Hiking shoes or hiking boots?
Keen Voyageur Mid, left, and Keen Voyageur

This one bedevils a lot of hikers: do I really need hiking boots that go over the heel?

You might, but probably not for the reasons you think.

Back when I was a Boy Scout in the 1970s, we had two choices: heavy-duty clodhoppers or whatever sneakers we had lying around. When I got back into hiking in 2004, I was gladdened to see boot companies had gotten smart and introduced “trail shoes,” which have the beefy soles of a boot but stop below the ankle, saving weight and adding comfort on long treks.

Trail shoes are a great innovation, but rookies might wonder: don’t hikers need ankle support?

They do, but here’s what I think: ankle “support” provided by high-top boots is largely an illusion. As I’ve noted here before, if your ankle zigs when your leg zags, that little swath of leather is not going to prevent a sprain or a break. My reasoning: if high-top footwear provided meaningful support, why do all those football and basketball players religiously tape their ankles?

Actually the best argument for high-top boots is that they protect the bony protrusion of your ankle — it does just stick out there on both sides and will seem magnetically attracted to sundry rocks and roots along the trail.

However: I’ve bought a few boots that rubbed me the wrong way on that very same ankle bone location, causing aggravating pain that would not go away (only consolation was REI’s wonderful return policies.)

Next best reason for over-the-heel boots: they keep out a lot more crud than low-risers. I used to feel like I had to wear gaiters to thwart the rocks, pebbles and burrs, but I figured out over time that wearing long pants and boots pretty much wipes out those annoyances.

Finally, I prefer over-the-heel for the same reasons I like to carry a day pack stuffed with survival supplies I never use: I just feel like I’m hiking when I’ve got my boots and my gear (and the extra weight is good exercise).

Montrail-BadrockMontrail Badrock

When I’ve gone with low-rise shoes, I’ve had the best luck with trail runners — which are deliberately lightened for joggers but usually have beefed-up padding under the ankle bone that offers surprisingly good support on wacky terrain. That way you get the lightest weight in a shoe built for trail use.

In any case, shoe choice always boils down to fit: if your ankle bones don’t like being swaddled in leather, you can still get all the heft of a boot if, like Keen, above, the brand offers low- and high-rise versions of the same shoe. Just bear in mind you’ll be putting up with a lot more gunk creeping in. Hiking shoes or hiking boots?