Perhaps the most essential piece of equipment for getting up close and personal with the great outdoors is the right footwear. Few things will do more to dampen the pleasure of a hike than bad boots. Fortunately for hikers on a budget, the best cheap hiking boots provide the support and protection to make a peaceful stroll or vigorous trek enjoyable and rewarding. There's no one dominant brand in cheap hiking boots, but some of the better-known names include Merrell, Keen, Columbia, L.L. Bean, and The North Face. We compared footwear from these and other brands, looking for several important features and favorable reviews from consumers and experts.
Choosing Hiking Boots
Perhaps the most essential piece of equipment for getting up close and personal with the great outdoors is the right footwear. And few things can do more to dampen the pleasure of a hike than bad boots. Fortunately for hikers on a budget, the best cheap hiking boots provide enough support and protection to make a peaceful stroll or vigorous trek enjoyable and rewarding. We compared hiking footwear under $100, looking for several important features and favorable reviews from consumers and experts.
For the purposes of this buying guide, we're bowing to common usage and employing the term "hiking boots" generically. Technically, though, some of our picks are low-cut hiking shoes. True hiking boots come up higher around the ankle, to increase stability, and tend to be sturdier than hiking shoes. They're designed for heavier loads, steeper inclines, rockier terrain, and muddier paths. And they often cost more than $100. Footwear in our price range is best suited for day hikes on established trails and easy to moderate terrain, while carrying no more than a light pack.
Some of the better-known names in this product category are brands such as Merrell, Columbia, and L.L. Bean, which market entire lines of outdoor apparel rather than specializing in footwear. The best cheap hiking shoe we found is the Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator (starting at $75), which reviewers widely consider comfortable and lightweight -- ideal for summer weather. The best cheap hiking boot on our list is the Columbia Newton Ridge Plus II (starting at $60). It's made of waterproof leather and so lightweight and comfortable that people use it for other purposes such as yard work, light construction, and just walking.
Two other top choices for consumers on a budget are the waterproof yet breathable Keen Targhee II (starting at $88), another hiking shoe, and the Hi-Tec Altitude Lite I (starting at $68), a mid-height yet lightweight boot that works well for day hikes.
Reviews of the Columbia Redmond Waterproof shoe (starting at $43) are riddled with complaints about size. Even when consumers land on the right length, many find that the shoes are too tight and pinch their feet. And reviewers say Hi-Tec Skamania Mid boots (starting at $50) are fine for light hiking and reliably waterproof, but they don't last.
Most of the boots covered in this buying guide are available for both men and women. The exception among our top picks is the Columbia Newton Ridge Plus II. There is a women's hiking boot called the Newton Ridge Plus, but it's not the same boot; there is no waterproof liner, for instance. The Hi-Tec Altitude Lite I is also sold in a kids' version (starting at $30).
Backpacking Boots vs. Hiking Boots.At the top end of the market, you'll find expensive off-trail backpacking boots and mountaineering boots. These are for more experienced hikers who plan to tackle extreme terrain for days at a time, perhaps in freezing weather with the help of crampons, while carrying a heavy backpack. The best hiking boots for backpacking have minimal stitching (which can be pulled apart by loose stone) and waterproof linings that last longer and breathe better than cheap waterproofing. It's possible to find boots like this at a mid-range price, but generally these rugged boots cost well over $200. Our pick for backpacking boots under $200 is the Oboz Bridger Mid link to capsule (starting at $138), a waterproof leather boot designed to go off-trail and support a heavier pack.
Trail Runners.Another low-cost and increasingly popular option is trail runners, which look a lot like regular running shoes but have deeper treads and sturdier construction. They appeal to hikers who want to move quickly and cover long distances, but they don't provide much support. We confined our research primarily to hiking shoes and boots with better protection and broader appeal. Still, some serious backpackers http://www.cleverhiker.com/blog/ditch-boots and hikers have switched to trail runners for all but the most strenuous journeys and severe weather. Our top pick among cheap trail running shoes is the Saucony Peregrine 7 (starting at $98).
Note:It's worth shopping around online, as prices can vary drastically. Hiking boots tend to differ from year to year only in color scheme, so keep an eye out for discounts on last year's models. Sales can bring mid-range hiking boots to less than $100.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Hiking Boot Reviews: What We Considered
Our exploration of cheap hiking boots took us from reviews on retail sites to posts in online forums to sources such as Outdoor Gear Lab, Switchback Travel, and Backpacker magazine, which put hiking footwear to the test.
Choosing the perfect hiking boot is very subjective. Feet are so individual that what is comfortable for one person may be highly irritating to another. People also buy hiking boots for all kinds of tasks, not just hiking, in all kinds of environments. A mail carrier or landscaper in southern California who wears hiking shoes for extra support and stability does not have the same needs as a Minnesotan who needs boots that hold up in unpredictable weather.
Still, reviewers agree on some key attributes that make for an optimal hiking shoe. Comfort is far and away the greatest of these. The best cheap hiking boots are also lightweight and prevent moisture from causing blisters and general discomfort. Quality construction and durability are also expected.
Fit and Comfort.Experts agree: Never sacrifice comfort for a cheap price on hiking shoes. According to gear specialists at the outdoor store REI, fit is the single most important factor here. If a boot doesn't fit correctly, it won't be comfortable for even the shortest hikes. Because every foot is different, a boot that fits one hiker may give another blisters.
Although many boot brands and retailers offer sizing tips on their websites, it's best to try them on in a bricks-and-mortar store. Experts warn that hiking boots generally don't fit the same way shoes do. Several owners of the Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator and the Keen Targhee II say they had to buy a half size up (Keen's website actually recommends this). People with narrow feet complain that almost all of these shoes are a bit wide, but tighter lacing and thicker socks usually compensate. The exception is the Columbia Redmond boot, which, it seems, runs a bit narrow.
Ideally, you should try on and walk around in as many pairs as it takes to land on the best cheap hiking shoes for you. Experts agree it's best to do this at the end of the day, when your feet are somewhat swollen. There should be enough room in the toe box that feet don't feel squished. Be sure to wear the same socks you would wear on a hike. If possible, try to walk on a ramp so you can see whether the boots you're trying on will mash up your toes when you walk downhill.
In reviews of all our top picks, consumers said they were surprised to have no aches at the end of a long day of hiking, working in the yard, or working a job. Reviewers also credit boots that have little or no break-in period. One expert says the Hi-Tec Altitude Lite I does benefit from breaking in, but that doesn't take long. In reviews of all our top picks, wearers claim to have completed lengthy hikes with no discomfort, right out of the box. This is one advantage of low-cost hiking shoes and light hiking boots. Backpacking boots like the all-leather Oboz Bridger generally require breaking in.
Moisture Resistance.Whether water leaks in from the outside or sweat builds up on the inside, moisture can spoil a hike. It degrades shoes, irritates feet, and causes painful blisters.
Almost all the hiking boots we researched have breathable, waterproof linings designed to prevent moisture from getting inside the shoe. Most of these are proprietary; name brand Gore-Tex, found in the Under Armour Verge Mid GTX (starting at $128) and Salomon X Ultra 2 GTX (list price $145), adds to the price. (Generally consumers can expect shoes with GTX in the name to incorporate Gore-Tex.) Both those models win accolades from experts not only for their waterproof construction but also heftier soles, better insoles and cushioning, and greater durability than lower-end shoes.
At least a few reviewers have been disappointed with the quality of the waterproof liners in the cheaper shoes, citing occasions when they didn't work in rain or snow or simply walking through puddles. On the other hand, at least an equal number of reviewers seem happy with the waterproofing in our top picks. Even someone who wore the Columbia Newton Ridge Plus II on waterlogged trails in the Amazon rainforest reports (where else?) on Amazon that the boots keep feet dry.
The Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator is not a waterproof hiking shoe, but many reviewers assert that it effectively deals with moisture. Whereas a low-quality waterproof membrane might leak or leave feet hot and sweaty, this exceptionally breathable shoe dries out quickly in hot weather, rather than trapping moisture inside. (An extra pair of socks is always a good idea.) In general, the Moab 2 Ventilator works best for warm climates and summer hikes on sunny days. Hikers accustomed to cold, wet weather should consider other options. There are waterproof Moab 2 shoes and boots, available with Merrell's M Select Dry technology or Gore-Tex, which are progressively more expensive.
Even a highly respected fabric membrane like Gore-Tex will wear out after a while. Experts suggest treating the outside of the boots with a waterproofing spray, cream, or oil. This also helps preserve the leather and make the boots last longer. Another piece of advice: Wear socks that wick away moisture. Prices start at about $10 a pair, but some hikers allege they make all the difference.
Uppers.The upper covers the top and sides of the foot from the ankle to the edges of the sole. Heftier hiking boots meant for long backpacking treks almost always have full-grain-leather uppers, which offer the best durability and stability but generally require some breaking in. Lightweight hikers, like those on our list, are usually made with split-grain leather or suede, which is less stiff and more breathable, especially when interspersed with nylon mesh. This construction reduces resistance to water, however -- hence the need for a waterproof liner. The Keen Targhee II is made with nubuck, or full-grain leather that has been buffed to a suede-like finished. The pricier Gore-Tex hikers we researched, the Under Armour Verge Mid GTX and Salomon X Ultra 2 GTX, are primarily synthetic mesh. This makes them highly breathable and lightweight, allowing the wearer to move freely and easily on the trail.
Insoles/Midsoles and Support.Inside a hiking boot, your foot rests on the insole, or footbed. The softer it is, the more comfortable the shoe will feel; the firmer it is, the more stable the shoe will feel. The shape of the insole should mirror the shape of your foot to ensure balance and stability. The experts at Backpacker say if the fit is good but the shoes are still uncomfortable, the issue is with the footbed.
Underneath is the midsole, which provides support and shock absorption. Experts say a top hiking shoe should have a midsole that cushions the foot and keeps it from flattening out under the weight of a backpack. Arch support is essential on the trail -- the cost of stressing your muscles can be severe pain and significant inconvenience. The shank adds stiffness and stability to the midsole. By and large, the heavy metal shanks in hiking boots of yore have been replaced by synthetics that add flexibility without sacrificing any support.
Most of the cheap hiking shoes on our list feature compression-molded EVA midsoles. EVA, or ethylene vinyl acetate, is known for being light and cushy and requires almost no break-in time. Arch support is comfortable but minimal. Many consumers choose to replace the insole with something more supportive, whether an after-market support (such as Superfeet) or a custom orthotic. With the exception of the Oboz Bridger Mid boots, all the shoes we researched lose points with some reviewers because of their insoles; experts point to this as one way manufacturers save money on cheaper shoes. But on the whole it's not a significant issue.
Outsoles and Traction.Traction comes in the form of lugs or treads on the bottom of the boot, aka the outsole. On solid, slippery surfaces, well-designed lugs provide stable and secure footing by concentrating downward pressure on fewer contact points. On softer ground, they dig in and come into contact with more surface area at different angles.
The deeper and thicker the lugs, the better the traction, particularly on loose or uneven terrain. Hiking boots and shoes generally have 4- to 5-millimeter lugs, but this is not always listed in the specifications. Among our picks, the Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator has 5 mm lugs and the Keen Targhee II has 4 mm lugs. Experts also recommend looking for widely spaced, multi-directional lugs.
The outsoles of all the low-cost hiking boots we researched are made of rubber, usually a synthetic. Many pricier hiking and backpacking boots have Vibram-branded soles, which are the gold standard for traction and durability. Our pick for best cheap hiking shoe, the Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator, boasts Vibram outsoles.
Weight.Naturally, hiking boots with all-leather construction and full ankle support weigh more than low-cut shoes that incorporate breathable mesh. The conventional wisdom is that 1 pound on your feet feels like 5 pounds would on your back, suggesting that lighter hiking boots are better. But a heavier boot may be better able to accommodate more than just a day hike with a light backpack.
The weight of a hiking boot is usually included in the specs and varies by size and gender. The mostly leather Columbia Newton Ridge Plus II boots weigh the most among our top picks, at just a shade under 2 pounds (15.9 ounces each for a men's size 9). Still, consumers describe them as lightweight in reviews on Amazon. The Saucony Peregrine 7 trail runners, designed to be speedy and lightweight, weigh in at less than 10 ounces per shoe.
Durability.While hiking shoes made of split-grain leather interspersed with nylon mesh are typically lightweight and breathable, one downside of this construction is that the shoes tend not to last as long as all-leather boots, especially if they're primarily mesh without much leather for support. Although durability does not seem to be a pervasive problem with the shoes we picked, it's the prevailing complaint with the Hi-Tec Skamania Mid boot. On Amazon, for instance, one reviewer reports that the sole came apart from the shoe within several months. A buyer posting on Trailspace, a community review site for outdoor enthusiasts, sent back two pairs -- one with a cracked shank and the other with a broken eyelet -- before receiving a replacement that lasted longer than a few wears.
Almost every cheap boot garners at least some complaints that the lugs wear down more quickly than expected, especially if often worn on pavement. Proper care can greatly extend the life of your hiking boots.