Boot Review: Five Light Hikers

Introducing a new breed of synthetic boots: fast, nimble, and surprisingly supportive.

Two thousand miles--nearly the length of the Appalachian Trail. That's how far our testers walked in these midcut boots, from the desert Southwest to the North Cascades to the Swiss Alps. Our verdict: Goodbye old-school leather clunkers, hello nimble hikers. The latest synthetic materials make these shoes quick to break in and nearly as agile as trail runners, but deliver far better ankle support, waterproofing, and grit defense than their low-cut counterparts. The five boots that made our final selection are ideal for summer's moderate-load treks and high-mileage dayhikes. Read the reviews carefully to see which pair is right for you.

Montrail Stratos XCR

The test's most versatile shoe is the ticket for everything short of a job interview.

Wherever we went and whatever we did-from steep scrambles in the Rockies to soggy Northwest treks carrying 40 pounds-these shoes kept pace. The all-around performance starts with a near-perfect fit that worked for a variety of foot shapes. Add good arch support, ample toe space, and a snug, no-slip heel cup, which together took the sting out of 20-mile days. The sole's torsional stiffness let one tester haul a moderate load across the jumbled terrain of a Swiss glacial moraine. The XCR liner kept water out when splashing through shallow streams-although, like the rest of the field, the Stratos soaked through after long periods in wet snow or drenched brush. Lacing's what it should be: quick and secure. The outsole's shallow lugs gripped well on loose dirt, pebbly slopes, and off-trail rock in Washington's North Cascades, but slipped on water-slick surfaces. Rubber reinforcements buffer the toe, ankle, and heel, though one pair's rubber showed early signs of wear, slightly delaminating from the upper. Best for medium-width, medium-volume feet. (Tip: Buy before August 1, when the price goes up $10.)

Garmont Flash XCR

Sturdy and snug, these rugged boots are best-in-class for off-piste adventures.

Whether backpacking with more than 40 pounds or traversing steep off-trail slopes, the Flash gave us unmatched support and durability. Credit goes to the plastic exoskeletal ribs, which stabilize the upper, and a rigid polyurethane midsole that doesn't buckle under heavy loads and sidehilling. Even after more than 100 miles, the protective rubber toe cap and tough outsole looked almost new. Testers found them appropriately snug in the heel and through the arch, with good toe space in the forefoot. The XCR liner and leather reinforcements made them one of the test's standouts in wet conditions, repelling drenching rain on a New Brunswick trek; the tradeoff is that they're slightly less breathable than the competition. The tongue is well-padded and the lacing is fast and secure. The Vibram sole gripped well on most surfaces, but the lack of an in-cut heel for downhill braking led to numerous butt plants for a tester on slick North Cascades climber trails. Lastly, they're not as light and nimble as softer models. Get these if you want a downsized version of a traditional backpacking boot. Best for medium-width, low- to medium-volume feet.

Price: $130

Sizes: men's 8-12½, 13, 14; women's 5-10½, 11

Weight: 2 lbs., 8 oz.

Contact: (802) 658-8322; www.garmontusa.com

Asolo Defender XCR

Tempted to hike in trail runners? Get the same weight savings but better support in these speedsters.

If you take full advantage of today's ultralight gear, your footwear should keep pace-you don't need big-load support if your pack rarely tops 25 pounds. These shoes excelled at the fast-and-light game, with our female tester naming them her favorite after a 3-day trek to Peru's Machu Picchu. On a detour up neighboring peak Wayna Picchu, where one misstep on the slick, steep, and narrow trail could have been fatal, she was glad to have this boot's agile feel and grippy Vibram tread. On descents, the in-cut heel provided good downhill braking. It's the lightest of the bunch, but the rubber toe survived continuous battering against rocks, and the XCR liner kept out water. Just don't push this shoe beyond its weight class: Minimal support and torsional stability resulted in floppiness when sidehilling, and gave us sore feet after carrying more than 30 pounds. The soft EVA midsole, heavily stitched mesh uppers, and thin outsole won't enjoy the lifespan of some heavier competitors. But they're a good choice if you mostly fastpack on trails. The medium-volume fit favors long, narrow feet.

Price: $118 (Defender); $115 (Radiant, women's model)

Sizes: men's 8-11 ½, 12, 13, 14; women's, 6-10 ½, 11

Weight: 1 lb., 15 oz. (877) 888-8533; www.asolo-usa.com

Dunham Waffle Stomper Terrastryder Mid

Got odd-sized feet? This grippy climber fits virtually anyone.

With good torsional stability and stiffness, plastic midfoot support posts, and a firm heel cup, the affordably priced Terrastryder handles loads of up to 40 pounds, even on rough terrain. But the shoe really stands out for its availability in multiple widths-a rarity in this category-which helps guarantee a good fit and out-of-the-box comfort. Testers also applauded the Vibram waffle-stomper tread; the deep lugs provided excellent traction on loose dirt and mud in treacherous places like Aasgard Pass above Washington's Enchantment Lakes Basin. The Dryworks membrane kept feet dry even when one tester walked a mile through a shallow creek, but the Terrastryder was the least breathable of the group. The small toe cap and soft midsole got a bit chewed up on rocky terrain, yet the boots otherwise proved tough. Oddly, the fat laces supplied with the boots don't always slip readily under the hooks (we bought new laces). The Terrastryder is a bit clunky for fastpacking, but a good choice as an all-purpose light hiker for people with extra wide or narrow feet.

Price: $120

Sizes: men's 8-11½, 12, 13, 14, 15 (four widths); women's 6-10½ 11, 12, 13 (three widths)

Weight: 2 lbs., 5 oz.

Contact: (800) 843-2668; www.dunhamfits.com

Salomon Super X Mid XCR

These shoes walk the middle path: light, nimble, and supportive.

Can you have trail-runner comfort in a boot that won't wilt when the going gets tough? One tester logged 55 hard miles in 4 days in New Hampshire's White Mountains, carrying a load of 35-plus pounds, and never wished for heavier boots. The EVA midsole cushions against rocky ground, and a firm heel cup and external reinforcements keep the rear foot stable on uneven terrain. The thin fabric uppers had above-average breathability, and the XCR liner kept our feet dry in downpours from the Cascades to Maine. The shallow tread gripped well, even on slick rocks and roots. The shoes would have scored higher but for sub-par durability: They showed early wear in stitching, the midsole, and the toes. The hook-and-loop ankle strap is more cosmetic than supportive. And while we've liked the Quickfit cordlock lacing system in other Salomon footwear, in these boots it didn't wrap evenly and had excess slack; the end sometimes slipped from its pocket and snagged on vegetation. Best for fairly wide, medium- to high-volume feet.

Price: $140

Sizes: men's 7½-12, 13, 14; women's 5- 9½,10, 11, 12

Weight: 2 lbs., 3 oz.

Contact: (877) 272-5666; www.salomonsports.com