Pro Tips For Buying the Right Boots
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. (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 two decades 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.)
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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. 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.
Lightweight Shoes and Boots
Get lightweight shoes or boots if:
• You are a dayhiker typically carrying a light pack (generally under 15 pounds);
• You’re a fit, avid hiker, climber, ultralight backpacker or trail runner and accustomed to hiking in light footwear, especially for hiking long distances daily at a strong pace;
• You don’t tend to roll or sprain your ankles;
• Or you’re hiking trails that are well maintained and not too rocky.
Get midweight boots if:
• You’re new to hiking and backpacking and want a functional, all-around model for dayhiking and possibly light backpacking;
• You’re carrying a light or moderately heavy pack (25 to 35 pounds max) on trail;
• You hike high-mileage days, generally on trails, with a light or moderately heavy pack, and want footwear that’s fairly lightweight and won’t make your feet overheat too badly (which can lead to blisters), yet still a bit more protection and support than lightweight shoes;
• Or you’re an experienced and fit hiker and backpacker and want footwear that finds a balance between moderate support and weight.
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Get heavy-duty boots if:
• You’re carrying a heavy pack (generally 40 pounds or more) on trails, or a pack weighing 30 to 40 pounds on rugged trails or off-trail, and find that midweight boots don’t offer the support you need;
• You typically go hiking or backpacking in an environment that’s rugged, very wet, and cool or cold, and may involve some challenging, off-trail hiking;
• Or if your feet simply need more support and protection than is provided by midweight boots.
If you’re new to dayhiking or backpacking, I’d caution against getting very lightweight boots because your feet may not yet have the strength and resilience that slowly develops when you hike a lot, and inadequately supportive boots can be a fast way to a chronic overuse injury. Start out with a mid-cut boot with good support and protection for your feet. As you get more experience, you will know better how light a boot your feet can handle—right around the time you wear out your first pair and need new ones.
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A Simple Boot Test
Here’s a simple way to evaluate a shoe or boot’s support, underfoot protection, and torsional rigidity (which is the side-to-side support that protects against rolling an ankle): Hold the boot in your hands and twist it like you’re wringing a towel. The harder it is to wring a boot like a towel, the more substantial its rigidity and support in the midsole (which may include a partial shank to enhance support), as well as protection against sharp rocks. Also, bend the boot’s forefoot (where your foot naturally bends, under the toes) to see how much flex it has. Boots that flex more easily will allow a more natural stride when walking, which is most desirable for moving fast with a light pack (under 25 to 30 pounds), but may sacrifice some stability and support if you’re carrying a heavy pack.
Fitting Boots Correctly
Keeping feet comfortable and blister-free really does begin and end with correct fit—which is why it’s harder to recommend a specific model of shoe or boot to someone than to recommend other kinds of gear. Find boot brands that fit your feet well, because all boot makers use their own lasts, which is the foot model around which they construct their boots. Finding brands that fit your feet requires trying on a lot of different boots; the more you try on, the easier you find a good fit. Also, get your foot size measured accurately, and try on boots later in the day, when your feet are typically slightly swollen from a normal day’s activity. Do not buy boots online sight-unseen. If you have trouble finding boots that fit well, try using custom insoles.
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Waterproof Vs. Non-Waterproof Boots
There are two schools of thought on this. Most popular is the idea that you get boots with a waterproof-breathable membrane (like Gore-Tex or eVent) on the premise that it will keep your feet dry by keeping water out and releasing perspiration moisture that builds up inside the boots. In practice, this works pretty well, unless the boots are too heavy and warm for the temperatures you’re hiking in, in which case your feet will sweat and overheat faster than the membrane can move that moisture out—and that can be more uncomfortable than cold, wet feet.
The counter strategy is to wear highly breathable, non-waterproof footwear because, while water will readily penetrate them, such shoes or boots are so breathable that they dry quickly. Plus, you can wear waterproof socks with them to keep your feet dry and warm in colder temps.
What do I do? When I’m ultralight backpacking big-mileage days, for instance (as on the John Muir Trail, shown in lead photo at top of story), I want low-cut or mid-cut, highly breathable shoes, sometimes not waterproof (especially in a relatively dry summer climate like much of the U.S. West in summer). In those circumstances, it’s more likely my feet could overheat than that they will get wet from the outside.
But if I’m carrying a heavy pack because I’m backpacking with my kids, or on a multi-day hike that’s gear-intensive (like climbing), and walking only moderate distances daily, with occasional rest stops (when I can take off my boots and cool my feet), I’ll often go for a midweight boot with good support. If I’m carrying a heavy pack in rugged, wet terrain where I’m kicking steps in a fair bit of snow (even in summer), I lean toward a sturdy and reliably waterproof (and breathable) boot that can easily kick steps in densely consolidated snow and not leak when I’m splashing through puddles and mud.
Those example situations represent a broad continuum. Your needs may fall somewhere in between. But the guidelines above should help you find the right shoes or boots for your needs and adventures.
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 all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.
See also my stories “The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun,” “5 Tips For Finding the Right Backpack,” “5 Tips For How to Buy a Backpacking Tent,” “Pro Tips: How to Choose a Sleeping Bag,” “5 Tips For Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear,” and “Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?,” plus a menu of all my Ask Me posts offering tips on buying boots.
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