Hiking boots are very different from the regular footwear that people are likely to use on a daily basis. This is why for a novice just getting into hiking, it can often be somewhat difficult to select the right boots, and they might not be aware of all the criteria they should be keeping in mind when making their selection.
This article should hopefully help you with this at first daunting task, especially since a good pair of hiking boots can cost you a good $150-200.
First, let’s make sure that we’re aware of the differences in requirements:
Forget about fashion
Hiking boots aren’t about looks. While a lot of your other footwear might be selected based on how fashionable they are – this is probably the last criteria you want to be using when it comes to boots of a purely utilitarian purpose. Your footwear affects your mobility, and being immobilized in a potential survival situation is very dangerous.
Having said that, if choosing between two pairs of equally good boots, definitely go for the ones you like the look of more.
Think about the mileage
Hiking boots are going to see A LOT more miles on them than regular footwear. If your dress shoes are going to break apart after a couple hundred miles – that’s really not a problem. Most of the time, you probably only walk from the car to your office. But hiking boots need to be able to survive thousands of miles of walking. The last thing anybody wants is to have their footwear fail on them in some forest or hilltop far away from civilization.
It’s not just about your feet – it’s also about your ankles and your knees
Odds are that you’re going to be carrying anywhere between a lightweight hydration pack, to full-on mountaineering gear. Your pack, when loaded up, could weigh between 5 and 50 pounds, and that places greater strain on both your knees and your ankles.
You will notice that in the military, the boots tend to be quite high. That’s not just for show – the purpose is to provide ankle protection when carrying heavy loads. Consider having at least some basic ankle protection; if twisting your ankle sucks even when you’re in town, it sucks a lot more in the backcountry.
Your hiking boots also need to be well cushioned and have good insoles, so that the impact of each step while walking around with a heavy backpack doesn’t risk injuring your knees.
A few more tidbits to keep in mind
Besides the three important concepts I illustrated above though, there are also some smaller things to keep in mind. While they may often be minor, their absence could be the difference between a comfortable or a miserable hike.
First, think about your boot soles. You might find yourself in situations where you have to scramble up or down inclines with unstable grounding, and the ability of your boots to grip those surfaces could save you from a nasty fall. I’ve only ever used Vibram soles, and they have yet to fail me.
Also consider the intended weather conditions and season. While some level of water resistance is required at all times, it is only in harsh conditions, especially during winter, that gore-tex is necessary. During the summer, gore-tex boots will make your feet very hot and sweaty, and that’s neither pleasant nor healthy. I recently wrote a more in-depth article debating the pros and cons of waterproofing boots.
Thirdly, to help in the fitting and sizing process, bring some thicker wool socks with you. You want to size your boots both with just the liner socks, and with thicker woolen socks. It may very well be that with your regular cotton socks, the boot fits well, but with thicker woolen socks, the toe box might feel a little tight since you’re adding quite a bit of extra material on either side of your foot.
Lastly, and this is actually pretty important – you don’t want to try on new boots in the morning. Go in the afternoon. The reason is simple: as the day progresses, our feet swell up and increase in size just a little bit due to all the blood pooling at the bottom of our bodies. This is precisely the size that will most closely match the size of your feet when walking for longer periods of time.
Hopefully, these tips have helped to put you into the right mindset when you next head on over to your local sportswear or backpacking store to choose your hiking boots.