This year we narrowed a wide field of new Light Hikers down to five. While there are far more new footwear model introductions in the Spring, Fall is exciting because of its generally more technical offerings. And, hopefully, Fall means snow is on the horizon.
The Light Hiker category has an added layer of complexity because different people prefer and expect different things from a “light hiker.” Generally these are boots we classify somewhere in between backpacking boots and hiking shoes. Light Hikers, while we almost always think mid-height and synthetic construction, can actually range in style and construction from full-leather uppers to complex mixes of synthetics and rubbers for foot protection.
Like so much in finding the right boot for you, it boils down to your exact needs. Just how fast and light do you like to go, how much weight will you be carrying on your back, and what does your terrain look like? How strong are your ankles? How many other pairs of shoes might you be carrying (ski boots, rock shoes, camp booties, etc.)? Footwear design is not unlike ski or boat design, insofar as it’s a game of compromises, evaluating materials for strength vs. weight characteristics and other performance factors.
Some people like their light hikers very traditional: mid-height, mid-weight, easy-wearing boots. Others prefer a light hiker that provides stiff, bomber ankle support, even if they aren’t carrying a pack. And still others prefer a more athletic-inspired shoe, something more closely resembling a trail runner. These are all Light Hikers.
The five ways we decided to look at this category this Fall was in the primary categories of where and how people use Light Hikers in various environments. We took into consideration those who like to go Fast & Light, and those who like to go from Trail to Table. In order to be thorough in our testing, we typically test at least two men’s sizes and ones women’s size, across a wide demographic of testers literally around the world. Also in the fall footwear release season, we tend to see a lot more waterproof models, primarily because these models carry over into winter. So fall hikers by their nature tend to be a little more technical and burly and waterproof than spring introductions, but not all.
For this test, we’ve been wearing some of this footwear since early production samples were sent to us nearly a year ago. Each brand has its own personality, fit profile, and key technologies. Here’s a selection of light hikers that are sure to be best for something you love to do outside. For more, check our light hiking boots reviews.
Best For: Light and Fast
Salewa Speed Beat GTX
If you are a trail runner or mountain hiker of any kind and haven’t tried Salewa, it’s time to change that. The new Beat GTX (that means it has a Gore-Tex waterproof-breathable membrane, if you’re not accustomed to all the footwear nomenclature and abbreviations) is purpose built (not just a catch phrase here) for mountain travel in adverse conditions while trying to make the best time possible.
The Speed Beat GTX has a precise fit and stability platform that is combined with the new Pomoca outsole for grip and traction specific to Winter travel. The outsole is new and exclusive to this shoe. It’s a shoe built for speed, dynamic motion and winter traction.
It’s important to note that the lugs and outsole were built and designed in collaboration with POMOCA, which has given birth to a very unique Pomoca-branded outsole for roll-off performance on treacherous trails. Pomoca is the company (owned by the same parent brand as Salewa) that makes most of the skiing skins in the world. Recently Salewa hired a prominent engineer from Vibram and started creating their co-branded outsoles and you won’t see this on any other brands at this time. The Speed Beat then was given a specific alternating winter lug pattern that weaves its way through the middle of your track. The innovative outsole pattern that looks like a mountain bike track in the dirt striping down the middle of the shoe for grip and traction. This pattern, in conjunction with a solid TPU heel cup, is designed to keep you secure and stable on snow packed trails, frozen ground and mixed mountain terrain. The shoe features what Salewa calls Motion Guidance tech and a dual-density EVA midsole; the somewhat standard TPU heel cap and side reinforcements ramp up protection across jagged, rugged, variable terrain.
The Beat also benefits from a stretch gaiter at the cuff that keeps, most ice, snow and rain from entering the shoe. As you probably know, even the smallest pebble can ruin your race or long run. Waterproof, breathable weather protection comes, like in so many other models, courtesy of a Gore-Tex membrane. The Speed Beat GTX features a robust upper fabric that has been difficult to destroy on rugged runs.
The Salewa 3F system isn’t new, but it is developing. For Spring they are coming out with a new way to keep the unique three-way fit secure on the heel even when the laces come untied, but for now, it’s secured by lacing and tying it up nice and tight, just like any performance trail shoe. They don’t exactly have a sneaker-like fit. For those who like to size down or are difficult to fit in general, definitely try things on before you buy. But as always, Salewa offers a “blister-free fit,” whereby you can work with your local retailer and come back for fittings or an exchange as needed. $199.95 | salewa.com
Best For: Warm and Wet
Merrell MQM Rush Flex
This new shoe from Merrell really exemplifies the most modern of light hikers. They are built with no excess, an exoskeleton of sorts, new synthetics and innovative foot-forming construction. Is it better than other things out there? Yes, in many ways it is.
Considered a “technical hiker,” the MQM just looks highly engineered, and putting them on it’s clear the fabrics are high tech, carefully mapped for protection, with all mass and bulk removed.
The big technology story for Merrell here is the “FLEXconnect – Hyperlock” for heel security on descents and banking sharp turns. It’s imbued with a dual-direction flex groove midsole for agility and stability, and Merrell’s sticky, anatomical lugs for traction. In our testing, this worked adequately – probably not as good as some Vibram compounds such as Megagrip, tested on the same sketchy surfaces over the course of several seasons. Part of this tech is the “Hyperlock” molded TPU heel counter, for security of fit on slick roots, rocks, sand and mud.
That said, Merrell is proud of its proprietary “M SELECT GRIP+ Outsoles” that they say are rooted in performance design and material to deliver “durable, highly slip-resistant traction on wet and dry ground,” releasing dirt and debris with unqiue lugs over varying terrain.
The mesh and TPU upper lose the weight and give the shoe an athletic look. They are so breathable we believed them to be self draining when drenched. They feature a traditional lace closure but with a gaiter-like stretch collar for easy on/off and 3mm lug depth. The proprietary “M Select FRESH” antimicrobial technology is integrated to disrupt reproduction of odor causing microbes. Does it work better than other similar agents like Polygiene, perhaps — our extensive testing shows that it depends almost as much on body chemistry and hygiene. $130 | merrell.com
Best For: Athletic Hikers
Adidas Terrex Fast GTX-Surround
If I had to pick one shoe, one light hiker specifically, to do it all, this would be it. With the new Terrex Fast, you get a highly credible brand innovating in the outdoor space, specifically geared toward a younger consumer. You get the best in athletic footwear (rebound, grip, support, synthetic upper) packaged in a stable and durable light hiker that can basically run, hike and climb, with a pack, and do everything you need it to do short of long-distance mountaineering style backpacking. I see people climbing 14ers in these, scrambling, alpine running, and just walking the trails.
As with so many Fall introductions, the new Terrex Fast features Gore-Tex Surround Ventilation technology. That is facilitated, as you may have seen from other brands including Salewa and ECCO featured here, through a midsole sidewall with a closed outsole for, as the name suggests, 360-degree breathability without compromising waterproofness. It sounds a little too magical, but our testing has us convinced it works. It’s way more breathable than it used to be, and most brands are sticking with Gore. And while this shoe is technically “breathable,” it’s not airy like the Merrell MQM; but it is waterproof and extremely durable for more types of hiking than the Merrell.
What at first appears to be just a lightweight, flexible mid-cut athletic-inspired shoe is actually an extremely capable and technical hiker. There’s the Adidas speed lacing system for a snug fit; and the midsole has an engineered footbed with a completely new/redesigned ventilation channel pattern underneath, ergonomically placed to offer cushioning and climate control. The outsole features Continental rubber with a dynamic lug profile for extraordinary grip, 32 percent more grip “than others” according to Adidas. The new Terrex Fast Mid with GTX-Surround weighs in at just 13.6 ounces with a moderate heel-to-toe drop of 10mm. Lug depth is a burly 5mm. Gore-Tex Surround, as we’ve previously discussed at length, is the industry standard, highly breathable, all-around “durably waterproof” membrane. Ventilation through midsole sidewall yet closed outsole is enhanced with the latest Gore Extended Comfort Footwear membrane. The synthetic textile upper is highly abrasion-resistant with protective weldings. The functional EVA tongue adds comfort, extra stability and protection. $225 | adidasoutdoor.com
Best For: Exploring
ECCO BIOM Venture TR
ECCO is known for its exacting fit and quality. Oddly enough, some people know the brand more for its golf shoes than it’s outdoor shoes, but the brand is hugely popular in Europe.
Gringos are catching on though, and people are tuning in to the premium materials and technical fit. In this case, Yak leathers with perforations for increased breathability add to the boots comfort and versatility, in just one example of doing materials right. It also features BIOM Natural Motion technology, Gore-Tex Surround, and a rugged rubber outsole in a versatile hiking product. Low-to-the-ground sole construction provides a natural foot position and excellent ground adaptation, and waterproof construction with PU air channels allows for breathability from all angles.
Direct-injected PU midsole foam and BIO last provide long-lasting cushioning and outstanding comfort. Durable rubber outsole profile for outstanding grip and traction on all hiking terrain. You could even ride a motorcycle in these boots. However, this is the only shoe in the group that isn’t exactly out-of-box comfort. Full disclosure, I’ve seen people get blisters from stiff, leather ECCO boots, just like with any well-made, heavier-duty leather performance boot, you have to get the sizing and fit right.
So for what ECCO calls “modern light hiking,” (exploring locally and globally, walking, being active outdoors), these boots are a can’t miss – unless of course they don’t fit correctly. Take the time to get foot at a specialty retail shop.
They remain lightweight and breathable despite being one of the burlier light hikers we tested. And like the others, they offer Protection in wet weather conditions, but with an all-time Premium comfort and fit among other offerings. They also specialize in optimal ground penetration and stability. $250 | ecco.com
Best For: Adventure Travel
Chaco Frontier (Waterproof)
Having tested these shoes abroad during the fall and winter last year and during shoulder season here in Colorado, we are confident that they hold up and do what they say they’ll do. The Frontier isn’t a technical hiker. It’s not supposed to be. It’s a good looking waterproof light hiker that you can wear to the office, on a weekend hike, and traveling to Switzerland for a ski vacation (don’t hate).
The “Snowplow” leather upper is reliably waterproof and also salt-repelling (important for customers out east) maintaining the sophisticated yet simple, casual suede look of these boots. They’re seam-sealed for full waterproof construction.
The suede padded collar adds comfort and adds to the boot-like look of the Frontier. And yes, Chaco has been in the four-season footwear game for a while now, so don’t think this brand is just for paddlers and other river rats any more. Again, the waxed cotton laces say casual but reliable and the metal lacing eyelets provide secure lacing in a high end look.
They include Chaco’s Luvseat PU footbed and ChacoGrip full rubber block outsoles with non-marking, skid-resistant tread design, perfect for street and recreation wear alike. $170 | chacos.com