Finding the Right Hiking Boots
Your feet take you from the first step though the last mile of a trip. Take care of them. If you don’t, they’ll let you know in painful detail. Boots are the most important piece of hiking gear that you’ll purchase, so be smart or be miserable. There are about as many options for hiking boots as there are places to use them. The right boot depends on your range of terrain, environmental factors and personal hiking style. Sales price, colors and slick features are just a bonus.
Consideration #1: Comfort
Comfort may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s worth emphasizing as someone who has bought boots online based on great sales and reviews, only to regret it in the end.
How a Good Boot Fits: Boots should fit snugly in the heel with a supportive but non-constrictive feel around the foot itself plus some room to spare in the toe box (the end of the boot). Why? If your heel moves around in the boot, you’ll create friction and get blisters. Blisters are awful. If the fit around your foot is too tight, your feet will begin to ache as they get swollen from pounding the trail. If the fit is too loose, your foot will slide around, creating friction and more blisters. If the toe box is too short, your toes will get jammed while walking downhill, which is also awful.
What All This Really Means: Boots need a healthy break-in before hiking serious, consecutive miles in them, regardless of manufacturer claims to the contrary. They should feel good on your feet as soon as you try them on. When fitting, keep in mind that your feet will swell considerably throughout a hike and that you may be wearing thick socks. If a boot fits like a glove in the store, it may end up being too tight for actual use. Do some walking or running before shopping to simulate your foot size on a hike.
Consideration #2: Ankle Support
Ankle support is key. Healthy ankles are vital for hiking and a turned ankle is one of the most common hiking injuries to sustain. Generally speaking, the higher the cut, the more burly, supportive, and uncomfortable the boot.
Low-Cut: These are essentially trail shoes that have knobby all-terrain treads. The shoe-boots are cut below the ankle, usually cost less, and weigh significantly lighter than most other options. They’re meant for the day-hiker who stays on well-established trails and carries minimal weight (we’re talking lunch, water and a jacket). That lack of ankle support means limited applications. A lot experienced hikers like this style for day hikes, but in my opinion, low-cut boots aren’t worth the risk. After all, even a mild sprain a mile into the woods can ruin your day.
Mid-Cut: These shoes are tapered just above the ankle and offer moderate ankle support. They’re generally meant for folks who go on limited backpacking trips, three or four days at a time, on decent terrain. They tend to be the middle-of-the-road in overall support and weight. Mid-cut boots are a nice option for most people because of their dual benefits for the average backpacking trip as well as shorter day hikes. My favorite part of mid-cut boots is the stride, particularly if they have a stiff sole. It provides the calf-driven stride of a sneaker, which I find keeps my legs fresher and knees happier.
High-Cut: This style completely covers the ankle and should offer comprehensive support for the joint and entire foot. If you’re on rough terrain for days on end, and carrying serious supplies on your back, then these are the boots for you. Also, if you have ankle problems, it may be worth wearing this style. The downside is heavier weight, less comfort, and in many cases, price.
Consideration #3: Materials
Materials fall into three major categories: leather, synthetic and combination.
Leather: There’s no question about it– choosing all natural will provide the most durability and longest lifespan. Also, if you’re buying a boot that can be resoled, they could potentially last you a lifetime (just be prepared to pay for it upfront). A well-broken-in pair of quality all-leather boots can be extremely comfortable and mold to the shape of your foot in ways that synthetics can’t. The downsides can be pretty steep: higher price, hotter feet, less breathability, and involved maintenance. That last part is important to note. Leather boots need to cleaned, conditioned and waterproofed after all major uses. If not, the leather will become compromised, leaving them easily waterlogged. Trapped dirt and minerals from soil can also end up ruining waterproof linings. (I’m speaking from personal experience. Trust me, it wasn’t a fun discovery.) If you’re hiking mostly in cooler climates, all-leather boots are well-worth considering. But if you’re like me and plan to do a lot of hiking all over the US, you may want to look for another option.
Synthetic: Man-made materials can shave a lot of weight off the boot and tend to be more breathable. They’re also the best solution for people with objections to wearing leather. The major downside is durability. A sharp rock is going to have a tough time poking through leather—but thin fabrics, not so much. If you’re thinking about all-synthetic boots, opt for a burly rubber toe guard and full rands (strips of rubber or Kevlar-like materials) around the entire boot.
Combination: This combination is pretty simple: leather is used in the lower part of the boot to protect against abrasion and synthetic fabric is used along the upper portion for better breathability and weight reduction. This option works best for me since I hike in different climates and can’t afford to buy three different pairs of high-quality boots. The downside is that the more parts found on the exterior of the boot, the more seams you have to worry about fraying, failing, or leaking.
Consideration #4: Waterproofing
Unless you’re jungle or desert hiking, this is the holy grail of hiking boots. Leaky boots will ruin your feet and make the backpacking experience seem like the worst-use-of-free-time-ever. Wet feet get chewed up by even the most supple and comfortable boots. Avoid having wet feet as best you can.
Waterproof Membranes: Super-thin booties are sewn into the inside of your boots to keep feet dry, even if the exterior soaks through. They can be avoided with well maintained, bomber all-leather boots, but there’s a reason that most boots of any material have some kind of liner—they work well and are worth the downsides. Membranes are meant to be breathable, and in most cases are, but they still add heat and humidity to the inside of your boots. Also, they can fail from wear and tear, something that’s hard to predict ahead of time. Gore-Tex is the most popular and well-established material for waterproof membranes. It’s tried and true, having served me and many others well in the past. There are new waterproof fabrics now available, most notably eVent, that are purported to be much more breathable than Gore-Tex, but I’d like to see people’s experiences with longevity before I consider switching.
Topical Treatments: Treatments ranges from oils to pastes to sprays and other substances in-between. Nikwax is a popular company that claims to make “environmentally safe” water-proofing and cleaning products for a wide range of different materials and applications. I’ve had good luck with their products. Beware of any boots that are only treated to be waterproof, aside from super-high-quality leather, and lack a waterproof membrane. Usually, this means that the boots are water-resistant, not “waterproof.” From my experience, they don’t put up much of a fight for very long. To be safe, use topical treatments on boots with waterproof membranes, and make sure to keep boots clean and well-maintained.
The Bottom Line
Buy a boot that fits well and is answers your hiking challenges. It’s great if they look cool and offer some cutting-edge features, but worry about the basics first.
There are great deals online, especially on last year’s models. Make sure you’re not rushing the buying process and factor in time for returns or exchanges. When pursuing this route, it’s important to deal with reputable companies as a site like ‘fell-off-the-truckz.net’ may leave you high and dry. Some larger retail stores like REI (my personal fave) and EMS have programs where you can return items even after use. Selection is limited compared to internet shopping and their prices can usually be beaten, but the ability to return used boots coupled with knowledgeable sales people, can be a huge advantage.
For advice on specific boots, check out the multitude of reliable gear reviews on backpacker.com. The site’s Editor’s Choice Awards are a helpful way of honing in on thoroughly vetted options, but remember that winning items tend to be higher in price.
Most people call him MJ and if he could, he’d be outdoors every single day of the year hiking or backpacking. Michael grew up in New Jersey alongside the Delaware River and has lived in Vermont, Colorado, and South Korea. Michael currently resides outside of Richmond, VA and works as a marketing copywriter and photographer for his own little business, Content Indeed.