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When Backpacking, Are Hiking Boots Really Necessary?

While trouncing through the very rocky and rooty New England mountains in my New Balance Minimus Trail shoes, I wondered, how necessary are hiking boots?

The answer is simple: YES, you should wear something on your feet while hiking, I just don’t think that it has to always be hiking boots. For thousands of years, we walked over the earth barefoot, in sandals, mocassins, and eventually wearing a leather shoe/boot. Now many people wouldn’t think of entering the woods without their trusty hiking boots.

hiking boots come in a variety of functions

Today, we live in a world where you are required to wear shoes at work, in stores, and pretty much everywhere else. Needless to say, our feet have become adapted to this new way of living. For most of us, our feet have become weak, and our skin soft. Therefore, we need added protection from our footwear.

We have thousands of choices in hiking footwear. However, I prefer the ‘less is more’ footwear approach. I generally wear lightweight minimalist trail running shoes. For me, this works. I have strong feet, no ankle or foot issues that would require anything more on my feet. And I am happy with that.

Others however aren’t blessed with my mesomorphic and hobbit-like feet. Many people may have biomechanical reasons to wear something more supportive. Or they just feel more comfortable in a shoe that protects the bottom of their foot from sharp rocks, roots, and snow.

Which brings me to my next point:

What Is The Purpose of Hiking Boots Or Footwear In General?

There are three main reasons to wear hiking boots.

Protect our feet from sharp objects

First, to protect our feet from sharp objects. I live in New England. The trails here are rugged and old. In fact, our beloved Crawford Path in the White Mountain National Forest is considered to be the “United States oldest continuously maintained hiking trail.” But as a revered trail, old has its price.

Here is a picture of the Crawford Path. Notice how the trail has eroded from a once soft woodsy surface to an extremely rocky footpath.

Crawford Path, a good reason to wear hiking boots!
Crawford Path – Rocky and Rugged Trail

Needless to say, this would be a bear trying to navigate barefoot.

To protect from extreme temperatures

Second, to protect from extreme temperatures. According to the Cleveland Clinic, temperatures over 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius), can burn your skin. As the temperatures drop below freezing the chance of frostbite increases rapidly. To protect from extreme temperatures, whether it is hot or cold, it is advisable to don footwear.

My hiking boots needed to protect from the cold and the wind
Mt Jackson – Very Cold Outside, Feet Very Warm!

Maintain proper foot and ankle biomechanics

And Third, to maintain proper foot and ankle biomechanics while you hike. Without getting into too much detail, proper foot and ankle biomechanics is when the bones and muscles of the foot and ankle work together in harmony to propel us forward.

As a physical therapist, I routinely treat people for hip, knee, foot, and ankle pain due to faulty biomechanics. Often my patients benefit and are thankful for custom-fit foot orthotics.

Orthotics provide needed support for their feet. They are placed in hiking shoes to help correct the biomechanical flaws of the foot and ankle and, along with proper strength and flexibility exercises, alleviate and prevent pain.

vasyli custom fit orthotics
Custom-Fit Orthotics Examples

What Are The Main Characteristics Of Hiking Boots?

Standard features on hiking boots include an upper and a sole.

The Upper

The upper protects the foot from sharp objects along the trail while keeping the foot dry and comfortable. It should be snug without being too tight or loose. A tight shoe can cause cramping as the foot swells during the hike; and a loose shoe causes the foot to slip or slide in the shoe causing friction and possibly blisters.

Depending on the season and the temperature outside, the upper provides more or less breathability. During the cold weather, the upper is mildly breathable but remains warm and in warm weather, more breathable to dispel heat from the shoe.

Finally, the upper wicks moisture away from the foot. This provides comfort and prevents blisters too.

The Sole

The responsibility of the sole is to prevent puncture wounds, stress to the foot, and provide grip for hiking on a variety of surfaces.

Hiking boots are designed with many different thicknesses and stiffness. The majority of hiking boots have deep lugged soles made with tough rubber to provide friction on wet and smooth surfaces. As you decrease the bulk of the shoe, the lugs shrink, and the flexibility increases.

Because I hike in the rocky woods and mountains in New Hampshire, my shoes need to have a stiff bottom to absorb the shock of and sharpness of rocks and roots. I generally hike in trail runners so the stiffness isn’t always what I need. My feet pay for it on longer hikes; they are more tired and sore after those hikes. Here is a recent picture of my hiking shoes – time for some new ones!

everything gets warn out eventually
My worn out hiking shoes!

Give Me Some Examples Of Different Backpacking Footwear! If Not Hiking Boots.

Imagine your first hike and you are wandering around the wilderness barefoot! What, you would never do that on your first hike. Let’s take this as a starting point.

What should we add first? The sole is a good place to start; the sole protects you from temperatures, sharp objects, and constant undulations in the trail while the uppers need to help provide stability to the shoe while being as breathable as necessary to dispel heat or sweat.

Think of it as the smoother the trail, the less protection that you need below your feet. And the rougher the trail, the more stiff and thick the sole and more puncture resistant the uppers.

Day Hikers

Examples of Day Hikers

Day hikers come in a variety of styles. Many resemble beefed up sneakers with muted colors, water-resistant properties, and breathable linings. They are designed to be lightweight and as such, they are not extremely durable.

Day hikers: provide protection against rocks, roots, and debris but usually can’t withstand the rigors of prolonged hiking. Day hikers are good for a novice doing light to moderate day hikes.

Backpacking Boots

Merrell Hiking Boots
Hiking Boots Example

Backpacking boots are what most people think of when they start hiking and backpacking. They are tough and rugged. These boots use durable materials, are stiffer, a bit heavier, and provide better protection from the weather. Because of these characteristics, they are also much more durable than their day hiker cousins.

These boots are best for longer and more aggressive hikes. Because of their durability, many hikers keep them for years. There is nothing better than a pair of nicely worn-in boots.

Trail Running Shoes

Women's Merrell Trail Running Shoe
Trail Running Shoe

This is my favorite category. As you already know, I have very durable feet and ankles so can get away with something less on my feet. Trail Running Shoes offer a grippy sole, wicking upper while being lightweight, water repellant and sturdy.

In recent years, running shoes have reduced the “drop” in effect flattening out the shoes. A shoes’ drop refers to the difference in height from back to front measured in degrees. A typical running shoe has about a 15-degree drop and a minimalist shoe can go down to a 0-degree drop. This means that now there are nearly limitless varieties of running shoes.

What does this mean for you? Well, if you prefer moving about the terrain more naturally, then choose a lower drop shoe. If you are comfortable with your running shoes then a traditional trail runner will work for you.

Here are some examples of Trail Running Shoes for you to peruse. Notice the drop and different materials for different terrains. How is the upper built, and does the sole look grippy enough for your terrain?

Minimalist Trail Shoes

New Balance Minimus Trail Running Shoe
Minimalist Trail Running Shoe Example

I have been beating around the proverbial bush regarding minimalist shoes. I have been wearing minimalist shoes during my hikes for the past three years. Also, I have even hiked a 10.5-mile aggressive ridge trail wearing my Olukai Moloa Loafers which I wouldn’t advise unless you are very used to these shoes.

Minimalist Trail Shoes provide lightweight and breathable uppers, less stiff soles, and a good feel for the terrain. I would recommend them as your late spring to early fall trail shoes. However, this type of shoe can cause problems if you have to do any river or snow crossings – careful about getting wet when the weather is cold. Check them out here: Minimalist Trail Shoes.

How To Properly Fit Your Hiking Boots.

What is the worst thing that can happen with ill-fitting Backpacking boots? Well, frostbite, blisters, and toenail loss to name a few. Don’t take this too lightly.

Boots should be snug to prevent friction between the shoes and your feet while allowing for toe movement. Keep in mind that your feet will swell during hiking and your boots should allow for that.

Related Questions:

Are Cushioned Socks Necessary When Backpacking?

Not always. Cushioned socks can be very comfortable but not always necessary. Some cushioned socks keep your feet so warm causing excessive sweating and therefore a higher chance of blisters. Cooler weather with breathable socks and boots helps to keep sweating down and allows the cushioning to be a benefit, not a curse.

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