Hiking Shoes vs Hiking Sandals (When to Use Each of Them)

When deciding whether you’re wearing hiking sandals or hiking shoes outdoors, there are many elements to consider, such as the level of protection and support your feet require.

Are you hiking for a few hours or a few days? Will the terrain be rocky or flat? Will it be hot or cold? The answers to some of these questions will determine if you need the exposed design of a pair of hiking sandals or the ruggedness of a hiking shoe.

With that in mind, in this article, we’re going to discuss the differences between hiking shoes and hiking sandals, when you should choose one over the other, and whether one kind of footwear has more utility than the other.

Quick Summary 

  • Hiking sandals differ in many ways from hiking shoes in terms of traction, breathability, and ankle support, and these differences determine their effectiveness in certain activities.
  • When deciding if you need a hiking shoe or hiking sandal, there are five elements to consider, such as the terrain, weight, climate, distance, and experience level.
  • Hiking sandals and hiking shoes have equal utility for the environments they’re meant to be used in, but there’ll always be areas where one performs better than the other.

What is the Difference Between Hiking Shoes and Hiking Sandals?

hiking sandals vs hiking shoes closeup picture

Hiking shoes have rugged designs and are made with fully enclosed uppers, cushy soles, stabilizers, and toe protectors. Hiking sandals, on the other hand, sacrifice those features for increased ventilation and comfort.

A pair of hiking sandals also has the benefit of being versatile for both casual and water-based activities, whereas a soaked shoe could make things more difficult. However, these are only a few of the differences these types of footwear share.

1. Ankle Support

Hiking shoes have more support for the ankles due to their mid or high-top collars.

The padding allows you to bear heavier pack loads, and the heel cups and midsole increase the support.

The laces of hiking shoes also let you adjust the fit of the collar around the ankle for added security, lowering the chances of ankle rolling [1].

A hiking sandal has nearly zero ankle support. Hiking sandals have a minimalist design that cuts back on a lot of features, and they don’t have collars like hiking shoes.

As a result, this makes it footwear that exposes your toes and ankles to the stress of hiking environments. It also prevents you from carrying heavier loads or extending your foot too far in the wrong direction.

2. Traction

hiking sandals vs hiking shoes tread and traction
Sandals vs Shoes

A hiking shoe is made with rubber outsoles, which usually have great traction on rugged terrain.

The designs also include deep and omnidirectional tread patterns that adhere well to slippery surfaces, wet rocks, and muddy trails.

The surefootedness of a hiking shoe even controls your climb up and down changing elevations. 

Most hiking sandals have good traction, but their designs are better suited for flatlands and well-maintained trails.

Unlike the deep lugs and grippy treads on hiking shoes, sandals don’t have such aggressive designs.

However, because they’re made to be reliable for watersports, their traction is much greater than that of a hiking shoe when faced with stream crossings and rain.

3. Waterproofing

Waterproof hiking shoes are typically made with in-house or Gore-Tex liners. These liners are sewn into the inside of the shoe and keep you from getting wet feet. However, they also expel sweat that builds up on the inside.

Sandals aren’t made with waterproofing abilities like other hiking footwear. Since most sandals only have a toe strap, heel strap, or thinly spread uppers, they don’t absorb water as much.

The exposed design helps the sandal shed any moisture it’s exposed to while hiking, which hiking boots and trail runners aren’t as good at.

4. Comfort

Hiking shoes are softly cushioned, and their construction focuses on insulating your feet from the harshness of the trail.

The heel cups have enough depth and padding to absorb shock, while also protecting you from trail debris. The midsole is usually made from EVA or TPU, which can have varying levels of thickness depending on the bulk of the shoe or trail runner.

To compensate for their light designs, minimalist sandals put more focus on their comfort. Some of the best hiking sandals use durable EVA foam footbeds, PU midsoles, and have good arch support [2].

They’re not too different from hiking shoes in this area, with some sandals even exceeding those standards.

5. Durability

The uppers that line most hiking shoes are made with nylon mesh or leather. These materials are made to be tear-resistant to withstand the jagged materials and scraping you might experience on the trail.

As such, the uppers of hiking shoes are made to last for years with regular use in moderate hiking conditions.

Hiking sandals don’t have much in the way of uppers, featuring only minimal closure systems to secure the grip around the foot.

However, the materials that are exposed to the elements, such as the straps, outsoles, and footbeds are durably constructed for the terrain they’re designed for.

Unfortunately, even the highest quality hiking sandals can’t withstand hard impacts, heavy debris, or frequent scraping the way hiking shoes can.

However, if you are looking to buy a new pair, we recommend checking the review of Keen Newport H2 and Hurricane XLT2, probably the best sandals out there.

6. Breathability

hiking sandals keen newport h2 sitting on the grass

Hiking shoes are made with lightweight uppers to increase airflow. Normally, thin mesh uppers are used because they’re the most ventilated.

This makes them breathable and ideal for dry and hot days outside. The airflow also makes wearing some socks with the shoes comfortable, especially on cooler days.

Hiking sandals have the most breathability out of all footwear, including trail runners and hiking boots. The entire foot is exposed to fresh air, which completely eliminates sweating and prevents the possibility of overheating.

The open design, similar to a hiking shoe, allows for socks to be worn, but the ventilation is even more accommodating to thick hiking socks.  

7. Versatility

A hiking shoe can be used in many conditions, like hiking boots, due to the protection, stability, and traction they provide.

Unlike hiking sandals, which would perform poorly on rocky trails and in cold weather, hiking shoes have enough insulation to manage varied terrain and still be used all year round.

While hiking sandals can be used all year round, they wouldn’t perform well in winter conditions or on rocky terrain.

Excluding the lack of protection, the outsoles aren’t strong enough to be used outside of casual activities, nor do they provide as much support as a hiking shoe, despite being more comfortable.

8. Stability

Hiking shoes have collars that support the ankles and shanks that add rigidness to the midsole. These features give more control when climbing steep ascents and descents, but this also includes climbing over wet and dry surfaces.

Hiking sandals lack ankle collars, so the stability they provide is halved. However, they still have rigid midsoles.

The midsoles in most lightweight hiking sandals give you additional balance for light hikes, but without an ankle collar, it’s not as much as you would see in a hiking boot, hiking shoe, or even a trail runner.

9. Warmth

For the most part, the inside of a hiking shoe stays pretty neutral. The only time a shoe could become too warm would be if it’s waterproof and worn on a really hot day.

The waterproof liner can sometimes trap heat. However, on colder days, that same liner can keep the feet warm and insulated.

Hiking sandals aren’t warm like trail runners or hiking boots, even on the closed-toe models. The lack of full uppers and focus on maximum ventilation means that the feet are always exposed to the outside, including in cooler conditions.

In cold weather, you’ll often see hikers wearing socks with their sandals to keep warm.

10. Dryness

Hiking shoes with mesh uppers dry very quickly. Any water that comes into contact with the mesh is easily expelled by the Gore-Tex liner and wicked away by the constant airflow. Since they’re not as thick as hiking boots, the shoes don’t stay wet for long.

Sandals have the quickest drying period thanks to the open design. Hiking sandals can get wet, particularly on the footbed, but the ventilation dries them out.

The polyester straps that most hiking sandals are made with are also water-resistant, reducing the amount of water they absorb.

11. Weight

Hiking shoes have a rugged and sometimes athletic build, similar to trail runners, making them bulkier than hiking sandals. The increase in weight is a result of added support features and thicker uppers.

The heavier design makes the shoes better at protecting your feet and walking over technical terrain.  

A hiking sandal has a lighter weight due to its minimal construction and lack of increased padding. This makes the sandal incredibly useful for nimble and agile movements. The increased weight savings also take any strain off your feet.

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How to Decide Between Hiking Sandals and Hiking Shoes?

river hiking vs rock hiking


You should determine the ruggedness and difficulty of the outdoor environment you plan on hiking. Hiking boots would be best suited for rocky trails with changing elevations, while sandals are good for light hikes, flatlands, beaches, and areas with a lot of water.


The weight of your pack load determines the effectiveness of your footwear. Hiking boots have much more support than sandals.

The ankle collars, heel cups, and midsoles are all sturdy enough to support the pressure points on your feet and provide stability. Sandals would only be able to support ultralight loads.


Hiking sandals can be worn in both wet and dry conditions. The open design allows them to shed water quickly and keep your feet cool when in dry environments.

Hiking shoes would favor wet environments due to the waterproof membranes they’re designed with, while that same feature could cause overheating in dry environments.


Some experienced hikers can get away with wearing lightweight sandals on a hike regardless of the environment.

However, beginners or casual hikers should wear the appropriate footwear based on what their trail requires. In most cases, though, hiking shoes are the better choice than buying hiking sandals since they’re closer in design to hiking boots.


If you’re planning on covering long distances, hiking shoes are the best fit. They have the appropriate cushioning to support hikes for up to several miles without letting pressure build on the feet.

While sandals are comfortable, they’re better suited for shorter hikes since their features help less for longer activities.

Verdict – So, What to Use?

In the end, hiking shoes and hiking sandals have different levels of utility, especially on certain kinds of terrain. We would recommend using good hiking boots and shoes on moderate hiking trails, this includes rocky, wet, dry, and forested environments.

Alternatively, hiking sandals would be best worn in rainy and hot weather, including environments where there’s a lot of sand. Additionally, if you want something in the middle, you might want to check for some good barefoot hiking shoes.

However, keep in mind that there are other factors to consider, such as the weight of your pack, the distance you’re traveling, and your experience level. Knowing the trail you’re hiking is the most important part of choosing the footwear you need.


When Should You Wear Hiking Sandals?

You should wear hiking sandals when the climate you’re hiking in is hot or wet, and the terrain is well-maintained, flat, or sandy. Most sandals don’t perform well outside of those conditions.

Are Hiking Sandals Better Than Hiking Shoes?

Hiking sandals are better than hiking shoes depending on what you’re wearing them for. For more rugged and technical hiking trips, hiking shoes would be better suited for their traction, stability, and durability. Sandals would be better than hiking shoes in areas with a lot of water.


  1. https://www.nebh.org/blog/why-does-my-ankle-keep-rolling/
  2. https://www.aideastep.com/what-is-eva-footbed/
Christina Utz

Christina Utz

Christina Utz is a professional writer, mountain addict, and hiking enthusiast. She successfully finished a rock climbing class and a wilderness survival course, and by the age of 24, she hiked more than 1800 miles and finished over 260 different trails! Her expertise in hiking and outdoors helped numerous people to fulfill their adventurous spirit!

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