Finding a good pair of hiking boots can be like trying to connect three points of a triangle that simply aren't matching up: comfortability, affordability, and style are three main points that can be challenging. When it comes to shopping online, as many of us are with social distancing measures in place (and just because it's convenient), finding something like a pair of hiking boots becomes even more of a challenge. It's an overwhelming world out there with so many options and while having options is good, choosing the wrong hiking boot is not.
A good pair of hiking boots mean the difference between avoiding injuries on the trail or causing them, being able to rock scramble or struggling to deal with varying terrain, or even something as simple as getting blisters or never having them. While it's true that all boots will need to be broken in, it's not true that all hiking boots will lead to a painful and uncomfortable first hike... And we're making it easy to determine what you need to start the season.
Step One: Determine What Type Of Hiking You'll Be Doing
If you didn't know it already, hiking boots can vary based on the type of hiking they're created for. For example, lightweight boots, AKA hiking shoes, are meant for trails that don't involve many terrain switches, don't feature many inclines, and aren't heavy. Hiking footwear such as this is perfect for day hikes, dry-weather hiking, and for long-distance hikes where being comfortable without feeling weighed down (such as thru-hikes) is needed. These shoes are lightweight and aren't great for rock scrambles or climbing summits, but will get you through a basic trail and provide enough grip to steady a hiker.
Backpacking boots are the next step up and are built to handle tough trails and multi-day hikes. You'll likely notice that these boots are stiffer than the typical hiking shoe and this is because they're built for rougher terrain. They're meant to hold up well to a variety of conditions and provide traction and support when needed and are better for uneven trails and off-trail ventures.
Mountaineering boots are as tough as they come and these are boots that will run up a price tag and are usually made with real leather for durability. These are built to allow hikers to tough out the most chaotic of conditions from rocky summits to snow-laden paths and everything in between.
Consider Your Foot Size, Shape, And What Type Of Shoes You're Already Comfortable In
The material the boot or shoe is made out of will impact a hiker greatly. If you're one who's already comfortable in stiff, unmoveable boots - such as Doc Martens or any other type of leather shoe - then leather or faux leather hiking boot might be right for you.
If you're comfortable with some flexibility and require a little bit of breathability in your shoes, consider a mess or textured exterior that will allow for movement and airflow.
Do You Need Extra Ankle Support, Or Does Your Fitness Level Permit Free Movement?
The height of the ankle on boots and shoes matters quite a bit as well. Many hikers know how easy it can be to roll an ankle or stumble while on a trail, which is where a high-fitting hiking boot can really provide some extra support where it's needed.
On the other hand, if your agility is great and you're better at navigating terrain with a lighter, more flexible shoe, then the lower the ankle, the better to provide freedom to move. The type of trail also matters, as well - if hikers opt for more overgrown or expert trails, a higher boot cut can also keep debris from getting into the boots, and can give ankles an extra layer of protection.
Here's What To Look For When Doing The Initial Try-On
It's important to remember that's it's normal for feet to swell a bit after a long hike. The pressure of being in a shoe for an extended period of time while sweating in a warm environment means that a little extra room is never a bad thing.
The toe box of the boot or shoe should always have enough wiggle room for toes, while the back of the shoe - the heel - should be the opposite, and should feel snug. If you're getting blisters, it's likely because the back half of the shoe is sliding around too much, causing friction where there shouldn't be any. Thick socks can also help this if you'd prefer a looser-fitting shoe.
Don't Try Out New Boots On The Trail, Where Them At Home First
There are two main reasons for this. The first is that in the event the shoes don't fit or feel uncomfortable, they can be returned without any extensive damage or dirt. The second is that if you do try them out for the first time on the trail, every uncomfortable step you take is another uncomfortable step that needs to be walked back to the car.
Breaking a pair of hiking boots in, sometimes, is a process - doing this at home where it can be done gradually and, preferably, close to band-aids and a hot soak - is the best way to do it. And, when in doubt, read the reviews for hiking boots! This is a purchase where the brand does make a difference but so does the opinion of other experienced hikers who know what to look for in a boot or shoe.