The North Face Ultra 109 GTX is the best “do everything” model that we tested. Is it a burly, stiff trail runner, or a nimble hiking shoe? The Ultra 109 excels at both. It handles rough terrain and light loads well and is the best choice for folks that want one shoe for both rough trail running and hiking. For hikers that like the snug fit and narrower profile common to trail running shoes, the Ultra 109 is perfect. The Ultra 109 goes hiking, light backpacking, or rough trail running equally well, and if we were going on a trip with only one pair of shoes, this would be it.
Our Best Buy Award goes to the Keen Targhee 2. It’s our favorite shoe for dayhiking, plus it’s pretty darn light and supports the foot much better than most of the shoes we evaluated. The Targhee handles wet trails and mud with ease and breathes well. We noted impressive foot support from this light shoe. The mid-cut version of the Targhee took home awards in our reviews of hiking boots for both men and women. Keen clearly makes a great product in the Targhee.
For folks that desire more foot support for backpacking or tackling rough terrain, there’s no better shoe in this bunch than the La Sportiva FC Eco 2.0. We often chose this shoe for long days with bits of ridge traversing or other rock scrambling terrain. The ECO is very comfortable to hike in after a brief break-in period, and one of the higher scorers in water resistance. This is our shoe of choice for backpacking with light to moderate loads.
You may also like:
- Men’s Hiking Boots, mid and high top versions.
Analysis and Test Results
The individual review for each product tested discusses best uses, details the score in each performance metric, and compares and contrasts each model to similar products. You’ll find a thorough description of the evaluation metrics below and the top scorers in each.
Types of Hiking Footwear
For decades, hiking boots were the best choice for covering miles on the trails. For folks that carry more than 35 lbs and hike often in the mud and snow, they remain the best choice. Boots protect the ankle and they are warmer in cold weather. Check out our review of Men’s Hiking Boots for the best boots available today.
Innovations in materials and design have enabled an ultralight approach to hiking and backpacking for passionate hikers. Lightweight trail running shoes are popular with thru-hikers, especially those with light pack weights and hundreds of miles in front of them. Heavier trail running shoes like the Salomon XA Pro 3D make excellent crossover shoes for hikers. These running shoes work great for some, but others want more support and durability. Enter the…
Typical features of this footwear include durable soles with great traction, midsole designs that focus on supporting the foot for miles with light loads and waterproof linings to keep your feet dry and happy in challenging trail conditions. Hiking shoes are often the most popular footwear seen on the trail now, especially for day hiking. They fit into that sweet spot of good foot support while remaining light and nimble. Typically, they are more comfortable than boots, and more durable than trail runners.
Shoe vs. Boot
Six of the shoes we tested are available as mid-height boots, which begs the question…Should I choose a low-cut shoe or mid-height boot? On average, the products we tested for this review weighed in at five ounces per pair lighter than their boot brothers. A couple ounces per shoe isn’t cause enough to drive your decision and the price difference is relatively small as well.
Boots also provide much more protection from mud, snow and water, and are a necessity for rough terrain with heavy loads. Hiking boots are also much warmer than a low-cut shoe when hiking in cold weather.
Best Uses for Hiking Shoes
“Hiking” covers a whole range of fun-on-your-feet outdoor adventures, including day hikes when you are carrying a minimum of essentials. These could be leisurely strolls on well-maintained trails, or many miles covered at impressive speed in rough terrain, and everything in between. Hiking also encompasses short backpacking trips with light or medium loads or long fastpacking trips where paring down the weight becomes a more urgent priority.
A Note on Pack Weight
We often refer to light, medium, and heavy loads for hiking and backpacking. Light refers to everything up to 20 lbs. This should cover most everyone dayhiking and some of the ultralight backpacker and thru-hiker folks. By medium loads we mean 20-35 lbs. It’s a noticeable amount of weight to carry, and footwear that offers good foot support is important. Anything more than 35 lbs is heavy. Most folks want a boot for these loads.
Dayhiking is where hiking shoes really shine. When the plan is to start and finish on the same day, the essentials carried can be minimal. A water bottle in the hand, a rain jacket tied around the waist just in case, and a camera in your pocket. Or a small pack with extra clothes, maps, camera gear, snacks, and water is still quite light. For these hikes, comfort and weight are of primary importance to most of us. All the shoes we’ve reviewed here are good choices for dayhiking. Consider the terrain and conditions where you commonly hike, and choose from among the shoes that match your needs. Your final choice will depend on personal preference and which fits your foot the best. The Keen Targhee 2 in particular is an excellent and popular choice for dayhiking.
Our testers have spent a lot of time evaluating these shoes on hikes and scrambles to the summits of mountains in Colorado. Ten miles round-trip, 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, and five hours on the go was an average trip. These trips are not running adventures, though sometimes a smooth flat section encourages you to step on the gas for a few minutes. Fast hiking simply refers to being ambitious about the amount of ground you want to cover in a day.
The foot support offered by hiking shoes is a better choice for most than the lightweight cushioning offered by trail runners. The La Sportiva FC Eco 2.0 became our go-to shoe for fast hiking that covers a lot of off-trail terrain or involves scrambling. The North Face Ultra 109 GTX fit the ticket for mostly good trail terrain, where the urge to run a little takes over.
Backpacking with Light or Medium Loads
Hiking shoes are perfect for carrying medium and lighter packs on well-maintained trails. Hikers that occasionally head out backpacking for a couple of nights generally pack light, and the support and durability offered by a low-cut model is a perfect choice. Experienced backpackers with strong ankles can cruise through rough terrain in shoes designed for hiking as well and find medium pack weights reasonable with the support provided. The North Face Ultra 109 GTX, our Editors’ Choice winner, is an excellent shoe for multi-day backpacking trips, as are the La Sportiva FC Eco 2.0 and The North Face Hedgehog Hike GTX.
If you take a trip out on the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail, you’ll see most thru-hikers wearing low-cut hiking shoes, with trail running shoes the second most popular choice. Thru-hikers (those who are hiking extreme distances) place a premium on weight and comfort when choosing a shoe vs. boot, and enjoy more foot support and durability than trail runners can offer. The lightweight Keen Targhee 2 and the Merrell Moab Ventilator are excellent and popular shoes for thru-hiking and long trips with light loads. The Targhee 2 has excellent foot support for a light shoe, and the super light Moab Ventilator minimizes all else to prioritize weight and breathability.
Criteria for Evaluation
Whether you’re spending hours or weeks on the trail, nothing is more important for enjoying your on-foot adventures than happy feet. Many factors influence comfort: the amount of padding in the upper, how well the shoe fits your foot when sized correctly and how easily the fit is adjusted with the lacing system.
We noted how the foot feels in the footbed and generally how the upper feels on the foot, especially where the top of the shoe meets the ankle. We also noted how the lacing system works and how easy or challenging it is to fine tune fit by lacing. Finally, we noted how well each model breathes. Dry feet are comfortable feet and a good design not only keeps feet dry when splashing through puddles, but also breathes well on warmer days. We tested two products that are not waterproof and therefore breathe much better, the Vasque Juxt and Merrell Moab Ventilator.
We found the the Keen Targhee 2 the most comfortable model of this bunch. The Keen’s upper hugs the foot and the lacing system is top notch. The Targhee fits an average to wide foot well, and folks with slimmer feet may find a more comfortable fit with the La Sportiva FC ECO or North Face Ultra. More than any other metric, a shoe’s comfort for you depends on a good fit.
Light is right for footwear. Lifting an additional half pound with each step is noticeable, especially as the miles pass by. Choosing the lightest footwear with enough stability for your ankles and feet should be a top consideration. Hiking shoes fit a sweet spot between boots and trail runners; boots are heavier but provide significantly better ankle stability, and lighter trail runners aren’t as durable or supportive of the foot.
The Moab Ventilator and the Vasque Juxt are the lightest shoes we tested, weighing 2.1 lbs per pair. The Lowa Renegade GTX Lo is the heaviest model we tested, which translates to high scores in durability and support. To ensure accuracy in our comparison, we weighed each of the models we tested, a size 12, on a digital scale. We weighed each with the insoles and laces supplied by the manufacturer.
How much support a shoe gives your foot is in large part a function of the thickness and materials of the midsole, the thickness of the sole, and the shape of the last. A shoe that is stiff through the midfoot but comfortably flexible up front helps keep feet happy on long hikes. Our tested models range from the Lowa Renegade with a full nylon shank and substantial PU midsole to the very light and flexible Merrell Moab Ventilator. In fact, the Renegade’s underfoot components are identical to its popular mid-height, hiking boot brother. The Renegade provides excellent torsional stability and is stiff enough in the midfoot for all-day hiking with moderate loads.
At the other end of the support continuum is the Merrell Moab Ventilator. With only a nylon shank in the arch and a less dense EVA midsole, it doesn’t offer much in the way support for the foot, but is light and comfortable for dayhiking.
On a good day hiking, we expect our foot to stay put every time we take a step. The products we tested for this review were asked to handle everything from mud and slushy snow to smooth rock slabs and loose gravel. While most of the models we tested feature carbon rubber Vibram soles, each has a unique sole shape and tread pattern of lugs. We put these shoes through four side-by-side tests to rate their traction. First, we took several laps up and down a steep granite slab to test the limits of friction. The Salewa Wildfire GTX and its sticky rubber sole, designed for this type of terrain, performed best. Afterward, we dumped water on this same rock, and logged some more laps. The Keen Targhee 2 was a great performer on wet granite.
Gently sloping trail surfaces with an abundance of grape-size loose gravel can be smooth sailing or frustratingly slippery. There’s a gravel fire road near our lead tester’s place that’s perfect for finding the shoes with the best grip. The La Sportiva FC Eco and Keen Targhee 2 were top performers on gravel. Finally, we tested how well each shoe performs in slippery mud. The Keen Marshall WP and Moab Ventilator work great on muddy trails.
Several considerations went into our versatility scores. Some of these shoes were equally comfortable on flat trails and rough terrain. We highly value a shoe that is comfortable for short dayhikes and also supportive enough for light backpacking trips.
That said, some folks are seeking a specialist shoe. Do you want one do-it-all shoe, or a quiver of options for different adventures? If you are relatively new to hiking, it’s likely that a versatile, do-everything shoe will fit your needs best. But, if you have specific priorities and a less limited budget, two or more pairs of specialist shoes could give you focused performance. Keep in mind that a shoe designed just for hiking is only part of your adventure footwear quiver, which might already include boots and trail running shoes.
We also made it a priority to run a few miles with a light pack while wearing each shoe because we suspect some of you will want to use these models for fastpacking adventures. The North Face Ultra 109 and Adidas Outdoor AX 2.0 GTX felt quite natural to run in when terrain and energy allowed. Some of these shoes, the Lowa Renegade especially, look great and can double as casual footwear while working, gardening and around town. With a lot of color options for each shoe, you can usually pick something not too flashy.
While many of these shoes are available without a waterproof membrane lining, all the test models save the Merrell Moab Ventilator and Vasque Juxt feature a waterproof membrane. While Keen uses its proprietary KEEN.DRY membrane in its waterproof footwear, other manufacturers feature GORE-TEX waterproof breathable membranes. If you live in a sunny and dry climate, or mainly avoid mud and rainy weather when hiking, a shoe without a waterproof membrane will be more breathable, and thus more comfortable.
After a couple months of hiking, we splashed around in Colorado’s Poudre River in each shoe to check for leaks. Our feet got soaked in the non-waterproof Moab Ventilator and Juxt of course, but stayed dry in all the rest except the Adidas Outdoor, which leaked a little around the tongue. The full leather Renegade took the top score for water resistance.
All of these shoes will benefit from a leather or fabric conditioner applied to the upper. Nikwax has a range of products that are great for treating the mixed material uppers of these shoes. A leather or fabric treatment will keep water from being soaked up by the shoe’s upper materials. Even when this water is stopped by the waterproof liner, it makes your shoe heavy and hinders breathability. The Keen Marshall and The North Face Ultra soaked up the least water and dried faster than the others.
The are many trade-offs when designing hiking footwear. A focus on making lightweight, comfortable shoes necessarily means that durability is less of a focus. A heavier, full leather shoe like the Lowa Renegade will last much longer than an uberlight one like the Moab Ventilator. These shoes received the highest and lowest scores we awarded for durability. The Renegade is quite an investment, but will last practically forever. The affordable and superlight Moab Ventilator simply wears out faster than most shoes.
Generally speaking, we have been impressed with the durability of all the models we tested. The all-leather Lowa Renegade will provide years of fun for most hikers and received our highest durability score. Upper details applied over the mesh portions of the Salewa Wildfire and Keen Marshall help protect the lightweight mesh from abrasion. Most of these lightweight models were more durable than we expected due to well-designed details to protect the lightweight materials.
Regularly cleaning and treating your footwear will also greatly increase its life expectancy. Mud and sand left on the shoe’s upper will create premature wear. Warm water and a soft brush are your best tactic for regular cleaning. Nikwax offers an extensive line of leather and fabric conditioners, including products for suede leather and synthetic fabrics. Common wear areas like the flex points on the forefoot and seams that are prone to scuffing can be reinforced. Applying Gear Aid Seam Grip or a similar sealer will keep out dirt and sand, prolong wear out time and has the added benefit of keeping water out.
Gaiters are a wonderful way to prevent debris from getting in your shoes. Pebbles and sticks can cause discomfort or even blisters. The Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain Low Gaiters and the Salomon Trail Gaiters are both great traditional style gaiters. The products in this review work well with more minimalist gaiters like the Outdoor Research Sparkplug Gaiters. Colorful minimalist gaiters from Dirty Girl Gaiters are very popular among thru-hikers and trail runners.
Insoles can make or break the fit of a shoe. We performed all our testing with the stock insoles from the shoe manufacturer, but changing to a thicker or thinner insole is a great way to fine-tune a shoe’s fit. Some folks love a particular shoe, but need more arch support than it provides and new insoles can deliver that extra support. We find the Superfeet Green Premium Insoles to be very comfortable, provide good arch support and help with the foot ache at the end of a long day of hiking.
Socks can make or break a hike or backpacking trip as well. How thick the sock is affects the fit of the shoes as well has how likely debris is to get in. Should you go with thin socks or thick wool-style socks? It’s personal preference. Many die-hard lightweight backpackers prefer a thinner sock that lets their foot breathe. However, thin socks can also lead to more blisters if the fit is not just right. A thick sock can also overheat your foot and lead to discomfort and blisters. We recommend bringing a few different styles and swapping them out to see what is best for you. Most importantly, keep your socks clean. Every time you stop for food or water, empty out your shoes of dirt and see how much debris has passed through the sock to your feet. Carry at least one extra pair at all times in case your socks get dirty or wet. See our Hiking Sock Review for more info.
The variety of hiking footwear for outdoor folks these days is a blessing. With high traction soles and waterproof uppers that support the foot while freeing your ankle, hiking shoes are the choice of many hikers today. But you may need the support and ankle stability that a boot provides, or you may enjoy pushing the capabilities of light trail running shoes as far as possible. We briefly cover the best uses and defining attributes of these types of outdoor footwear above, and delve into the fine details in our Buying Advice article, where fitting and sizing is also detailed.