They say that walking is really just falling and catching yourself, over and over with every step. The body rocks and sways, bumps and jolts in response to changes in the terrain; and if you happen to be hiking, the only thing preventing injury and fatigue is a great pair of hiking boots.
It’s a truly great feeling when you can honestly say to yourself, “These are the best hiking boots I have ever owned.” After all, there is no better way to end a hike than returning for the first time, blister free, gunning to plan the next.
To help you find the perfect fitting boot, we’re going to explain in detail the different types of hiking footwear available today: we’ll help you understand what all the different features of a boot are and what they do, and give you some golden tips for trying boots on in the store.
Types of hiking footwear
We use the term ‘hiking boots’ to refer to a range of footwear: hiking shoes, hiking boots (confusing, yes), and backpacking boots. Each type has different intended applications on the trail. Some are suitable for short, fast hikes: others are made for long expeditions providing optimal stability and comfort even after many hours on the trail.
Before trying on any boot, you need to ask yourself how you intend to use them.
- Are you looking for a new pair of walking shoes for your weekend exercise?
- Are you planning a multi-day hiking trip in the blue mountains?
- Or do you need a pair of boots that can handle extended trips or alpine environments?
Wearing the wrong type could do more harm than good. Understanding the subtle difference between models will get you started searching in the right category based on the types of walks you do the most.
Hiking shoes: Suitable for short trips or for those wanting to cut down on weight for ultralight backpacking adventures. Hiking shoes feature a low cuff making them lighter and more breathable but necessarily sacrifice some level of support, and often wear out faster than heavier boots.
Hiking boots: A high cuff provides extra support around the ankle over undulating terrain. Hiking boots are usually stiffer and more durable than hiking shoes but are not as rugged as backpacking boots. Available in synthetic and leather options, they are still on of the most popular all-rounders among Australian hikers.
Backpacking boots: Made to provide ample support even while carrying heavy loads on longer expeditions, backpacking boots feature stiffer shanks and midsoles than other hiking footwear. The use of strong material like full-grain leather makes them hard-wearing but heavier as a result.
The anatomy of a hiking boot
Knowing the various components and features of a hiking boot will help you decide which pair is best for you when trying them on in the store.
The term upper refers to the material that supports your ankle, including the cuff and tongue. The primary role of the upper is to provide lateral stability and keep your feet warm and dry. Manufacturers use a number of different materials to achieve this, predominately different types of leather and synthetic materials.
The outer layer of the upper needs to be not only resistant to abrasion, but at least partially water resistant as well. Different boot types (hiking shoes, hiking boots, or backpacking boots) feature different upper materials and construction.
- Full-grain leather is the material most people imagine when they think ‘hiking boots’. Smooth to the touch, stiff, and heavily resistant to abrasions (and water if treated properly), full-grain leather is usually found on heavier hiking boots and backpacking boots. Full-grain leather takes the most amount of time to break in out of the various upper materials used today.
- Nubuck leather is more commonly found on hiking shoes and boots. The advantages of nubuck over full-grain leather are that it breathes better, especially when combined with synthetic materials and waterproof breathable membranes. Nubuck is a great choice for Aussie environments due to its natural water resistance, flexibility, and lightweight.
- Split-grain leather is thinner than full-grain leather making it lighter and more breathable. However, it is also less resistant to abrasion and general wear over time. For this reason, it is often paired with synthetic materials to make it more robust. Splitting the grain makes the material cheaper than full-grain leather hiking boots.
- Synthetic / vegan boots: It’s possible today to find boots that are made with no animal products or bi-products.
- Waterproof breathable membranes are incorporated on some hiking boots, shoes, and backpacking boots and are well worth investing in if your spend any amount of time in wet or snowy conditions. While the term ‘waterproof’ is a bit misleading, they do achieve a great degree of water resistance making them great at keeping your feet dry when it rains or snows, and allow sweat to wick away from your skin. If you’d like to learn more about waterproof breathable materials and clothing check out our guide.
You’re likely familiar with these already: the insole is the part that your foot rests on in the boot. Hiking boot insoles are designed to offer optimal arch support and cushioning to prevent bruising after long days on the trail. If you wear orthotics, be sure to take them with you when trying on a pair of boots. In some cases, stock insoles are worth replacing with aftermarket insoles.
The layer between the insole and the outer sole of your boot is (funnily enough) called the midsole. Midsoles vary in degrees of stiffness: a stiffer boot might not sound so comfortable, but if you are on an extended backpacking trip, for example, a stiffer midsole is going to prevent your foot from rolling and flexing whenever you step on a rock or tree root, thus slowing the onset of foot fatigue. Softer midsoles are usually found on hiking shoes and hiking boots suitable for shorter expeditions.
Hiking boots get much of their longitudinal support from stiff plates and shanks that are inserted between the midsole and outer sole. Made from thick layers of nylon or hard but flexible plastics, shanks can run the full length of the boot, or stop around the ¾ mark. By preventing the boot from flexing, they stop the foot from wrapping itself around objects on the trail encouraging an upright, comfortable walking position. Like midsoles, shanks and plates vary in terms of stiffness – stiffer supports are more suitable for longer adventures.
The sole of the boot
Like the tyres of a car, the outer sole of your boot is what prevents your foot from slipping on loose gravel and allows you to crunch through freshly-formed snow. Hiking boot soles are corrugated with lugs and teeth to help them bite into the ground, gaining a firm grip on the trail. When looking for a boot, aim for one with soles that feature a variable tread pattern with lugs that are spread fairly wide apart as this makes them more effective at maintaining a good grip while stopping mud from building up in the tread.
Stubbed toes on trails lead to very unhappy hikers, so look for a pair of shoes or boots with a rubber toe cap. The toe should be stiffer than the sides of the boot. Boots that combine a rubber toe cap with waterproof breathable membrane are ideal for hiking in wet conditions.
How to ensure the best hiking boot fit
You might feel perfectly happy wearing your Chuck Taylors around the city for a day, but try and take them out on the trail and you’ll soon regret your decision. Unlike common street footwear, hiking footwear demands a precise fit in order to be comfortable and keep your performing at your peak.
Finding a great fitting boot can take some time; you may need to try on a range of styles in multiple different brands to land on one that perfectly matches your foot shape and volume. To help you feel prepared before heading into the store, we’re going to run you through the steps you should take when trying on a pair of boots, whether you’re in-store, or you’ve recently had a pair delivered to your door.
Firstly, you need to make sure that you are wearing the right socks when trying a boot on. If you have a good pair of hiking socks, great, make sure you wear them to the store. If not, it’s a good idea to ask the salesperson to show you a pair that you can wear while trying on the boot. You might just end up buying them which is a worthy investment. Hiking socks provide additional cushioning around the ball and heel of the foot and usually have sweat wicking and anti-bacterial properties.
Knowing your exact foot size can be a great help to the salesperson. Before leaving home, measure your foot from the heel to the tip of the longest toe, and across the widest point of your foot. Armed with exact measurements and your regular UK and US shoe sizes will make it that much easier to start trying on boots that have a good chance of fitting.
If you normally wear orthotics, make sure to take them with you to the store so that you can find a pair that fits with them installed.
Next, head to the store in the afternoon. No this isn’t some weird superstition about things being cheaper at 4pm, it’s because your feet swell throughout the day while you walk around. You need to find a boot that is comfortable when your feet are at their greatest volume, otherwise, you could experience pain or discomfort at the time of the day when your feet are already the most likely to be fatigued.
Okay, you’re in the store, now you need to pick out a few pairs to try on. Let’s think back to the different types to work out which style is best suited to you. Are you planning on taking short walks in warmer weather? Are you getting ready for an extended hiking expedition overseas and need the optimal level of support and performance. Answering these questions yourself and sharing your intentions with the salesperson will help you pick a good selection to try on.
When trying on a pair of boots there are a few things to consider:
- There should be about a thumb width of room between your biggest toe and the end of the toe box. This allows room for the foot to move forward in the boot while hiking downhill without your toes jamming into the end causing blisters.
- Your heel should not lift when you walk.
- You shouldn’t feel any pressure or pain on the sides of your feet, or at your toes and heel.
- Width is just as important as length: check that the sides of the boot are not cramping your foot as this will only cause it to heat up and fatigue more quickly.
- Lacing your boots: there are a bunch of different ways to lace a pair of hiking boots. You’re going to need to adjust the tension throughout the day as your feet swell. Try using different lacing techniques to apply pressure at different points around your foot. If a boot feels snug around your foot, but the cuff feels tight around your ankle, you can ease the pressure by skipping one set of lace hooks, looping the top ones first, and then working down to secure the boot laces lower on the cuff.
- Wear the boot for a good ten minutes, walk around the shop, climb some stairs if possible to get a feel for how the will perform on undulating terrain. Walking on flat ground is very different from hiking up steep slopes, so it’s important that you get an idea how they will perform using whatever is available in the store.
- Don’t be afraid to try different brands and go against what your friends say works for them. It’s easy to be swayed into buying something your mate said is great, but everyone’s feet are different, so experiment and explore your options.
- How do they flex? A good hiking boot should not flex too much along the sole and should allow just enough movement for your toes to flex naturally while walking. Stairs are a great way to check the amount of flex in a boot.
- Remember, any hiking boot – whether it’s a lightweight shoe or a rugged backpacking boot – will need time to wear in, so don’t expect it to feel as natural to walk in as your shoes just yet.
Breaking in your new hiking boots
Now that we’ve mentioned it (and now that you’ve found yourself a well-fitting pair), let’s talk about breaking them in.
Some boots take longer to break in than others; this is mostly determined by the upper material used and the stiffness of the midsoles, supports, and outer soles. As a general rule, you want to spend a few hours wearing your new boots around the house before taking them out on short day hikes. This also gives you time to decide that they are definitely the right boots for you. Most stores will be happy for you to return the boots and try another pair as long as you haven’t worn them outside.
Full-grain leather will take longer to break in than synthetic / nubuck leather upper combinations, but in the long run, will provide great stability and longer wear over time. Wearing your boots on short hikes will give the upper an opportunity to relax and allow the insole to mould to the shape of your foot. It can be uncomfortable at first, but if you experiment with different lacing techniques and restrict your hikes to a couple of hours at most, you’ll soon find your boots feel like a part of you.
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