Knowing how to choose hiking boots can make or break your experience of a trail. During an adventurous ramble in the outdoors, you want to be adequately prepared and equipped to handle what the terrain throws your way.
Finishing a walk with blistered heels and toes that look as though they have made the trek to the top of Mount Doom is not the type of wear and tear you want on your body. In the past it was seen as part of the trade-off of a good experience, to come home with feet that need recovery time.
With the great advances in materials that are used and the design of the shoes, this is no longer the case. Choosing the correct hiking boots for your experience can truly empower you and enhance your outdoor experience. The purpose of hiking boots is real to be able to complete your trail with feet that are still in fine fettle.
Different boot types
There are four main divisions in the style of hiking boots, and each style is created to serve a different purpose. Within those style categories, you can choose and further personalize your preference, as there are of course unique variations between brands.
These brands also offer differences in quality with aspects like the materials that are used and any features which may be included or excluded. There is quite a favorable variety to make a selection from, once you have decided which category best suits your needs.
The Ultra Light Low Cut Hiking Boot
These light and comfortable shoes are not waterproof but rather focuse on being breathable and quick drying. This category is ideally suited to shorter hikes on rugged terrain, where the need for good airflow to the feet is important.
This type of shoe is designed for comfort and can be worn straight away without needing to be broken in. It is focused on providing flexibility and a full range of movement through the foot and therefore does not offer much ankle support. It is suited to a backpacker that does not have a lot of weight on his back. Due to its lightweight on the feet, it is a great shoe for saving stamina.
General All Purpose Hiker
These are great for day hikes and designed to handle the slightly more rugged terrain. In order to accommodate greater durability and better support in the underfoot midsole and around the ankle, these shoes are more rigid.
The sturdiness offers protection jagged terrain like rocks and other uneven protrusions from the ground. To equip the hiker better in crossing streams, these shoes commonly have waterproofing liners.
The Backpacking Hiking Boot
This type of hiking boot is built for hikers embarking on longer, more strenuous hikes and more rugged terrain. Typically made from 100% leather it is aimed at providing total waterproofing. The waterproofing can also be further enhanced by the hiker, easily at home, by applying a product like Nikwax on it. It offers far more support than the previous categories and is geared to protect the ankle from twisted or buckling.
This is a great support to a hiker carrying 30, 40 or even 50 pounds of weight. Furthermore, they are designed with a wider base and deeper tread to improve stability and traction. If this is the category you are looking into, look for boots that have tread that is positioned correctly for the terrain you will be tackling. Sometimes the lugs of the tread are slanted differently for effective hill-breaking, while others may be better suited to climbing.
The Mountaineering and Winter Hiking Boot
This category of boots is exactly suited to the conditions that the name would suggest. These are the stronger, more durable boots, with a built-in steel shank. Designed to equip a hiker for the toughest weather conditions, they also aim to accommodate the most grueling terrain.
Insulated for warmth, these boots are designed to adapt to snowy conditions instantly. The better brands to look out for also contain attachment points for gators. These boots are the heaviest of the four categories and also contain features to help with support and stability.
Finding your Perfect Fit
There are a few aspects to consider when choosing hiking boots. One of the most important factors to bear in mind is that the shoe should fit the shape of your foot.
A cosmetically-attractive model will not serve your best interests out in the field, so here are some of the important considerations to take into account when looking for a pair of outdoor boots, after we have examined what kind of hiking you intend on doing, we will match your needs with the correct kind of boots.
Once you have established what your needs are based on the below criteria, we will examine the four main categories of hiking boots in more detail.
Will there be lots of rocks and jagged edges, crossing streams, dry veld, snow, rock climbing etc. Determine whether you need something sturdy and supportive, or something flexible that allows your foot some flexibility. A light walking boot is a good choice if your terrain is rocky or jagged, and you require some flexibility.
If you need something with greater support, and less flexibility, a backpacking hiking boot or a general purpose hiker may your better options. If you are expecting snowy terrain and mountaineering, Winter Hiking Boots may your best bet.
Do you require shoes that have insulation, or should they be highly breathable and allow evaporation? Are your feet likely to get hot, or are you tackling snowy conditions? Shoes that breathe well are the Low Cut Ultra Light Hiking Boots. Shoes that give better insulation would be the General All Purpose Hiking Boots, or the Backpacking Hiking Boots. For very cold conditions, the best option is a well insulated Winter Hiking Boot.
The expected duration of your trip and load amount
If you are camping and mountaineering your requirements are vastly different to a short day hike. A short day hike will see a hiker benefiting more while wearing a lighter, more flexible model, such as the Low Cut Ultra Light hiking boots. Longer walks require more support.
Better support means less flexibility, and for this purpose, you should look at shoes in the General All Purpose Hiker category or the backpacking hiking boots. The longer your journey, the heavier your pack will be, which ultimately means you will be requiring a sturdier pair of shoes. The toughest and most supportive category is the Winter Hiking Boot.
The feet are connected to many important muscles, including your back. What you are carrying on your back will directly dictate what kind of ankle support you require in a shoe. A lighter load will allow you to choose from a category that gives good flexibility, such as the Low Cut Ultra Light category. A heavy load will lead you to needing a better-reinforced pair of shoes, which you will find in the General All-Purpose Hiking Boots category.
Physical Injuries or weakness
People with ankle injuries often find that boots with higher ankle support to be too restrictive, especially as the foot swells during intensive use. Other hikers feel that a good ankle support helps to compensate for a potential weakness. This is really a matter of personal preference, and it is important to thoroughly address your preference before committing to a style of shoes.
There are so many different boots available, and a novice may not be certain why an expensive pair of boots are of more value than a cheaper pair. Many people believe that the price differences are all about paying for a brand name. While this may be the case in some industries, this is generally not the case with hiking boots.
We will look at some of the points to look out for to help determine whether the price you are paying is fair or not. While it remains tempting to buy a cheaper pair of boots, investing in quality will save you money over time as pricey boots are usually more durable. Each category offers different shoes at varying prices, depending on the extra’s they offer.
Distinguishing Good Hiking Boots from Great Ones
Now that you are able to identify the best type of boots for your needs, make sure you know what to look out for when you are selecting the right model. There are three key factors in choosing the right model.
Individual models within a category can offer varying amounts of support. The point at which most of your support is will be the underfoot midsole of the boot. This is added to by the cuff wrapping around the ankle. Stiffer soles give more support and protection from jagged terrain like rocks but allow less movement through the foot. Keep in mind that a shoe that has a bendy sole is for rambling over uneven surfaces, and won’t twist too easily as it still offers ankle support.
Waterproofing is good for rainy conditions / forest streams etc. The breathable boot is better for keeping cool. EVA or Ethylene Vinyl Acetate outsole is the lightest outsole. It’s so popular because it also provides a non-absorbant water resistance.
A good way of establishing how waterproof a shoe is if it contains Gore-tex, which is a synthetic material that allows airflow and water vapor to pass through it but maintains water-resistance. This is great material to look out for when buying shoes.
Buying shoes are like choosing a perfect match for your feet. The best quality boot can be the worst choice for a person if their foot shape does not collaborate well with the shape of the shoe. The shoe should house the foot snuggly, but without pressure.
When you are fitting on shoes, it is important to walk around around in the shoes and make sure that the heel does not rise up or slip when you step. This is how blisters are formed, and although it may not be painful at first, on a trail this will quickly become a point of agony.
Toes require more space than the heels. The toes should not bump or touch the sides or the front tip of the shoe. Downhill trails can cause the weight of a person to slide forwards in the shoe, especially with the added weight on the hiker’s back from the backpack. This can lead to the toes becoming squashed uncomfortably at the front of the shoe.
Softer, lighter boots are comfortable to use straight away, these are great for the day-hiker with minimal weight on his back. For heavier loads, tougher materials such as leather give you better support and last longer. The heavier and sturdier the boots, the longer it will take to break them. This is an important factor to keep in mind for the sake of comfort on your hike.
Tips for Fitting On At the Store
Going to the store to find your perfect match? Here are some tips to keep in mind when trying on hiking boots.
- Bring your hiking socks with you: hiking socks tend to be thicker and therefore will change the fit of the boot. Trying on hiking boots with ordinary socks will give you a false sense of comfort, as they are much thinner. See our must-read article on how to choose the best hiking socks to learn more.
- Incline Ramps: Most of the reputable stores have incline ramps. These are a great way to put the shoes in a few different positions on the foot. Walk down the ramp to see if your toes bump the front of the shoe inside. Walk back up the ramp to feel if your heel slips inside the shoe, which will cause rubbing and blistering on an actual hike.
- Try shoes on at the end of the day: Understanding that feet naturally swell throughout the day from activity can play an important role in accurately testing a shoe on your foot. Feet are likely to swell a great deal more towards the end of a hike, purely from the stresses of added weight and greater levels of activity. A great way to ensure that your boots will remain comfortable on your feet even at the end of the hike is to try them on later in the day after the feet have swelled from being active and used.
Choose smartly, stay safe and Take a Hike!
Before you set off on your great adventure, take your newly purchased shoes outside! Break in your shoes before an actual hike. On the trail, you will be committed to the shoes on your feet. At home, around the block or a short gentle practice hike are all good ways to break in the shoes. The stiffer the shoe, the longer it will take to break them in. Make sure to read our timely tips on hiking safety for more information.
Another great way to break in new hiking boots is to take a short walk in your local Nature Reserve, or National Park. What better excuse do you need to get a little more outdoors time? Explore your local wildlife initiatives, often our own doorsteps remain the least discovered places, and the best kept secrets. For a useful comparison between hiking shoes and hiking boots, check out our article on this topic.
Wherever you choose to go, climb your personal mountains with courage and confidence. Always remember to leave nothing behind, but your footprints. Do you have any tips that we left out? Please tell us what they are by adding them in the comment section below!