You head into the local outdoor store to the boot wall. There’s at least 50 different options. Instant overwhelm.
You try and search hiking boots online. Now there’s hundreds of options. More overwhelm.
How do we find narrow the options for hiking boots down to a sane number and get back on the trail?
How do we get boots that aren’t painful to wear and won’t result in blisters?
This post will walk you though one of the mos timportant things you’ll do before hiking: choosing good footwear.
What kind of hiking?
The first thing we need to do before buying any boots is decide what kind of hiking we want to do. Knowing these things will help sort some of the decisions later.
What kind of terrain do you want to hike?
Any kind of hiking boot or shoe will do fine on smooth, even terrain. Bigger boots will likely be overkill. This is great place to start for beginners though.
Steep, uneven terrain is going to be harder and demand more skill and more supportive, durable boots or shoes.
How far do you want to hike?
Hiking farther is more tiring on your legs and feet. Supportive boots and shoes can help
Supportive boots can protect your feet on long hikes. They’re also heavier.
How heavy of a pack will you carry?
A heavier pack on your back is harder on your feet. More supportive shoes and boots protect your feet and ankles when they get tired.
Waterproof or breathable?
There are 2 main categories of boots and shoes: waterproof and breathable.
Waterproof boots have some sort of waterproof fabric, or membrane, wrapped around the foot. These keep the rain, snow and puddles out. In cool temperatures, the membrane can let the sweat and moisture out from inside. When it’s warm, that moisture is mostly trapped inside.
Breathable boots are covered in thin materials or mesh that easily let sweat out from inside. Your feet stay cooler and more comfortable in dry weather, drying faster if they do get wet. In wet weather, your feet the water just goes through.
Boots, hiking shoes or trail runners?
Hiking boots aren’t the only option for hiking these days. Lightweight trail runners and the hybrid hiking shoes are great options in some cases.
The differences come down to height, weight, support and durability.
Hiking boots are taller, tend to be waterproof and usually support your ankles and feet more with a rigid structure.
Because of the height and stiffness of hiking boots, they are usually heavier than hiking shoes and trail runners.
Thicker fabrics and stiffer midsoles in hiking boots also mean they are the most durable of the shoe types. They will last the longest being bashed around on the trail.
Breaking in boots the longest. This means gradually molding the boot to your feet by wearing them a lot.
One last thing to note about hiking boots is that there are different types within this category.
- Day hiking boots are lightweight and flexible while still being waterproof
- Backpacking boots are taller, stiffer and more durable. Meant for long hikes with a heavy pack.
- Mountaineering boots are more specialized for alpine environments and can be very stiff, insulated or compatible with crampons
Hiking shoes are basically a low-cut hiking boot. They are lighter than hiking boots but more supportive and durable than trail runners.
Some hiking shoes have waterproof membranes, but can be just breathable fabrics too.
Thinner materials in hiking shoes are more comfortable out of the box and require less break-in time than hiking boots.
Trail runners are the lightest weight out of the categories. With every step you are moving half or less the weight of a hiking boot.
The thinner, lighter materials are more comfortable out of the box and require little to no break in time. We would never recommend hiking long distances with brand new shoes but you probably could with some trail runners.
Compared to hiking boots and hiking shoes, trail runners mid and outer soles are the most flexible. Your feet will feel everything on the trail, letting you place your feet well in uneven terrain but little protection against rocks and roots. They will wrap around rocks on the trail making your feet do the work.
Most trail runners are very breathable, keeping your feet cool, reducing the chances of blisters. Some have waterproof membranes to keep the puddles out.
We recommend trail runners for going light and fast or if you have strong legs and feet from hiking or other exercise. The weight savings is worth it but start easy when switching to trail runners.
We’ll get into the most important part getting new boots (the fit) below. But first, a quick look at parts of a boot.
There’s a variety of different parts to a boot. Let’s have a look at what they are.
Boots are made up up an upper on top, a midsole under your foot, and an outsole on the bottom.
Uppers hold the laces and can be a few different materials or a combination.
Full-grain leather uppers are the classic smooth leather hiking boot. They are durable and very resistant to abrasion. They have good water resistance as well without a waterproof membrane, though sometimes have one.
Often in backpacking boots, full-grain leather works well for rough terrain and heavy loads. It’s not as breathable as the thinner split-grain leather and requires a good amount of time to break in.
Split-grain leather is the bottom leather of leather after the top-grain is removed. It’s thinner, more breathable, and costs less.
Split-grain is less water and abrasion resistant so it’s usually paired with a waterproof membrane and stitched to nylon or nylon mesh.
Nubuck leather is just full-grain leather buffed to look textured like suede. It’s very durable, water and abrasion resistant. It’s relatively flexibly but like full-grain can require a good amount of time to break in.
Outside of the leathers we have all the synthetic materials boots can be made from. Polyester, nylon and ‘synthetic leather’ are often used. They’re lighter than leather, dry faster, cost less but are less durable. Synthetic boots are often faster and easier to break in.
Full-grain leather is naturally water resistant but the other materials need a waterproof layer or ‘membrane’ to make them ‘waterproof’. They’re built into the boot like a bag around your foot to keep the rain and puddles out. Gore-Tex, eVent and Outdry are different waterproof membrane materials.
Keeping the water out also reduces breathability and can trap moisture in. Breathable membranes do breathe in cool conditions but struggle in warm conditions trapping moisture in. They never breathe as well as a boot without a membrane. Membranes don’t last forever. At some point, you’ll end up with a water-resistant boot, not a waterproof one.
Midsoles are hard to see in a boot. They usually are completely wrapped in the upper and outsole. You can usually see the midsole if you pull out the insole and look inside.
The midsole is what gives the cushioning and protection for your feet. They help provide the stiffness in supportive boots. They give your foot something to stand on when you’re standing on the edge of a root or rock and prevent your foot from wrapping around every root and rock.
Midsoles are usually made from EVA foam (lighter, less expensive and can be varying densities) or polyurethane (firmer, more durable, often in bigger boots).
Internal Support and Protection
Bigger boots will often have shanks and plates inside to help stiffen the boot and protect your feet.
Shanks are 3-5mm thick inserts between the midsole and outsole to add stiffness. Some run the whole length of the boot, some only part way.
Plates, or rock plates, are smaller, semi-flexible inserts between the insole and outsole, below the shank, to protect your feet from sharp roots and rocks.
The bottom of the shoe that hits the ground is called the outsole. They’re made out of rubber, sometimes with added carbon, and designed to keep you rubber side down on any kind of terrain.
The rubber in a sole can be softer and grippier but won’t last as long. A harder rubber will last longer but won’t be as sticky. Trail runners usually have a softer, stickier sole whereas hiking boots will have a harder, sole that will last longer.
Lugs are the bumps on the bottom. Deeper lugs will grip better on mud but less on rock. More space in between the lugs will shed mud better.
The heels usually have an edge to them as they meet the arch part of the outsole. This is called the heel brake and helps slow you down and keep control on descents.
Insoles are pretty simple. They’re the removable inner part of the shoe.
All boots will come with basic, thin insoles.
Many kinds of aftermarket insoles are available that can be fit just right for your boots and feet. Some can be cut to be the exact size you need and many can be heat molded to fit your foot just right.
When buying insoles, you’ll need to find ones that match the height and support you need. If there is extra room inside your boot, taller insoles will take up some of that space. And if the stock insoles don’t give your arch enough support, then look for others that will. Some insoles like SOLE offer considerable support under the arch.
Fit is absolutely the most important part to finding the best boot. If it doesn’t fit well, then you’re going to hurt on the trail.
This section covers some tips to getting a good fit. The rest of these tips apply to boots, hiking shoes and trail runners.
How should a boot fit?
The best phrase I’ve heard describe how a boot should fit is “snug everywhere, tight nowhere.“
When you get to the store, start with brands you’ve had success with in the past. Their shape will likely be similar to what you’ve already tried.
But don’t be afraid to try other brands. Brands sometimes change their molds (called a ‘last’ in the boot world) and can use different lasts in different lines they sell.
When you try boots on, try to do it at the end of the day, when your feet are more swollen from walking around all day. This will be closer to the end of the day hiking. Bring the sock you plan to hike with and bring any orthotics you’d like to use. Both will change how the boot fits.
To properly fit a boot, an index finger should fit behind your heel after sliding your toes all the way forward with unlaced boots. Another way is to take the insoles out and stand on it. There should be a finger width from your toes to the end.
Volume matters too. This is how big and tall your foot is. Lace up the boots tightly. If there is any room above for your foot to move, then that boot has too much volume inside and you need less.
With the boots firmly tied up, there shouldn’t be any points that pinch, your foot shouldn’t slide front to back at all and your heel shouldn’t slide up and down.
Now to walk. Hiking isn’t done sitting down so testing hiking boots shouldn’t either.
Testing and Breaking in Boots
Spend as much time as you can testing boots. Walk around the store and see how they feel. Find some stairs or inclines to make sure the heel doesn’t slide up and down.
If everything feels really good at the store, nothing slips and nothing pinches, it’s time to take them home to test there.
If you can, spend a few weeks gradually wearing the boots more and more at home, then outside, then on errands. Spend as much time in them during the day just like you would on a long hike. If you run into any issues testing inside at home, you should be able to exchange for another pair no problem.
For more tips on breaking in your new boots and getting ready for the trail see How to Break in New Hiking Boots.
Now it’s time to get on the trail?
Do you have any boot buying tips?
Have you tried any of these tips? Did it work? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments below.
Or do you have any of your own tips that you use when buying new hiking boots and shoes?
Was there a time where you didn’t follow the tips and it didn’t work out well?
What are your favourite boots and why?
I hope these tips help you get into a good pair of boots. Hiking can be an awful experience with boots that don’t fit but life-changing when you do find good ones.