Buying a hiking shoe that fits your needs isn't as easy as you might think. Your dream hiking boots need to sync with how and where you hike. Before you tie the knot, though, you also have to be sure they’re a perfect fit.
Types of Hiking Boots
Hiking shoes: Low-cut models with flexible midsoles are excellent for day hiking. Some ultralight backpackers may even choose trail-running shoes for long-distance journeys.
Day hiking boots: These range from mid- to high-cut models and are intended for day hikes or short backpacking trips with light loads. They often flex easily and require little break-in time, but they lack the support and durability of stout backpacking boots.
Backpacking boots: These are designed to carry heavier loads on multiday trips deep into the backcountry. Most have a high cut that wraps above the ankles for excellent support. Durable and supportive, with stiffer midsoles than lighter footwear, they are suitable for on- or off-trail travel.
Hiking Boot Uppers
Understanding a little more about what goes into uppers, lowers, midsoles, outsoles and other parts of a boot can help you refine your selection. Materials impact a boot’s weight, breathability, durability and water resistance.
Full-grain leather: Full-grain leather offers excellent durability and abrasion resistance, and great water resistance. It’s most commonly used in backpacking boots built for extended trips, heavy loads and rugged terrain. It is not as light or breathable as nylon/split-grain leather combinations. Ample break-in time is needed before starting an extended trip.
Split-grain leather: Split-grain leather is usually paired with nylon or nylon mesh to create a lightweight boot that offers excellent breathability. Split-grain leather "splits away" the rougher inner part of the cowhide from the smooth exterior. The benefit is lower cost. However, the downside is less resistance to water and abrasion (though many feature waterproof liners).
Nubuck leather: Nubuck leather is full-grain leather that has been buffed to resemble suede. It is very durable and resists water and abrasion. It’s also fairly flexible, yet it too requires ample time to break in before an extended hike.
Synthetics: Polyester, nylon and so-called "synthetic leather" are all commonly found in modern boots. They are lighter than leather, break in more quickly, dry faster and typically cost less. Downside: They may show wear sooner due to more stitching on the outside of the boot.
Waterproof membrane: Boots and shoes billed as “waterproof” feature uppers constructed with waterproof/breathable membranes (such as Gore-Tex® or eVent®) to keep feet dry in wet conditions. Downside: The reduced breathability created by a membrane (compared to the ventilating mesh used on some non-waterproof shoes) may encourage feet to sweat on summer days.
Insulation: Synthetic insulation is added to some mountaineering boots for warmth when hiking on snow and glaciers.
Vegan: Vegan-friendly hiking boots and shoes are made without any animal ingredients or byproducts.
Hiking Boot Midsoles
The midsole, which provides cushioning, buffers feet from shock and largely determines a boot’s stiffness. Stiff boots might not sound like a good thing, but for long hikes on rocky, uneven terrain they can mean greater comfort and stability. A stiff boot won’t allow your foot to wear out by wrapping around every rock or tree root you step on. The most common midsole materials are EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) and polyurethane.
EVA is a bit cushier, lighter and less expensive. Midsoles use varying densities of EVA to provide firmer support where needed (e.g., around the forefoot).
Polyurethane is generally firmer and more durable, so it’s usually found in extended backpacking and mountaineering boots.
Hiking Boot Internal Support
Shanks: These 3–5mm thick inserts are sandwiched between a boot’s midsole and outsole to add load-bearing stiffness to the midsole. They vary in length; some cover the entire length of the midsole, while others only cover half.
Plates: These thin, semi-flexible inserts are positioned between the midsole and the outsole, and below the shank (if included). They protect feet from getting bruised by roots or uneven rocks.
Hiking Boot Outsoles
Rubber is used on all hiking boot outsoles. Additives such as carbon are sometimes added to backpacking or mountaineering boots to boost hardness. Hard outsoles increase durability but can feel slick if go you off the trail.
Lug pattern: Lugs are traction-giving bumps on the outsole. Deeper, thicker lugs are used on backpacking and mountaineering boots to improve grip. Widely spaced lugs offer good traction and shed mud more easily.
Heel brake: This refers to the clearly defined heel zone that is distinct from the forefoot and arch. It reduces your chance of sliding during steep descents.
If you plan to do mountaineering or winter backpacking, having compatible boots and crampons is essential for your safety.
Hiking Boot Fit
No one ever loved a pair of ill-fitting boots. The difference between blisters and bliss is taking the time to get a great fit.
Hiking boots should fit snug everywhere, tight nowhere, and offer room to wiggle your toes. Try them on at the end of the day (after feet swell) and with the socks you plan to wear.
Try on boots at the end of the day. Your feet normally swell a bit during the day’s activities and will be at their largest then. This helps you avoid buying boots that are too small.
If you wear orthotics, bring them along. They impact the fit of a boot.
Wear appropriate socks. Familiar socks help you more quickly assess the fit and feel of new footwear. Make sure the thickness of the socks matches what you intend to wear. And on the trail, go with synthetic rather than slow-drying cotton socks, which are more likely to give you blisters.
Spend some time in the boots. Take a stroll through the store. Walk up and down stairs. Find an inclined surface and walk on it.
Fit issues to share with your footwear specialist: You don't want to feel odd bumps or seams, or pinching in the forefoot, nor toes hitting the end of the boot when it's on an incline. If the boots are laced firmly, and you still feel space above the top of your foot, then the volume of the boot is wrong.
When shopping online, consider a brand you’ve worn before. Most boot companies tend to use a consistent foot model over time, so the fit is likely to be similar.
Consider aftermarket insoles. Insoles come in models that can enhance comfort, support or fit—or all three.
Break your boots in before your first trip. Wear them to work, walk to the shops, wear them around the house while they aren't dirty yet. Just get into them as soon as possible. Getting new shoes last minute before that 5 day hiking trip is a no-go.