Types of Wilderness Footwear

You’ll never make it out to that off-trail lake in high heels. You’ll never climb that icy couloir in road-running shoes. To find your little bit of solitude in the wilderness, you need footwear appropriate for the distances, terrain types, and weather conditions you’ll encounter. In this article, I’ll explain the basic types of footwear you may use for wilderness travel and which ones would be best for the type of activity you plan to do. No shoe is perfect for everything, and every shoe is a compromise between different needs. Rest assured, though, that there is a shoe out there for you, and the first step in finding it is figuring out what type of shoe you need.

Trail Running Shoes

As the name suggests, trail running shoes are great for running on trails. They also make great light hiking shoes, especially for shorter hikes and hikes that involve mostly well-groomed trail. They’re lightweight, breathable, and precise. They’re also less supportive than a hiking shoe or boot, though, because of their flexible soles. Their uppers are less durable than a hiking shoe, too, since they’re usually made of mesh. If light and fast is the name of the game, go for a trail runner.


  • Lightweight
  • Breathable


  • Durability
  • Lack of support and rigidity for longer hikes

Best for:

  • Trail running
  • Shorter day hikes

Hiking Shoes and Boots

Hiking shoes are made for long distances, rough terrain, and steep inclines. The good ones will feature a stiffer sole than a trail running shoe, giving your feet support on longer hikes and rocky trail. You’ll usually find some sort of leather in the uppers as well, which protects your ankles and gives them more leverage on uneven ground. With added support and rigidity comes weight, but usually this weight is more than offset by the increased efficiency of hiking in a stiffer shoe. If you’ve got all day to hike twenty miles to that seldom-visited lake, these are the shoes or boots for you.


  • Stiffness and rigidity protect your feet and keep them comfortable all day
  • Weather protection


  • Heavy
  • Sometimes less breathable than other types of shoes

Best for:

  • Long distance hikes and backpacking trips
  • Beefier, stiffer ones are good for Winter travel in the Sierra Nevada

Approach Shoes

Approach shoes, in my opinion, are the best shoe for trekking through the Sierra in the Summer. They’re hybrid climbing and hiking shoes, made for travelling over technical cross-country routes and easy rock climbs. They fit like hiking shoes, but like climbing shoes, they’re stiff and sticky in the soles, making travel over talus and scree much easier on your feet and knees. They’ve got the stiffness of a backpacking boot without the weight of a higher ankle support or the stuffiness of a waterproof liner. If you like the stiffness of a boot, but you don’t need as much ankle support, weight, or weatherproofness, approach shoes may be the shoes for you.


  • Stiff and supportive like a hiking boot
  • Lighter and more breathable than a hiking boot


  • Lack of weather protection
  • Heavier than a trail running shoe

Best for:

  • Hiking, backpacking, cross-country travel, scrambling, light climbing

Mountaineering Boots

Mountaineering boots are overkill for all but a few Sierra winter travelers. They’re the heaviest of the bunch, they’re insulated, and they’re stiff. While most shoes are compatible with strap-on crampons, mountaineering boots are usually compatible with step-in crampons that one might use for ice climbing and steeper glacier travel. Many also offer insulation, which makes them much warmer than the average summer hiking boot. This could be good if you plan on climbing in one of the larger mountain ranges of the world (think Alaska or the Himalayas), but it is not ideal for a warmer summer day in the Sierra. If you plan on ice climbing, travelling across larger glaciers (few of which are found in the continental United States), or just want a really warm, stiff, clunky boot, mountaineering boots are the way to go.


  • Crampon compatibility
  • Unmatched support and warmth


  • Heaviest and bulkiest of the bunch
  • Too warm for most summer travel

Best for:

  • Big mountain climbers (Alaska, Himalayas, Rainier)
  • Ice climbers

2 thoughts on “Types of Wilderness Footwear

  1. Steve

    Great info Tyler! I had never heard of Approach Shoes. At least the term escaped me. Which foot ware do you usually use?

    1. tyler4588 Post author

      Thanks! I use trail runners for light hiking most of the time. I use approach shoes for longer hikes, backpacking, and hiking off trail. For winter stuff, I use my heavy hiking boots. As a footwear salesman, one starts to believe he needs every shoe on the market…


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