Any discussion on hiking gear is always controversial. That being said, you will find all types of footwear on the trails of the Smokies. Are there right and wrong types of shoes or boots to wear? Well, that depends. The easy answer is yes. You should never wear heels on the trails. I have seen this more times than I can count. Those people stumble and fall everywhere and generally do not last long on any trail (even Laurel Falls). But outside of that kind of craziness, what footwear is best? This really depends on you, the type of hike you are attempting, and the weather conditions.
Hikers have used all kinds of footwear including boots, tennis shoes, sandals, and even gone barefoot. I will review the most common types of footwear that you should consider wearing in the Smoky Mountains.
Tennis Shoes Chances are, the athletic shoes that you wear around the house and when you go to the store will work for you on many of the trails here. They are usually breathable (this is a good thing) and the soles are not so stiff that you will be sore after wearing them. In addition, they are likely broken in. This is an important thing when attempting any hike. The downside is that these shoes offer little support to your feet from rocks or roots, they are usually not waterproof (it rains a lot here), and the lugs are often far too slick to offer real traction should you be on a trail that requires it.
Hiking Shoes These shoes are often very similar to tennis shoes in that they offer comfort and breathability but offer a better lug to grip the trail. The soles are often more stiff and absorb shock better than a tennis shoe. Many also offer Gore-tex that makes the shoe water resistant (most that claim to be waterproof simply are not).
Hiking Boots Boots offer many advantages to shoes. They come in an array of heights that can support the ankle completely or be considered mid-height that still offers support while giving the hiker better mobility. You can get boots in full leather to make them waterproof. These boots will also stay warmer in cold weather. Fabrics are great and allowing the boots to breathe (and reducing blisters), but they stay colder and wetter because of the breathability.
Sandals I would personally never consider hiking in sandals though I have seen many do it. They offer no support and are too thin to protect you from what protrudes from the ground. If I am hiking overnight or on an extended trip, however, I always take a pair of sandals for camp and for water crossings.
With any footwear, you get what you pay for. Your shoes/boots are what makes direct contact with the trail. Feet/leg problems force more people hobbling off the trail than any other issue. A trip to Pay-less may seem like a bargain for your boots, but your feet and legs will make you pay for it later. The “brand name” footwear may seem insanely priced to some, but the reason is simple. These companies know how to make gear for your activity. Names like Vasque and Merrill know what the hiker needs. Seams are better, the tongue is better positioned and sized, the lugs are more sturdy and offer superior grip, the soles will take the repeated impact of hike, and the quality of materials and workmanship is much higher. If you are going to spend real money on just one piece of your hiking gear, make it your shoes.
Weather and Long Hikes If you are planning a long hike (multiple days) or a hike where you expect either very cold or wet weather, I recommend a leather boot. Everyone has an opinion on this issue, but I have found that it is the best way to keep my feet dry and warm over the long haul. Like I said, there is ample disagreement about this issue. People have hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (2100 miles) in tennis shoes and would not do it any other way. Do what works best for you. In short, Hike Your Own Hike.