When it comes to backpacking, choosing the right hiking boots is one of the most important gear decisions you will make. ‘Take care of your feet and your feet will take care of you.’ It is a simple saying, but it really does ring true for backpackers. Comfort for your feet is essential on a backpacking trip, so the same care that you choose a backpack you need to devote to choosing the right hiking boots. A perfect fit is what you are ultimately looking for, and that perfect fit will allow you to hike farther with less pain, allowing you to enjoy nature and the great outdoors to the fullest.
There are several different things to think about when looking at and trying on different hiking boots. Ask yourself these questions:
What type of hiking will I be doing? For how long? In what weather? On what type of terrain?
These questions will hopefully help you to start narrowing down your boot choices. In this hiking boot guide, we will look at the types of hiking boots out there, as well as the materials and construction used to put them together. This will help you narrow down your options before you start trying some on. Let’s look at the types and characteristics of hiking boots below.
Types of Hiking Boots
Light Hiking Boots
There are three basic types of hiking boots. Light hiking boots are low-cut shoes that look like trail running tennis shoes. They usually have mesh materials for easy breathing and beefy rubber soles for traction. They are lightweight (compared to other boots) but don’t offer much ankle support or load cushioning. Since they are lower around the ankles, dirt, pebbles and debris will easily get into your shoes, so it is advisable to utilize some gaiters. These are perfect for short day hikes or some overnight or weekend trips that keep you on smooth trails, with little off trail hiking. The image below is an example of a light hiking boot, the Merrell Moab waterproof trail shoes.
Mid- to High-Cut Hiking Boots
The second type is your basic mid- to high-cut hiking boot. These are the standard hiking boots that are heavier than the light version but offer much more ankle support and cushioning for heavier loads and longer hikes. The higher cut also helps to keep out dirt, pebbles and debris better than the lower cut trail shoes. These boots will allow you to hike more uneven terrain for multiple day or extended trips. The first image below is the Merrell Men’s Moab 2 Leather Mid GTX High Rise Hiking Boots, which is a mid-cut hiking boot, and the second image is the Haglöfs Men’s OXO Gt High Rise Hiking Boots, which is a more high-cut hiking boot.
The third type is the heavy-duty backpacking hiking boot (often referred to as mountaineering boots). These boots are rugged, insulated, offer full support and cushioning, and allow you to attach crampons for glacier or ice navigation. The image below is of the Zamberlan Men’s 996 Vioz Gore-tex® Walking Boot , which is an all season heavy duty high-cut hiking boot. The second image shows the Salewa Men’s Ms MTN Trainer Mid GTX High Rise Hiking Shoes, which is crampon compatible and suitable for all seasons.
The more rugged your terrain is and the more weight you are carrying, the better off you will be with more ankle support and cushioning. As you might expect, the price usually goes from low to high from the light to the heavy duty boots. Now you are aware of the different types of hiking boots. Now let’s look at how they are put together. Understanding how hiking boots are put together will give you a better appreciation for what each type of boot is trying to accomplish, and will further help you to narrow down your search.
Hiking Boot Construction
Starting with the top of the boot and working down, let’s look at how they are built. The top material is the portion of the boot that laces up on the sides and on top of your foot, as well as the material up the back. Leather is a common material used in hiking boots, but synthetic materials are also common nowadays.
Full-grain leather is the most durable material for the top of your boot. It is water resistant and abrasion resistant. It is heavy duty material, used mostly on backpacking and mountaineering boots designed for heavy loads and extended trips. It offers great ankle support as well. Full-grain leather is heavy and not very breathable. It is also stiff, and requires you to break the boot in for a longer period of time. Also expect higher costs associated with full-grain leather boots. Here is an example of a boot that employs full-grain leather construction – SCARPA Ranger 2 GTX Activ.
Synthetic materials on the top of the boot are also common on many hiking boots on the market today. Synthetic nylon and polyester are lighter, more flexible, and cost less than leather. Because they are more flexible, they break in a lot easier than their leather counterparts. They are, however, not as durable as leather. You will usually find synthetic materials on the lower cost light hiking shoes, like the XPETI Thermador Men’s Waterproof Hiking Boots pictured below.
There are some leather-synthetic combination uppers (split-grain leather and nubuck leather is often paired with nylon), which combines the breath ability and flexibility of the synthetic material with the durability of the leather. The KEEN Men’s Targhee Ii Mid Wp High Rise Hiking Boots below features a nubuck-nylon combination upper.
Keep in mind the terrain and weather you intend to hike. If you expect wet conditions, consider adding a weatherproof lining to your boots. These linings are usually some kind of Gore-Tex material. These liners will add a layer inside your boot, so if you intend on using one, be sure to fit your boot with the liner. Including a liner will also add insulation to your feet, which is a good thing in colder weather, but not so good in warm weather.
The midsole is the part of your boot that cushions your feet (directly under your feet). The midsole cushions your feet from the shocks of hiking while on the trail. This portion of the boot will also help determine the boot’s stiffness. Most hiking boots utilize ethylene vinly acetate (EVA) or polyurethane as the midsole. EVA is cheaper and lighter, and can vary in density at different parts of the foot. It is less durable than the more expensive polyurethane, which is usually more stiff (often found in the heavy-duty backpacking and mountaineering boots).
Shank and Plate
Underneath the midsole is the shank. The shank’s purpose is to add stiffness to the midsole. They can vary in length, from covering the entire midsole to only portions (heal and pad). Underneath the shank, many hiking boots include a plate. This is another support level that adds stiffness to the midsole. They are flexible, and their purpose is to protect your feet from sharp rocks bruising your feet.
Below the support layers lies the outsole. All hiking boots utilize rubber, and the hardness of the rubber varies greatly. Harder outsoles are more durable and better suited to rough terrain. They can feel more slick and have less grip on certain surfaces. Softer rubber outsoles are more grippy, but also are more susceptible to wear and tear. There are also many different tread patterns, and they vary by brand and hiking boot type. Most backpacking boots feature a heel break, which is a tread pattern that adds extra traction when descending hills with a heavy load on your back.
Putting all of these pieces together is usually done by the use of adhesives. It is fast and easy to put them together this way, and generally a durable way to do it. Just beware that high heat can ruin the adhesives holding your boots together. Don’t put your boots next to a fire to dry, and don’t keep them stored in a hot area or vehicle.
Now That You Know The Types And Materials . . .
Now that you know the different types of hiking boots and also what materials are used and how hiking boots are put together, you will better be able to choose the type and finish you need for your hiking needs. But how do you choose what size to buy? The fit is the most critical step to choosing a hiking boot.
Hiking Boot Fit Guide
I have been on too many hiking trips in the past with improper footwear, and let me tell you, this can sabotage a hike faster than just about anything else. Blisters, black toenails, and rolled ankles are the common side effects of an improper fit or of improper footwear on the trail. To minimize these effects, not only do you need to choose the right type of footwear (high-cut boot for rough and uneven terrain hiking, for example), but the fit needs to be as close to perfect as possible.
Before You Shop
To achieve the right boot fit, you need to do a few things before you go to the store or start shopping online. Take a good look at your bare foot. What features do you see? Do you have runners toe (second toe longer than your big toe)? What about your foot’s arch? Is it flat or is it a sharp arch? Do you have a chronic sensitivity in one part of your foot (ie neuroma or plantar fasciitis)? Remember these features or sensitivities when you start trying on shoes.
Measure your feet before shopping. The process of trying on several different shoes will take a lot of time. Having a good idea what your shoe size will be will help narrow down the search. Measure your foot’s length, width (at widest point, usually just behind the toes), and arch height. Below is a good video with instructions on measuring your feet correctly.
Another great way to measure your feet and have an accurate guess of your shoe size is to use a Brannock Foot Measuring Device. If you don’t have access to one, you can do this when you go to the store. If you are shopping online, it might be a good idea to go to a shoe store and use their measuring device to know your measurements.
Finding The Perfect Fit
Now you are ready to head to the store to try on some boots. This is going to take some time. You might get lucky and find the perfect fit on the first pair of shoes you try on, but not likely. So plan for a couple hours of fitting, and make sure you are shopping somewhere that you can ask questions. The first thing you will want to do (if you haven’t at home) is take your measurements on one of those foot measurement things, called Brannock foot measuring devices. But remember to do this with the socks that you will be hiking with, along with any other inserts you plan to use (such as a liner or gel sole insert). It’s OK to just measure your feet at home (since you are getting an estimate of your measurements), but when you are actually fitting your boots, you MUST include these other items.
Have a plan when you go to the store. For example, I bring a notebook with me and take notes as I go. This is especially helpful if you are switching between several different brands. Sizes aren’t usually consistent across brands, which can get confusing and hard to remember. While trying on each pair, walk around the store, and if possible, go up and down stairs and up and down inclines. Spend some time in the shoes. Move on if you feel any pinching, squeezing, or discomfort anywhere. Be sure to lace each pair up like you would on the trail. Remember that your toes shouldn’t hit the end of the toe box, especially while coming down the inclines. Adjust the laces to see if that helps.
Here are a few good fitting tips to consider when sizing your hiking boot:
- Your toes should wiggle freely at the end of the boot with your heel against the back of the boot. This ensures that you have the right length.
- Your feet should not slide side to side while walking in the boot. This ensures that you have the proper width.
- The space all around your foot (top, bottom, sides, front, and back) should be snug, remembering that your toes should be able to wiggle freely. This ensures that you have the proper volume.
- If your foot slips around while you are on the trail, you will develop blisters and jam your toenails when going down hill (black toenails). The fit should be snug, but not squeezing your foot at any point.
Try on several different pairs, and don’t settle on a pair because they look cool, fit your budget, or because the sales rep likes them the best. You are looking for the perfect fit, and that is the most important reason to choose one boot over another. Sure, if you are looking for a full-grain leather boot over a synthetic boot, or low-cut over high-cut boots, those are important considerations as well. So to narrow down your choices, only try on boots of the specific type you are looking for rather than every boot in the store. This will prevent you from choosing a boot for any other reason other than the fit.
Narrow Your Options
After you have tested several pairs of shoes in the store, make a list of 3 or 4 pairs that could be winners based on the fit. Once you have that list, you can narrow down your list based on the features you like from the boots on your list and based on your budget. Just make sure you aren’t sacrificing fit and comfort for anything else, especially for something that is purely cosmetic. You’re not walking down the runway of a fashion show. Comfort is key.
When you decide on a pair, be sure to wear them at home for several hours. Walk around your home (keep them clean, of course, so you don’t mess them up so much that the store won’t allow a return). Make sure after a day or two that they are still the most comfortable they can be. If not, don’t hesitate to take them back and try a different pair. Let me reiterate that point again – don’t hesitate to take them back and try a different pair if they don’t fit perfectly. This is really important.
What if you are not fond of shopping in stores? Buying hiking boots online is a little bit more complex than buying any other pair of shoes online, especially since the fit needs to be as close to perfect as possible. But it can be done. What I recommend is taking exact measurements of your feet. Be sure to shop with retailers that allow returns, and purchase a few pairs that are close to your measurements to try out. Wear them around for several hours until you find the pair that fits you the best. Don’t be afraid to send a pair back and request a different size. Remember, the key is to find the best fit possible.
Another tip for online shoppers is to stick with a brand you have used and liked in the past, as many brands will have consistent sizing between models. If all else fails, have your foot measured at a local shoe store, and use those measurements in your online shopping. I have even tried on hiking boots at my local outdoor shop (which has very high prices) to find the boot and size I like, and then found the same boot online for much less.
The Bottom Line
“Be good to your feet and your feet will be good to you.” Remember this saying as you go about finding the hiking boot that best fits your hiking needs. It is not uncommon to have tired feet after a long, rough hike. But a good pair of hiking boots will make it so you spend more time enjoying the hike, nature, and your friends and family than you do noticing the aches and pains on your feet.