Using the right footwear is important in all aspects of life, but the need for doing so is even more apparent when it involves activities such as backpacking and hiking.
While some may initially assume that backpacking and hiking boots are one in the same, they are most certainly not. In fact, using the wrong boot style for the wrong application can result in a wide range of issues for you and your feet, as well as hindering your experience and mobility in general.
Wondering what the differences are? You’re in the right place.
Hiking involves making light treks along pre-made or suggested paths, and is often accomplished in shorter trips during the day. Hiking is more casual than backpacking, so there isn’t a need for advanced gear, or even any gear at all depending on the trail.
Although hiking is done on pre-made paths, there are times when you might need a bit of extra grip, as well as some added durability and stability to the boot itself.
Still, hiking is a less intensive trek than one you’d encounter backpacking. Because of this, hiking boots are lighter and more flexible, and actually a little more comfortable in general. Most hiking boots have tops and uppers that are crafted from lightweight fabrics and/or suede, making them highly breathable, more flexible and more plush inside.
Some of the tougher models of hiking boots are made from light leather, sometimes entirely. These boots also use materials that aren't quite as rugged and tough, resulting in a lighter and more comfortable boot. This often minimizes any issues on a hiking trail, but heading off a trail can wear out the boots in a quicker manner, as they are more prone to scraping and damage.
The outer soles of hiking boots are made from rubber, and have a fairly standard tread pattern. The lug pattern on a hiking boots is usually more spread out and not very deep resulting in a familiar feel that also allows you to remove mud easier.
Ankle support in the boot depends on how stiff the upper part of the boot is. Mid-cut boots provide some support while still maintaining lightness and flexibility, making them good for shorter hikes and carrying lighter loads around.
Regardless, the overall goal of hiking boots should be comfort, since you aren’t in need of an extra-durable boot. Grip and stability are a close second.
Backpacking involved long trips often lasting for multiple nights into more remote areas. Although there may be a trail every now and then, backpacking is focused on the full immersion into nature and your surroundings, utilizing only what you can carry with you.
Unless you are opting for an ultralight load, backpacking involves carrying a large amount of gear in a specialized backpack. Even though most backpacking gear is made to weigh as little as possible, you are still carrying a substantial load for days at a time.
Another core aspect of backpacking is the fact that you can face all kinds of rough terrain -- you are in the wilderness after all. Because of this, it’s important to have footwear that can withstand all kinds of abuse, protecting your feet while also giving you the stability.
Traction is an important aspect of the boot itself. Hiking boots often have a sole that is a little more flexible, and features a tread pattern similar to a normal shoe. Backpacking boots have a much more stiff sole, which not only gives you better stability, but prevents wear and tear of the sole itself.
Rubber is a common sole material for backpacking boots, albeit much more stiff. Carbon is sometimes used to increase durability and stiffness as well. The lug pattern is designed in a way to provide better grip, with deeper lugs found on models more suited for snow and mountaineering.
Backpacking conditions are much more intense than hiking trails. It is for this reason that backpacking boots are often made from full leather, as well as being heavier, more stiff, and less breathable than hiking boots.
Backpacking boots are also more geared for encountering water and streams, leaving you without the more breathable upper and tongue found in hiking boots. Gore-Tex is a common material used on the inside of these boots as well, helping to wick away moisture and dry quicker.
Ankle support is greater with backpacking boots, due to the fact that you are carrying a heavy load for multiple days. The ankle support not only gives you better stability in sudden moments, it also helps reduce the stress on your feet, something that grows more important each day of your journey.
The best thing you can do is be aware of what you are needing in regards to the environments you’ll be using the boots in.
If your standard hiking trails are flat and rather uneventful, a lighter, more breathable hiking boot will suffice. This is even more true if you don’t expect to encounter any water.
Whatever you do, don’t use the wrong boots for the wrong applications. Hiking boots and backpacking boots are not one in the same. If you use hiking boots for a backpacking trip, you can expect the boots to fail in several ways, and also result in problems such as blisters and aching feet.
Regardless of the type of boots you have, always be sure to break them in before taking them out on the trail or in the wilderness. Failure to do so will also result in blisters and aching feet. You can wear them around the house, or take them on short walks around the block -- whatever works.
Fit is extremely important with hiking and backpacking boots. If you purchase a pair of boots that don’t fit perfectly, return them for a different size, even if it’s an inconvenience. The inconveniences you’ll deal with later on will be much worse.