Choosing The Right Hiking Boots
When it comes to backpacking, choosing the right hiking boots is one of the most important gear decisions you will make. ‘Take care of your feet and your feet will take care of you.’ It is a simple saying, but it really does ring true for backpackers. Comfort for your feet is essential on a backpacking trip, so the same care that you choose a backpack you need to devote to choosing the right hiking boots. A perfect fit is what you are ultimately looking for, and that perfect fit will allow you to hike farther with less pain, allowing you to enjoy nature and the great outdoors to the fullest.
There are several different things to think about when looking at and trying on different hiking boots. Ask yourself these questions:
What type of hiking will I be doing? For how long? In what weather? On what type of terrain?
These questions will hopefully help you to start narrowing down your boot choices. In part 1 of our hiking boot guide, we will look at the types of hiking boots out there, as well as the materials and construction used to put them together. This will help you narrow down your options before you start trying some on. Let’s look at the types and characteristics of hiking boots below.
Types of Hiking Boots
Light Hiking Boots
There are three basic types of hiking boots. Light hiking boots are low-cut shoes that look like trail running tennis shoes. They usually have mesh materials for easy breathing and beefy rubber soles for traction. They are lightweight (compared to other boots) but don’t offer much ankle support or load cushioning. Since they are lower around the ankles, dirt, pebbles and debris will easily get into your shoes, so it is advisable to utilize some gaiters. These are perfect for short day hikes or some overnight or weekend trips that keep you on smooth trails, with little off trail hiking. The image below is an example of a light hiking boot, the [amazon_link id=”B000LP2MH8″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Merrell Moab waterproof trail shoes[/amazon_link].
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Mid- to High-Cut Hiking Boots
The second type is your basic mid- to high-cut hiking boot. These are the standard hiking boots that are heavier than the light version but offer much more ankle support and cushioning for heavier loads and longer hikes. The higher cut also helps to keep out dirt, pebbles and debris better than the lower cut trail shoes. These boots will allow you to hike more uneven terrain for multiple day or extended trips. The first image below is the [amazon_link id=”B004D3C8LE” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Merrell Moab Mid waterproof hiking boot[/amazon_link], which is a mid-cut hiking boot, and the second image is the [amazon_link id=”B001N0IJWC” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Asolo Flame GTX hiking boot[/amazon_link], which is a more high-cut hiking boot.
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The third type is the heavy-duty backpacking hiking boot (often referred to as mountaineering boots). These boots are rugged, insulated, offer full support and cushioning, and allow you to attach crampons for glacier or ice navigation. The image below is of the [amazon_link id=”B0018SB9VC” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Zamberlan Vioz GT backpacking boot[/amazon_link], which is an all season heavy duty high-cut hiking boot. The second image shows the [amazon_link id=”B004IWRKH2″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Salewa Rapace Gore-Tex mountaineering boot[/amazon_link], which is crampon compatible and suitable for all seasons.
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The more rugged your terrain is and the more weight you are carrying, the better off you will be with more ankle support and cushioning. As you might expect, the price usually goes from low to high from the light to the heavy duty boots. Now you are aware of the different types of hiking boots. Now let’s look at how they are put together.
Hiking Boot Construction
Understanding how hiking boots are put together will give you a better appreciation for what each type of boot is trying to accomplish, and will further help you to narrow down your search.
Starting with the top of the boot and working down, let’s look at how they are built. The top material is the portion of the boot that laces up on the sides and on top of your foot, as well as the material up the back. Leather is a common material used in hiking boots, but synthetic materials are also common nowadays.
Full-grain leather is the most durable material for the top of your boot. It is water resistant and abrasion resistant. It is heavy duty material, used mostly on backpacking and mountaineering boots designed for heavy loads and extended trips. It offers great ankle support as well. Full-grain leather is heavy and not very breathable. It is also stiff, and requires you to break the boot in for a longer period of time. Also expect higher costs associated with full-grain leather boots. Here is an example of a boot that employs full-grain leather construction – [amazon_link id=”B002YM2LD6″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]the Asolo TPS 520 GV hiking boot[/amazon_link].
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Synthetic materials on the top of the boot are also common on many hiking boots on the market today. Synthetic nylon and polyester are lighter, more flexible, and cost less than leather. Because they are more flexible, they break in a lot easier than their leather counterparts. They are, however, not as durable as leather. You will usually find synthetic materials on the lower cost light hiking shoes, like the [amazon_link id=”B0050CEOSM” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Merrell Trail Glove hiking shoe[/amazon_link] pictured below.
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There are some leather-synthetic combination uppers (split-grain leather and nubuck leather is often paired with nylon), which combines the breathability and flexibility of the synthetic material with the durability of the leather. The [amazon_link id=”B004KKZ6SW” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Keen Targhee II Mid hiking boot[/amazon_link] below features a nubuck-nylon combination upper.
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Keep in mind the terrain and weather you intend to hike. If you expect wet conditions, consider adding a weatherproof lining to your boots. These linings are usually some kind of Gore-Tex material. These liners will add a layer inside your boot, so if you intend on using one, be sure to fit your boot with the liner (we’ll cover the boot’s fit in part 2). Including a liner will also add insulation to your feet, which is a good thing in colder weather, but not so good in warm weather.
The midsole is the part of your boot that cushions your feet (directly under your feet). The midsole cushions your feet from the shocks of hiking while on the trail. This portion of the boot will also help determine the boot’s stiffness. Most hiking boots utilize ethylene vinly acetate (EVA) or polyurethane as the midsole. EVA is cheaper and lighter, and can vary in density at different parts of the foot. It is less durable than the more expensive polyurethane, which is usually more stiff (often found in the heavy-duty backpacking and mountaineering boots).
Shank and Plate
Underneath the midsole is the shank. The shank’s purpose is to add stiffness to the midsole. They can vary in length, from covering the entire midsole to only portions (heal and pad). Underneath the shank, many hiking boots include a plate. This is another support level that adds stiffness to the midsole. They are flexible, and their purpose is to protect your feet from sharp rocks bruising your feet.
Below the support layers lies the outsole. All hiking boots utilize rubber, and the hardness of the rubber varies greatly. Harder outsoles are more durable and better suited to rough terrain. They can feel more slick and have less grip on certain surfaces. Softer rubber outsoles are more grippy, but also are more susceptible to wear and tear. There are also many different tread patterns, and they vary by brand and hiking boot type. Most backpacking boots feature a heel break, which is a tread pattern that adds extra traction when descending hills with a heavy load on your back (lug pattern on the outsold pictured below).
Putting all of these pieces together is usually done by the use of adhesives. It is fast and easy to put them together this way, and generally a durable way to do it. Just beware that high heat can ruin the adhesives holding your boots together. Don’t put your boots next to a fire to dry, and don’t keep them stored in a hot area or vehicle.
Now That You Know The Types And Materials . . .
Now that you know the different types of hiking boots and also what materials are used and how hiking boots are put together, you will better be able to choose the type and finish you need for your hiking needs. But how do you choose what size to buy? The fit is the most critical step to choosing a hiking boot. Click here for part 2 of our hiking boot guide, where we will cover how to find the right fit for your hiking boot, as well as some in-store and online shopping tips.