Buying Guide for Hiking Boots
By Steve Kopitz
I was once afraid to buy hiking boots. Buying hiking boots isn’t like buying your every day pair of shoes. So many options and scenarios seemed to be in play that it was intimidating.
Sit back, take a deep breath and let me guide you through the hiking boot buying process.
What are you doing?
What kind of hiking down you plan on doing? Are you planning on hiking over slippery rocks or through rough and rugged terrain? Hiking in cold weather or long distances? Maybe you’re just seeking some crisp mountain air on a sunny weekend afternoon. Once you know what kind of hiking you intend on doing, you’ll be able to find the right boot.
It’s best to avoid the “in case” scenario. For instance, if you plan on spending a few sunny weekend afternoons hiking locally then you probably don’t need a massive, heavy boot just “in case” you decide to hike the Appalachian Trail one day.
What kind of hiking have you done previously? And where do you plan on spending most of your time hiking?
Breaking Down the Boot (a.k.a What exactly is an upper?):
Just like America’s Top 40 we’re gonna start at the bottom and work our way up.
Outsole: The outsole is the bottom of the boot or the foundation. Constructed usually rubber, this is where you’ll get your traction.
The deepness of the lugs (or tread) varies and will provide you with more stability and traction. The deeper the lugs, the heavier the outsole.
Midsole: The midsole is where you’ll get your structure and support as well as shock absorption and cushioning. It’s the footbed and everything underneath it.
Upper: The upper is everything above the midsole. This is where you’ll have added stability as well as protection against the unsavory conditions you may face.
How Long Will Your Hike Be?
• Light Hike (Afternoon to Full Day) – You’re a novice-to-intermediate hiker who enjoys spending the day hiking locally. The boots you’ll want are going to be lightweight with limited support (unless you have weak ankles) and decent flexibility.
• Hike (Full Day to Weekend) – If this is more your style of hiking you’ll want a mid-cut or high-cut boot for better support. Comfort is key and if you anticipate some challenging terrain you’ll want deep lugs for better traction. It is important to take note of keywords like waterproof and durability when reading the product specifications.
• Extended Hike (Multi-Day) – You’re probably carrying a backpack and it’s not light. You’re probably adventurous too and are heading out into the backcountry. You want a versatile boot that you can use on and off the trail. Your boot should have a good fit and it’s worth a few extra ounces in footwear if it increases your comfort level. Heel Counters for stability, Scree Collar (padding and fabric around the top cuff) and Achilles Notch (pressure reliever on the tendon) are a few things you’ll want to consider.
• Low-Cut – The best type of boot for your average light hiking adventurer. They are pretty much hiking shoes for maintained trails.
• Mid-Cut – These boots are your average kind of boot look that offer support to your ankles and can usually handle the tougher trails and conditions. Most (not all) are waterproof and are equipped with the features that most benefit the All-Weekend or Multi-Day Hiker.
• High-Cut – Uneven terrain and irregular trails? These are the boots for you. They offer the support you need when carrying those heavy loads for long periods of time. High-Cut Boots will provide better balance, stability and support. These kinds of boots you’ll want to spend some time breaking in before hitting the backcountry.
Leather vs. Synthetic Materials
Not all leathers are created equal and some synthetics will do the job when you’re hiking. Here’s a breakdown of the different leathers and synthetic materials you might encounter:
o Full-Grain – high quality, durable and water-resistant
o Nubuck – Sanded or buffed leather, easier to break in, durable with good water-resistance
o Split-Grain – light, durable and usually mixed with synthetics to keep the boots light and breathable
o Polyester – Stiff but easy to break in, lighter than leather, abrasion-resistant and usually dries pretty quickly
o Nylon – Water-resistant, lightweight and flexible. It’s both resistant to tears and abrasions and usually found with split-grain leather
o Synthetic Leather – lightweight and water-resistant. It’s less expensive than leather
How does it feel?
Now that you know what kind of boot you want, how should it feel on you?
Put on the socks that you’re intending to wear on your hike then put on the boot. Stick your index finger into the back of the hiking boot right behind your foot. If you can’t do this, get a bigger size.
Walk around in the boots while in the store or when you get home. Take about twenty minutes and roam around on carpet or clean floors (you don’t want to get them dirty in case you want to return them).
• Length – your toes should wiggle and not be pinched up or hitting the front of the boot
• Width – your feet should be stable and not sliding. They also shouldn’t feel tight.*
*For full sizing information please view the Hiking Boot Sizing Guide
Other Considerations are feeling if your heel is slipping or pressure points. If any inclines are available walk up and down them to see how it fits when moving on uneven ground.
Finally, just for fun, while you’re sitting here, take one foot off the ground and move it in a circular motion at the ankle. This will help a little with flexibility.