What Should I Wear, Boots or Shoes?

Most experienced backpackers would agree that among the most important pieces of gear, footwear is one of them. What they may not agree on is what kind of footwear to actually wear while backpacking. As with most things in this outdoor activity, it really comes down to personal preference. Some people simply feel more confident knowing they have a boot protecting their foot, while others are perfectly fine hiking up the trail in sandals.

the options are many

Backpacking footwear comes in about as many different variations as you want. I’ve personally seen someone hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in Crocs and they did just fine for hundreds and hundreds of miles. There are companies out there that preach the benefits of a sturdy boot that provides ankle support while others promote hiking in a trail running shoe. Depending on the wearer of the shoe or boot, both are right and both are wrong!

I know, the point of this website is to make something complicated into something simple to navigate and I probably just made choosing a footwear a complicated topic, but I promise it’s not so bad. By telling you my own personal journey with footwear, you’ll be on your way to making the right choice.

I loved boots

For as long as I can remember, I had been a boot guy. Anytime I entered the woods, my feet had to be covered in a sturdy boot that was waterproof. I live in the Pacific Northwest so having wet feet was a common thing especially if going off trail. When I got into backpacking, I just figured hiking in boots was the thing to do because of how prevalent they were at places like REI. For the first season or two I wore boots and didn’t question it…until I learned about thru hiking.

Learning about thru hiking Footwear

Once I started looking into what long distance hikers were using to hike all those miles, I became fascinated with the fact that they were NOT using boots, but rather just a simple pair of lightweight, non-waterproof, trail running shoes. This blew my mind. Every video, blog post, and interview I came across showed hikers hiking in running shoes and accepting the fact that your feet just get wet sometimes when hiking. I couldn’t believe it, but believed that they had to have been onto something so I gave it a try…and totally chickened out.

I bought a pair of Salomon Speedcross shoes that were not waterproof. They felt amazing on my feet but right as I pulled up to the trailhead and prepared to head down the trail, I swapped footwear because I feared the idea of not wearing a boot. I just couldn’t go through with it so I returned the shoes and got a waterproof pair of the same style to try out at a later date. I did, and it was amazing.

The thing about trail runners

I fell in love with wearing trail shoes within the first mile of hiking in them. It made perfect sense to me that wearing a shoe that is comfortable right out of the box was the thing to do. I enjoyed the freedom of movement, comfort, and agility, and sure-footedness. For the first time, I felt free in the woods to do and go wherever I like without the feeling of lugging a boot around on my feet.

After a summer of hiking in shoes, I swapped over to boots for hunting season and hated it. I felt like I was wearing clown shoes.

Boots no doubt have their place in the backcountry, but I’m of the opinion now that unless you’re climbing a mountain or doing some severe off trail traveling, a trail runner or simple running shoe is the way to go.

Hiking the PCT

I mentioned I hadn’t been able to get myself to full commit to a lightweight trail shoe that didn’t have some sort of water resistance. That all changed when I hiked the PCT in 2017. What I found was that a non-waterproof shoe might indeed allow water to enter the shoe, but it also dries out incredibly fast and breathes far better.

It’s incredibly important to keep your feet breathing while hiking. Wearing a liner around your foot keeps moisture in whereas a trail shoe that is breathable allows much more airflow. When the shoe does get wet from rain or low hanging bushes, your shoes can dry out much faster during breaks on the trail by simply setting them in the sun to air out. Waterproof liners are a pain to get dry and often cause more trouble than they do good.

I hiked over 2000 miles in the snow, through creeks, and in the desert with a simple lightweight trail running shoe and it worked flawlessly. My feet would get dirtier than before, but that just came with the territory. I actually came to really enjoy the feeling of my feet breathing while hiking. There were times when I could feel a breeze moving through my shoe and in the heat of the day, it sure felt great.

By the time I reached Canada, I no longer wished for or even considered wearing a pair of waterproof shoes. As long as I was moving down a trail, I was perfectly happy with no weather protection. On the longest day of my hike, I fell in a creek with my shoes on and completely soaked through every bit of those shoes. I continued hiking, swapped socks regularly and before long my shoes were dry again. Had that happened with waterproof boots or shoes, it would have taken days to fully dry out.

My Advice for you

You’re just going to have to try some stuff out. There are lots of different feet out there and lots of shoes to choose from. I can’t tell you what brand to wear because we all have our preferences. That said, I do think that if you’re headed out on a summer backpacking trip then you should really consider a pair of trail runners of your preferred brand.

You may have to go through a few brands before you find the one that works for you, but that’s just part of the game we play. The key here is to keep your feet breathing and not suffocate them while you’re on trail. More air circulation means less chance of a blister and that’s what we’re aiming for here.

Rarely Ever in Boots,

Emory