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I've always used any old shoes for hiking. Are there any real benefits to using specially made boots?

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One thing not worth its own answer: If you have a heavy backpack, hiking shoes offer you more suspension. This comforts not only ankles, but also the rest of joints. –  Paul Paulsen May 19 at 18:55
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What are "old shoes"? Running shoes? Military surplus shoes? Without being more specific, this questions could be reworded as "what are trekking shoes?". –  Lukasz May 20 at 9:56
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@jmusser In my experience, I can go hiking in any old shoe. But if I go backpacking the extra weight on my body is strange, so I need very stiff soles in my shoes to compensate over a multi-day hike. –  theJollySin May 20 at 15:55
    
@Łukasz웃LツThe phrase "any old ___" is idiomatic and means "whatever ___ is available", not "any ___ which is old". –  David Richerby May 21 at 15:22
    
Interestingly almost everyone I know here in soggy old England call the step down from walking boots (what you're calling hiking boots) walking shoes, which are very similar to walking boots but usually never made of leather - just an interesting difference in language usage :) –  Aravona Jun 25 at 11:20

10 Answers 10

up vote 22 down vote accepted

You are using your old used sneaker-like city-shoes, sport-shoes or jogging-shoes to go hiking? Well, those are made for really flat paths without lots of surface irregularities and they aren't designed for rough conditions (wet and/or cold, difficult terrain, bigger loose stones and so on). Saying that, hiking shoes/boots are better for those conditions, because:

  • they offer more stability in the shaft so you aren't that likely to roll your ankle
  • they have a special lacing which allows for more adaption
  • they are often designed to be highly water-resistant (including membranes)
  • they have a coarse structured sole which is anti-skidding
  • they can have a thicker lining for colder conditions
  • they are robust and aren't likely to break while on a longer trek
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I'm not going to downvote out of disagreement, but ... they have a coarse structured sole which is anti-skidding Running shoes are designed for maximum friction, just like hiking boots. they can have a thicker lining for colder conditions And this is a disadvantage in hot weather. they are often designed to be highly water-resistant (including membranes) And this is a disadvantage when you aren't slogging through water or mud, and you want sweat to get out. –  Ben Crowell May 19 at 15:55
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@BenCrowell If you are going in hot weather without any chances of rain and you have solely stable terrain, obviously walking/sport shoes are fine as well. I edited my answer, because I said "hiking shoes are better, because...". I thought it's pretty obvious that you have to take into account the actual conditions. But in general you can expect some rain or mud so I prefer hiking boots. And I said they can have a thicker lining. Of course I am not going on a summer hike with the thick winter boots but you have the choices (which you don't have for the standard sport shoe). –  EverythingRightPlace May 19 at 17:14
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Running shoes are not designed to cope when you have 15-20 kg on your back, affecting your balance, putting more strain on your ankles. Running shoes usually do not have big heels, something that is a huge disadvantage when walking downhill on slippery terrain. –  Greenstone Walker May 20 at 11:20
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@"Running shoes are designed for maximum friction, just like hiking boots" I Agree! Which is why I use mud tires for drag racing and racing slicks for rally! –  NPSF3000 May 21 at 14:41
    
I think you've misunderstood the phrase "any old shoes". "Any old ___" is idiomatic and means "whatever ___ is available", not "any ___ which is old". –  David Richerby May 21 at 15:27

My ankles sprain easily. I have good quality walking boots that give good ankle support, because I need them. You may not. Everyone’s different. Yes, they’re heavier than runners, significantly heavier, in fact, but for my situation, they’re worth it. When I’m on rough terrain, and especially if I’m also carrying a heavy backpack, I can sprain my ankles very easily. I never have done wearing my walking boots.

Also, of course, there’s the fact that I do most of my walking here in Ireland, where conditions underfoot are often damp. Gore-Tex lining is awesome stuff.

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I wear my boots as my daily walk-arounds because I've twisted my ankle far too many times stepping onto or off of a curb the wrong way, or missing a step, or what have you. Now that I wear the boots full-time, it's been a long time since I've had an ankle roll like that. –  Tripp Lilley May 20 at 23:56

There are many who nowadays shun boots and prefer to have lightweight footwear in all terrains and most weather conditions.

It's worth having a look at Chris Townsend's website at http://www.christownsendoutdoors.com/.

He has hiked many long distance trails, including some in the US and has put together an article on his blog about the topic of Lightweight Footwear.

It would be worth reading this article for the argument against hiking boots in most cases.

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It would be good to summarize Townsend's article, so that your answer still makes sense if his blog disappears or the page gets moved, breaking your link. –  David Richerby May 21 at 15:24

Big, heavy "waffle stomper" boots are mainly a relic of the past, along with wool knickers and steel canteens. For most conditions, modern running shoes work far better. Any weight on your feet cuts down on your efficiency much more than a similar amount of weight on your back. Also, the heavier your boots get, the harder it is to keep from getting blisters, regardless of how hard you try to get the right fit. If you find it a nuisance to have pebbles always getting inside your low-cut running shoes, there are lightweight trail gaiters these days that you attach using velcro and a hook. (I buy them from dirtygirlgaiters.com.) For people like me who have wide feet, it tends to be easier to find running shoes that fit properly; in particular, nobody seems to make crampon-compatible boots in wide sizes.

Boots are better in certain specific conditions:

  • You know you have to walk through mud or cross a large number of shallow streams.

  • You'll be in snow all day.

  • You need something crampon-compatible.

  • You need to do a lot of bushwhacking through chaparral that includes cactus.

One of the justifications traditionally offered for heavy boots is that they gave ankle support, and some people felt that they needed the ankle support when carrying a heavy pack or on particularly rough terrain such as talus. Many people, however, do just fine in these conditions with running shoes. It's true that when crossing talus, boots will make you less vulnerable to an injury from a heavy rock that hits your ankle from the side or that falls on your toe.

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Between dry conditions and snow all day can be anything. I was on hike yesterday with an easy (but steep) terrain, melting conditions and sunshine all day. I was sweating a lot. I had no wet feet in my Gore walking boots (no rain but snow/mud on the ground) and I had less problems slipping away compared to normal shoes. Weight is a big factor, you are right, but I see the stability of boots (long shaft) being a major advantage. It's not that likely to roll your ankle then. What one should choose depends on the particular hiking style (sure-footed?) and the conditions. –  EverythingRightPlace May 19 at 17:38
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Great answer. I'd like to add that ankle support is a bit of a myth. To quote Ray Jardine, "What hikers need is not ankle support, but ankle strength." Building up ankle strength over time reduces the chance of a rolled ankle. Wet shoes are also not a problem if you're not planning to hike in the winter or through snow all day. Again quoting Jardine and from my experience, "When I hike in running shoes, I know they will not become massively heavy when soaked, and that they will dry fairly quickly at the first opportunity." An argument for running shoes is in the book: "Trail Life" by Jardine. –  Andrew May 21 at 20:41
    
@Andrew Building up arm and finger strength makes it also less likely to fall while climbing. I will still stick to a rope ;) –  EverythingRightPlace May 22 at 15:44
    
@bashophil The choice of boots vs. shoes is often less serious than whether to rope up, but I see your point. People should choose whatever footwear offers them the most comfort and ability to meet their hiking goals. Research on boots vs. shoes in terms of 'chance of ankle sprain' seems inconclusive based on a quick search, however in my experience I find I have greater agility in lighter shoes. For someone with previous ankle injuries, they could use flexible brace designed for that. –  Andrew May 22 at 18:21

The simple answer for me is that my feet hurt less. There are two factors that cause foot pain with regular shoes. The first is that rocks poke your feet through the soles. The second is that without good ankle support, you use more muscles in your feet to balance on uneven terrain.

Personally, I didn't realize how much pain was caused by my shoes until I tried proper hiking boots. I just thought that was an unavoidable part of hiking. I recommend trying a pair out and see what difference it makes in the kind of hiking you usually do. It's hard to explain the benefits without experiencing it for yourself.

The other benefit I haven't seen mentioned is snake bite protection. Rattlesnakes have pretty good camouflage, and I've had them strike my boot when I get too close without seeing them.

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Ah. Something I hadn't even thought about, since I do most of my walking in a country which is famous for its lack of snakes. –  TRiG May 20 at 2:51
    
I was going to upvote, anyway, but the mention of snakes sealed it. I've come way too close to a copperhead or two where I am, and I'm thankful I had my boots on, even though I didn't end up provoking a strike. –  Tripp Lilley May 20 at 23:59

One advantage I'm missing so far is that hiking boots also protect the ankles against the outside (not only against sprainng): from getting scratched by or hitting stones, wooden branches sticking up, or stuff like blackberry twines (which I find very bad as they scratch heavily over the front part of the ankle, particularly where that tendon is).

Of course it is possible to hike safely on bare feet in these conditions, but it is going to be extremely slow compared to having a kind of boots that allows you to just forget these nuisances.

(For the rest of the legs I find the scratching far less annoying)

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The simplest answer is this. Hiking boots, with their higher top, prevent material such as stones, mud, snow, and water from easily getting into the shoe.

If I hike on a graveled trail for example, I must empty my walking shoes of small stones about every 5 miles. In rougher conditions, it is easy to step into a puddle, or snow drift, that is more than ankle deep, so wearing a high top boot is quite important.

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There is a superior solution to this problem, which is lightweight gaiters, as described in my answer. –  Ben Crowell May 23 at 3:44

Good hiking boots also provide good arch and foot support. Even without the extra weight of a pack the constant stress on ones arches can be very fatiguing if not even damaging.

Although humans were originally designed to go without footwear, most people today do not have feet that can go miles and miles without proper arch, toe and foot support.

So, if one is going to be walking for miles, it is wise to provide the additional support the feet need to make the trek. Soft soled shoes typically do not provide that support.

A steel shank may also be of benefit to most people, as well, because it provides additional support for the arch.

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Arch support does not differentiate running shoes from hiking boots. If you want arch support, you can get running shoes with arch support, or add inserts. –  Ben Crowell May 23 at 3:45

As someone who's done a decent amount of hiking both with proper boots and a standby I used for years, hightop skateboarding shoes, here's the three major differences I've noticed:

  • The boots definitely win in the waterproofness department. I would not do an extremely muddy trail in shoes.

  • The boots have better traction but the significance of this is less than it might seem. Skateboarding shoes, which have an almost completely smooth, flat sole, only have significant traction on dry, smooth rock -- but the sole is also very supple and flexible, making it easier to feel the ground, twist and torque from the ball and maintain your balance if you have strong ankles. I started out using them on weekend trips into the Hudson Highlands from NYC, and eventually did the Appalachian Trail through the whole state one week with them, including a fair bit of up and down with a 40 lb. pack, and never felt a lack of confidence in my shoes. I was way more impressed than I would have predicted this way.

  • Although I guess it depends on the individual article, the shoes are likely to be more comfortable and cooler than boots, probably because they don't have any rigidity, support, or padding in them.

I was also very surprised doing the Appalachian Trail the number of people I ran into wearing even less substantial things -- such as tennis shoes -- who claimed to be in the middle of doing months worth of the trail. Perhaps I'd just never noticed this before because I am someone who had always worn boots.

I've got a nice pair of light boots now that are great, but in a pinch I'd say if all you have are running shoes, etc., don't worry about it -- if you're like me, you'll be pleasantly surprised.

I have a friend I've done overnights with who swears by trail type sandles also. The thing that makes me most trepidatious about that is all the exposed skin, although I've never seen him suffer any because of it.

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The thing with the flat sole of shoes like the mentioned skateboarding shoes are, that you loose the contact to the ground very easily when you go e.g. on a medium slope with some flint on it. And there are also boots which are very comfortable and light. Speaking about comfort and climate for your feet is the material of the shoe. I doubt skateboarding and tennis shoes let your feet breath a lot. I prefer some leather shoes. –  EverythingRightPlace May 22 at 15:36

The extra weight gives you more of a workout?

I personally only use hiking boots when backpacking - due to the need for good stability. I have done Whitney 2x, half dome/cloud's rest 10x, other 14'ers, both climbing rapidly and running down in sneakers.

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