Cover image: Hiking in the canyons of Utah. Photo by Jennie Fiala.
“You’re wearing those?”
My friend and I were packing up her car for our first weekend backpacking trip together, and while I had laced up my beloved, beefy hiking boots, she wore a pair of what looked to me like jogging shoes.
“Aren’t you worried about having enough ankle support?” I asked, eying the shoes flimsy soles and how they stopped just under her ankles.
She shrugged. “These are what my sister wore hiking the Colorado Trail and she loved them.” I couldn’t say anything against that - her sister had created one of the most meticulous trip plans I’d ever seen, and I knew she wouldn’t have stuck with crappy shoes for six weeks. So I decided not to make a thing of it, but I was curious to see whose feet would be in better shape by the end of the weekend.
Surprise or not, my friend’s feet were totally fine. My visions of sprained ankles and eternally sore feet never happened. In fact, she barely even seemed to want to change into her camp shoes at the end of the day. My boots were reliable as usual, but I began to suspect that, even though they were great for long trips with a big backpack, logging miles on trail wasn’t what they were made for.
A few weeks later, I decided to give the low-height hiking shoes a try. Even though I was worried my ankles would quiver and wobble the whole time, I needed to feel the difference for myself.
The low-height hiking shoes were perfect. I covered about 16 miles on trail and a couple of miles off, and my feet felt great - no soreness, and no sprained ankles.
After that experience, did I completely abandon my mid-height boots forever? Absolutely not. While I love my hiking shoes, my mid-height boots are still the right choice when I need them.
If you’re comparing all the shoes on the market, all the options can be confusing. In the end, though, it’s not about choosing a mid-height boot over a low-height hiking shoe. Instead, focus on what your needs are, what feels good, and where you’re going to wear your shoes.
If you’re looking for more information, below are some guidelines you can use to figure out whether a low-height shoe or a mid-height boot is best for you.
How to Choose between a Mid-height Boot and a Low-height Hiking Shoe
When picking out a boot, I usually zoom in on three main features: the outsole, the height of the boot, and, of course, you - what activity you’ll be doing and what your needs are.
But first, let’s talk about ankle support: Isn’t taller always better?
I believed for a long time that the only way to get ankle support was to wear a taller shoe. It seems logical, right? A taller boot cushions your ankle - you can literally feel the support.
The reality is that, while height absolutely does support your ankle, the support is also about more than the height of your shoe. Ankle support comes from how stiff the sole is and your own movement. A stiff sole, for example, adds additional balance and stability as you step, especially on uneven ground. And if you’re someone who’s wobbly on your feet or carrying a really heavy backpack, then a boot alone won’t help build the balance and strength that help protect your ankles.
For example, at NOLS one of our courses is packrafting in Alaska, where students (even folks who are beginner campers) switch between tough, off-trail backpacking and paddling inflatable rafts on rivers. They need shoes that support carrying heavy backpacks, hiking off trail, and getting in and out of a river. So instead of traditional boots, we recommend a low-height, lighter hiking shoe that meets all these needs (something like the Oboz Sawtooth Low).
If ankle support is a concern for you, in addition to considering a boot that comes up higher on your ankle, spend some time before your trip working on strength and balance, too.
When it comes to outsoles (the bottom part of your shoe that you usually think of as the sole), a big difference between mid-height hiking boots and low-height shoes is the stiffness of the sole.
A stiff sole with good traction is great for carrying a heavier backpack or exploring off-trail. Stiff soles add stability if you’re hiking on uneven terrain, like talus fields of shifting rocks or the bumps of off-trail hiking. The stiff sole supports you when you’re carrying a heavier pack as well - your foot doesn’t have to do as much work balancing and shifting on every step. If you know you’re going to encounter snow, then a stiff sole is also going to be your best bet, since it’s easier to kick steps with a stiff sole. It can also help prevent stone bruising (pain in the bottom of your foot that comes from consistent impact).
When I taught my last backpacking course in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, where I expected to encounter snow and spend a lot of time hiking off trail with a heavy backpack, I opted for a stiff-soled boot.
A flexible sole (also with good traction!) is great for walking on trail for a long way when you’re carrying less of a load in your pack. More flexible soles allow your foot and shoe to bend and flex with the terrain - over time, this means you’re more comfortable as you’re logging miles. It also provides a softer, more comfortable feel, especially on flatter terrain. You might have other considerations for your feet, like plantar fasciitis, that could make a shoe with a flexible sole more comfortable, too.
When it comes to the actual height of the boot, a higher shoe offers advantages of added ankle support. Plus, it’s harder for stuff like dirt and mud to get into your boot (especially if you wear a gaiter). A lower-height shoe might have some advantages of being lighter-weight and easier to pack. Most importantly, a shoe of a different height might fit you better than another. Shoe comfort is important here, in addition to the other considerations for your boot.
Fitting Your Shoe
It doesn’t matter what kind of sole or outsole or whatever your boot has if it doesn’t fit well. It’s tempting to go shopping online, but I find enough variation even within brands that shoe shopping is something I only do in person.
Fitting is essentially the same between a mid and low, and you can take a look at some boot-fitting guidelines here. As you try on your shoes, look out that the shoe is flexing at the same point as the foot, the heel and ankle are secure and the length is correct (meaning your toe isn’t running up against the end of the boot or swimming with a ton of extra space). With a mid-height boot you need to consider where the cuff hits on the heel and ankle to make sure there is no rubbing. With lows, notice where the cuff is contacting your ankle to prevent rubbing, too.
In case you'd rather skim read, below are the ways you can decide whether a low-height hiking shoe or a mid-height boot is right for your next trip:
You want a low-height hiking shoe when:
- You’re traveling mainly on maintained trails
- You trust your ankle strength and foot placement
- You’re not carrying a huge load on your back
- You need a shoe that’s smaller (if you need to pack it, for example)
You want a mid-height boot when:
- You’re hiking off trail
- Conditions are sloppy or snowy: it’s harder for twigs, sand, and slush to get in a boot that’s higher (especially when you combine it with a good gaiter), and to be stable on snow with a mid-height boot
- You’re carrying a heavy backpack
- Added ankle support would make you feel more comfortable
Molly Herber is a NOLS instructor and writer who lives in Wyoming. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. Find her work on the NOLS Blog and follow her on Instagram @mgherber.