One valuable lesson I’ve learned while on the trail is that proper footwear is a must! The more you hike, the more you’ll notice pain in your feet from wearing the wrong shoes. Your time on the trail will become less difficult and more comfortable after this important purchase.

Although they are not difficult to buy, hiking shoes are much different than normal shoes. Therefore, how you shop for them will also be different. In order to make the process simpler, here’s what you need to know before buying your first pair.

Where To Go

There are several different stores that sell hiking boots and shoes. If you’re looking for a cheaper option, try Academy or Dick’s Sporting Goods. If you want a more durable pair that will last you many years, head to REI or Outdoor World. In either case, be sure to shop for your shoes in person, since trying them on is critical.

What To Look For

1. Boots or Shoes?

There are many options for hiking footwear, but the most popular types are boots and shoes. So which do you choose? It depends on your activity level, the weather and climate of your hike, and your personal preference. When it comes down to it, here are the major differences between the two.

LighterThicker base for rocky and uneven terrain
Allows more flexibilityWider and more stable
Better for day hikes and trail runningGood for a steady pace
More breathableLonger lasting
Not as much tractionAnkle support
No ankle protectionHeavier
Don’t last as longCan get hot

2. Important Components

After choosing the type of footwear that’s best for you, determine what materials you want for your shoe. Below are some of the most important components to consider when hiking shoe shopping. A simple Google search will bring up the different parts of the shoe or boot you are considering so that you can make the most informed decision.

  • Leather: Full-grain leather can be a very useful material. It makes the boot more durable and it helps with water resistance. Consider this component if you plan on doing long or multi-day trips or if you will be hiking on rocky terrain. The cons of full leather are a longer break-in time and a heavier, hotter feeling.
  • Nylon: Some hiking boots and shoes use a mix of leather and nylon to make them more breathable. These will feel lighter and probably won’t break the bank. But you will have to give up the water resistance feature.
  • Waterproof Membranes: A true waterproof component is offered in some hiking shoes that use special material to protect your feet from invading water. The downside is that these shoes can cause excessive sweating in intense heat.
  • Insulation: Depending on where you plan on taking your hike, this may be an important factor for you. In extremely cold conditions, insulation can keep your feet warm, make you more comfortable and even prevent frost bite. Consider this component for a hiking boot if you know there will be snow and low temperatures on the trail.

Trying Them On

Although the different types and components of hiking footwear is important, making sure they fit right is essential. There’s no pain comparable to a long day (or multiple days) of hiking with your cramped, swollen, blistered toes screaming in pain with each step. To avoid this dilemma, know what you’re looking for when you try on your shoes at the store.

The first step is to wear the right socks. I recommend investing in some hiking socks, but make sure to at least try on your shoes with a thick pair of socks.

If you’re shopping somewhere with outdoor experts, like REI, ask for help from a worker who can find you the exact shoe and size you need. Otherwise, find a shoe that best fits your needs and try on a pair. While the size on the box may or may not be that of your normal shoe size, find a shoe that feels like it is between one half and a full size too big. Even with the hiking socks on, your toes should have plenty of room from the front of the shoe.

Lastly, make sure to tie them how you would on the trail. Make a tight knot and walk around in them. They should feel like they hug your feet but still leave plenty of room for movement. If not, try a different size or type.

After Buying

Make sure to fully break-in your new hiking boots before hitting the trail. Generally, boots take longer to break-in than shoes (especially leather). Wear them around the house, on a walk around your neighborhood or on a trip to the store.

If something feels wrong with your hiking boots, don’t hesitate to go back to the store and exchange them for a different pair. You don’t want to get stuck on the trail with ill-fitting shoes and uncomfortable feet.

After my own experience with inadequate shoes on the trail (read more about how this experience made me rethink the power of the human body), I rushed to the shoe store as soon as I could. After finding my perfect fit, I haven’t had any foot pain or discomfort. Now I can fully focus on the trail and the beauty around me. I feel comfortable going on longer day hikes and can even consider backpacking. Before your next hike, be sure to hit the shoe store to buy the best pair for you!


  1. Great advice, Taylor. Rachel and I will be buying new hiking boots in the very near future, so your blog is timely. Thanks for sharing!

    1. No problem! I’m glad to pass on what I learned to others, since good hiking shoes can really make or break your hiking experience. Let me know if you need any further help picking some out.

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