How to Choose 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 hiking boot options, ask yourself two questions:

  1. What type of hiking are you going to do?
  2. How much money do you want to spend?

Hiking boots are divided into three basic categories: lightweight hiking boots, backpacking boots (midweight) and mountaineering boots (heavy duty). Usually heavier boots cost more than lightweight hiking boots, but prices can vary based on the brand and boot features.

Lightweight Hiking Boots

how to choose hiking boots

Lightweight hiking boots are designed for low-impact hiking on terrain with gentle sloping hills and pre-defined trails. As the lightest of the three, these boots usually come in a combination of leather and synthetic materials, which makes them low in weight and more breathable.

Light hiking boots typically don't require a long break-in period because of their flexible soles and boot materials. On the other hand, light hiking boots don't offer as much support for carrying heavier backpacks as a heavier-duty hiking boot would. The soles of light hiking boots also tend to have more conservative treads, or lugged soles which makes them less ideal on very-rugged terrain.

Backpacking or Midweight Hiking Boots

how to choose hiking boots

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.

Midweight hiking boots 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 hiking boots, but they are still primarily intended for shorter trips and moderately rough terrain.

Mountaineering or Heavyweight Hiking Boots

how to choose hiking 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. Waterproof hiking boots only work if 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. 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.

When it comes to hiking boot fit, there's one hard and fast rule: trust your feet. Even if the magazines, the experts, your friends and the company selling the hiking boots all tell you that brand X is the best, if they don't feel right on your foot, 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.

Hiking Boot Lacing Techniques

If you're putting on major miles, there's a chance your feet will get sore even if your boots fit perfectly. These lacing techniques can help alleviate foot pain, making your time on the trail more enjoyable.

how to lace hiking boots

Breaking in Your New Boots

Properly breaking in your new hiking boots is an important step to take 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 light hikes first, then start wearing your pack. Again, trust your feet. They will tell your when your boots are broken in.

-The Gear Doc

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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