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?
I strongly prefer boots with low center of gravity, tactile feedback, full foot motility and thin sole. Wearing boots with rigid shafts makes sprained ankles more probable in the long run, because the muscles and tendons supporting the ankle weaken, and the natural stabilizing reflexes don’t work as designed anymore. Best prevention against injury is regular exercise and slowly ramping up the weight you carry. Building bone and tendon strength needs about a year, while muscles only need a few weeks. If you ramp up your load too quickly, your bones and tendons can’t keep up with your muscle strength, and injuries are the result.
I agree. I fractured my left ankle with brand new hikers on-high end, lots of support and i am certain that this led to the type of injury I had-Avulsion-now I need surgery on my ligament as its out of place. I think the ankle went one way-secure in the boot, and my left/calf stretched to create the fracture…I’m lucky to have store here that allows returns if boots don’t work out.
I have always believed in ankle support for any physical activity. We need it for skating, football, skiing, but I guess not for tennis (???). I have always wore high top hiking boots and I don’t like leather because they take a long time to break in and can cause blisters By the time I get them broken in they are worn out. I like nylon boots with ankle support. I have never sprained or twisted an ankle when hiking, but have doing dumb things like falling off of a curb.
Any physical activity? Even running?
There are many many sports where people don’t use ankle support, including every other football code apart from American football – e.g. soccer, Australian rules football, rugby….
Hi everyone. I’m an amateur hiker, gradually preparing for my first hike in a few months. I have friends who swear by hiking boots claiming it provides essential ankle support but it makes sense that we need to build the muscles, bobes, and tendons. I also have sprained my ankle playing basketball while wearing high-tops (that’s what we used to call them back in the 90’s!) so that kinda made me think it was just preference. I currently have some excellent NB trail-runners that I train with in nearby hills and they’re perfectly fitted to my feet w/ good traction…so yeah, not sure what to do….Appreciate any input, thanks!
If you can run with them where the force of the impact is greater, why wouldn’t you be able to hike in them?
Good point. I’m doing some test runs next month once I get my pack so that should help. Thanks for the response
I switched to low height shoes this season, and missed the feeling of stability boots give me, especially going down hill. But I don’t miss the weight or the numbness I’d get on the bottom of my feet. I havent rolled an ankle in my low top shoes yet. I’ve tried to play basketball in lowtops before, and thought my ankles would explode because of all the quick direction changes. I’m really curious about the science behind this.
there might not be any studies on high vs low top shoes in hiking/backpacking. However there is an abundance of research on ankle sprains in basketball, soccer players and military recruits. Of course these results might not translate 100% to hiking but should be interesting to form an opinion none the less. After a cursory search it appears that there is no clear benefit in wearing high top shoes. However it doesn’t appear to be detrimental either. However ankle taping and (semi)rigid ankle braces are preventive of ankle injuries without influencing performance. Here are some quotes:
The role of shoes in the prevention of ankle sprains.
Ankle sprains are a common sports injury that can cause significant, chronic disability. Studies aimed at prevention through the use of footwear have focused on the biomechanical aspects of foot and ankle anatomy, proprioceptive input of the foot/ankle complex, external stresses applied to the joint, and shoe traction. These studies support the use of high top shoes for ankle sprain prevention because of their ability to limit extreme ranges of motion, provide additional proprioceptive input and decrease external joint stress. Despite this biomechanical evidence, clinical trials are inconclusive as to the clinical benefit of high top shoes in the prevention of ankle sprains. Further study is necessary to delineate the benefits of shoe designs for ankle sprain prevention.
High- versus low-top shoes for the prevention of ankle sprains in basketball players
A prospective randomized study
Using a prospective, randomized experimental design, 622 college intramural basketball players were stratified by a previous history of ankle sprains to wear a new pair of either high-top, high-top with inflatable air chambers, or low-top basketball shoes during all games for a complete season. Subjects were asked to complete a history questionnaire and were given a complete ankle examination. They were allowed to wear these shoes only during basketball competition. Followed over the course of a 2-month intramural season, 15 ankle injuries occurred during 39,302 minutes of player-time: 7 in high-top shoes, 4 in low-top shoes, and 4 in high-top shoes with inflatable air chambers. The injury rates (injuries per player-minute) were 4.80 × 10-4 in high-top shoes, 4.06 x 10-4 in low-top shoes, and 2.69 x 10 -4 in high-top shoes with inflatable air chambers. There was no significant difference among these 3 groups, leading to the conclusion that there is no strong relationship between shoe type and ankle sprains.
Retrospective comparison of taping and ankle stabilizers in preventing ankle injuries
The effectiveness of taping and the effectiveness of wearing a laced stabilizer in preventing ankle injuries and reinjuries over six seasons of collegiate football practices and games were assessed retrospectively. For 1½ years the players all had taped ankles, and for the remaining 4½ years the players chose their type of ankle support. Over the entire period, the players chose high-top or low-top shoes as preferred. During 51,931 exposures to injury (46,789 practice-exposures and 5,142 game-exposures), the 297 players sustained 224 ankle injuries and 24 reinjuries. Tape was worn during 38,658 exposures to injury (233 players), stabilizers during 13,273 exposures (127 players). Tape had been worn when 159 of the injuries and 23 of the reinjuries occurred; a stabilizer had been worn when 37 of the injuries (P = 0.003) and one of the reinjuries occurred. The combination allowing the fewest injuries overall was low-top shoes and laced ankle stabilizers.
Thanks for posting this. It adds some insight as to why I find laced, unlined, broken in high leather work boots superior for hiking to actual hiking boots. They feel and move like a low shoe with an ankle stabilizer.
Love the scientific evidence-based approach to this question!! This is great!
Great resource, thank you
Thank you for this, really helps me alot with my roll over ankle sprain
I like the feeling of security I get from a supportive ankle boot. My foot snugged in, my ankle wrapped in cushioning, not feeling rocks dig into my arches by the end of the day (which happens when I wear trail runners to hike). Whether it’s the ankle support or the sole design, I don’t roll my feet or twist my ankle as much in boots as in trail runners.
The last time I wore hiking boots was for a long day of trekking in New Zealand 10 years ago. I ended up with sore ankles for the rest of our stay in that country and lost a big toenail after we returned home. I’ve since worn trail shoes, most recently Salomon Synapses, for long sections carrying a 24-34-lb. pack on the JMT and AT, including an AT hike through the Whites this summer. Though I’ve taken lots of missteps along the way, I’ve never had an ankle injury or pain wearing hiking shoes.
I am with you on that Suz. I switched to Salomon XA Pro 3D about 2 years ago and life has been much better. I suffer from Hot feet and the shoes breath well. I wore them on a 25 mile super hike, and had no problems. I also use them when carrying a 30 pound pack, again no problems at all.
Not sure about differences in ankle injuries in boots vs runners, but I have had far more knee problems with boots than runners. I have rolled my foot 90 degrees wearing runners and although it hurt quite a bit for 2 minutes, I had zero pain within an hour and zero pain the next morning.
I used to hike in lower trail runner type shoes, but in my rocky, rooty terrain found myself prone to sprains. After doing trail work for two years, one year in an old pair of White’s, and another in a pair of Red Wing 2233’s, I’ve had several incidents where I started to roll my ankle with 80 lbs on my back and tools in my hands, and the thick, custom formed leather laced around my ankles caught and stopped me like a seatbelt, preventing serious injuries.
Leather has the singular property of breaking in in such a way that it will flex only where and to what extent you normally flex, and remaining stiff elsewhere. A well broken in boot has a full range of motion, but no more.
That , combined with my dislike for bug bites on my ankles, has led to me never wearing a boot less than eight inches high again.
I like boots because they protect my ankles from banging into rocks and trees, I’ve worn shoes hiking and my ankles feel naked. I don’t wear them for support, because honestly, I’ve never notices a difference. My foot can still move at the end of my leg wearing boots or shoes. The mobility is still there. I prefer a still soled boot so at the end of the day, every step is not pure agony from the soles of my feet being tenderized by every tiny stone and root on the trail…as you are well aware, the trails up in NE are a bit rocky.
Funny. I’ve had the opposite problem. That is, stiff soled boots make my feet hurt a lot more than flexible soled shoes.
partially true. They can prevent ankle stressed but at the same time the fixation of the ankle means that the knee will take more torsion stresses to compensate. Even people with ankle injuries should concentrate on strengthening the ankle rather than fixation until such time as they don’t need the extra support.
That fixation issue is exactly why I loathe hiking in hiking boots. I’ve found unlined leather workboots much more effective at giving me a full range of flex but permitting no more. On trail, I even did yoga in my boots.
I have and enjoy using both. More important to me is great traction on big rocks.
I noticed far fewer knee and ankle problems (including sprains) after I switched to minimalist shoes from boots and supportive shoes. I wear nothing but minimalist shoes now. I don’t have any issues carrying a loaded pack. The minimalist shoes require no break-in time and let my feet move naturally. I’m giving my LEMs sneakers a go on their first long walk in October — East Highland Way in Scotland. They’ve been perfect on shorter walks.
On aspect I find about minimalist shoes is being able to feel the terrain better, that and the fact that the sole can bend to provide better contact on uneven ground makes for far less falls and sprains.
Also, there is less chance of rolling an ankle when your heel isn’t elevated.
I wore sneakers i my youth, prior to “hiking boots” and wear hiking boots now. At neither time have ankle sprains occurred. Nor have any occurred while running. Ankle sprains used to occur on flat, uneven surfaces such as larger gravel surfaces. I started lacing my shoes such that the lace on top was the right lace on the right foot and left lace o the left foot. Structurally it makes more sense. And the ankle sprains or twists disappeared after I started doing that, regardless of whether I had a sneaker or a work boor on.
I completely agree with Blitzo and Corwin. I exclusively wear runners now because experience has taught me that my ankles can tolerate rolls and twists while my knees cannot!
I work in the engineering and construction industry. Every company I have seen requires a boot that comes over the ankle when working on uneven ground, specifically to reduce twists and sprains. That mirrors my experience on the trail. Nice, well used trail…shoes are fine. Uneven ground or talus…I will take a boot every time.
There is really no difference in ankle sprains.
1) Mids cover the protruding ankle bone, for overall protection they are better against scrapes, pokes and sticks. Common enough in the ADK’s.
2) There is a large difference between trail runners and sneakers. Mostly the foot bed which can determine the severity of a sprain.
3) Lower trail runners tend to move against my ankle. I can wear them for a month or two but I cannot hike in them. After 4-5 days they build up a ring of soreness around the TOP of my foot.
4) With mids, I do not need gaiters.
5) Synthetics form your feet. Your feet form leather.
6) The too stiff soles of most runners don’t let me “feel” the ground as I walk. They overcompensate for the softer sneaker feeling of the soles.
7) The scree collar on mids works. They do not on runners. My feet stay clean, if not dry, even after walking through a muddy, bogy trail. No debris on and/or under my feet.
8) The mids weigh about 1#7 for a shoe. Runners weigh about 1#4 for the same size shoe. Well worth it to eliminate the gaiters, ankle scrapes, and debris on a trail.
9) Runners do not hold up for two to three years on the trail. I wear the tread off the mids before needing to replace them, usually two to three years.
10) The soles de-lamininate on the runners. North Face, Salomon, Keen, have all de-laminated on me within a single season.
11) No sprained ankles for over 25 years. (Of course, not using the same pair of mids,)
All I know is that the last time I severely sprained my ankle while backpacking was the last time I wore boots. As I transitioned away from above the ankle boots to trail shoes to trail runners I’ve had fewer and fewer troubles with my feet in general. Is it the fact that I am more aware of my foot placement now? Possibly. I know for sure that my feet and ankles are much stronger now that I’ve stopped wearing “supportive” shoes.
I think your observations and experience tie in with Philip’s article on foot placement and getting used to where to place one’s feet while hiking. When using just a trail runner, it seems that there is less of a barrier between the bottom of your foot and the land upon which it hikes, making for a better perception of where to place your feet.
There is the old adage that to strengthen something, remove the support. On the other hand, removal of support should be gradual, so perhaps going from a high top boot and then to a low cut boot with a laced ankle stabilizer to finally a low cut boot or trail runner with no ankle stabilizer is the way to go.
First of all, this is my guess or belief…nothing comes from any research. I don’t mix up between running and hiking/backpacking when we talk about which shoe shape is better, low cut or mid cut (@ankle) shoe. They are different sports. Running is very little time to attach shoe sole to the ground and need to move fast. We don’t want to wear heavy shoes or sturdy shoes. In order to move fast by stepping on uneven ground with rock, tree roots, low cut shoes is better. On the other hand, wrt hiking or backpacking, we touch shoes on the ground much longer time than running and with heavy loads on their back. When we move our legs “slower speed”, mid cut shoes definitely help ankle support when we step on rocks and tree root. When we talk this stuff, I don’t believe “leather & stiff” shoe is the best. Lightweight shoes (non leather) is better than heavy leather shoes.
I have had far more hiking difficulties with boots than with trail runners. From boots I have had very bad blisters (because they are so stiff), a fall where I hit my head on a rock (because the traction was bad and my center of gravity was too high), and pain on the bottoms of my feet within the first mile of hiking (again, because they are so stiff).
I prefer my Brooks Cascadias because they are flexible enough that they have good traction and don’t generally give me blisters. As far as ankle protection, I find that with ankle gaiters and socks that cover my ankles, the ankles are protected enough, especially if the socks are very cushy.
Yes, I’ve turned my ankles in my trail runners, but I turned my ankles plenty of times in boots as well. I do not like the feeling of boots where I am high above the rocks but like the way my low-soled shoes keep me grounded and able to grip the rock better than in a stiff soled boot.
And yes, the bottoms of my feet still often hurt towards the end of a hike, but that seems to happen no matter what footwear I have on. I suspect that more hiking or carrying less weight might help with this but I have yet to do the research on that. I think that maybe the rocky trails I tend to hike are just hard. :-)
Oh, and I’ve turned my ankles plenty of times but never sprained them. I think having strong ankles is key, but I don’t know exactly why I have strong enough ankles that I’ve never sprained them.
Most trail runners are cut fairly high with the cuff of the shoe situated just below the ankle bone. When the shoe is snuggly tied the cuff creates a sort of shelf for the ankle bone, then the cuff bends around to the achilles heel area and raises back up to give support there as well. To summarize, a lot of design has gone into this area of the shoe to give good support to the ankle area including the heel. And yes, it is a myth that boots and even tape, prevent ankle injury.
I’ve suffered ankle rolls in shoes/boots of all shapes and sizes. I don’t find that any one style prevents ankle injury any better than another. I do, however, believe that having constant ankle support may weaken your tendons and ligaments over time because the shoe is doing some of the work for you. This may be why some people who switch from boots to trail runners may notice increased ankle rolls at first (at least until your ankle strength improves). The same holds true with anything. If you do only seated shoulder press at the gym, you don’t engage and strengthen your core and supporting muscles. If you would then switch to standing shoulder press, it could result in lower back or other strains because those supporting muscles are underdeveloped. Same basic idea.
I choose to hike in trail runners based on many factors: weight (less weight=less energy expenditure), faster drying, less blisters, general comfort, etc.
I switched this year from boots to a pair of low-cut Merrill’s. I don’t think I’ll ever go back. My legs feel better, my feet feel better, and I don’t worry about ankle sprains at all.
I’ve sprained an ankle in boots, in cleats, in sandals and in regular running shoes. The only thing that will truly help prevent ankle sprains is having strong ankles or wearing a legitimate ankle brace.
I switched to trail runners this year. I feel less tired at the end of a long hike, no blisters and no twisted ankles. Love them!
I wonder if some of this depends on your personal foot/ankle anatomy and flexibility, I seem to have very sprain proof ankles, which is a good thing because especially when I was younger and less careful I rolled my ankles a lot! I haven’t felt the need to have ankle support yet, the only hiking shoes I own right now are low/light hikers.
One thing I’ve found with trail runners is that when I do start to turn an ankle, just roll with it, reduce the weight on that leg, and pick up the slack with the other leg. It makes for a funny looking little dip while hiking, but I can always keep on hiking.
I used to be a big time believer in a lot of ankle support because I would tend to roll my ankles leading to a lot of sprains.
I eventually listened to the recommendation of many experts that I trust and went with minimalist low top hiking shoes. It took some careful hiking to get my ankles in shape and confidence footing at first, but I now no longer ever roll my ankles.
Even though there were many times when I slipped on loose and/or slippery rocks, I have never sprained my ankle.
I also agree with many that having a somewhat flexible sole helps with that tactile foot control over ankle twisting tail conditions.
I can’t wear heavy boots. I find my feet hurt at the end of a long hike. I find I like shoes best especially when hiking up mountains (my preferred hikes). I can feel the rock and am more secure in my footing.
I’ve rolled my ankle in non-hiking situations enough that I doubt I would ever go on a serious hike in anything but a high top boot. As for thinner soles, those have caused me a world of grief on hikes on rocky terrain. A medium shank, at the absolute minimum.
Excellent topic and comments. My guess is that the overall biomechanics of walking/hiking/carrying a back pack need to be taken into account. Will there be a difference between pronators and supinators in how often they twist an ankle? tightness of the various muscle and tendons? I am an extreme supinator and used to twist my ankle often no matter what I was wearing. Does fitness play a role in twisted ankles for hikers? I also know that as I get tired I make poorer foot placement decisions increasing my risk of a twisted ankle. The heavier the back pack – the sooner you get tired – the poorer decisions you make. The fitter you are – the more you can put off getting tired…I focus heavily on my foot placement to avoid injuries. Might slow me down a bit but that is the price I pay. Leg and tendon strength also comes into play. I have also found that hiking with poles help me focus on foot placement. I also invested in a set of custom foot beds – and that has been one of the best investments I have made! helps address my supination – aligns my stride , has reduced foot pain. I switch the foot beds between my various shoes/boots/ski boots and even cycling shoes
I wear boots that cover my ankles when on an overnight with a heavier pack. I just like the extra coverage when I’m out in more far away places and the weather is changeable. Any other time I wear low top hiking shoes. The shoes are more comfortable, the boots are only a tad heavier, since modern materials and construction are light weight. Next time, I might try the lower ankle shoes despite a heavier pack, and see how it goes. It probably won’t be a bad experience, as long as I’m in shape, my ankles should bear the weight just fine.
Most of the serious thru-hikers on the AT, PCT and CDT, hiking 20-plus miles almost every day, day after day for several months to complete over 2000 miles in the warmer seasons are now wearing trail sneakers, often with light gaiters. Those who repeat such thru-hikes later on choose the same kind of footwear again. Some do complain of blisters at the beginning of these long hikes before the skin toughens. The shoes dry out faster after full immersion in rivers and even in snow than traditional leather. Of course nowadays these hikers are carrying lighter packs with smaller loads too. The lighter gear enables easier and faster hiking, just more pleasant. Appears one disadvantage of the lighter trail shoes is lower durability, only lasting a few hundred miles. But each to her own, if heavier boots work better for you, then the argument comes down to personal experience.
Backpack hunters are switching to trail runners, hiking shoes and midcut boots. It’s an amusing transformation to observe since traditionally leather boots were seen as superior. But to be honest, residents and locals have always worn shoes. It’s the travelling hunters which still insist on leather boots.
There was an interesting blog post in Journal of Mountain Hunting about how people are “over-booted,” and weak ankles are developed because of too much support which is bad for supporting the load. Adam Janke emphasized on strengthening the ankles with mobility drills and trail running rather than compensating for their weakness with boots.
And to be honest, from the guides I spoke to, the only ones who recommend heavy boots are chasing Dall’s Sheep or Stone Sheep.
And this study is interesting:
Mapping Evenki Land: The Study of Mobility Patterns in Eastern Siberia by Tatiana Sofonova and István Sántha
In the document detailed observation about how aboriginals with heavy footwear are not that great at navigating the wilderness. Whereas the ones who can wander around without getting lost wear dog-skin moccasins. The authors attributed this to being able to feel the ground under their feet and being more aware of where they can step, which frees the eyes up for paying attention to what is in front of them and observe more details.
Apparently the groups which wear heavy shoes or boots pay more attention to where they step, and thus don’t pay attention to their surrounding and get lost more easily.
When I switched from boots to trail runners, I was worried about ankle sprains… and those worries never materialized. I enjoy the light weight of the runners and don’t ever plan on going back to boots. I used to have to wear my boots daily for a few months to break them in but my trail runners have worked right out of the box.
I’m on my second pair of Scarpa Sparks. I thought they were a little minimalist for rocky hikes on talus and scree and just started wearing them day to day and finally wore out the first pair and bought another. I play basketball in these things because they are more comfortable than my basketball shoes.
I bought a few pair of the older vesion of Innov-8 Terroc 330 shoes on closeout when they changed the design. They have a more aggressive tread and better side protection for the rock than the Sparks and I wear them on the trail.
Because I have always had issues with moderately weak ankles, I have found it necessary and important to wear hiking boots with generous ankle support.
I was the same way until I got my ankles in shape or as I was told by a foot doctor, I got my ankles and my brain in shape.
A lot has to do with conditioning your reflexes as well as strengthening the ankles and legs in general.
I have far less problems with rolling, slipping and tripping since I got rid of the boots.
I agree. Always use trail runners. When I used boots and they got wet, they stayed wet no matter what material. Trail runners dry quickly, and are a 100% improvement over boots, especially going down steep rocky trails.
I have an old ankle injury that resulted in ligament damage. Despite doing lots of ankle strengthening, that ankle starts to feel sprained after 20 miles of hiking with a light 23 lb pack – even when I watch where I put that foot down with every step and experience no ankle rolling what so ever during the hike.
What I’ve discovered is that it’s MUCH less tiring to hike in low cut hikers, but wearing standard height boots results in MUCH less ankle soreness for weak ankles. Mids are in the middle, from both perspectives. I tried shoes and boots that were the same model from both Merrill and Solomon, so the differences were just due to height.
Between trail running shoes and low hikers, the only difference I noticed was in how much I could feel stepping on rocks when walking in constantly rocky terrain. There was no difference in stability (tendency to roll) or ankle soreness.
You might look for some high top trail runners. My first pair of trail runners were Innov-8 Roclite 288 GTX, which I used for a few years until I wore them out. They were high top with nylon uppers and very lightweight–even lighter than the ones I use now. They had a layer of Gore-Tex for claimed waterproofness–my feet still got wet in them, but that might also have been impacted by what follows…
What I didn’t like was the fact I could feel rocks through the sole. In an attempt to fix that and keep them light, I cut some titanium inserts, however, I sounded like I was walking on beer cans and they fatigued and broke. I then replaced the titanium with thin polycarbonate, which also suffered the same fate. My inserts might have compromised the Gore-Tex. I finally bought some Superfeet (which weighed quite a bit more) but they stopped the shock from the rocks being transmitted through. Of course, the week after I spent $45.00 on the Superfeet inserts, I found an identical pair at REI’s Garage Sale for $3.00.
The last couple years, I’ve worn custom orthodics to handle my terminally flat feet–if I had webbing between my toes, I could pass for a duck! The orthopedic inserts also provide any rock stopping that I need.
When my wife and I began hiking after hurricane sandy, we used our everyday sneakers. We very quickly found out that we were risking injury due to improper fit and low traction not to mention blisters. After some searching around and trying on many different hiking shoes, we wound up with Merrell Moab’s because they fit like they were made for us, were very light and seemed to offer plenty of support. After a relatively short break-in period, they were quite comfortable but occasionally blisters or hotspots would show up. And I’m just talkin about local day hikes.
The one place I really didn’t care for them was downhill’s. I felt like I was on tippy toes and afraid my feet would slip out from under me, even though they actually maintained good traction. I could go uphill all day long but for some reason shortly after pointing downhill, my quads would burn very badly.
At the top of Mt Tammany (Delaware Water Gap), I met a girl who had on a pair of five finger shoes. After hearing her explanation of the benefits for her, I decided that that sounded like a direction I may like to try. I wound up getting a pair of Merrell minimalist shoes (trail ascend glove 2, or something like that). They fit just as well if not better than the Moab’s.
At first I found them to be a bit odd feeling, but I expected that due to the zero drop. The first few times out I took both pairs of shoes to change part way, because I knew it would take me a while to get used to the zero drop and also the feedback through the soles. Yeah, I actually bruised toes, the ball and heel at first. After a while I got used to them, and/or my feet toughened up, and I no longer have any such problem. So far this summer we’ve covered the AT from the Gap to Culver Lake.
I did an experiment one day and loaded up a heavy pack, climbed up and down Mt Tammany with the Moab’s and then the Gloves and back to the Moab’s. My conclusion at the time was that the Moab’s were better over the boulders while carrying a heavy pack, otherwise it was the Gloves hands down. That was 1 1/2 or 2 yrs ago. Now I have 2 pairs of Gloves and my Moab’s collect dust. BTW, I wear the first pair of Gloves to work and well, everywhere except hiking, which I use the second pair for.
I believe the zero drop has been of great benefit for me. I no longer feel like I’m going downhill when I’m on level ground. I no longer feel like my feet are going to slide out on downhills. I wish I could claim that my quads no longer burn on downhills, but that’s just not the case, although I’m inclined to believe it’s better than before. My wife hikes along very slowly and I’ve found that I can alleviate a lot of my quad soreness by scooting ahead at a much quicker pace and then wait for her to catch up.
Another benefit I’ve noticed is that my sciatica has disappeared. I can’t say for certain if it was due to the zero drop or simply due to getting out in the woods for lots of exercise, or the combination, but I’m grateful either way. I’ve read somewhere that barefoot (zero drop) allows for more natural skeletal alignment. Maybe there’s something to that?
I see that the latest version of the Gloves have a very slightly thicker sole and deeper tread. When I’m ready for a new pair, I know what I’m getting.
Boots are a myth. For me, sandals are a better choice than boots.
Finally a sandals advocate (Keens plug)! Agree, boots myth…though boots in the winter but only when I have to.
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.
Fractured my ankle twice wearing hiking boots. No problems since switching to sneakers 30 years ago
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.
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…
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
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…
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.
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.
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 :)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some studies on the subject:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have a daughter with hypermobility. She had total foot reconstruction on the right foot. Can you recommend any boots that might help her.
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.
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?
I am looking for a boot that will keep Mt ankle in place after having a stroke My foot has a tendency to turn sideways
This article is so horribly wrong that I strongly doubt the writer had ever tried hiking in back country with either boots or sneakers. Boots are better by far for preventing sprained ankles, because they provide a semi-rigid support for your ankle in the event you step on a rock or root in the wrong angle. The thickness of the sole plays very little role here unless you are wearing unusually thick sole … or high heel… There are many other advantages of boots over sneakers for hiking. To name a few, high cuff protects your ankles from the rough/thorny undergrowth, they also prevent debris such as rocks or seeds from falling into your shoes, more over, boots typically are better at keeping water out in wet weather.
In addition, I just want to point out the whole argument of the article builds on the premise that boots have very thick soles, which is wrong. As some of the comments have pointed out, some boots have thin sole that allows you to feel the ground, which may help with foot placement in some cases, but thin sole also makes them less trail-worthy. Anyways, there is nothing that prevents a pair of boots to have thin soles, as long as they have high cuffs, they are boots.
I’ve been known to do a little hiking and backpacking in my time, but this is a reader poll designed to ask readers what they think. Thanks for your opinion.
I totally agree with this article. We’ve climbed Kilimanjaro, Gros Morne, did La Haute Route in Switzerland (200 km in 12 days and 11 mountain passes), hike in the Adirondacks often….and I swear by my North Face mid hiking shoe. Physics is on our side. If you step on uneven ground or a rock and you have rigid ankle support, your ankle can’t gimbal, it’s fixed in the boot and so the knee gets torqued. you may not injure your ankle, but your knee will definitely feel it, time and time again. Lowering the support allows your ankle to adjust. Using hiking poles is also a good idea. Rather than invest in a high priced hiking boot, invest in a lower cut boot and poles. In addition to the lower cut, a less rigid sole also allows your foot to feel the ground more and bigger rocks “massage” your foot. Pounding your feet on a very rigid foot bed makes for very sore feet after a few hours.
I’ve been getting back into short, moderate hikes (3 to 4 miles) after over a decade of inactivity due to an ankle injury and then other health issues. I always used to hike in boots. But mine were so old that they basically disintegrated a few years ago. So I had just been wearing basic tennis/running shoes (not trail runners) for the past month, going 3 to 5x a week My feet have started hurting as I worked up to 3 to 4 miles and going 3 to 5x a week, including some blisters starting on a few of my toes. So, I decided I needed something more rugged and intended for hiking. I purchased a pair of Oboz trail shoes. First time out on the trail with them today and had a minor ankle roll on each ankle! :( I attribute it to the harder soles and not being able to feel what I’m stepping on as much as I was able to in plain running shoes! I’m thinking of going back to plain running shoes, but my feet (especially my toes) are killing me in them. And when conditions are muddier a day or two after it’s rained, I can’t really hike in the plain tennis shoes (another reason I wanted shoes meant for hiking, I wanted to be able to still go out even if it was a bit wetter). Not sure what the solution is. Perhaps trail runners instead of trail shoes???
I still turn my ankles occasionally. I think you just need to be patient and experiment with a lot of different trail shoes, trail runners, and boots until you find something that works best for you. There’s no magic answer. But do try using superfeet insoles. They will really provide added support in any shoe, but especially softer trail shoes and trail runners.
My daughter recently broke her ankle. She was wearing hiking boots at the time. The break was at the top of the boot. There was no osteoporosis nor vitamin deficiencies.
Her orthopedic surgeon is one of the top ankle guys in the nation. When he came out of the operating room to give a summary of what he had done, he asked how fast she was going at the time of impact. She was at a stand still, not doing anything extraordinary, just stepped wrong. He was surprised, as the bones were broken into several small splinters which he indicated was generally as a result of high velosity impact.
My daughter was a superb athlete, loved rock climbing, being outdoors, hiking, skiing….you name it. At her last post op visit the surgeon was shocked to see her walking without a limp, but said she will never run any marathons.
We have as a result, had the opportunity to talk to many people with similar injuries. An alarming number happened while the person was in a hiking boot.
Though it seems counterintuitive, I believe there may be causality.
It seems a matter of physics not dissimilar to when one sets the tension on the bindings on skis. It’s about force, leverage and fulcrum. Does the hiking boot set the fulcrum at the top of the boot?
Having recently having to mobilise a medevac folr a casualty witha broken ankled, I would make a couple of comments. The caualty had no ankle support, they were wearing low profile boots/traikners. This particular trail had scrambles and loose rock to contend with. If hiking regularly the ankles have better muscle tone. If an occasional hiker the muscles will be weaker and a boot with ankle support is probably a sensible precaution. This especially true if the trail includes loose surfaces
I believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to footwear regardless of anatomy, age, ability, conditions, injury, and/or personal preference.
It depends entirely on the person. My ankles are hypermobile, so much so that a boot fitter once laughed at how much flexion I had when fitting me for ski boots. A boot cuff helps restrict my range of motion so that it’s a little more in line with “normal”. I find that not only do I not roll my ankles in boots, I don’t get as fatigued as I do when wearing shoes (when ligaments are weak, the muscles have to work that much harder just to stay upright)
I once rolled an ankle twice in one very short 3 mile outing while wearing trail runners. the one nice thing about being hypermobile is that you can roll an ankle and still be able to walk out, but it still hurts and I’m sure it’s not good for my already battered ligaments. After that day I decided I’d never use low tops again without an ace bandage or brace. My ankles feel the happiest when bandaged or braced, but I’m hesitant to do that all the time as that will weaken the musculature, a boot with a significant cuff is a good middle ground.