Gear: Choosing the Right Pair of Hiking Boots

Pick the boot that's right for you with this guide.

Styles | The Right Fit | Details and Preservation | Fixing Problems


No question, boots are a hiker's most critical gear. The right pair will help you glide down the trail with a smile on your face, while poor-quality boots will have you gritting your teeth with every footfall.

When it comes to selecting the shoe for you, forget about looks, numerical sizes, flashy features, or even what your friends recommend--unless their feet are identical to yours. The issues you should consider are comfort, durability, stability, weight, warmth, and water resistance.

The most important thing in buying boots is to get a good fit, with a snug fit at the heel and wiggling room for your toes in front. A knowledgeable bootfitter can help with fit.

MAKING SENSE OF STYLES

Select your boots based on the terrain you will hike on and the loads you expect to carry. However, because added ounces and pounds on your feet really take their toll in terms of energy expenditure by the end of the day, go for the lightest boots you can get away with. For instance, a pair of off-trail boots would be overkill for a backpacker who does weekend trips with a light pack and sticks primarily to trails. Here's a primer on selecting styles.

Trail. When your pack is light and the trail well kept, these low-cut or midcut boots are the best choice. Their combination of fabric/ leather or split-leather construction usually has multiple seams, so unless a waterproof/breathable liner is hiding inside, you'll need to augment them with Gore-Tex socks or an application of waterproofing. Trail shoes have stiffer soles, more stability, and better traction than typical running or walking shoes, but most people will find them too unstable under a big payload on slippery or rocky terrain. Consider using low-cut ankle gaiters to keep out trail detritus.

Rough-trail. If light backpacking or aggressive dayhiking is your thing, then these ankle-high boots are your best bet. Made from fabric/leather combinations or split-grain leather, some have waterproof/breathable liners, while others are porous and well ventilated for hot desert conditions. Tapered plastic midsoles or half-length shanks give these boots enough sole rigidity to armor your feet against stony trails, yet still allow good flex at the balls of the feet. Some strong-footed hikers prefer these lightweight boots for extended backpacking through serious outback; for the rest of us, when the going gets rough, it's time to trade up.

Off-trail. When the only trail you can find is a goat path through talus and alder tangles, you'll appreciate the full-grain leather, above-ankle support, and rigid sole stability that off-trail boots provide. The core boot choice for long backpack trips under heavy loads, these boots offer plenty of protection for your feet, yet flex enough at the balls of your feet for the shorter stride length dictated by tough terrain and a weighty pack. High-mileage hikers will eventually pummel off-trail boots into surprising softness, but expect a lengthy break-in time until the sole and heel cup soften. Off-trail boots offer superior waterproofing and durability due to their all-leather construction and minimal seams. Many off-trail boots are surprisingly lightweight, thanks to newer midsole/sole constructions. Some models have a lip on the welt of the sole to accept certain types of crampons for glacier travel or the new generation of snowshoe bindings.

Mountaineering.These boots are characterized by full-grain leather uppers, minimal seams, excellent traction, and sometimes a bit of insulation. They rise well above the ankle and accept crampons. With full-length shanks or stiff nylon midsoles, mountaineering boots are usually too rigid for comfortable full-stride hiking. Still, under a heavy pack on steep terrain, your stride will be shorter anyway, and they'll get you to the peak. Make sure these boots are well broken in before attempting much mileage, or you'll get world-record blisters. Look for rockered soles, minimal heel slippage, and rubber rands along the welt for durability and waterproofing.

Technical-scrambling.These are primarily low-cut and midheight hybrids with a close fit, sticky rubber soles, and anti-abrasion toe rands. Designed for light hiking and scrambling, they'll suffice under a lightweight backpack, given good trail conditions. If you plan to use them for serious trail travel, you'll want gaiters to keep out gravel, sand, and twigs.

Styles | The Right Fit | Details and Preservation | Fixing Problems

THE RIGHT FIT

Blisters, blackened toenails, sprained arches, bone spurs, plantar fasciitis need any more convincing that the proper fit is vitally important? Read on.

Start with the right socks. Details like toe seams and overall thickness can cause or relieve pressure problems. Many new generation hiking socks come with areas of differing thickness that can significantly alter boot fit, as well. If possible, buy boots while wearing the same socks you'll use in the woods. Or buy socks and boots at the same time.

Ignore size numbers and choose a boot that feels right for your foot size. This may mean you buy a pair one size larger than your norm.

Don't buy any boot if a narrow toebox cramps your toes. Toeboxes are difficult to remold adequately, particularly in beefier boots.

The most important feature of any boot's construction is the one you'll never see. A boot's "last" is the carved wooden foot around which the boot is shaped and constructed. If a manufacturer's chosen last matches the shape and volume of your foot, chances are the boot will work for you. If it doesn't match, then even the finest quality construction will result in nothing more than expensive and durable torture devices. Experienced bootfitters can correct problems that cause isolated pressure points, but even the most creative bootfitter can't change a grossly mismatched last.

If the last and size are in the ballpark, yet your foot seems to slop around inside the boot, the problem might be the footbed. A footbed keeps your foot from contorting inside the boot by supporting the sole in a neutral position. Other symptoms indicative of poorly matched footbeds are tender points on the heel and ball of your foot during hiking, pain in the arch, and persistent heel slip. People with high arches often need footbeds with more arch support than boot manufacturers typically provide. Some outdoors shops can customize molded footbeds like Superfeet, which work extremely well, or you can buy over the counter footbeds for anywhere from $10 to $30.

For truly persistent problems you might need custom molded orthotics. These rigid and often expensive ($150 and up) footbeds must be fitted by podiatrists. To determine whether you might need orthotics, look at the wear patterns on the soles of your older shoes and boots. If they show extreme wear on the inner side of the soles (pronation) or the outer side (supination), then your ankles and arches probably need orthotic support.

Styles | The Right Fit | Details and Preservation | Fixing Problems

ATTENTION TO DETAIL

Hiking boot comfort depends on fit, but the shoes also need to have the right shape and ample padding. To find the right footwear, keep in mind the following principles of boot ergonomics.

Tongue padding should be ample, yet relatively stiff to prevent the "cutting" feeling from tight laces. The stiffer the sole, the more padded the tongue should be to counteract the torque of a rigid sole. Unfortunately, many stiff soled boots skimp on tongue padding and become painful on steep uphills or long downhills.

Internal ankle padding is a well hidden feature that's critical to your comfort, since your ankle lacks fatty skin layers but flexes and folds thousands of times a day. Look for a secure fit around the heel and ankle to eliminate excess movement, and for decent padding on both sides of the joint to minimize chafing.

Most trail blisters occur in the heel region due to poorly broken in boots, heel lift from overly stiff soles, or poorly molded heel cups. Some heel friction is unavoidable, particularly with stiffer boots, but you can easily evade most of the discomfort by making sure your boots are well broken in. If discomfort persists, specialty outdoors retailers can apply heat and pressure to mold boot heel cups for a better fit.

Choose a model matched to your frequent type of use and terrain. If your travel styles vary widely, you'll probably be happier in a boot that errs on the lighter side.

PRESERVATION BOOTS THAT GO THE DISTANCE

To keep your boots ready for many more years of trail travel,follow these tips.

  • Frequent waterproofing with wax or silicone treatments will soften leather, not only making your boots more comfortable, but also stretching them a bit.
  • Recondition your boots frequently and use boot trees.
  • Rain and stream crossings help boots conform to your feet, but water degrades leather and can lead to shrinkage.
  • On long backpacking trips, take along waterproofing treatments. You'll definitely notice how much more supple and supportive your trail trashed boots feel after they've been treated.

Styles | The Right Fit | Details and Preservation | Fixing Problems

HOW TO TREAT BLISTERS AND OTHER BOOT PROBLEMS

Even after you've found a close to perfect fitting pair of boots, the sad fact of the hiking life is that at some point you'll likely experience some degree of foot discomfort. To find solutions to common boot problems, we consulted expert bootfitter Phil Oren of Tucson, Arizona.

The problem: Numbness.Boots that fit fine in overall length but have too much interior volume for narrow feet cause you to compensate by cinching laces as tight as a saddle on a bronco. This can lead to painful pressure that turns to numbness on the instep.

The remedy: Buy adhesive backed felt pads, which you can find in most quality shoe stores, and attach them to the inside of the boot tongue. This positions your foot more comfortably in the boot and cushions your instep. If this doesn't work, you might need to go to a podiatrist for cortisone injections, which will relieve the inflammation.

The problem: Toe chop. When breaking in heavy duty, all leather boots, as soon as the sole finally starts flexing, the stiff leather uppers crease, cutting into toes like a knife.

The remedy: New boots, especially mid and heavy duty ones, often cause "toe chop" during the break in period, when the leather is crimping but not flexing. The best way to prevent it is to wear the boots on as many short hikes and strolls around the neighborhood as you can before embarking on a big trip. If, after all this, your toes are still beneath the guillotine, visit a shoe cobbler who can mechanically flex the boot into a supple, foot friendly shape.

The problem: Tender soles. After lots of miles under a weighty pack, your soles can feel sore and squashed, especially at the balls of your feet. This is due to the pressure of thousands of steps a day on hard surfaces, plus insufficient boot insole padding. The situation becomes severe when the nerve that runs up the middle of the sole enlarges (a condition called Morton's neuroma) and causes a tingling or burning sensation in the toes, often the three middle ones.

The remedy: Off the shelf, most boots lack sufficient sole padding. The good news is that you can find a variety of replacement insoles offering different thicknesses, materials, and sport specific uses. It's best to have your new insoles on hand when trying on boots, so you can be sure there's enough room inside the boot. If toe pinching becomes a problem, take the insoles to a professional bootfitter, who can thin them with a belt sander. You can also use scissors to trim the insoles in conservative 1/8 inch increments to guard against overshortening until the fit is right. Orthotics also help, and, as a last ditch effort, surgery can remove the pinched nerve.

The problem: Toenail troubles. On a weeklong hike, your toenails turn a cloudy black and blue.

The remedy: The pounding and stress of a longer trek can cause feet to swell and elongate, so your toes end up ramming the front of the boots. This problem can also arise from ill fitting heel cups or from toenails left too long, especially on long downhill hikes when your feet slide forward in the boots. Several solutions come to mind, the simplest being to clip your toenails short. Also, cinch those boots snugly, so your feet lock in to the rear of the heel cup. To give your toes extra room, string the toebox eyelets loosely or don't lace them at all, then triple twist the laces and pull them tight over your instep. A tongue pad, like the one described in the numbness section above, can also help snug your foot into the heel cup of a too roomy boot.

If these solutions don't work, a boot specialty shop may be able to stretch the boot's length and width. Or you may have to start over and buy a boot that's half a size to a full size larger.

The problem: Blisters. Blisters can hobble the strongest, most experienced hiker, especially in wet conditions when your feet soften. Blisters are your body's natural reaction to friction. Heel blisters usually mean the heel cup is too wide. Blisters on top of your toes mean that your boots are too long; the boot is flexing in front of your foot's natural flex point at the ball. You can measure your foot two different ways on a boot store's Brannock sizing device: overall and heel to ball. The latter measures your crucial flex point and identifies the boot size that will flex in the same place as your foot.

The remedy: If blisters persist past a reasonable break in period for new boots and you've been sock smart that is, you've selected sock styles that don't have bulky toe seams, coarse weaves, or a too tight/too loose overall fit, and you've worn thin polypropylene liners under your wool or synthetic socks to help reduce friction and wick sweat away then it's probably time to buy a footbed to replace the boot's original insole. A footbed will support your foot in a neutral position so it doesn't collapse and contort inside your boot.

One highly recommended and widely available brand of off the shelf footbed is Superfeet (high arched and regular versions). These come in a generic form that can help stabilize most feet, plus a customized version that a good bootfitter can help you with. Another good brand is Zip Fit, which you can wear off the shelf, or have your bootfitter inject them with silicone for a customized fit.

If you have chronic blisters, you might need custom made rigid orthotics, which are available by prescription from podiatrists.

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