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Buying Guide: Hiking Boots / Hiking Shoes

By: Lisa Maloney on April 11, 2018

What the best hiking boots do

  • Feel light on your feet. Backpacking expert and author Ronald Mueser says that every pound on your feet is like carrying five or six pounds on your back. You won't regret purchasing the lightest boots that fit your needs -- but even if you're not getting ultralight footwear, the best heavy-duty boots will still feel relatively lightweight and agile on your feet.
  • Provide a pinch-free fit. There should be plenty of room for your foot to swell after a long day of hiking, but not so much room that it slides around inside the boot.
  • Offer comfort, yet support. The heavier the loads you plan to carry, the sturdier and more supportive your hiking boots' midsoles should be. Don't count on aftermarket arch supports to make up for an inadequate boot. Shop for a boot that fits as-is, then add new arch supports, if you use them, as a bonus to make them even more comfortable.
  • Give great traction in varied terrain. A good hiking boot or shoe should be able to maintain a firm grip in almost any terrain conditions, including mud, rock, loose gravel, sand and even snow. Traction on wet surfaces is one of the most important qualities to look for, especially if you're buying a stiff, heavy duty boot, because their hard-wearing soles often sacrifice a little bit of grip on wet surfaces in exchange for greater durability. As a general rule, the softer the rubber on the sole of your boot, the better the traction it'll offer -- but that softer rubber also wears more quickly.
  • Release mud. If mud builds up in the lugs of your boots, it can severely compromise your traction. Look for boots with widely spaced, aggressive lugs that shed mud with little to no effort on your part.
  • Breathability, too. If your shoes or boots don't breathe -- that is, let moisture out -- you'll end up with cold, damp feet, especially if you tend to sweat a lot. Some hiking boots and shoes have uppers made of mesh to encourage airflow; these are a great choice for hiking in hot conditions. If you're hiking in colder weather a mesh boot may be too cold, so look for a boot that has a breathable liner that'll still let sweat escape.

Know before you go

What's your hiking style? Your preferred hiking destinations, style and season will all influence your choice of footwear.

How sensitive are your feet? The more sensitive your feet are, the stiffer the sole you'll need to protect them from rugged terrain. This goes double if you're backpacking; you need the extra stiffness to protect your feet as they carry the extra weight of your pack, food and gear.

Do you really need a waterproof membrane? If you often hike in wet or cold conditions, a breathable waterproof membrane will help keep water out and body heat in; the best waterproof/breathable membranes also release sweat as it accumulates. However, when water gets into a waterproof boot, it can't get out -- so the boot will take a long time to dry once emptied. Waterproof boots also tend to be hot and muggy in warm weather, so consider this feature carefully.

Buying tactics and strategies

Shop later in the day. Your feet tend to swell through the day and on long hikes, so shop toward the end of the day, when you've already been on your feet for a while. Otherwise, your "just right" boots may turn out to be too small.

Wear the socks you intend to hike in. Your choice of socks can make an enormous difference in how your boots fit. If you don't already have socks to hike in, purchase them when you try on your boots.

Put them through their paces. Do your best to simulate real-world hiking circumstances when you try on your boots. Walk up and down inclines and declines with the boots; they should feel steady and stable underfoot, and your toes shouldn't slide into the front of the boot when you go downhill. If possible, find some rocks or other rugged material to stand on to make sure the boot soles offer adequate protection.

Check the heels. Watch out for the very common problem of a too-loose fit in the heel. One easy test is to lace the boots up, then stand up and rock forward onto your toes. If your heels lift up in the boots before the boot heels themselves come off the ground, the fit isn't quite right.

Walk downhill. Make sure to try your boots on a downhill slope before you buy; many stores offer a sloped ramp for this purpose. If your toes slide forward enough to hit the front of the boot when you go downhill, then long, downhill stretches of trail could leave you with painful blisters or lost toenails.

Err in favor of a larger size if you plan to hike long distances. Over the course of a long-distance, multi-day hike, your feet may swell a half-size or even a full size larger than usual. This doesn't mean you should size up from a perfectly roomy fit but, if you're in between sizes, going up is usually the best choice.

Test your boots while wearing a loaded backpack. This is especially important if you typically carry a heavy load; it's the only way to be sure the boots will remain comfortable and supportive when loaded down. Some stores will have sandbags you can load into your pack, or just bring your backpack to the store as if you were packed for a trip; the sales staff will applaud your foresight.

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