How to Buy Hiking Boots
Hiking boots are an essential piece of equipment for hitting the trails. Here's what you need to know about buying the perfect pair.
Without a doubt, the most essential piece of gear for any outdoor experience is footwear. Whether you are out for a day hike or a months-long thru-hike, your footwear will be the deciding factor between casual enjoyment and blister-induced pain. In this article, we’ll talk about how you can narrow down what shoes will work for you and which ones won’t.
Fit matters more than anything in your search for the right hiking boot. All feet are different, and there are no “best hiking shoes” on the market. There is a best shoe out there for you though, if you measure your feet right.
The ideal fit will leave you with plenty of room in front of your toes (choose a shoe a half US size above your measured length); a snug fit in the heel; room in the forefoot for your toes to splay out, but not so much that your forefoot slides; and a snug enough fit over your midfoot that you don’t have to crank down on the laces.
- Measure at the end of the day to account for swelling.
- Your foot shape will determine the best choice for you, especially if you have wide feet. Though narrow feet will fit most shoes, if you go too wide you’ll lose your footing and get blisters.
- If you’re over 40, your feet can begin to grow by up to half a size every decade, and widen too, so be wary of that!
- Different brands will have different lasts for women’s footwear. The main difference for women's versions is volume, both in the heel cup and midfoot height. So consider trying a men’s option if you have high volume feet.
If you have collapsed arches, a pronated or supinated gait, or any past foot injuries, an aftermarket insole is recommended. Most brands design their insoles with a neutral shape to fit an orthotic, but if you’ve got wide or high volume feet, get a shoe with a roomy toe box, whether you get an orthotic or not.
Socks are also an important factor. Hiking-specific socks perform infinitely better over long distances than a standard sock. Additionally, if you plan to wear a thinner or heavier sock depending on weather, size your shoe accordingly.
The most daunting aspect of shopping for hiking footwear is the vast product selection. That’s a result of different styles for different applications: low-cut shoes, burly boots, approach shoes, mountaineering boots… there’s a style for every activity.
Ask yourself—what do you need the shoes for most? Deciding what product is relevant to your specific needs will eliminate most of the options on the market. It’s important to get just enough for what you need (saves you money too!). Casual hikers don’t need a big heavy boot if they’re just day hiking. And you don’t need an aggressive outsole for easier terrain.
Hiking footwear is split along two broad lines: boots and low-cut shoes. Boots cover everything from day hikers to high-tech mountaineering boots. Low-cut hiking shoes are often built around a trail running or approach shoe design, with stability coming from construction in the midsole and outsole.
People tend to choose a boot design for long hikes, mountainous terrain, or anything where they will be carrying a lot of weight on their back and need ankle support. Extra eyelets allow you to create a precise fit, and you’ll appreciate the extra ankle stability that a heavy-duty boot offers. These are usually more constructed, with rugged uppers and aggressive outsoles to provide excellent traction. For this reason, Park Rangers, Forest Firefighters, and Special Forces choose leather boots for any of their jobs.
Many people prefer to be lighter on their feet and don’t want to waste energy swinging a heavy boot. Low-cut designs still offer impressive stability through engineered midsoles and advanced rubber technologies and lug designs, which we’ll cover below. What you are getting more than anything else with a low-cut hiking shoe is a lightweight, more flexible option than a boot. But they are not as capable of bearing heavier loads.
We are in the golden age of footwear design. With the advent of trail running shoes as a totally separate category, companies began pushing designs that offered lightness, superior traction, unique lug designs, and enhanced flexibility and ground-feel. Those designs were retrofitted onto more traditional designs to create the hybridized world of hiking footwear we have today. Let’s look at what is going on in the construction of a hiking boot and how different features can affect your footwear decisions.
Uppers are exactly what they sound like—the top of the shoe, above the midsole. The general split for different types of uppers is full-grain leather, split-leather, and synthetic uppers.
Leather Full-grain and split-leather uppers use different components of a cowhide, with full-grain using the strongest and most durable part of the hide, and split-grain using a second or third layer of the hide, meaning it’s less durable and water resistant, but more affordable. Full-grain leather uppers will be more expensive, but on the whole more durable, water- and abrasion-resistant, and more capable of handling a heavy load. Nubuck leather is a popular full-grain leather in hiking boots; it is a full-grain leather that has been brushed, resembling suede, and is more water-resistant.
The only downsides to any leather upper are less breathability and a longer break-in period. Just plan to take your boots on a few shorter hikes before taking them on a longer trip.
Synthetic Synthetic uppers are made of polyester, nylon, imitation leathers, and blended synthetic materials. They are lighter, more breathable, and dry much more quickly than leather uppers. They also have a much shorter break-in period. But with any synthetic, you won’t have as much durability or abrasion resistance as a leather option.
Waterproof or Not? Yet another option to consider is whether or not you want a waterproof shoe or not. Companies like GORE-TEX® and eVent® offer waterproof inner membranes that repel water and wick sweat.
You may think, “why not always get a waterproof option?” But waterproof shoes have downsides—and not just price. Waterproof shoes don’t breathe as well, and if water gets over the ankle, it takes ages to dry. For this reason, most thru-hikers do not like a waterproof shoe. But, if you’re in consistently wet conditions or snow, it’s nice to have water resistance. Consider all of these factors.
Midsoles are the part of the shoe between your insole and outsole. Some shoes offer heavily cushioned insoles that protect your feet over many miles, while others offer more minimal insoles for more ground-feel. Midsoles will have a range of materials and technology to offer cushion, stability, torsion, and protection. So when you’re looking at a shoe’s technical specs and wondering what it all means, the basic materials are generally:
- EVA (ethyl vinyl acetate): Foam in midsoles that provides cushioning. This can be multilayered and more dense for firmer or plush cushion.
- TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane): Also layered and dense, adds stability and durability.
- Posts: Dual/quad density, ultra-firm EVA or TPU sections offering vertical or torsional stability.
- Shanks: TPU and plastic stiffeners on midsole outer for lateral stability.
- Plate: Rock plates typically go on lighter shoes, and offer protection from sharp rocks/roots.
Outsoles are your rubber tread that meets the ground. They are made of different rubber compounds that offer either more traction or more durability. Leading companies will use Vibram soles or in-house rubber compounds named to indicate if the rubber is designed for traction or durability, or a blend.
Traction lugs are the features and nodes on the bottom of your shoe. More aggressive outsoles will have bigger lugs, 4 to 6mm, with angled lug patterns. Below 3mm, you will not have as aggressive traction. Figure out what terrain you’ll be covering, and this will help you determine which outsole designs work best for you.
So, as you can see there is a lot to consider! But do not approach any of these categories lightly. Remember that fit matters most. Footwear experts will help you narrow down which brands and styles will work best for your feet. Trust the experts. And don’t skimp on your feet! It may be tempting to go with the more affordable option, but if you’re serious about enjoying the outdoors, and doing so for a long time, you have to take care of your feet. Buying quality footwear is the first step in that process.