While going for a walk around a lowland park for a couple of hours will not require any special purchase other than a pair of trainers, going on longer hikes with steeper hills or up mountains will require an investment in a good pair of hiking shoes.
The wrong shoes can cause problems like blisters, extra tiredness and long term injuries to feet and joints not to mention serious slips and falls.
There is a lot of disagreement about what are the best hiking shoes/boots brands.
Instead of telling you what brand of shoes to buy, I will tell you what basic things you should be looking for in your new investment. The rest is really up to your personal preference, budget and the shape of your feet.
We will start with what is, in my opinion, the most important part of a pair of hiking shoes and the part that distinguishes it as a real pair of hiking shoes from a fashion item that will kill your feet when you are out in the trails.
The soles of your hiking shoes are the soul of your comfort :-)
Hiking shoes have deep lungs that are well spaced out and of different shapes. There is usually a gap between the mid part of the soles and the heels to stop you from sliding downhills. These are called Heel Brakes, cuz they act as brakes.
Here are two good examples. Different brands and styles will use different lung shapes but look for deep and well spaces out lungs which will give you better traction in muddy terrain.
All trail conditions:
This example has a Vibram membrane, easily spotted by the yellow label, which contains the right mix of rubber and other components for a balance of stickiness and durability. You can buy similar looking shoes without Vibram and get similar results, but the yellow label gives you the confidence of making the right choice.
Dry trail condition:
This is the sole of a trail running shoe. We will talk more about trail running shoes later.
These are great for hillwalking in dry conditions.
THE NO GOOD
Stay away from these no good soles. They offer little to no traction on hills, causing you to slip and fall in hiking trails even in dry conditions.
You are also more likely to form blisters wearing these.
Dr Martens should not be worn outside London's Shoreditch. Beware of similar boots, they are made to endure city life on tarmac, not trail life.
Worth a mention. I did see someone wearing heels on a hike. Once.
Not sure they are still alive, cuz natural selection and stuff.
Trail runners are similar to running shoes, but with aggressive tread patterns, increased support, heel brakes, and a stiffer midsole. These shoes are super-lightweight and allow a hiker to move quickly.
They are also great for longer distances, as they are less likely to give you blisters or hurt over time. Trail runners are versatile and comfortable shoes that are great for fast-and-light day hikes, ultralight backpacking and thru-hiking, or trail running.
The downside of a trail runner is they are usually not as stiff or durable as other shoes, will not protect against the elements as effectively and can be slippery on muddy hills.
For more protection, support and durability than a trail runner, choose a light hiker. This style of hiking shoe offers excellent traction, a stiff sole, and stability in a lightweight, low-profile package that is more burly and stable than a trail runner on technical terrain.
These shoes are great for those who want more traction and durability without the bulk and heft of a traditional hiking or backpacking boot. With an aggressive tread and multi-directional lugs, you can get great traction on variable terrain.
Light hikers are also often available with a waterproof membrane, which adds a level of inclement weather versatility that most trail runners lack.
MID-WEIGHT HIKING BOOTS:
Mid to high-cuffed boots take the benefits of a low hiking shoe and add additional ankle support.
Great traction, durable construction, a supportive and secure fit, as well as that higher ankle cuff and an often stiffer midsole provide the security and performance that you need for a variety of adventures.
Having one or two lace hooks above the ankle allows you to lock in your heel and secure your ankle in place.
The additional material used will add a small amount of weight, but a midweight hiker will still be lighter and more comfortable when compared to full backpacking or mountaineering boot. A midweight boot is great for the same kinds of trips that you would use a low hiker on, but with the added peace of mind and support of a mid or high-cuffed boot.
HEAVY BACKPACKING BOOTS:
The bigger, beefier brother of the hiking boot, backpacking boots have stiff soles designed for carrying additional weight, a high cut that offers great ankle stability, and heavy outsoles to handle rugged terrain.
These boots are designed to protect your foot while you carry heavy loads of weight into the wilderness. The stiff soles give your feet a stable platform, reducing foot fatigue as you traverse over thick roots and rocks.
The thick, stiff body of the boot creates a comfortable, supportive home for your foot that is both very durable and helps keep your ankles aligned as you travel over uneven terrain with a heavy pack.
The downside to a backpacking boot is that they are very heavy and less nimble than other options. Heavy backpacking boots are not ideal for thru-hikers, ultralight backpackers, and day hikers, who often use light hikers, approach shoes or trail runners.
Choose a heavy boot of this type if you are carrying a heavy load in your pack, if you are doing wilderness or trail work, or for non-technical winter hiking.
Waterproof Membranes such as GORE-TEX® or eVent® are commonly found in hiking boots. These membranes “breathe” by way of microscopic holes that are large enough to allow water vapour to escape but small enough to keep liquid water out. Often they are the inner-most layer of the upper to protect the membrane.
Although shoes with waterproof membranes will let sweat out, they will be noticeably warmer and less breathable than a similar boot lacking a membrane, so if you will be hiking on a very hot day a non-waterproof boot may be a better option. Proper cleaning of this footwear is also essential to keep the membrane from clogging with dirt, oil, and other grimes which will inhibit breathability.
There is no way around this one. You have to go to a shop and try as many shoes as needed and maybe visit many shops.
To help you out, I give you here two personal recommendations.
1 - Buy shoes one size bigger than your feet.
Never, ever buy a shoe that fits perfectly, because, on the fifth hour of hiking hills, your feet will have swollen causing you extreme discomfort.
Instead, buy one size bigger and wear smart wool socks. These socks will keep your feet from getting blisters from the rubbing of the shoes.
Smart wool socks are some kind of witchcraft or black magic trick, that although they are made of thick wool, somehow they keep your little pigs dry and neither cold nor hot. What?!
2 - Travel a bit farther to a GoOutdoors or Cotswold shop, as they are quite big and have a lot more choices, so you will hopefully not have to skip around town for hours. Bonus: they are much cheaper too.