shoes

A person hiking with a muddy hiking boots.

Who knew there are so many types of hiking shoes? I don’t want you to overthink the process of deciding which ones are best for you. It does help you to know the purpose, pros and cons of each though.  

1. High Top Hiking Boots

FREE SOLDIER Men's Tactical Waterproof Lightweight Hiking Boots Military Combat Boots Work Boots(Coyote Brown 7 US)

High top hiking boots have coverage up to the ankles past where they meet the feet. They also typically have rugged grip soles. Some do offer water resistance protection but still have breathable fabric.

Pros of High Top Hiking Boots

Keeping the feet dry is a reason I’d wear any hiking boot. I also like the idea of extra protection against the ankles and the added stability.

By the way, foot fungi thrive on moist areas. That’s another advantage of having hiking footwear that will keep your feet warm and dry.

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Cons of High Top Hiking Boots

Hiking boots have other uses besides outdoor exploration. Some people use them while gardening, for instance.

I thought about wearing my old work shoes the last time I worked in the garden. They do have the high top ankle support and strong soles that would work while cultivating dirt, planting and pulling weeds. Nevertheless, I decided to wear a softer pair with a Velcro strap instead.

The problem is, hiking boots often are too constricting, especially if you tie the laces too tight. If you do wear hikers, you might have to do what I do if you wear wide feet. Either wear them at least a half a size bigger than your normal shoe size or make sure they’re made for your foot width.

You might also feel hot when wearing hikers, and they often feel bulky and cumbersome. They will keep you dry, unless you perform vigorous activity for long enough. After that, some of the cheaply made hikers with no air circulation system may cause your feet to sweat.

When to Wear High Tops

A person on top of a mountain with hiking shoes.

I’ve tripped more than once even on small hills near parking lots. Because of that, I’m all for wearing high top hikers when I walk in areas where I don’t know where the bumps and holes will be.

Meghan Walker, a Hiking and Fishing website contributor says, “High-top hiking boots will keep you warmer, dryer, and help you feel a little sturdier on your feet. But, if you know you won’t be encountering any snow or ice, the lightweight runners might be the go-to, depending on your terrain.”

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Walker also mentions high top hiking boots for people new to hiking. They provide extra stability in most walking and weather conditions.

Rescue personnel, such as police, fire and ambulance workers, often wear them to prevent cuts and injuries. You never now what you’ll encounter whether racing on a rugged forest path, up a large rock, or through a burning home.

Key Features

High Top hiking boots typically have thick rubber outsoles and bottoms that safeguard against pointy rocks and sharp litter objects (ex: glass or aluminum cans). In addition, they usually have padding, which will provide protection against foot soreness.

Some high tops may provide a hardened safety toe. The safety toe material usually consists of steel, composite metal or hardened plastic.

Ideally, you’ll want the type that dries quickly on the inside when you do sweat. In addition, it’s helpful to make sure they provide breathing room through the fabric even with the water-resistant coating.

2. Sneaker Hiking Shoes

Merrell womens Merrell hiking shoes, Aluminum/Marlin, 5 US

Just like high tops, sneaker hiking shoes usually have a rubber (or rubberlike), anti-slip sole. However, they have an ankle cut that resembles an athletic sports shoe.

Pros of Sneaker Hiking Shoes

If I’m wearing boot-cut jeans and knee-high socks on my adventure walk, those pants probably will extend to my ankles anyway. That way, I do still have the protection I need but have more ankle maneuverability than I would if I’m trying to walk in high tops.

I find shoes easier to slip on and off too. They also typically feel lighter than a boot and usually provide more wide foot wearing options. You can even find sneaker hiking shoes that have the same safety toe that a boot has.

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Cons of Sneaker Hiking Shoes

The sneaker hiking shoes versus the boots might not provide quite as much protection against sprains if you fall. What’s more, you might not feel as stable when you walk because you don’t have the ankle support that high-top footwear provides.

When to Wear Sneaker Hiking Shoes

I’d wear sneaker hiking shoes on unpaved park trails where I live that I’m familiar with. That’s because a year or two might pass before I venture down those routes again. At the same time, I don’t feel I need to wear the heaviest combat boots I can find. 

Paths that I’ve walked on before usually have some wear and tear on them, even if not covered with concrete. The surface dirt also has compacted enough to feel almost like a paved road, especially when temperatures drop to about 45 degrees F.

These trails also only take about 15 minutes to cover – not all day. The ground may have some rocks sticking up in some places and some dips, holes, tree roots and more, however. I may not always remember where those obstacles are, so a sneaker hiker is recommended.  

Key Features

Sneaker hiking shoes have many of the same features as a tactical, combat or high-top hiking boot. You usually have a rubber or similar material for the sole and a tight lacing system. Some of them will have a water proofing treatment that also still allows for some “breathing” air circulation system.

If you don’t want your feet to sweat on a hot day, a quick-drying shoe is best. It’s also nice to have a tongue that’s wide enough. If so, it will keep out twigs, dirt, pebbles, litter, and other debris away from your feet.

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3. Waterproof Hiking Footwear

A person wearing waterproof boots on the river.

Waterproof hiking footwear includes both high-top hiking boots and sneaker hiking shoes. Some combat and tactical shoes or boots with the tough, gripping, not-slip heels also fit in this category.

Pros of Waterproof Hiking Footwear

Waterproof hiking footwear keeps your feet warm and dry when trekking through rivers, lakes and mud or swamps. I don’t know why anyone would need to wear waterproof hiking boots when in an ocean, but they apparently help there too.

I sometimes use waterproof footwear for work as a delivery driver. They make sense for use in times when the weather is not too hot, so your feet don’t sweat.

Cons of Waterproof Hiking Footwear

Waterproof hiking shoes and boots don’t have as many breathable pores in them. If you sweat in them a little bit in hot weather, that’s why. It kind of defeats the purpose of having waterproof footwear, which is why some people choose water-resistant ones instead.

When to Wear Them

Grivet Outdoors says that hiking boots are shoes that do not absorb liquid, regardless of whether it’s water or not. I personally like to wear waterproof shoes on wet ground. It’s not always easy to find truly waterproof footwear, however. Most adventure shoes offer some type of water resistance though.

I suggest waterproof boots or shoes for times when it’s not hotter than about 75 degrees. Otherwise, your feet might feel drenched anyway because of the sweat.

Key Features

Shoes made of rubber usually provide you with the best protection against water. However, synthetic leather and Gore-tex seem to offer as much prevention against having your feet soaked. I typically end up buying the synthetic leather shoes because they’re less expensive than the rubber.

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4. Water Shoes

FREE SOLDIER Men's Tactical Boots 6 Inches Summer Lightweight Breathable Desert Boots with Thin Durable Fabric(Black, 7 US)

You would think that waterproof shoes and water shoes are the same thing. Aren’t they? No, they’re not quite the same. Think of swimming shoes when you hear someone talk about “water shoes.”

They usually consist of waterproof materials. Many of them are often made of plastic, rubber or vinyl. However, they’re made for times when you don’t care if you get wet but still have to drain the water out of the shoes once in a while.

Pros of Water Shoes

They’re awesome in an environment when you’re expected to feel wet. They work for scuba diving, swimming, surfing, water skiing, boating and more.

Water shoes provide you some protection for your feet, even if you just  hiked back up a river after rafting on rapid river waters for half a day. Their flexibility also provides comfort.

Cons of Water Shoes

Water shoes only suit the occasion for which they’re made. You’ll do fine with them in and around water when involved in watersports, tubing, river rafting and swimming. However, they won’t work well for long backpacking expeditions, rock climbing or rugged trail walking.

When to Wear Them

“Think any shoe will be just fine in the water? Think again.” – Dick’s Pro Tips

Flip flops may be fine for the wading pool or local shallow-end water shower stations. However, they won’t hold up long against rocks covered with algae or other underwater creature slime that could cause you to slip and fall.

They could slip off, and you could cut your foot. Worst injuries, such as a sprained ankle or broken bone, could also occur.

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Key Features

The stretchy materials of water shoes conform to your feet, and you’ll hardly remember you’re wearing them. The rubber sole provides strong support when you walk, and they’re usually lighter than other types of outdoor adventure shoes.

5.  Mountain Boots

Thorogood Men's 864-4169 Mountain Ridge Insulated With Solarcore Boot, Maxi Brown - 8 W

Materials used to make mountain boots include rubber, plastic, leather and Kevlar. Sometimes, they’re made from synthetic fabrics that have the look and feel of the original materials.

Hikers typically use mountain boots when on rock climbing expeditions where ice is also present. Rescuers pulling people out of deep ice crevasses when frozen water cracks also wear mountain boots.

Pros of Mountain Boots

Mountain boots provide the best grip of all types of hiking boots. I never worn any myself. However, I may if I ever do decide to rock climb, especially if I might risk slipping on ice.

Mountain hiking footwear provides the non-slip grip and stability you need. Even professional mountain rangers, rescue teams and operators of snowplows or cable cars rely on mountain footwear.

Mountain footwear also has the insulation required to provide foot climate control. Their stiff construction also protects you from most injuries.

Cons of Mountain Boots

Mountain shoes are heavy pieces of foot equipment. They’re also not the kind of shoes you can easily incorporate into your daily wardrobe. That’s a disappointment if you intend on creating as many clothing ensembles of all your outfit items as you can.

They’re too heavy for “regular” walks in city parks. However, they do serve a purpose. That purpose is just not for everyday use.

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When to Wear Them

I say wear your mountain boots when you explore unfamiliar areas. You never know what terrain you will encounter. It could have rocks, tree roots, quicksand, ice or other geographical formations you don’t expect.

You can also wear mountain boots in parks, on hills and mountains, and over frozen lakes or rivers. They make excellent work boots for tactical or industrial jobs too.

Key Features

The best mountain boots conform to the shape of your foot. This accommodates your leg, ankle and foot width or size. They also usually have a waterproofing layer and a tongue wide enough to stop debris from entering your shoes and bothering your feet.

6. Lightweight Trail Shoes

Salomon Men's SPEEDCROSS 5 Trail Running Shoes For Men, Black/Black/Phantom, 7

Lightweight trail shoes come in many of the same materials as the heavyweight counterparts. It’s just less of the substances normally used in most hiking shoes and boots.

They’re meant for similar uses as some of the bulkier footwear you might take on a hike. Some pairs, like the ones pictured above, look like regular sneakers but have more defined sole traction on the bottom.

Pros of Lightweight Trail Shoes

Lightweight trail shoes are less expensive to make, so they cost less to you. In addition, you will feel more able to move in them. They won’t weigh you down like traditional hiking boots or shoes. They’re also fine for everyday use, even for work, school, or social activities.

People prone to run, jump and play while on a hiking adventure may enjoy the lightweight footwear. That’s because these shoes or boots don’t feel as constricting as other types of footwear.

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Cons of Lightweight Trail Shoes

Lightweight trail shoes may not have as much arch or ankle support. They also might fall apart sooner than heavier shoes made with more material. Moreover, you might notice your feet feeling more wet because of the lack of waterproofing in some types of light hiking boots and shoes.

When to Wear Lightweight Hiking Boot

Use them on paved park trails. Any path that you know well, that’s where you can most use this class of footwear.

Key Features

Lightweight hiking shoes usually have breathable fabric. They might have a water-resistant coating but the amount of fabric and sole materials is just enough to provide support for daily walks.

They also usually have more of a bottom grip than standard sneakers. In addition, they’re used for running on rugged ground versus city park trails or neighborhood streets.

7. Hiking Sandals

A woman wearing Hiking Sandals.

Most hiking sandals appear like cutouts of sneakers on the upper side. Aside from that, they have similar material makeup as sneaker hikers or trail boots.

You’ll see uppers made of leather or a material that feels similar to it. The soles usually consist of rubber or a synthetic material that has the same texture and appearance.

Pros of Hiking Sandals 

As long as you’re careful where you hike, these shoes provide you with the support you need when walking. They can make your feet feel more “free” and as if they have more room to breathe than when wearing traditional sneakers.

Cons of Hiking Sandals 

If you wear hiking sandals on too rugged of a trail, they could cut your feet and make you bleed. It’s also easier to stub your toe when wearing this type of walking shoe.

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When to Wear Hiking Sandals

A person standing on the grasses wearing sandals.

I suggest only wearing them on familiar paths. If you do wear them on a trail you never tried before, make sure you pay attention to where you are going.

If you’re a first-time hiker, I don’t suggest that you wear hiking sandals on paths with fallen brush, loose soil and pointed stones. They’re also not the best when walking on trails with exposed tree roots.

Make sure you research the location before you decide what hiking shoe to wear. In some cases, sandals will be your last resort.