How to choose hiking boots
Choosing a pair of hiking boots or shoes is no simple task. They’re something you’ll be wearing day in and day out on all of your adventures, so they’ll need to be comfortable, supportive, durable, and possibly waterproof.
Choose wrong and you’ll have a pair of blistered, wet, and generally achy feet to contend with. As such, picking the right pair of boots might be the most important decision when getting set up for hiking.
Let’s start with the basics, hiking boots and shoes can be broken down into three main components: the outsole, the midsole, and uppers. Each plays a vital role in keeping your foot protected and supported.
Anatomy of a hiking boot
This is the fabric of the shoe, the part that keeps the sole attached to your foot. The uppers are also responsible for providing support and preventing the ankle from twisting in ways that might cause injury.
Uppers can be made from a variety of materials, each with their own pros and cons. Leather is the traditional choice as it’s waterproof, durable, and pliable, however, it’s a natural material prone to breakdown if it stays wet for long periods of time.Synthetic materials are also quite popular, particularly waterproof membranes like Gortex. These fabrics are more breathable than leather and are a great option if you’ll be hiking in hot weather. Know that the waterproof coating will make them hotter and should be avoided if you’re usually hiking in dry weather.
The biggest difference between what I’d call hiking shoes and hiking boots is the height of the uppers, which is directly correlated with ankle support. High top boots immobilize the ankle, which should prevent them from getting twisted on uneven terrain.
That’s not to say that low top boots and shoes are a recipe for injury though, it just means that walking will involve some extra joints. If you’re vigilant and pay attention to how your ankle is landing, this won’t be a problem.
While the uppers and outsole are the most visible parts of a hiking boot, it’s the midsoles that do the heavy lifting. This is where the cushioning is added that protects your feet from punishing shocks on each pack-laden step.
The midsole cushioning is usually one of two things: ethylene vinyl acetate (commonly known as EVA) or less often, polyurethane (PU). EVA is found it all types of shoes because it’s lightweight, cheap, and provides plenty of cushioning.
The interior of an EVA midsole consists of foam filled with tiny air bubbles, but these bubbles get crushed with use. After a few hundred miles on the trail, EVA starts to break down and loses its shock absorbing properties.
Fortunately, polyurethane is much more durable, which is why you find it in boots built for distance. However, polyurethane midsoles don’t feel as comfortable because the dense material doesn’t cushion as well. They’re also subject to a process called hydrolysis, which is essentially them breaking down over time, even when they’re not getting used.
Shanks are hard plastic or occasionally metal plates that run between the boot’s footbed and the outsole. They provide extra rigidity and prevent you from feeling hard objects underfoot. Not sure if a boot has a shank? Try to bend the outsole in half, if it doesn’t move, it at least has a partial shank.
That protection is also the downside to having a shank, you won’t be able to feel the ground. Trail running shoes, which rely on feeling the curvature of the trail, have no shank at all. There is a compromise though; some shanks only cover half the sole to allow for a flexing in the toe and heel regions.
This is where the rubber literally meets the road – the outsole consists of the very bottom portion of the shoe that is in direct contact with the ground. Hiking boots and shoe outsoles are made from rubber of varying hardness and usually have some type of tread pattern to prevent you from slipping on wet or icy terrain.
Nearly all hiking footwear uses vulcanized rubber in its outsoles, but the exact composition varies according to a proprietary formula. To avoid getting into a chemistry lesson, a good rule of thumb to use when choosing an outsole is that softer rubbers are stickier (better traction) and absorb impact better.
Harder rubber compounds are more durable and provide for more rigidity, which can be useful on long slogs. If you’re doing a lot of scrambling on rocky terrain, go with softer rubber, and choose harder if you put a lot of miles on your boots.
As with tires, outsoles need to have as much contact as possible with the road or trail to maintain friction (traction). At the same time, they need to channel water and mud away from the outsole in order to maintain that contact.
Since hiking boots are often used in inclement weather, mud, and moisture removal are paramount and the tread pattern usually consists of rows of rubber knobs with wide channels between them.
Trail running shoes and approach shoes are the exact opposite, with a much less aggressive tread pattern that prioritizes outsole contact with the trail. These are much grippier and are great if you’re doing a lot of scrambling.
Many hiking boots come with something known as a heel brake, a raised section of the outsole that can dig into dirt or gravel to stop a slide should you lose your footing. These are critical for boots that will be used on steep terrain.
With the right pair of boots, you can keep right on hiking through the coldest months of the year. In fact, hiking boots designed for snow are only slightly different than the ones that protect your feet during the summer.
Boots designed for winter hiking will usually have a bit of extra insulation to keep your feet warm. The amount of insulation will depend on two factors: how low the temperature goes and how much movement you’re doing. As any hunter can tell you, their toes get mighty cold as they sit and wait for wildlife.
There are a number of different insulation materials out there, but nearly all of them are some form of synthetic fiber that can be packed into a small space. Thinsulate is the most popular of them and can be found in a variety of brands.When choosing a pair of insulated boots, take the manufacturer’s temperature rating with a grain of salt. There are way too many factors that can affect their perceived warmness, so consider it more of a comparison point between different boots.
While the outsole’s rubber composition is critical for getting traction during the warmer months, there is no rubber that can find a hold on snow and ice – this is where crampons come in.
These metal spikes dig deep into the relatively soft structure of a snowfield to give unparalleled traction. If you’re ambling up a gentle-sloping hill, a pair of microspikes will work perfectly and can slip on over any pair of boots.However, if you’re crossing glaciers on steep slopes, multi-inch spikes will be in order and these require a certain style of boot. Many of the more aggressive crampon sets need toe and heel welts – extensions of the outsole for the crampons to attach to. If you know you’ll hike rough terrain in your winter boots, choose a pair with these welts.
Different types of hikes and the boots for them
With so many great places to hike, it can be hard to pin down the best boots for all situations. However, hiking trips can be grouped together by their length to figure out which boot is right for the adventure.
Day hikes vary widely in difficulty, length, and terrain so a good boot for one of them really needs to do it all. This is why getting a good pair of day hiking boots can be the most challenging footwear decision.
Start by thinking about the weather. Does it rain a lot where you live? Will you be crossing any creeks in them? If the answer is yes to either of these, start by choosing a waterproof upper. This could be leather or a synthetic like Goretex.
Next, consider how steep your average hike will be. If it’s lightly rolling hills, go with a high top that will protect your ankles. You don’t need the extra range of motion. If steep slopes are part of your weekend repertoire, low tops might be the way to go though.
Selecting a midsole is a tradeoff between comfort and durability. If the boots will see a lot of mileage, polyurethane is the best choice, even though it’s heavier and not as comfortable. If you’re more of a weekend warrior, go with the cushy EVA midsole.
At last, you’re down to the outsole; pick big lugs with wide channels for mud and gravel or something flatter if you’re moving over hard rock and need the traction.I’d highly suggest getting a second pair of day hiking boots for winter, as there’s not a lot of overlap between good warm and cold weather day hiking footwear.
Going one step up from day hiking footwear is the overnight boots. These will strike a middle ground between casual day hiking boots and serious backpacker footwear.
Overnight boots can have uppers with low tops, high tops, and everything in between. It all depends on your desire for ankle protection and the types of terrain you’ll encounter. It’s probably best to go with something a little taller to keep mud out of your boot, or water if you’re doing creek crossing with a waterproof model.A half shank in the midsole is probably sufficient and will protect the soles of your feet from bruising on larger rocks, but won’t take all the flex out of your stride, which can make each step more tiring.
Multi-day backpacking trips
Unless you’re an ultralight packer, multi-day trips mean a heavy bag on your back; heavy loads require a very different type of footwear. Backpacking boots almost always have a stiff upper section that immobilizes the ankle because the cost of spraining deep in the backcountry is too great.
The midsole will most often be constructed of polyurethane for enhanced durability since a single weeklong trip could put a hundred miles on them. The outsole will also have a rather aggressive tread, as the trails won’t be steep enough to require super grippy soles, but you might encounter a lot of mud.
This is a fairly specialized form of hiking that involves traveling up very steep rock slopes using your hands and feet. It’s not exactly rock climbing, but it’s one step below it. One thing that scrambling does not involve? Carrying a heavy pack.
The best for footwear for scrambling is a pair of hiking shoes, preferably narrower ones that can fit into small crevices. They should be low top shoes, as taller uppers will immobilize your ankle and lessen your mobility.
Try to find a pair with a lot of flexibility in the outsole and no shank between it and the uppers. You want to have the option of bending the shoe to keep it in contact with the trail. For the same reason, it’s also good to get ones that have a flat tread pattern.
Buying a pair of hiking boots
Now that you understand the basics of hiking boots and how they’re used, you’re ready to begin the buying experience. However, getting a pair of boots isn’t quite as simple as trying on some comfortable sneakers; they’re certain things you’ll want to do in the store to make sure you get the right fit.
Try them on at the end of the day
Think your feet are a consistent size throughout the day? Think again – our feet swell significantly throughout the day. Some long-distance hikers on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trail even report going up a shoe size after a few weeks on the trail.
Pick out your hiking boots at the end of the day when your feet at their maximum size. An even better idea: walk a few miles before going in the store to mimic an afternoon on the trail.
Wear the right socks
Do you have a favorite pair of hiking socks, perhaps some wool ones with a little padding on the bottom? Wear those to the store! You should always try on boot wearing the socks that you’ll use on the trail. It’s the only way to know if the fit will be right.
Lace up correctly
So many hikers fail to realize that there’s more than one way to lace up their boots. Using a different lacing strategy on the trail can be a huge relief for blistered feet, but it’s also not a bad idea for getting a better fit at the store.
Start by thinking about where you feel the most pain when hiking. Does your heel slip? Is there too much pressure on the tops of your feet? Are your toes rubbing against each other?
Figure out where tension is needed and where a little more slack would give some comfort. Make this your go-to lacing system and try it out in the store with your possible boot purchase.
Standing up and wiggling your toes inside the boot isn’t going to cut it here. If you were buying a pair of running shoes, wouldn’t you want to do a few laps around the parking lot in them? The same goes for hiking boots.
Once you’ve laced them up comfortable, go for a walk around the store. You might even try doing some big steps to simulate going uphill. At some sporting goods stores, they’ll even have inclines or rock staircases so you can get a feel for real-world conditions.
You know those floppy foot-shaped pieces of foam that line the insides of your boots? The ones that come with them are usually aren’t very good. Pick up a pair that will actually fit your feet and do what you need them to do.
Insoles have two basic functions: cushioning and support. Cushioning insoles add an extra level of comfort, particularly on boots with a hard shank and minimal midsole cushioning i.e. long-distance backpacking boots.
Getting a pair of supportive insoles is a little more complicated and will probably require the assistance of a knowledgeable store clerk who will first determine if you have high, low, or normal arches. They’ll also need to figure out the degree to which your ankle pronates and supinates – bends inward and outward.
Having figured out those things they should be able to recommend an insole that will fit your foot better than the ones that come with your boots. This little extra step will save hundreds of hours of achy feet.
Tips for maintaining your hiking boots
You just laid down a good chunk of change to get them, so they should last awhile. Most manufacturers say that their boots will last anywhere between 500 and a 1000 trail miles, depending on the terrain, your weight, and how fastidious you are with maintenance.
Oh, you didn’t know your shoes required regular maintenance? Well, they do if you want them to last. Once you’ve got a good pair of boots, you want to do everything in your power to keep them in good condition. These are some of the most important things you can do to keep your boots in tiptop shape.
Break them in
Most hiking boots are not trail ready right out of the box; the materials are too stiff and need to worn around to get them shaped to your foot. Failure to do this will surely result in blisters, as your foot gets rubbed raw by the hard boot.
Synthetic uppers usually have a fairly short break in period, as the materials don’t stretch as much. Hiking shoes that don’t extend above the ankle may have no break in period at all.
Breaking in your boots is especially critical with leather uppers though. They’re a natural product that becomes softer with time and use. Once broken in they won’t fit anyone else, even if they wear the same shoe size, as the material stretches to form a cocoon unique to your foot.
To break in your newly purchased boots, start by wearing them around the house. Light activity will stretch the material without putting you at risk of blisters. Then move up to short hikes that mimic the real world conditions that they’ll be used under. After a few of those, your boots should be ready for an expedition.
Check out this clip from REI.com for more tips on how to break in your boots:Know when to replace a good pair of boots too. Just because there aren't any holes in the uppers or outsole doesn’t mean they’re in working condition. Midsole destruction is nearly invisible and only shows itself through sore feet. Remember to replace your boots every 500 to 1000 miles or every few years if they’re not seeing much use!
Keep them clean
Every hiker has a friend that gets home, kicks his shoes off on the porch and leaves them to mildew for the next few days. Don’t be the person! Clean your boots as soon as you get home; it’s a simple process and will help them to last much longer.
When cleaning your boots, it’s best to use as mild of detergents as possible. Harsh chemicals will shorten their lifespan; diluted laundry detergent or dish soap usually will do the trick.
Start by removing the big chunks of mud – when those clumps dry, they contract and put tension on the boot. Just run a damp cloth over the boot and scape off any stubborn pieces with a nylon brush.
Just as important is keeping the insides tidy; the sweat from your feet is particularly toxic to the boot materials and will shorten their lifespan. To get them clean, just fill the boot with water and let it soak for about twenty minutes. Then pour out the water and let them dry overnight.
Let me first say that this tip is not for everyone. Waterproofing your boots will make them hotter and sweatier, so it’s not the best idea if you know that you’ll be hiking in a hot, dry climate.
If you do decide to waterproof them though, it’s a relatively simple process. For synthetic uppers, just spray on some silicone-based waterproofing and let them air dry for several hours.
Leather is a bit more time intensive and usually involves rubbing a specialized boot wax into the material. Some leather boots are also require conditioning to keep the material soft (and your feet blister-free). To do this, rub some leather conditioning cream into the boots every few months.
Find the right hiking boots for you
Good hiking boots are a big investment and if you choose the wrong ones, you’re almost certain to have a bad day on the trail. Know that no matter how well you choose, they won’t work in every situation either. Most hikers have multiple pairs of shoes.
Also, if you’re thinking about ways to save money with your backpacking gear, boots are not the place to do it. You get what you pay for, most of the time. The money saved is almost never worth the pain you’ll experience in cheap footwear.