Keen vs. Merrell: Battle of the Hiking Boots

by Hailey Hudson
Updated March 17, 2023

keen vs merrell

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KEEN and Merrell are two big names in outdoors industry. Walk into any outdoors store in the U.S. and you’re bound to see both names attached to a variety of footwear and other apparel.

As brands of similar reputation making similar styles, the two are often compared when shopping for gear. Before you sink $100 or more into a pair of hiking boots, it’s nice to know what makes each brand special, and where each brand lacks.

While Merrell and KEEN have many similarities, there are also some key differences that may be important when choosing to go with one brand vs. the other. Without further ado, here’s our breakdown of KEEN vs. Merrell.

Related: The Keen Ridge Flex Boot: Cool Tech at a Great Price

KEEN Background and History

KEEN, Inc. is a footwear company founded by Martin Keen in the early 2000s that makes shoes of all kinds, from kids’ sandals to men’s work boots. Headquartered in Portland, Oregon, the company prides itself on doing more than just making shoes. Keen works hard to make a difference, calling its effort the “Keen effect.”

Elements of the Keen effect include supporting nonprofits around the globe, striving for efficiency in the way it manufactures its products, and encouraging its customers to do the same. Since 2004, the company has donated over $18 million (plus countless volunteer hours) to various charitable organizations.

keen footwear
Photo: @carly.rado on Instagram

But when KEEN got its start, it was a small company that probably never expected to make such a global impact. Martin Keen was a sailor who liked to wear sandals on deck, but predictably, he would often stub his toe. He launched his footwear company in 2003 to remedy this problem, and according to Business Insider, his self-named company was netting $240 million in revenue just a little over ten years later.

Today, KEEN creates shoes that are perfect for just about any outdoor activity. The company has also expanded into steel-toed boots for construction workers, which it manufactures in its Portland factory. KEEN has even branched out to sell clothes, bags, socks, hats, drinkware, and other accessories. Some of the company’s executive personnel have previously worked at companies such as Nike and Patagonia.

Merrell Background and History

Merrell has been around a little longer than KEEN: Clark Matis, Randy Merrell, and John Schweizer founded the footwear company in 1981. Matis (an Olympian cross-country skier) and Schweizer worked for a ski company, while Merrell made custom boots. They joined forces to produce high-performance boots (mostly meant for hiking) under the name Merrell. By 1986, their sales numbered 25,000 pairs of boots.

merrell footwear
Photo: Merrell on Instagram

The company’s sales hit $10 million by 1990, and Merrell opened multiple divisions worldwide. Well-known footwear manufacturer Wolverine World Wide acquired Merrell in 1997, and they’ve operated as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Wolverine ever since.

Today, Merrell sells trail running shoes, apparel, and accessories both in-store and online. The company partners with numerous organizations to help everyone enjoy the outdoors.

What People are Saying about KEEN

While many satisfied customers are lifelong fans of KEEN, many customers are also in agreement on one point: KEEN shoes are not  always durable. Multiple buyers report the soles of KEEN shoes falling off or coming apart far sooner than they should have.

“After less than two months on the job, they are falling apart. Not so keen,” read one review.

“Bought the hiking boots for my nephew [and] he has worn them maybe 4-5 times and the sole has already fallen off. Will never order from this company again!” said another reviewer.

And what’s more — as these users reported — KEEN’s customer service is often not very helpful when informed of these problems. Apparently, the company doesn’t always honor their warranties.

Despite the durability and customer service issues, though, KEEN still managed to amass a solid reputation in the outdoor footwear industry. Backpacker Magazine regularly endorses the company, praising its excellent designed-for-adventure shoes.

And for any complaints about durability, there are still plenty of satisfied men, women and kids rocking KEEN shoes outdoors around the world.

What People are Saying about Merrell

Merrell reviewers seem to have only good things to say about the quality of Merrell’s shoes: the company’s hiking boots and tennis shoes have great support. They’re breathable. They’re comfortable.

“They give me really good grip, I feel like I’m Superman when I wear these,” one reviewer gushed.

While KEEN seems to be primarily known by outdoor enthusiasts, Merrell is more of a mainstream company and household name.

Other reviewers report, however, that Merrell’s customer service is about on par with KEEN’s.

“I bought a pair of sandals… [and] found the strap faulty. I was told by the store a return is not possible as 6 weeks has elapsed and I don’t have the original box! I am really disappointed that such a reputable brand would treat a customer so badly,” said another customer.

Other customers were under the impression that some Merrell shoes were completely waterproof, but upon ordering, they were upset to find that wasn’t the case: their feet got wet very quickly.

Is one better than the other?

Overall, both KEEN and Merrell have positive and negative reviews. If you’re planning to purchase from either company, be aware that KEEN shoes may have issues with durability and warranties, while not all Merrell shoes may be as waterproof as they appear to be – and neither company has a reputation for top-notch customer service.

Popular KEEN Products

Men’s Coburg 8” Waterproof Work Boots

Photo: KEEN Footwear

These steel toe work boots are durable, waterproof, and feature a moisture-wicking lining that KEEN promises will keep you high and dry. A heel guard and an abrasion resistant fabric keep the shoes safe from scrapes, and Cleansport NXT™ technology provides odor control.

Recommended for utility workers or for wear on construction sites, the boots meet rigorous ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) non-slip standards, and they’re low-maintenance: just clean them with a leather cleaner every so often.

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Photo: KEEN Footwear

According to reviews, the PYRENEES hiking boot is comfortable, but doesn’t last as long as you might expect. The boot features KEEN Dry technology — which is waterproof yet breathable — plus a special footbed design that supports the natural arch of your foot. The PYRENEES features an easy-to-break-in yet sturdy no-slip outsole.

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Popular Merrell Products

Men’s Agility Charge Flex

merrell flex
Photo: Merrell

One of Merrell’s top trail running shoes, the Agility Charge Flex is flexible and agile, moving with your foot to keep you safe on uneven terrain. The heel counter provides good support while the outsole grips the ground; antimicrobial agents prevent unwanted smells.

The shoes are lightweight, attractive, and made for adventure — one customer even reported climbing Machu Picchu in them.

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Women’s Aurora 6 Ice+ Waterproof

Women's Aurora 6 Ice+ Waterproof
Photo: Merrell

These winter boots are designed to keep you safe and warm in all things snow and ice. The Vibram® Arctic Grip™ outsole provides extra traction on icy surfaces, and the insulation helps your foot stay dry. The boot comes with free shipping.

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Final Thoughts

KEEN and Merrell operate in similar niches. Both brands are relatively affordable, yet passionate about giving back to causes and organizations that mean a lot to them.

But there are some noticeable differences in the two company’s products. If you’re looking for durability, KEEN shoes aren’t your best bet. And make sure to triple-check the label before wearing Merrell’s out in the rain.

For more footwear reviews, check out our comparison of Teva vs. Chaco, the best American-made hiking boots, hiking boots under $100, our favorite minimalist sandals or the best camp shoes for lounging around the fire.

Seen in: Brands, Footwear, Gear

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