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Myth or Fact: Do Hiking Boots Prevent Sprained Ankles?

Do hiking boots help prevent sprained ankles when you have a heavy backpack?
Do hiking boots help prevent sprained ankles when you have a heavy backpack?

A lot of hikers believe that you need to wear leather hiking boots when you carry a heavy backpack because they provide more support for your ankles and help prevent ankle sprains. But I’ve never found any research or scientific studies that proves this to be true.

In fact, common sense holds quite the opposite, that wearing a hiking shoe, trail runner or minimalist shoe with a lower center of gravity should lead to fewer ankle rolls because your foot is closer to the ground. Unlike rigid hiking boots, hiking shoes with softer soles are more likely to provide better tactile feedback about the ground you’re hiking on, so you can adjust your stride more quickly and avoid misplaced footfalls that lead to ankle sprains.

What do you believe?

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87 comments

  1. I have hiked in trail runners exclusively for at least 15 years with no ankle issues whatsoever while my distant memory of boots includes many ankle rolls. I believe that their are most likely many reasons for this. Among them: I think that using this type footwear successfully has allowed my muscluoskeletal system to strengthen preventing issues, I believe that I certainly have a tactile awareness benefit helping prevent injury (Daves study was interesting), I believe I was less careful in foot placement with boots, I get much less tired in part due to not carrying so much weight on my feet thus reducing fatigue caused foot placement issues. It is interesting to note that over the years I have also improved my hiking technique considerably, lightened my pack, and exponentially increased my fitness. So it is very hard to isolate variables but interesting to think about.

  2. Fractured my ankle twice wearing hiking boots. No problems since switching to sneakers 30 years ago

  3. Good post. I wonder too. I’ve been prone to various foot problems, and have found my feet do well in boots (less pain). However, last year I sprained an ankle twice wearing my leather boots. More than a year later, I can still feel it in my ankle, and realize I will probably be more likely to re-injure it.

    I’ve been working with a personal trainer who is an ultra runner. She has started to have me experiment with shoes. I’m currently trying Altras (love the wide toe box & padding). I’m not sure if the cause is the wide toebox, but I feel that I have less lateral stability wearing them compared to other brands of sneakers or boots. My feet slide laterally in them (and I have wide feet at my toes) – which makes me wonder if I’m more likely to sprain my ankle wearing them.

    I do like the lightness of shoes though – it feels easier to recover if I mis-step.

  4. I had several anke sprains when younger (not hiking related). I find leather boots with support useful for more difficult terrain (like talus or in mountains with 2000m+) especially downhill or in the dark. It happened several times after a wrong step that I thought, that without boots this would be another sprain. However, maybe without boots I wouldn’t make the wrong step…

  5. Here in Oregon there are lots of sharp rocks on trails that go right through a trail runner sole. This can cause a fall or sprained ankle and you have to constantly look at the ground as you hike. This is why I wear the lightest boots possible even with no or light loads

  6. I can only say this about that; having broken my ankles twice in jumps and sprained them a number of times, I was always wearing low cut sneakers or boots when these accidents happened. I have twisted the ankles many times but never injured them while wearing Hiking Boots 3/4’s or Taller.. There is a reason the Military wears Tall boots especially Paratroopers, also as experienced this past week, with a Wasp bite right at the left ankle through the sock and 12 chigger bites through the socks while wearing Deet, , I hereby toss all low cut hiking shoes, boots, sneakers, modified anything from my walking in the woods wardrobe for my feet……took 4 days for the swelling on the ankle to go down…

  7. I like 8 inch boots with pants bloused if I am doing something off trail or in a place I am concerned about creepy crawlers making their way up my pants.

    If I know I am going to be on trail and not to concerned about ticks and other creepy crawlers it’s all about low cut shoes.

  8. I have worn trail runners for every backpacking trip after my first.
    Even when I carried 50 lbs regularly I wore trail runners.

    Now I never carry over 30 lbs, and I can wear trail runners doing 30 mile days. I have never injured my ankles/feet on a backpacking trip, except for getting blisters on my only trip wearing boots. All of my friends who hike, even those who carry heavy loads, wear running shoes. Boots just don’t make sense to me. Why carry extra weight attached to your feet? Especially when that weight comes in a stiff and uncomfortable package. Every time I step on a loose rock or something, I am able to reposition my foot and avoid any injury quite easily.

    lightweight mesh shoes for life! Although you will spend more money on them probably, because they are not very durable.

  9. For years I thought I needed heavy leather hiking boots when I had a back and this year I finally asked why. I have done approach hikes carrying 60+ pounds in my trail runners and felt great the whole time. I am slowly getting converted to hiking in trail runners full time; my evolution towards ultralight packing is another story :)

  10. My feet are suppinated (cavovarus deformity). I twist my ankle frequently in all sports activities when wearing mid-level shoes, high-top shoes or trail runners with thick soles and a sharp-angle sole edge. I never twist my ankle when I’m wearing 8-inch workboots, sandals, zero-drop shoes with rounded sole edges, or barefoot (yes, barefoot). Never.

    My current solution is to wear zero-drop trail runners and use a lace-up ankle brace if I have a current ankle injury.

  11. I think encouraging people to get their pack weight down as the first order of business will give then confidence to then switch to lighter footwear

  12. After about 20 years of searching for the right boot that was light and water proof I converted to trail runners for backpacking with no waterproofing. The biggest advantage of trail shoes to boots is weight, comfort as far as fewer blisters mostly due to superior ventilation and softer materials. You must walk more carefully with trail runners. With boots you tend to just plow over everything with little concern for what you are walking on. With trail runners you will be less tired and more attentive to the ground. Walking sticks prevent twisted ankles as well as face plants.

  13. This is a question which I feel has no pat, one size fits all answer.

    For folks transitioning quickly from driving a desk 40 hrs a week having done doing little hiking, neither choice is good … they will very likely have foot problems either way.

    I have a friend with a long ago damaged ligament in one foot … for him it is either boots or he’s gonna have problems … that being based on experience, not expectations.

    I hesitate to tell anyone what will work for them but I do share the story of my foot wear journey.

    Boots were the last thing I gave up during my transition to lighter weight backpacking. I really doubted that I could be OK in trail runners. But I gave it a try and have never looked back. One key to that success is finding a brand/model that fits my feet well. Another key to a successful transition was that I eased into it starting with shorter day hikes and building up foot fitness with frequent hikes of increasing pace and distance. I now consciously seek out uneven ground, side hills and less stable landing spots to walk on. A result is that my feet are stronger and accustomed to being flexed in all possible ways. I’m eight years into my trail runner journey and have yet to have a blister or foot injury while wearing trail runners. However, I DID develop tendinitis in a big toe tendon this past winter while hiking a lot in insulated boots.

    These days, the only time I wear boots on trail is during trail maintenance weekends where I expect to have to crash through thick brush off trail while dragging logs, carrying rocks or using sharp tools near my feet.

  14. What a conversation. Like a couple of the other writers, I’ve had problems with stability due to injuries. Many years ago I suffered a pull-off fracture of my lower right leg (not hiking related) and mid-weight boots work best for me.

  15. Back when I wore high-topped boots, I twisted my ankle several times and sprained one once.Since trying low-cut trail runners 15 years ago, it has never happened again.

  16. No question high ankle support has saved me dozens of would be sprains.
    I roll my ankles with shoes 10 fold over boots.

    • Love sturdy boots and a good heavy stick. Im not in a hurry, the hike to me is the adventure. So many people set
      Out to conquer trails, peaks whatever.
      I set out to be in nature that means there are no goals. I walk I enjoy and I observe. Ultra light is fine if you are competeing with yourself. I go sturdy and never set a destination.

  17. I just finished hiking the West Coast Trail and boots were a must. I believe there is a large amount of support and protection offered by boots, not afforded by light trail shoes. Newer boots offer incredible technology in terms of water resistance and support while also being lighter weight than boots of the past. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Solomon trail shoes for day hikes and easier terrain however choosing footwear is no different than selecting the gear required for overnighting in different seasons, you need the correct set for the job. There is a reason why construction workers, basketball players, police, firefighters, and soldiers have footwear evolved with support and protection. Several hiking conditions offer similar challenges.

  18. This is a very interesting debate! Having been in the past mountain guide, arctic survival instructor, forester, high country musterer among other wild country pursuits footwear had always been a subject of debate and controversy. My personal preference is for boots with a rigid platform type sole (snow/ice climbing) that give good protection from the terrain and maximum support of ankle and lower leg. My only injuries in over 50 years have been with flexible soled light boots or shoes. A walnut sized stone had me off work for a month with a badly bruised and damaged sole when I trod on it on a city path. Wearing a klettershoe, a forerunner to sticky climbing shoes, a sprained ankle caused a lot of pain and cursing of my stupid choice of footwear.
    Having said this for light day-trips on formed tracks I now wear a pair of semi rigid soled trail shoes that are made specifically for the purpose and they are great; however off trail or in wild country I still regard GOOD BOOTS as essential. How embarrassing to have to call in mountain rescue for an unnecessary injury caused by impropper footwear.

  19. Want to direct your attention to this journal article:

    Boulware, D.R., Backpacking-Induced Paresthesias. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine. 2003; 14: 161-166.

    Found out that my planter fascists was actually tarsal tunnel syndrome. Was it those heavy packs and boots Or jumping out a helicopters that did me in. Who knows. But being untralight and wearing Birkenstocks is my reality now.

  20. I definitely prefer running shoes and trekking poles! I have rolled my ankle far more often with big hiking boots. I stopped using them on the advice of a fellow alpinist, and my world changed thereafter. I’ll never go back to heavy, uncomfortable, blister-causing hiking boots! Plus, running shoes are much easier to carry up and over mountains and rock walls.

  21. Wow – lots of opinions. In rattlesnake country, were I usually hike, a protected ankle is most reassuring. Most of my trials are rocky so I also appreciate the foot protection of boots.

  22. Switched to a Rocky S2V jungle boot. Some ankle support but more importantly this lowered center of gravity, minimal heel rise combat boot provides support, cushioning from sharper stuff on the ground while remaining flexible enough to feel the ground. No major sprains yet after a year of hiking and backpacking. The eight inch top also means I never get trail junk in my shoe, while providing more support than gaiters.

    Had a long history of ankle sprains with anything I wore before that. Hiking sneakers were the worst.

  23. I have low ankle bones, so I either need very low shoes or some kind of boots just for comfort. Boots have been coming out ahead. I was working to transition to minimalist shoes when I hurt my back.

    Now I don’t reliably feel my right foot, especially when I’m caring a pack. I slip just as much in boots as shoes, but it hurts less.

    Now that’s not normal, and I’d love to get back to my minimalist shoes, but for now I’m rocking my boots.

  24. I was recently on a trip with a friend who was wearing typical REI hiking boots while I was wearing trail runners. We were crossing a large boulder field where we had to jump from rock to rock. I was having zero issues as my ankles could flex to to adjust to the shape of the rock. She was actually having quite a difficult time due to her “support” or what seemed to me to be a lack of flexibility. Obviously this is just anecdotal and possibly she’s not sure-footed. I just found it interesting.

  25. I have very poor ankle confidence. I have sprained my ankles barefoot, in tall leather combat boots, in sneakers, in hiking boots. In fact my weak ankles are my biggest fear on the trail. But in my experience the closer to the ground the better. I recently purchased some light weight trail shoes. I cannot handle heavy feet.

  26. As someone with hypermobility and a severely damaged ankle who can sustain minor injuries just from stepping on uneven surfaces that bend my ankle outwards, I would have to say sturdy, fitted, lace-up boots DEFINITELY prevent injury for me.

    They must be fitted in the ankle to do this, but I can feel the leather resisting letting my ankle twist when I step on uneven ground, and I know that this has prevented many ouchies I might have otherwise had.

    Might this prevent some strength building of the ankle? Possibly. That might be a bad thing for someone with an otherwise healthy ankle joint.

    But for someone whose ankle is already damaged and no amount of strengthening will fix it, it is definitely safer for me to be in sturdy fitted boots than not. Minimalist shoes would be pure insanity. And as there is no conclusive research on boots preventing injury, there is also no conclusive research on minimualist shoes doing so. I would suspect this is because everyone’s different and has different needs.

  27. The best hiking shoes are military jungle boots and desert boots, hands down. They are between trail runners and mountaineering boots in weight (but much closer to trail runners), provide ankle support far exceeding all trail runners and most heavier boots, drain and breath nearly as well as trail runners, last and are resoleable like heavier boots, and protect your feet more like heavier boots. While you can find other footwear that is better under specific circumstances, you will not find better footwear for long trails on varied terrain.

    Just make sure you get the real deal, from companies like Altma, Bellville, Lowa, Nike, and Vasque, and that they meet normal military regs for a service boot. Cheap knockoffs from
    Big 5 are typically comfortable, but they drain and breathe poorly, weigh too much, aren’t serviceable, take longer to lace (trust me, it matters) and fall apart quickly. Expect to spend $100-$250, or be disappointed in the quality.

  28. I do think it is good to have good ankle support while hiking. There have been times when the reason I didn’t sprain my ankle was because of my hiking boots, but I am not a podiatrist, and can’t say for certain. Your argument for being able to adjust better with lower shoes is a good one, but that just makes me think that it might just be best to wear ankle supporting socks with lower shoes. The best of both worlds, right?

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