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How to Choose Hiking Boots

Whether you prefer easy day trips or advanced backcountry excursions, hiking is much more enjoyable in comfortable, well-fitted footwear. 

But finding the perfect pair of hikers can be complicated.

“There exists a large range of footwear that may be considered appropriate for hiking,” says the equipment review site Gear Lab. “The field of available models is huge and overwhelming.”

To make your choice easier, here are some questions you should ask yourself when looking for hiking boots.

What Types of Trails Do I Generally Hike?

The terrain you intend to cover will play a big role in determining the footwear you should purchase—especially if you venture beyond the easy, relatively flat trails found in your local park.

On uneven trails, “you will have to look out for rocks, roots and mud,” says outdoor gear manufacturer Salomon. “Steps, slanted trails and sustained steep terrain will put strain on your legs and ankles.”

Things become even more challenging once you go off-trail into areas that Salomon describes as “often unstable with loose rocks. This kind of terrain (also known astechnical terrain) demands concentration to move along efficiently.”

The rougher the going, the more support and stability you’ll need from your shoe.

What Type of Weather Do I Generally Hike In?

Another crucial consideration is what the weather is usually like when you go for your hikes.

For treks in dry, warm weather, “a well-ventilated, lightweight shoe will allow your foot to breathe best,” says online retailer Backcountry.

If you hike in wetter, colder conditions, “waterproof hiking shoes might be your best option,” says Backpacker. Be aware that “you will pay the price in slightly higher weight and less breathability in warm temperatures.”

Look for shoes with any of the following labels: eVent, GTX, Outdry, Waterproof, WP.

What Do I Carry When Hiking?

If you’re only carrying a daypack or light backpack, you can go with lighter shoes as long as you’re not on steep, challenging trails. 

However, if you “have to carry a tent, a stove and food, then you should look for more sturdy shoes to give you extra stability,” says Salomon.

Gear Lab advises getting heavier boots if you carry a pack that weighs 30 pounds or more.

What Types of Hiking Boots Are Available?

Boots aren’t what they used to be…and that’s a good thing.

“While your mental image of hiking boots might be hot, heavy, all-leather behemoths that take five years to break in, modern hikers utilize new technologies to provide similar protection and stability at a much lower weight and with increased comfort,” notes Gear Lab.

Keep in mind that “added ounces and pounds really take their toll in terms of energy expenditure by the end of the day,” say the folks at Backpacker.com. They suggest wearing “the lightest boots you can get away with.” 

Here are the main parts of a hiking boot: 

  • Upper. Covers the top of the foot from heels to toes
  • Welt. Where the upper meets the sole
  • Outsole. The outermost layer of the sole 
  • Midsole. The layer between the outsole and the inner layer
  • Insole. The removable insert inside the shoe (also known as the footbed); can be replaced with aftermarket products for a better fit (more on that later)

Boots fall into three basic categories: lightweight, midweight and heavyweight.

Lightweight Hiking Boots

Even heavier boots are getting lighter nowadays, which means “boots at the lighter end just keep getting lighter as well,” notes Gear Lab.

Lightweight boots “generally have lower ankle heights, do not use a rigidshank (a piece in the midsole that provides extra stability) and have thinner fabric uppers that may include quite a lot of mesh in order to shave weight,” says Gear Lab.

“Lightweight hiking boots are best suited for a lighter pack weight, or for those who typically hike in a hiking shoe but would prefer a bit more support.”

Speaking of hiking shoes: Backcountry explains that they “are lighter and more flexible, and they offer less support” than boots. Such shoes are most suitable for shorter hikes on well-marked trails.

Midweight Hiking Boots

Compared with lightweight boots, midweight hikers “have more substantial construction: higher ankle collars, burlier midsoles and shanks, and heavier, more durable uppers, often all leather,” explains Gear Lab.

“We feel that this is where folks should first look in choosing a backpacking boot.”

Salomon adds, “High-cut shoes will give you extra support if your ankles are weak or terrain is technical.” (You’ll also want high-cuts if your travels take you to brushy areas where you may encounter snakes.)

Heavyweight Hiking Boots

These are boots designed for long treks with a heavy pack. The midsoles “focus on support rather than lightweight cushioning,” says Gear Lab.

However, the site adds, “As backpacking gear continues to get lighter and lighter, the utility of heavyweight hikers is diminishing. Many manufacturers are phasing them out as they are becoming less popular.”

Salomon says that if you’re a serious trail enthusiast who hikes often, you’ll want boots “reinforced with thick outsoles so that they last longer” along with reinforcements such as rubber toes and heel protectors. 

Another reason to choose a sturdier model: If you want a hiking boot that can double as a heavy-duty work boot.

Specialty Hikers

You can get shoes for specialized needs:

  • Mountaineering. These high-cut boots tend to be made of full-grain leather, with minimal seams, and will accept crampons for climbing on ice. “Make sure these boots are well broken in before attempting much mileage, or you’ll get world-record blisters,” advises Backpacker. “Look for rockered soles, minimal heel slippage and rubber rands along the welt for durability and waterproofing.”
  • Technical/Scrambling.“These are primarily low-cut and mid-height hybrids with a close fit, sticky rubber soles and anti-abrasion toe rands,” explains Backpacker. “They’ll suffice under a lightweight backpack, given good trail conditions.”

What Features Should I Look For in a Hiking Boot?

Keep the following factors in mind when choosing your boots:

  • Traction. To keep you from slipping and sliding, the soles of hiking books are covered in rubber knobs calledlugs. “Shallower and wider lugs will lead to a tread pattern much more conducive to smooth terrain like sandstone or granite slabs,” explains Gear Lab. “Deeper, narrower lug patterns, especially those with a jagged set of perimeter lugs, will give the boot better traction in loose conditions.”
  • Tongue padding. This padding “should be ample, yet relatively stiff to prevent the ‘cutting’ feeling from tight laces,” says Backpacker. The stiffer the sole, the more padded the tongue should be.” A gusseted tongue, which is more firmly attached to the upper, helps keep dirt and water from working their way through the laces. (Gaiters can also keep debris out of your boots.)
  • Ankle padding. Backpacker calls inner padding around the ankle “a well-hidden feature that’s critical to your comfort. Look for a secure fit around the heel and ankle and decent padding on both sides to minimize chafing.”
  • Wide toe box.If you tend to have discomfort in the front of your feet, a wider toe box should provide greater comfort and balance, and may even help reduce injury risk by keeping your feet in better alignment.

How Do I Ensure That My Hiking Boots Fit Properly?

Finding the style of boot that best meets your needs is one thing. The key to comfort and performance, though, lies in getting a pair that fits your feet properly.

Sizing Your Boots

The best way to get a good fit is to try boots on in a store that specializes in outdoor gear—ideally at the end of the day, when your feet may be slightly bigger. “Try on as many models as possible,” says Gear Lab.

When your feet are inside properly fitted boots, you should:

  • Be able to fit a finger behind your heel when your toes contact the front of the shoe (with the laces undone)
  • Not touch the front of the boot with your toes once the laces are tied
  • Not feel any lifting or slippage in the heels when you walk
  • Not feel like the sides of your forefeet are either squashed or floppy
  • Not feel like your circulation is being cut off or that you’re developing “hot spots”—anything that feels uncomfortable now willreallybe a problem after an hour or so on the trail

“If you fall between two sizes, choose the bigger size as your feet will swell during your hike,” advises Salomon. “You can easily reduce the size of a shoe that is too big by adding an insole. The other way around isn’t so easy!”

Another factor in how your boots fit lies in how they are laced. There are a number of lacing styles; a good shoe fitter should be able to explain your options to you. (You can also search “hiking boot laces” for advice.)

“If your foot still seems to slop around inside the boot, the problem might be the footbed,” says Backpacker. You can replace (or add to) the insoles including in the boots with over-the-counter orthotics or molded footbeds such as Superfeet.

For persistent foot problems, consider getting custom-molded orthotics from a podiatrist. The extra expense will certainly seem worth it if you’re out in the backcountry for a week. 

Choosing Suitable Socks

Getting the right socks is as important as getting the right boots.

“If possible, buy boots while wearing the same socks you’ll use in the woods,” advises Backpacker. “Many new-generation hiking socks come with areas of differing thickness that can significantly alter boot fit.”

As with the boots themselves, socks come in light-, mid- and heavy-weight models; beefier socks are more suitable for colder weather and tougher terrain.

Socks also come in a variety of materials, including bamboo, cotton, synthetic blends and different types of wool. Again, you’ll need to find the material that is the most comfortable on your feet.

One way to adjust the fit is to wear two socks together, a thin liner that wicks perspiration away from your feet with a thicker outer pair for cushioning. “ If you’re having problems with blisters, liners might solve them,” notes Backpacker.

Once you’ve had your boots for a while, Gear Lab suggests “trying a few socks to find out which one works the best for you. Boots that initially fit well with a thin sock may require a thicker sock for the same fit after you put some miles on them.”

How Do I Care for My Hiking Boots?

You’ve found the right boots—congratulations!

Now protect your investment (and your feet) by properly caring for your footwear.

For leather boots, Gear Lab suggests using a product designed to increase durability and improve the boot’s ability to repel water. 

“While the GORE-TEX membranes keep your feet dry inside, the leather on these products soaks up water,” Gear Lab explains. “This not only makes your boot less breathable and more cumbersome, but repeated wetting and drying cycles cause the leather to become less supple over time.”

Treatments should be applied once a year for light usage, once every few months if you’re a frequent hiker. (Products are available for treating fabric uppers as well.)

Gear Lab also advises use of a seam sealer in the areas of greatest wear to keep grit from loosening the seams.

When you get home from a hike, don’t just throw your boots in the closet.

Instead, use a soft brush and warm water to clean off all visible debris off the uppers and soles; remove the insoles for cleaning as well. Dry wet boots slowly, out of direct sunlight (donot toss them in the dryer).

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**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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