What Are Hiking Boots?
First off, we have to admit that the term ‘hiking boots’ is a bit of an umbrella term these days. Indeed, true hiking boots make excellent trail footwear, but there are several other options included under this heading.
Therefore, let’s start our guide by identifying the different types of hiking footwear out there and their strengths and weaknesses.
When we think of classic hiking boots, we’re envisioning mid-cut boots. These boots finish just above the ankle – providing ample support and protection – and offer plenty of foot support for a wide range of activities. Varying levels of stiffness can make these boots ideal for everything from day-hiking to multi-day backpacking.
However, this wide range of uses can also be this boot’s only downside; mid-cut boots don’t offer as much support as high-cut boots and aren’t as lightweight as hiking shoes, meaning that they’re stuck as a jack of all trades, but rarely a master of one. However, if you’re looking for a versatile shoe for plenty of adventures without committing to either lightweight or substantial support, the mid-cut boots may be for you.
As the name suggests, high-cut boots finish well above the ankle. Therefore, we have significantly more ankle support and a robust, tank-like shell for your feet that will hold up to almost everything on the trail. These boots are typically designed for backpacking, and consequently feature stiffer soles and more substantial foot support for carrying heavy loads.
The downsides to these beefier hiking boots revolve around break-in time and weight. As these boots tend to feature more robust materials and a stiffer design, they take much longer to break in than other boots. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend them as a last-minute purchase before your trip as you’ll need at least a couple of weeks to break them in.
Additionally, if you’re accustomed to lighter hiking footwear, you’ll notice the additional weight of high-cut hiking boots. But in exchange for the extra support they offer, it may well be worth it.
These shoes are light and finish below the ankle. They typically feature flexible soles and are designed to feel and move very naturally. But don’t assume that these shoes are interchangeable with your street shoes! They still offer significantly more robust materials and support than your average shoe and do an excellent job of navigating the trail.
The main downsides here are the lack of support. If you’re prone to ankle rolling, these shoes may not be sufficient for your needs.
What’s more, the flexible sole doesn’t do much for supporting your foot over steep inclines, and you may want to consider mid- or high-cut boots if you want that extra support.
Although not technically considered hiking shoes, I’m obligated to mention trail runners in this section. These are lightweight shoes designed for speed and traction for the trail, and – while intended for running – they have a dedicated following of hikers who swear by their overall comfort, ease of motion, and quick-drying tendencies.
Anatomy Of A Hiking Boot
Now that we’ve discussed the different boot and shoe options out there, let’s zero in on the components and features of hiking footwear – and how they help us get to those epic backcountry gems. We’ll start our analysis from the bottom, with the outsoles.
The outsole is the thick rubber sole of the boot that directly contacts the ground under your feet. You’ll see several different types of lug patterns – the distinct rubber knubs on the outsole – along with varying levels of stiffness.
Large and widely spaced lugs are best for very muddy and slick conditions, whereas smaller lugs are best for more rocky terrain. Typically, manufacturers aim for the best of both worlds with a lug pattern that can function in both rocky or muddy conditions.
Sandwiched within the boot’s outsole and interior are – sometimes – additional levels of foot support. The two most common additions we see are rock plates and shanks. A rock plate is a thin, flexible insert that protects the underside of your foot from sharp or uneven rocks.
A shank is designed to add stiffness to the sole. As we tend to prefer stiffness in full-on boots, manufacturers often include these shanks in mid- and high-cut boots while hiking shoes remain more flexible without a shank.
Your boot’s midsole is your foot’s cushion. In essence, it’s your shock-absorbing layer, so your feet aren’t jolted by every step you take. The two most common materials we see in this department are Polyurethane and Ethyl Vinyl Acetate (EVA).
Polyurethane tends to be a little stiffer and longer-lasting – and thus found in purebred backpacking boots – whereas EVA is lighter and less expensive – and found in more general hiking shoes and boots.
Your boot’s upper material refers to the fabric that forms the exterior – virtually everything except the rubber soles. The most common upper materials we’ll see are full-grain leather, nubuck leather, synthetics, or a combination of them.
Full-grain leather is the most durable material out there, but also among the stiffest. It offers excellent abrasion resistance over many seasons of heavy hiking and is also incredibly water-resistant.
This material is best suited for several days of backpacking, where you’ll need superior support and protection from the elements. However, keep in mind that full-grain leather is much less breathable than other materials, takes a fair amount of time to break-in, and tends to be more expensive.
Nubuck leather is buffed full-grain leather with a much softer and more flexible feel – very similar to suede. With proper care and waterproofing agents, nubuck can be a very long-lasting and abrasion-resistant hiking boot upper. I have a pair of nubuck mountaineering boots that are well over a decade old and still perform flawlessly.
Synthetics essentially cover all the materials that aren’t leather – such as nylon, polyester, and synthetic leather. These materials are typically much more lightweight than leather and will dry more quickly if they happen to get wet. They are also less expensive than leather. However, they lack leather’s durability and will start to show the miles much earlier.
As synthetic materials are not inherently waterproof, they need an additional liner to resist any inclement weather you may encounter. The most common liner on the market is GoreTex; however, many brands have developed their own waterproofing liners that try to optimize ventilation while limiting water penetration.
Points to Consider When Buying Hiking Boots
Now that we’re familiar with the different types of hiking footwear and their anatomy, let’s dive into the specific points that will influence your decision.
Waterproofing and Breathability
This is a classic tradeoff in the hiking boot world. If you opt for fully waterproof footwear, the breathability will decrease dramatically – potentially leading to your feet getting swampy on the trail or the shoes taking forever to dry if they get wet. Conversely, non-waterproof and breathable shoes will keep your feet nice and cool while drying out quickly in the event they get wet, but any puddle or slight precipitation will immediately get your shoes and socks wet.
Therefore, this comes down to personal preference. What’s most important to you? My best advice is to consider where you’re hiking. If you’re heading to the temperate rainforest of Olympic National Park during the wet season, waterproof may be the way to go. But if you’re heading to Death Valley, consider ventilation.
Stiffer boots will keep your feet from getting tired from conforming to every branch and rock you step on during your travels. Furthermore, more rigid boots will help ease the strain on your muscles while traveling up steep inclines. The downside is that you lose your step’s ‘natural’ flex, which can make it difficult to scramble over obstacles or regain your footing if you stumble or slide.
As before, consider where you’re going and what your priorities are. I typically opt for more flexible shoes because I appreciate the more natural step. However, if I’m looking at 4,000+ feet of elevation gain in a single day, then I break out my stiffer boots.
Having boots that cover and support your ankles will help keep them from rolling if uneven terrain takes you by surprise. However, incorporating ankle support means higher cut boots, which in turn adds more bulk. It’s therefore up to you to decide if this is something you need.
For reference, mid- and high-cut boots will over ankle support while hiking shoes and trail runners will not.
As you’ve no doubt noticed, hiking boots vary dramatically by price. This variance in price is mostly driven by differences in material choices and support that we covered above. Higher-end, leather boots with top-notch support will be more expensive than synthetic boots with minimal support.
So consider what your budget is, and how often you’ll be hitting the trail. If you’re getting into backpacking in a big way, it’s worth the extra money to find some footwear that won’t wreck your feet over the course of a season. Conversely, if you’re planning on just the occasional day hike, you can get away with a less expensive choice.
More weight equals more work for your legs. So lighter hiking shoes might be easier to move quickly in, or keep on hiking for miles on end. But they will also have less support than their more bulky counterparts.
So once again, think about what’s more important to you – weight or features. For my part, I tend to err on the side of lightweight whenever I can so that my legs and feet aren’t drained by clunking along in big boots. But, that said, poor weather and treacherous terrain are both scenarios where a little extra weight for waterproofing or support is well worth it.
Proper Sizing and Fitting
Please please please take the time to find hiking boots that genuinely fit! Take it from me, nothing ruins a hike more than limping along because your feet are screaming in pain from ill-fitting shoes. I’ve been there, and ended up finishing a backpacking trip in flip flops because I couldn’t take it anymore.
Know Your Size
The first step in any shoe-fitting endeavor is to know your foot size. Most hiking stores, such as REI, will have the tools to measure your shoe size at the store. Along these same lines, consider your foot quirks.
Do you have extra wide feet? Perhaps narrow feet? Do the tops of your toes often rub on your shoes? Think about what the ‘perfect fit’ means to you, and make sure you bring all this information to your shoe fitting.
Try On Boots From New Brands
If you’re interested in a pair of hiking shoes from a brand you’ve never worn before, it’s best to try them on in person before committing.
This is because every brand has a slightly different fit and sizing scheme. For example, La Sportiva makes phenomenal hiking boots, but I’ll never be able to wear them because I have wide feet, and La Sportiva runs narrow. Therefore, even though I have a size-12 foot, a size-12 La Sportiva simply won’t work for me.
But if you know your tried-and-true brand, ordering online through a convenient digital store – such as Amazon – is a simple and easy way to get your new pair of hiking boots. I must stress that you only do this if you’re very confident, or the seller has a forgiving return policy.
Check the Insole
A quick and easy method to check boot size is to remove the insole and put it up against the bottom of your foot. These insoles are essentially a cutout of the boot’s interior, so if one part of your foot is jutting over the edge of the insole, then the boot is probably too small for you.
Advice for Trying On Boots
Our feet swell a little bit over the course of the day, especially if you spend a lot of the day standing. Do yourself a favor and try on your hiking boots towards the end of the day so your feet are as big as they’re going to be. Doing so will mimic the foot-swell that you’ll experience on the trail.
Along the same lines of mimicking trail conditions, be sure to wear the same hiking socks for your fitting as you would for hiking. Hiking socks tend to be a tad thicker than casual socks, and can, therefore, influence your shoe fit. Don’t forget this! I have a pair of hiking boots that I can only wear with super-thin socks as thicker socks cause noticeable pain – so it makes a difference!
Don’t just try on the shoes while sitting down; walk around so you can truly appreciate how they’ll feel! Some stores will have artificial rocks or terrain for you to test them out on – which is very handy – or you can simply walk around the store and up and down the stairs.
Believe it or not, there are tons of lacing methods out there to find just the right boot fit. Changing up your lacing can remedy any number of problems, from heel slippage to pain on the top of your foot. REI has produced one of the best guides to hiking boot lacing out there, so I recommend that you scroll through it if you need some advice.
Break-In Your Boots
Going straight from the store to the trail can spell disaster for your feet. The boots need a little time to conform to your feet and loosen up before you take them out for a big hiking trip. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting some whopper-sized blisters.
I recommend wearing the boots to walk the dog, get groceries, or do any other daily errands that you need to complete. This method will allow you to use the boots in short bursts and give them time to slowly break-in to your feet and walking style. Once the boots feel very comfortable and aren’t rubbing anywhere, you can take them out on the trail.
There you go hikers! We’ve covered hiking boots from top to bottom. From the materials to the features to the types, you now know how to choose hiking boots for any adventure you have in mind. Just remember that not all hiking boots are the same, and it’s imperative that you zero-in on the features that are most important to you and where you’ll be hiking.
Once you have that, there’s nothing between you and exploring the great outdoors!
Have fun and stay safe, eh?