Hiking Boots vs. Tennis Shoes: A Comparison

If you are planning to hike in tennis shoes, you may want to consider a few things. First, tennis shoes are not meant to handle rough hiking terrain unless the trail you walk is unusually smooth and dry. On the other hand, heavy hiking boots may be unnecessary and overkilling for easy trails. For example, if you are hiking downhill on easy trails of Zion, heavy boots may hurt your feet especially your toes and you may end up mostly wearing your tennis shoes if you bring one. You will be carrying your boots in your backpack, which also occupies a lot of space in your pack.

Know your Foot

A lot of people hike in tennis shoes, sandals, and even barefoot. If you have strong ankles and they don’t twist easily, you probably don’t need that ankle support. If you are going for a day hike through a well-maintained trail, it will be less challenging on your feet and tennis shoes will do the fine job. You can also consider low-cut hiking shoes for easy trail if you don’t want full-fledge hiking boots. On the other hand, boots provide great traction, support, and stability over long distances especially when you’re carrying a heavy pack.

Know your Trail

If you visit Yellowstone in May and September, the trails are still snowy or at least muddy. There are some interesting trails in the northern range that can also be too extreme for tennis shoes. So hiking boots are a must in these conditions. If you visit the park in July and August and stick to the pavement and boardwalks, I think you will be fine in tennies. But for uneven terrain like mud, loose soil, roots, rocks or trails that involve elevation changes, I would suggest going for footwear that has more aggressive tread and ankle support.

What’s the difference?

Tennis shoes are meant to use on court surfaces. They don’t feature sturdy rubber outsoles, lugs and extra cushion that are so important on the trail. Most hiking shoes and boots have these features, which provide protection and help absorb the shock when you are carrying a heavy backpack. Tennis shoes are not made to absorb shocks, they don’t offer much cushioning and they don’t offer support when carrying weight.

Tennis shoes have some other limitations when it comes to serious hikes. They don’t offer ankle support (As I mentioned earlier, you don’t need it if you have strong ankles). Often these shoes are not waterproof and they don’t offer a breathable upper, the part that covers the top of your feet. Most hiking boots come in their Gore-Tex version meaning that they are waterproof and breathable. Also, there are some boots made of a combination of leather, mesh, and synthetic materials.

Should you Hike in Tennis Shoes?

Not all tennis shoes are created equal. Some of these are more versatile than others. They can be very flimsy but some true court shoes provide at least some stability and a decent tread in mildly challenging conditions. Some people use them interchangeably with hiking boots. They just switch to tennis shoes when the trail becomes easy to relax their feet. You can also wear them around your camp or if your primary trail footwear gets caked in mud.

A Comparison Table

FEATUREHIKING BOOTSTENNIS SHOES
Ankle SupportMid-cut boots offer great ankle support while lightweight shoes don’t.No ankle support.
WaterproofingMost hiking shoes and boots come in their Gore-Tex version, which they are waterproof and breathable.They are not usually waterproof.
CushioningProvide enough cushioning to meet the trail requirements.Little to moderate cushioning.
OutsoleFeature a sturdy outsole that is required to handle the uneven terrain.Feature a herringbone outsole to handle court surfaces or grass. It also allows increased traction for lateral motion and quick pivoting.
UpperMade of a combination of leather, mesh and synthetic materials.Leather upper mostly
TractionImproved traction.Provide traction for lateral movements.
LugsSome boots have larger lugs for serious grip in mud while other may have sticky rubber for scrambling over rocks.Herringbone pattern, nubs or pimples provide grip over slippery surfaces.
DurabilityDurable enough for most hiking trails.Not durable enough to handle rocks, roots, and rugged/uneven terrain.
WeightMid hiking boots are mid-weight to heavyweight while low cut shoes are mostly lightweight.Mostly lightweight.
VersatilityCan be used for hiking and backpacking.Can be used for tennis, easy hiking trails, and some other sports.
ComfortComfortable after break-in period.Comfortable.
Best UseHiking and backpacking.Tennis and easy trails.

Conclusion

You could hike in any of your pairs of old shoes but a good pair of hiking boots or shoes will make your trip into the backcountry much more enjoyable. They provide great support, water protection, and traction on and off the trail. They take you to the places that many only dreams. But whatever you choose, buy them a little early so that you can walk in them with a heavy backpack to see if they are comfortable. Also, try different socks to make them even more comfortable.

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