Close up of a group of hikers in hiking shoes

How to choose hiking boots or shoes

The secret to happy hiking is happy feet. Hiking boots can keep your feet supported and comfortable, whether you’re walking over rough rocks or gravel trails or are carrying a light pack or an expedition-weight load.

You’ve got lots of options for footwear – everything from lightweight trail runners, low-cut hiking shoes, supportive day-hiking boots and burly backpacking boots. There are also lots of brands like Keen, Merrell, Salomon, Scarpa and Zamberlan. But how do you know which hiking boots are best for your feet?

Start with these pointers:

  • What kind of shoes or boots do you need for hiking? Find out if trail running shoes, hiking shoes, day hiking boots or backpacking boots are right for your adventures.
  • Features to look for: Learn out about different materials, waterproofing and more.
  • How to fit hiking boots and shoes: Get the best fit (and ensure blister-free hikes) with these tips.

What type of shoes or boots do you need for hiking?

Traditionally, everyone hiked in big leather boots. But now there are several different types of footwear to choose from: trail running shoes, day hiking shoes, day hiking boots or backpacking boots.

Trail running shoes for hiking

Trail running shoes with fun socks

Trail runners have grippy lugs on the soles to give you traction on the trail, along with cushioning to protect your feet from roots and rocks. This creates a comfortable and flexible feel, so some people like to wear trail running shoes for hiking. Since trail runners don’t have the same stability, ankle support or durability of hiking boots, they’re not for everyone. Check out how to choose trail runners to find the right ones for you.

Trail running shoes are best for: Short hikes on groomed trails, running on trails, thru-hiking, hikers who don’t need ankle support or lots of stability, and hikers who are carrying lightweight packs.

Pros:

  • Lightweight and super flexible with no break-in time needed
  • Most are nicely breathable, and they’re more durable than road running shoes

Cons:

  • No ankle support
  • Less durable and stable than hiking boots or hiking shoes
  • Most aren’t very water resistant (there are some waterproof ones, but they can be warm if you’re hiking in hot weather)

Day hiking shoes

Day hiking shoes on the trail

Low-cut day hiking shoes take the flexible soles of trail runners and beef them up for the rigors of the trail. They give you more stability than trail runners and also protect your feet a bit more too.

Day hiking shoes are best for: Hiking on groomed trails, hikers with day packs, and hikers who don’t need ankle support or lots of stability.

Pros:

  • Lightweight and flexible with no break-in time needed (especially compared to hiking and backpacking boots)
  • Come in many different fabric types for more breathability or waterproofness
  • More durable than trail running shoes

Cons:

  • Not much ankle support
  • Less durable and less stable than hiking and backpacking boots

Day hiking boots

Day hiking boots on a wooden bridge

Boots for day hiking come in mid- and high-cut styles that offer more ankle support for rugged trails or carrying heavy loads.

Day hiking boots are best for: Technical trails, long-distance hiking, hikers carrying heavy day packs, and hikers who need more ankle support and stability.

Pros:

  • Lots of ankle support thanks to mid- or high-cut cuffs
  • Increased stability (and lack of flex)
  • Durable soles and uppers
  • Most day hiking boots are quite water resistant

Cons:

  • Heavier than hiking or trail running shoes
  • Much less flexible than hiking shoes so you may need a break-in period
  • Most day hiking boots aren’t very breathable

Backpacking boots

Backpacking boots on a hiker next to some trekking poles

Built for heavy loads and gnarly terrain, high-cut backpacking boots stabilize your ankles when you’re carrying a lot of weight in your pack. They’re also stiff to help prevent foot fatigue. Backpacking boots are extremely durable and can stand up to the burliest routes.

Backpacking boots are best for: Rugged terrain and off-trail travel, hikers who need lots of ankle support and stability, and hikers carrying heavy backpacking packs.

Pros:

  • High cut to give you the most ankle support
  • Stiff midsoles provide the most stability and prevent foot fatigue
  • Durable soles and uppers
  • Most backpacking boots are very water resistant

Cons:

  • Heavy
  • Since they’re not super flexible, it means you’ll need to break them in
  • Most backpacking boots aren’t too breathable

Features to look for

When you’re shopping for hiking boots, you’ll see all kinds of materials and features. How do you know if full-grain leather is important? What is a gusseted tongue? All valid questions – here are some common features and materials used in hiking boots, and what makes them useful.

Different Materials

The soles of hiking boots are always rubber, but the part that wraps around your foot (often called uppers) can be made of different types of materials. What it’s made of determines how water-resistant, breathable, durable and lightweight each hiking shoe or boot will be.

  • Full-grain leather: The most durable, abrasion resistant, water-resistant leather. This also makes it the heaviest, the least breathable and the least flexible.
  • Nubuck and suede: Buffed leather that’s softer and more flexible than full-grain leather, but also less durable and less water-resistant.
  • Synthetics: This could mean it’s made of polyester, nylon or polyurethane in a variety of thicknesses and densities. Some may mimic the properties of leather while others are much lighter weight and more breathable. In general, synthetics are lighter, more breathable, more flexible, less expensive and dry faster than leather. But compared to leather, they’re also usually less durable and less water resistant.
  • Mesh: Adds breathability to hiking footwear and lowers weight. Since mesh isn’t that durable, you’ll often find mesh panels in low-wear areas.
  • Waterproof-breathable membranes: On their own, leather and some synthetics have excellent water resistance. To make them waterproof, many hiking boots have a waterproof-breathable membrane sandwiched between the inner and outer layers of the upper. This makes the shoe waterproof while still keeping it a bit breathable. Some shoes use popular waterproof-breathable technology like GORE-TEX or eVent, but others may use their own in-house tech.

Toe cap or rand

A rubber bumper that protects your boot from impacts, like accidentally smashing it into a rock or log. Usually found on the toe, but burlier boots may have a rand all the way around.

Gusseted tongues

A handy feature to keep your rocks out of your socks. A gusseted tongue means the sides of the tongue are connected to the upper part of the boot to prevent dirt, gravel and water from sneaking inside.

How heavy should hiking boots be?

Weight is a bit of trade-off, and something to keep in mind when you compare different boots. Heavy boots are great for durability and support, but the added weight can lead to you feeling tired faster. Lightweight boots and shoes won’t weigh you down but provide much less support. You’ll have to decide which is more important for you depending on your hiking goals.

How to fit hiking boots and shoes

Person lacing up their hiking shoes

Once you’re ready to try on some boots or shoes, head in to your local MEC store and have one of our experienced boot fitters help you. Some stores even offer private boot fitting appointments – give us a call to find out if this is available the MEC store near you.

If you can’t get to a store, then call, email or live chat with our Service Centre. They can recommend different brands based on the foot shape you have and the type of hiking you’re planning to do.

Find the right size

For the most accurate sizing, get your feet measured in store. If you can’t visit a store, use a tape measure to find your foot length in centimetres, then compare that to the size charts on mec.ca. Keep in mind that sizes can vary from brand to brand, so you might not end up wearing your usual size.

Consider your foot shape

Some brands or shoe models are known for fitting wide feet while others are great for narrow heels or flat feet. Don’t be stuck on a number. You could be a size 7 in one company and 8 in another. An MEC staffer can help you find the right boots for your feet, and give you advice on how some brands generally fit compared to others.

Try them on

Set aside some time and plan to try on a few different models or hiking shoes or boots. As much as possible, try to mimic real-world hiking conditions:

  • Wear your favourite hiking socks when you try on hiking boots (your black business socks weren’t meant for hikers).
  • If you wear orthotics, make sure you bring them.
  • Try on boots later in the day; your feet tend to swell a bit during the day, so it gives you a more realistic fit compared to first thing in the morning.
  • Put both boots on, lace them snugly from the bottom up, and then walk around for a while.
  • Find a sloping ramp or stairs, and walk up and down, taking small steps. On the way up, your heel shouldn’t move more than half a centimetre. If it does, the boot may be too large. On the way down, your toes shouldn’t touch the front of the boot. If they do, the boot may be too small.
  • On uneven surfaces, your foot should feel secure inside and not twist inside the boot.
  • If you need more support or an improved fit, try out after-market insoles.

How to Break in new hiking boots

Most modern hiking shoes and boots are ready to wear right out of the box. If they aren’t comfortable on day one, they will never be. But you’ll still need to break them in a bit. This is especially important for stiffer day hiking and backpacking boots.

Start by wearing them around your home or office, then for short walks (try a mall or community centre if you want to try them indoors beyond your living room). Gradually increase the mileage and weight you carry. If the fit isn’t perfect and you haven’t worn them outside, you can return or exchange them under the MEC Rocksolid Guarantee.

Hiking skills workshops

Want to go day hiking but don’t know where to start? Or need to know what to pack for your first overnight hiking trip? Check out MEC hiking and camping workshops to learn from friendly staff experts.