How to Pick the Right Hiking Boots

Footwear is an essential part of your hiking experience

By Karen Asp

Your feet are your foundation, and there are few times when that’s more apparent than when you’re hiking. Proper footwear is so important that the American Hiking Society ranks “appropriate footwear” as No. 1 on its list of 10 essentials for every hike.

Yet many people hit the trails with the shoes they wear to the gym. 

“Wearing inappropriate shoes can set you up for stress fractures and sprained ankles,” says Patrick McEneaney, DPM, a podiatrist in Crystal Lake, Ill., who owns Northern Illinois Foot & Ankle Specialists.

So how do you pick the right hiking footwear? Keep two important variables top of mind. 

“Your footwear needs to be supportive as well as protective,” says Wesley Trimble, the American Hiking Society’s communications and creative director.

Trimble has spent plenty of time in hiking boots getting to know the ground that the nonprofit aims to protect. He has thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, which at 2,650 miles is longer than its more famous East Coast counterpart, the Appalachian Trail; thru-hiked the over-480-mile Colorado Trail; climbed all 54 of that state’s 14,000-foot peaks; and finished several ultramarathon trail races (not in hiking boots).

Your First Step

Before you start your search, think about the type of hiking you’ll be doing. After all, hiking encompasses a range of experiences—from a gentle stroll through a nature preserve to a multiday trek in a national park. The type you do will largely dictate what footwear you’ll need, Trimble says.

That’s why Mike Kreis, sales lead and virtual outfitter for outdoors retailer REI in Isaquah, Wash., always asks hikers whether they’re new to the sport and what they’re planning on doing. “I ask these questions to get an idea of what kind of structure or support you need in the boot,” Kreis says, For instance, carrying a bigger backpack means you’ll need more support in your footwear.

Because there is such a wide selection of hiking footwear on the market, you’ll then want to understand the spectrum of what’s available.

At the top are heavy-duty hiking boots that feature hard, durable soles with grippy treads; ultraprotective material like leather or rubber; and a height that rises several inches above your ankles. As a result, they’re heavier and bulkier, and they retain heat more than other hiking footwear.

On the other end are trail runners, which are low-cut (below your ankle), lightweight, breathable shoes with traction designed for trails but often not as much hiking boots. The downside, though, is that they’re less supportive and won’t last as long, Kreis says.

In the middle are hiking shoes and boots, which have components similar to those of heavy-duty boots, including a more durable sole, grippier tread, and protective material, often a combination of leather, mesh, and/or other fabrics, so they retain less heat than traditional leather boots. They’re more substantial than trail runners and can range in heights from below the ankle to just a few inches above your ankles.

A Path to Your Selection

Here are four tips to make your decision easier.

1. Review your foot health. If you’re prone to ankle injuries or have issues like tendonitis, you’ll need more supportive footwear, like a hiking shoe or boot, McEneaney says.

2. Evaluate the terrain. This will dictate how much ankle support and protection your feet need. If you’re hiking well-maintained trails that aren’t overly challenging, steep, or rough, and don’t require your feet to be protected from excessive natural elements like rocks, thorny bushes, and cacti, trail runners should be okay for most hikers, says Trimble at the American Hiking Society. As that terrain gets more uneven and challenging and requires your feet to twist and turn, you’ll need something more.

3. Think about the weight you’ll be carrying. If you’re not carrying much weight, lighter-weight shoes like trail runners could work, but as the weight you’re carrying increases, you’ll need to move up the spectrum in your footwear choice.

4. Factor in the weather. Are you hiking in a location that gets a significant amount of rain, such as Washington, or a relatively dry area, like Arizona? Answering this question will determine whether you need to look for waterproof footwear, Kreis says.

Waterproof vs. Water-Resistant 

You’ll see both of these terms on hiking footwear, and it’s important to understand them. When footwear is water-resistant, it has been treated with chemicals that propel away water so it doesn’t absorb into the fabric. Waterproof hiking footwear, on the other hand, has a waterproof membrane like Gore-Tex that prevents water droplets from entering the shoe while allowing water vapors from the inside to escape.

So which is better? This depends, but if you’re in waterproof footwear and your feet get wet—from puddles, a storm, or sweat—it will take them longer to try. “The waterproof membrane inhibits water from escaping, which means that not until the water turns to vapor will it be released,” Trimble says. You’ll then be more prone to developing blisters and hot spots.

While Trimble recommends that most hikers stay away from waterproof options, there are a few occasions when they make sense. “If the majority of your hiking will be done in weather that’s 40° F or below and you’ll consistently be in wet weather or snow, a waterproof membrane may be a better option,” he says.

Getting the Right Fit

While the above variables are important, they’ll be of little value if you don’t have the right fit. After all, if your footwear is too small or too big, you risk having a miserable experience on the trails. Blisters and hematomas, a buildup of blood under your nails, are just two concerns, says McEneaney, the podiatrist in Crystal Lake, Ill.

That’s why getting professional help is best, especially if it’s your first time buying hiking footwear or you have existing foot issues. Visit outdoor retailers that specialize in hiking footwear, Trimble says.

The staff will not only staff you through your options but also measure the length and width of your feet, width being something many hiking shoes and boots specify. The surprise? “Some women with wider feet may do better in a men’s shoe,” McEneaney says. Some retailers even have incline boards, where you can simulate downhill walking so you can see if your toes are jamming into the front of the footwear.

Keep these points in mind: 

Shop in the afternoon. Your feet swell throughout the day and are at their largest then, Trimble says. It only makes sense to try on footwear then, so you don’t buy shoes or boots that are too small. 

Don’t skip getting measured: Even if you’ve always been a solid 10, let the pros determine what size is best for your feet, especially because it’s common for one foot to be slightly longer than the other, says Kreis at REI.

Make sure you have a thumb’s width from the end of your big toe to the end of the shoe. If your toes touch the front, your shoes are too small. In the end, the right footwear should feel snug but not tight. If you’re between sizes, err on the side of being too big vs. too small, Trimble says. And when it comes to the type of closure on the footwear, let personal preference be your guide.

Try on several pairs in multiple widths so that you get a feel for what’s best for your feet. Wear them around the store or your house, even stepping outside with them, before deciding. Know, too, that some companies allow you to return footwear even with light use, so always ask.

Use the socks you’ll be hiking in. In general, “the lighter the shoe’s weight, the lighter the sock,” Trimble says. Avoid cotton socks, which will trap moisture, and opt for synthetic (like Dri-Fit) or wool or socks that wick moisture away from your skin.

Once you’ve settled on a pair, allow for a break-in process. This will depend on the material in the footwear you’ve chosen. If you’ve purchased hiking footwear made of synthetic materials, you’ll have minimal break-in time. In fact, you could buy your shoes and wear them on the trails that same day without any issues, Kreis says. Leather boots do require some time to break in. “The stiffer and thicker the leather, the more time it will take to break in,” he says.

Online Purchasing Tips

Buying online, while convenient, isn’t as advantageous as going to a physical store, namely because you won’t have the professional help or the ability to try on numerous options to ensure you get the best fit, Trimble says. Yet you can make it work. So that you have a selection to choose from, Trimble recommends ordering at least three pairs. Just check the company’s return policy first to make sure you can return any footwear that you don’t want.

When to Replace Your Footwear

If you’re using trail runners, Trimble recommends replacing them every 350 to 500 miles. You can apply a similar rule to hiking boots and shoes, but if you’re not sure how many miles you’ve hiked in them, at least replace them when they no longer feel as comfortable or the heels are worn, McEneaney says. Place them on a level surface to check.

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