Sweaty vs. Wet: Should You Get Waterproof Hiking Shoes?

The decision between waterproof vs. non-waterproof hiking boots, shoes, or trail runners is among the most contentious arguments in the outdoors. Advocates on both sides of the issue are quick to point out the superiority of their preferred footwear while spotlighting the shortcomings of the other. But the truth is that both waterproof and non-waterproof footwear have their pros and cons, and understanding them can help you make an educated decision about which type of footwear is right for you.

Credit: Tim Peck

Why Go Waterproof

Waterproof footwear is worth its weight in gold when conditions call for it. But many hikers swear by waterproof footwear even when the skies are clear. After all, why would you want to rock hop across a stream or mud puddle when you could simply plow right through it?

The main reason for choosing to wear waterproof footwear all the time is that it keeps your feet dry (for the most part), which is particularly important in regions like the Northeast, where the weather seems to change by the minute. Waterproof boots and shoes allow you to deal with a variety of conditions common to the Northeast—from crossing shallow streams to navigating puddles to trudging through snow—without having to worry about your feet getting wet.

Credit: Tim Peck

Why Opt for Non-Waterproof

Those who favor footwear of the non-waterproof variety agree that shoes and boots featuring a waterproof membrane have their place when it’s raining heavily, but otherwise believe that it’s unnecessary.

The primary reason for choosing non-waterproof footwear is that waterproof membranes trap sweat inside the boot, leading to your feet getting wet from the inside out, especially in warm temperatures. Conversely, non-waterproof shoes (particularly those with mesh uppers) help move sweat from your feet and socks to the shoe where it evaporates. Similarly, waterproof membranes are also a barrier to footwear (and your sock and feet) drying out once they’re wet on the inside. So, if you’re recreating in dry, warm conditions, non-waterproof footwear is likely the better choice.

Non-waterproof footwear fans are also quick to point out another obvious deficiency of waterproof shoes: That no shoe is truly waterproof, anyway. Water can sneak in the top of a shoe when crossing too-deep puddles and streams, rainwater can simply fall in through the top, and water can run down your legs into the shoes.

The Case for a Quiver

Every outdoor person dreams of ultra-versatile gear that excels at everything, but the fact is that gear that does everything well, rarely does anything exceptionally. If you’re the type of hiker who’s going out in all seasons and all types of weather, you’ll want a few pieces of footwear.

For example, waterproof footwear is a wise choice for soggy spring hikes in cooler temperatures, while non-waterproof footwear is an ideal option for the dog days of summer which are typically dry.

Warning: A quiver can start off as simply owning a pair of waterproof shoes and a pair of non-waterproof shoes, and evolve into a much more niche undertaking—such as owning waterproof boots for early spring, hiking shoes for rugged terrain, trail runners for moving fast, waterproof trail runners for logging lightning-fast miles in cool and damp weather, and winter-specific waterproof boots for hiking in cold, snowy conditions.

Credit: Tim Peck

The debate over whether to go waterproof or not is sure to rage on, but in the end, we have better things to argue over—like what do with all the hikers visiting the mountains these days. If you can only have one pair of shoes, think about the conditions you hike in most often and how sweaty your feet get before making a decision and if you have the luxury of owning multiple pairs of footwear, consider having a pair of each represented in your quiver.

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