By Michael Lanza
Boots are the most important piece of hiking or backpacking gear you will buy: You can live with a mediocre pack or a cheap tent (as many of us have), but poorly fitting boots are often a trip ender. Trouble is, boots are also the most difficult piece of gear to get right. Getting a good fit is only the first step, and a good retailer should help you do that. (First tip: Don’t settle for a mediocre or poor fit in boots—if they don’t feel good, they aren’t good.) The questions I get most often from readers focus on which type of boot to buy. Here’s what I’ve learned from a quarter-century of testing and reviewing scores of shoe and boot models of all kinds.
I’ve seen hikers make every kind of bad choice on footwear, from buying too much boot (which can result in chronic foot or lower-leg injuries and blisters) to getting shoes that are not adequately supportive for them (which can also result in—you guessed it—chronic foot or lower-leg injuries and blisters). I made some of those bad choices myself before I had worn enough shoes and boots that I can now usually tell as soon as I put on a new pair for the first time whether they fit me and are appropriate for the kind of hiking or backpacking I’m planning.
While others might categorize boots differently, for the purposes of this article, I’ll divide footwear into three categories by approximate weight (per pair of men’s US size 9/Euro 42, which happens to be the sample size used by many manufacturers when stating the weight of a pair of boots, and my size), with the caveat that there’s overlap between these categories:
• Lightweight—Low-cut (below the ankle) shoes or mid-cut (roughly ankle-high) boots under 2.5 pounds per pair (men’s size US 9/Euro 42);
• Midweight—Mid-cut or higher boots weighing roughly between 2.5 and three pounds per pair;
• Heavy-duty—Mid-cut or higher boots weighing roughly three pounds per pair or more.
(My reviews divide footwear into two categories, purely for simplicity: hiking shoes ideal for dayhiking and light backpacking—overlapping the first two categories above—and backpacking boots—overlapping the last two categories above.)
Gear up right for your hikes. See my reviews of the best hiking shoes and the 8 best daypacks.
For many people, midweight boots are a good choice because they serve the needs of a broad cross-section of hikers and backpackers, offering a balance between being fairly light and yet moderately supportive; many are also relatively affordable.
There has also been an evolution in the category of hiking-approach shoes toward designs that make them more breathable and comfortable for hiking many miles—in other words, making them more of a hiking shoe with great traction and good support, which makes them more versatile for all kinds of hikers. (They’re often the type of low-cut shoe I prefer for dayhiking, especially models that are highly breathable.)
Still, choosing the right boots for you comes down to understanding the type of hiker you are and considering the type of hiking you will do most often.
I’ve listed below criteria to help you figure out which type of footwear best suits your needs.
See also my stories:
“A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking”
“5 Tips For Finding the Right Backpack”
“5 Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent”
“Pro Tips: How to Choose a Sleeping Bag”
“5 Tips For Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear”
“Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?”
Note: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.