4 Tips for Choosing the Best Hiking Boots
Date Posted:16 August 2019
Whether you’re going on a casual day hike or a long off-trail adventure, you need the best boots for hiking that you can get your hands on. Here you’ll see how to find the perfect pair.
Ask any experienced hiker about their most important piece of gear and they’ll undoubtedly point to their shoes. The pair of hiking shoes you have on can be the difference between an exciting adventure and an uncomfortable, painful experience.
For this reason, doing your homework and finding the best hiking shoes is a crucial part of preparation.
Many people don’t look beyond the size and style when choosing a pair of hikers. If this is your approach, you’ll want to rethink it. There are more important features than these, so you’ll have to dig way deeper if you want to find your ideal pair.
To make this process easier, this guide will show you what to look for in the best hiking boots.
1. Where Are You Going?
This is the first question that you have to ask if you want to find the best hiking shoes. Your target trail and conditions determine all the features that you’ll see in this guide.
Trail – For hiking on a well-kept trail, you’ll want to go for a pair of lightweight low or mid-cut hiking shoes. Most commonly, they’ll feature a split-leather or fabric/leather construction that’s suitable for dry, clean trails. These boots will also have multiple seams, meaning that they likely won’t be waterproof. For an extra layer of protection, you should consider a pair of high quality hiking socks or another waterproofing solution.
Rough trail – If you plan on making things a bit more exciting, you’ll need hiking shoes or boots that can handle more challenging trails. These are usually ankle-high footwear with split-grain leather or fabric/leather uppers. You should look for soles that are rigid enough to protect you on rocky trails but flexible enough to support smooth travel. It’s also important for you to match the features to the weather conditions. You’ll have to choose between waterproof and non-waterproof shoes depending on the temperature and chance of rain.
Off-trail – Taking the road less travelled and exploring the wilderness can be the most exciting form of hiking. To enjoy it to the fullest, the best hiking shoes for going off-trail should have full-grain leather upper and above-ankle support. The all-leather build and minimal seams ensure great waterproofing to protect your feet from the elements. The tough, rigid soles will provide enough traction and protect your feet while offering some degree of flexibility. Contrary to popular belief, off-trail boots can be surprisingly lightweight. They also don’t take long to break in, so you won’t have to sacrifice comfort for protection.
Mountaineering – Mountaineering boots share many features as off-trail boots and shoes. The difference is that the cut is usually higher and the uppers feature some kind of insulation. Of course, traction should be one of your top priorities, so look for boots that are crampons ready. Mountaineering boots are quite rigid, so break them in before you attempt any serious mountaineering. That is if you don’t want extreme blisters to ruin your adventure.
2. Break Them Down
The best hiking boots for one person may not be the best for the next. The point is that you’ll have to take many features into account. And the best way to do this would be to look at the components of the boot individually. You know you have a winner if they all satisfy your needs.
To give you an idea of what to look for, here’s the anatomy of hiking boots:
An upper is the part of the shoe that covers your foot. The uppers will determine the breathability, weight, and durability of a pair of hikers. As you can see in the last section, different terrains call for uppers of different materials. The most common materials include:
Full-grain leather – Highly durable and protective, but not as breathable or light as the other options. Suitable for extended backpacking sessions provided that you broke them in beforehand.
Split-grain leather – Much more breathable and lightweight than full-grain leather. Commonly paired with nylon to form a mesh surface. As such, split-grain leather doesn’t protect from abrasion or water unless there are waterproof liners built-in.
Nubuck leather – A form of buffed full-grain leather that’s great against water and abrasion. Usually lighter than regular full-grain leather boots but you still need to break them in before you set out on a lengthy hike.
Synthetic materials – Synthetic leather, nylon, and polyester are common choices for boot and shoe uppers. The best hiking shoes that come with synthetic uppers are lightweight enough to stay comfortable after long hours of hiking. On the other hand, these materials aren’t as durable as genuine leather and might wear down faster. The price usually reflects this, which is why these boots are often cheaper than leather boots.
Waterproof materials – Some boots have uppers that can protect your feet against water. Examples include Gore-Tex® and eVent® membranes that offer superior protection. On the flipside, waterproofing makes the boots less breathable, so your feet are more likely to sweat on hot summer days. But that also depends on the height of the boots or shoes.
The midsole is the part between the outsole (the part that touches the ground) and the insole (the part that’s directly under your foot). The midsoles directly determine the stiffness of your hiking boots. One hallmark of a pair of best hiking shoes is a midsole that offers the right balance of stiffness and comfort. Depending on where you’re going, you might want to prioritise one over the other.
For example, it’s better to focus on shock resistance if you’ll spend a lot of time hiking on rocky trails. With stiffer midsoles, your feet won’t have to bend around every branch or rock that you step on. This will make it easier to tackle long hikes.
The two common midsole materials are:
Ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) – Usually affordable, light, and comfortable. Depending on the design, EVA midsoles can be denser in certain parts of the foot to accommodate for different hiking needs.
Polyurethane – Generally tougher and more durable than EVA, but more expensive as well. Mainly used for serious mountaineering or by backpacking hikers.
Internal support refers to the layers of materials between the midsole and the outsole. The goal is to add more protection to the boots. Most commonly, internal support includes shanks and plates. Shanks are usually 3-5mm thick and add more stiffness to hiking shoes. They can either cover the entire length of the shoe of just one half of it.
Plates are semi-flexible and positioned under the shanks. Their purpose is to protect your feet from rocks and other uneven terrains that can cause damage.
All hiking boots use some form of rubber or synthetic outsoles. They sometimes feature carbon or other materials that improve hardness and enhance other features. This is mostly the case with heavy-duty mountaineering and backpacking boots.
There are two things to consider here:
Lug pattern – The best hiking boots for your needs will have a lug pattern that matches your trail. For example, wider lugs provide better traction and do a good job of shedding mud. Similarly, thick and deep lugs improve grip and make it easier to tackle challenging trails.
Heel brake – This is a distinction between the outsole’s heel and the rest of the foot. The clearer it is, the lower the chance of slipping during steep descents.
As you can see, it’s important to pay attention to the construction to find the best boots for hiking. But that’s not all. It’s time to answer the eternal question that arises when discussing the ideal pair of hikers.
3. Finding the Right Fit
This sounds like a pretty simple task, right? All you have to do is look at the size number and you’re good to go.
Unfortunately, there’s much more to sizing than this. Even if the number is right, the shoe’s construction can influence how well it fits. A bad fit can result in bone spurs, blisters, sprained arches, and many other conditions that you can’t afford to risk when you’re off the beaten track.
The most important thing that determines the fit of the best hiking shoe is one that you won’t come across. Shoe manufacturers use a wooden foot model called ‘last’ to design footwear. If the last is similar enough to your foot size and shape, the shoes will fit. If not, you may have to go one size up or down or not at all.
With this in mind, the best thing that you can do is to try on the shoes and see how they feel. It would be good if you could wear the socks that you normally wear to go hiking when trying on new shoes. This is because the right socks have many details that can make hiking more comfortable. This includes the toe seams and density differences in certain areas. These details can make your shoes fit tighter. A pair of shoes that fit well on your bare feet may not when you have your socks on.
Another thing to pay attention to is the footbed. It keeps your foot in a neutral position and prevents it from bending while you’re walking. Not having the right footbed can make even the best hiking shoes uncomfortable over time. What’s more, this can cause painful arch sprains that can ruin your hiking experience.
If possible, you’ll want to walk around in the boots for a bit before buying them. See if the front breaks the plane properly and if the heel follows the boot seamlessly or moves around. If you notice any pressure points, look for another pair, as this will only get worse in the future.
4. Quality First
If you care for them properly, the best boots for hiking could last for years. But this is only possible if you invest in a pair of high-quality hikers. Bear in mind that the label or price tag doesn’t always equal quality.
Here are a few tips for judging the quality of a pair of hiking shoes:
Check the seams to make sure that there are no loose threads or missing stitches.
See if the upper material is consistent across the boot and if there are any abrasions or weak spots.
Bend the shoe in different directions to see if the stiffness matches your needs.
Make sure that the heels are tough and don’t bend or squish easily.
See if the lugs are hard enough and if the pattern fits your hiking setting.
The best hiking shoes will feel premium when you hold them and put them on. If you notice any weak points, keep looking for another pair that feel sturdy enough.
While it’s possible to find a good pair of boots without burning a hole in your pocket, you shouldn’t go cheap when it comes to finding the best boots for hiking. Over the long run, this will only cost you more if the shoes wear down faster, sometimes a lot faster.
Hit the Trail
As you can see, finding the best hiking boots can be quite involved. However, it’s important for you to take the above factors into account if you want to find a pair that will support you adequately on your adventures.
Take your time to browse through what’s available and don’t settle for anything less than a pair of hikers that check all the boxes. Even some minor details can make a world of difference to your overall experience, so choose wisely.
If you make the right choice, your boots can serve you for years to come as your trusted sidekick as you blaze through trails near and far. You can set out on any journey knowing that you have all the support you need.
To see some of the best hiking shoes and footwear for camping on the market, check out the hiking shoes and boots section of our webstore.