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June 25, 2001 -- Take it from one who's been there. When you're hiking -- especially on uneven terrain -- wearing the proper footwear can make a big difference between a carefree day of fun and downright misery.

Running shoes, tennis shoes -- they just don't cut it when you're on a hiking trail. We're talking blisters, twisted ankles, damaged knees.

"A good hiking boot is key," says Natalie Hummel, with the American Hiking Society. "Especially if you're a beginning hiker. You want something that's going to support your ankle when you're going up and down the slope. And if weather is bad that day, if there's rain, you want a boot that will provide good traction or you might slip and fall."

Lightweight boots -- made of sturdy plastic, nylon, or other synthetic fabric -- are very flexible and less expensive than leather boots.

"If you're going on a day hike, where you're not carrying much on your back, you can get by with a light boot," says Hummel. "But if you're doing backpacking, carrying heavier equipment, you'll need a leather boot."

The best hiking footwear has a rigid sole to prevent stress fractures and protect foot ligaments, says Warren Hammerschlag, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon and assistant clinical professor with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark.

"The sole absorbs the stress of repetitive steps," he tells WebMD. "Similarly, hiking boots have support for the foot and ankle. They stay aligned even though the ground underneath is changeable. A rock can give way, or the terrain may be uneven, but the hiking boot provides a stable environment for the foot."

But you're in the sporting goods store, staring at about 50 different styles and brands. How can you know which is best?

Indeed, there's a whole range of leather hiking boots out there, everything from "approach shoes" to extended backpacking boots to high-end mountaineering boots, says Chris Brown, a footwear designer for L.L. Bean.

Terrain determines the type of shoe you need. An approach shoe is a "very light greenway trail-type of shoe, a walking shoe; people even wear them to work," Brown says. Mountaineering boots have heavily lugged outsoles, which a day hiker does not need or want.

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