These Boots Were Made For Walkin’: Ten Things You Should Be Considering When Buying Hiking Boots

...and that's just what they'll do, all the way to the summit of Chukking Ri

The great Nancy Sinatra once reminded the world that her boots were gonna walk all over you. While i’m sure Ms. Sinatra was not referring to multi-day treks in the Grand Tetons (and in the event she was i’m extremely impressed) she obviously had a commanding knowledge of boot shopping.

Today’s hiking boots come in a variety of shapes, sizes, uses, and materials. In the shop I work in, i’ve seen many a customer pick out a boot arbitrarily because it’s GoreTex, waterproof, great colors, or (and i’ve heard this one more often than I should) “Bear Grylls wears it”. Cut to a few weeks later the same customer returns demanding a refund because their ankles, knees, and joints are unbearably sore. When shopping for your perfect hiking boot, you should be taking a number of points into consideration. Here are the ten things you should be considering when buying hiking boots.

10. Should my boots be waterproof?

Waterproof hiking boots are made of a tough interior lining, supplemented by leather or GoreTex material to keep feet dry when crossing water. However with waterproof material, it sacrifices breathability, therefore making the shoe more humid around the foot. Buying a waterproof shoe can cost more than a lightweight mesh boot, so take into consideration the type of terrain you’re going to be hiking on. Waterproof boots are generally best at higher altitudes and excel at fall and winter hiking as they can repel rain and snow. Keep moisture out of your boots by wearing synthetic wool socks which can help keep your feet dry and prevent the growth of blisters. When taking off your boots, be sure to dry them out thoroughly and dry the inserts separately from the boot.

If you’re trekking in the lowlands (excluding swamps) go for a more breathable mesh boot. It’ll keep your feet airy and more comfortable especially in the hot dry spring and summer months.

9. What should I be looking for in the sole?

The sole of the boot is what is going to give you stability on uneven terrain. When wearing the boot, you should not be able to feel the individual bumps of the terrain. When trying on the boot, step on different levels (stairs, chairs, the Brannock device) and make sure that you are feeling stable. A good sole should have deep, wide treads, and a plastic or tough foam covering around the heel acting as a braking device. The braking device is essential for keeping you stable on uphill portions, and controlling your speed on downhill portions.

8. How should my boot be cut?

The cut of your shoe should depend on the trail and the duration of the hike. A low cut shoe is great for short hikes on well maintained trails, and offer comfort while carrying light loads. A medium cut shoe that rises above the ankle is the standard for multi-day hikes, short mountain jaunts, and carrying a medium size load. A high cut boot provides stability on mountainous terrain, and provides stability when carrying large loads. High cut boots are generally a mountaineering boot and can be uncomfortable for long stretches on a flat or moderately rising surface.

7. How should the boot fit?

Your toes should not be pressing up against the front of the boot. The back of the boot should securely support the heel and your feet should not be sliding from side to side. Alternatively your feet should not be tight or constricted. The heel provides stability and helps guide the rest of the foot to a clean and comfortable gait.

6. What do I need to bring when i’m trying on the boot?

When buying the boot you need to take all factors into consideration including socks, insoles, and pack weight. If possible, bring, or try on in the store, the types of socks that you intend to be using. This will give you the exact measurement and feeling that you’re going to be wearing in the field. If you are wearing corrective or orthopedic insoles, bring them with you and ask the salesperson to replace the stock soles with yours when trying on the boot so you have the same feeling that you will experience on the trail. With the pack, you’re going to feel the weight of your feet sliding in the shoe and get an accurate representation of what your gait will be like on the trail. Like examining the sole, walk on different levels of terrain to be sure the shoe isn’t tilting your body from side to side.

5. What’s the best time of day to try on my boots?

The best time of day to try on boots (or any shoe) is in the late afternoon or end of the day because your feet will swell and you’ll have a more accurate measurement, plus the same feeling after a long day on the trail. Going in early in the morning could leave you with as much as an inch too short, and in a hiking boot that’s already tight and slim, it could be uncomfortable at the end of the day.

4. Can I personalize the fit of my boot?

Absolutely. Find insoles, whether made of gel or foam, that are lightweight and comfortable. Vary your sock choices to one that is light and thin enough that it’s not causing friction between your leg and the inside padding. Make sure that the laces are not too tight, but just tight enough to keep your mid-foot stable.

3. It has to be much more convenient to buy my boots online, is this acceptable?

I strongly discourage buying hiking boots online. Taking into consideration the factors when trying on the boot, you should only buy online when you know first hand all the technical aspects of the boot. Always try it on in a store first.

2. What about trail runners? They’re lightweight, comfortable, and look at those colors!

Trail runners are acceptable for light non strenuous hikes. A trail runner is generally built like a beefed up running shoe made of mesh, plastic, and foam. Their treads are smaller than a hiking boot and are meant towards high speed, quick cornering, and fast stopping ability. If you plan to be stepping up on more elevated, rocky, and unpredictable terrain, even in the forest, switch to a hiking boot. A trail runner can cause pains in the ankles and don’t have adequate protection against stones or branches.

1. Perfect, so i’m ready to pick out my shoe, i’m taking everything into consideration, but every shoe is just built the same way, right?

WRONG! The MOST IMPORTANT part of buying a hiking shoe is your step and your gait. It’s essential that you have a gait analysis and be sure that you’re buying the shoe that is meant towards your style of walking. There are three styles of walking that vary from person to person: Overpronation, Supination, and Neutral.

  • Overpronation occurs when your foot rolls too far inward following a heel strike. For this type of step it’s best recommended to buy a shoe with motion control, a tough piece of foam that runs in the inside of the shoe that helps control how much the foot is rolling inward.
  • Supination is when the foot goes the opposite way and rolls towards the outside of the foot. Supination is generally associated with people who have high arches. A person who supinates needs extra cushioning in the mid-foot and the heel to counteract the roll and stabilize the foot. Extra cushioning can be augmented through gel tipped insoles.
  • A neutral foot has a slight roll but is generally straight throughout the step. A neutral foot requires a stability shoe with foam, gel, or plastic placed on either side to keep the foot from rolling too far onto either side.

Buying a shoe that is counterproductive to your step could cause pains in the knees, shins, and ankles. Unfortunately, the sole and the purpose of the shape is overlooked way more than it should be. It’s important to look at the bottom of the shoe and take notice of how thin the sole is. The thinner the sole, the more it corrects overpronation. However always have a salesperson take notice of your step (walking barefoot) before recommending or trying on a shoe.

Once you’ve bought your shoe, it’s important that you break them in right away. Take short walks around the neighborhood and make sure that the leather becomes softer and more flexible. Never begin a long hike with a brand new shoe, the extra thickness puts unnecessary pressure on your heel and your knees.

The right shoe will ensure a more comfortable and enjoyable experience on the trail. When trying on a hiking boot, it is essential to take these factors into consideration and buy the shoe that is fit for you, rather than the shoe that is the most aesthetically pleasing. Taking notice of your step and the roll of your foot will provide you with a boot that will keep you comfortable for miles to come, and finding the material and cut meant for your specific purpose will keep you from spending more money on components that you wouldn’t need. As the hiking season shifts into full gear, keep those boots walkin’.

Soundoff: What boots are you hiking in this season?

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