As I sit in my comfy armchair and reminisce, I can almost hear my friend Pete’s ecstatic voice resonating in my head: “We gotta do this James, come on!”
“This” was referring to hiking one of the most challenging trails of the Swiss Alps. It starts from a place called “Fierst” and ends at Platte Schynige.
Our local friend Luca took us to this lovely little bar nearby that served ice-cold Glarus Beer, the best known local ale. Luca had been going on and on about the “wow factor” of this trail and was Pete gobbling up his every word. I was, however, more focused on sparse comments about the difficulties this trail throws at hikers.
My right ankle still remembers that hike like it was yesterday. It’s the single worst experience of my decades-long hiking career.
I put a wrong pair of hiking boots between my feet and the Alps. This article is my attempt to make sure nothing similar happens to you, that you know what you’re doing when choosing your pair of hiking shoes, boots or sandals. You can see the currently top rated footwear on out homepage here.
We started one of the most daunting hikes in the Alps with just a few bare essentials in our backpacks and wearing the boots we already had on.
I learned my lesson.
What you eat, drink, and wear on your feet can make or break your hiking experience, period.
That’s what this guide is about, being smart about the choice of your hiking shoes or boots, choosing a pair that’s doesn’t break your bank but still allows you to focus on the trail without worrying if you’re still going to have your pinky toe tomorrow. In a word – you can opt in for the boots that will provide more support but add weight as well, you can go with regular hiking shoes that will make you light on your feet but will do little to protect you from the elements and, what most people don’t even consider, you can go for tactical boots, that are somewhere in-between. You can see our guide on best Under Armour tactical boots here, and our review of the Under Armour Valsetz here.
So, let’s dig in…
1. The question of “when”
The full question would go “when should I opt in for hiking boots as oppose to shoes”?
So, let’s finally clarify that gray area – hiking boots vs. hiking shoes vs. hiking sandals.
Hiking boots are built for more protection and support, most of the time featuring stiffer and sturdier construction. The trade-off for additional protection is, of course, the extra weight. Somewhere in-between, you’ll find the tactical boots.
So, with that said, let’s list a few scenarios when boots are the smarter choice:
- If you’re a beginner or just hike occasionally and have less developed leg muscles. This also goes if you’re prone to tweaked knees or rolled ankles
- If your the load you are carrying is heavy (by your standards)
- If you starting a longer hike and have some rougher terrains in your cards
Otherwise, you’d be better of with a hiking shoe or a sandal.
2.“Fits like a glove” revisited
Fit and functionality are essential. Sounds like a given, but you’d be surprised how many people I’ve met over the years who kind of get it, but not really.
Determining the right fit is something very personal and depends on a myriad of factors, the shape of your foot being one of the more important ones.
While this is personal, there are some general tips and guidelines I can give you for hitting a bit closer to home when fitting you new heavy-duty footwear:
- Go into the store wearing the same socks you intend on wearing during your hike (except, of course you’re wearing sandals). Socks make a lot of difference, even though you might be inclined to think otherwise
- You feet are not the same in the morning after a good night’s rest, and in the evening after a day’s worth of walking. Best practice – go boot-shopping later in the afternoon, and be sure to take a short stroll before hitting the store
- Take the insole out and put it against your foot. You can determine the overall fit by how closely it follows the shape of your foot. If the inner sole is larger than your foot in some areas, that’s where the boots will be too wide as well, and vice versa
- You want a snug feeling overall so try walking in the boots you’re trying out and pay attention to any pressure points, this is especially important for women (you can see our guide on best hiking shoes for women here)
Once you find a pair that might work for you, go through these steps for a more thorough testing:
- Leave the laces undone once your foot enters the boot, stand up and start pushing it towards the toe cap. If the boot is a good fit your index finger should slip between the heel of the boot and your heel without any problems
- Lace the boots afterwards and feel your heel’s movement. It should go backwards and fill that index finger-size gap
- Start walking around
- Make sure that you don’t touch the front end of the boot or the top with your toes
- While you’re walking, the heel of the boot and your heel should move as one. If there’s a “heel lift” (your heel slips out of the boot’s heel), you’ll need to go at least a size smaller
3. What about the features???
If there is such a thing, I guess you can consider the following section the “meat” of the guide. If you’d like simplified version of what’s to come and just want to see some of the best boots, some of our colleagues from teh fields have compiled guides similar to ours with different set of criteria.
Different materials will affect the breathability of the boot, its weight, water resistance and durability.
- Full-grain leather – Offers pretty good water/abrasion resistance and excellent durability. Heavy loads, rough terrain, and longer hikes are right down its alley
- Split-grain leather – Usually mixed with nylon mesh or nylon for optimal breathable and lightweight comfort. It costs less than full-grain, but more prone to abrasions and less water-resistant
- Nubuck leather – Basically a full-grain leather, but buffed for suede resemblance. It’s very resistant to abrasions and water, plus it possesses an amazing durability. It’s also pretty flexible, but it’ll take some time before it completely breaks in, allowing you extended use
- Synthetics – Nylon, “synthetic leather” polyester… Compared to leather, they’re lighter, dry faster, break in quicker, and are usually cheaper. The wear shows sooner, though
- Vegan – Hiking boots are also made vegan-friendly by avoiding the use of animal byproducts or ingredients
They buffer your feet from shocks, provide cushioning, and determine the overall stiffness of the boot.
There are two main types ones we’ll mention here:
- EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) – Lighter, cushier and cheaper of the two. Also more commonly found
- Polyurethane – More durable and firmer
Plates – These semi-flexible, thin inserts are strategically positioned between the outsole and midsole, and they keep your feet from bruising from rocks and roots
Shanks – They are inserts between 3 and 5mm thick sandwiched between outsole and midsole for additional (load-bearing) stiffness of the midsole. They are featured in variable lengths
Rubber is the material of choice for all hiking boots. Some materials such as carbon can be added for harder outsoles, but that’s mostly done for mountaineering and backpacking boots, which don’t fall under out scope today.
Here are some other considerations:
- Heel brake – This is just clever design. It’s a heel zone that differs from the arch or the forefoot. It’s there to prevent you from sliding during one of those uber steep descents
- Lug pattern – Anybody who’s seriously into hiking knows what lugs are, but the pattern also has a role to play. Again, on mountaineering and backpacking boots we have thicker, deeper lugs for optimal grip. We’ll be more interested in lugs that are smaller and widely spaced for easier mud removal
If you are not a heavy duty hiker, you might not need all of these features and simple walking shoes will suffice.
If you’re going over rougher and steeper terrains, having a crampon-compatible boot is an asset like you wouldn’t believe. Trust me, my experience in the Alps taught me all about it.
Strap-on crampons – They have straps made of nylon webbing for securing them to your boots. They will take more of your time to attach, but they can be attached to pretty much anything, which is the biggest plus of this model.
Step-in and hybrid crampons are incompatible with hiking shoes, so I will leave them for the time when I’m writing about backpacking and mountaineering iterations.
Rands can be found here and there on breathable/waterproof hiking boots. They’re basically a wide wrap made of rubber encircling an area of the boot (just around the toes or the entire boot). It’s located on the meeting place of the midsole and the upper. It’s there for extra water-resistance on mucky, wet trails and leather protection from abrasion and rocks.
5.Waterproof or not?
This is the dilemma I always leave for last since I don’t necessarily always agree with the prevailing opinions and some of my views might seem counter-intuitive.
Just recently I wrote a guest post where I said I consider a lighter option with more breathability to be generally to waterproof boots. Even in very wet and damp conditions. Your feet won’t get hot and sweaty, so there will be no danger of painful blisters, the boot will dry faster, and it’ll be much lighter than your average GTX heavy-duty hiking boot. The only setting when I outright recommend water-resistance is deep snow.
Wrapping it up
When it comes to hiking and feet, it is best to learn from other people’s mistakes. That’s why I sincerely hope you’ll use this opportunity to learn from mine.
A little bit of research and preparation goes a long way, so use the tips I’ve given you here to choose your perfect pair.
Stay safe and happy hiking.