What’s the number one factor in having a good backpacking trip? Great scenery, good company, perfectly roasted marshmallows for your s’mores? No, no, and… well, that one’s a real contender, but the most critical factor is one that’s often overlooked: happy feet. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the landscapes are if you’ve got sore, blister-covered feet and every step feels like it’s going to be your last.
While backpackers have traditionally worn high-top hiking boots, many are now moving toward more minimalist walking shoes. Modern equipment weighs a lot less than older gear, and mainstream hikers have also started picking up tips from the ultralight backpacking movement, making our packs lighter and rendering that extra ankle support superfluous.For hikers who have lighter packs and would like more freedom of movement and less weighing them down with each step, walking shoes are a great alternative to clunky boots. But your feet will only be happy on the trail if you have the right shoes. You’ll need to examine all the technical aspects of different models, and also figure out if they feel right for your feet. We've set out below what to look out for when buying walking shoes - but first, here's our top 5 to choose from!
Best walking shoes for men - our top 5 reviewed
Let’s start with what walking shoes are not. They’re not great for technical terrain, as they lack ankle support. They’re not suitable for long-distance journeys, as they don’t have the cushioning necessary to support a heavy load. For day hikes, however, they’re lightweight, comfortable, and a great choice.
Salomon’s Odyssey Pros are everything you’d look for in a hiking shoe, weighing around 1.5 pounds and offering loads of flexibility in the sole. You’ll feel like you’re walking in a comfortable pair of sneakers. They also have the added advantage of drying out very quickly if you have to make an impromptu creek crossing (the Odyssey Pro only comes in a non-waterproof design).
That’s not to say these shoes are perfect, though. All that flexibility in the sole provides less protection when you’re hiking on rocky terrain or over long distance. They’re also not very durable, which means you’ll need to replace them every couple of seasons if they get used frequently.
So, who are the Odyssey Pros good for? Well, most hikers actually. As long as you’re not carrying a big pack or doing more technical trails, they’ll probably work well. They’re a good, inexpensive option, and if you find they don’t work in some respect, you can move on to something better next season.
While they’re much more known for ski jackets and outwear, North Face has made a pretty big splash in the hiking shoe market too. The Ultra 110s are one of their more recent models, and they’re one of the most comfortable walking shoes on the market.
These days, so many walking shoes achieve a sleek, lightweight design by cutting down on the toe box - big mistake. The roomy toe box on the Ultra 110s makes them much more comfortable on the downhills, preventing many ingrown toenails from forming. They also have great ventilation, even though they’re actually waterproof, so they’re a good choice for hiking in hot and wet environments.
Unfortunately, if you’re looking for good ankle support, the Ultra 110s are only available in a low-top style. This is disappointing since most manufacturers offer two or three different levels on ankle support for each of their models. They’re also not as waterproof as you would expect for a GTX model either, with water seeping in even during the briefest of submersions.
One of the other complaints with these shoes is that they wear out quickly. If you’re using them on concrete, scree, or anything else that’s highly abrasive, you can expect that won’t last more than a season or two. However, the softer rubber does provide fairly good traction.
The Ultra 110s are good shoes for hikers who are concerned about comfort and not much else. They’re not as waterproof as many other walking shoes, and their durability is perhaps the worst of any on this list. Given the quality normally associated with the North Face brand, the lack of durability is a disappointment.
These shoes are a bit different from most of the others in that they have a full leather upper. This makes them more durable than synthetic models, though not as long-lasting as leather hiking boots. Fortunately, the leather uppers don’t add too much weight, and the Tor Summits come in at just over two pounds.
They also provide excellent ankle support, which will give you some peace of mind when hiking deep in the backcountry where an injury could be catastrophic.
If you want to move fast or like to feel a connection with the ground, the Tor Summits might not be the best for you.
They have a very thick sole and a stiff shank, which are great for long treks, but problematic when climbing steep trails where you need to find good footing. The rubber isn’t particularly sticky either, as the soles were meant to last a long time rather than to hold their grip on slippery surfaces.
The One Tor Summits are best for hikers who want the extra little bit of durability and ankle support that come with leather uppers. Such durable construction comes with a hefty price tag, though; these shoes cost about 50% more than many the other models on this list.
If you really want to go light and fast, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better shoe than the Salomon X Ultra 3. Built as trail runners, they’re quick to put on and weigh just under two pounds. They’ve got a roomy toe box with a thick cap, allowing your feet to expand over the course of a day without needing to worry about what will happen when you accidentally kick a tree root.
The Ultra 3s also have some of the best Gore-Tex waterproofing of any of the shoes on this list, so you can feel confident your feet will come out dry if you need to cross a creek.
With so many advantages, what could be wrong with these shoes? First off, because they were designed with the flexibility of trail running in mind, they don’t provide much for ankle support. Even if you get the mid-top design, the upper’s material is just too soft to provide the support you’d need for carrying a heavy pack; keep your bag’s weight under 25 lbs. with this shoe.
Another problem many users report is the lacing system. The Ultra 3s use Salomon’s proprietary system, which allows you to yank on a thin cable and pull the whole system tight in one maneuver. It makes putting them on a literal cinch, but it also deprives you of the kind of custom lacing (tight on one part of the upper and loose on another) you might want to protect problem spots on your feet. The cable seems to be a little abrasive too, as this is where you’ll see the fastest wearing on the upper.
Salomon’s X Ultra 3s are great for day hikers who just want to quickly throw something on and aren’t too worried about stability. They provide plenty of traction for quick hikes and are waterproof enough for any conditions. Choose these if you won’t be carrying a heavy pack.
When it comes to finding an all-around great hiking shoe, the Merrell Moab 2s check almost all of the boxes. They’re relatively lightweight, durable, come in a variety of ankle support levels, and can be ordered with Gore-Tex or without.
Merrell makes both a waterproof and a non-waterproof model of these shoes, referred to as the GTX and the Ventilator, respectively. The Ventilators are great if you’ll be hiking in hot, dry climates where you’re more concerned about shedding the heat and sweat from your feet than you are about keeping external moisture out. But if you’re hiking wet, muddy trails, go with the GTX version instead.
That being said, the waterproof model is still not very waterproof; you don’t want to do any creek crossings in these. Still, in warm weather, that waterproofing layer will unfortunately keep your feet pretty toasty and thus sweaty.
One area where the Moabs really excel is traction. The Vibram soles bite into both wet and dry rock really well, making them a great option for scramblers on scree slopes. They don’t perform so well in mud, though, as the lug pattern just doesn’t seem to find a hold on slippery trails.
The ankle collar on the Moabs is only 3.38 inches on the low-top model, the shortest of any of the walking shoes reviewed here. If you don’t have much ankle strength, you’re running the risk of a sprain using these on moderate to difficult trails. That being said, they’re quite comfortable and provide a fair amount of cushioning; they feel great even after a slog of a day.
Merrell’s Moab 2s are great for hikers that aren’t too concerned about ankle support and will hiking relatively easy trails. They’re very comfortable and provide great traction, making them a solid choice for many hikers.
Choosing the right walking shoes
So, you’ve settled on getting something lighter than your typical burly hiking boots, but now how do you choose? For the most part, you’ll use the same criteria you would for a pair of boots, while keeping in mind that you want to move fast and keep your footwear lightweight.
Materials, construction and durability
Walking shoes can be made from many different materials, but most can be grouped into two types: leather and synthetic.
Leather is a classic choice, used for centuries to create very durable shoes that can also breathe, allowing them to shed both moisture and heat. Nubuck leather is one of the most common materials used in walking shoes - it’s relatively lightweight, durable, and most importantly, it has a lot more flex than full-grain leather (think police boots or older military boots). It’s a little heavier than synthetic materials, but you’ll definitely notice the difference in durability: leather shoes typically last twice as long as ones made from synthetics.
Many shoes actually contain both leather and synthetics, as leather walking shoes usually have a few synthetic vents to get heat and moisture out even quicker. These vents are made with Gore-Tex, a breathable membrane that lets moisture from your foot out without letting anything from the environment in. The alternative is for the whole shoe to be made from Gore-Tex, which is usually best when breathability and minimizing weight are paramount.The downside to synthetic construction is that it’s usually not as durable as leather. This is why you might find leather boots that function for decades, while fully synthetic footwear is worn out in just a few seasons. That’s not to say that synthetic construction could never match leather for durability, but it usually doesn’t, which is something to consider whenever you’re purchasing walking shoes.
Cushioning and comfort
How comfortable your shoes are depends on few different factors, but there are three main ones: sole thickness, sole stiffness, and the stiffness of your uppers.
Walking shoes typically have a thinner and more flexible sole than walking boots (which may have a hard plastic or steel shank inserted to provide even greater rigidity). The thinner sole allows your foot to flex more naturally with each step, which is especially important on steep slopes where that flex will allow you keep a foothold. However, the lack of rigidity also means that you’ll feel more of trail; every little rock and root will transmit more force through your shoe than it would on a thick-soled boot.
The stiffness of the uppers is also important, and is usually determined by the material they’re constructed from. Leather is stiffer than synthetic materials, though many synthetic shoes now have reinforcement ribs that are meant to give them the same stiffness as leather. Stiff uppers are good if you’ll be hiking long distances, since they prevent your foot from slipping around and possibly causing blisters. However, they prevent your foot from flexing as much, changing your stride to more of a march, which is much less comfortable.
Basically, if you’re going to be hiking long distances - think 10-15 miles per day - you’ll need a shoe with a thick, rigid sole and upper to protect your feet from those little annoyances on the trail. For shorter hikes, though, something more flexible will feel better on your feet and help you to move faster on the trail.
The toe box and cap is located at the point of the shoe and provides protection against the inevitable stubbing that occurs on a rocky or root-filled trail. Walking shoes sport a thinner and less protective toe box, which is one of the major differences between walking shoes and walking boots.
When choosing a pair of walking shoes, think about what your trails will look like: are they soft dirt and grass, or are they granite staircases and boulder fields? The rockier the terrain, the more protective of a toe box you’ll need.
Additionally, if you think you might do some trail running, it’s imperative to choose a shoe with a more substantial toe box. The higher speeds involved with running can cause serious damage to your toes (possibly even broken toes) if you don’t have something thick covering them.
Traction is probably the single biggest difference between walking shoes that are made for hiking and a pair of sneakers designed for the city. Start by studying the lug pattern on the bottom of the hiking shoe; larger lugs are good for hiking muddy trails, while smaller ones will serve you better on a slippery scree slope.
From there, look at the material used on the shoe’s sole; quite a few footwear companies have outsourced this part of their shoes to Vibram, a leader in the outsole manufacturing industry. But that in itself doesn’t tell you much, since Vibram (and many other companies) make their soles out of a variety of materials. Softer rubber is better for traction as it’s quite “sticky,” which is good if you’ll be doing a lot of downhill on rocky terrain. However, soft rubber deteriorates quicker, with a little bit wearing off after each time you hike. If you don’t require aggressive traction and prefer more durability, go with harder rubber instead.
By choosing a hiking shoe rather than a boot, you’re already forgoing a certain amount of ankle support. However, most shoe models come in a few different varieties - low, mid, and high-top - so you’ll still have some choice in how much support you get.
The major difference between boot and shoes, though, is the stiffness of the upper; even a high-top hiking shoe won’t have much more stiffness than you’d get in a basketball shoe. Most of the ankle cuff is just padding rather than any kind of supportive material.
When you’re choosing shoes, be honest with yourself about how strong your ankles are. You can build up their strength over time, but you’d never want to take a shoe with too little support deep into the backcountry (especially with a heavy pack). A sprained ankle will ruin your trip, and if you have weak ankles and your shoes don’t offer much support, that’s a real risk.
Waterproofing and breathability
Whether or not to wear waterproof boots has led to heated debates in the hiking community ever since Gore-Tex was introduced in the late 60s. On one hand, waterproof shoes should lead to greater comfort - no one likes having wet feet. Damp skin blisters faster than dry skin, and fungus loves a moist environment to grow in. So it would only make sense to wear waterproof shoes if you’ll be crossing shallow creeks or walking muddy trails.
All of that would be true if Gore-Tex worked the way it’s supposed to, acting as a barrier to external moisture while allowing your sweaty feet to breathe unimpeded. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case - waterproof boots also prevent moisture from getting out, leaving your feet hotter and sweatier than they would be in non-waterproof shoes. If you’re hiking in a hot climate with dry trails, you should definitely choose a non-waterproof shoe.
Of course, most of us don’t hike the same type of terrain week in and week out, so there’s a trade off to be made. You’ll need to decide which is more important - getting your sweat out or preventing moisture from getting in.
Best walking shoes for men
The best all-around shoe is probably Salomon’s X Ultra 3 GTX. They’re lightweight, comfortable, and easy to move quickly in - all the qualities you look for in a hiking shoe. These shoes are also very waterproof, so you know you can use them in just about any environment. Admittedly, they’re not great when it comes to durability or carrying a heavy pack, but that’s the sort of trade off you make when choosing walking shoes over a pair of boots.
If you need a more substantial shoe, the Hoka One One Tor Summit might be a better choice. However, at that point, you’ll need to consider whether it would be better to upgrade to a full-fledged hiking boot. No matter what footwear you go with, keep their limitations in mind, as failure to do so will almost certainly lead to blisters and an unpleasant backpacking trip.