If you're of the opinion that there's nothing quite as relaxing as throwing a backpack over your shoulders and walking into the woods, perhaps you've learned some footwear lessons the hard way — like climbing a snowy mountain and removing your mud-soaked tennis shoes to find frostbitten and blistered feet. Hiking doesn't require lots of gear, but shoes matter.
So which shoes should you buy? That can depend on your adventure, and whether you're trekking (or strolling) tree-lined paths, desert floors or rocky ridges. We spoke with dozens of hikers to compile this list that has something for everyone.
Stay light on your feet
The trend in hiking is toward a lighter shoe. Gone are the days of lacing up heavy boots to walk even the most peaceful path. Heavier shoes equal more laborious hikes, and the truth is such bulky footwear is unnecessary.
Trail runners are so light you barely know they're there, and technology makes them surprisingly sturdy. We'd pick them for every season except winter, as they typically provide the best balance between weight, durability and comfort. Here are two of our favorites.
Salomon Men's Xa Pro 3D Trail Running Shoe (starting at $71.99; amazon.com)
Hiking the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, you might expect to see hikers wearing boots. You'd be surprised. This shoe from trusted Salomon was by far the most popular we saw on the trail. After trying them ourselves, we found each pair lasted 600 miles — an incredible feat for such a lightweight shoe. There's a waterproof version, but we recommend going with this instead. Waterproof shoes can't stop water from entering over the top and they take longer to dry.
Altra AFM1855F Men's Lone Peak 4 Trail Running Shoe (starting at $80.66; amazon.com)
A pair of these shoes hardly weighs more than a pound, which means you'll feel light as a feather bounding up almost any trail. They have great traction that holds up on rough terrain, and they dry quickly. A wider toe box avoids squishing your feet, which means fewer blisters, more comfort and a host of other benefits. These are a good choice if you're an ultralight backpacker or a day hiker. They're not made for snow.
A little sturdier
Trail runners are perfect when there's no snow and you have less than 35 pounds on your back. But on backpacking trips where you carry a lot of weight, your feet might flatten like pancakes.
Often the solution is to pack less, but if you can't — or if you aren't quite ready to make the leap to trail runners — lightweight hiking shoes are a good compromise. They're more durable and the sole is more rigid than lighter footwear. This means you won't feel the rocks under your feet as acutely. But it also raises the risk of less comfort and more blisters.
The North Face Ultra 110 Gore-Tex ($72, originally $120; thenorthface.com)
These shoes weigh only about 2 pounds, so you're not going to feel like you're carrying dumbbells on your feet. The added weight and stiffer sole offer great protection against rocks and more support if you're carrying a larger pack. Their tight mesh and leather composition means they'll likely last longer than trail runners, and Gore-Tex lining is the perfect waterproofing for day hikes. Just make sure to break them in before using them on the trail.
Merrell Moab 2 Vent Mid Hiking Boot (starting at $79.98; amazon.com)
This light but durable boot is made with suede leather and breathable mesh that can survive years of use. It's that mesh that makes this Merrell product so wildly popular. Fans of the shoe say they can hike for hours in summer heat without getting swampy feet. We suggest staying clear of the waterproof version, which sacrifices that breathability. Order your size in the wide model if you're looking for a roomier toe box.
Vasque Men's Breeze III Hiking Boots (starting at $119.99; amazon.com)
This boot is considered a "mid" because it's taller than your average shoe, providing ankle stability. However, it doesn't climb as high as a normal boot, which keeps it light and comfortable. Fans of this boot love it for the ankle support it provides on wobbly rocks as well as the solid traction its grip allows. Many also appreciate the balance the shoe strikes between breathability and waterproofing.
Part of the fun of an adventure is accessing places other people consider off limits. Too muddy? Too snowy? Slick ice? Many may say, "Turn around!" — but with the right gear, the real reward is pushing on.
These aren't going to be the lightest, and they'll probably require some breaking in. They're perfect, however, on those hikes that call for something extra special.
La Sportiva Bushido II Running Shoe (starting at $123.72; amazon.com)
Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Brian Hemphill looks for a lot in a shoe. "Most important, it's got to be comfortable," he says. "Next it's got to be light and breathable and cost can't be outrageous." During his 14-state hike, Hemphill went through three other pairs of shoes before finding this stylish trail runner from La Sportiva. Its traction is extraordinary, so consider this shoe if you're braving muddy trails or hiking on slick surfaces.
Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX Backpacking Boots (starting at $225; amazon.com)
When we suggested earlier that you avoid waterproof shoes, we meant during spring, summer and fall. You'll want to stay dry in winter, and these hefty boots will help you do that, whether you're day hiking or backpacking. The lug pattern at the boot's bottom creates excellent traction in snow or any difficult terrain. They can be pricey, but as distance hiker Jose Meza says, "Affordability is important, but after hiking so many miles, comfort supersedes everything."
Danner Men's Arctic 600 Side-Zip 7-inch Waterproof 200G Hiking Boot ($219.95; amazon.com)
Here's another winter boot hikers love, with several components worth getting excited about. These contain a waterproof membrane and are also coated with a substance that repels water. The boots feature 200G PrimaLoft insulation to keep you warm on your frosty adventures. A side zipper allows you to get your boots on and off easily (a welcome trick when you're surrounded by snow), and the grippy Vibram sole can keep you upright on even the slipperiest sheet ice.
Mammut Men's Kento High GTX Backpacking Boot (starting $199.85; amazon.com)
There may be no better boot for your alpine excursion. This Mammut shoe is durable enough to protect your feet from the punishment of sharp rocks, light enough to keep you comfortable, and designed to keep your feet dry in snow. What really sets the boot apart from other winter footwear on this list is that it is crampon-compatible. That means you're on your way to tackling nearly any winter adventure.
For the cost-conscious among us
No one says that supporting your feet has to cost an arm and a leg. It might be worth starting with a less expensive boot before you go all in, if you're not yet sure if you love to hike.
The danger is that you often get what you pay for. It would be a shame if blisters from a bad pair of boots halted your burgeoning hiking hobby. There are deals out there, though. Here is a favorite for the newbies and cost-conscious among us.
Timberland Men's White Ledge Mid Waterproof Ankle Boot (starting at $69.85; amazon.com)
This waterproof boot is a low-risk option for those new to hiking. Users praise its comfortable fit, excellent traction and versatility. We've heard people say they wear it around town, on muddy trails, during lazy strolls and for serious treks. We suggest going with a lighter trail runner from earlier in this list, as long as you're not hiking in snow. If you want a boot, however, this is an affordable and stylish place to start.
The world is full of adventures for you to enjoy. Slip on a pair of shoes from this list and begin your hiking journey today.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailers' listed prices at the time of publication.