Comprehensive guide to hiking footwear
Choosing your first pair of hiking boots can be quite a challenge, but don’t worry! You are in the right place! Here you will find all the information you need to make the right choice. We will look at what makes a hiking boot special. What features to look for and in what situations you might preffer one type of hiking boot over another.
Actually, after you’ve read this article “foot fetish” would come to mind – I’m joking of course!
I got my first pair of sturdy leather boots in my early school days. I was a shy kid back then and when I put those massive and heavy things on my feet I felt different.
They had no parallel to the light sneakers I’ve worn before.
They were tough and I liked it.
I could walk over puddles and not worry about getting them wet. The boots gave me confidence, just that little bit of push to be more open and make friends easier.
A nice and sturdy pair of hiking boots brings back those fond memories. Just putting them on makes me want to hike, to run over rocky terrain, to walk in puddles and just put them through every test imaginable.
Good fitting hiking boots make me smile!
Why choose hiking boots?
Alright, so what makes hiking boots so special? Is it all some scheme on so-called specialized equipment to make people cough up top dollar for some less than adequate footwear? Actually no!
Hiking boots are designed to protect your feet from rough rocky terrain by having beefy souls and tough material that wraps around your foot.
Those same beefy souls have less flex in them to help you carry a heavy backpack. Some of them have a steel shank which is a metal plate that goes from the heel to the ball of your foot to provide stability and keep the arch supported. Some call them “backpacking boots” to signify those qualities.
The sole is tough and grippy so you don’t slip and slide.
Brand new soles for old well broken in boots! Credit to brewbooks/Flickr
They can be with a high top covering the ankle and providing additional stability and ankle protection. There are mid hight models that still provide ankle protection. If ankle protection is not your thing there are low cut models that go up to just below the ankle.Hiking boots can be waterproof or with mesh vents for hot weather.
A good hiking boot is built like a tank and inspires confidence! And if that is enough to make you go hike, I’m all for whatever can push people to go out in nature.
Do you really need hiking boots to hike?
That’s a good question and I wish I could give a short and straight answer but – it depends. Hiking footwear to people is sort of like snowflakes – everyone is special and everyone has different preferences.
You are bound to read articles that say something along the lines of ”hiking shoes are not good for hiking, try trail runners instead” or tennis shoes or just go barefoot. Truth is that the right answer is what works best for you. This is not a cop-out answer.
If you don’t hike often or you just want to give it a try to see if you’ll like it without forking out money for something you are not sure you are going to use that often then Yes, you might not need hiking boots.
If you like the idea of frequently walking in nature without the hassles of the concrete jungle and have a refreshing change of scenery then by all means.Choose a nice pair of hiking boots.I’m here to help you make thr right decision based the merits of the different kinds of hiking footwear so you bring the right tool for the job!
This is the most important piece of gear that you have to take time to choose carefully. A pound on your feet equals 5 pounds on your back. Years ago the military came to a similar conclusion.
On my hikes, I like to wear heavier boots just so I can burn out some extra calories to keep my cookie addiction in check.
Wearing heavy boots does not mean they are going to tire you faster. It has more to do with the combined weight of your backpack and shoes than anything else. I am willing to take a little more time to organize my backpack to shave off a pound or two in order to have proper footwear.Afterall, your feet are your way of transportation, you take care of them, and they will take care of you.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” – how to prevent blisters on the trail!
Blisters form by friction, an early warning sign is that you feel a hot spot somewhere on your foot. Stop immediately, take off your shoe and sock. Let the foot breathe, then apply Luco tape to the hotspot, that will put a barrier between the skin and the friction zone on the boot.
Blisters also are not far behind when your feet get wet. Moisture softens the skin, it becomes more delicate and prone to even peeling.
Another good way to prevent blisters that loosely follows the Luco tape method is wearing liner socks under your wool hiking socks. In this instance, I prefer ultraslim wool hiking socks. Your feet will warm up and sweat faster, you will need to take an occasional break on longer hikes to take off your shoes and let the feet breathe, even change out your socks so you can go right away.
That is a minor price to pay for comfort and avoiding blisters on the trail.
Forget about cotton, cotton socks retain moisture and cause the blisters we are so hard trying to prevent. All socks you put on should be a snug fit so you minimize the friction between the sock and the shoe.
We talked about using 2 pairs of socks, one over the other.The first layer has to be a liner sock, then thin wool hiking socks over them. This creates an additional barrier between the foot and the boot so it minimizes friction.
Always bring a second pair of socks. Bring a third if it’s a multi-day hike.
How should hiking boots fit?
Fitting hiking boots is a crucial step that you have to get right before you go out on the trail with them.
The toes should be free, the arch should be snug and supported and the heel should not be free moving, snug but not tight. There should be a finger width between your toes and the end of the boot.
If you are choosing a shoe/boot from a physical store – hike for 2-3 hours before you go to the store so your feet get swollen like they will out on the trail. Go wearing your if you have any (you should).
Some stores have an incline structure for you to check if your toes are hitting the end of the shoe when you are in a descending position. They shouldn’t! The store can also stretch the boot on the uncomfortable spots until they fit perfectly on your foot.
If you are purchasing hiking boots online – make sure they have a good return policy if they don’t fit right.
Hiking boots need a break in period
Apart from trail runners, hiking boots need a break in period for the boot to mold comfortably around your foot. It would be a quickly realized mistake if you take your new shoes out on a long hike without breaking them in first. Breaking in does not compensate for a good fit! If they fit bad from the start – return them.
Depending on how tough/heavy duty the boot is, the break-in period could go from 3-5 days to 1-2 weeks. Do not get discouraged by this! This is a well worth the time. Depending on the brand and model, hiking boots can be resoled and be good as new for years to come.
How to break in new hiking boots
Wear them, there, done, all explained! I’m kidding, well not really!
To break in the new boots you do have to wear them, but that process has to be done gradually. Don’t go on a 10-mile hike with your fresh out of the box new boots. Start by wearing the boots at home for a week for 30-60 minutes each session. Nice and easy, don’t force the prosses.
If no problem arises after every session, then they are a keeper, you can go out with them now. Start going on short walks around the block or park. The real break in happens on the hiking trail. Start with short 1-3 mile hikes then go to 4-6 miles. By that time they will be well broken in.
Gradually break in your boots and enjoy the process. You will be rewarded in the end!
Choosing the right hiking footwear
1. Hiking boots – some also call them “day hiking boots”, they provide ankle support. There are meshy breathable models with which you lose the waterproofing, but gain the comfort if you are planning to hike in a warm environment.
Bear in mind hiking boots are not to everyone’s taste, some find the ankle support restricts their movement too much. We will go in to further detail about that later on.
Depending on how stiff the boot is the break-in period might be from 1-2 weeks until the boot molds to your foot.
2. Backpacking boots – yap, there’s a difference. Backpacking boots have more support around the heel, toes, ankle and your arches. Especially the arches, to help you carry a heavier backpack.
How much heavier? – above 30 pounds. Backpacking shoes are a good 3 season choice(even 4 season) if you are thinking of carrying heavier loads. They are worth considering if you are plan to do multi-day trips with a heavy backpack.
Their break-in period can be a little longer than the hiking boots. But they are usually the most durable and can last you many years if taken care of properly. Then after replacing the worn-out soles, they can still serve you well!
3. Hiking shoes – so here is where the hiking shoes come in, no ankle support, waterproof or breathable. They are lighter, generally don’t last as long as the backpacking boot, but if you don’t like ankle support – hiking shoes are the way to go. The break-in period is the shortest out of the above.
Credit to The Travel Manual/Flickr
4. Trail runners – they are on the rise among the hiking community because of their comfort and breathability. The difference between a trail runner and a normal running shoe is that they are a bit beefier and have grippier soles.They don’t need a break in period.
You get the least amount of miles from them, but if comfort is your top priority you will appreciate them. With trail runners you have to carry lighter loads because of the not so supportive bendy soles.
5. Hiking sandals – aside from stopping frequently to remove twigs, leaves, sand, and pebbles, they are great. They have awesome breathability but lack the protection of a hiking boot.
You have to be careful not to bump any rocks or roots on the trail with those because that is going to ruin your day … or week.
Personally, I don’t like them because I can’t put my orthotic insoles in.
6. Vibram Five fingers – alright, this is the nuclear option. People have done thru-hikes in those and they have my deepest my respect for that. Mind you this is just a piece of rubber with no cushioning.
I do not advice using them as main hiking footwear unless you’ve conditioned yourself extensively to do so and even then I’d be very careful. They can be great for wearing around camp thou while your feet rest from the snug embrace of the hiking boots.
Do you really need ankle protection?
Yes, ankle protection does not just help you when you turn your ankle.
Take a moment to think if there was a moment in your life, that you’ve hit the bone of your ankle. When that happened to me I stopped, I grabbed my ankle and hopped to a bench like a cartoon character hit on the foot with a big hammer.
A proper boot with ankle support limits the roll of the ankle thus limiting the force and angle needed to have an ankle injury. A good way to test that is to have someone gently, (I can’t stress this enough ) GENTLY roll your foot. If the boot stops you before you feel pain – good.
Proper fitting boots are essential to get this part right.
Truth is – rolling an ankle is not pretty, banging it on a rock hurts. Because of that I like having ankle protection while going out on a hike. Just in case I feel the urge to bang my feet on the side of rocks and roots.
Hiking footwear is a tricky subject, everyone has a different opinion on what they should wear.
The best advice I can give you is to try them all and see what suits you best. Aside from providing you with the knowledge what materials to look for and making an overall educated choice of course.
If I had to answer at gunpoint what footwear to choose as a new hiker, I’d go with a leather hiking boot just because of its versatility. Initially you don’t know what kind of hiking and trails you are going to like. The hiking boot gives you a broad range of choice to terrain and weather!
Components of a hiking boot – or “the not so secret sauce”
The upper part of the boot can be made of different materials that affect its performance in different ways.
- Waterproof inner fabrics – Such materials are Gore-Tex, eVent, and M-select dry. Those are membranes/fabrics that draw away the sweat from the feet and leave them dry. But that restricts breathability and moisture can start to build up from the accumulated heat.
The way the membrane works is that the pores are small enough to block water drops but big enough to let the vapour water molecules from your warm feet to leave the boot.
- Synthetic leather – common in modern boots, breaks in faster than leather, dries faster. It’s cheaper but can wear out faster and can be prone to leaks because of it’s many stitched pieces.
- Full-grain leather(top grain leather) – this is what you want in a good hiking boot, the most durable, naturally water resistant material out there. It does not breathe as well as the other kinds of leather but that’s a fair trade-off.
- Nubuck leather – buffed full-grain leather to give it a velvety look and feel.
- Split-grain leather – is the layer below the full-grain leather ( that is why some call it top grain). Split-grain is usually paired with mesh to make light and breathable boots.
Soles, not souls
The soul is what makes everyone special. Characterized as a core part of our identity… Oh you mean sole as in whats on the bottom end of the boot that touches the ground, honest mistake.
Now that we’ve got that pun out of the way…
- Then there’s the outsole which is rubber mixed with different materials. This gives it different characteristics depending on the purpose of the boot. Backpacking boots get harder outsoles to improve durability but they can feel slick if you go off trail.
- The outsole can have different lug patterns(this is what gives you traction like the treads on a tire). Deep and thick lugs give more grip often used in backpacking boots. To shed mud easier some hiking boots use wider lub patterns.
- And then there’s the heel brake. It does exactly that when you are going down on a decent. It reduces the chance to slide down.
- In the beginning, I mentioned metal shanks implemented between the midsole and outsole to support the arch. This helps with heavier loads.
Metal is not the only material shanks are made of. It can be made out of plastic, or some kind of polymer with different stiffness levels in mind. People can be put off by that thinking the boot is going to be very heavy. That is simply not true. I’d rather have the shank when I’m carrying a heavy backpack then worry about an ounce of extra weight.
Wear and tear
It is good to consider how long the hiking footwear of choice is going to last. Some models can last longer than what I share with you here. There are always outliers. Let’s just ballpark it to have a general understanding. There are many factors that can alter these results. Rough rocky terrain and constantly banging the boots will put alot more wear compared to just doing level clean trails.
Hiking boots – generally 500-1000 miles. The miles go up the more you go up in the price range of reputable brands.
Trail runners – 300 to 500 miles. Again the miles go up with price from quality manufacturers.
Keep in mind that som leather hiking boots can be resoled when you wear out the previous sole. With proper care they will last a lot longer than any other shoe.
I think by now you’ve got the impression I’m a hiking boot kind of guy, and you will be right. I appreciate hiking footwear in all its shapes and sizes. Now that I’ve shown you the merits of each one you can make the right choice for your hiking adventures. In my hiking backpack guide I asked you guys to share in the comments bellow of your favourite backpacks. Here I want to know just a bit more because boots are more personal to me. Let me know what is your favorite hiking footwear and why? Why do you like them, what features have won you over?