Expert Tips For Buying the Right Hiking 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 killer. Trouble is, boots are also the most difficult piece of gear to get right. (First tip: Don’t settle for a mediocre fit—if they don’t feel good, they aren’t good.) This article will go beyond the usual boots-buying tips you’ll find at countless sources to help you figure out how to find the right hiking footwear for you.

Thousands of miles of dayhiking, backpacking, trail running, and ultra-hiking, plus field-testing scores of shoe and boot models of all kinds over a quarter-century of reviewing gear—formerly as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for 10 years and even longer running this blog—have refined my sense of how hiking footwear differs subtly in critical characteristics like design, weight, materials, performance, and fit. (I can now usually tell the first time I put on new shoes or boots whether they fit me perfectly and are appropriate for my feet and the kind of hiking or backpacking I’m planning.)


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Hikers make every kind of bad choice on footwear, from buying too much boot (which can result in blisters and chronic foot or lower-leg injuries) to getting shoes that are not adequately supportive for them (which can also result in—you guessed it—blisters and chronic foot or lower-leg injuries).

Gaining a better understanding of those differences will help ensure you buy the right footwear for your needs—and spend your money smartly.

Please share your thoughts on my advice—or your own boots-buying secrets—in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

Gear up right for your hikes. See my reviews of the best hiking shoes and the 10 best hiking daypacks.

A backpacker hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park. Click the photo for my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

Types of Hiking Footwear

For the purposes of this article, I’ll divide hiking shoes and boots into three categories by approximate weight (per pair of men’s US size 9/Euro 42), noting that there’s overlap between these categories:

•    Lightweight—Low-cut (below the ankle) shoes or mid-cut (ankle-high) boots weighing roughly two pounds or less per pair;
•    Midweight—Mid-cut or higher boots weighing approximately two to 2.5 pounds per pair;
•    Heavy-duty—Mid-cut or higher boots weighing 2.5 to three pounds or more per pair.

(Purely for simplicity, my reviews divide footwear into two categories: hiking shoes and boots ideal for dayhiking and lightweight backpacking—overlapping the first and second categories above—and backpacking boots—overlapping the second and third categories above.)

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A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.
David Gordon backpacking the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park. Click the photo to read about this trip.

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 support, and thus more versatile for all kinds of hikers. They generally fall into the category of lightweight shoes and boots, and are often the type of low-cut shoe I prefer for dayhiking, especially models that are highly breathable.

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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.

Backpackers in upper Titcomb Basin, Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Todd Arndt and Mark Fenton in upper Titcomb Basin, Wind River Range, Wyoming. Click the photo to see the best ultralight backpacks.

See all of my reviews of hiking shoes and backpacking boots and my “8 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters.”

Tell me what you think.

I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons at right, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

 

See also my stories:

5 Expert Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack
5 Expert Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent
Pro Tips for Buying a Backpacking Sleeping Bag

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.

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.

 

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14 thoughts on “Expert Tips For Buying the Right Hiking Boots”

  1. Hi Mike.

    I need a new pair of boots. I have been wearing Salomon Quest Gore-Tex boots for quite a few years (>5 years at least). They are very comfortable and they fit my feet well. The problem is that I cannot get more than 2 years out of a pair. The tread is worn out and the rand has separated badly from the leather at the point where the boot flexes the most (pretty much where the toes meet the feet). Based on the online reviews, it does not seem like my experience is uncommon for these boots.

    Is buying a new pair of boots every two years wasteful (kinda seems like it but maybe my expectations are unrealistic)? Do you have recommendations for other boots that are in this class? I have low-volume feet that are pretty wide near the toes. I spend about 20-25 nights out a year. I don’t hike big miles but I do a lot of hiking off of established trails in Idaho mountains and Utah deserts (mostly Idaho mountains).

    Thanks.

    Tom

    Reply
    • Thanks for the question, Tom. The durability of boots depends more on miles, type of use and environment, and the durability of the materials. Really lightweight models tend to wear out faster, often within 300 to 400 miles and faster if you’re hiking off-trail or on wet, muddy, rocky trails a lot. Leather uppers and denser outsoles last longer but tend to be heavier and hotter. Living in a very dry climate (where your boots are stored) can affect the longevity of boots by causing materials to dry out faster, which can help explain a rand delaminating.

      I’ve backpacked in Salomon Quest and liked them but I generally tend toward lighter, cooler shoes. However, if you prefer a more supportive boot like that, you might try Oboz boots, which have a wide toe box and are comfortable, supportive, and moderately priced, like the Bridger Mid or Low (which come in waterproof and non-waterproof versions).

      I hope that’s helpful. Good luck.

      Reply
  2. Hi Michael,

    This blog is so thorough and incredibly helpful!

    I am planning a weekend backpacking trip in western NC that happens to involve 12-14 wet fords, most of them occurring in the same day. Typically, we change into sandals or water shoes for a quick ford and then dry our feet on the other side before switching back to our boots.

    But with so many crossings over the course of just a day, do you have any ideas about quick drying shoes that would allow us to just keep them on and dry as we hike?

    Reply
    • Hi Maxwell,

      Thanks for the nice compliment, I’m glad you find my blog helpful, and thanks for such a good question.

      You’re right that when facing an occasional creek or river ford on a trip, it’s not overly time-consuming to change into sandals for the crossing and dry your feet on the other side. But when I’ve faced numerous fords in rapid succession, instead of constantly changing footwear—which would greatly slow my progress—I’ve brought along sandals that would be comfortable enough to hike a distance in. I recall the Temperance Creek Trail in Hells Canyon having 21 fords in the space of a few miles or less, nothing more than knee-deep. I just hiked in my sandals, the water was cold snowmelt from higher elevations, but it felt great and was fun. You could wear socks if it helps add warmth and reduce the friction that can contribute to blisters and dry them on the outside of your pack afterward.

      Non-waterproof hiking shoes with mesh and/or perforated uppers will dry most quickly when wet—after you’ve done the final ford—because moisture will move out of them more quickly than it will through a waterproof-breathable membrane (provided that your feet are warm enough to generate the heat needed to push moisture out from inside). One example of many models I’ve reviewed is the Danner Trail 2650 Mesh hiking shoes. After the last ford, you can take the time to dry your feet and change back into dry socks and boots.

      See all of my reviews of lightweight hiking shoes at The Big Outside.

      Good luck with your hike. Thanks for the comment, please keep in touch.

      Reply
  3. Mike:

    Great article – as usual! After a deliciously brutal 4 day/3 night trip in West Virginia’s Cranberry Wilderness that included, rocks, roots, going over, under and around blowdown, stream crossings, boot-sucking mud, bushwacking to detour around washed out trails, and miles-long ascents and descents, I’ve became painfully aware (pain being the key word here) that I need new hiking/backpacking boots.

    I’m dealing with a few issues. In addition to my feet being different in that my right foot is fine, but the left pinky toe gets smashed, I have weak ankles and need that high ankle support since an ankle roll with a large pack in the backcountry would be catastrophic.

    I understood your categories beginning with light hiking/backpacking to medium to heavy backpacking. I’m not averse to having two (or three) pairs of boots for different circumstances. I have a pair of mid Merrell Moabs for dayhiking, and am looking for that midweight and/or heavyweight backpacking boot.

    I’m considering the Salomon Quest 4D 3, Aku Alterra, Scarpa R-Evolution, and Keen Durand II, and wonder if you can weigh in on these, or have any suggestions in the midweight and or heavy hiking/backpacking boot not on my list, given my toe and ankle issues.

    Appreciate any insights you can offer! Stay safe out there!

    Tom

    Reply
    • Hi Tom,

      Thanks for the question. Boots are the most difficult gear to get right—and simultaneously the most important, because we all know that a poor fit in boots can cause problems that make hiking uncomfortable, sometimes a misery, and maybe a trip killer.

      All of the boots you are considering would provide the ankle support you want. Your toe problem is probably a matter of getting the right fit in boots. Getting it right can simply come down to trying on a variety of boot models and walking around in them enough to develop a sense of whether your feet feel good in them. I suspect you have worn boots that do not cradle your midfoot as securely as you needed, causing your left foot to slip forward (likely when going downhill). It’s not uncommon for people to have feet that are slightly different from one another. You might be able to fix the left foot fit problem with an after-market/custom insole in that boot only (or maybe it will feel good for your right foot, too).

      It’s impossible for me (or anyone else) to predict which boots will fit your feet best. But I think that if you try enough, you will find some that, when on your feet, make you think, “yes, it’s these.” I’ve hiked in scores of different boots and shoes over the past few decades. I can put on a new pair and almost instantly know whether they fit me well. It won’t require you wearing scores of boots to find a good pair, but it may require trying on at least a few.

      See this menu of all of my reviews of backpacking boots that I think are top performers. Some are not as heavy, stiff, and hot as models you are looking at, but would still give you the ankle support you desire. Hot boots do not help your feet feel better.

      Good luck.

      Michael

      Reply
      • Mike:

        Thanks for your reply and great advice! Yeah, unless you’re actually in the store with me during a boot fit and can actually measure my foot, determine the height of my arch, and size up the shape and volume of my feet, its not a fair question! I wear aftermarket insoles, and lace my boots so as to prevent my foot from sliding forward. Unfortunately, stores must limit the models of boot they can stock, leaving us to researching on the web (which is how I ran across your reviews), reading customers reviews (with caution) and plenty of trial and error. I’ll go back thru your menu to see if I get any additional ideas. One final very specific question though. Do you have an opinion whether the Scarpa R-Evolution runs narrow? Guess I could have lead with that! Appreciate all you do!

        Tom

        Reply
        • Hi Tom,

          I didn’t have the impression that the Scarpa R-Evolution runs particularly narrow. The tongue helps it wrap the foot nicely, I thought. It all comes down to how they feel on your feet, of course.

          Good luck.

          Michael

          Reply
  4. Hi Michael, may I ask if you’ve tried the Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX? The review about the Quest 4D 2 was very helpful, but I know that some things have changed since then.

    I currently have Vasque Breeze III GTX; I think they are tremendously comfortable, provide excellent grip on a variety of surfaces, and have decent ankle stability. However, I am disappointed by the failure of the waterproof membrane during prolonged stream crossings.

    Do you think that the Quest 4D 3 would be overkill for someone like me, who only goes on long dayhikes, or would it be a worthwhile investment? I’m planning to do as much hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire as I can this summer, and will try to get to Glacier National Park or Grand Teton National Park in September for some dayhiking as well.

    Thank you for providing great information,

    Tim

    Reply
    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for the kind compliment about my blog, I’m glad you find it helpful. No, I have not reviewed a newer version of the Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX boots, but I suspect it represents some design improvements on what is a heavy-duty boot for backpacking in wet climates. I’ve hiked probably thousands of miles in the White Mountains (I get back there just about every year, love it), and for dayhiking there, I recommend you get shoes or boots that are lighter and not quite as hot, and perhaps with some ankle protection and support for the rocky trails.

      Check out this menu of all of my reviews of lightweight hiking and backpacking shoes and boots, and of course, the tips in the above story.

      Glacier and Grand Teton are two of my favorite parks. I’ve spent much time in both. Scroll down to Glacier and Grand Teton at my All National Park Trips page for menus of all of my stories about those parks. Visit my E-Guides page to see a menu of my downloadable e-guides to backpacking trips in those parks and others, and my Custom Trip Planning page to see how I can help you plan a trip.

      I hope that’s helpful, good luck.

      Reply
      • Hi Michael,

        Thank you very much for the reply, your advice is always helpful. I think you are right that a lighter, more breathable boot would be more appropriate for my purposes. It looks like Vasque is phasing out the Breeze III GTX, so maybe I will try this one, which looks like the successor.

        Thank you for the advice about Glacier and Teton as well. Our next trip will likely be 3 days in length, so the article “The Best Hikes for 3 Days in Glacier” is perfect.

        All the best,
        Tim

        Reply
        • You’re very welcome, Tim. I haven’t used that specific Vasque model, but it’s in the category of boot I think will serve your purposes better. Have a great trip in Glacier; such an inspirational place.

          Reply
  5. I’ve done a number of off-trail routes in Alaska wearing neoprene socks and running shoes. Stream crossings, boggy areas, etc., are not a problem as my feet stay warm and dry. At the end of the day, I turn them inside out and dry them out for the next day; running shoes dry fairly quickly as well. Living in Kodiak, Alaska, I’ve found the only truly “waterproof” boots are boots like Xtra Tufs, Muck boots, etc. I’ve tried hiking in wet areas with hiking boots and they just got waterlogged and heavy and never dried out.

    Reply
    • I’m sure all of what you’re saying is true. I’m about to head out on a canyon hike in southern Utah where I’ll hike in water a lot and don’t plan to have dry feet, so I’ll wear neoprene socks. But the water will be snowmelt, quite frigid, so I expect my feet to feel chilled at times–not warm. Some hikers would not like that cold, wet feeling all the time, and waterproof boots do keep feet dry in many situations. I just took a very wet, four-day hut trek in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, an extremely wet place. My Gore-Tex boots kept my feet dry the entire first day, through a lot of off-trail hiking in wet vegetation and mud. My feet were wet for the remainder of the trip because we waded through water knee-deep or deeper.

      Reply
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