Guides Gear Corner #4: Fancy Footwear

Some national park visitors might get by in sneakers, but if you plan to be doing much hiking in the Southwest you really have four options for footwear: High or mid-top hiking boots, hiking shoes, trail runners or hiking sandals. Terrain, weather, distance and the amount of weight you’ll be carrying will determine which is best.

Where to shop for hiking shoes?

Retail: If this is your first hiking shoe purchase, hit up a retailer that can size up your feet and recommend your best shoe. Brands and styles fit differently and a true shoe salesperson can figure out which will be best for you. I am a hiking guide. I burn through at least one good pair of boots per year and have done so for the past 20 years. You’d expect me to know a thing or two about boots. Then I had an REI footwear salesman on my tour and I realized I am simply an amateur. True, the other guests on our tour laughed when I let him tie my shoes for me, but it’s always best to enlist the help of an expert. 

Online: If you don’t have access to a helpful retailer or the guy on my South Coyote Buttes tour, you can’t beat GearLab for reviews and info. They independently test tons of gear and rate it objectively. Check out their posts on the Seven Best Hiking Boots, Best Trail Running Shoes, and Best Hiking Shoes for Women. Everyone knows how to shop online so we won’t list gear stores here, but we will mention REI has a used gear section on its website for members. Shoes are significantly discounted and it’s hard to tell they’re not brand new. Not only does this save money, it keeps perfectly good shoes out of the landfill and gives them an appreciative home.

Hiking Boots

Your sturdiest option is preferred for long hikes, multi-day trips in which you’ll be carrying a lot of weight, or when you’ll be walking over rocky or very uneven terrain. Hiking boots will give you the best ankle support which reduces the risk of sprains. Beefy boots provide the best protection against cactus needles and the stiff sole keeps the bottom of your foot from getting sore across miles of rocks. A good pair of boots must provide great traction on sandstone, mud or snow and they should be durable. You’ll also kick less sand, snow and debris into your shoes if the tops are tall.

Disadvantages: Not everyone prefers this stiffer, more sturdy option. A really rigid footbed can actually make you feel unsteady if you have poor balance or particularly large feet. Hiking boots are heavier and tend to cost more and they’re usually hotter in the summer. 

So which boots to buy? The LOWA Renegade is a high-quality, comfortable boot that offers plenty of support but isn’t too rigid. It’s designed forwarm weather hiking and made to last. We love this boot, though it might not be the best option for those with wide feet and it’s pricey. If you are looking for a more affordable option, the Merrell Moab 3 is a time-tested popular choice that many people swear by. My husband complained that the top funneled itchy weed seeds inside where they stuck to the soft fabric around his ankle. We haven’t heard that complaint from others, perhaps they are better at staying on the trail.

Hiking Shoes

A good pair of hiking shoes should offer plenty of support, though not as much ankle protection as a higher-top boot. They should have good, grippy soles. Vibram soles stick fantastic to sandstone and are common on many brand name hiking shoes, but they’re not the only great soles. Shoes tend to weigh less than boots and are more likely to be cooler. This might be your best option if you’re not carrying an overnight pack or not walking on super ankle twisting terrain.

Disadvantages: Not as much ankle support as higher top boots and it’s easier to kick sand inside.

Trail Runners

This is a great, light-weight option and they are usually much cooler in hot weather. They don’t have the same support but they offer better traction and durability than tennis shoes designed for the gym. These are designed for running the trails but can obviously be used for walking the trails, too.

Disadvantages: There’s probably not enough support for really uneven or loose terrain or when carrying a heavy pack unless you’re really strong and sure footed. 

Some trail running shoe options: The Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3 took the GearLab Editor’s choice award for best trail running shoes. We’re also seeing a lot of Altra and La Sportiva shoes out on the trails lately. Personally, I’ve put a lot of miles on my LOWA Maddox shoes. They’re my go-to for summer trips to the Wave and still feel great after 8 miles. They are quick to take on and off, and they grip the rocks like glue.


You’ll see a lot of guides prowling around the desert in sandals. People who use them say they’re much cooler than shoes on a hot day. Some of the sandals have soles that are as grippy as high-quality hiking shoes and sandals are a great option when hiking in water. 

Disadvantages: They don’t offer any ankle support, juniper berries get trapped under your feet, the tops of your feet can get sunburned and if you kick a cactus, you’re going to regret it. A lot of people love hiking in sandals and I loved them when I used to hike the cooler, wetter tropics. I just can’t get them to work for me in the dry, sunny desert. In direct sun, my feet feel just as hot as they do inside shoes and the desert air dries out my skin. 

Which sandals to buy? These Z Cloud X Chacos are my favorite. Their grip on sandstone is incredible, they’re comfortable for many miles and they’ve held up to the rigors of desert guiding. Also check out these Keen Newport H2 because they offer toe protection. But debris such as pebbles, sticks and rock hard juniper berries traps easily underfoot, and it doesn’t come out easily. 

Should I buy GoreTex?

GoreTex is something I avoid like Buckskin Gulch during a flash flood warning. Yes, there are a few situations in which waterproof boots have the advantage, such as walking in wet grass or splashing in small puddles. But these are rare in southern Utah. Instead, I find the GoreTex makes the boots hotter and traps sweaty moisture inside the boots. And if I hike in very wet conditions, the water seems to find a way in, anyway; I have never actually met a “waterproof” shoe. And in situations where your boot is completely submerged in water, such as hiking the Paria River, the Narrows or wading through puddles in Buckskin Gulch, GoreTex is your enemy. Water fills the shoes from the inside and doesn’t escape so the boot is heavy and sloshy. It’s uncomfortable, it leads to blisters and eventually trench foot. It seems like most boots come in GoreTex, often labeled GTX, so obviously, someone must like it, but I find it has very few applications in the desert where it is a detriment more than it is beneficial. 

Gaiters or not?

Gaiters work great to keep desert sand and poky weed seeds out of your shoes. I prefer the lightweight, minimal gaiters like these from Altra. A lot of gaiters are bulkier and taller than they need to be. Some have a cord that straps on the underside of the shoe. They do help the gaiters stay on but the cords always wear out too fast so I don’t try to buy them. I like gaiters for desert hiking but I find if I wear loose fitted long pants, those cover the tops of my shoes and keep the sand out sufficiently. If you hike in leggings or shorts, you might find gaiters useful. 

More gear for happy feet

Darn Tough Socks: Someone could probably write a separate post on proper sock selection. We will only mention this: Give Darn Tough socks a try. Their moisture-wicking, super soft merino wool is unbeatable. They are pricey but they are the last pair of socks you’ll ever need to buy. They simply do not wear out. They are not tough, they are practically indestructible. One pair of Darn Tough socks has outlasted three good pairs of shoes. And if they ever do wear out, Darn Tough offers a lifetime replacement guarantee. Plus, they’re made in U.S.A. 

Moleskin: We also recommend carrying moleskin. It’s a synthetic, tough stick-on bandage that covers up hotspots and prevents blisters. 

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