How to Pick the Right Hiking Footwear, According to 2 Experts Who Hike a Whole Lot
Whitney La Ruffa & Maggie Slepian have logged more miles hiking than many have logged driving. When it comes to choosing hiking boots, shoes, and socks—they know from experience. Here's what they have to say about outfitting your feet for adventure.
When choosing the best hiking footwear (read: hiking boots & hiking shoes), you better bet you have options. Do you want a more stable boot with ankle support? Maybe you're looking for something durable yet lightweight that won't break the bank. Everyone will have different, specific needs when picking out the right footwear, but the decision shouldn't intimidate you.
To help you pick out the right boots or shoes so you can get offline and onto the trail as quickly as possible, we tapped Whitney "Allgood" La Ruffa and Maggie Slepian, two avid hikers who've put hundreds of miles on their boots & shoes. Slepian is a Montana-based thru-hiker, writer, and co-founder of Backpackingroutes.com and La Ruffa is an expert hiker and VP of sales at Six Moon Designs.
Whether you're a first time hiker looking to gear up properly or a seasoned veteran curious about making a switch, you can rest assured our experts will take the guesswork out of picking out the perfect shoe to outfit your feet for adventure.
Hiking Boots 101
Because boots can look so similar but range so much in cost, let's start there. It might seem attractive to spend around $100 on a pair of boots, but that may end up hurting you later down the road. Slepian says "Spend more money. If you buy cheaper boots or shoes, you're going to pay for it later—either in foot problems or by buying a whole other pair of shoes. There are a lot of places in your hiking setup where you can save vs. splurge, but footwear is not the place. You're looking at $140-$220 for a solid pair of hiking boots, and $120-$170 for trail runners."
La Ruffa echoes this sentiment, "Personally, I view footwear like I view the tires on my car—it's better to spend a little more since that is my connection to the ground, and provides not only traction on dry ground, but more importantly wet ground. Most boots or hiking shoes in the $150+ price range will probably last longer, have better traction, and more support. So spending that extra money on the front end will save you money in the long run."
And much like a car, brands can play a big role in loyalty and customer satisfaction. "In the traditional hiking boot sense, I think the top contenders for best boots would be Salomon's GT4, Asolo, Danner, La Sportiva, and if you want to go full hog, Limmer." La Ruffa says.
Slepian admits that she's "trail runners all the way!", but offered this about boot brands: "While hiking boots are often more durable, they’re heavier and most people won’t need that much ankle support or stiffness as beginner hikers." However, if you're dead set on boots, she says to start with the trusted brands like Keen, Vasque, and Oboz.
To wrap things up, La Ruffa had this nugget of wisdom to offer, "If you want long-lasting hiking footwear, then boots are the way to go. Boots are great for the person who maybe goes out a handful of times each year and can get 10 years out of their footwear. But if you're like me and hike often, go on longer trips, and get out frequently hiking shoes need to be looked at as a disposable item. I try to get 500-750 miles out of a pair of shoes." If you're curious, his go-to boot right now is the Astral TR1 Merge (a sort of hybrid boot/high-top).
Hiking Shoes 101
Hiking shoes and trail runners have gained significant ground (pun not intended) in both praise and craftsmanship in the last decade or so. These shoes are lightweight, built to last, and designed to keep your feet cushioned, dry, and comfortable for the duration of your trek. Both Slepian and La Ruffa are big fans.
"I always opt for hiking shoes or trail runners over boots. Trail runners are lighter, more comfortable, easier to wear out of the box, and your feet are naturally more used to this amount of flex and cushion from day-to-day sneakers. While hiking boots are often more durable, they’re heavier and most people won’t need that much ankle support as beginner hikers," Slepian continues, "Most of today's trail running shoes are versatile enough for anything from light hikes to moderate, longer backpacking trips."
La Ruffa agrees, "I think a lightweight shoe over a more traditional heavy boot for the average person is the better option. Most hiking shoes these days are born out of the ultra-marathon and trail running market, these shoes have a variety of stiffness and tread patterns. Also, these shoes are more breathable, keeping your feet cooler and reducing the risk of hot spots and blisters."
If this kind of footwear is more your speed, Slepian recommends checking out these brands: HOKA, Altra, Brooks, and Merrell for trail runners. She tells us, "My go-to shoes are the Altra Lone Peak. I’ve been wearing zero-drop shoes on and off for four years now, and my feet just love them. The Lone Peaks are super popular with long-distance hikers and backpackers. They aid in a more natural foot strike, the wide toe box allows your toes to splay out, and the medium cushion is more than enough for most trails."
As for La Ruffa, his go-to is once again the Astral TR1, but he also likes La Sportiva and Solomon. If you're looking for a more budget-friendly option to try out, Merrell also makes a solid pair of hiking shoes for $100.
Hiking Socks 101
Do you know who the most famous footwear philosopher was? Sockrates. He often said "Great things are afoot!" Now that that's out of my system, let's talk about hiking socks. The importance of picking the right sock and sock maintenance is so important that La Ruffa's even blogged about it. He tells us that "Sock choices these days are overwhelming, but since 2015 I have been wearing Point6 socks exclusively. They offer a lifetime warranty, so if you get a hole, they'll replace them. They also have support and compression where needed to help with blood flow, fatigue, and reduced slippage."
Slepian offers her advice: "For socks, look for a mid-cut crew height to help keep debris out of your shoes, and a reinforced toe and heel. This doesn't just help the sock last longer, it helps prevent the sock from moving around in the shoe, which in turn helps prevent blisters. A merino blend is your best bet here, as the fibers are naturally odor-resistant and wicking, which means that if your sock gets wet, the moisture will pull away from your feet and keep them dry. Again, blister prevention is the name of the game here."
As for the brands they trust to keep their feet comfy and blister-free? They're big fans of Darn Tough, Farm to Feet, Throlo, and Swiftwick. Most importantly, says Slepian, "Look for a merino or other wicking fiber blend, a soft knit, and a lighter patterning over the top of the foot to avoid constriction."
In the end, you've got choices. And hopefully our experts were able to shed some light on an otherwise intimidating topic. La Ruffa's philosophy is simple: "Like any activity outdoors, comfort is key, having a well-fitted shoe that is comfortable to be in all day will certainly encourage you to get out more, go longer distance and overall have a better experience." And Slepian's is much different: "For first-time hikers, stick with what you know and wear a pair of shoes you know works for you when you're on your feet for a while. If you're getting out hiking for the first time, chances are you aren't backpacking for a week at a time or doing technical off-trail peaks. Most people will be happier with a flexible pair of trail running shoes than they would with a heavier pair of boots."