Boots are a critical piece of gear for a hiker. You can hate your pants, get by with cheap poles, or forget your hat, and still have a perfectly fine hike. But as anyone who has ever had blisters, hot spots, soaking wet feet, frozen toes, or a heel that slips and rubs the skin raw with every step can attest: if you wear the wrong boot, you’re going to have a bad day.
There are plenty of places to cut corners; this isn’t one of them. Secondhand gear is easily found and often in great condition, discarded by someone who went all-in as a hobby then decided it wasn’t for them. Many big outdoor retailers (I’m looking at you, REI Garage Sale) hold seasonal sales where you can find high end gear for a fraction of the cost. And honestly you will never need nearly as many sports bras as you think you do. I had a pair of poles for a while that cost under $25 and they weren’t all that different than the $160 ones, or a good stick. You can make your own trail mix and save a bundle.
But boots? Research. Try on a million pairs. Don’t look at the brand, the color, or if you can, the price tag. Be picky, be patient: don’t settle for the ones that are sorta ok just because it’s going to take a week for the perfect ones to be delivered. Ask around, read reviews, go to boot companies’ websites and learn as much as you can, then go shopping—in person—armed with knowledge and comfortable in your ability to communicate exactly what type of boot you’re looking for: a day hiker’s boot, a backpacking boot, or a mountaineering boot? Do you need them to be waterproof? Or breathable? Does your foot require something with a wide toe box, a high arch, a narrow heel, or a roomy instep? Do you like a low, mid, or high ankle? Do you run hot or cold? Will you be wearing crampons? Will you be carrying a heavy pack and trekking long distances, or walking gentle trails for an hour a day? Do you tend to lose toenails? Do you get ankle claustrophobia? (I heard this so often when I was working in footwear that I came to accept it as a real condition.) You can never do too much research when it comes to boots and feet.
Try on as many as you can until your foot slides effortlessly into Your Boot, that boot that’s been waiting for you its whole life, the one that feels like a hug. If it’s a weird color, oh well. If it’s a 10 and you’ve claimed 8.5 your whole adult life, oh well. I wound up in a men’s boot because my foot just nestled inside them so perfectly that I really didn’t care that there’s an M on the box or that they only come in bolder colors than I prefer—they make my feet happy and that’s all that matters. My Boot solved the cold feet issue I was having: though I have narrow feet, the slenderness of women’s boots didn’t leave enough of an air pocket for my toes to get warm unless I went up a size, and then my heel slipped terribly. So now I am in a correctly-sized men’s boot made by La Sportiva, a brand that runs narrow, as the men’s has a much wider toe box than the women’s, so my toes have plenty of space to generate heat; it’s like a mitten with all that wiggle room, and I didn’t have to get a too-long boot to achieve that harmony. My feet stay warm and dry, I’ve not had a single blister, and there was no break-in period. I’m on my fourth pair and have a backup in the garage ready to go when these die. I wish you the same complex understanding of your feet and subsequent soulmate experience with your boots.
When you try on hiking boots, try on the size you think you are plus a half size in each direction for every style you try on. Yes that’s thirty boxes if you were considering ten boots. It’s ok. It’s important. Try them on with the socks you hike in. If you can, try them on later in the day when your feet might be a little puffier than they are in the morning. Walk around and around and around the store; ask if there’s a staircase or ramp you can use to feel for toe-bang. Some outdoorsy shops even have a faux boulder for you to walk up and down. But this right here, the trying on, this is the part where you have to really pay attention to your body and listen up and be honest about what feels best, because this decision will color your mood for many miles to come and make or break some incredible times in the mountains.
First, narrow down what you’re in the market for. The three main types of hiking boots are:
Day Hiking Boots
Like trail runners, a basic day-hiking boot can be used for anything from a couple miles on mild inclines to long days with steep scree and minor scrambling, but the key thing that separates them from trail runners is the ankle support. Your day-hiking boot prevents any sideways movement and helps you stabilize on uneven terrain; a rolled ankle can be a real day-ruiner or worse, and is one of the most common injuries on the trail. Day-hiking boots usually weigh in around three pounds per pair, significantly lighter than backpacking or mountaineering boots, which weigh up to twice that. Normally there is a wide selection of colors and styles and the option of going with a fully waterproof Gore-Tex boot, or a more breathable but non-waterproof boot. These boots will likely serve you well for 500-700 miles before they need replacing. This is your commuter car, your daily workhorse.
- Merrill Moab
- Solomon X Ultra 3
- Keen Targhee 3
For when you need to step it up a notch, a backpacking boot offers a more solid upper that is typically leather or Gore-Tex and a stiffer, usually Vibram sole that can withstand long days, high miles, and heavy weight. Their job is to make your feet forget you’re wearing a 45 pound pack, stabilize your ankles, absorb the impact of each step, keep your feet dry, and last for many seasons. That through hike of the PCT, CDT, or AT? A weekend of 40 miles and 12k in gain while carrying a stove, food, tent, sleeping bag, water, layers and more Swedish Fish than you care to admit? These are the type of boot you need when you need a little extra. These are your heavy hitters.
- LaSportiva Trango Tech GTX
- Asolo Power Matic 200 EVO GV
- Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX
Glaciers, anyone? Snow? Crampons? Mountaineering boots are for ascending Rainier and Aconcagua and Denali. They aren’t going to be bunny-slipper comfortable no matter what, just because of the rigid sole—a sole so inflexible that they have made more than one person do a quick Frankenstein impression on the side of a mountain (it never gets old)—so don’t expect the same sweet vibe as your day-hiking boots. But you’ll get used to the stiffness quickly and grow to appreciate how incredibly insulated this type of boot is, how steady you’ll feel lashing your crampons to them and inching up slopes of dizzying angles, and how many years they will last. When they say “bring out the big guns,” this is what they have in mind.
- La Sportiva Nepal Cube GTX
- Lowa Alpine Expert GTX
- Scarpa Mont Blanc Pro GTX
Depending on the terrain and your activity, a hiking shoe might be your preference. Also sometimes called trail runners or mountain runners, these are great for travel on rock, including scrambling, and a favorite in the fast-and-light community. And while these types of shoes offer you dexterity and traction, there is no ankle protection. If you are prone to ankle rolls or feel a little clumsy on tricky terrain, these are not your best bet. But since many people enjoy their agility, don’t like the feeling of a boot up around their ankle, but still want the support, a few companies have started making a mid-height boot, sometimes called half or three-quarter height, which barely yet effectively cups the ankle bone while still allowing for freedom of movement. The higher the boot the less likelihood of rolling an ankle though, so really think about the pros and cons for your specific usage when deciding on ankle height.
If you do decide to go with a hiking shoe, consider these:
- Solomon X Ultra 3 Low GTX
- La Sportiva Spire GTX
- North Face Hedgehog Fastpack II
Waterproof vs. Breathable
As a resident of western Washington, I personally can’t imagine not having a waterproof boot. We have waterproof everything out here. And if I waited to hike until it stopped raining, well guess who wouldn’t hike much. Aside from the rain, we also have mud, healthy river crossings, and snow that shows up in October and doesn’t leave until July. Gore-Tex, B-Dry, Event—these incredible materials have kept my feet bone dry after hiking in a downpour more than once and I am grateful for that, but they aren’t very breathable. Not an issue for me up here in the land of cold damp fog water but if I lived in El Paso I’d certainly want something much more breathable lest I turn my boots into a terrarium of sweat.
Personalizing the Fit
Once you get your boots home and have worn them out a time or two, you can start to tweak the fit with various lacing and knot tricks, custom orthotics, or storebought insoles that are great if you’re between a whole and half size, or have two very different-sized feet. Many hikers tie a knot right at the bend of the ankle to help keep the foot from sliding back and forth, others skip a grommet down low to relax the toe box, and most find that they prefer their hiking boots to be laced either tighter or looser than their day to day street shoes. It’s important to fine-tune until you’re happy with the fit and feel.
Care and Feeding
If you went with leather uppers, you’ll need to condition them frequently with something like Nikwax or Huber’s Shoe Grease. A good cleaning and rubdown with the right cream or wax on a regular basis will guarantee a longer lifespan for your boot and make your feet very happy. With any kind of hiking shoe regardless of material, as soon as you get home from a hike, take your insole out, use a stiff-bristled brush to get dirt and mud off, and have a warm, dry place to store them. Cheesy but true: if you take care of your boots, your boots will take care of you.
A Few Final Thoughts
And if this all seems overwhelming, it is, but it’s also the best kind of overwhelming. In 1890 when 20 year old Fay Fuller set out to become the first woman to summit Mt. Rainier—in a thick flannel bloomer suit and woolen hose—she wore a pair of heavy calfskin boys’ boots because the men’s didn’t run small enough and (let these next few words sink in) there was no such thing as women’s hiking boots yet. I always think of her when I’m at our local outdoorsy superstore gazing up at the footwear display wall, which is huge and equal parts men’s and women’s shoes and offers dozens of options designed specifically for us, and I find myself flooded with gratitude for all the women mountaineers like Fay who bushwhacked through the hard landscape of stigma and social norms to give us the wide-open path we so freely and easily walk today.
Ideally you find a boot that you forget you’re wearing, so you can enjoy your time in the mountains, reach your goals, and ensure the health and comfort of your feet. I cannot stress enough the importance of getting this part right. Time and money well spent on your boots is an investment, not a splurge—you can avoid back problems, leg problems, and foot problems; your days on the trail will be enjoyable, not painful; the right boot will allow you to go deeper into that wild and untamed backcountry that beckons that part of you that craves adventure and freedom. Imagination and passion may be what creates our dreams, but the right gear turns them into reality.
Wendy Harrington is a California native who has lived in a small town at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state since 2001. Her love of trail running and peakbagging has led her to summit all five Washington volcanoes, climb to the high points of three states, and put nearly a thousand miles a year on her boots. Her loves include ridgelines, saddles, granite, one-day pushes on big mountains, anything volcanic, long solo days, and objectives that push limits and test endurance.