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Choosing the Right Hiking Shoes and Socks

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For some of us, it can be hard enough choosing an everyday pair of shoes we like. Throw in all of the different factors to consider when purchasing hiking shoes and socks and it can feel downright impossible to make a decision. 

Having comfortable and appropriate footwear can make or break an otherwise great backpacking trip. As a result, we hope to provide some information to help you make the best decision on hiking footwear.

Hiking Boots vs. Hiking Shoes

Just like regular shoes, much of this decision comes down to personal preference. However, what terrain you will be covering is just as important to keep in mind. If you will be traversing a lot of snowy mountains, boots would probably be a better investment for their insulation and durability. Very rocky areas are also better suited for boots, which have thicker soles and are able to protect the bottom of your feet from wear and tear. In most cases, though, hiking shoes will be acceptable. The lightweight ones composed of many mesh panels are especially great for frequent water crossings or very warm weather since they dry quickly and breathe better. 

Boots 

Pros

  • Provide more ankle support
  • Thick material and design are more likely to keep water out 
  • Keep your feet warmer in cold climates/weather

Cons

  • Heavier
  • Take much longer to dry once wet
  • Stiff/not as flexible

Shoes

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • More breathable
  • Greater flexibility/not stiff
  • Dry quicker

Cons

  • Very low ankle support
  • Not the best option for snowy/cold climates due to breathability

Lightweight high-top trail runners are also gaining popularity, such as the Altra Lone Peak. These provide the best of both worlds: the ankle support of a traditional style hiking boot with the lighter weight and breathability of a hiking shoe. They vary in the amount of cushioning they provide, but most range from moderate to heavy. There are even models made specifically for covering snowy terrain, such as the Salomon S-Lab XA Alpine 2

Another deciding factor for many hikers is whether to invest in waterproof shoes or boots. There are pros and cons to these as well, but more than likely you will not need waterproof ones. Again, the type of terrain you frequent most is going to be the biggest factor. In general, waterproof hiking shoes are best for covering snowy, alpine regions or rainy, damp areas, such as the Pacific Northwest. Keep in mind, though, that even waterproof shoes are not completely waterproof. Once they do get wet, they take even longer to dry than non-waterproof shoes due to their low breathability. Plus, they can make your feet sweat more quickly because of the waterproof lining inside the shoe, which can lead to blisters.

A Word on Camp Shoes...

Many backpackers like to bring “camp shoes” along, which are an extra pair of lightweight shoes to wear solely around your campsite. Why? Camp shoes come in handy for several reasons.

  • It allows your regular hiking shoes time to dry/air out. 
  • Most people like to take slip-on shoes, such as crocs, sandals, or water shoes. In other words, something that is easy to put on and take off as you get in and out of your tent. Plus, these shoes can come in handy for crossing shallow streams if you don't want to worry about your hikers getting wet. 
  • It allows your feet to air out and breathe as well. Just be careful stumbling around in the dark with camp shoes on.

Socks

Hiking socks are arguably even more varied than shoes. Here is some useful information to keep in mind on the different styles and materials available when purchasing hiking socks.

Materials

Wool: One of, if not the, most popular choices of material for hiking socks. Wool provides plenty of cushioning, wicks away moisture well, and is naturally antimicrobial. Merino wool is especially popular now because it is higher-end wool and not itchy like other types. 

Wool/Synthetic Blends: These have become very popular as well. They offer all of the benefits of wool while providing more give and are usually lighter in weight.

Polyester: Polyester blend socks dry quickly and wick moisture away well, making them a great choice for summer use. Polyester is also used in some wool blends to provide added longevity and insulation.

Cotton: There is a saying amongst outdoorsmen of “cotton kills”. Any type of cotton clothing, including socks, is advised against as it retains moisture, which can cause blisters at the least or lead to hypothermia at the worst, depending on the type of climate you are hiking in.

In general, warm, thick wool socks are going to be your choice in cold climates or seasons. Synthetic wool blends work great for spring and fall, still providing cushion, but having a bit more breathability to them. Synthetic wool blends or pure synthetic socks, such as polyester or nylon, tend to be thinner, allowing your feet to not heat up and sweat as quickly during hot months. They also dry faster once they do become wet.

Cushioning/Thickness

Ultralight: Very thin with little to no padding. These are best for hot weather and day hikes and can also be used as liner socks. (More on sock liners below.)

Light: On the thin and lightweight side, these socks are designed more for hot weather and wicking ability as well. However, they do provide cushioning in high-stress areas, such as the heel and ball of the foot.

Medium: Good all-purpose socks. These contain more cushioning and insulation than light-duty socks, making them more durable and longer-lasting. Medium duty socks are good for shorter trips or even longer ones over moderate terrain.

Heavy: Most cushioned, insulated, and thickest. Heavy socks are best for cold weather, snowy mountains, or longer trips with tough terrain. 

Sock Liners: Thin socks used inside of a thicker pair. You can purchase specific sock liners or just use another pair of appropriate lighter weight socks. Using these help prevent blisters by letting your foot slide inside of the thicker sock rather than rubbing against the inside of your shoes. This system helps wick away moisture better as well.

Styles

Just like everyday socks, there are a variety of styles to choose from in the hiking sock world, including no-show, ankle, crew, and knee-high lengths. More than likely, you will want the same style that you normally wear for comfort. However, the style you choose will also be dependent on the height of your hiking shoes. For example, if you have high-top boots, you will want to invest in socks that come up above the top of them (crew or knee-high) to prevent unnecessary rubbing. 

Other Factors to Consider

  • For the best fit, measure the actual size of your foot instead of going by your shoe size when purchasing hiking socks.
  • Socks should be snug without being too tight to prevent cutting off circulation to your feet. You also don't want socks to be too large as this can cause the extra fabric to bunch up, rub, and cause blisters.
  • The heel of your sock should line up with the heel of your foot correctly for the same reason stated above; Extra fabric = rubbing = blisters.
We hope this guide helps you in choosing the perfect hiking shoes and socks for your feet and needs. Is there any specific hiking foot attire that you highly recommend? Let us know in the comment below!
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