Differences among "trail shoes", "hiking", etc.?

11:35 a.m. on December 9, 2016 (EST)
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I'm an old guy and all the boot designations like "trail shoes", "hiking", "back packing", etc., are new to me. Would someone please explain the differences among them?

2:22 p.m. on December 9, 2016 (EST)
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I think you have to try on shoes and judge them on their own merits, because a company call call it whatever they want.  the fit and feel of the shoe, considering the way you plan to use it, is the most important consideration for buying a shoe that you will like and will serve  your desired purpose.  

generalizing, a trail shoe is going to tend to be lighter, less protective of your feet than a more robust boot in terms of the thickness of the midsole, the use of a shank (flat piece that makes the sole feel stiffer), the strength/flexibility of the leather or synthetics used to make the shoe, often below-ankle height.  

not to complicate matters more than necessary, but you may also see 'trail runners,' which tend to be more like a running shoe but modified for use on trails - heavier, deeper lugs, slightly more robust materials, burlier toe caps, for example.  further, there are a class of trail shoes that people call 'approach shoes' because the build of the shoe and the sole tend to be partially oriented toward scrambling and rock climbing - you would theoretically use them to 'approach' a rock climb, so approach shoes may have soles that are both made of stickier rubber and that have toes and edges that one might want for scrambling or low-grade rock climbs.  approach shoes also tend to have lighter/less cushioned midsoles so you get a better feel for rocks while climbing, so they might not appeal to someone who wants a relatively well-cushioned shoe for trail walking/light hiking.  

if it's made for 'hiking,' that could mean anything, but shoes/boots that say 'hiking' vs. 'trail shoe' may be made of thicker/less forgiving materials, have a stiffer midsole, more likely to use a shank, more likely to be mid or ankle high or have that option.  

'backpacking' could also cover a pretty wide spectrum, but that might indicate the use of a stiffer shank, a less flexible midsole, boot materials that are stiffer, eg greater use of leather or use of leather that is harder and less flexible.  all of which might help protect your feet better if you are carrying a significant amount of weight, or if the terrain is more rocky or challenging.  

4:19 p.m. on December 9, 2016 (EST)
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You pretty much have to look at the individual model and decide if it will be appropriate for your use.  If I could have but one pair of shoes, it would be something in the "approach" category. I generally prefer low cut models, except when I know I will be in thick brush or grass, when higher tops or gaiters are useful.  

4:54 p.m. on January 22, 2017 (EST)
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I have found over the years that a mid cut shoe (what they used to call "hi-tops") are ideal. Gore-tex for sure! Anytime you don't have a waterproof shoe/boot, you run a greater risk of stench, chafe, and discomfort. 

I used to unload trucks for UPS (lots of pressure and pivoting). When I first started, I wore high work boots. My knees started to kill me. I could barely get out of my car after work. I looked at all the other guys on the shift; they all wore low tops. I asked why. They said if you tight wrap your ankle, it takes all of the torque and pressure off your ankles but places it on the only other available bendable part: your knee. 

I switched to lower topped footwear and my problems were gone in a week. 

Trust the guys and gals that work the line at UPS, they know!

Mid range shoes will give you just the amount of support you'll need without killing your knees. Gore-tex!

Hope this helps

Go time!

4:29 a.m. on January 23, 2017 (EST)
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Forget these categories; instead look at the features.  Listed below are what one can expect in footware, starting with lightweight models and progressing to extreme duty models.  Some will probably comment they prefer lighter boots for the applications I describe, but it behooves most weekend warriors to start out based on the guidelines I provide.

  • Some footware is designed to maximize lightness and flexibility.  Running shoes are like this.  You can bend and twist the sole in both axes.  These and somewhat heavier shoes are good for walking and running over smooth trails with a daypack, but not good for longer trails with uneven footing such as cobbles and rock cuts.
  • A bit heavier constructed shoes have a stiffer and thicker soles that make them better suited for walking on most any trail, perhaps carrying a "large" day pack.  Many UL hikers also choose this options to backpack on smooth dirt and gravel trails.
  • The next step up are footware featuring thick soles and a cuff that is higher than typical runners and street shoes.  This describes the most popular choice of footware, suitable for most trails, while shouldering a weekend or UL pack.  The soles, while stiff, can still be twisted with little effort along its main axis, making them less than optimal for shouldering heavy packs or traveling XC across rugged terrain. 
  • Then there are boots with even more rigid construction.  These come in both mid and high top varieties.  The sole is still flexible, bending as you stride along, but are considerably more resistant to torsional twisting along their main axis.  Often this class of boot will have a sole shank.  I use this boot for most of my backpacking as I tend to carry a relatively heavy pack and find the semi-rigid sole and shank eliminates rocks bruising the bottoms of my feet, as well as reducing lower leg and foot fatigue.
  • The top class are the heavy duty boots.  They may come with mid or high cuffs; have a thick sole, and a beefy shank that precludes torsional twisting of the sole.  The sole in this class of footware is rigid enough that the flex is insufficient to facilitate a normal stride.  To compensate, the profile of the sole is rounded (known as a "rocker bottom") from front to back, much like a wooden clog.  I prefer this boot when shouldering my heavy packs (60+ pounds) or whenever carrying a pack XC over rugged terrain. 
  • Specialized footware such as technical rock climbing slippers, double boots and plastic snow/ice footware are beyond the scope of a beginner's needs, thus not describe herein.


9:39 a.m. on January 23, 2017 (EST)
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Thank you very much, gentlemen, for your thoughtful answers. I will keep it all in mind during my shopping expedition.

10:42 a.m. on January 23, 2017 (EST)
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There seems to be a presumption that the more weight you carry the heavier your footwear needs to be.  As packs have gotten lighter, so has footwear which is a great advantage.  Some people that hike a lot and have strong ankles and lower legs can use the lightest footwear with a pack.  I like some ankle support, but really like the new footwear.

My first test for any hiking shoe or boot is to twist the sole and see how much resistance it has laterally.  Even the lightweight shoes now have pretty good rigidity in the soles.

December 13, 2019
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