Choosing The Right Hiking Boots – Our In Depth Guide

Choosing the right hiking boots can be a minefield. Get it right, and you'll be safe and comfortable. Get it wrong, and injury may be just around the corner.

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Your choice of hiking boots may mean the difference between a safe and comfortable hike, and injury.  With such a large selection available across a range of prices, it pays to research before you buy.

Hiking boots are an individual choice.  Important factors include your foot size & shape, as well as the type of hiking you intend to do.  Your hiking boots will be your best friend when out in the wild, so make sure you are wearing the correct boots for the job.

Types Of Hiking Footwear

It is important to choose the hiking boot that best suits your activity.  There are four main types;

lightweight-hiking-bootsHiking Shoes

If you prefer to stick to well-groomed trails, then hiking shoes will serve you well.  By well-groomed, we mean mud, grass, or stone trails that are maintained and not too undulating.  Hiking shoes usually have little or no ankle support, but offer lightweight, flexible movement.  Typically sturdier than a trail running shoe, but often a little heavier.  If you intend to carry anything other that a light day pack, or if navigating rockier trails, then a hiking boot will be more suitable.

Hiking Bootschoosing-the-right-hiking-boots

Hiking boots offer greater ankle support than hiking shoes.  There are two main sorts; Hardy leather boots for wetter, more rugged trails.  Synthetic, breathable boots for drier, hotter environments.

Unlike hiking shoes, most hiking boots will offer rigid support in the sole (see hiking boot components, below).  This support – called the shank – gives partial support to the foot while allowing the ball of the foot to move freely.

choosing-the-right-backpacking-hiking-bootsBackpacking & Heavy Load Hiking Boots

For off-trail adventures, rocky scrambles and big backpack hikes, you need the support of backpacking boots.  Backpacking boots offer a full-length shank with high ankle support.  Usually made from leather, these boots will give harder support for the toughest of trails.

The disadvantages of these boots are; the breaking in time, which can be many hikes, and the weight.  Backpacking boots are heavier than the hiking boot, or hiking shoe.

Crampon attachment points are a pretty standard feature on backpacking boots, which suits their sturdy and water-resistant build.

Mountaineering Boots

Most people will not need these boots.  It is easy to go out and buy the most expensive pair of boots in the store.  However, this is not always the best option.  Mountain boots offer ultimate support and traction but come at the cost of being very rigid and very heavy.

Hiking Boot Construction

Hiking boots are broken down into standard parts.  Each part has advantages and disadvantages, so think how you will use your hiking boot.

Upper – The Top Part

Full Grain Leather Uppers

  • Naturally water resistant
  • Abrasion Resistant
  • Higher maintenance
  • Heavier than synthetic
  • Usually more supportive

Nubuck Leather Uppers

Made from the same cowhide as full grain leather; nubuck offers the same structural characteristics.  Arguably nubuck leather “looks” nicer, because it’s mechanically buffed to give a suede look.

Synthetic Uppers

Synthetic materials can include PU (polyurethane) and EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate).

  • Usually lighter and cooler than leather
  • Require less maintenance
  • More breathable
  • Can be fully waterproof (Gortex)

Liner

Liners form the internal layer; The liner provides comfort, support and if applicable a waterproof layer inside the upper.

Midsole

The midsole is the layer underneath your foot, on top of the sole.  The midsole is usually synthetic, although leather midsoles are available in some brands.  If the hiking boot has a shank, it is located just underneath the midsole layer.  Shanks are partial or full length, depending upon the type of boot.  The full-length shank offers greater support than the partial, but with less flexibility.  The partial allows movement around the ball of the foot.

Outsole

The outsole is the base layer of the hiking boot.  Different lug patterns are available to cater for different trails and environments.  The outsole may also contain a lip for crampon attachments.

Your hiking boots will be with you every step of the way, quite literally. Getting the fit for your feet is essential.

Ensuring A Good Fit

  • Ensure you know your foot size.  Professional measuring services will be available in most stores and will give you a good guide as to the correct boot size.  It is worth remembering that this service won’t be available if you buy your hiking boots online.  Because of this, we would always recommend visiting a store.
  • Try hiking boots on at the end of the day.  Doing so will allow your feet to naturally swell up, as they will when you are hiking.
  • Take your hiking socks with you when you try your boots.  Your boot must be big enough to accommodate your foot and your sock.
  • See a specialist if you can never find a boot that fits.  You may have an irregular foot shape.  A specialist can advise you on custom boots, or inners that will help to compensate for this.
  • If you do buy your boots online, consider a familiar brand.  Venturing into the unknown may mean a lot of returns before you find the right boots.
  • Spend some time in your new boots before you buy them.  A reputable store will not mind you wandering around for a while.  This extra time will ensure they are going to be suitable for longer periods.
  • Break your boots in slowly.  Once you have purchased your boots, start off with a walk around the block.  After this, you can progress to longer hikes.  Don’t rush this process.

If you vary your type of hiking, you should consider buying multiple pairs.  There is no “one type fits all” boot, and don’t believe any salesman that tells you there is.  A good pair of hiking boots will last for years if well maintained, so it is worth the investment if you take hiking seriously.

Getting It Wrong

Choosing the wrong boot can have terrible consequences on your feet.  We’ll look at these in detail in another article.  Poorly fitting shoes can cause:

  • Blisters
  • Blackened toenails
  • Sprained ankle
  • Sprained arches
  • Bone spurs

Finally, if you have had any bad experiences with new boots, we’d love you to share them. It may help others when selecting a new boot for themselves.

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