Finding the right hiking boots is something that is going to take some homework and possibly even some trial and error. It is not just about finding a boot that fits, it needs to suit the kind of hiking you intend to do and the terrain you will be walking on. There are a variety of types of hiking boots, mountaineering boots through trail shoes that are ultralight. Then there are components to think about, its insoles, lowers, uppers, midsoles, outsoles and such. And of course the fit of the boot makes the difference between a comfortable hike and agonizing steps with blisters on top of blisters.
Types of Hiking Footwear
What you put on your feet is absolutely determined by the type of hiking and trails you will be doing. Ultralight backpackers who do everything they can to keep their weight down even opt trail running shoes. If you are day hiking you might go for something with a midsole that is flexible and is low cut. There are also day hiking boots if you prefer, that come mid to high cut and are good for when you are carrying light loads and out for day hikes. These are nice as they do not need a lot of time spent breaking them in and they have a lot of flexibility still. But they are not as durable as more sturdy boots and they do not give as much support. Then there are backpacking boots that can deal with heavier packs, multiple hikes and are high cut so you get better ankle support. The midsoles here are stiffer too than the lighter options, they give better support over all and are more durable and can be used for hikes on trails or off them.
Components of hiking boots
The materials your foot wear are made from have a big impact on whether they are right hiking boots for you. Here is a look at the components of the boots and what pros or cons there are to the materials they may be made from.
- Nubuck leather – This if full grain leather that has been made to look like suede with buffing. It is abrasion and water resistant and quite flexible. But it does take time to break in.
- Full grain leather – Very durable, water and abrasion resistant and commonly used for boots designed for difficult terrain, longer hikes and heavier weights. It needs lots of break in time though and is not as breathable as some option nor the lightest option.
- Split grain leather – This is often used in lightweight boots along with nylon mesh or nylon to create something that breathes more. It is less expensive than some options but it is not as water resistant (which some try to combat with liners that are) and it is easier to scratch up.
- Synthetics – Modern boots often have synthetic materials like nylon, polyester and synthetic leather. The pros to these are they are quicker to break in, dry quicker too and are lighter. The cost is often less too. However they tend to be less durable.
- Vegan – you can get vegan friendly boots that are not made with any kind of animals materials or ingredients.
- Waterproof membranes – There are hiking shoes and boots made with uppers that use breathable and waterproof membranes that say they will keep your feet dry even when the boots are getting wet. The con to these is that this membrane then makes those boots less breathable which means when it is hot and dry your feet will sweat too much.
- Insulation – You can add a synthetic insulation to some boots for added warmth if you are hiking through snow or over mountains.
It is the midsole of a boot that protects the feet from shock, gives it cushioning and dictates how stiff your boot is. You may think you do not want a stiff boot but in fact that stiffness on terrain that is rocky will give you more stability and comfort.
- Polyurethane – More durable and firmer on the foot so is more often used on midsoles in mountaineering boots and for boots used on extended hikes.
- EVA – Less expensive and lighter than Polyurethane and also offers a bit more cushion to the foot. There are different thicknesses depending on the kind of support you want around your forefoot.
The right kind of hiking boot will need the right kind of internal support depending on the hiking you are doing.
- Shanks – If you want to add a stiffness to the midsole that is more able to bear heavier weights there are inserts that vary in length and can be between 3 to 5 mm thick. Some will cover just half the midsole and some the whole of it.
- Plates – Positioned between the outsole and the midsole these are thin and have some flexibility to give some protection from rocks.
All hiking boots have outsoles made from rubber but there are some differences. The right hiking boot for you might have an additive added for example like carbon, to up the hardness as that improves their durability. The downside though is if you hike off trail they can suffer in traction.
- Heel brake – When that heel area is obviously defined from the arch and forefoot of the boot that is the heel brake. This design means a boot is less likely to slide when you are going down very steep descents.
- Lug pattern – On the outsole there are bumps that give more traction. The thicker and deeper those lugs are and how they are arranged can have an impact too. Mountaineering and long hikes on tough terrain need to have good grip. When lugs are more space between them, as well as giving good traction they also allow mud to fall off them better.
Crampons and boots
If you are brave enough to take on winter hikes or even mountaineering it is essential your crampons and boots are compatible with each other. If you are buying mountaineering boots make sure you check the compatibility before you make a final purchase.
The right hiking boots fit snug
When you go to try on hiking boots you need to make sure the fit is snug all around. Snug does not mean painfully tight, you should be able to wiggle your toes for example. Here are some tips for when it is time to find the right fit.
- Make sure you have the right socks with you and wear them when you are trying on your boots. This means good hiking socks.
- Go shopping at the end of the day when your feet are swollen, this way you will not buy boots that are on the small side.
- Have your foot measured, its length, arch, width and your foot volume are all needed. A specialist can do this for you using the proper tools.
- Make sure there is some space, about the width of your thumb between the end of the insole and your longest toe.
- Bring your orthotics if you have any.
- Spend time in the boots, take a walk around the store, go up and down stairs, if there is ramp walk up and down it to get a feel for them.
- If you are shopping online for the right hiking boots for you, go for a brand you know and trust, most companies use the same foot model so new styles of boots from the same company will likely have the same kind of fit. If you are a first time buyer of hiking boots take the time to go out to a specialist store to get properly measured and assessed.
- For added comfort, fit and support you could also buy insoles or footbeds.
- Make sure you break in your new boots properly before you go for a proper hike in them.
You should not feel bumps, seams, the end of the boot when walking on an incline, pinching or space between the laces and the foot once they are tied up properly.