Two hikers head towards Ruth Lake in the Uinta Mountains.

How to Choose Hiking Shoes

Reading Time: 5 minutes

With the arrival of summer comes the return of hiking season. The snow is melting, wildflowers are blooming, and the trails are calling our name. But the beginning of hiking season sometimes comes with the realization that either your sneakers aren’t going to cut it anymore or your hiking shoes have seen better days and are ready for retirement. We get it—parting with your trusty pair of shoes can be hard and starting the search to find a new pair can be daunting, but don’t worry. We’re here to give you the lowdown on how to choose hiking shoes so you can get back on the trails as soon as possible.

Types of Hiking Shoes

The first step to deciding on a pair of hiking shoes is determining which type of shoe will work best for you. When it comes to hiking footwear, there are three main options: trail running shoes, hiking shoes, or hiking boots. Each of these categories of shoes have a variety of pros and cons that we’ll break down in detail.

Trail Running Shoes

Trail running shoes, like the Salomon women’s Speedcross 5 and men’s Speedcross 5, have recently gained popularity with hikers because they are so lightweight and comfortable. Their lighter weight means you can quickly move across terrain and that your legs won’t get nearly as tired as they would if you were wearing a hiking boot during a long day on the trail. Trail running shoes’ comfortability is a result of the breathable and soft materials they are made out of. Thanks to these materials, the shoes don’t really require a major break-in period and are usually very comfortable right out of the box. 

However, with these two major pros come a few cons. Since trail running shoes are made from such lightweight materials, they aren’t nearly as durable as hiking shoes or boots, and you will go through a pair of trail runners much quicker than you would a hiking boot or shoe. Additionally, trail running shoes offer less support and stability than hiking shoes or boots because they have a more flexible build that provides the necessary comfort when running on a trail. As a result, hiking in trail runners may take some getting used to when it comes to maintaining balance and stability on the trail—if you’re new to hiking, sturdier and stiffer hiking shoes might be a better option. All in all, trail runners are a great option for day hikes on relatively smooth and non-technical terrain or for advanced hikers that prefer a lightweight shoe with more flexibility than a heavier and stiffer one.

Hiking Shoes

Next up are hiking shoes. Hiking shoes are the middleman between trail running shoes and more traditional hiking boots. Many ankle-height hiking shoe models also come in a mid-height boot option, like the Salomon women’s Vaya and the Salomon women’s Vaya Mid GTX. The major benefit of hiking shoes over trail running shoes is that hiking shoes feature stiffer midsoles, which provide greater stability and support in rugged, technical, and uneven terrain. Hiking shoes are also made with more durable and protective materials that will withstand more miles than a trail runner and keep your feet safe from rocks and roots. The main downside to hiking shoes is that they are heavier than trail running shoes due to the sturdier materials and stiffer soles, and these tougher materials also mean that a break-in period is necessary to prevent blisters.

A White Pine Touring hiking guide leads a tour in the Uinta Mountains.
Hiking shoes are a great choice if you want more support than a trail runner but something less bulky than a hiking boot. Photo by Eric Schramm.

As far as traction goes, trail running shoes and hiking shoes will often be similar. However, trail running shoes will sometimes have treads specific to certain conditions, like muddy and wet, while hiking shoes tend to have a more generalized tread pattern that will work on a variety of surfaces. Overall, hiking shoes are great when you want more support than a trail running shoe but don’t want something as heavy duty as a hiking boot. I like to use mine for more technical day hikes and shorter backpacking trips. 

Hiking Boots

Last but certainly not least, are hiking boots like the Salomon men’s X Ultra 4 Mid GTX. Hiking boots are the burliest and most aggressive type of hiking shoe. The main benefit of hiking boots is the added support that they provide. The upper cuff of hiking boots hit above your ankle, which means that your ankles are more supported and less prone to rolling. Hiking boots are ideal if you are going to be hiking in the winter because the upper cuff keeps snow out of the shoe and the tougher materials provide added warmth. 

Similar to hiking shoes, hiking boots are made from very durable and protective materials, but due to the higher cuff, they are the heaviest of the three options. In addition, the stiffer and bulkier materials make breaking in hiking boots essential if you don’t want to get blisters. Long story short, hiking boots are an ideal option if you are carrying a heavy pack, backpacking, or going on a long and technical hike.

Waterproof vs Non-Waterproof

Once you’ve decided what type of footwear is best for you, the next decision you’ll have to make is whether you want your shoes to be waterproof or not. Brands offer waterproof options in trail running shoes, hiking shoes, and hiking boots, but trail running shoes tend to have the least amount of waterproof models available out of the three. 

The main benefit of a waterproof shoe is when you get caught in a summer rainstorm or find yourself walking in and out of water on the trail, your feet will stay dry and comfortable. However, waterproofing comes at the expense of breathability, and in the heat of the summer a waterproof shoe will make your feet hot and sweaty, which can cause blisters to form. 

Three women hike during the winter in Park City, Utah.
If you find yourself frequently hiking in wet weather or during the winter, investing in a waterproof pair of hiking shoes is a good idea. Photo by Eric Schramm.

Ultimately, deciding if you want a waterproof shoe depends on where you’ll be hiking and in what conditions. My advice would be that if you do most of your hiking during the summer and in places without a lot of precipitation, go with a non-waterproof shoe. When the temperatures rise, your feet will thank you. But if you find yourself frequently hiking during the winter or in a wet climate like the Pacific Northwest, then investing in waterproof hiking footwear is the way to go. 

Fit and Size

When it comes to fit, every brand and every model will fit differently, so the best thing you can do is try on several different pairs to find the one that is the most comfortable. Be sure to wear a pair of hiking socks when you’re trying on shoes to ensure you get the right fit. When it comes to deciding what size, you’ll want to make sure you have a little bit of room in front of your toes to eliminate crushing your toes on the descent. An easy way to test if you’re in the correct size shoe is to scoot your foot all the way forward so your toes are just barely touching the front of the boot. If you can stick one finger behind your heel, you’re good to go. 

Here at Jans, we carry several brands of trail running shoes, hiking shoes, and hiking boots, including Salomon, Salewa, Altra, Hoka, and Tecnica. Check out our available models online or stop by our Park City shops to find yourself the perfect pair! 

Additional Links:

Men’s Hiking Shoes & Boots 

Women’s Hiking Shoes & Boots

Men’s Running Shoes

Women’s Running Shoes