If you’re planning on putting in a lot of trail miles this year, you’re going to have to build out the perfect hiking gear from the ground up, literally. A good pair of hiking boots is often the difference between enjoying that day hike or summit push, and agonizing with more than your fair share of blisters. If you’ve never owned a pair of dedicated hiking boots though (or you last pair is decades old), walking into an outdoor gear shop and picking a pair out can be a daunting task. We’ve put together this guide to help you navigate the shoe section at your local REI and come out with a pair of boots that will have you knocking out the miles all summer.
Types of Trail Shoes
Light Hikers: These are typically low top shoes and are great for day hikes or longer distances on mellow trails. Because of the lack of ankle support, don’t plan on carrying heavier loads unless you’ve put in the work on the trail and in the gym to strengthen your feet, ankles, and calves. Today, you will see hybrid trail runners and approach shoes with stiffer soles filling in this category.
Hiking and Backpacking Boots: These high top boots offer more ankle support and overall durability. They can handle more rugged terrain and aid in carrying that pack loaded with a week’s worth of gear. The trade off is they are usually a good deal heavier and stiffer and require a longer break-in time.
Mountaineering Boots: If you are in the market for a pair of serious climbing boots, you’ll be spending most of your time above the tree line in very rough terrain. These ultra stiff, crampon compatible boots are very purpose driven. If you’re heading on an expedition length excursion like the Annapurna Circuit, they’ll come in very handy. For the average day hiker though, they’ll be overkill.
Anatomy of Hiking Boots
No matter what kind of hiking boot or trail shoe you choose, knowing a little about how they are constructed can help you ask the right questions while trying boots on and evaluating what works best for you. First, every boot has an outsole. Rubber compounds have come a long way since the days of all leather climbing boots. Companies like Vibram, Continental, and FiveTen have a wide variety of sticky and durable rubber that will keep your feet planted on the trail. Bonded to the outsole is a cushioning midsole. This is where the comfort and support factor come in.
Common materials are EVA foam that is light and cushy, and Polyurethane that offers longer durability and support. Some boots – especially boots built for backpacking and mountaineering – will have a stiff shank inserted in between the outsole and midsole. This provides extra support and stability. Above the midsole is the insole. This is almost always removable, and one of the first things we swap out on almost every boot. It’s not that boot makers don’t provide a quality product, but if you’ve got custom orthotics or are accustomed to a premium comfort insole like Superfeet (we recommend Superfeet Green ($45), and have them in every pair of boots we own and are are testing), then the included insoles are superfluous. Finally, The upper portion of your boot is stitched or bonded to the outsole, sandwhiching the mid and insoles into the package. Hiking boot uppers can be made of a few different materials:
Full Grain Leather: Full grain leather is incredibly durable when taken care of, and offers excellent support. You may sacrifice a little breathability, especially when pair with a waterproof membrane.
Nubuck Leather: Nubuck is simply full grain leather that has been buffed to feel like suede. Like full grain, it is very durable and water resistant, but will also require some good break-in time before you hit the trail for longer than a couple of hours.
Split Grain Leather: Split grain leather is named this because it is separation, or split, resulting in top grain and middle or inner portions being used separately. While it is lighter and cheaper, it tends to be less water and abrasion resistant. You’ll often see split grain leather on super breathable versions of boots built with mesh sections.
Synthetics: Ranging from tough nylon and polyester to synthetic leather, synthetic materials tend to dry faster than leather and break in quicker. However, due to extra stitching in synthetic uppers, they may show wear sooner than comparable leather boots.
Once you’re educated on what you’re looking for, it’s time to start narrowing down the options. These are a collection of some of the more important aspects you should consider when staring at the huge wall of boots at your local outdoor store.
Fit: If you don’t know your size, it is worth it to get the right fit from a footwear expert at the store. This can save a lot of time and pain later on. You should pay special attention to the time of day as well, as your feet tend to swell throughout the day. We like to go boot shopping in the evening to take advantage of this, as you’ll never have a problem with a little wiggle room but will curse boots that are even a half size too small.
Usage: Where are you planning to use your boots? If you’re a desert hiker planning long days in the Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, you won’t be buying the same pair as the hiker looking to trek into the Alaskan wilderness. While GORETEX is a great option for some people, in other environments a waterproof boot is a surefire way to be walking around with sweaty feet all summer. Likewise, your boot should match the load you are getting ready to carry. If you’re training for that week long traverse of the Sierra Nevadas, spring for a boot with more ankle support. You’ll thank us when you’ve got twenty miles under a heavy pack.
Foot Care: Think about socks too. A good pair of wool blend hiking socks (Our favorites are Farm to Feet’s Damascus Crew ($22.50)) help wick away sweat and keep your feet from feeling rubbed raw and fatigued. Bring a good pair along to try on with your boots; the shop will probably have a few tester socks lying around, but do you really want to share socks with the last fifty people who came into the store? Thickness and materials play a big role in foot comfort. In insulated mountaineering or winter boots we like to go with thin socks and for summer boots nothing more than a medium cushion. Augmented with a good aftermarket insole or footbed, and you can change the feel of a pair of boots out of the box.
After Care: Learning how to care for your new boots will extend their life significantly, as well as improve waterproofing and breathability. Take the time to ask a few questions about maintaining leather or synthetic materials. We’ve had good luck with Nikwax’s DuoPack for Boots ($15+). Again, a good footwear expert at the store can point you in the right direction of the best products for the boots you pick.
No matter whether you’re picking out your first pair of hiking shoes or are a seasoned backpacker, getting educated on your most essential piece of trail wear will pay dividends all year long. Stay tuned for our picks of this year best boots soon, as we’re wrapping up some intensive spring hikes in the Deserts of Southern Utah with a handful of this year’s newest and best hiking boots.