Living in New York City, I don’t have many opportunities to go hiking—unless you count climbing the stairs out of the subway. But I recently spent a week in Los Angeles where hitting the trails with friends was on the agenda. Since I planned on packing only a carry-on, this posed a bit of a conundrum: I didn’t want to give up precious suitcase space for a pair of hiking boots and a pair of cross-trainers, which I’d need for indoor workouts and just day to day.
So I decided to just go hiking in sneakers, and I was certainly not the only one—most of the people I passed heading up and down the trail were wearing them, too. And for an intermittent hiker, that’s totally fine, says board-certified podiatrist Mark Mendeszoon, DPM, a hiker and spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association. “Long-term, sneakers are not truly recommended for serious hikers,” he says. But for the occasional out-and-back, you can get by, especially if your sneakers have some of the key features all good hiking boots have in common.
5 features to keep in mind when hiking in sneakers
1. Look for larger lugs
“Most hiking shoes will have a significant grip on their outer sole to adapt to different surfaces, and to provide stability and traction,” Dr. Mendeszoon says. So if you’re opting for sneakers, go with the pair that has the biggest lugs (the teeth-like protrusions on the bottoms of the soles). If the base of the shoe is completely smooth, it’s not going to provide much support to grasp the various surfaces you’ll be walking on.
2. Foam is your friend
When hiking in sneakers, Dr. Mendeszoon doesn’t recommend lacing up a minimalist pair of shoes. You want some extra padding underfoot to make treading over rocky surfaces less of a pain. “The footbeds generally should have enough room and good insulation for cushioning, comfort, and support,” he says. If you don’t already have a pair that fits this bill, Dr. Mendeszoon says an insert that’ll add a little more plushness to your soles is another option.
3. Opt for an airy upper
A traditional hiking boot typically has a breathable upper to allow for ventilation, according to Dr. Mendeszoon. You can mimic this by opting for a sneaker with a mesh or knit upper rather than, say, leather or the types of synthetic materials you see more often on lifestyle sneakers.
4. Consider a cross-trainer
Dr. Mendeszoon says that what separates hiking boots from average walking or running shoes is their great lateral support and stability, both on the sides and the back of the shoe in the form of a solid heel counter. Since walking and running shoes are made for forward motion, not side to side, you may be better off pulling on a pair of sneakers you’d wear for HIIT workouts—as long as the soles aren’t too smooth—since they’re designed to move in multiple planes of motion: forward/back, side-to-side, and rotationally.
5. Skip the shorter laces
“Most trail shoes or hiking boots will have ample length of laces so that they can be properly tied and even double knotted to protect the foot and ankle during long hikes, especially as people start to get on uneven surfaces or start to descend,” Dr. Mendeszoon says. Consider threading in a longer pair of laces if the ones that come with your sneakers are too short.
Take the terrain into consideration
Terrain plays a significant role in deciding what would be the best shoe for hitting the trails. “Hiking on flat trails and surfaces is generally easier and less stressful,” Dr. Mendeszoon says. In that case, it’s okay to wear shoes that aren’t specifically designed for hiking.
“But as people start getting into higher hills or if they start doing mountain hikes, then hiking boots will generally be more durable, a little heavier, more insulated, and more secure of a fitting around your foot and ankle,” he says. “Most hiking injuries that I see as a foot and ankle specialist and surgeon are when people are descending a hill or mountain top—they may lose balance and lose grip on the ground, causing falls.”
Are trail runners an okay alternative to hiking boots?
Once you become more than an occasional hiker, Dr. Mendeszoon says that it’s time to invest in shoes specifically designed for the activity. But if the added bulk and weight of a hiking boot feels like a deterrent, a trail running shoe may be your best bet since they’re designed with all the features Dr. Mendeszoon lays out above.
This could also be an especially good option depending on your foot type, because Dr. Mendeszoon says hiking boots aren’t made with flat feet or high arches in mind, so you could get a bit more of a custom fit by going with a trail runner.
Best practices for buying hiking shoes
Even though we live in the era of online shopping, when you become enough of a regular on the trails to stop wearing sneakers, Dr. Mendeszoon says your first stop should be a hiking specialty store to have a proper fitting. Knowing what to look for in a hiking shoe is not a replacement for getting professional help purchasing a pair. “Once people get into trail shoes,” Dr. Mendeszoon says, “typically they don’t go back to sneakers.”