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 dozens 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.)
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 questions or 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.
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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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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.
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.
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Lightweight Shoes and Boots
Get lightweight shoes or boots if you fit any of these descriptions:
• You are a dayhiker typically carrying a light pack (15 to 20 pounds or less);
• You’re a fit, avid hiker, climber, ultralight or lightweight 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.
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 midweight, 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.
Get midweight boots if you fit any of these descriptions:
• You’re new to hiking and want a functional, all-around model for dayhiking and/or light backpacking;
• You’re carrying a light or moderately heavy pack (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 with 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 fit any of these descriptions:
• 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.
Keep your feet happy with my “8 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters.”
A Simple Boot Test
Here are two simple and quick ways to evaluate a boot’s support, underfoot protection, and torsional rigidity (which is the side-to-side support that protects against rolling an ankle):
- Hold a 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.
- 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 cushion and support if you’re carrying a heavy pack.
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, or any of the proprietary membranes some boot manufacturers use) 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 just as uncomfortable as cold, wet feet, and lead to blisters.
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 cold, wet conditions.
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 and at left), 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 (when they were younger and I carried most of their gear and food), 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. And there are more options today in relatively lighter heavy-duty boots.
Those example situations represent a 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.
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Traction and Outsoles
Hiking footwear typically has one of about three different general variations on outsoles. Here are those three types, with a description of their strengths and recommended use.
• Moderately deep, multi-directional lugs deliver good traction on a variety of ground surfaces, including packed dirt, scree, and mud—the kind of trail conditions typical of three-season hiking and backpacking. They are not as sticky on dry or wet rock as smooth, gripply rubber, nor do they deliver as much traction as deep lugs in very muddy, wet conditions. But these outsoles are found on many hiking and backpacking shoes and boots, at all price ranges, because they function as a good, all-purpose outsole for hiking or backpacking mostly on trails.
• Deep, widely space lugs are designed to grip in dirt that’s dry or wet, packed or loose, on scree, in mud, and even on the kind of firm, often wet-on-the-surface snow found in mountains in summer. These outsoles are most commonly placed on midweight to heavy-duty boots with leather or durable synthetic uppers that are designed to provide more support, waterproofness, and durability for carrying a heavy pack in wet, rugged conditions.
• A smooth, grippy rubber outsole, usually located under the toes—with multi-directional lugs under the midfoot and heel—is designed to maximize contact area and stickiness on rocks and steep slabs, for hiking rocky trails or scrambling and hiking off-trail. These outsoles are commonly seen on low-cut “approach”-style shoes, occasionally on mid-cut boots.
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. Follow these tips when buying boots:
• Read reviews of hiking shoes and boots not as a way of choosing one model of footwear, but as a means of narrowing your choices to a short list and then trying them on.
• Try on boots later in the day, when your feet are typically slightly swollen from a normal day’s activity.
• 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—thus determining the boot’s interior shape and specific fit. Some people find they can fit footwear from many different brands (I’ve been lucky in that); others can’t.
• The more boot models and brands you try on, the easier you will find a good fit—especially when buying your first few pairs. You may discover a brand you can stick with for good fit in future footwear purchases, and even feel confident enough about them to buy online without trying them on first.
• Get your foot size measured accurately.
• If you have trouble finding boots that fit well, try using custom insoles (purchased separately).
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See also my stories:
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
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 The Big Outside’s Gear Reviews page for categorized menus of gear reviews and expert buying tips.