What’s the most important piece of hiking gear that you own? Is it your pack, your tent, or your trekking poles? Likely, it’s your footwear. As you travel through the wilderness, keeping your feet healthy, happy and supported is incredibly important. No one wants to suffer through an outdoor adventure with blisters, crushed toes, sore feet or a rolled ankle.
Among the hundreds of shoes and boots out there there is no single “best” choice. Different styles are good for different settings, and each boot will fit your foot a little differently. To get started, there are some key questions you should think about: What will you be doing with your hiking footwear? Day hikes? Weekend trips? Longer expeditions? How much weight will you be carrying, and what kind of weather will you be hiking in? Do you prefer heavier rugged boots with generous ankle support, or are you looking for a shoe that is ultra-lightweight and minimalist? What kind of terrain are you expecting to hike on?
Ruminating upon these basic questions should hopefully lead you toward the type of footwear that is right for you, and ultimately, being, “right for you” means that you aren’t giving your shoes a second thought once during your entire adventure.
Trail runners are similar to running shoes, but with aggressive tread patterns, increased support, heel brakes, and a stiffer midsole. These shoes are super-lightweight and allow a hiker to move quickly. They are also great for longer distances, as they are less likely to give you blisters or hurt over time. Trail runners are versatile and comfortable shoes that are great for fast-and-light day hikes, ultralight backpacking and thru-hiking, or trail running. The downside of a trail runner is they are usually not as stiff or durable as other shoes and will not protect against the elements as effectively.
For more protection, support and durability than a trail runner, choose a light hiker. This style of hiking shoe offers excellent traction, a stiff sole, and stability in a lightweight, low-profile package that is more burly and stable than a trail runner on technical terrain. These shoes are great for those who want more traction and durability without the bulk and heft of a traditional hiking or backpacking boot. With an aggressive tread and multi-directional lugs, you can get great traction on variable terrain. Light hikers are also often available with a waterproof membrane, which adds a level of inclement weather versatility that most trail runners lack.
While approach shoes are specifically designed for hiking to rock walls for climbing, areas that are often tricky or steep to get to, this style of shoe can also make a great choice for all-around hiking footwear. Many approach shoes feature a stiff midsole, a responsive and sticky rubber outsole, as well as a lacing system that extends to the toe for an extremely secure fit. Approach shoes are very similar to other light hikers, but excel on technical hiking and scrambling up rocks. Approach shoes generally are not waterproof, but are very durable. The downside to an approach shoe is that in very muddy or wet conditions, the outsole will not grip as well as a deeper lugged light hiker, and the lack of waterproofing and the short cuff height will potentially allow water to get into the tops of your shoes.
MID-WEIGHT HIKING BOOTS:
Mid to high-cuffed boots take the benefits of a low hiking shoe and add additional ankle support. Great traction, durable construction, a supportive and secure fit, as well as that higher ankle cuff and an often stiffer midsole provide the security and performance that you need for a variety of adventures. Having one or two lace hooks above the ankle allows you to lock in your heel and secure your ankle in place. The additional material used will add a small amount of weight, but a midweight hiker will still be lighter and more comfortable when compared to a full backpacking or mountaineering boot. A midweight boot is great for the same kinds of trip that you would use a low hiker on, but with the added peace of mind and support of a mid or high-cuffed boot.
HEAVY BACKPACKING BOOTS:
The bigger, beefier brother of the hiking boot, backpacking boots have stiff soles designed for carrying additional weight, a high cut that offers great ankle stability, and heavy outsoles to handle rugged terrain. These boots are designed to protect your foot while you carry heavy loads of weight into the wilderness. The stiff soles give your feet a stable platform, reducing foot fatigue as you traverse over thick roots and rocks. The thick, stiff body of the boot creates a comfortable, supportive home for your foot that is both very durable and helps keep your ankles aligned as you travel over uneven terrain with a heavy pack. The downside to a backpacking boot is that they are very heavy and less nimble than other options. Heavy backpacking boots are not ideal for thru-hikers, ultralight backpackers, and day hikers, who often use light hikers, approach shoes or trail runners. Choose a heavy boot of this type if you are carrying a heavy load in your pack, if you are doing wilderness or trail work, or for non-technical winter hiking.
Heavy and very stiff, these boots offer support for heavy loads and are designed to accept crampons for glacial travel or ice climbing. Mountaineering boots are often insulated. Depending on the amount of insulation a boot has, it can be used for anything from winter hiking in the northeast, to ice climbing or to high altitude ascents. Although they add a significant amount of weight to your feet, you will be glad to have the extra protection of the stiff sole while making your way through a field of rockfall, across a glacier, or while post-holing through deep snow on Mt. Washington. Welts on the heel and toe provide crampon compatibility with step-in style crampons. Mountaineering boots are very specialized and expensive, so they are often overkill if you are not primarily using them for mountaineering or ice climbing.
The outsole is the bottom of the shoe that makes direct contact with the ground. Primarily made from rubber, the outsole can be made in different densities to accommodate different needs. Softer rubber such as that found in most approach shoes will grip onto surfaces better than harder rubber, but will also wear down more quickly. Hiking outsoles feature cleats or lugs – the protrusions that grip into soft earth providing you with “bomber” traction. A cleat-less area under the arch makes room for heel breaks, designed to give superior stopping power when going downhill. Some outsoles also feature a flat “climbing zone” on the toe which offers much more precision for technical climbing on rock.
Midsoles of most active footwear are made from one of two materials: ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), or polyurethane (PU). A classic example of EVA is the now ubiquitous foam Crocs, however this light-weight, cushioning option is common in most running, casual and light hiking footwear. EVA tends to feel very soft and cushioned and usually requires little to no break-in time. The less dense the EVA, the softer and more comfortable your ride but the faster the foam will break down. More dense EVA foam will offer more support and break down less quickly.
Polyurethane is a longer lasting, very supportive midsole material mostly found in backpacking and mountaineering boots. PU is dense and weighty and usually requires a break in period before it becomes more pliable and comfortable. Like EVA, polyurethane comes in different densities, and depending on the density, size of the shoes and your weight, break-in periods can vary. Polyurethane midsoles will last longer than their EVA counterparts and provide better support for heavy loads, however they will also usually be heavier, have less cushion, and be more expensive.
Factory insoles are typically made from molded EVA foam and give the interior of the shoe a clean finish and another layer of cushion. These insoles usually don’t offer substantial arch support, so many people enhance the comfort and performance of their shoes by purchasing after-market insoles. Supportive insoles like Superfeet® may turn a shoe that fits well into a shoe that fits like it was crafted by gnomes. Foot-loving gnomes, that is.
A full grain leather boot.
Full Grain Leather: Full grain leather is a thick, abrasion- resistant leather that you are likely to find on backpacking boots designed for extended trips where terrain will be variable. Naturally water resistant, full grain leather will not breathe as well as other materials but they will keep your feet dry. All leather boots will function better and last longer if you treat them regularly. Products like Limmer Boot Grease or Nikwax leather treatment keep the leather from drying out and help it shed water – they are well worth the small investment of time and money.
Suede/Nubuck: Split leather from the inside (suede) or outside (nubuck) of the hide. It’s thinner and softer than full grain leather and is usually used on mixed fabric/leather boots. Although both suede and nubuck can be treated with leather waxes the treatment will change the texture and look significantly it is not as necessary as for a full grain leather boot.
Synthetic Materials: Synthetic materials such as nylon, polyester, and synthetic leather, are found on many boots. They usually cost less and are lighter than leather. They will also break in more quickly and dry faster than leather. However, because there are more pieces used to construct the upper, synthetic boots will often age faster than leather boots.
Waterproof Membranes such as GORE-TEX® or eVent® are commonly found in hiking boots. These membranes “breathe” by way of microscopic holes that are large enough to allow water vapor to escape but small enough to keep liquid water out. Often they are the inner-most layer of the upper to protect the membrane. Although shoes with waterproof membranes will let sweat out, they will be noticeably warmer and less breathable than a similar boot lacking a membrane, so if you won’t need to wear them through puddles or in the rain a non-waterproof boot may be a better option. Proper cleaning of this footwear is also essential to keep the membrane from clogging with dirt, oil, and other grimes which will inhibit the breathability.
Shoes are built around a “last” or model of a foot. If you were buying custom footwear that model would match your foot exactly, but if (like most of us) you can’t afford that luxury your best bet is to try on as many boots or shoes as possible to find the one that best fits your feet. Every company has their own lasts, and even within brands lasts may vary shoe-to-shoe.
While trying on shoes consider the following suggestions:
Fit the shoes or boots with socks that you are likely to wear while hiking. This will help ensure that the fit you have in the store is the same you will have out on the trails.
Remember that your foot changes volume during hikes and over the course of the day. Try on shoes in the afternoon, when your feet are larger, and make sure you leave some room in the toe for them to expand during a long hike.
Arch support, like Superfeet®, can also make a shoe or boot fit better. If you are in the store there are demos available to try with your footwear. If you wear custom orthotics definitely try on new boots or shoes with your orthotics in to make sure the fit is correct.
As you try on your footwear be aware of any movement of your foot in the shoe. If your foot is sliding forward or the heel is noticeably lifting check your laces to make sure they’re tight enough. If that doesn’t fix the problem then try another boot.
Finally, listen to your feet. You know them much better than we ever will, and whether they’re telling you that something fits great or something’s wrong, take their advice.