If you primarily hike on groomed trails and don't require extra ankle protection, low-cut hiking shoes may be all you need. In fact, quite a few long-distance hikers, including a number of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, swear by using trail shoes as their footwear of choice.
If you decide to go this route, be warned that not every foot will be happy in trail shoes, even on relatively easy trails. That's because while hiking shoes offer the ultimate in light weight, flexibility and agility, they also offer minimal support and, in many cases, minimal protection against sharp rocks or other rough material underfoot.
A good number of the disappointed user reviews we found for trail shoes were because buyers often think they're getting boot-level protection and support in a smaller package, but that just isn't the case. Ultralight backpackers or fastpackers may enjoy hiking in lightweight boots and shoes, but if you regularly carry more than 25 pounds on your back or don't have strong, tough feet that are already used to hiking in lightweight, flexible shoes, you should stick to sturdier boots for backpacking.
Now that we have the disclaimer out of the way, our best-reviewed hiking shoes in this report are the La Sportiva Synthesis Mid GTX (Est. $180) which, despite the "mid" tag (for mid-cut) and occasionally being labeled as a boot, is really more of a trail shoe. The boot label can be a real problem because, again, it makes buyers think they're getting more support and protection than any shoe can offer.
Those who understand what they're getting into, however, love this mid-cut hiking shoe for its light weight (1 pound, 10 ounces for the average men's pair), medium to low-volume fit, and great trail feel. Its aggressive tread will take you just about anywhere, and reviewers agree that, although the Synthesis is flexible underfoot, it's also sturdy enough to protect your feet if you step on sharp rocks.
The La Sportiva Synthesis even won an Editor's Choice at Backpacker in 2015 -- pretty much the highest any hiking footwear can go. The editors say that not even their sweatiest-footed tester could thwart the new GoreTex Surround technology, which forces air out through perforations near the bottom of the shoe to keep your feet dry without sacrificing waterproofing.
The Synthesis has a polyurethane exoskeleton that wraps around the midsole to tie it to the upper, an EVA midsole that the Backpacker editors say is tough enough for supporting weekend backpacking loads, and a reinforced toe for extra protection. Durability, however, is an issue; no hiking shoe can last as long as a boot, and high-mileage hikers can easily go through a pair a year. On this shoe, the ankle collar and the laces are the first places wear is likely to show.
As good as it is, the La Sportiva Synthesis is on the expensive side for a light hiking shoe. Our pick for the best cheap trail shoe, the Merrell Moab Ventilator (Est. $100), was actually our best-reviewed overall in last year's report. This shoe weighs about 1 pound, 14 ounces for a typical men's pair, and they're notoriously comfortable right out of the box, with a forgiving fit and wide options in men's sizing. (Women's sizes come in only normal width, but are still fairly friendly to wide feet, reviewers say.)
Users say the Merrell Moab Ventilator offers great traction on just about any surface, with just a few mixed reviews about its grip on wet rock. Although these shoes aren't waterproof, they do a great job of letting the water run right back out again, and the increased air circulation means both your feet and the shoe dry out faster than they would if they were waterproofed.
Like any light hiking shoe, the Moab Ventilator is not all that durable, but reviewers from OutdoorGearLab.com say it stands up pretty well when compared to similar models. The heel padding is a key wear point that tends to erode quickly, but reviewers say you can prolong the life of the shoe by adding your own cushioned insoles. When the outsole wears out, though -- which can happen in a year or less for high-mileage hikers -- it's time for a new pair.
The Merrell Moab Ventilator is quite popular with women but, if you're looking for a women-specific trail shoe, the Ahnu Sugarpine Air Mesh (Est. $110) gets even more recommendations from the ladies. These supremely light shoes (about 1 pound, 4 ounces per pair) also win a Top Pick award from Outdoor Gear Lab in the women's hiking shoe category; editors say they're supportive yet flexible underfoot, with a narrow fit, "adequate" arch support and great side-to-side stability.
With that said, these shoes are so flexible that they don't offer much support for carrying heavy loads, and they don't give your feet much protection against rough terrain. Pair that with sole tread that's only moderately aggressive, and these lightweight shoes will be at their best when day-hiking on gentle terrain with light loads. They're also remarkably good at keeping your feet dry, despite the mesh upper -- so much so that some users confuse them with the Ahnu Sugarpine Waterproof (Est. $130) version, which has a waterproof, breathable membrane.
If you want agile footwear but need a little more support and protection than you'll get from trail shoes, consider lightweight hiking boots like the exceptional North Face Ultra FastPack Mid GTX (Est. $150). These fastpacking boots (think: ultralight backpacking boots) weigh just 1 pound., 12 ounces per typical men's pair, but offer plenty of protection for long day hikes or backpacking with ultralight loads.
Most users agree that the North Face Ultra FastPack runs a half-size to a full size small, and is best for a normal width to narrow foot. Several experts choose this as one of their favorite boots, including GearInstitute.com and the editor in chief of GearJunkie.com. Users love the excellent traction, reinforced toe, great waterproofing thanks to a GoreTex liner, and the "snake plate" bruise protector that protects the bottoms of your feet against rocks. The Ultra FastPack is reasonably durable for such a light, flexible boot.
The Keen Targhee II Mid (Est. $140) is also extremely popular in lightweight boots, although it's a little heavier and stiffer than the North Face. (A typical men's pair weighs in at 2 pounds, 2 ounces) This boot received a Best Buy award from OutdoorGearLab.com in both 2014 and 2015, along with lots of positive user feedback for its wide fit, rubber-capped toe and comfort right out of the box. The Targhee II doesn't have a lot of room for super-high arches, though, and it can run as much as a whole size small.
The Targhee II's traction is great on everything but wet rock and, strangely enough, wet, smooth cement. They're stiff enough for lightweight backpacking loads and durability is decent, although hardcore hikers can still expect to go through a pair in one year. User reviews also indicate that there may be some quality control issues with the Keen.Dry membrane but, if it survives the initial immersion, it should last as long as the rest of the boot.