Choosing the right pair of hiking boots is an important decision, for your functionality, performance, and comfort on your next hike. The right pair will sync perfectly with how, where, and when you are hiking.
There is a few areas you need to consider before deciding on the perfect pair:
Types: There is a vast array of hiking shoes to choose from. Ranging from lightweight trail running shoes all the way to heavier, sturdy mountaineering boots.
Different sections of the boot: Hiking boots are compromised from different components, having a better understanding of where and why these components are can help you make a better informed decision.
How the boots fit: Just like feet, boots come in all shapes and sizes. Whether you have narrow, wide, long or short feet. It’s crucial that you get the right fit to avoid rubbing and blisters whilst on your hike.
Types of Hiking Boots
Backpacking boots are almost always high cut to offer more support for your ankles whilst carrying heavier loads. If you have a 70+ liter backpack, loaded with gear for overnight trips then you may need the support of a backpacking boot. They have stiffer mid soles and offer less flexibility than day-hike or hiking shoes, but are much sturdier.
Hiking Boot Components
1. Boot Upper
The boot upper is the material that makes up the bulk of the hiking boot. The upper is primarily responsible for the comfort, durability, and waterproofing of the boot. The upper can be made from a wide range of materials, let’s explore them in more depth:
Full grain leather:
Full grain leather is an extremely abrasion resistant and water proof material which offers excellent durability for hiking boots. It takes a while to break in, but after a few trips it becomes very comfortable. Full grain leather is commonly used for larger backpacking boots which require more support. It is not as breathable as nylon or synthetic options but it is a great choice if you are after a pair of boots that will last you years to come.
Split grain leather:
Split grain leather is created by removing the inner lining from the leather hide and pairing it with a nylon or synthetic msh material. It offers more breathability than a full grain leather boot, but that comes at the cost of weather resistance and durability. The biggest benefit of a split grain boot is the cost savings whilst still having a leather upper.
Nubuck leather has a soft exterior and looks a lot like suede. It’s created by buffing full grain leather. Similar to full grain, Nubuck is very durable and water-resistant.
Nylon, polyester and other synthetic materials are a very popular choice in modern hiking boots, they are lightweight, breathable and if well looked after/treated they can be very water-resistant. The only downside is the durability when compared to leather boots, but that largely comes down to how well they are maintained.
Vegan boots are made using no animal byproducts whatsoever. They are usually 100% synthetic materials.
2. Boot Midsoles
The midsole is essentially the middle region of the boot between the upper and the sole. It provides you with comfort and takes the brunt of the shocks that your feet would otherwise experience whilst hiking over rough and unsteady terrain.
Stiff boots might not initially sound like a good idea, but if your feet were wrapping around every tree root or rock that you step on, it would soon tire out your soles and create an uncomfortable experience. The two most common materials used nowadays for midsoles are EVA and polyurethane.
Polyurethane is usually stiffer than EVA and therefore is found in stronger backpacking boots for rough terrain and carrying heavier loads.
EVA is lighter and less expensive than Polyurethane midsoles, however they still offer great support on a wide variety of terrains that you will be hiking over.
3. Internal Support
Shanks are 3-5mm inserts that are located between the midsole and outsole to add extra stiffness to help support more load. They usually cover the entire sole length of the boot but can sometimes only be half of the length of the boot depending on the type of shoe.
Plates aren’t always present in every hiking boot, but they are thin, semi-flexible inserts located under the shank, they add extra support and help prevent your feet from becoming bruised over un-even terrain.
Hiking Boot Outsoles
Hiking boot soles are made from rubber as it offers good grip and is extremely durable. Other additives are often added to the rubber for additional properties such as shock absorption and hardness.
Lugs are the rubber ‘teeth’ that you see on the sole of a hiking boot. Backpacking boots have bigger and wider lugs as they offer more grip on rough terrain (important when you are carrying a heavy load).
The heel brake is the slope or arch that is easily located on the sole of the boot. It helps increase grip and prevents you from slipping whilst descending sleep terrain.
Hiking Boot Fit
Having hiking boots that fit well is paramount. The last thing you want to experience is rubbing and blisters whilst on a hike, especially if you are miles away camp or the car. Hiking boots should fit tight, with no wiggle room whatsoever (this prevents any rubbing). Make sure that when you try on your hiking boots that you take the same socks (or similar thickness) that you are going to wear on your hike.
Some key points about choosing the right fit:
Try boots on at the end of the day – Throughout the day your feet will swell (it’s minimal, but it happens). With hiking boots needing to be a great fit and because your feet will swell whilst walking, it’s important that they can fit your swollen feet. This will prevent you setting out on a hike and your feet feeling fine, to only find that a couple of hours in your feet are in pain.
Wear the right socks – The socks you wear on a hike can be just as important to your comfort as a pair of hiking boots. Hiking socks are thick, so make sure that you wear a similar pair of socks whilst trying on your hiking shoes.
Try out the boots – Trying out the boots before you buy is important, and don’t just slip them on and off. Take a short walk around the store or ask to go up and down the street.
Stick with a brand you know – This is important if you are shopping online. Whilst you can’t try them on first hand before purchasing, if you stick with a brand you have owned before. Chances are, the performance and comfort will remain the same or better than before.
Break your boots in before you go – A rookie mistake is setting out on a big hike in a brand new pair of boots. Some materials, especially leather can take a while to ‘break-in’ and mould to the shape of your feet. It may seem tedious at first when you just want to test the boots out on a big trip, but you’ll be thankful that you never.