Most people intuitively understand what hiking boots are and would have no trouble distinguishing them from running shoes, work boots, or any other type of footwear.
But did you know that there are several different kinds of hiking boots?
There are actually four basic types of hiking boots, and each is best suited for a particular set of circumstances.
We’ll explain each of the different categories and explain the situations in which they’ll excel below. This way, you can be sure you’ll pick the best hiking boots for your specific adventures.
The Four Types of Hiking Boots
There are several different ways you could distinguish and categorize hiking boots (more on this later), but most outdoorsy types separate them by relative weight.
Some contend that there are only three types of hiking boots, but we’d argue that there are really four — except that one of the types isn’t really a boot at all.
Hiking Shoes (Ultralight Hiking Boots)
Yup, we’re starting our list with hiking boots that aren’t even really boots.
Hiking shoes are soft and flexible kicks that are typically the lightest type of hiking “boots.” Designed to be lightweight and comfy, they’re generally used for relatively easy trails and terrain.
They are usually made of breathable materials, which means they’ll also tend to dry quickly when wet (though some are made of waterproof fabrics). They are also easy to pack, making them great for stashing in your car or carryon bag for impromptu hikes.
Hiking shoes come in varying heights, with the tallest varieties providing the most ankle support and protection. This obviously comes at the expense of weight and (potentially) comfort, so just be sure to select the coverage that best suits your needs.
Understand that these types of “boots” are not meant to support heavy loads – they’re designed to support your body weight and little else. Point being, these are great for an afternoon adventure, but they’re not a good choice for a weekend backpacking trip.
Lightweight Hiking Boots
The next step up from hiking shoes are lightweight hiking boots – pretty much the lightest, comfiest kicks that legitimately fall into the “boot” category.
They’re typically made from – wait for it – lightweight materials, such as nylon or synthetic fibers. Because these types of boots weigh less than midweight or heavyweight hiking boots, they won’t tire your legs as quickly. But they’re also better-suited for warm weather than heavier options.
Lightweight hiking boots are suitable for carrying light loads, maybe including a weekend backpack for some hikers. But they’re not ideal for 30-mile-long treks or extreme terrain. Honestly, they’re best for day hikers who simply want to be prepared for typical trails and hiking experiences.
Notably, lightweight boots are generally cheaper than heavier boots, so they serve as a good starting point for newbies.
Midweight Hiking Boots
Moving up in weight, we can now discuss midweight hiking boots. These are often the ones placed front-and-center at your local hiking gear establishment.
Midweight hiking boots are designed for pretty serious hiking while hauling around a moderate to heavy load, but manufacturers usually take steps to prevent them from being heavier than necessary. Nevertheless, these boots can be surprisingly weighty for novices or those who’ve grown accustomed to lighter boots.
However, midweight boots often the heaviest ones that casual hikers or weekend adventurers need, except for those hiking around in extremely cold or snowy locales.
The best midweight hiking boots thread the needle of being flexible and comfortable to wear, yet still providing adequate foot protection for rocky terrain. That said, most manufacturers err on the stiff side, believing that their boots will become more comfortable with use.
Heavyweight Hiking Boots
Heavyweight hiking boots are designed to be used over rough terrain and during extremely long hikes. They are generally the most durable types of hiking boots, and they’re also the most expensive.
Purchasing a pair will feel like quite an investment.
Heavyweight hiking boots have super thick soles, and they often feature additional insulation, making them the boot of choice for mountaineers and other types of extreme adventurers.
The downside of all this is that because heavyweight hiking boots are made from strong and thick materials, they get very hot in warm weather. In fact, it’d be hard to foresee having any fun while wearing these during the summer in southern portions of the U.S.
Also, remember that because heavyweight hiking boots are stiffer than lighter weight hiking boots, it’ll take you a little longer to break the boots in.
Lost in all this hiking boot jargon? Learn about the parts of hiking boots.
Other Ways to Categorize Hiking Boots
It’s important to mention that there are a variety of ways you can categorize hiking boots. The relative weight of the boots is generally the most common choice, but you could also sort hiking boots by:
Hiking Boot Material
Manufacturers utilize an array of materials when making hiking boots, and each provides a different set of strengths and weaknesses. This makes material a useful criteria by which hiking boots can be categorized. Especially for hikers who have specific material preferences.
Even the simplest hiking boots are made from several different materials — the soles will be made from one material, while the uppers, liner and tongue may be made of others. For that matter, the individual components of some boots will be made from a combination of materials.
It’d be impossible to provide an exhaustive list of the materials used in hiking boots. But some of the most commonly used and noteworthy materials below.
One of the most common materials used in hiking boot uppers, leather is essentially the hide or skin of an animal, which has been treated (tanned) to improve its durability, appearance and functionality.
Leather is a fantastic material for hiking boots, as it is very durable, and some leathers are waterproof to some degree. Leather also conforms to the food well and looks great. The downside is that it can be expensive and sometimes takes a lot of work to break in.
There are several different kinds of leather available to manufacturers, and they vary based on the thickness, the layer of the hide used, and they type of processing used in its production.
Unfortunately, manufacturers are often inconsistent in the language they use to describe leather. However, the following are some of the most common terms to familiarize yourself with:
- Full grain leather: Full grain leather starts just below the animal’s hair. The “full” part of the name refers to the fact that it hasn’t been sanded. Full grain leather is generally considered to be the highest quality of leather, but it’s also the most expensive — primarily because it can only be harvested from some portions of the animal’s body. Full grain leather is thick and features very tight pores, which make it more waterproof than some other types of leather.
- Top grain leather: Top grain leather is basically full grain leather that’s been sanded to remove a thin layer near the top. This is often done to yield a more uniform thickness and remove surface blemishes for the sake of aesthetics (though some people prefer the look of full grain leather anyway). Top grain leather is weaker than full grain leather, but it is also more affordable.
- Genuine leather: A frustrating term, genuine leather is often used incorrectly by retailers. Often used as a synonym for “real,” genuine leather is actually a specific type of leather that’s harvested from the deeper layers of the animal’s hide. Note that leather taken from deeper layers of the animal’s hide — such as genuine leather — are generally more porous than those taken from the upper layers of the hide.
- Suede: Like genuine leather, suede is harvested from relatively deep layers of the hide. However, once harvested, the inner surface of the material is then sanded to give it a fuzzy texture. Suede is softer and more pliable than leather, so boots made from it are often quite comfortable. However, they won’t be as durable, nor will they be very waterproof (unless treated with chemical water repelling products).
- Nubuck: Nubuck is very similar to suede except that it is made from top grain leather rather than the deeper layers of the animal’s hide that is used to make suede. Additionally, the outer layer of the leather is sanded to make nubuck, rather than the inner layer. The result is a slightly fuzzy, pliable leather, but with better durability and water resistance than suede.
One of the most famous synthetic materials in the world, Gore-Tex is a waterproof yet breathable membrane.
First developed way back in 1969, Gore-Tex is used in a wide array of outdoor apparel, including hiking boots.
It’s important to note that Gore-Tex has served as the inspiration for a variety of similar products, and some manufacturers have created their own versions of this semi-permeable membrane. But many people use the term Gore-Tex somewhat like Q-tip, Ketchup or Xerox.
Gore-Tex and similar materials essentially work by having a number of holes that are smaller than water droplets, yet large enough to allow sweat to penetrate. This keeps your feet dry from external water sources, while allowing the water inside your boot to escape.
Synthetic Materials (Nylon, Polyester, etc.)
Synthetic materials are often used on hiking boots that are designed to be more affordable or lighter than their leather counterparts. Nylon, polyester and similar textiles are very flexible, so they’re often quite comfortable to wear, but they won’t provide the protection or durability that leather hiking boots will.
In practice, many manufacturers use a combination of nylon or polyester and leather to achieve the best of all worlds. Note that boots made from these materials often feature more stitching than all-leather boots, and these seams serve as potential weak points.
Waterproof vs Non-Waterproof Boots
Some hiking boots are designed to be completely waterproof, which will allow you to traverse streams, stomp through puddles or cross snowy fields while keeping your feet dry.
Other boots exist at the opposite end of the spectrum; they will allow water to pour right through the fabrics and seams. This means your feet will quickly become soaked if you tried to cross a stream or snow-covered valley.
Nevertheless, the majority of hiking boots fall somewhere between these two extremes.
Such boots — which are best described as being water resistant — will keep your feet dry while walking through dew-covered grass or scooting across a very shallow creek, but they won’t keep your feet bone dry in truly wet weather.
The degree to which a pair of boots are waterproof varies based on the details of the design and the materials used. Generally speaking, the most waterproof boots will weigh and cost more than their non-waterproof counterparts. But they’ll also offer less ventilation.
This is an important and often-overlooked consideration. If you use waterproof boots in warm weather, your feet may very well end up wet and swampy anyway, once they start sweating. Very high-quality boots will often be made with breathable membranes that keep water from penetrating your boots while still allowing sweat to escape, but you’ll pay for this luxury.
Are any hiking boots really waterproof?
Many hikers, frustrated by exaggerated claims and confusing language, wonder it any hiking boots will actually keep your feet dry.
The answer is yes — you can find truly waterproof hiking boots that’ll keep your feet dry while standing in water.
That doesn’t mean every pair of boots that is labelled as “waterproof” actually is. In fact, most aren’t. But several high-quality manufacturers do produce hiking boots that’ll keep your feet dry.
If you want truly waterproof hiking boots, look for things like uppers made from waterproof materials and gusseted tongues.
So, you should definitely consider the amount of water your feet will encounter during hikes when picking a pair of boots, but don’t automatically go for waterproof varieties. Often, non-waterproof boots are better, especially at the lower price ranges.
As a rule of thumb, waterproof boots are great for those in extremely damp environments, while non-waterproof boots are ideal for those in deserts and other dry regions.
For all of those in between (which includes the majority of hikers), personal preference should rule the day.
Hiking Boot Brands
Brand is often seen as a frivolous or shallow criterion by which to distinguish products.
To an extent, this is true; poorly known brands sometimes produce stunning products, while great companies occasionally produce duds. It is the product that matters, not the logo on the side.
However, sorting hiking boots by brand can be helpful for those with a distinct preference and buyers who’re seeking a specific design or material choice, which a given brand utilizes.
It’ll take most hikers quite a while to develop a hiking boot brand preference, but we’ll list some of the leading brands below as a jumping-off point:
- Columbia: Columbia Sportswear Company produces a full line of active apparel, including hiking boots. First established in 1938, the company began as a hat manufacturer before gaining widespread acclaim for their jackets and coats. Located near Portland, Oregon, Columbia offers a variety of hiking boots, primarily at low to mid price points. Brand devotees tend to praise the quality and craftsmanship of their boots, particularly given their reasonable prices. Columbia hiking boots are widely available and can be found at a variety of sporting goods stores. They’re also sold in stores specifically catering to hikers and backpackers.
- Merrell: Headquartered in Rockford, Michigan, Merrell is a sportswear company that got its start by manufacturing hiking boots. Currently, Merrell offers a variety of shoes, clothing and bags. The brand’s hiking boots tend to be moderately priced, and fans of the brand tend to praise the quality, comfort and value of their shoes. Merrell shoes, like those manufactured by Columbia, are widely available at general sporting goods stores, shoe stores, and specialty hiking retailers.
- KEEN: KEEN has a relatively narrow focus when compared to Merrell or Columbia, as they only produce footwear. However, their footwear line is extensive, as they not only provide options for men, women and children, but also a variety of activities. For example, while KEEN does offer purpose-built hiking and backpacking boots, they also sell a variety of work boots with several different types of toe reinforcement. Despite this, KEEN got its start in the sandal space, as company founder Martin Keen invented the brand’s first product, their now-famous Newport Sandals. KEEN shoes are available at some big box retailers and general sporting goods stores, as well as through outdoor-oriented retailers.
- Timberland: Timberland gets a lot of attention in pop culture circles, but they’re not really that popular among serious hikers. They do produce a few capable hiking boot models, but they primarily focus on the aesthetics of their boots rather than functionality. That said, you can get many of their models in multiple colors, and they do look nice.
- Asolo: Named after the northeast Italian city where the brand was born in 1975, Asolo is one of the leading hiking boot manufacturers in the world. Among other things, the brand was the first company to introduce a Gore-Tex-lined mountain boot to the market, as well as the first one to produce boots using a combination of leather and textile. A family-owned business, the Zanatta Family manages the daily operations in its current iteration. A high-end manufacturer, Asolo boots are unapologetically pricey. Their collection not only includes boots intended for hiking and backpacking, but also ice climbing and alpine adventures. Asolo boots are primarily sold via outdoor-oriented retailers and directly from the manufacturer, but Amazon does carry them too.
- Lowa: Lowa Boots LLC, is another leading hiking boot manufacturer. With roots stretching back 100 years to a humble cobbler shop, Lowa has made a name for themselves by producing some of the highest quality outdoor footwear in the world and introducing an array of innovations (such as glove-leather liners). The brand offers footwear for a variety of different outdoor applications, ranging from light hiking to proper mountaineering and glacier travel. Lowa boots are widely regarded as some of the best on the market, but they feature price tags commensurate with that kind of quality. Lowa boots are available via specialized retailers and Amazon.
- Salomon: Salomon currently produces a wide variety of outdoor clothing and footwear, but they started as a ski and ski boot company. They still manufacture and sell ski equipment, but they’ve branched out into clothing and footwear suitable for a variety of other outdoor pursuits, including hiking and backpacking. Salomon definitely has his fans, but it is likely a second-tier brand, falling behing Lowa, Asolo and others. In fairness, their price points aren’t quite as high as these other brands, though these are clearly priced higher than budget-priced boots. Serious hikers should definitely consider them, but the brand’s reputation appears to have fallen a bit in recent years.
- Zamberlan: An Italian manufacturer of mountaineering boots, hiking boots, hunting boots and boot accessories, Zamberlan’s offering are luxurious and expensive. In fact, some of their best models are still made by hand in Italy as the company’s first boots were, decades ago. Zamberlan employs a variety of technical innovations in their boots, which help to set them apart from the crowded outdoor-footwear field. Several of Zamberlan’s boot models can be resoled as needed, and they offer boots for men, women and children. You can purchase Zamberlans direct from the manufacturer (including their “Outlet” page, which features steeply discounted items), as well as on Amazon.
These aren’t the only brands in the hiking boot space, but they represent a fair cross-section of some of the key players. Other brands hikers may want to consider include Kenetrek, La Sportiva and Oboz.
We tried some Merrell, KEEN, and Columbia hiking boots when testing the best-rated hiking boots on Amazon. Check ’em out and see what we thought!
Whether or Not the Boots Are Crampon Compatible
Crampon compatibility is an important criteria for some outdoor adventurers to consider when picking the best hiking boots.
For the unfamiliar, crampons are essentially metal spikes you stick on your boots to provide traction in snow or ice. The crampons themselves differ significantly based on the intended application and terrain, and this means that they also work with different types of hiking boots.
To make things easy boot manufacturers typically adhere to a grading system when discussing crampon compatibility.
The grading system starts at B0, which refers to boots that are not compatible with crampons, and it goes all the way to C3. C3-rated boots will work with the kinds of crampons you’d use to climb a glacier.
The Intended Terrain for the Boots
We discussed this a bit above, but different types of boots are better suited for different types of terrain. And some manufacturers use terrain to help categorize their boots.
With that said, terrain is rarely a primary form of hiking boot categorization. Instead, you’ll usually encounter this kind of categorization when trying to filter the boots offered by a manufacturer or retailer.
You may, for example, be able to filter for hiking boots suitable for paved surfaces, mud, sand or rock.
Typically, the characteristics of a boot that most influence its suitability for varying types of terrain are the lugs, sole flexibility, and durability. The lugs and sole will influence the kind of traction you enjoy, while the durability level will help determine how well the boots can hold up to harsh environments.
For example, boots that are well-suited for hard-packed dirt or pavement will have relatively small gaps between the boot lugs and the soles will generally be relatively flexible. Conversely, a pair of boots capable of carrying you up the side of a rocky mountain will feature more aggressive lug patters, stiffer soles, and more durable materials throughout.
Hiking Boot Category
Some manufacturers group their boots into different categories based on how flexible the soles are lengthwise and from side to side — something called torsional stiffness.
The categories are usually identified by a letter — A through D. Category A boots have very flexible soles, which provide quite a bit of comfort but not much stability. They’re suitable for relatively smooth terrain, very light packs and gentle inclines.
Category B and C boots have stiffer soles, making them good for moderate packs, terrain and inclines — most typical weekend hikers will want to start here when picking out a pair of boots. Category D boots have very rigid soles, which means they’re less comfortable but capable of supporting your feet while carrying very heavy packs or tackling extreme terrain.
The Insulation or Temperature Rating of the Boots
Different hiking boots are intended for use in different climates. And as with most other aspects of your hiking apparel, you must select hiking boots that match the temperatures in which you’ll be wearing them.
Trekking through the Alaskan interior in some lightweight hiking boots with vented uppers would be, in a word, unpleasant. And you could say the opposite about hiking across Texas in hiking boots rated for negative temperatures.
The primary factor to consider here is the insulation level of the boots. Those intended for use in low temperatures will have more insulation to keep your feet warm and prevent frostbite, while those designed for warm weather will feature lighter materials and little, if any, insulation.
Ventilation also factors in here, as the amount of ventilation provided will be higher in boots designed for warm weather.
Are Hiking Boots Necessary? Like, Really?
Entry-level hikers often wonder if you really need hiking boots at all. Are they crucial for your health and enjoyment or is it really just a cash grab by shoe manufacturers?
Well, in the strictest sense, no — you don’t need hiking boots.
Homo sapiens have been walking around natural habitats for 300,000 years, and the first evidence of shoes only dates back to around 40,000 years ago.
So, if ancient people (as well as modern humans in some places) traveled barefoot, you certainly can too. For that matter, we’re betting that you own some tennis shoes, which are certainly a step above going barefoot.
But just because hiking boots aren’t completely necessary doesn’t mean they won’t benefit you.
They totally will.
We’ll break down some of the benefits of hiking boots below, but as a starting point, just consider one thing:
Hikers, backpackers and other types of outdoor enthusiasts have plenty of things to spend money on. While you don’t need a bunch of stuff to enjoy these activities, there are a ton of things that’ll help you have more fun while doing them.
But despite having many gear wants and needs, most experienced outdoor adventurers prioritize hiking boots. Whether they’ve spent a lot on gear or put together their arsenal on a shoestring, their feet will often be sporting capable hiking boots.
The Benefits of Hiking Boots: Why Are They Advantageous?
Among other things, hiking boots offer a number of advantages for trail trekkers:
- Hiking boots are more durable than other types of athletic shoes. Now, quality comes into play here, as expensive running shoes may very well outlast bargain-basement hiking boots. But when comparing apples-to-apples, a good pair of hiking boots will hold up better to trail life than a good pair of sneakers. They’re just designed for different environments.
- Almost all hiking boots provide more ankle support and stability than sneakers. There are exceptions here, as some high-top sneakers will provide better ankle support than low-rise hiking “boots.” But generally speaking, hiking boots extend to the ankle or higher and help prevent your ankle from buckling sideways.
- Most hiking boots will provide better foot and ankle protection than tennis shoes. Walking in the forest often involves banging your feet into a variety of tree roots, stumps and rocks. Hiking boots will usually provide some protection against the types of foot injuries these hazards cause.
- Some hiking boots will keep your feet dry. Not all hiking boots are designed to be waterproof, and some claim to be without actually accomplishing that goal. But truly waterproof hiking boots will keep your feet dry — at least from the outside; some may not breathe well, meaning that your feet may get swampy once they start sweating.
- Hiking boots will provide better traction on dirt, mud, snow and rocks. Hiking — essentially, by definition — takes place on natural substrates. It involves “off road” travel. And here is perhaps where hiking boots provide the greatest benefit over sneakers, as they’ll invariably provide better traction.
- Many hiking boots will keep your feet warmer. This isn’t always an important characteristic, but hiking boots will generally keep your feet warmer than most other athletic shoes will. This isn’t a huge problem for people hiking trails in Florida, but it may be for those heading out for an early spring hike in the north.
Hiking Boot FAQ: Your Questions Answered
Still have questions about the various types of hiking boots? We’ve got you covered! We rounded up some of the most common queries to share below.
What are the categories of hiking boots?
Some manufacturers break their hiking boots down into different categories based on the stiffness of the boots’ soles. The actual categories vary a bit from one manufacturer to the next, but typically, category A boots (which are often better described as shoes) are for light duty hiking — think casual strolls on flat ground and hard-packed dirt trails. Category B and C boots are good for coping with terrain featuring rocks, tree roots, and other hazards, while Category D boots are well-suited for mountaineering.
What is the difference between a hiking boot and a hiking shoe?
Hiking shoes are generally lighter, more flexible and less durable than hiking boots. They’re generally intended for pack-free hikes across gentle terrain.
Is a walking boot better than a hiking boot?
The term “walking boot” is generally applied to boots designed for traversing flat ground and relatively smooth terrain. They’re great for people wanting more ankle support than typical walking shoes or sneakers provide while walking long distances on paved or hard-packed surfaces.
Can I wear normal boots for hiking?
As long as they’re broken in and fit your feet comfortably, you can wear work boots while hiking in areas with gentle grades and smooth terrain. They won’t be quite as comfortable as proper hiking boots, and you’re more likely to suffer blisters, but they can suffice while getting started. Just be sure to take things slowly — don’t set off on a 5-mile hike until you’re sure they’re not going to cause you pain.
Should hiking boots be light or heavy?
Most people will find that lighter boots are better for gentle grades and smooth terrain, while heavy boots are better-suited for more demanding treks. That said, it’s generally preferable to opt for the lightest boots you can find within a given category.
There’s obviously nothing inherently better or worse about any of these types of hiking boots – they all excel in different situations. This means you must be sure to pick the style that best suits the adventures you enjoy.
Which kinds of hiking footwear do you prefer? Do you categorize them in ways we may have missed above?
Let us know your thoughts and questions in the comments below.