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.
We researched all the considerations and factors that you should take into account when choosing hiking boots. If you're ready to buy a new pair, please see our product recommendations, above. If you'd like to learn more about hiking boots and our experiences with them, have a read!
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.
Our COO, Ben, is an avid hiker as well as a graduate of both Army Ranger School and Airborne School. He had an aweseome experience testing out a pair of KEEN Men's Targhee IIs — our Best of the Best product — in a number of scenarios, including ice, snow, rain, hills, flat land, and hiking trails.
Ben was impressed by the KEEN boots for three reasons in particular:
On the downside, the KEEN boots are quite bulky. They consume a fair amount of space in a carry-on or hiking backpack, and they're not as lightweight as some people would like. Furthermore, they're not the most stylish hiking boots we've ever seen.
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! However, you may consider adding one or more of our "lesser-known" break-in methods (see below) to your bag of tricks.
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.
We maintain that a lengthy break-in process is the best break-in process, but consider these methods to enhance your break-in period:
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.
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.
How do you prep your feet for a 10-day hike or 50-mile walk? We assembled a team of experts to help us find out. Our team included Army Rangers, Green Berets, Navy Seals, and other members of the U.S. Special Operations community, as well as civilian distance hikers.
To avoid foot pain and experience the best possible boot fit during your hike, our expert team offers the following tips:
How do you care for your feet after a long hike? In many cases, this is when the real work begins — particularly if you’re looking forward to multiple hiking events over the coming days or weeks.
Ice Your Feet
This will hurt at the time, but ice prevents swelling and promotes blood flow. Over time, it will help you fit your feet back inside your boots.
Elevate Your Feet
Raising your feet above waist level helps drain the blood and prevent soreness. Our experts suggest reading a book while your feet are propped against a wall. It works!
Other Measures to Consider
If you have time, consider towel wrapping for 30 minutes. Begin by wrapping each foot in a warm towel. After five minutes, switch each foot to a cold towel. Repeat this for half an hour.
"Aquajogging,” though not well-known, is a great way to help the feet recover and reduce the chance of injury. A session of aquajogging in the pool requires a flotation device and 30 to 60 minutes of your time.
Lastly, if you can afford it, take advantage of the healing touch of physical massage or the soothing energy of a mechanical foot massager.
Inexperienced hikers sometimes make the mistake of buying more boot than they need. If you’re a newbie, keep these pointers in mind: