How to decide what shoes to pack.

Footwear 101 for Backpackers

Footwear 101 for Backpackers

The best shoes for backpacking differ according to your needs. The tips and detailed advice below make it easy to decide what shoes to pack for any kind of trip, whether you are traveling across Europe, Central America, Southeast Asia, India, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, or wherever! This complete guide has everything you need to know about finding the right pair of flip flops, sandals, sneakers/trainers, and hiking boots…it may even be more information than you asked for.

How to choose the right shoes for travel.
Putting my feet up- Meteora, Greece. Photo by Serengeti Jade.

Humans are bipedal animals- meaning they walk on two legs. So are kangaroos, which is neat. But most animals are not. Bipedal that is. So humans are kind of special that way. 

Located at the end of human legs are feet. The human foot has evolved to support the body’s weight as it walks. It has a large heel and small toes, which end in relatively pathetic claws. Without proper conditioning the human foot can become sensitive to obstacles, such as small rocks and lego. Therefore, many humans opt to protect their feet using a variety of crafted barriers, commonly referred to as shoes.

Every human has a unique set of equipment when it comes to their feet. Choosing footwear is complicated because everyone’s needs are totally personal. Partly because of differing anatomy, and partly because of differing interests- meaning what activities you want to do while travelling. So let’s break this down and address anatomy first, and then types of shoes.

How to pick the right travel shoes: Anatomical Considerations

Your choice of footwear is first and foremost governed by what you need based on your individual anatomy. It seems obvious, but a stupid number of people get nasty infections because they wore their favorite pair of heels out in Koh Tao- even though they KNEW they would get blisters. So bring comfortable shoes that meet your needs by supporting your arches or ankles, giving your bunion room to breathe, accommodating your sixth toe, or whatever! If you need only a little extra support, try adding an insole. Start with something generic like Dr Scholl, which has options for specific problem areas. If you don’t have any foot problems that immediately come to mind then you can wear whatever you want.

Flip flops and sandals for backpacking

Should you pack flip flops or sandals for your backpacking trip? Absolutely! A sturdy pair of flip flops or sandals are a must for visiting anywhere with a moderate to hot climate! 

Flip Flops

Flip flops are the lightest, simplest option. They are great because their simple design means there is less that can go wrong: getting sand and rocks out of them is as easy as taking your next step. The downside is that if something does go wrong, like a broken strap, your shoe doesn’t work any more.

Sandals

Sandals require a bit more effort to get on and off, and can be a pain in sandy or rocky conditions, but they make up for it in versatility. Sandals with sturdy straps are the best option for wet environments like hiking through rivers and waterfalls. 

How to pick the right flip flops or sandals for you

Whichever you choose, make sure the straps are cloth or leather, not plastic. Do not pack crappy plastic. Don’t do it. Seriously.

If you can, bring a pair you have already had the chance to break in. It can be a rough first few days of any trip when you are fighting blisters.

Also, the base of your flip flop/sandal should be at least ¾” thick. Backpackers spend a lot of time on their feet, so they need something that won’t wear out immediately and will keep them a bit further away from street grime.

Casual Shoes for Backpacking

Many Americans wear sneakers (trainers) as their everyday shoe, and they’re great for traveling because of the versatility. If you prefer something more formal, that’s fine, but durability is a priority with whatever you select. Make sure that whatever you bring has decent tread and can stand some heavy use.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin, Unsplash.com.

Are casual shoes right for your backpacking trip? 

Yes: Cooler climates require more substantial shoes than flip flops or sandals, so pack them when you plan to visit anywhere you want to keep your feet warm. Casual shoes are also appropriate in developed nations, such as those throughout Europe.

No:
If you are going somewhere tropical, don’t bother with casual shoes- flip flops and hiking shoes will be enough to get you by. Dress codes tend to be less formal in these places as well, so unless you are planning to go somewhere REALLY fancy, leave the loafers at home.

Hiking shoes for backpacking 

Whether you are visiting Europe, Asia, or Central America, there are many amazing places to see around the world that can only be reached by foot. 

Do you need to pack hiking shoes?

Yes: Hiking is a highlight for many backpackers. If you plan to do some hiking, even as little as 1-2 serious hikes a month, bring your own hiking shoes. If you know you are passionate about hiking but don’t have anything specific planned, bring your own hiking shoes.

No:
If you are only interested in a few casual walks, or if you are just not into the outdoor thing, that’s okay: save yourself the hassle of carrying around shoes you won’t use- leave the hiking boots at home. If you change your mind, you can always buy a pair there.

What are the best hiking shoes for backpacking? 

Choosing the right pair of hiking shoes comes down to anatomy more than anything else. 
  • If you are aware of having weak ankles→ bring boots with extra support. 
  • If you have low arches→  bring arch support insoles (test them at home first). 
  • If you plan on some heavy duty hiking→ make sure the sole is strong and has good tread. 
  • If you have preexisting conditions→  prepare for them ahead of time so you can save yourself the hassle of having to track down blister cream, or whatever, in the middle of nowhere. 
  • If you don’t have any special considerations→ pick shoes that are sturdy but relatively light weight.
It is unlikely that you will spontaneously start having previously undiagnosed problems just because you are walking on another continent. Do not stress out preparing for any issues you don’t already have.
Hiking shoes can come in handy, here's how to choose the best for you.
An example of hiking boots. Photo by Vlad Tchompalovon Unsplash

Hiking “shoes” vs hiking “boots”

Typically, hiking shoes resemble sneakers or trainers in that they have low sides, but still have sturdy soles and may be waterproof. Hiking boots are usually heavier in terms of physical weight and durability. Most backpackers will be better served by a pair of hiking shoes because they take up less space in your bag. However, if your itinerary is full of extreme hiking trips, boots are the way to go.

How much support do you need in your hiking shoes?

If you don’t know what kind of support you need, try going on a test hike of 3-5 miles. While you’re out there, experiment with getting off the trail or maybe even climbing a tree. Did you notice you kept stubbing your toe or twisting your ankle? If so, get shoes that help with your issue. If you have a heavy duty pair of hiking boots but they’ve been collecting dust in the back of your closet and you’ve managed everything in your sneakers, then those sneakers are what you should pack. So long as your footwear has decent tread, they can serve as hiking shoes. If the test hike idea sounds like torture, consider leaving the hiking shoes at home entirely becasue hiking might not be your thing.

“Fancy” Feet: Do you need dress shoes for your backpacking trip? 

Don’t bring heels or special dress shoes. They are a superfluous waste of space. Your flip flops are fine.

Special Purpose Footwear

Depending on how much of your favorite activity you plan doing (such as rock climbing, scuba diving, biking, mountaineering, or whatever) you may want to bring your own specialized footwear. Often, however, it is possible to rent or buy gear.

Is waterproofing important for shoes?

How important is waterproofing? The answer, honestly, is not very. The only time waterproofing deserves it’s hype is when you are in muddy conditions that are exactly 2.38” deep. Any deeper, or shallower, and the waterproofing is useless because the water gets up around your ankle and into your shoe anyway. To be effective against deper mud,  waterproof shoes need to be partnered with gaiters- which are just another thing to carry that you will barely use. And if you’re out and it’s really raining, you’re going to get soaked no matter what. All ‘waterproofing’ does is make it take longer for your shoes to dry out, so they get smelly faster. If your current shoes are waterproof that’s fine, it won’t hurt any. But don’t run out and splurge on gortex fully waterproof nonsense. I did Kilimanjaro and the Everest Base Camp Trek in the same shoes and they were not only NOT waterproof, but one leaked, and I was just fine.

Socks 

Darn Tough and Icebreaker guarantee their wool socks for life. Wool makes great socks and are completely worth the investment. For most trips, you want socks that are 40-60% wool.

How many socks should you pack for your backpacking trip?

You never need more than 3 pairs of socks. Set one aside as camp/sleeping socks. Alternate between the other two pairs. On off days, wash your socks and clip them to the outside of your bag so they dry while you are hiking. My socks are color coded so I know which are for sleeping and which are for hiking. If you are somewhere that isn’t cold enough to warrant sleeping socks, you can cut down to packing two pairs.

Summary

When packing for a long trip, all you need are:

  • Flip Flops
  • Sneakers or Hiking Shoes
  • 3 pairs of socks maximum


It’s important to have an idea of your personal footwear preferences before you go. The good news is that you already know what you like, because you’ve been wearing shoes your whole life. Probably.

Are you an avid mountaineer, or more of a Sunday stroller?  Be honest with yourself: You already know what you prefer. Don’t tell yourself that you’re going to summit Mount Fiji, and lug around 10 pound hiking boots that you’ll never use. Bring whatever you already own, because that’s what you already like and use. If you do decide to do something unusual, you will- 100% of the time -be able to buy equipment there. Trust me on this one.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission or compensation if you click through and/or make a purchase. The opinions and recommendations expressed here are my own. 

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…shoes are the most important. Good shoes take you good places.

― Seo Min Hyun

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I've had the travel bug for as long as I can remember. I hope to help others on their journey by sharing things I've learned after more than 15 years of solo travel.
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