The Complete Buyer’s Guide to Hiking Boots

Boots choose you, you don’t choose the boot!

Picture a moose wading in a backcountry pond, a mountain vista, or a pair muddy hiking boots — all invoke iconic images of the wild.  Hiking boots are a big deal, but before you go buy a pair, let’s take a look at them in detail and find which are suited best for you.

Purpose and Features

Let’s break down the various parts of a hiking boot, then you can pick what is best for you:

  • Traction– Slipping causes injuries.  A good hiker will have aggressive traction.
  • Rigid Soles – Walking across jagged rock surfaces puts a lot of stress in one place.  Good soles spread that pressure out over a larger area, taking stress off your feet.
  • Durable Material – A pair of your favorite running shoes will get beat up quickly on an Adirondack hike.  All the breathable (mesh) materials are not designed for running against rocks, mud and downed branches.  Good hikers will have more leather and durable synthetic materials.
  • Waterproof / Water-resistant – A good hiker walks through puddles.  Walking around puddles widens trails and leads to environmental issues.  A good hiker will be water-resistant at least, waterproof can be even better.  Caution: Waterproof is not always better since they are typically hotter, which leads to heat blisters.  If you only plan to hike in July and August, in good weather, a water-resistant shoe can actually be preferred.
  • Ankle Support – The bread and butter of a hiking boot.  Every hiker will eventually twist an ankle.  It is just a matter of how often and to what degree.  High-top boots help support your ankle to minimize risk.  They also are useful in keeping mud out of your boots.  For day hiking, use of a high-top boot is a preference.  If you have ankle issues, are moving into the wiser years of life,  or are carrying a large load (personal weight and/or backpack), than consider high-top boots as required equipment.  If you are athletic, with no ankle issues and no pack, then consider them optional.
  • Weight – Okay, this is not something a boot does, but is sure does matter!  If it were not for the weight, a heavy-duty hiking boot would be worn 99% of the time in the back woods.  Weight on your feet will zap 4-6 times more energy than weight on your back, so the lighter the better.

Types of Hiking Footwear

Now that you know what a boot needs to do, let’s look at the four categories of hiking footwear.  From trail runners for the very athletic day hike to heavy hiking boots designed for carrying large loads deep into the back country.  Let’s break them down:

Heavy Hiking Boot:

The heavy-weight boots of the back country are rugged, rigid and supportive – and comfortable.   They are designed to support your feet on multi-day hikes carrying serious loads (camping gear and then some).  They excel in all the categories, but the trade-off is weight – they are heavy at three to five pounds for the pair!

If you are just starting out, skip over the heavy-weight hikers.  The additional weight will make your first hikes miserable because you will grow tired too fast.  Remember a pound on your feet equivalent to adding 5 pounds on your back.

Light Hiking Boot:

The staple of the hiking industry, the light hiking boot can be used from day hikes to multi-day treks.  It is a great compromise of all traction, sole support, durable materials, waterproof/water-resistant, and ankle support.  If you’re not sure if you should be in a hiking boot or shoe for day hikes, err on the conservative side and get a boot.  You will eventually want a pair if you begin doing longer, strenuous hikes or overnight hikes, so why do it right from the start?

A good light hiker will weigh in the 1.75-3 pound range.

Hiking Shoe:

If you are not looking for the ankle support, a hiking shoe provides most of the benefit of a light hiking boot in a slightly lighter and more agile form.  It provides the same traction, rigid soles and durable materials as a light hiker, but without the ankle support.  Also mud and water infiltration is easier with this low-top variant – though waterproof version do exist.

Weight reduction is the main advantage of the hiking shoe.  While it may only be a few ounces, it adds up and you will notice the difference.

A good hiking shoe will weigh in the 1.5-2.25 pound range.

Trail Runners

Designed for the athletic day hiker, these shoes are the back country version of running shoes.  They are lightweight and comfortable, which means hikers can travel many miles quickly.

The downside is they offer the least amount of support.  There traction is adequate (but no more), their sole support is generally weak, but adequate given they designed for an athletic person carrying no extra weight.  They typically consist of more durable materials than running shoes, but are not expected to last as long as leather shoes.  Finally they offer no ankle support.

Trail runners should be reserved for day hikes by those already in shape and on modest hikes.  Be wary of jagged rocky ravines with these.  My largest complaint is the lack of weight distribution.  Hiking down a ravine like found on Algonquin (towards Lake Colden) will leave you feet sore.

A trail runner will weigh in the 1-1.75 pound range.

Fitting new Hikers

Now that you know what you are looking for, head to your local outfitter and try some on.  Some points to remember:

  • Let the right boot find you, don’t pick the one you want and convince yourself it fits. This is really important.  You will wear these boots for many, many years.
  • Get to the store in the afternoon when your feet are swelled.  This will mimic the natural swelling during hiking.
  • Once you think you have found the right pair, wear them around the store for a while.  Spend the time looking at new gear, checking out the new guides and maps.  Just wear them.  If they feel better after 30 minutes, they are likely the right ones.  If they feel worse, move on to another pair.
  • There is an incline in any reputable outfitter.  Walk up the ramp looking for any motion in your heel.  This is what causes heel blisters.  Walk down stomping aggressively looking for toe jamming.  This mimics hiking down a mountain – which can lead to serious toe issues if there is not enough space up front.
  • Try at least 4 pairs of boots, even if the first ones feel perfect.  The worse you will do is waste 30 minutes, while solidifying your thoughts.
  • The goal is not to be a minimalist here – get what you will need for today and tomorrow.
  • Wear the socks you would normally hike in.  This is obvious, just remember to bring them.  If you forget hiking socks, the outfitter will usually have a pair to borrow.
  • Do your best to get it right the first time, but do not be bashful about bringing the boots back to store if not fit well (don’t abuse it though).

What about Insoles?

Insoles are designed to replace factory insoles to provide an addition custom fit.  For most people, you should avoid them — If the boot does not fit well, do not try to use after-market insoles to force it.  That said, there are some special cases where insoles should be considered.

  • Flat Feet or High Arches – If you have unusually flat feet or high arches, you will have trouble finding boots that support correctly.  Consider after-market insoles designed for flat feet or high arches.  This only applies to 1 in 10 people – probably not you.
  • Rejuvenating Old Friends – Have a pair of leather boots that look like they have another 300+ miles in them, but are not as supportive as they once were?  $30-$40 insoles can extend the life of the boots, but they do not work miracles.  Soles wear out and leather stretches out, so this only works sometimes.

Breaking in your New Hikers

The stiffer the boot, the more time you should spend breaking it in.  This is not a difficult process, but it should not be overlooked.  Breaking in does two things.  First is shapes the boot to any irregularities of your feet.  Second it hardens your feet to any irregularities of the boot.

Breaking in is easy…get outside with your boots on.  You do not need hike a mountain, just get outdoors with your boots on.  Mow the lawn, walk through the woods, head out to a local park…get outdoors!

There is one caveat though, stay off hard surfaces (roads, sidewalks, stone dust trails, etc).  Hard surfaces do more harm than good.  In fact, most long-distance hikers can travel hundreds of miles without issues, but a simple one-mile road walk will cause blisters on both feet!  Boots are designed to not flex much, but walking on pavement requires flexing. Again, stay away from pavement.

There is no rule on when boots are broken in, but like when you first begin hiking, start small and work your way up.

Expert Tip: If you are replacing a pair of boots, buy your new pair while there is still some miles left on your old pair.  Keep them for the longer hikes until you are comfortable with the new pair.

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