Picking the Perfect Hiking Boots

Hiking boots are the crucial piece of gear for any hiker or backpacker. Your feet are carrying you tens, hundreds, or even thousands of kilometres after all, preferably through questionable terrain, and it’s important that you are safe and mostly pain-free. That being said, a good pair of hiking boots can be pretty expensive and by hiking in the shoes you already own, you have an opportunity to assess your needs before committing to the investment, especially if you have not previously ventured off road. What are the needs to observe while you are hiking through the forest in your sneakers and really looking forward to a good pair of boots?

  • Terrain– What kind of ground are you walking on? Soft, mossy forest floors? Cobblestone beaches? Muddy coastal trails? 
  • Weather– Are you hitting the trails when it’s cool and raining? Or what about right after a rain, when the trail is super-muddy? What about dry and dusty hikes?
  • Distance & Time– Do you usually hike for an hour or two, or ten hours? Are you covering many kilometres quickly, or gently meandering over a few kilometres?
  • Load– Do you carry (or anticipate carrying) a significant weight on your back in the near future?

Boot Features

Now that you’ve observed your most common footwear uses, it will be much easier to evaluate the pros, cons, and features when picking the most appropriate boots!

  • Fit – Above all else, you are expecting to spend hours in your boots, and as such your boots must be comfortable. If they rub, chafe, or squeeze in the store, they sure as hell aren’t going to magically become more comfortable outside. Sometimes fashion can outweigh comfort, but selecting hiking boots is not one of those times.  You’re an adult, and I presume you can pick shoes that you find comfortable!  
  • Shoe Sole – The sole of your shoe grips the ground for you, so a material and tread that match your use is paramount. Muddy trails and soft terrain respond well to a shoe with a studded sole where as rock and ice need a stiff, textured sole. And honestly, I’ve never found anything better than Blundstones for walking on wet logs.
  • Waterproof – Wet feet in hiking boots leads to blisters and misery.  If you are hiking in snowy or muddy terrain, picking a pair of boots that are waterproof (ostensibly GORE-TEX; however alternative membrane materials exist with similar functionality) will help keep your feet snug and dry!  Conversely, if you are spending time in dry, rocky terrain (or only like to hike in the dry summer), then you will likely want to avoid GORE-TEX and opt for a more breathable coating so the sweat on your feet has an opportunity to evaporate (and, again, keep your feet dry!).
  • Ankle height – A supported ankle is really valuable if you have weak ankles, hike on cobblestone beaches or otherwise uneven terrain, anticipate all-day hikes, or will be carrying a heavy load.  High ankles on your boots give you that little extra support if you stumble (which you will) and help protect your ankles whey then become fatigued from extra weight or an all day excursion.
  • Material – Choosing the best material for your boots tends to be more of a personal preference than a hard-and-fast rule.  Leather wears in well and moulds to your foot, so the longer you wear your boots the more comfortable they will become. Leather is also good if you don’t find the perfect fit, because they will break in well.  Keep in mind, leather needs maintenance to remain water proof and in good conditioning, including polishing and re-waterproofing.  Synthetic boots, on the other hand, can be very good if you find the perfect fit from the get-go and have no intention in performing regular maintenance.  Synthetic boots often have mesh or fabric panels which make for a well ventilated foot.

Let’s go shopping!

When buying your first hiking boots, you’ll need to try on many pairs and walk around in the store, up and down little fake hills, so it’s important to shop for your boots in person, rather than online.  Ultimately, you want the boots that feel right, and here are some tips for finding that right fit:

  1. Hiking boots do not fit the same as sneakers or street shoes. If this is your very first time buying hiking boots, you’ll be contending with brands and a fit you may not have previously experienced, so give yourself time to try on lots of different brands, fabrics, waterproofing, and treads.  Going during an off-peak hour will give you more time to think about each boot.
  2. Go to a hiking specialty store and speak with the staff while you try on all the boots (as above).  The staff in hiking stores are usually very knowledgable and will be able to give you further advice on fit and your exact use case.
  3. Wear the socks you plan to wear hiking, so your fit is accurate.  
  4. Go at the end of the day when your feet are more swollen, and bonus points if you’re a wee bit tired and cranky.  
  5. After trying on a bunch of boots, leave the store for a few hours or even days – the boots you are still thinking about days later are likely a good contender for your perfect hiking boot!

And finally, sometimes you just get it wrong.

The painful truth is that your first pair of hiking boots may not be perfect. They may, in fact, not be comfortable at all! It sucks and it’s often better to re-home or sell ill-fitting hiking boots and try a new pair than push through the misery and hate hiking! My hope, however, is that you will both learn what your feet need to be happy and what your hiking demands from your gear, so that you next pair of boots are more appropriate and more comfortable.

Hiking and the ‘right’ gear is an exercise in continuous improvement through trial, error, and advances in technology. A great pair of boots will serve you well for many years, and as your needs evolve you may even add additional boots to suit all your purposes! What is your trick to finding the perfect boot? Have you ever epically failed in finding a good pair of boots? What did you do?

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