Choosing the Right Hiking Boots: The Gear Doctor's Tips

With summer here, I decided it would be a good time to provide some tips about buying hiking boots. Choosing the right hiking boots is a lot easier with some knowledge, and investing the time and money to find a good pair is a wise move. The right hiking boots should be as light and comfortable as possible for the type of hiking you plan on doing, while also keeping your feet dry, warm, and well-protected.

Before you start looking at options, ask yourself two questions:

  1. What are you most likely to use them for?
  2. About how much do you want to spend?

Hiking boots are divided into three basic categories: lightweight hiking boots, backpacking boots (mid-weight) and mountaineering boots (heavy-duty).

Lightweight Hiking Boots

Choosing the right hiking bootsLightweight hiking boots

These boots are designed for low impact hiking on terrain with gentle sloping hills and predefined trails. The lightest of the three, these boots usually come in a combination of leather and synthetic materials, which makes them lighter and more breathable. Light hikers typically don't require a long break-in period because of their flexible soles and boot materials. On the other hand, light hikers don't offer as much support for carrying heavier backpacks. The soles of light hiking boots also tend to have more conservative treads, or sole lugs, which makes them less ideal on very rugged terrain.

Backpacking or Midweight Hiking Boots

Backpacking BootsMidweight hikers

Backpacking boots are designed for uneven terrain and moderate inclines. Heavier than standard hiking boots, midweight boots have an average break-in period, so you'll want to take them out for a few short hikes before using them on a longer trek. They provide comfort and cushioning for longer hikes and ample ankle support for carrying a moderately heavy backpack. Backpacking boots tend to be more durable and supportive than lightweight shoes and boots, but are still primarily intended for shorter trips and moderately rough terrain.

Mountaineering or Heavyweight Hikers

Best hiking bootsMountaineering Boots

Heavyweight hiking boots are made for hiking significant inclines, uneven terrain and off-trail backcountry. They provide maximum ankle support, allowing you to carry heavy packs on multi-day hikes. These boots have a thick, stiff sole designed for the roughest terrain and many are crampon-compatible for winter climbing.

Do You Need Waterproof Boots?

Some hiking boots feature a waterproof membrane, like Gore-Tex®, which allows you to wade through water without getting your feet wet, so long as the water doesn't go above the ankle cuff and the membrane is undamaged. Alternatively, you can wade right across deeper streams wearing light trail-running shoes that drain and dry quickly. Of course, temperature makes a difference, and some people like fast-drying shoes. For snowshoeing or winter hiking, you'll obviously need a waterproof hiking boot. I personally prefer boots that are waterproof.

Getting a Good Fit

When trying on your boots for the first time, make sure that you wear similar socks to those you'd use on an average hike. Also, if possible, try on the boots in warm conditions near the end of the day, when your feet are likely to be the most swollen. Lace them up properly and walk around a bit, particularly trying to walk up and down a slight incline. This will give you a good indication about what they'll feel like in hiking conditions. The boots should feel snug, but comfortable and shouldn't constrict your feet.

There is one hard and fast rule: trust your feet. Even if the magazines, the experts, your friends, and the company selling the boots all tell you that brand X is the best, if it doesn't feel right on your foot, then don't buy them. Generally speaking, you can trust your feet, and you will know when you've found a good match. Of course, break-in time is a factor, especially with heavier boots and full-leather boots.

Breaking In Your New Boots

Properly breaking in your new hiking boots is an important step before attempting long or difficult hikes. To break-in boots, start with short walks and hikes, slowly progressing to longer hikes and rougher terrain. The stiffer the boot, the more break-in time required. If you plan on carrying a pack, break-in your boots on several hikes first, then start wearing your pack. Again, trust your feet. They will tell your when your boots are broken in.

These are the basic things you need to consider when buying a pair of hiking boots. Make sure to choose the pair that meets your requirements. Below is a picture of my favorite pair. They are Asolo's FSN 95 GTX, and they've seen a lot of miles over the past year. This last weekend they got a good testing in winter conditions, with about 5 to 6 inches of snow on the ground and the temp. never rose above 15 degrees. I hiked for 3 to 4 hours both Saturday and Sunday wearing them with a thermo silk sock liner and merino wool socks. My feet stayed warn and dry. Asolo makes some good boots! Other great brands to consider include Columbia Footwear, Lowa and The North Face.

Choosing the right hiking boots

-The Gear Doc

From the Archives- This post was written by Kevin, the Sierra Trading Post Gear Doctor. Please feel free to leave a comment below if you have any further questions about choosing the right hiking boots.

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Andy Hawbaker
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Andy Hawbaker
Andy is a hiker, backpacker, snowboarder and outdoor fanatic. When he isn't exploring the Rocky Mountains, burning marshmallows or scratching his dog behind the ear, he shares his experiences here on the Sierra Trading Post Blog.
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