When you think of hiking boots, you’re often going to have a single image in your head.
The stereotypical hiking boot is usually built with a thick leather exterior, large ridges at the bottom to keep you steady on rough terrain, and a comfortable interior to keep your feet comfortable and secure.
However, this hardly captures the wide variety of different types of hiking boots you can go for.
There are all kinds of ways that this traditional design can vary, depending on the given shoe you purchase. Some traits can be quite explicit and listed in the name or description, while there are other traits you need to look out for yourself.
Either way, any experienced hiker can tell you that knowing the different types of hiking boots is vital knowledge for any hiker, as knowing each trait will help you get a boot that gives you the right kind of support.
Different Hiking Boot Types
1. Lightweight Hiking Shoes
There are two particular styles that capture a lot of the prime differences between various hiking shoes, not just boots. This has to do with the level of sturdiness and weight of a given shoe.
For instance, a lightweight hiking boot, or a lightweight hiking shoe, has more breathable material compared to a reinforced shoe, although it also offers poorer protection. This makes lightweight hiking shoes exceptionally popular, but they can also often look very different from your stereotypical hiking boot.
These are much more common among hiking shoes and trail runners such as the Salomon Men’s Speedcross 4 Trail Running Shoes.
Image: Salomon Men’s Speedcross 4 Trail Running Shoes – from salomon.com
These types of hiking shoes are suited for faster speeds on less-intensive trails, meaning you won’t have the protection of a more traditional or reinforced hiking shoe. However, they are definitely ideal for more casual hikers.
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2. Reinforced Hiking Boots
While not every hiking boot is literally reinforced, it’s a good term to know as an opposite to the lightweight hiking shoe.
This is because a thicker boot is usually designed to give more comfort and protection, giving more support around the ankle and featuring thicker materials on the exterior to ensure the safety of your feet from rocks, branches, and even weather effects like rain and snow.
Literal boot reinforcement is its own thing as well, as many heavier hiking boots will also have additional rubber or supportive materials across the shoes.
An example of this style is in the Keen TARGHEE EXP Hiking Boot, which features additional rubber on the front of the tip to give extra protection in case you make impact on hills or rocks on your path.
Image: Keen TARGHEE EXP Hiking Boot – from keenfootwear.com
3. Mid-cut Day Hiking Boots
There’s one other type of classification for hiking shoes that’s much more explicit, and that has to do with the height of the boot’s heel. This is the main way to distinguish the style of the boot, but it is also a sign of what each boot is intended for.
As described by REI Co-Op, a different type of heel support may benefit certain styles of hiking, while others can be detrimental.
Mid-cut hiking boots are essentially the middle ground, but they are still higher than most standard non-hiking shoes.
They usually wrap fully around the lower part of the heel with padded material, and while it’s stiffer to walk in them, they provide much greater comfort while also protecting your heel from twists and sprains in case you step awkwardly on uneven terrain.
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4. High-cut Hiking Boots
More commonly considered backpacking boots, a high-cut heel is going to give the most structural support to you as you walk. This is because the heel goes remarkably high compared to most other boots, with padding keeping your foot quite firmly at an angle.
These are definitely not flexible compared to lightweight or lower-cut hiking shoes, but they provide the most protection while giving you easier support in staying upright.
These are important for backpacking because you’re usually taking on much more weight as you go, meaning you already won’t be going fast on your travels.
This means the lack of speed and flexibility don’t matter nearly as much as protection and stability, and with their larger heels and thicker bottom ridges, they are exceptionally comfortable to walk with on both easy and difficult trails.
High-cut boots tend to be the most expensive hiking boots as well since they are often made with thicker material and are heavily reinforced for your protection.
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(Hanwag Omega High-cut Boot)
5. Low-cut Hiking Shoes
These are the most similar to normal shoes you’ll find, as they are thicker than a general street shoe while having the exact same type of short, less-supportive heel.
These will more often be considered hiking shoes than boots due to their shape, but it’s important to know that these are still usually more supportive than your average shoe.
Low-cut hiking shoes can come in a much wider set of varieties, capturing everything from casual hiking shoes to trail running shoes.
Since they have less material and don’t keep you as rigid, you can usually move much faster in these regardless of their style, making them a great asset for those who don’t go on difficult trails often and like to travel quickly.
Low-cut hiking shoes are also the least expensive style because the materials aren’t as costly and less is needed to make them, even when they have additional reinforcement features.
Common Hiking Boot Questions
What is the Difference Between Hiking Boots and Hiking Shoes?
Most hikers will likely tell you that different hiking boot types are determined by the heel and level of protection.
There are certainly low-cut hiking shoes from brands like Keen and Merrell that provide great support and have excellent reinforcements, but they’re not going to give you nearly as much as something with a high-cut heel.
For the most part, a hiking shoe is going to be any pair of hiking footwear that’s better for lighter trails and doesn’t offer as much protection on the higher ends of your foot and heel.
Hiking boots are more properly shaped like boots, giving more padding to areas that normal shoes rarely provide.
What is the Difference Between Hiking Boots and Mountaineering Boots?
On the surface, hiking boots and mountaineering boots are extremely similar to each other. Both have higher-cut heels than average shoes, heavy padding, and ridged bottom sides to improve stability on rough and uneven terrain.
The main difference, though, is inside the shoe due to a large amount of padding and material to keep your feet safe and warm.
Even when looking at different boot brands, it’s clear that many mountaineering boots have intense padding to provide both protection and warmth.
Beyond that, mountaineering boots are also often less diverse by being almost exclusively high cut and heavily reinforced, while hiking boots come in many other varieties and shapes.
(Woman wearing Salomon boots hiking on a mountain trail)
How Should Hiking Boots Fit?
While some shoe styles might prefer you to have some space in certain areas of your footwear, hiking boots and hiking shoes are not generally going to be as spacious.
These are padded much more heavily across every section of your foot, and since you don’t want them to feel loose and you wish to experience maximum protection, they need to be snug.
That being said, this can definitely vary between different types of hiking boots, with lightweight and low-cut hiking shoes or trail runners often being fine with more spacious fits.
However, the heavier the shoe you get, the more tight you want the shoe to fit on all areas of your foot, and even most lightweight hiking shoes should still feel fuller than typical street and running shoes.
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What Kind of Hiking Boots Do You Need?
Determining what boots you need depends on what type of hiking you plan on doing.
Mid-cut hiking shoes have the most range if you want a shoe dedicated solely to hiking, but many low-cut and lightweight hiking shoes can work just as well if you only plan on sticking to light trails and are walking in warm weather.
Reinforced mid-cut hiking boots and high-cut hiking boots, meanwhile, are going to cover the needs of much more experienced hikers.
These will give much more security when you’re walking on difficult trails, and they will also be much more resistant to weather and water damage, making them often more long-lasting and a more secure investment.
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As mentioned earlier, your hiking needs are always going to differ from other hikers. Some may be extremely particular with their shoe for the sake of their specific hiking specialty, while others may not be as specialized and need a shoe for all kinds of different hikes.
You always want to research the shoe you’re going to get, as the best hiking boots are bound to be the ones that give you a sense of comfort and safety for your preferred style of hiking.