What you need to know about backpacking boots and footwear?

Elvis Elvis

There are many types and styles of footwear that you will find out on the trail. The main differences will be in weight, stiffness and ankle support.

The weight and stiffness of your backpacking boots or shoes should be directly related to how much weight you are carrying. The heavier your load, the stiffer and more substantial your footwear should be.

Ankle support as well will be determined by the weight you carry, but also the strength of your ankles. Many people are just prone to ankle injuries and should always wear footwear with ankle support on the trail.


When most people think of backpacking footwear they think of the traditional heavy duty, stiff, all leather boot w/ shank.

NOTE: Shank- Usually 3/4 length nylon or steel rod that is in the mid-sole, to provide stiffness.

But there are a lot of other options out there that will provide the support you need also, given some pack weight prerequisites.

For traditional backpacking (carrying 45+ lbs.), the standard all leather hiking boot is a great option. It will provide your foot and ankle with the support they need for hiking all day on uneven terrain with a heavy pack.

What you need to know about backpacking boots and footwear?

If you carry under 45 lbs. then this type of boot may be overkill and at the end of the day, may be causing more harm than good.

Even if you are carrying between 45-55 lbs., you may be able to get away with something a little softer anyway. Something that is almost a full-on backpacker, but with a lighter shank or shank substitute, nylon integrated into the upper part (more comfortable, and added breathability), and a shorter break-in period.

Of course softer, more comfortable materials are not as durable.

If you are carrying say around 35 lbs. You may be most comfortable in something even lighter, like a trail shoe with or without ankle support.

Trail shoes are softer than boots, but are still nice and sturdy and provide ample support and stiffness for these lighter loads.

Some companies have really trimmed down the weight on their backpacking boots without sacrificing support by substituting the shank with a light plastic sheet or mesh, like this model by Garmont.

The trail shoe option is also a very versatile option, especially if you choose a low cut for the ankle. These shoes are light and comfortable enough to walk around town in, but still supportive enough for lighter weight loads in backpacking (I wouldn’t carry more than 35 lbs. however).

Trail Runners – The trail runner is just a little more supportive (stiffer) than a road running shoe and is very popular in ultralight backpacking. The weight cut off for trail runners is pretty low, no heavier than 30 pounds, and the high twenties is even pushing it.

As a footwear option the these are best for weights under 30 lbs., (just as a suggestion.)


Whether or not you choose footwear with a waterproof/breathable liner (Gore-Tex or other) is totally up to you.

For cold weather or hiking through snow, a waterproof liner in your backpacking boots is a plus, but for other conditions it is up for debate.

In warmer temperatures the liner is going to restrict breathability and could be too warm. Also these liners prevent your shoes from drying quickly once they do get wet.

However, many backpackers will stand by Gore-Tex lined footwear for year-round, all climate use. I do not fall into this category, but maybe you do.

The waterproof/breathable option is pretty common in backpacking boots and footwear and there are a lot of opinions out there about whether to go without or not, unfortunately you’ll just have to experiment for yourself to find out what you like.


Hiking in sandals is really growing in popularity and is totally doable even with some of the heavier loads with the right sandal designed for light hiking.

Watch your toe nails. Get a sandal with toe protection or size them a little big to provide a bit of a bumper around your toes.

Great for stream crossings.

Ventilation is not an issue.


When it comes to hiking socks you want wool or synthetic.


Having some cotton in the Wilderness in the summer is just fine, (I sometimes hike in a cotton T-shirt) but not when it comes to your socks. Cotton socks will give you blisters.

There are a lot of manufacturers and weights of hiking socks out there. For 3 season backpacking I would go no heavier than a mid-weight from any of the manufacturers.

Look for a good amount of stretch and elastic. The more stretch the better the fit and your socks won’t stretch out while wearing them and bunch up.

Liner Socks

The liner sock could be a good addition as well. This is a thin, nylon sock (pantyhose works) that goes next to your skin and under your sock. These really help to manage sweat and reduce friction. They are optional, but may be good for you and your footwear set up.