Hiking Boots: How to Choose
Choosing the right hiking boots is a matchmaking process. Your dream hiking boots will:
- Match your hiking ambitions. Beefy backpacking boots, for example, are usually not necessary if all you’re planning are day hikes—unless a backpacking boot offers you the most comfort.
- Comfortably fit your feet. Ensuring a good fit is the key part of the boot-selection process.
Video: Hiking Boot Basics
Types of Hiking Boots
Some boots—and even shoes—straddle the range between light hiking, hiking and backpacking. Your hiking ambitions determine what footwear works best. If you routinely carry light loads, you should consider lighter footwear.
Hiking shoes: Low-cut models with flexible midsoles are excellent for day hiking. Many ultralight backpackers may even choose trail-running shoes for long-distance journeys.
Hiking boots: These range from mid- or high-cut models intended for day hikes or weekend backpacking trips with light loads. They often flex easily and require little break-in time, but they lack the support and durability of stout backpacking boots.
Backpacking boots: These are designed to carry heavier loads on multiday trips deep into the backcountry. Most have a high cut that wraps above the ankles for excellent support. Durable and supportive, with stiffer midsoles than lighter footwear, they are suitable for on- or off-trail travel.
Hiking Boot Features
Hiking Boot Uppers
Materials impact a boot’s weight, breathability, durability and water resistance.
Full-grain leather: Full-grain leather offers excellent durability and abrasion resistance and very good water resistance. It’s most commonly used in backpacking boots built for extended trips, heavy loads and rugged terrain. It is not as light or breathable as nylon/split-grain leather combinations. Ample break-in time is needed before starting an extended trip.
Split-grain leather: Split-grain leather is usually paired with nylon or nylon mesh to offer lightweight, breathable comfort. Split-grain leather "splits away" the rougher inner part of the cowhide from the smooth exterior. The benefit is lower cost, however, the downside is less resistance to water and abrasion (though many feature waterproof liners).
Nubuck leather: Nubuck leather is full-grain leather that has been buffed to resemble suede. It is very durable and resists water and abrasion. It’s also fairly flexible, yet it too requires ample time to break in before an extended hike.
Synthetics: Polyester, nylon and so-called "synthetic leather" are all commonly found in modern boots. They are lighter than leather, break in more quickly, dry faster and usually cost less. Downside: They may show wear sooner due to more stitching on the outside of the boot.
Waterproof: Boots and shoes billed as “waterproof” feature uppers constructed with waterproof/breathable membranes (such as Gore-Tex® or eVent®) to keep feet dry in wet conditions. Downside: The reduced breathability created by a membrane (compared to the ventilating mesh used on some nonwaterproof shoes) may encourage feet to sweat on summer days.
Vegan: Vegan-friendly hiking boots and shoes are made without any animal ingredients or byproducts.
Insulated: Synthetic insulation is added to some mountaineering boots for warmth when hiking on snow and glaciers.
Hiking Boot Midsoles
The midsole, which provides cushioning, buffers feet from shock and largely determines a boot’s stiffness. Stiff boots might not sound like a good thing, but for long hikes on rocky, uneven terrain they can mean greater comfort and stability. A stiff boot won’t allow your foot to wear out by wrapping around every rock or tree root you step on.
The most common midsole materials are EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) and polyurethane.
EVA is a bit cushier, lighter and less expensive. Midsoles use varying densities of EVA to provide firmer support where needed (e.g., around the forefoot).
Polyurethane is generally firmer and more durable, so it’s usually found in extended backpacking and mountaineering boots.
Hiking Boot Support Components
Shanks: These 3–5mm thick inserts are sandwiched between a boot’s midsole and outsole to add load-bearing stiffness to the midsole. They vary in length; some cover the entire length of the midsole, while others only cover half.
Plates: These thin, semiflexible inserts are positioned between the midsole and the outsole, and below the shank (if included). They protect feet from getting bruised by roots or uneven rocks.
Hiking Boot Outsoles
Rubber is used on all hiking boot outsoles. Additives such as carbon are sometimes added to backpacking or mountaineering boots to boost hardness. Hard outsoles increase durability but can feel slick if go you off trail.
Other outsole considerations:
Lug pattern: Lugs are traction-giving bumps on the outsole. Deeper, thicker lugs are used on backpacking and mountaineering boots to improve grip. Widely spaced lugs offer good traction and shed mud more easily.
Heel brake: This refers to the clearly defined heel zone that is distinct from the forefoot and arch. It reduces your chance of sliding during steep descents.
Hiking Boot Rands
Found on some waterproof/breathable boots, a rand is the wide rubber wrap encircling the boot (or sometimes just the toe area) where the upper meets the midsole. It offers extra defense against water penetration on wet, mucky trails. It also protects boot leather from rocks and abrasion.
Your boot type ultimately tells you what options you have in crampon binding systems. Boot and crampon compatibility is essential for performance and safety.
Strap-on crampons have nylon webbing straps that secure the crampons to your boots. While these take longer to attach than other systems, the beauty of the strap-on style is that it can be attached to nearly any boot. For more flexible footwear, such as hiking shoes, hiking boots and backpacking boots, make sure the crampon’s center bar is compatible with the flex of your boot.
Step-in crampons feature a wire bail that holds the toe in place while a heel lever attaches the crampon to the heel of your boot. This is the easiest, most precise and fastest attachment system, however, it can only be used with specific boots. To use crampons with a step-in binding, boots need to have rigid soles and at least a 3/8" welt or groove on the heel and toe. Step-in crampons are typically compatible with heavy-duty mountaineering boots, but not lightweight mountaineering boots, hiking boots or backpacking boots.
Hybrid crampons are a blend of strap-on and step-in crampons. They feature a heel lever and toe strap, and they require a boot with a stiff sole plus a heel groove or welt to hold the heel lever. The toe strap, however, doesn’t need a welt to fit securely. Hybrid crampons go on very quickly and easily and are compatible with most lightweight mountaineering boots and some backpacking boots, but typically not with hiking boots.
Hiking Boot Fit Tips
Hiking boots should fit snug everywhere, tight nowhere and offer room to wiggle your toes. Try them on at the end of the day (after feet swell) and with the socks you plan to wear on the trail. Stroll through the store, up and down stairs or an inclined surface. If you detect a bump, seam or pinching in the forefoot, the boot’s not right.
Know your size. It’s best to have your foot measured on a Brannock device at REI. You can also measure your foot length (in inches or centimeters) and use the online sizing charts found on each REI.com boot page to find your boot size.
Try on boots at the end of the day. Your feet normally swell a bit during the day’s activities and will be at their largest then. This helps you avoid buying boots that are too small.
If you wear orthotics, bring them along. They impact the fit of a boot.
Wear appropriate socks. Familiar socks can help you more quickly assess the fit and feel of new footwear. However, try to make sure the thickness of the socks matches what you intend to wear on the trail.
Spend some time in the boots. Take a stroll through the store. Walk up and down stairs. Find an inclined surface and walk on it. If you detect an odd bump or seam, or a little pinching in the forefoot, the boot’s not right.
When shopping online, consider a brand you have worn before. Most boot companies tend to use a consistent foot model over time, so the fit is likely to be similar.
Consider aftermarket insoles (a.k.a. footbeds). Insoles come in models that can enhance comfort, support or fit—or all three. See our Expert Advice article, Insoles: How to Choose.
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