Are Hiking Boots Really Necessary When Backpacking?

When planning a backpacking trip, knowing what gear you need to take with you is absolutely key. One of the most important parts of your gear is what you wear on your feet, but many beginners may wonder if hiking boots are really necessary for backpacking.

Hiking boots are not really necessary when backpacking, but they are ideal for many people. Others may prefer to wear trail runners, and some opt for minimalist designs. A lot of it comes down to personal preference, but the type of terrain you’re likely to encounter is the most important factor.

Below, we discuss the different types of shoes you may choose to wear when backpacking in more detail. We’ll go through the pros and cons of each, and give you some examples to choose from. However, it’s important to first consider the importance of wearing the right shoes for backpacking.

Why Should You Wear Hiking Boots When Backpacking?

Today, we live in a world where you most likely wear shoes every time you step out of your home. Our feet have become adapted to this way of living. For most of us, our feet have fairly weak, soft skin on them. Therefore, we need added protection from our footwear, especially when backpacking on the trail.

Protect Your Feet From Sharp Objects

I live in New England. The trails here are old and rugged. 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, its age has its price.

Below is a picture of the Crawford Path. Notice how the trail has eroded from a once soft woodsy surface to an extremely rocky footpath. For this kind of trail, anything less than a sturdy hiking boot will be uncomfortable for most.

Protect Your Feet From Extreme Temperatures

Temperatures over 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius), can burn your skin. So, if you’re walking on hot ground, you’re susceptible to burning your feet. But it works the other way too. As the temperatures drop below freezing, the chance of frostbite increases rapidly. We therefore wear shoes to protect our feet from extreme temperatures.

Maintain Proper Foot And Ankle Biomechanics

Proper foot and ankle biomechanics is when the bones and muscles of the foot and ankle work together in harmony to propel us forward. 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.

What Are The Main Characteristics Of Hiking Boots?

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, it’s more breathable to dispel heat from the shoe.

Finally, the upper also 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. The sole protects you from extreme 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.

The smoother the trail, the less protection you need below your feet. The rougher the trail, the more stiff and thick the sole and more puncture resistant the uppers. But you can boost this level of protection by wearing specific socks too.

Are Cushioned Socks Necessary When Backpacking?

Cushioned socks are not always necessary when backpacking, but they can provide added comfort and protection. Some cushioned socks keep your feet very warm, causing excessive sweating and therefore a higher chance of blisters. So, it’s important to consider the weather when choosing these socks.

Choosing The Right Fit

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

Types Of Hiking Boots

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 trials of prolonged hiking. Day hikers are good for a novice doing light to moderate day hikes.

Backpacking Boots

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 day hikers.

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 backpacking boots!

Trail Running Shoes

Trail running shoes offer a grippy sole and 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.

But 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. When choosing a trail running shoe, consider how the upper is built, and if the sole looks grippy enough for your terrain.

Minimalist Trail 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. Be extra careful about getting wet when the weather is cold. They’re not for everyone, but they’re worth trying.

Final Thoughts

Hiking boots are not really necessary for backpacking. Some people may choose to wear minimalist shoes, while others prefer trail running style shoes. While a lot of it is dependent on your own preferences, assessing the terrain of your hike is key to choosing the right footwear.