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Waterproof Vs Non Waterproof Hiking Boots: Pros and Cons

One of the most important decisions you’ll have to make when planning your next hike is whether to wear waterproof or non-waterproof hiking shoes or boots. Your choice of footwear plays a major role in your comfort as well as your hiking performance. To help you decide, this guide explains the difference and outlines the pros and cons between waterproof vs non-waterproof hiking boots.

In this guide, I’ll cover shoe design, breathability, comfort, performance, waterproofing technology, dry time, cost, and more. This guide covers hiking shoes, hiking boots, and trail runners. 

The choice between waterproof and non-waterproof hiking shoes depends on the weather conditions you’re hiking in, the terrain, how far you’re hiking, and personal preference. Each option is great for certain situations. Some hikers prefer the added breathability of non-waterproof footwear while others prefer the extra protection that waterproofing offers. Depending on the conditions, sometimes one is a better choice than the other.

I own both waterproof and non-waterproof hiking footwear. I choose which footwear to wear based on the conditions I’m hiking in. On most hikes, I wear non-waterproof trail runners. In this guide, I’ll share my experience. Hopefully, this guide helps you choose the best footwear for your next hike. 

A close up of a person hiking in waterproof boots
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Waterproof Hiking Shoes Pros and Cons


  • Good performance in cold and wet conditions
  • Better for shallow water crossings
  • Waterproof boots keep your feet warmer


  • Not as breathable
  • Heavier
  • Less efficient to hike in
  • More expensive
  • Poor performance in humid conditions
  • Slower drying time
  • Less versatile
  • Blisters are more likely

Non-Waterproof Hiking Shoes Pros and Cons


  • Better breathability and ventilation
  • Lighter weight
  • More efficient to hike in
  • Cheaper
  • More versatile
  • Good performance in hot and humid or dry conditions
  • Faster drying time
  • Your feet stay cooler
  • Better for deep water crossings
  • You are less likely to develop blisters and other foot issues


  • Your feet can get cold in cold weather
  • Non-waterproof shoes can get saturated with water

What are Waterproof Hiking Shoes?

Waterproof hiking shoes feature a built-in lining that is made from a waterproof membrane. This lining is layered into the shoe’s upper. A waterproof hiking shoe can keep your feet dry while hiking through rain, slush, snow, dew, frost, wet vegetation, and shallow puddles and streams. 

The waterproof membrane is usually made from a waterproof breathable material. These high-tech materials are designed to keep liquid water out but let water vapor pass through. 

This is possible thanks to billions of tiny pores in the material. The pores are too small for liquid water droplets to enter the shoe. Each pore is 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet. At the same time, the pores are large enough to allow water vapor molecules to exit. The pores are around 700 times larger than a water molecule. 

This allows your sweat to evaporate and vent away. When heat and humidity inside the shoe are greater than heat and humidity outside of the shoe, moisture can escape. Warm and moist air naturally moves toward cooler air. Heat rises. 

Stepping in a puddle with waterproof boots
Waterproof boots can keep your feet dry while walking through shallow streams

The membrane is usually made from Teflon (expanded polytetrafluoroethylene or ePTFE) material. This layer is sandwiched between a lining and a backer. In total, the waterproof lining is made from three layers of material. This waterproof lining is sewn into the shoe’s synthetic or leather upper. Kind of like booties inside of your boots. 

Gore-Tex is the most common waterproof membrane material used in hiking shoes. Some manufacturers offer their own proprietary waterproof material. For example, Merrell offers M-Select DRY and Oboz offers BDry. These materials all work in a similar way to keep water out. 

Water can still enter through the top of the shoe. The tongue is not completely sealed. When this happens, the shoes get wet. The water can’t drain out through the membrane. 

For additional protection, the upper of most waterproof hiking shoes is made from a water-resistant material. The upper is also treated with a DWR (durable water repellant) coating. DWR is a chemical coating, usually made from a fluoropolymer, that makes fabric water-resistant or hydrophobic. Water beads up and rolls off.

This prevents the shoe’s fabric from getting saturated with water. It also helps to protect the waterproof membrane from getting clogged by contaminants. Leather waterproof hiking boots can be cured with another type of waterproof treatment. This helps to prevent the leather from absorbing moisture. 

What are Non-Waterproof Hiking Shoes?

Non-Waterproof hiking shoes are designed to be breathable. Most non-waterproof hiking boots and shoes feature mesh sections on the upper to maximize airflow. Water and air can both pass through freely.

This design reduces weight and improves flexibility. It also improves breathability and ventilation and reduces dry time. 

Waterproof Vs Non-Waterproof Hiking Shoes

Breathability and Ventilation

Breathable hiking shoes have the ability to allow water vapor to pass through and escape. Both waterproof and non-waterproof shoes can be breathable. Ventilation refers to the shoe’s air permeability. A shoe with good ventilation allows air to freely pass through.  

Non-waterproof hiking shoes offer better breathability and ventilation. They feature large mesh sections on the upper that allow both air and water to freely pass through the shoe. 

This allows water and sweat to escape much more easily. If you step in a puddle and your shoe gets wet, the moisture can evaporate away and your shoe can dry out. When your feet start to sweat, the moisture can vent away. As the sweat and moisture evaporate, your feet cool through the process of evaporative cooling. Your feet stay cooler and dryer as a result. 

Waterproof hiking shoes are breathable but they don’t breathe as well as non-waterproof models. This is due to the waterproof membrane. It seals moisture out but it also seals some moisture in. It’s not as water-permeable as mesh. 

Over time, your sweat slowly wets the inside of your boots. After a few hours, your feet will start to feel damp and clammy. It is also possible for water to seep in around the ankle or tongue if you step in a deep puddle. 

Waterproof shoes also don’t breathe well in hot and humid climates. This is because the heat and temperature difference between the inside of the shoe and the outside isn’t very great. In these conditions, waterproof boots don’t perform well. 

When waterproof shoes get wet, the moisture that gets in can’t easily escape. Water and sweat get trapped in your shoes. When waterproof hiking shoes get wet, they tend to stay wet. 

The waterproof membranes in waterproof hiking boots are designed to allow moisture to escape. The pores are large enough for water vapor to pass through and exit your shoes. 

The problem is that the moisture can’t vent fast enough. Moisture can’t vent out as quickly or freely as it can in non-waterproof shoes. For this reason, waterproof hiking boots work best in cold and temperate climates where your feet aren’t sweating too much. They can’t keep up in hot climates when your feet are sweating more.

In addition, waterproof boots don’t offer as much ventilation. Air can’t as easily pass through as easily. Your feet stay a bit hotter as a result.  

A hiker

There are several major benefits of wearing more breathable footwear. First, breathable footwear reduces your likelihood of developing blisters. Blisters are caused by moisture and friction. When your feet stay dry, blisters are less likely to form. 

Breathability also reduces the chances of fungal growth. For example, athlete’s foot is a fungal infection that is more likely to develop in damp and humid conditions. Trenchfoot is a condition that develops when your feet are cold and wet for extended periods of time. These conditions may be less likely to develop when your footwear breaths and your feet stay dry. 

Winner: Non-waterproof hiking shoes offer better breathability and ventilation than waterproof hiking shoes. The waterproof membrane reduces airflow and traps moisture in the shoe. 


Non-waterproof hiking shoes are almost always lighter than waterproof models. The reason is that the waterproof membrane and lining in waterproof hiking shoes add weight. 

It’s easy to compare the weight differences because many models come in both waterproof and non-waterproof versions. On average, non-waterproof hiking boots are around 2 ounces (57 grams) lighter than waterproof models.  

For example, the popular Merrell Moab 2 Mid Waterproof hiking boots weigh 2 pounds 4 ounces (1002 grams) per pair. The non-waterproof Merrell Moab 2 Mid Vent hiking boots weigh 2 pounds 2 ounces (960 grams). The waterproof version weighs 2 ounces more. Salomon X Ultra 4 waterproof and non-waterproof versions have a similar weight difference. The waterproof version weighs around 1 pound 11 ounces while the non-waterproof version weighs 1 pound 9 ounces. 

Of course, non-waterproof hiking shoes aren’t always lighter than waterproof models. An ultralight pair of waterproof hiking shoes will be lighter than a heavy-duty pair of non-waterproof hiking shoes. Waterproof hiking shoes will often be lighter than non-waterproof hiking boots. 

Water weight is also an important consideration. A completely soaked pair of non-waterproof hiking boots can weigh more than a relatively dry pair of waterproof hiking boots. Water is heavy. 

Winner: Non-waterproof hiking boots are lighter than waterproof hiking boots. On average, waterproof hiking boots weigh 2 ounces (57 grams) more than non-waterproof models. 

Hiking Efficiency of Waterproof and Non-Waterproof Boots

Non-waterproof hiking shoes are more efficient to hike in because they are lighter. You’ll burn less energy because you’re lifting less weight every step you take. This allows you to hike further and faster without tiring out. 

The extra weight of the waterproof membrane may not seem significant. After all, an extra 1 ounce per shoe feels like nothing. Over the course of a long hike, it adds up. Every step, you have to lift the extra weight. While hiking, you’ll have to lift that extra 2 ounces tens of thousands of times over the course of a long day hike. This burns more energy.

The weight of your hiking footwear is an important consideration. This is because weight carried on your feet requires a disproportionate amount of energy compared to weight carried in your backpack.  

Hikers going up a mountain

Edmund Hillary and the first climbers to summit Mount Everest developed a rule of thumb for this phenomenon. They claimed that one pound on your feet is equal to five pounds on your back. In other words, transporting weight attached to your feet requires 5 times more energy than transporting the same weight in a backpack. 

This was just an observation they made. Interestingly, there is some scientific evidence to back this up. Check out this interesting article to read about the results of a study that tested this claim.

It is important to consider water weight as well. Soaking wet footwear is heavier than dry footwear. Dry waterproof hiking shoes might be lighter than wet non-waterproof hiking shoes. 

Winner: Non-waterproof hiking boots are more efficient to hike in because they are lighter. 


Non-waterproof hiking boots are cheaper than waterproof models. On average, non-waterproof hiking boots cost $25-$30 less than comparable waterproof options. 

For example, Salomon X Ultra 4 hiking shoes retail for around $150. The waterproof version of the same shoes with Gore-Tex retail for $180. In this case, the waterproof version costs $30 more. The Merrell Moab 2 Mid waterproof version costs $145 while the non-waterproof version costs $120. This is a difference of $25.

Non-waterproof shoes are cheaper because they don’t have a waterproof membrane. The waterproof membrane is made from expensive high-tech fabrics. It also needs to be layered into the shoes. This adds complexity to the manufacturing process. 

If you’re on a tight budget, you’re better off going with non-waterproof hiking shoes. You can put the money you save toward other gear that you need. 

Winner: Non-waterproof hiking shoes are cheaper than waterproof hiking shoes. 

Performance: Are Waterproof Hiking Shoes Effective?

Waterproof hiking shoes are effective. With waterproof shoes, you can hike through rain, snow, dew, frost, wet vegetation, and shallow puddles and streams. Waterproof hiking shoes can keep your feet dry in wet conditions. At least for a while. 

The problem is that waterproof hiking shoes aren’t 100% waterproof. The membrane can only keep water out for so long before it begins to seep in. After a few hours of hiking through wet conditions, waterproof hiking shoes always start to leak. There is no avoiding it.

This is because waterproof hiking shoes are designed to be both waterproof and breathable at the same time. In order to be completely waterproof, they would need to have zero breathability, like rubber rain boots. 

This isn’t practical for hiking. This is because your feet sweat while you’re active. Hiking shoes need to be breathable so sweat can vent out. If moisture gets in your shoes, it needs to be able to escape. If hiking shoes were completely waterproof, sweat would build up and wet the shoe out. Your sweat could soak the shoe. This would get uncomfortable quickly. 

Waterproof hiking footwear needs to strike a compromise between waterproofness and breathability. Some waterproofing is sacrificed for breathability.   

The performance of waterproof hiking boots also degrades over time. When they’re clean and new, they might keep your feet dry all day. Over time, sand, dirt, and grime make their way into the waterproof membrane. The waterproof membrane is delicate. It contains thousands of microscopic pores that let water vapor through but block liquid water. 

Contaminants compromise the performance of the material. If the membrane gets dirty, eventually water starts seeping in and your feet get wet. Sweat can also vent slower when the membrane is dirty. The contaminants can block moisture from escaping. 

The DWR coating can also degrade or wear off over time. When this happens, the outers become less water repellent. They can get saturated with water. 

In order to keep your waterproof hiking shoes functioning at peak performance, you need to clean them regularly. After your hike, use a brush to wash off any mud, dirt, and debris. This isn’t really practical during a multi-day hike. It’s also important to periodically renew the DWR coating to keep the outer water repellent.  

It’s also important to consider the height of your waterproof hiking shoes or boots. This can affect their efficacy. A great waterproof lining does nothing to prevent water from coming in through the top of the shoe around your ankles. During a heavy rainstorm, or if you walk through a deep puddle, stream, or river, water can flow into your shoes through the top. Waterproof boots with high ankles allow you to walk through deeper water without getting your feet wet. 

A pair of gaiters can also help to seal off the top of your shoe to keep some moisture out. They are particularly helpful while hiking in the rain. The drawback of wearing gaiters is that they reduce breathability. More sweat gets trapped in your shoes when you wear them. 

A hiker wearing gaiters

Non-waterproof hiking boots perform better in hot, humid, or tropical conditions. The reason is that they keep your feet cooler and dryer. The breathability allows sweat to quickly vent away. Air can pass through and cool your feet. 

If you’re planning to do lots of water crossings, non-waterproof boots are also the better choice in most cases. While crossing rivers and wading through streams, your feet will inevitably get wet. Non-waterproof shoes dry out much faster after they get wet. 

Waterproof hiking boots perform best in cold and wet conditions when you need to keep your feet dry to avoid frostbite. They are ideal for winter hiking for this reason. Waterproof hiking boots also perform well for day hikers. They can keep your feet dry for most of the day. If your feet start to get wet toward the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter because you’ll be heading home anyway. You can always dry your boots out at home. 

Winner: Which type of footwear will perform better depends on the conditions you’re hiking in and the duration of your hike. For day hiking in cold and wet conditions, waterproof hiking shoes are ideal. For multi-day hikes or hiking in hot and humid conditions, anon-waterproof hiking shoes are generally the better choice. 

A group of 3 hikers

Drying Time

Non-waterproof hiking shoes dry out much faster than waterproof models. This is because non-waterproof hiking shoes feature mesh sections on the uppers. Mesh has much larger pores than the waterproof membranes that are built into waterproof hiking shoes. Air and water can flow through quickly and easily. This greatly speeds up the drying time. Sweat also vents away quickly. 

Due to the waterproof membrane, waterproof hiking shoes offer minimal airflow. Once water makes its way through the liner and into the shoe’s inner fabric, it will stay there longer. It can’t vent away as quickly. Sweat can also get trapped inside and wet the shoes. In hot conditions, sweat can’t vent out fast enough to keep your feet dry. 

It’s important that your boots dry out quickly if they get wet. When hiking boots get soaking wet, they become heavy. Heavy waterlogged boots make you hike slower and less efficiently. You’re also more likely to develop blisters while wearing wet footwear. Blisters are caused by a combination of moisture and friction. Hiking in wet footwear can cause a number of other foot issues including athlete’s foot and trench foot. 

A soaking wet non-waterproof hiking shoe can dry out in a few hours on a warm day. A wet waterproof hiking boot can literally take days to dry out. If your waterproof shoes get wet, they may not dry out for the remainder of your hike. This can get extremely uncomfortable if you’re on a multi-day hike. 

While wearing waterproof footwear, you need to avoid getting them soaked. Removing them for water crossings helps greatly. With non-waterproof footwear, it doesn’t really matter if they get wet. They will dry out. Of course, you should still avoid getting them wet when possible. It’s always best to avoid stepping in puddles and streams. Try to walk across rocks or fallen logs to avoid getting your feet wet. Consider removing your shoes and wearing hiking sandals if you can’t avoid stepping in the water. 

I learned my lesson about dry time while hiking the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier. My waterproof boots got wet toward the end of the first day and never dried out for the rest of the trip. It was miserable. These days, I almost exclusively wear non-waterproof hiking footwear. 

Hiking in my soaking wet boots on the Wonderland Trail

To help keep your feet dry, it can help to remove your boots and socks while you’re taking a break or eating lunch. Also, consider packing a pair of sandals to wear around camp. This gives your boots more time to dry out. 

Winner: Non-waterproof hiking shoes dry out much quicker than waterproof hiking shoes because they offer better breathability. 


Whether waterproof or non-waterproof boots will keep you more comfortable depends on a number of factors including the temperature, weather, terrain, and distance you’re hiking. Your personal preference and your biology are also important considerations. Some people sweat more than others.  

Most hikers find non-waterproof hiking boots to be more comfortable to wear. There are a couple of reasons for this. 

First, they offer better breathability. Most models feature large mesh cutouts in the uppers. This allows your sweat to vent better. It also allows for some airflow. Your feet will stay dryer as a result. Your feet will also stay cooler thanks to evaporative cooling. 

Non-waterproof shoes also dry out much more quickly if they get wet. If you cross a stream and wet your boot, it will dry out in a couple of hours on a warm day. If a waterproof boot gets wet, it can take a full day or more to dry completely. 

In addition, non-waterproof hiking shoes tend to offer a bit more flexibility. This is possible because the uppers contain thin mesh material. They also lack a waterproof membrane. This flexibility allows your feet to move more naturally. This can improve comfort. 

In cold and wet conditions, waterproof hiking shoes are often the more comfortable choice. The waterproof membrane helps to keep your feet dry. The membrane also helps to keep your feet warmer by reducing airflow. In cold conditions, keeping your feet dry is a priority. You’re less likely to get cold feet or develop frostbite when your feet stay dry. 

Of course, waterproofing isn’t the only factor that affects the comfort of your footwear. The fit cushioning, toebox width, midsole flexibility, weight, heel-to-toe drop, and materials can all play a role in the comfort of a shoe. 

For example, some hikers find some brands to be more comfortable than others. Some hikers prefer roomier shoes. Some prefer more cushioning or rigidity. When buying hiking shoes, you should try on several different pairs to find the most comfortable option for your particular feet. 

Also, consider the terrain you’re hiking and the weight you’re carrying. For hiking rugged terrain or carrying heavier loads, you’ll need a more supportive boot. For lightweight hiking on even terrain, lighter and more flexible shoes, like trail runners, may be preferable. 

Winner: Non-waterproof hiking shoes are more comfortable in hot and dry conditions. In cold and wet weather, waterproof hiking shoes are the more comfortable choice. 

Water Crossings

If you plan to hike in an area where frequent water crossings are necessary, non-waterproof hiking boots are the better option. When you walk across a stream or river, your feet will get wet. Non-waterproof boots will dry out quickly thanks to the superior breathability. 

Waterproof hiking boots can keep your feet dry during water crossings. The problem is that if you walk through water that is deeper than the top of your boots, your feet will get wet. Water flows in freely around your ankles. When your waterproof hiking boots get wet, they take a long time to dry out. Chances are, they won’t dry until the next day at the earliest. 

Waterproof hiking boots can be a good choice for shallow water crossings, such as puddles and streams. As long as the tops of the boots stay above the water level, your feet will stay dry. If you plan to use your waterproof boots for water crossings, choose models with high tops. These allow you to walk in deeper water without getting your feet wet. 

Streams usually aren’t shallow enough to cross without getting your footwear wet. With low-top shoes, you can only walk through 2-3 inches of water. With high top boots, you may be able to walk through 4-6 inches of water. 

If you don’t want to get your hiking boots wet, you have a few options. You can remove your boots for water crossings. Many hikers cross streams barefoot. This is only possible if the bottom is covered in soft or smooth material such as sand, mud, or river rocks. You should also only cross barefoot if you can clearly see the bottom. You won’t want to step on sharp rocks or sticks while barefoot. 

A pair of hiking boots sitting on a log
It’s a good idea to remove your boots for water crossings

Some hikers carry a pair of hiking sandals to wear for water crossings. They simply change into their sandals when they reach a crossing then change back into their boots once they reach the other side. Stopping to remove your footwear every time you reach a stream can be an annoying little job. 

In many cases, you can also avoid getting your boots wet by stepping over stones and fallen logs instead of walking through the water. Trekking poles can help to stabilize you while walking over slippery wet rocks and logs. 

If you’re trying to ford a fast-moving river, you’ll probably want to keep your boots on to increase your traction and improve stability. Of course, you’ll also want to take some precautions to make sure you can cross safely.

Winner: Non-waterproof hiking boots are better for water crossings in most cases. If you only need to cross shallow puddles and steams, waterproof boots can work well. 


Non-waterproof hiking shoes are more versatile. You can wear them in both wet and dry conditions. You can use them for deep water crossings where your boots are submerged. In addition, you can wear them while day hiking and multi-day hiking. With the proper socks, they can be worn for 4 season hiking as well. 

It is possible to use non-waterproof shoes for winter hiking and snowshoeing in below-freezing and snowy conditions. The solution is to pair them with thick Merino wool socks, Gore-Tex oversocks, and full-length waterproof breathable gaiters. 

With this system, the oversocks and gaiters provide waterproofing to help to keep your feet dry and the Merino wool socks keep your feet warm. Your non-waterproof hiking shoes simply get wet. The socks will keep your feet will stay warm and dry. 

If you use this system, you will need to find a way to prevent your shoes from freezing if you’re camping. One option is to store them in a plastic bag or stuff sack and place them inside your backpack inside of your tent while you sleep. They should stay warm enough that the water remains liquid. 

Waterproof hiking boots are really only useful while day hiking in wet or cold conditions, such as winter hiking. They don’t work well for deep water crossings because they get soaked when submerged and they won’t dry out. They also aren’t ideal for multi-day hiking because they take too long to dry. If they get wet one day, they’ll probably still be wet the next morning. They can work well if you only go on day hikes. 

Winner: Non-waterproof hiking shoes are more versatile than waterproof hiking shoes. They can be worn in a wider range of conditions. 

When Should You Wear Waterproof Hiking Shoes?

Waterproof hiking shoes are ideal for hiking in cold and wet climates. For example, maybe you’re planning to hike during the late fall or early spring when the weather is cold. Maybe you’re planning to hike in a rainy climate such as the Pacific Northwest. Maybe you’re hiking in a cold climate such as Alaska. Waterproof hiking boots are perfect for these conditions. 

Winter hikers are also better off using waterproof hiking shoes. The waterproof membrane will keep your feet dry while walking through snow and slush. Non-waterproof shoes get wet when your body heat melts snow that’s stuck to your shoes. This can put you in a dangerous situation. Keeping your feet dry is crucial during the winter. Frostbite is a risk if your feet get wet and cold. Waterproof boots can help to keep your feet warmer. 

Snow covered hiking boots in the mountains
In most cases, waterproof boots are the best choice for winter hiking

Those who hike in dirty and muddy areas may also consider waterproof boots. The waterproof membrane keeps both moisture and dirt out of your shoes. They are also ideal for hiking through wet vegetation, dew, frost, and other damp conditions. Your feet stay dry and clean. Non-waterproof shoes can let some debris enter while hiking in muddy conditions. They also get wet. 

Waterproof hiking shoes are also the better choice if you need to cross shallow streams or walk through puddles. They can keep your feet dry as long as the water isn’t deeper than the top of your boots. When you wear waterproof boots, you don’t have to rock hop across streams. You can just walk right through and your feet will stay dry. 

Day hikers should also consider waterproof hiking shoes. A good pair of waterproof hiking boots can keep your feet dry for most of the day, as long as you don’t fully submerge them in water. Toward the end of the day, some water might start seeping in. You can go home, dry them out, and they’ll be ready for the next hike. 

When Should You Wear Non-Waterproof Hiking Shoes?

Non-waterproof hiking shoes are the better choice in most situations due to their breathability. The boots dry out faster and they stay cooler. This greatly improves comfort in most conditions. 

Multi-day hikers are usually better off with non-waterproof hiking shoes because they dry quickly. If you’re on a weeklong hike and your waterproof shoes get wet on the first day, they may not dry out for several days. If you were wearing non-waterproof shoes, they may be dry on the same day if the weather is warm. 

When hiking in hot and dry climates, like the desert, non-waterproof hiking shoes are always the better choice. They allow sweat to freely vent away. The superior airflow also keeps your feet cooler. 

In warm and moist climates, like the tropics, non-waterproof hiking shoes are also a great choice. If you encounter some rain or water crossings and your boots get wet, it doesn’t really matter. They’ll dry out quickly in the heat. 

If you need to wade through deeper streams and rivers where the water level will be well above ankle level, non-waterproof hiking shoes are the better choice. After they are submerged in water, they drain quickly thanks to the large pores in the mesh panels. They’ll also dry out much faster than a soaking wet pair of waterproof shoes. 

Hiking boots and trail runners

Some people’s bodies are also better suited for non-waterproof hiking shoes. For example, if you have particularly sweaty feet or if your feet get too hot easily, non-waterproof is the way to go. They vent sweat faster and keep you cooler. If you are susceptible to blisters, you may also be better off with non-waterproof hiking shoes due to the quick dry time. They don’t hold moisture, which causes blisters. Those who are susceptible to foot fungal infections are also better off with non-waterproof footwear. 

Those who are on a tight budget are also better off going with non-waterproof boots. You can usually save $25-$30 by choosing a non-waterproof option. If you only have the budget for one pair of hiking shoes, non-waterproof is usually the way to go. They are the more versatile option. 

How to Choose

When choosing a pair of hiking shoes, you’ll need to consider the weather, temperature, trail conditions, and distances you plan to hike in. There is no perfect pair of hiking shoes that is ideal for all conditions. You’ll have to make some compromises. 

If you live in a hot and dry climate, like the southwestern US, non-waterproof hiking shoes will probably be the better option. If you live in a cooler and wetter climate, like the Pacific Northwest, you may want to consider waterproof hiking boots. Waterproof boots are also the better choice if you plan to hike during the winter or in snowy conditions. 

The distances you hike can also play a role in your decision. For day hiking, you could go either way. For multi-day hikes, non-waterproof boots are often preferable because they have a better chance of drying out overnight. 

It’s also important to consider your body and personal preference when choosing hiking shoes. If your feet tend to sweat a lot, you’re probably better off with non-waterproof boots. If your feet get cold easily, you may be better off with waterproof boots. 

For most casual hikers, non-waterproof hiking shoes are the better choice. Your feet will stay dryer and more comfortable most of the time thanks to the breathability. If you’re in doubt, go non-waterproof. 

If you’re an avid hiker, you’ll probably want to own two pairs of hiking shoes, one waterproof and one non-waterproof. This gives you an option. You can choose the best footwear for every hike. A good combination would be:

  1. A sturdy and waterproof pair of ankle-high hiking boots- You’ll wear these when the weather is cold and wet. You can also use these for winter hiking. 
  2. A lightweight and breathable non-waterproof trail runner or hiking shoe- You’ll wear these in warm and dry weather, on multi-day hikes, and when you need to do lots of water crossings. 

In addition, you may want to consider a pair of hiking sandals. You can wear these on days when you expect lots of water crossings. They also work well in hot weather. Hiking sandals are perfect for summer hikes. 

Hiking sandals

What’s the Difference Between Waterproof, Water Resistant, and Water Repellant Hiking Shoes?

When shopping for hiking boots, you’ll probably see the terms waterproof, water resistant, and water repellant. There is no industry standard definition for these terms. 

Boots that are made with Gore-Tex or in-house waterproofing materials should offer decent performance in wet conditions. There are limits to the waterproofing but it should keep your feet dry as long as water doesn’t seep in through the ankle.

Most companies define waterproofing by the amount of water pressure that can sustain before water droplets start passing through. Generally, 5,000mm of water is the minimum for a shoe to be considered waterproof. Gore-Tex has a waterproof rating of 28,000mm or about 40 psi of water pressure before it begins to leak. Some brands perform better than others. 

Boots that are marketed as water-resistant are not waterproof. They may keep your feet dry in light precipitation but water will eventually seep in. 

Boots that are marketed as water-repellant are usually treated with some type of surface coating like a DWR treatment. These are designed to repel moisture. The coating helps water bead up and roll off your shoe. Over time, the coating will wear off. Water can also start to seep in.

Many companies also measure breathability. This is usually measured as the amount of water vapor that can pass through a square meter of waterproof breathable material in a 24 hour period. This testing is usually performed in a lab. Some waterproof breathable fabrics perform better than others. Again, Gore-Tex is one of the best. eVent is also very good. 

A man hiking on a muddy trail

How to Keep Your Your Feet Dry While Hiking

While hiking, sometimes your feet will get wet. It’s unavoidable. In this section, I’ll list a few tips to help you keep your feet dry while hiking. 

  • Wear moisture-wicking and quick-drying socks- Moisture-wicking socks pull moisture away from your feet to help keep them dryer. Even if your boots are damp, a quality pair of socks can help your feet stay dry. Your socks should also be made from a material that dries quickly. I like Merino wool socks. Avoid wearing cotton socks while hiking. They don’t wick moisture and they take forever to dry after they get wet. They are also uncomfortable to wear when wet. 
  • When hiking in wet conditions, use gaiters- Gaiters seal off the opening of your boots to prevent water from leaking in over the top. They can also provide a waterproof later over the top of your shoes so water doesn’t seep in around the tongue and laces. For more info, check out my complete guide to gaiters.
  • Avoid stepping in puddles and streams- You can keep your feet dry by simply avoiding stepping in water. Walk around puddles instead of walking through them. Walk across streams on rocks or fallen logs. If you must step in the water in order to cross, consider removing your boots and crossing barefoot. If you expect to do lots of water crossings, consider packing some sandals. 
  • Remove your shoes and socks when you take a break or make camp- When you stop for lunch or a snack or stop to make camp, take your shoes and socks off. This will give your feet, socks, and boots a chance to dry. After a 10-15 minute break, your feet will feel refreshed and dry. 
  • Loosen the laces and spread your boots open when you remove them- This allows more air to pass through. Non-waterproof boots will dry much more quickly when they’re spread open.
  • Take care of your waterproof boots- To keep your waterproof boots as waterproof as possible, brush them off after every hike to help keep dirt and grime out of the pores of the waterproof membrane. Also, apply a water-resistant treatment to the outside periodically. This will help maintain the boot’s waterproof performance. 
  • Consider packing a pair of hiking sandals- Packing a pair of sandals gives you a second pair of footwear. This is nice if your boots or socks get wet. You can put your sandals on and let them dry. I often wear sandals while hiking in relatively even and gentle terrain. You can also wear your sandals during water crossings and around camp. For more info, check out my guide to hiking in sandals.
A hiker standing next to a river

Why Do I Need to Keep My Feet Dry While Hiking?

If it’s a warm day, you might wonder, does it really matter if your feet get wet. There are a couple of good reasons to avoid hiking with wet feet. 

First, you’re much more likely to develop blisters when your feet are wet. Blisters are the result of moisture and friction. They are far less likely to form when your feet stay dry.

Fungal growth can also be an issue. You’re more likely to develop athlete’s foot if your socks and boots stay wet for long periods of time. These conditions allow the fungus to grow. 

Trench foot can also be a painful issue if your feet stay wet for an extended period of time. Breathable footwear solves this by allowing your feet to dry out. 

Of course, comfort is important as well. It’s hard to walk comfortably when your feet and socks are wet. 

Weight is another factor. Soaking wet boots are heavy. Wearing heavy footwear slows you down and reduces your efficiency. 

A pair of hiking boots sitting on a wooden deck

My Experience Wearing Waterproof and Non-Waterproof Hiking Shoes

I own two pairs of hiking footwear. One is a waterproof and the other is non-waterproof. I own one pair of Oboz Sawtooth II low-top hiking boots. In addition, I own one pair of Altra Superior 5 trail runners. I choose the best option for each hike. 

On most occasions, I wear my lightweight and breathable trail runners. The light weight keeps me quick and nimble on the trail. When they get wet, they dry quickly. They also offer sufficient support and traction for the type of hiking I usually do. I usually carry a relatively light load. Most of my hikes are day hikes. Occasionally, I camp overnight. 

On those occasions when I expect lots of rain or cold weather, I wear my waterproof hiking boots. I also wear them on longer trips where I need to carry a heavier load. They offer more support due to the stiffer sole. They also offer more cushioning that can help absorb some impacts from the trail. I might choose them for trips where I expect rugged terrain due to their grippy soles and durable build. 

I also own a pair of hiking sandals that I like to wear during the summer and on hikes with gentler terrain. Sometimes I pack them and swap between my sandals and trail runners. I also wear them around camp. 

If I could only own one pair of hiking footwear, I would choose a non-waterproof pair of trail runners. They are lightweight, comfortable, breathable, and quick drying. For most hikes, I wear my trail runners. 

Waterproof Hiking Boot Recommendations

Non-Waterproof Hiking Shoe Recommendations

A hiker at a mountain lake

Final Thoughts

When deciding on which type of hiking shoes to wear, you’ll want to consider the terrain, climate, season, and weather conditions you plan to hike in. 

If you expect hot and dry weather or lots of water crossings, non-waterproof is the way to go. If you expect cool and wet weather, waterproof hiking shoes may be the better option. 

Distance is also an important consideration. Waterproof hiking shoes are better suited for day hikes. Non-waterproof hiking shoes are the better choice for multi-day hikes and thru-hiking. 

Your personal preference also plays a role. Some hikers prefer to keep their feet as dry as possible at all times. In this case, you might be better off with waterproof boots. Whichever type of footwear you choose, I hope this guide has helped you in making your decision. 

Do you use waterproof or non-waterproof hiking shoes? Share your experience in the comments below!

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