One of the most common questions seen in outdoor forums is “What shoe should I wear?” Because of the innovation of new technologies and many more brands jumping into the game, it can be a daunting process to sift through multiple retailers and reviews on websites to find the perfect one.
The first bit of advice you will (and should) hear about footwear is go try them on for yourself! This is really important because what works for others may not work for you, and even what you think may be perfect by looking online, doesn’t actually fit. This bears repeating: please try them on, or if buying online check into the return policy of the retailer.
The second most important thing to consider is your activity. In recent years shoes have become highly specialized for what there were once only a couple types offered. This backcountry.com article gives a great detailed overview of the different categories. Briefly, these are the types of shoes you’ll be seeing in stores for the summer months, and what they have to offer. Keep and eye out for two technologies available in footwear: Vibram and Gore-Tex. Vibram is the brand name for the sticky soles that many shoes boast, and Gore-Tex is the waterproof yet breathable membrane that lines not only footwear but much outdoor gear.
-Trail Runners: These types of shoes are more like specialized tennis shoes than hiking shoes. They are agile, lightweight, and flexible, but on the flip side don’t offer much support. They are designed to be very breathable, and many these days come with waterproofing as well. Trail runners are shoes for people who want to go fast and light, and already have strong foot and ankle muscles built up.
-Hiking Shoes: These shoes are usually more durable than trail runners, and will have better tread. They also have more support due to the materials they are made out of, which will help if you are carrying a pack. Most are waterproof; they are best for hot days when it might rain.
-Hiking/Backpacking Boots: There is an even further breakdown of hiking and backpacking boots if you get really into it, but for our purposed we will combine them. Boots will offer more support than the hiking shoe, sometimes they are simply taller versions of a brand’s shoe. They tend to have a heavier and stiffer sole. The tradeoff for the weight is extra support if you’re carrying a heavy pack, or for someone who has weaker ankles or knees. They are great for going through mud, snow, and streams as they are almost all waterproof.
-Approach Shoes: Designed as a lightweight option for climbers to wear up to a crag, these shoes have made their way into the hiking market now as well. They are a mix between a trail runner and a hiking shoe but will have tighter toe box and a stickier sole – usually the Vibram technology. These are ideal for people looking to scramble on more technical terrain than trail-walking, but the lightweight design comes at the expense of support.
Now that you have narrowed down what type of shoe you’re looking for, it’s time to start to look at some brands. While there are some great places, like OutdoorGearLab.com, to find advice for a specific shoe, sometimes it’s a little easier to start with which brand may fit your needs best. There are so many brands it’s hard to know what to look for and which to trust, but here is a brief summary of what we know from experience, reviews, and reputation of the most common companies you’ll find at places like REI or a local outdoor retailer.
Keen got started in 2003 with their definitive ‘toe bumper’ design element – a burst of rubber around the toes as an added feature of protection. This comes in especially handy in some of their hiking sandals (one of the few brands listed here to have a true hiking sandal), as it gets rid of the issue of an open toe but still allows for a breathable sandal-style shoe for very hot weather for the casual hiker. Other than their sandals, they have a good range of moderate hiking footwear for both men and women. They are well-known and loved for their comfortable wide fitting shoes, and tend to also be lightweight. However, Keen’s are not particularly known for being durable – they are in a lower price range and do not have a high construction quality. You will probably get one season, maybe two, depending on your use, before the tread starts to wear off and cloth parts start to fail. These are not shoes meant for scrambling on rocks, and it will show quickly if you choose to do so.
MVP: Targhee II – great hiking shoe/boot for a wider foot offered in low/mid, men’s and women’s, and even comes in wide.
A well known and award winning brand, Merrell holds a high standard for both comfort and style – not something many other brands focus on. If you want your feet looking good while hitting the trails, Merrell is for you. Geared for the casual to moderate hiker, they also have some great options for trail running. Additionally, they offer one of the largest selections of women-specific shoes, but only some of their shoes come in wide versions. Their lightweight construction adds to the comfort, and they are generally a very breathable shoe.
MVP: Trail Glove 3 – a lightweight trail running shoe similar to Vibram’s Five Fingers that is extra sensitive to the ground with a grippy sole
A European based and produced shoe, Lowa footwear has been around for a long time. They have a huge selection from casual to rock climbing to hiking to mountaineering, but have one really popular hiking shoe for our purposes here, the Renegade. They also offer both narrow and wide versions, as well as both genders, to a number of their most popular shoes. Lowas tend to be known as very comfortable shoes, and are made with comfort as the first priority by utilizing a number of specific technologies to improve it. However, sometimes that comfort comes at the cost of durability because the shoes, even with Vibram soles, don’t hold up well to much more than a flat or moderate trail. For the cost of the shoe, it can be a little expensive to need to replace it sooner than the 5-7 year guarantee that Lowa promises.
MVP: Renegades – Lowa’s most popular hiking shoe that is very comfortable and lightweight
Even a quick glance at Salomon’s website will tell you that the sports that the company designs for are mostly competitive – thus the name of the game here is performance. While they make some crowd favorites for trail running, even when producing a hiking shoe Salomon takes the fast and light approach to their footwear. They even have a Quicklime technology that speeds up the time it takes to tie your shoe. Ideally these shoes are made for the athlete who wants to go ultralight or is a fastpacker, as some of that speed performance can take away from the supportive nature that other brands may have. They tend to have a little narrow of fit.
MVP: Speedcross 3 – a high-performance trail runner that can even do well in snow
Asolo is an Italian-based company that sells footwear through the wide range of casual all the way to winter alpine. For the shoes we are concerned with for this guide, they have a good selection of approach, hiking, and backpacking selections available, with many women’s versions and sizes. They tend to be very lightweight, with reports of not needing a lot of break-in time. As for sizing, Asolo can run on the narrower side. All in all a pretty sturdy shoe, but in recent years they have had some issues with the sole wearing out quickly and separating from the shoe on many of their products. The issue seems to have been resolved, but it’s perhaps recommended to pay the extra $20 or so if there is a Vibram option to your specific shoe, since it wasn’t a problem with these.
MVP: Fugitive (men’s) or the Stynger (women’s) – while not winning any awards, this is a popular and durable hiking boot.
An Italian based company housed in Boulder, CO in the US, Scarpa is mostly known for their technical footwear but surprises by offering a number of great options for all four of our non-technical summer categories from trail running to heavy backpacking boots. You name it and they have a shoe for it. While certainly at a higher price point, Scarpa makes a damn durable shoe. You will never see reviewer saying “I’m on my third pair of…”, because these will last many miles and years. In some models that extra durability comes with extra weight, but also extra support, while other models are designed to preform fast and light. They are generally known to have a wider fit, and offer many options for women’s sizing and style.
MVP: Kinesis Pro GTX – Durable, waterproof and with a grippy tread, this backpacking boot is for all types of terrain
Very similar to Scarpa, this Italian based company also finds it’s home in Boulder, CO, and is well known for it’s technical climbing footwear. While not offering quite as many products for hiking and backpacking as Scarpa, La Sportiva really shines in the trail running category with some aggressive lightweight and award winning shoes. They are a durable and comfortable right out of the box with a solid construction. If your feet aren’t liking the wide size of Scarpa, try these as they tend to be a narrower fit. They also offer most models in women’s.
MVP: Wildcat – a very cushioned trail running shoe with a breathable mesh and very sticky sole
Five Ten makes mostly technical rock climbing shoes, but they also make approach shoes – and they make them well – for which they get an honorable mention on this guide. The few varieties of their hiking shoes are nothing to write home about, but the Five Ten Guide Tennies are the most well-liked and popular approach shoes around and a go-to favorite among people who want a shoe that scrambles and does light technical work. Their lace-up design provides a custom fit, and the shoe comes in various materials, colors, low or mid height, and both women’s and men’s.
MVP: Guide Tennie – check these out if you’re looking for a solid approach shoe.
Now that you have a better handle on some of the brands you’ll encounter out there, there are a few closing points to keep in mind. While it is ideal to already know your activity, this may be a little tougher for those newer to the outdoors. If so, dropping money on the more expensive end of the range here can seem scary. Thus if you don’t know your activity quite yet, at least know your price range, and know that sometimes a less expensive shoe that only lasts a season might be what you’re looking for until you peg down exactly what you want (or don’t want) in a shoe and are ready to spend the bigger bucks. And lastly, worth repeating again because it’s so very important, try the shoes on! You will find people loyal to every one of these brands (there’s a reason they’re in all the big stores!), but also people who don’t care for them as much. The perfect shoe for you is what fits your foot, and only your foot.
Meg Kies is a former Wisconsin girl currently living in Boulder, CO. An avid ice climber & mountaineer, Meg is currently working her way through climbing all of Colorado’s 58 named 14er summits. She’s also become our features editor here at SUMMIT. Besides submitting her own pieces she’ll be helping to curate other content here on the Dispatch blog. You can find out more about Meg and read some of her other exciting posts at megofthemountain.com
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