How to Choose the Best Hiking Boots for your needs
One of the best things you can do to improve your hiking experience is to get a good pair of boots. A comfortable backpack is great, but hiking is all about the feet.
What Type of Hiking Will You Be Doing?
The first question you need to ask yourself is where you will be using your hiking footwear. This will determine whether you should get trailer runners, hiking sandals, hiking shoes, hiking boots, or a mountaineering boot.
For jaunts through the mountains, trailer runners work great. They don’t have a lot of ankle support, so you’ll need to pay attention to bumps and dips in the trail to avoid injury. However, their lightweight design, combined with excellent traction on the outsole, make them a breeze to wear.
If your hikes involve a lot of water, either through stream crossing or because they’re combined with canoe/kayak trips, then hiking sandals are a great option. Again, they don’t have much ankle support and may even be open-toed, but they excel in the ventilation and drainage department to keep your feet nice and dry.
For the average hiker, a lightweight hiking shoe or hiking boot will be the best choice. Hiking shoes provide some ankle support and more cushion for a comfortable and protective fit on shorter hikes. If you’re doing hikes with a heavy pack or long distances, go with a hiking boot, which will offer more ankle stability and a more robust outsole.
Mountaineering boots are a niche product designed for more extreme conditions. These include ice climbing, crevasse crossing, and anything where ice crampons are needed. They offer excellent ankle stability but are incredibly stiff. These should only be used if the conditions warrant them.
What Should You Look for in a Quality Hiking Boot?
Hiking boots have three primary components: uppers, midsoles, and outsoles. Their materials and design each have a significant effect on how the boot will perform.
The upper is the boot’s fabric portion covering the tops and side of the foot, extending up to somewhere between your ankle and mid-calf. Classically, uppers were made from leather, but most are either a mix of leather and synthetic materials or simply synthetic now.
Leather has the advantage of durability, but at the cost of weight. Leather that’s taken care of will last for many years will synthetics inevitably deteriorate after a few seasons. Synthetics don’t have the dreaded break-in period like leather.
Uppers vary widely in their level of protection and stability. Hiking shoes, which sit below the ankle, provide very little protection for the joint. Therefore, it’s more important to watch your step and avoid hazards that could cause a twist. Uppers that extend further up the leg, especially ones with hard plastic frames embedded in them, give the most protection.
Some uppers have insulating material embedded in them. These are great for winter excursions. More insulation means more weight and higher cost. It needs to be balanced against the conditionals you’ll encounter.
The least visible and thus most often ignored part of a hiking boot. Sandwiched between the upper and the outsole, the midsole consists of cushioning and supportive material for the footbed.
Most hiking boots utilize an EVA midsole – ethyl vinyl acetate foam that serves as a shock absorber. It creates a very comfortable footbed. It has the disadvantage of wearing out over time and with extensive use. A worn-out EVA midsole provides no cushioning, and hiking on one can lead to injury.
Another popular midsole uses polyurethane (PU), a hard plastic that isn’t a good shock absorber. It’s incredibly durable and holds its shape well through extending backpacking trips. Sometimes PU and EVA are used to get the best of both worlds.
Along with the cushioning and support of EVA and PU, midsoles often contain a shank. This is a hard piece of plastic, or in older hiking boots, a steel plate, that protects you from feeling sharp objects beneath your feet like roots and rocks. Lightweight hiking footwear like trail running shoes don’t have much of a shank, but they’re more common and thicker in a backpacking boot.
This is where the rubber meets the road. The outsole is the rubber tread on the bottom of your hiking boot. Outsoles use various densities of rubber to enhance their durability, traction, and comfort.
Softer outsoles wear out quickly, but they also stick to smooth surfaces much better. Approach shoes and trail runners often have a “stickier” outsole. They’re expected to wear out quickly, and traction is more important than durability. Backpacker boots use a harder rubber that can take a beating without deteriorating. The material doesn’t give much traction.
Backpacker boots get around this by having an aggressive tread pattern. These are the lugs and pits that form the sole. Bigger lugs and wider pits grip mud and snow better. However, the lugs’ smaller surface area still gives poor traction on smooth surfaces.
Should You Get a Waterproof Hiking Boot?
Waterproofs boots have to be one of the most controversial topics in the outdoor industry, with many hikers swearing by them and others saying they’d never buy a pair.
Waterproof boots should keep your feet drier. You can cross shallow creeks and walk through fields full of wet vegetation without getting soggy socks. Despite claims by companies like GoreTex, waterproof boots also do a great job at keeping moisture in. Your sweaty feet have a tough time breathing in waterproof boots.
To decide if waterproof backpacking boots are right for you, consider the terrain you’ll most often be hiking in. Will there be frequent stream crossing, muddy trails, and dewey grass? What will be the average temperature doing your hikes? If it’s hot and dry, go with non-waterproof boots and choose waterproof boots for wetter conditions.
How to Ensure Your Hiking Footwear Has the Proper Fit
A pair of ill-fitting pair of shoes will all but guarantee an awful hiking experience, so you must purchase ones that work for your feet. It doesn’t matter how great other people’s reviews are; if they don’t fit you, they’re not going to work.
Do your boot fitting in the evening. Your feet swell throughout the day, which means you could be a full half size bigger later in the day. Your feet will swell on your hikes, so fitting your boots in this state is much more accurate to how you’ll use them.
Always bring a good pair of hiking socks to your boot fitting; you should be wearing the same socks you’ll use on your hike.
Once you have your boots laced up, kick your toe against the ground and then place your index finger inside your boot behind your heel. This is one of the easiest ways to figure out which size hiking boots to buy. If your finger doesn’t fit, they’re too tight. If more than one finger fits, they’re too tight.
In addition to the length of the boots, you have to look at the width and volume, also referred to as the last. Most hiking boots don’t come in different lasts, so you have to try out a few to find the one that fits you perfectly. Women’s hiking boots have a smaller last for their length, but women with bigger feet can be more comfortable in a men’s boot.
Conclusion: What are the Best Hiking Boots for your needs?
No matter how highly-rated a particular pair of boots is, what matters most is how they fit you and your needs. Purchasing a pair is a very personal decision – one that makes an enormous difference in how enjoyable your hiking experience turns out.
The Salomon Quest 4D 3 are some of the best all-around hiking boots. They’re well-built, provide sufficient traction and stability, and they look good too. If you were to buy one pair of boots for all conditions, these would be it. The only problem is they’re somewhat overbuilt for shorter trips.
If you need light and fast, Salomon’s X Ultra 3 GTX are perfect. They don’t have the same protection as the Quests but provide excellent traction and solid construction in a small package. For those wanting a non-waterproof model, the Merrell Moab 2 Vent are fantastic. They offer plenty of ventilation in a featherlight frame.