A good pair of hiking boots might be one of the most important pieces of hiking gear. A proper pair will not only provide you with insulation from cold and moisture, it will give you an enhanced grip, a stable platform on any surface and a counterweight to your pack weight. Nowadays, there is an incredible variety of shoe/boot types, materials, technologies available for all kinds of intended purposes. It may be hard to select a pair that suits you best, but with a bit of help, this will not be an issue.
12 Things to consider
There is list of characteristics you should consider, when choosing your ideal pair. The first question you should always ask yourself is what is the range of intended boot use and what are the most important technical aspects. Knowing this will help you pick the best combination of characteristics for the best performance in your adventures.
- Fit of the shoe
One of the most important, if not the most important aspects to consider is the fit of the shoe. “It’s the pebble in the shoe, and not the mountain that defeats the climber” they say, and it is completely true. You will likely be spending many hours and possibly many days in your hiking shoes; do not choose something that fits you poorly. There are enough brands and models out there for you to find your perfect match. A well-fitting shoe should be snug (but not tight) around the heel along with enough wiggle space for the toes. It is best to try your potential hiking shoes in the afternoon to simulate the hiking-feet swell, and try them with any inserts and socks you would be wearing, as it all affects the she fit. Never get a pair that is too small, too tight or has some friction spots; most likely it will only get much worse, as you wear them longer.
- Weight of the shoe
In most of the cases: the lighter the shoe – the better. Weight on your feet translates to several-folds of the weight on your back, so lightweight footwear will make your steps easier and more effortless. It will also allow you to be more agile and quicker in your movement, which is a big advantage, when moving fast and on technical terrain. However, it is important to note that some weight is required for certain purposes. Heavier boots provide a stable platform when on rugged and loose terrain and snow, and they also give you a counterbalance, when carrying a heavier pack for multi-day trips. Spend some time walking in the shoes, making sure they are not too heavy for you – beginner hikers and lighter, smaller-frame people might find it difficult to hike in heavy-duty, sturdy hiking footwear.
- Stiffness vs. flexibility of the sole
More flexible sole shoes are usually more comfortable, lighter and faster, but stiffer boots protect your feet better, create a stable a surface and allow traveling through steep and snowy terrain. Choose stiff boots if you are planning multi-day, challenging trips or need to carry a heavy backpack. Stiff boots are also essential for crampon use. However, if you are just heading out on a short easy day-trip, flexible boots will give the comfort you need.
- Waterproofness vs. breathability
Waterproofness and breathability, again, usually lay one the opposite sides of the spectrum. Highly breathable shoes are rarely properly waterproof, while the heavier duty waterproof boots are not quite as breathable. An important thing to note though here is that if you will be using heavy duty boots, breathability will likely be of not the primary importance. It is best to think about the waterproofness vs. breathability within the range of the shoe-type that suits you best.
- Outsole grip
Grip is (extremely) important; luckily most of quality hiking shoes have an excellent grip these days. Look for massive lugs, deep outsole thread. A heel split is very useful, especially walking downhill on soft ground and snow. A well-defined shoe edges are also very important for kicking steps in softer and lose ground, and are especially important, when on snow.
- Ankle protection
Hiking shoes usually refer to lower ankle, lighter footwear, while hiking boots indicate higher-cut and better protected ankle. Ankle protection is essential, when hiking with a heavier load and on loose terrain. It prevents ankle sprains that can happen easily, when under a load on an uneven ground. However, higher ankle constricts your leg movement; hence if you’re out on an easy day trip, a lower ankle shoe is a perfectly suitable choice.
Durability is an important feature especially, when you pay a fortune for your pair of shoes. Some materials are more durable than others. Leather hiking boots are usually the most durable.
- Cushioning and warmth
Depending on the season and weather conditions, insulation of your hiking footwear might be of great importance. You do not have to buy a pair of highly insulated shoes specifically for winter hiking, as the insulation can be adjusted with a pair of thick wool socks, however, if you get cold easily and we are talking about severe winter conditions, heavy duty, fully waterproof boots are a must.
- Choose your combination
All these criteria form a list of continuums and often, choosing one feature, you might be sacrificing the other. It is important to decide, which aspects of your footwear are the most important to you, and what technical abilities you must have. If you want to go on fast-paced hiking trips, lightweight, flexible, breathable shoes are a good fit for you. Consider trying out trail-running shoes. However, if you are planning a 10-day trip over rugged terrain, seek something heavy-duty, waterproof and stiff.
- The hiking terrain
Hiking terrain will play an importance influence on your shoe choice. Well groomed trails do not demand much out of your shoes, and hence just go for anything lightweight and comfortable. More rugged, loose and soft terrain is harder and more challenging to traverse, but with a heavier duty pair of shoes, the challenge will be more manageable. Hiking on snow poses substantial challenges too; you will have to be able to kick steps, and have a stable platform, when walking on it. For this you will need stiffer boots; given steep terrain, stiff enough to fit crampons on. The steeper the snowy terrain, the more serious you should be about choosing a boot of adequate technical capacity. Furthermore, hiking through snow requires waterproof footwear to prevent you from getting your feet cold and wet.
- Hiking socks
Socks are instrumental to a good hiking experience; they enhance the fit, cushion your feet and provide insulation. You can alter the purpose of the shoe, just by changing the pair of socks. Choose hiking socks made of wool and synthetic materials and not cotton. Cotton gets wet easily and is difficult to dry; cotton also tends to loose shape, when wet that may results in blisters. Wool, especially merino, hiking socks also help keep the odours away after multi-day trip (something that your hiking buddies will thank for).
- Hiking gaiters
Gaiters are a very useful accessory, when in the backcountry, as they keep the snow, water and dirt away from your shoes. It also helps to protect your lower legs and pants from any abrasion. Hiking gaiters come in various lengths and levels of technicality, so anyone can find their fit.
In conclusion, first and foremost, make sure the hiking shoes of your choice fit your feet well. Even the best reviewed models will be completely useless, if walking in them will result in pain. After you get that sorted, think about the technical features you might require making your boots reliable in the terrain. Given the incredibly rich selection these days, this will not be a problem.