Whether you’re hitting one of the top trails in the U.S. for a weekend of strenuous hiking or strolling along on a light day hike, there are different boots available. Making sure you’re wearing the right footwear will give you the support you need and comfort along the way. And there are a few tips to keep in mind when choosing the right hiking boots.
Before You Buy
- Match your boots to your hiking ambitions. Heavy backpacking boots are not necessary if all you are planning are day hikes. Keep your itinerary in mind when choosing your boots.
- The right fit. Ensuring a good fit is the key part of the boot-selection process. If your foot slips or the boot is too tight, you won’t be able to hike as far and you can expect pain and blisters.
Types of Hiking Boots
There are 4 general categories of hiking boots to choose from:
Light hiking shoes: They resemble running shoes, and are low-cut with flexible midsoles excellent for day hiking.
Hiking boots: Mid- or high-cut footwear intended for day hikes or weekend backpacking trips with light loads. Pretty flexible and take less time to break-in. Great for hikes at Grand Canyon or Zion National Park.
Backpacking boots: Designed to carry loads of varying weights on multi-day trips into the backcountry. Super durable and supportive, with stiffer midsoles.
Mountaineering boots: The heaviest of the boots available, these stuff boots are designed to accommodate heavy loads and will allow crampons for glacier travel - perfect for winter hikes in Rocky Mountain or Denali National Park.
Looking at Boot Cut
Low-cut shoes: A good choice for lighter loads on maintained trails. Provide less roll-resistance for ankles and leave feet more vulnerable to debris from dirt, grit, sand or mud.
Mid-cut boots: These wrap around your ankles and offer some buffer from debris. They’re a good pick for shorter multi-day trips with moderate loads.
High-cut boots: Enhance balance and ankle support on irregular trails or terrain. If you routinely carry heavier loads (40+ pounds) or hike off-trail, they are for you. But be sure to take the time to break them in thoroughly before a long-distance trip.
Boot Materials and Construction
Materials impact a boot’s weight, breathability, durability and water resistance.
Full-grain leather: Excellent durability and abrasion resistance; plus very good water resistance. Most commonly used in backpacking boots built for extended trips, heavy loads and rugged terrain.
Split-grain leather: Usually paired with nylon or nylon mesh to offer lightweight, breathable comfort. Lower cost but less resistant to water and abrasion.
Nubuck leather: Resemble suede. It is very durable and resists water and abrasion.
Synthetics: Polyester, nylon and so-called "synthetic leather" are all commonly found in modern boots. They are lighter, break in more quickly, dry faster, and usually cost less.
Waterproof linings: Boots labeled as “waterproof” feature uppers constructed with waterproof/breathable membranes (such as Gore-Tex® or eVent®). They work well to keep feet dry in wet conditions. Keep in mind that the leather on these boots should be still treated with a waterproofing product.
Fitting Your Boots
How a boot fits is without a doubt the most important factor of boot selection. A good fit correctly addresses the 3 dimensions of your foot:
- Length: Toes should wiggle easily inside the footwear.
- Width: Feet should not slide around inside footwear; nor should they be compressed from side to side.
- Volume: The "bulk" of your foot should fit securely inside a boot’s interior.
When a boot fits properly it should feel like a big hand is holding your foot over the instep where the laces are. You shouldn’t slip around or feel your feet bang into the boot at any point. I always recommend shopping for hiking boots in person. Take the time to walk around the store. A good outdoor/gear shop will have a makeshift hiking corner so you can feel how the boots react when stepping on rocks or climbing a hill.
When you go to pick out boots, keep these questions in mind:
- How much hiking have you done?
- What kind of terrain will you be hiking?
- What kind of weather do you expect?
- How heavy is your typical pack load?
- Do you have any special foot conditions that may affect the fit?
- Is there a particular brand you’ve enjoyed wearing before?
Be sure to bring along trail socks you have worn before to give you a better idea of the fit. And spend time in each of the boots you try on. Pay attention to how your foot feels.Does your heel stay in place if you walk uphill? Does it get better if you adjust the tension of your laces atop the instep? Do your feet slide forward as you walk downhill? Do your toes feel crammed as you walk down a decline?
Take your time and speak with a store professional who may be able to help you find the perfect fit.