Hiking success begins with the proper footwear.
You need something that provides traction in rugged, off-road terrain — no matter what the weather. Something that will protect and support your feet and ankles in all situations.
For most people, the best tool for the job is a well-constructed hiking boot. But finding the right pair can be a challenge for first-timers.
Your first task is to determine the type of product you need. Hiking boots fall along a spectrum of off-road footwear.
Hiking Shoe: A hiking shoe looks a lot like a traditional running shoe, but it includes some noticeable additions and reinforcements. Its low-cut upper provides little protection against the hazards of rough terrain, but the tradeoff is that it doesn’t require an extensive break-in period. Casual hikers who plan to follow established trails without carrying much in the way of gear would do well with a hiking shoe.
Hiking Boot: A hiking boot looks similar to a work boot. Designed for moderate off-road hiking and lighter backpacking trips, its high-cut upper wraps around the ankle and lower leg, providing protection against the elements and specialized support for those with supinated (outward) or pronated (inward) gaits. Rubber lugs on the bottom and sides of the soles allow the wearer to push through muddy, loose, or steep terrain with a proper grip. This type of boot provides the cushioning required for carrying a medium-sized load.
Backpacking Boot: A backpacking boot looks similar to a traditional hiking boot, but the ankle and lower leg support are stiffer and the toebox is less flexible. The manufacturer may install a protective plate under the front of the sole to shield the wearer from rocks and other puncturing debris.
Mountaineering Boot: Not intended for rookies, a mountaineering boot represents the ultimate in hiking footwear. This inflexible boot generally features a hard outer shell and a space for ice-gripping cleats or snowshoes. Anyone shopping for mountaineering boots has probably already accumulated years of hiking experience and knows precisely what features he or she needs.
Approach shoes: Approach shoes combine the flexible grip of a climbing shoe with the support of a hiking shoe. It’s not unusual for an advanced hiker to change shoes according to terrain conditions. An approach shoe is good to have on hand when the trail becomes hilly.
Joy fell in love with hiking and climbing about six years ago. Her favorite mountain of all time is Mt. Kilimanjaro, which she summited after a 10-day trek. Summit day itself was a 10-hour slog, but the satisfaction of reaching the crater and then the summit was unparalleled. The most important lesson Joy has learned is to listen to the experts, be prepared, and have the right gear.
Standard shoe sizing doesn’t always apply to hiking boots. A size 10 shoe may feel quite different than a size 10 boot. What matters more is finding a boot that isn’t too loose or too tight, especially when wearing thick hiking socks.
Fittings should be done at night when the foot is at its longest. Ideally, a pair of hiking socks should be worn at this time.
To find the proper fit, slide your foot forward into an unlaced boot until your toes reach the front of the toebox. You should be able to fit a finger between the back of the boot heel and the back of your foot. When laced, the boot’s tongue should apply steady, non-constrictive pressure to the top of your foot.
Hiking boots should feel supported in the heel yet moderately roomy in the toebox. However, too much “bend” in the toebox could cause a serious abrasive injury. All hiking boots require a break-in period.
New hiking boots, even if they’re made of lightweight materials, are going to be stiff. There’s no magical shortcut to softening leather, so wearers should never soak their new boots in water and immediately take an all-day hike! This sort of treatment would damage the leather and cause unnecessary pain and suffering. However, treating the leather uppers with mink oil or a water-repelling boot wax is highly recommended.
Two schools of thought exist concerning the break-in process. The first is that “the wearer needs to adjust to the boot, but the boot also needs to adjust to the wearer.” If you choose to follow this school of thought, we recommend these steps:
The second school of thought is that "the wearer is experiencing a breaking-in period as well.” In other words, your feet and ankles need time to adjust to the contours of the hiking boot. Again, experts recommend that you follow the steps above, wearing your new boots indoors at first because your feet and ankles are going through structural changes regarding load bearing and balance. Taking on a challenging hike too soon could result in foot fatigue or a twisted ankle.
The break-in period can last for several months, especially with higher-end models destined for use on rough terrain. Some lightweight boots do have a shorter break-in period, but durability can be a trade-off.
When shopping for hiking boots, there are several kinds of materials to consider, each with its own pros and cons. Manufacturers typically place a high premium on durable materials that are flexible, breathable, and water-repellent.
Full-Grain Leather: Full-grain leather is an excellent footwear material, but you won’t often find it on standard hiking boots. Rather, you’ll find it on backpacking and mountaineering boots where its natural stiffness and resistance to water serve a crucial purpose. Beginning hikers generally do not need to invest in full-grain leather boots for day hikes or trail runs.
Split Leather: Split leather is literally the softer “inner layer” of standard leather. Some manufacturers combine split leather with other materials to form a rugged yet lightweight boot or shoe. Hiking boots made of split leather generally cost less, but the tradeoff is a loss of durability and water resistance.
Synthetic Leather: Some modern hiking boots are made of synthetic materials which may include nylon, polyester, and artificial leather (pleather). These boots cost less and sport a faster break-in period, but they also suffer a shorter lifespan due to higher stitch counts. (The more stitches required to form a boot, the greater the chance of seam failure over time.)
Hiking boots are designed to protect the feet, ankles, and lower legs in rough terrain. The ratio of mesh to leather varies from model to model, but all high-quality hiking boots share some basic features.
An extended toe bumper helps you maintain a good foothold and protects your lower extremities from rocks, tree stumps, and other obstacles. Boots with an extended toe bumper have a rubberized sole that curves upward at the front and continues until it meets the upper.
A heel brake is a rubberized sole extension behind the heel that helps you dig in your heels and control your descent on steep terrain.
Some people use customized orthotics to enhance their comfort during hikes. An orthotic with heavier cushioning helps prevent foot fatigue, while an orthotic with lighter cushioning allows you to get a better feel of the terrain.
Shanks and plates are sometimes found on more supportive hiking boots. A shank increases the boot’s load-bearing ability, and a plate provides extra protection against trail debris such as stones and thorns.
The trick to proper lacing is to keep the boot secure everywhere and tight nowhere. Modern hiking boots offer a number of different lacing options, but the best models generally use a “quick pull” lacing system with a locking mechanism. While it may be tempting to ignore the upper boot that surrounds the ankle and lower leg, hikers really need the additional support those lacing eyelets provide.
Laces designed specifically for hiking boots are not the same as laces sold for athletic shoes or regular work boots. Hiking boot laces should be round, not the flat ribbon style used for other sports. Ideally, they should be constructed from a water-resistant material like nylon.
Special lacing techniques create what experienced hikers call a “heel lock.” The user’s heel is more secure in the boot, and the reduced foot movement helps prevent blisters. Experienced hikers or trained footwear salespeople can demonstrate this lacing technique, or tutorials can be found online.
Another consideration that’s often overlooked by first-time buyers is the boot’s tongue. Some manufacturers save on production costs by using less padding on the tongue and other areas, but without enough padding, you could sustain some aches and/or abrasions.
That being said, a heavily padded boot could cause the foot to sweat profusely and overheat in hotter climates. While breathability in any kind of footwear is always a consideration, hiking boots also need to be moisture-repellent and debris-resistant. You may actually want to invest in two pair of hiking boots: one with a heavier tongue for cold weather and another with a thinner tongue for improved ventilation in hot weather.
Inexperienced hikers sometimes make the mistake of buying more boot than they need. If you’re a newbie, keep these pointers in mind:
A short trail hike with no additional load probably calls for a hiking shoe rather than a boot.
By contrast, a two-day hike with a small backpack requires a true hiking boot—but only after it’s been properly broken in.
A week-long backpacking trip in remote terrain calls for a backpacking boot, and a trip up the side of Mount Whitney means investing in a mountaineering boot.
If water hazards are expected, the purchase of a water shoe is also advised.
Hiking boots require maintenance. A leather softener like mink oil should be applied regularly to keep the material pliable and water-resistant. We recommend storing the boots on a shoe tree to keep them ventilated and dry. If the boots have removable soles, each sole should be removed and air-dried separately.