Hiking Boots: An Owner's Manual

Footwear tech is more complicated than it looks. Maximize your mileage by learning how to pick the right boots and make them last.
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Tying Boots

Buy your boots carefully, and your feet will thank you.

Interested in learning to fix your own gear? Right now you can get $40 off our Outdoor Gear Maintenance and Repair course at AIM Adventure U.

The Boot Expert

Brennan Halterman grew up hiking in Southeast Alaska and has been fitting shoes since 2003. Now he’s closing in on his tenth year at Seattle’s Ascent Outdoors (his second as the shop’s footwear buyer). “When you’re fitting people for shoes, you have the opportunity to really interact with the customer and make a notable difference in their wellbeing,” he says.  

How to Buy Hiking Boots: Ask the Right Questions

What’s my size (and shape)? Ask a fitter to measure your foot’s length (including heel-to-ball length) and width on a Brannock device, and to determine your foot’s volume. If a pair doesn’t work, the fitter should be able to explain why—whether it’s too wide, too low-volume, or because the ball is set too far forward or back. Different brands (and different models within those brands) approach those components differently.

How long will these last? Full-grain leather and nubuck uppers are typically more durable than split leather, synthetics, or suede. Sturdy PU midsoles will last 1,000-plus miles, while cushier EVA ones will start to compress in about half that distance.

Are they comfortable? Walk up and down an incline board to check for heel slippage and toe bang, signs of a too-big boot. Spend about 20 minutes with a loaded pack (or better yet—ask if you can take the boots home for a few days; walk around the house in them, but keep them clean). Stiffness is to be expected with beefier boots, but rubbing seams, pinching, or excess wiggle room usually indicates poor fit.

Do I need a waterproof shoe? If you’re expecting serious rain, snow, mud, or shallow stream crossings in cold weather, waterproof is the way to go. But hot weather and full submersions beg for quick-drying, breathable shoes.

Anatomy of a Hiking Boot

Figure out the features you need on your next pair. (Too small to read? Click the image to view the full-size version.)

shoe chart

Get a Perfect Fit

Don’t size up to get a wider shoe, Halterman says (it’s a recipe for toe bang). Instead, find a model that runs wide, and if you know you’ve got funky anatomy, find a fitter who knows backpacking and knows feet—you need both.

Hiking Boot Owner's Manual

Let ’em breathe. Air out your shoes at the end of the day to inhibit bacterial growth (remove insoles for faster drying).

Keep cool. Don’t leave boots too close to a fire. Delamination, melting synthetics, and shrunken leather are all symptoms of overheating.

Scrub up. Wash boots inside and out with a stiff brush and mild detergent as needed. Air dry. Exception: You can throw lightweight, non-waterproof, full-synthetic shoes like trail runners in with the laundry. Use a gentle cycle and dry on low heat.

Basic Boot Repair

Peggy Welch, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Resole, has been tending to worn-out boots at the Salida, Colorado, shop for 17 years. She talks through a few of the most common shoe failures she sees and how to fix them. 

Delaminated sole: Crisis? Use duct tape. At home? Clean both interfaces where the glue failed. Apply Gear Aid Freesole to reattach.

Cracked leather: Prevent with a water-based leather treatment. Get severe cracks patched or restitched ahead of time. Too late? Use duct tape.

Peeling toecap: Use shoe glue as a temporary fix, then send your boots in for new toecaps. 

Torn mesh panel: Use a shoe-specific patch. In the field? Patch with a square of bandana to keep out dust and debris. 

The Bottom Line on Hiking Boots

Bigger load, more support, right? Well, to each his or her own: We’ve hiked long trails in sandals, hefted 50-pound packs in trail runners, and walked the family dog in boots that would make Paul Bunyan proud. It all comes down to personal preference: Just do whatever makes your feet sing.