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.)
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.
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.
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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.
Tell me what you think.
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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.