This is a piece I wrote for an e-commerce site.
By Mara Kuhn
With a plethora of styles of hiking boots out there, it can be a little overwhelming knowing how to choose the right boot for hiking.
Choosing the right boot will depend mostly on your foot and your hiking needs. Several factors play into what will make a boot right for you. Consider the type of terrain you are going to be hiking in and what kind of support you need. Decide if you want more breathability or more waterproofing and how much weight you want on your feet.
You might want to consider a more durable and heavier built hiking boot if your hike is going to take you over more rocky and rougher terrain. A more durable boot can also be beneficial if conditions will include snow or mud and muck.
If your hike does not have a great deal of difficult terrain and you want a quicker pace or are planning to go ultralight, you may want to consider a lightweight hiking boot or a trail runner
To figure out what type of boot best fits you, you first need to understand the anatomy of a hiking boot.
The Upper Material of the hiking boot – the part above the sole that covers the top of your foot and up to your ankle – is generally leather or synthetic material to mimic leather.
Full-grain leather is your most durable material and is water-resistant, however, it is not lightweight or breathable. It will also require more break-in time to mold the boot to your feet.
Nubuck leather is sanded or buffed leather that makes it more like suede. It is durable and resists wear and water.
Split-grain leather has been thinned which makes it more breathable and lighter, but not as wear and water-resistant.
Synthetic materials are not as durable but are lighter and more breathable.
The Outsole is basically the bottom of the boot. This part is important because it keeps you from slipping in the mud or on wet rocks. All boots come with a rubber outsole. For hiking, you will want a boot with a deep and thick lug pattern.
The Midsole is the space that provides cushioning and determines how stiff the boot is. There are typically two types of Midsoles, EVA and Polyurethane. EVA has more cushion and is lighter, while Polyurethane is firmer and more durable.
Trail runners or lightweight boots are typically more breathable and quick to dry. Some shoes come with a waterproofing element like GORE-TEX, but even those tend to dry quicker than a full-grain leather hiking boot. As you hike, your feet sweat and having a shoe that lets that moisture out can prevent blisters and make your feet more comfortable.
Also if you have many stream crossings or rain, chances are the insides of your boots are going to end up wet despite your waterproofing layer.
Rainwater can run down your legs or pants and into your shoe. Also if you are hiking through wet grass, that moisture can transfer to your pants and socks and end up inside your shoe. The same can happen when crossing a stream. Water can splash on your legs and run down into your shoe, or that spot where you step may not be as shallow as you perceive it to be resulting in water flowing into your shoe.
Sometimes in situations like these, your feet can end up drier with a lighter and more breathable material because it lets the shoe and your feet dry quicker.
Trapped wet feet keep your skin moist which makes your feet more susceptible to blisters and fungal infections.
The downside is your boot or shoe will not keep your feet dry from small stream crossing or slogging through mud.
More and more thru-hikers and ounce-counting hikers and backpackers are choosing trail runners over boots, but there are advantages and disadvantages to going that route.
If you are trying to cut your weight as much as possible, going with more lightweight and less durable shoe will help. There is some truth to the old adage, “A pound on your feet is like five in your pack.” There are several advantages to a lightweight shoe: like being lighter and less clunky than hiking boots.
Thru-hikers or long-distance hikers tend to hike at a more brisk pace because covering so many miles on a daily basis conditions them to move more quickly. Because lightweight shoes are made for moving quickly, you might find them more comfortable if you are tackling a long hike.
However the negative to saving that weight is the boots typically do not have a high ankle collar for support. For backpacking, this can be a disadvantage because you carry a heavy pack and walk on uneven surfaces which make having ankle support nice.
They also are not as durable so you will need to replace them more often. For those who are planning to thru-hike a longer trail like the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, you will probably need to plan to add new shoes mid-hike – maybe even multiple times.
Another advantage to hiking in trail runners or a lightweight boot is they typically have a quick break-in period or do not have to be broken in at all.
If you are looking for something to provide you with more stability, you might consider hiking boots. Just like trail runners or lightweight hiking boots, heavy hiking boots come with their advantages and disadvantages.
Hiking boots typically have a high or mid-range collar that wraps around your ankle and gives you more torsional stability. If you are hiking a trail that has many rocks and roots, you can easily twist your ankle. Then you might consider a heavier hiking boot that has that extra ankle protection. Also when backpacking you are carrying more weight on your back, and you may want more stability on your ankles.
The disadvantage is that the boot is heavier and more clunky. One advantage a thru-hiker or long-distance hiker has is that the high milage conditions your body and ankles and builds up the muscles to give you more natural stability.
Hiking boots also give you an advantage in that they typically have a more durable sole with larger lugs to dig into the terrain. The larger lugs not only grip in the mud and dirt, but they also provide better grip on surfaces that might be slippery, like wet rocks.
A thicker more durable sole also will protect the bottom of your feet from feeling the rocks and roots and be more comfortable.
With an ankle collar, boots do a better job of keeping your feet dry as you slog through shallow stream crossings and mud puddles along the trail. Most hiking boots have some type of waterproofing as well. However, the disadvantage is they do not breathe as well to let out the moisture around your feet.
Each type of boot is unique, and each person has a unique foot. When choosing a size for a hiking boot, it’s important to remember that your feet swell while you hike. Because your feet swell you want to find your size and consider going up a half size.
To decide whether you need to go up a half size, pay attention to how much your feet swell while you are working during the day or on a day hike. When you get home from work or from a day of play, are your shoes tight and uncomfortable or do you have marks on your feet from your shoes?
If your boots are too small and your toes bang the front of the boot repeatedly during a hike, that can cause your toenails to turn black and/or fall off. Too small boots can also cause your toes to rub together and the sides of your foot to rub on the boot which causes blisters.
However, boots that are too big or loose can cause your feet to slide up and down and rub against the insides of the boot and cause blisters. Too big boots can also fail to provide the proper support needed for hiking.
After you make your purchase and receive your boots, test them inside your home by walking up and down stairs or on a sloping surface to make sure your toes do not hit the front of the boot. The boot should not slip up and down around you heal either.
If you have a wider foot, you might consider shoes with a wider toe box – the upper part of the shoe that covers the toe area. A wider toe box gives your toes more room while still keeping the boot snug around your heal. It also keeps your pinky toe from being crushed on the side of the boot, which can cause you to lose toenails.
Read the product description in detail so you can get a feel for the boot and know how it might fit.
You can also read the reviews written on the product page by people who have bought and worn the boot. From these reviews, you can tell if the boot typically fits snug, large, or is true to size. Reviewers will generally say things like, “I have a narrow foot and these boots fit perfectly.” That helps you gauge how the boot will fit.
There are many types of hiking boots and many types of fit. If you still aren’t sure or have more questions, contact a gear specialist at Backcountry Edge at 800-617-0643 or GearSpecialist@backcountryedge.com.