Your hiking boots are among the most important pieces of equipment that you bring into the backcountry.
There is an infinite array of heights, weights, materials, soles, etc. The key is to select your hiking boots according to your need, which may mean you will need multiple pairs of hiking boots. No hiking boot fits all conditions and as you will discover if you haven’t already they are an investment. Likely the single most important investment on your equipment list is your hiking boots. Some of the variables you will want to take into consideration in defining the hiking boots or shoes you need include:
- Types of hikes they will be used on including day hikes, multiday hikes, and extended treks.
- Pack weight, terrain; season and temperature all affect your boot type and need.
- Your hiking style (traditional or Ultralight) will have an impact on your boot selection as well as the cost. Ultralight gear is generally more expensive.
WHAT KIND OF HIKING BOOTS:
There is no single hiking boot that does it all. It is a key to your comfort and endurance and ultimately your health that you wear a hiking boot or shoe that matches trail activity. For every 1 lb on your foot you have an equivalent energy expenditure of adding 5 lbs on your back. Lifting your feet for thousands of steps takes a lot of energy. Therefore get the lightest weight boots that will meet your needs. Some considerations include:
- If you are carrying a heavy pack, (50 plus lbs) on an extended trip you will want a stiff boot with high ankle support. Boot weight and stiffness provide muscle support for the weight on your back.
- Multiday trip carrying 40 lbs, a lighter weight boot that extends just over the ankle may be ok for you though even here I prefer an above ankle style boot.
- Day hike or ultra light multiday with less than 20 lbs a “Mid” style Hiking boots, trail shoes or running shoes may be ok for you. Key here to remember is that none of these is going to give you significant ankle support.
The key in each case is the “for you” and “what are you doing”. Weak ankles make a difference in the height of boot for ankle support. Off trail hiking makes a difference in ankle support because you are walking on rougher terrain over obstacles not found on a well-groomed trail. And lastly the weight of pack and length of travel all make a difference in the best hiking boot combination. The path to maximizing your flexibility, comfort, and endurance on the trail is using the lightest gear that will meet your needs and your budget.
At the end of a day of hiking a second pair of camp shoes may be a good addition for around camp. They will allow you to air out your boots, especially if wet from rain or sweat, and air out your feet releasing them from their cocoon of heat and pressure. The heavier the hiking boot the more important it is to allow them to air out thus camp shoes, flip-flops, sandals, etc. Sandals or flip-flops are also handy at stream crossings to keep your hiking boots dry.
WATERPROOF HIKING BOOTS…SOME COMMENTS
Waterproofing works both ways. If you get sweaty quickly your waterproof hiking boots will be wet. And once your feet are wet, blisters come easily. Or if water does get inside, like coming down the sides of your boot or shoe, it doesn’t come out. In wet weather, gaiters can keep both hiking boots and socks dry.
Waterproof membranes like Gore-Tex clog and corrode without seasonal washing. Sometimes having shoes that dry off in ten minutes is more useful then waterproof hiking boots that when wet on the interior take many hours to dry. Waterproofing also traps heat, and releases it slower. This can help keep your feet warmer in cold conditions, but it also means that on hot summer days they can get pretty sweaty.
Leather is another great method of waterproofing. Leather is breathable and waterproof if needed by waxing it regularity. Waxing has the added benefit of restoring the strength and durability to leather and extending its lifespan. But leather is more expensive and heavier. As noted above every shoe is a tradeoff.
HIKING BOOTS AND INJURY…SOME COMMENTS
Most generic ankle injuries are a result of torsional forces; either a twisting of the lower leg and/or simultaneously a twisting of the foot. We have a series of ligaments around the ankle and torsional forces can stretch or tear these ligaments.
Ankle protection is essential to avoid injuries. To test the shoe, take the heel in one hand and the toe in the other and twist it. The stiffer the more stable and the better the ankle protection. The main advantage of the hiking boot over the shoe is that it offers better support and stops debris and wet from getting into the boot easily. When you add weight (geared up for a multiday backpacking trip) you need to add ankle protection. You need both support (boot) and you need hiking boots that lace tight around and above the ankle. This arrangement confers a lot of muscular support. This works similar to compression socks. Basically, it compensates for the muscles. Thus if you are doing long days with a heavy load (which increases your risk of ankle injury), a heavier stiff hiking boot that laces above the ankles will protect your ankles and take some of the strain off your legs.
Beware of “Mid” style hiking shoes/boots. Unless you feel tension around your ankles, there is no ankle support. Mid style hiking boots can provide a good foundation for weight and are decent for stopping debris and moisture, but that’s where the benefits largely end. I do not recommend a mid style hiking boot for off-trail hiking.
FITTING HIKING BOOTS
A proper fitting hiking boot is essential. Understanding how shoes/boots are sized and fitted can be helpful particularly when you find you need a variety of hiking boots. Hiking boots are constructed based on a representative “average” foot mold called “lasts” (length, width at toes, width at heals, etc.) and each boot is usually built around the same lasts formula for each shoe size and model of a particular brand. Some brands use unisex averaged for each shoe size and some have separate lasts for men and for women. The secret here is that most manufacturers use the same representative “average” foot mold, lasts, for all their various styles of boots. So if you find a lightweight hiking boot for example that fits you particularly well it is likely that the mid weight and stiff boots of that brand will also fit your foot well.
Try new hiking boots on in the afternoon since your feet swell during the day. Select your liner sock and outer sock combination that you will generally plan to wear with the boots you are purchasing and bring your own sock with you to the store. Using a store’s random socks combinations may leave you with ill-fitting boots when you get home, not good. With the hiking boot unlaced slide your foot to the very end of the boot, toes touching, and you should be able to get your index finger between your heel and the back of the boot. Next, lace up the hiking boots with moderate tension; you should be able to both tighten them further and loosen them up so you can adjust your boots as conditions dictate. At this point, you should be able to wiggle your toes inside your hiking boots. With your foot flat on the ground holding the boot heel down with your hand, you should be able to lift your heel inside the hiking boot. The heel lift at this point should be only ¼” to ½”. Too much heel lift causes friction and blisters.
Hiking boot length needs also to be checked. With the hiking boot firmly laced, do some good hard kicking against a post or the floor. Do your toes smash into the front of the boot? If so you have discovered “boot bang”. This can be a serious problem. Whatever boot bang you experience in the store will be magnified going down hill with a heavy pack. Smashing your toes against the end of your hiking boot can result in lost toenails and other serious foot problems. If you are getting boot bang, try lacing differently, try another size, different sock combination, or another brand of hiking boot.
As you get older your feet tend to get longer. Your arches begin to flatten out thus extending your foot due to the loss of the arch curve. Beware of hiking boots you have not worn for 5 years or so. Break them in again before heading out on any extensive hiking. If they don’t fit well, consider getting new hiking boots.
BREAKING IN HIKING BOOTS
With new hiking boots start wearing them around the house to make sure you have the right fit. Once you are comfortable with the fit, it is time to break the boots into your feet. If they aren’t fitting comfortably consider returning them and getting a pair that do. It is critical that your boots fit.
Always break in a pair of new hiking boots before a trip. Most medium to heavy weight boots require some use to conform them to your feet and to soften them up.
Old boots not worn for a while should be run through a break-in period. Begin with short walks and gradually increase the length of time you wear them. Easy day hikes are a good way to do this adding pack weight with each outing. Each time you lace your boots, take the time to align the tongue and lace them properly. If you fail here often the tongue gets set in a bad position, which can lead to sore spots and blisters. Give yourself five to ten hours of walking and day hiking if possible before taking a serious multiday hike in new boots. This is less an issue for lighter weight hiking boots you are using for day hikes because your boots will be softer and more flexible. But even here if at all possible, give all new hiking boots a good break-in trial before carrying significant weight or going on a long hike.
HIKING BOOT CARE
The key to top performance in most any endeavor is to know your equipment. One of the first steps in boot care is to know your boots. Are they leather, synthetic leather, nylon or a combination of these? If they are all leather boots are they Oil-tanned or Chrome-tanned leather. Oil-tanned leather usually is treated with wax and oil. Chrome-tanned leather is usually treated with silicone wax (a beeswax-silicone mixture is recommended). Treating boots isn’t necessarily to completely waterproof them, but to make them water repellent and to nourish the leather to prevent drying and cracking. Boots should be treated when new and on a regular basis to keep the leather supple.
Wet boots should be air-dried slowly or with minimal heat. Do not cook your leather boots by the side of a fire or on a heater. The different thicknesses of leather will shrink at different rates and likely pull your seams apart. At a minimum, you can get cracking and curling. At the end of a day of hiking open your boots up as much as possible to help them dry out. Leaving them upside down for the night will prevent dew from forming inside.
When you return from a trip always clean your hiking boots before storing. Dirt left on the boot can corrode the seam stitching. Use a non-wire brush to get dirt deposits off. For leather boots, rub them with moistened saddle soap. Wipe off the residue, air-dry them thoroughly, and then apply a generous coating of wax or sealer. Store in a cool dry place to prevent mildew. A boot tree can assist in maintaining shape. A cedar boot tree will also absorb moisture inside your boot and wick it out, thus again helping them to dry slowly.
HIKING BOOT TIPS
- Use polypropylene sock liners and wool socks. They will keep your feet dryer as the polypro wicks the moisture away from your feet as does wool.
- Often using aftermarket insoles like Superfeet, which give you arch support, will add more to your comfort and endurance than the boots themselves.
- Remember that if you have found a brand of shoes/boots that really fit your feet it is likely that any other model of that same brand of boot will be comfortable. They generally use the same “lasts” for all models.
- Before long uphill climbs, lace boots snugly below the mid-foot (use a double overhand knot if your boots don’t have locking laces there) and looser around the ankles. For long descents, tighten laces back up around the ankles.
- If you are having issues with too much heel activity a suggestion to get a snugger fit in your hiking boot is to lace the upper laces using a runner’s lock. Unless your boots are really mis-sized the runners lock will solve excessive heel movement. I have attached a YouTube demo of three useful boot knots that can help with various boot fitting issues common to the hiking genre.
- To minimize foot friction a foot lubricant like Hydropel or Gold Bond and also look at Bodyglide or BlisterShield. The objective is to keep your feet drier and not developing hot spots. At the first signs of hot spots I suggest using moleskin to avoid at all costs getting blisters on your feet.
Well-fitting hiking boots make for happy feet.
Happy feet make for good hikes. Good hikes are the stories that are told over and over.