The right hiking boots can make a big difference on the trails, even for the little guys

If you plan to spend a lot of time on the trails, arguably the single most important piece of equipment you can own is appropriate footwear.  A lot has been written about how to choose the best hiking boots, and there is even a recent heated debate in the hiking community about whether hiking boots are even the best tool for the job, but factors that go into hiking footwear decisions for children varies wildly from those for adult men or women.  This guide aims to help simplify the options and identify the best hiking boots or shoes for kids.

Note that guides like this do not replace stopping in a local outdoor gear outfitter and having your kiddos try a few pairs on, but if your kids are anything like ours, minimizing time in the store is optimal.  If we hang out in REI for more than 15 minutes, someone is going to get stuck in a display tent, start a hide and seek, or start a wrestling match on the camp mattresses. Possibly all of the above. 

It’s best to know ahead of time how to arrive prepared so you can be in and out as quickly as possible.  

This little guy is ready for a hiking adventure.

Know yourself, and your kids.

Just remember going in that not everyone buying hiking boots is also a five time ultra-marathon athlete or looking to hike to the Everest base camp.  Ankle support, weight, foot width, trouble spots, etc, are all considerations for adults that are not as important for kids.  

When will you hike?

The season you spend the most time outdoors may determine the type of boots you purchase.  If you are going to spend most of your time in the snow, you may just want snow boots. 

Where will you hike?

Where you live and the types of hikes you plan may impact your shoe choice.  We live in a dry climate, but our boys love playing in streams and rivers.  We also live near the Rocky Mountains, which are… rocky, so we need versatile shoes that are lightweight, flexible, and waterproof.

How far will you hike?

A mile long jaunt in the woods with the five year old is a lot different than the 5 mile proper hike with my seven year old.  If you do not expect a lot of mud for example, your five year old can get away with plain tennis shoes.  

The best shoes for hiking depends on several factors, including where you are hiking, when, and what your kids are like.
The best shoes for hiking depends on several factors, including where and when you are hiking, and most importantly, your kid. For this dry, short hike, we threw on the tennis shoes because they’re easy.

Kids hiking boots considerations:

The biggest difference between kids and adults is they obviously weigh less so there’s less pressure on the foot.  They also haven’t developed things like knee issues and they likely haven’t had the opportunity to experience a lingering sports injury.  Below are a few other differences when thinking about your kids verses yourself when considering hiking boots.

Kid footwear does not need to be as stiff

In addition to not weighing as much, kids typically do not carry as much weight in their backpack.  It is not wise to have a child under the age of 4 carry much if anything on their backs. The most we will outfit the older kids ages five to about ten with is a water bottle, maybe an extra hoodie, and perhaps a pencil and some paper, maybe even a Junior Rangers booklet

This means kid footwear does not need to be as stiff as adults to account for that extra weight shifting them around.

Kids need a good center of gravity

Younger kids are still learning their bodies so it is important that they have a good center of gravity so it is important they have a good feel for the ground.

Waterproof boots and shoes

You are probably more well aware of this than you would like to be, but kids don’t always look where they are going.  They are more likely to step in the mud.  Or perhaps they are well aware of where they are going and they may straight up jump in that muddy puddle.  

Prioritize waterproof boots.  A lot of kids absolutely love throwing rocks in rivers, rock jumping across streams, and digging in the mud.  There’s almost a guarantee that at least one foot will be fully submerged in water every time outside. Be prepared with waterproof boots (and an extra pair of socks.)

Waterproof hiking shoes are clutch when hiking near a river or in the mud.
You know those feet are going in that water.

Kids grow fast

Younger kids will typically outgrow their shoes before they wear them out.  If you have multiple kids, think about buying a better pair of shoes that can be handed down.  If you have one kid or maybe two who have different gender preferences or were born in different seasons, take a look at your local Facebook Marketplace or other used gear hub.  Unlike tennis shoes, hiking boots are worn mostly on dirt, mud, and rocks so the grip doesn’t wear out quite as fast.

Do not buy complicated boots

Kids take forever to put their shoes on.  Did I need to say this?  As with gear for any purpose at this stage in life, the kids want to look cool, they want comfy shoes, and learning how to tie laces and such becomes more difficult with complicated lacing on some hiking boots.

Should I buy Trail Runners or Hiking Boots?

There is a hot debate on this in the hiking community.  We prefer boots for our kids simply because of the water proofing factor.  You can find waterproof trail runners, but our kids tend to step in puddles and mud a little deeper than the trail runner covers.  

We also like how pants can cover the boot a little better than a shoe in colder or wet weather.  Below are a few other considerations:

Weight

Hiking boots are obviously heavier than trail runners.

Terrain

If you need stout soles that can handle abuse, hiking boots are the way to go.  Hiking boots are also great for warmth and comfort when hiking in chilly or wet weather.  If, however, you are going for a jaunt on a dirt path through the forest, trail runners should do the trick.  If your hike is actually a paved path surrounded by trees, why not just stick with your everyday street shoes?

Versatility

Nobody is wearing their hiking boots to the playground, but a lot of trail runners just look cool and can be worn anywhere.  I wear my trail runners as my everyday shoe.

Body Type

I wasn’t sure how to label this section, but if you have a clumsy kid who’s still learning to walk or just generally getting used to his or her body, the bulk of a super heavy hiking boot may be problematic.

Hiking boots for kids tips before going to the store:

Before heading in, here are a few additional tips.

  • Wear the socks you hike in.  If you plan on having your kids wear thick wool socks while hiking, wear them.  
  • Let them climb! The great thing about a store like REI is they typically have a mini climbing rock to stand on.  Let your kids try the shoes out properly.  Climb the rock, see if their heel pops out, test the fit while standing at an angle.  
  • Test the toes.  When walking or climbing down a hill, feet will naturally shift forward a bit.  Hiking boots have a hard soled front that can be very uncomfortable on those cute little toes.  Make sure your kids have some wiggle room up there.
  • Know your kid’s size.  I put a kid shoe size conversion chart below that should prove helpful. 
  • Break those boots in!  If you go with hiking boots, be sure to break them in on smaller hikes close to home before heading out on that big Yellowstone trip.  A good store will have a good return policy.  We are pretty loyal to REI for this reason.
Hiking with kids can be both fun and educational.
Hiking with kids can be both fun and educational. Notice the wool socks on this little guy. The thick wool is significantly thicker than his regular cotton socks so it was key to bring them to the store for try-ons.

What hiking boots are right for my kid?

Below are hiking boots and shoes that we own, have owned, or have been recommended to us.  There are plenty of options out there, though, so be sure to shop around and choose what is best for you.  If you like our recommendations or have any questions, please comment below.  We’d love to hear from you.

Salomon Speedcross Trail Running Shoe - a great hiking shoe for older kids

Salomon Speedcross J Trail-Running Shoes. These shoes provide enough traction and stability for the trail but are comfortable and stylish enough to wear all day. They’re a good shoe for an older kid like our 7 year old who attacks the trails, but not so much the mud anymore.

Keen Targhee Mid is a good solution for that kid who likes to step in the mud.

Keen Targhee Mid. I like these boots because they are waterproof basically up to the ankle and they have laces that don’t require tying. These are good for ages 3 and 4, which is the prime age for stepping in puddles and riverbeds so the waterproof and high ankle was clutch. We did find them to run a little small so be sure to try them on with those thick socks.

Keen Targhee Low is a starter hiking shoe for kids.

Keen Targhee Low. These are the low version of the shoes above. The Targhee Lows are good for when the kids are a little bit younger, still liked to jump in puddles, but putting on high ankle shoes was a bit of a bear. The lows feel a little bulky for the real little guys so consider regular tennis shoes for dry hikes or weather.

The Merrell Moab Low is the perfect hiking boot for kids ages 4-7.

Merrell Moab Low – Easy to slide on and off and lighter weight than the Targhee’s. These shoes are great for building confidence in a hiking shoe, with the feel and agility similar to a street shoe. These are a little lower than the Targhee lows, but easier for the kids to put on and off themselves. These are the current house favorite.