Hiking Boots: Choosing the Right Shoe for Your Outdoor Adventures
Choosing the right hiking boots or hiking shoes is one of the most important parts of setting off on a grand hiking adventure. Having a shoe with the proper function, fit and features will vastly improve your experience while trekking through tough terrain.
What are the qualities you need in this boot or shoe?
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What type of terrain will I be traveling through, and what kind of weather might I encounter? Rocky? Wet? Variable?
- What type of load will I be carrying most of the time? Are you going on day adventures with a light backpack, or will you be carrying a 45-pound load? Do you need something that can handle a bit of everything?
- What are my physical needs in footwear? Are you prone to rolling your ankles? Are you more comfortable in a heavier but sturdier shoe? Do you need a shoe that breathes well because your feet perspire a lot?
Choose a Boot that Matches Your Adventure
Once you answer these questions, the vast selection of boot and shoe choices online or in store might still feel overwhelming. That’s OK. Just remember, outdoor footwear can be broken down into four categories. In the order of most supportive to least supportive, those categories are as follows:
- Mountaineering boots
- Backpacking boots
- Hiking shoes
- Trail runners
Mountaineering boots: These heavy-duty hiking boots are designed for extended hiking and trekking on everything from well-groomed trails in good weather to completely off-trail conditions in more extreme weather. Mountaineering boots are stiff, heavy, well insulated, waterproof and crampon compatible. They are used to navigate glaciers, climb ice or ascend snowy peaks.
Backpacking boots: These are known for being durable and providing solid support on a wide range of trail conditions. Backpacking boots are the best option for those handling a multitude of different terrains, from day trips to multiday excursions—particularly when carrying loaded packs. These boots tend to be waterproof, but this comes at the cost of compromised breathability. When you think of a high-cut hiking boot, this is the boot you’re thinking of.
Hiking shoes: For the avid recreational hiker, hiking shoes offer good support and greater comfort on shorter trips and treks. While they don’t offer the same level of support as backpacking or mountaineering boots, they’re usually lighter. A slight compromise to durability allows you to be more agile over variable terrain. They also tend to breathe better, which makes them a great option for warmer weather hiking, but they can come in waterproof varieties as well.
Trail running shoes: For the fast-moving traveler, trail runners offer unparalleled weight savings, breathability and comfort—but at a huge compromise to support. These shoes are typically best suited for travelers who are very experienced in the outdoors and who understand the limitations of the footwear well.
Note that some styles also have low-, mid-, and high-cut options. Here’s what you need to know:
Low-cut: This style usually only goes as high as your ankle, which means lighter weight and more breathability. It also means less ankle support and protection from puddles and trail debris, such as rocks, sticks, thorns and more. This cut is better for more recreational hikers who stick to maintained trails.
Mid-cut and high-cut: Hiking boots with higher cuts offer increased protection and support. This also means heavier boots that will typically be warmer and less breathable. These cuts are more suitable for a wider variety of terrain.
Finding the Proper Fit
Once you’ve considered these questions, the best advice is to stop by a local specialty retailer to try on several pairs of boots and shoes that might suit your needs. If you find better deals online, see if the store will price match, but whatever you do, don’t compromise on fit—even if it means spending a few extra dollars.
Backroads Pro Tip
- Shop in the later hours of the day when your feet are a bit swollen. This will ensure your boots will still be comfortable once you’re a few miles down the trail.
- Have a sales associate measure your feet on the Brannock Device—even if you think you know your size. This’ll illuminate important information regarding your shoe size (weighted and unweighted), as well as foot shape and width. Remember, sizes vary by brand.
- Pack appropriate hiking socks with you when trying on your hiking boots. (See our guide to hiking socks.)
- Hiking boots should have room in the toe and be snug around your heels and the balls of your feet. These areas are prone to blisters and general soreness if your foot slides around inside the boot.
- Take the boots or shoes for a spin around the store. Leave them on long enough to get a feel for how they fit and move. Try to find a decline to stomp around on to see if your toes hit the front of the boot. They shouldn’t be moving in your shoe!
The best advice is to try your best not to choose boots simply based on how they look. After all, almost every shoe looks the same when it’s covered in mud, grit and grime!
Deciding on the Features
What are your desired attributes in a shoe? If you’ve found the right type of hiking boot, then it’s time to look at these details, including fabric types and waterproofing.
Synthetics versus Leather Fabrics
Synthetics: Polyester and nylon make up these types of hiking boots. These shoes are easier to break in, light, quick drying and less expensive. However, they also have a shorter life than other more durable materials.
Leathers: Under the umbrella of leather, you have several different types, including split grain, full grain and nubuck. Full-grain leather’s durable and provides excellent resistance against water. Split-grain leather’s lightweight and flexible but can also be less durable. Nubuck provides both durability and flexibility.
Backroads Pro Tip
To ensure your leather boots last a long time, apply a quality weatherproofing product to them. This helps avoid degradation caused by exposure to water during storms and water crossings.
Waterproof versus Breathable: Things to Consider
Boots are only as waterproof as the boot is high. So, if you’re going to be walking through streams, the boot will get wet. When it rains, regardless of whether you have a waterproof boot or not, you’ll usually end up with wet boots—unless you’re really careful about where you step. One thing to consider is how long it will take to dry your boots if they do get wet. (Breathable boots and shoes tend to dry quicker.) Another factor is whether the waterproof layer inside the boot is going to make your foot perspire too much, which ultimately results in wet boots.
It’s rarely worth it to cut corners, and purchasing quality hiking boots is no exception. A good pair of footwear can make all the difference between an enjoyable, successful adventure and a painfully disappointing trip. And now that you’ve got the inside scoop on function, fit and features, you have all the necessary tools to find the perfect footwear for your next excursion into the wilderness.
See you on the trail!