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.)


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


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.

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.)

Find your next adventure in your Inbox. Sign up now for my FREE email newsletter.

 

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.

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.

Click here now to plan your next great backpacking adventure using my expert e-guides.

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.

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.

Midweight Boots

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 (30 to 40 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.

Let The Big Outside help you find the best adventures.
Join now for full access to ALL stories and get a free e-guide!

 

A backpacker in the rain on the Dusky Track in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking in the rain on the Dusky Track in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. Click photo to read about “New Zealand’s hardest hut trek.”

Heavy-duty Boots

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
A backpacker hiking below a rainbow in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
Mark Fenton backpacking through a rainstorm in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Click photo to read about backpacking in the Winds.

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.

A hiker on the John Muir Trail below Cathedral Peak, Yosemite National Park.
Heather Dorn hiking the John Muir Trail in Yosemite.

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.

Get my expert help planning your next trip. Click here now!

 

A backpacker on the Tonto Trail above the Colorado River, Grand Canyon.
Mark Fenton on the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon. Click on the photo to see my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon” and all of my expert e-guides.

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.

The Osprey Exos 58 in Glacier National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm at Pitamakan Pass in Glacier National Park. Click photo to read about backpacking in Glacier.

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).

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

You live for the outdoors. The Big Outside helps you get out there.
Join now and a get free e-guide!

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 The Big Outside’s Gear Reviews page for categorized menus of gear reviews and expert buying tips.

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.

Previous

Tent Flap With A View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites

Review: Outdoor Research Helium Wind Hoodie

Next

Leave a Comment

16 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