Your enjoyment on the trail rests literally on your feet. Nothing can end a great outdoor experience quicker than painful blisters, pinched toes or even injuries caused by inappropriate hiking boots. The comfort, fit and construction of appropriate footwear can also add to your margin of safety in rugged terrain.
Here are some guidelines to help you choose the right hiking boots for all your outdoor adventures.
- Before you begin shopping for a pair of hiking boots, think carefully about what kind of hiking you plan to do. Select boots that are designed to provide the support and protection you will need for the most difficult terrain you expect to encounter. Purchasing your footwear from a knowledgeable vendor who can answer all your questions and make recommendations will help if you’re unsure of yourself in making a selection.
- Choose boots that are designed to support the load you expect to be carrying. The heavier your load, the more support you will need.
- Remember that great hiking boots do not have to weigh a great deal. Today’s high-tech materials have replaced the traditional metal shank and other heavy elements that provide stability in a boot. As a result, hiking boots are lighter but still offer plenty of support.
- Consider the various advantages of fabric-and-leather boots and all-leather boots. Fabric-and-leather boots are lighter and easier to break in, but all-leather boots offer added protection and durability in rigorous terrain, as well as being water resistant and breathable.
- Today’s top-quality hiking boots are made with a Gore-Tex® lining that keeps water out while allowing perspiration to escape, a real plus if you encounter puddles and shallow streams. Many boots also have Vibram soles which really grip on slick rock. You’ll pay more for shoes with these components but if you’re going to be doing a lot of hiking, it will be well worth it.
Here are some tips for buying your first pair of boots.
Types of Hiking Boots
If you are hiking in a dry climate and on well-established paths that don’t have a lot of rocks, a pair of trail shoes may be just what you need. High-quality trail shoes are ideal for one-hour to one-day hikes when you are carrying a light day pack. They provide less roll-resistance for ankle joints. Plus, on muddy routes or trails filled with scree, grit or sand, it’s tough to keep this debris out of your shoes. They’re usually lighter weight, and will dry out more quickly if they get wet. Mid-cut boots wrap around your ankles and offer some cushioning and protection from debris and hazards. They’re a smart pick for shorter multiday trips with moderate loads. If you are going to encounter steeper inclines and muddy paths, or plan to stay out three days to a week, then you will need some sturdier, such as high-cut waterproof boots. These will provide added stability and ankle protection against protruding limbs, rocks, and striking rattlesnakes. If you plan to climb in the mountains (and might even need to attach crampons for a better grip on glaciers or hard-packed snow), you will want an extremely strong boot with a stiff sole to give your ankles support and protection as you climb on challenging terrain. When I go to purchase a new pair of hiking boots, I always look for a Vibram sole. They have great grip for slick rock hiking. I also look for water proofing that allows feet to breathe. GoreTex is but one such material. High-cut boots are also recommended for folks with a tendancy towards knee problems, as stabilization of the ankle helps to avoid added stress on the knee joints as well.
OPTIONAL: Here are some great tips from Backpacker.com, A Guide to Choosing the Right Pair of Hiking Boots.
Finding the Best Fit
When trying on boots, wear the socks you plan to wear on the trail. Try boots on at the end of the day when your feet are more swollen. Polyester liner socks that wick away moisture, as well as an outer pair of heavy-weave wool or synthetic ragg socks for cushioning are also recommended.
(Safety Tip: On the trail, wear any kind of socks but cotton, which absorbs water and perspiration and holds it next to your skin. If you are hiking with wet feet and the temperature drops below freezing, you risk getting frostbite. A good sock and hiking boot reduces that possibility.) Boots should feel snug but comfortable, so you can still wiggle your toes. Most hiking boots won’t feel as instantly comfortable as sneakers, but they shouldn’t pinch, cause hot spots or constrict circulation. They should fit securely around your ankle and instep. When trying on boots, try walking down an incline. Your feet should not slide forward, nor should your toenails scrape against the front of your boot. If your foot slides forward, the boot could be too wide. If the back of your heel moves around, your boots might not be laced up tight enough.
Breaking in Your New Boots
Once you purchase a pair of boots, break them in slowly with short hikes, or by wearing them around the house. Leather boots in particular take a while to break in, so take a couple of two- or three-hour hikes before your big trip or wear them around the house or even while mowing your lawn. If you find any sharp pressure points, use leather conditioner to soften the leather.
Care and Maintenance
Cleaning and waterproofing your boots from time to time is critical. Use waterproofing on leather, and be sure to concentrate on the seams, which can become porous over time. For boots with a Gore-Tex lining, use a silicon-based waterproofing treatment, not a wax-based treatment. Wax-based treatments keep the leather from “breathing.” On the trail, if a blister or hot spot develops, place padding such as moleskin or an adhesive bandage over the area. You can cut a “donut” in the moleskin to create a buffer around the blister. Remember, hiking boots will never feel like bedroom slippers, but if you are consistently developing blisters and have uncomfortable pressure points, you’re probably wearing the wrong thing on your feet.
With the wide variety of styles, materials, construction techniques, inserts, outsoles, and support components, purchasing a pair of hiking shoes or boots can become a complicated proposition. If you want some help sifting through all the choices, visit a good outfitter store such as Canyon Outfitters or The Hike House in Sedona, or the Shoe Box or Manzanita Outdoor in Prescott.
Extra/optional: What happens when that favorite pair of boots starts to give out on you? Here are some quick DIY fixes to extend their life.
I’m Not Happy With My Boots
Optional extra reading/troubleshooting: You’ve maxed out your credit card buying those new boots that felt just right on your feet in the store. But after a few miles on the trail, your feet are starting to scream at you. Don’t despair.
You might also experiment with different socks. Here are some tips on choosing socks.
Even when boots fit and perform well, there may be times when conditions can potentially lead to blisters. It’s always better to prevent blisters than to have to try to treat them. Here’s a great resource with everything you need to know about preventing and treating blisters.