BY JAMES MENTA
Choosing the best hiking footwear – complete guide for a smart buyer
Your two feet have 52 bones. That’s 25% of all the bones in the human body.
Let’s take moment for that to sink in. It sounds shocking but it’s true, our feet are a complex and intricate mechanism, one that can be easily disturbed.
Any disturbance in the delicate system that is the foot and a huddle of other issues follows… anything from increased friction in our knees and scuffing of the cartilage to serious back problems.
To put it simply, if the bones, ligaments and tendons in your feet are misaligned, you can be pretty sure that the rest of your bone structure is, too.
Everything we said about the foot so far becomes twice as important if it’s a hiker’s foot.
There’s a jungle of information out there on different brands and models of hiking shoes, but in this article, let’ take a step back and make sure that we know our basics before we get to choosing the boot color that looks just right with our favorite pants.
Questions to ask yourself before choosing your hiking footwear
Hiking boot vs. shoes
Footwear is my passion and I am probably overly intrusive on the trail because I like to ask people why they chose the shoes or boots they did. Roughly 2 out of 5 hikers will respond vaguely with little sense of what’s truly important on a hike and even less of how crucial the choice can be for the “quality” of your adventure.
It can be the difference between enjoying nature in its full glory and spending 10 hours thinking about that god-awful blister that just popped up on your toe.
So, let’s get past the dazzles, the looks and the colors and be very specific on the subject of “hiking shoes vs. hiking boots”. It’s not about being cool, it’s about feeling good.
A hiking boot is your best bet when:
- You are new to hiking
- Your load is heavy and it’s too much for your legs and ankles
- You trail is rugged (rocks, tree roots, etc.)
- You’re expecting snow – this one is pretty intuitive but you’d be surprised by how many newbie hikers I meet who are hitting the trail in their light mesh sneakers just because “they thought there’d be no snow”.
- You’re on a trail with steep ascends and descends. Now, with this one, you’ll see difference of opinions. You’ll hear people saying that it’s easier to climb or control descent in light hiking shoes.
I’ve seen my share of rolled ankles over the years and I am yet to see one that happened because the boot was sturdy and overly supportive. So, unless you’re 19-year old professional climber, I’d go with the boot every time.
- You are likely to come across wet areas – this one is somewhat relative. The boot is my choice when the hike is short and the weather is damp.
In this scenario, the fact that a lighter hiking shoe dries more easily won’t make much of a difference because neither of the two will dry quick enough for you to continue your hike normally so it’s better if the water doesn’t get in the first place.
For overnight hikes that might include wet areas but the trail is otherwise sunny, a light meshy hiking shoe might be better, because the shoe will dry overnight or even on your feet during the hike.
Hiking shoes and trails sneakers might be a better choice if:
- You are taking a hike on a well-kept trail with mild weather conditions
- You are a casual hiker and your trails are mostly short and fairly “easy”
- The load you are carrying is not heavy and your legs can easily support it
- You are an experienced hiker or very athletic and your leg muscles are strong
I also know a lot of experienced hikers that go with alternative choice like minimalist footwear or tactical boots for their hikes. It works for them and that’s OK.
What I’m trying to say is that what I said above are just guidelines. Everyone is different, every foot is different, every trail is different, keep that in mind when choosing.
Sounds like a cliché, but let’s not shy away from clichés when they’re true.
Proper fit of a hiking boot
Another area of the subtle art of hiking where you’ll find opposed opinions. You’ll see people saying that if the fit of your boot or shoe is not tight enough, the foot will be moving inside causing chafing and blisters.
You’ll also see people saying that you should go a half size up and that a loser fit absorbs the shocks of the trails better.
Neither of the two is true.
It will take 30 seconds for any experienced hiker to precisely tell you what’s right and describe a few fit tests that will help you choose the best hiking boot for your needs.
So, let’s do just that and put the lingering mystery of the fit to bed once and for all:
Rule 1: Put the boots/shoes on, don’t lace them yet. You should feel some resistance but still be able to slip two fingers between your heel and the boot smoothly.
Rule 2: Lace up and walk a few steps. You shouldn’t feel any heel movement inside the boot.
Rule 3: Try adding some pace to your walk. The front end of the boot should not be touching your toes.
Rule 4: Do your shoe shopping in the afternoon wearing the same kind of socks as you do on the trail. Our feet swell up during the day and if you get your shoes first thing in the morning you might be in for some blistery surprise on the trail.
Rule 5: If you are getting your boots online, make sure that you not only search and read the review that talk about the fit of the boots, but find people that wear your size and see what they’re saying about the fit. It can make all the difference.
Anatomy of a hiking shoe/boot
Were you ever in a position to shop for footwear and not understand half of what the salesmen is saying, but you just keep nodding along because you don’t want him to know you’re not a hotshot hiker you like to think you are?
If the answer is NO, hat off to you.
If the answer is YES, let’s take a minute and make sure that doesn’t happen ever again.
Materials used for the uppers – the PROs and CONs
- Leather – regular or full-grain leather is abrasion-resistant and durable. It is, however, sturdy, takes longer to break in and it’s less breathable. It’s a good choice for jagged terrains.
- Leather (split grain) – split regular leather into layers; remove the rough surface part and you’re left with softer split-grain-letter. It’s light, more affordable but offers less abrasion and water resistance.
- Nubuck leather – this is simply a version of regular leather that’s buffed up until it feels suede-soft. The characteristics of the material are pretty much the same, except for the fact that it’s somewhat more flexible.
- Synthetics – it’s the 21st century and it’s only logical that synthetic materials are not inferior to leather in most ways. They dry quickly, there’s practically no break-in time and they’re light.
They are not, however, as long lasting as high quality leather.
Materials used for the midsoles
The midsole is the part of the boot with the primary role of cushioning your foot and absorbing shocks. The two most popular materials used for midsoles these days are:
- Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate or EVA – it’s light and flexible, offers great cushioning and it’s more affordable.
- Polyurethane – firm and sturdy, the more durable and the more expensive option
Again, which of the two sole options you want in your boot depends on your preferences and your trails.
Steven Wright once said, “Everywhere is a walking distance if you have the time”. He obviously didn’t try to go “everywhere” in a bad pair of boots, and hopefully neither will you.
Choose smart and safe trails!
About the guest post author:
James Menta is a passionate hiker and a zealot of the great outdoors. His past was molded around adventure and his present around writing about it. He’s a contributor to a number of reputable outdoor blogs and online publications.
James is also the Editor-in-chief of Solelabz.com. It’s where his young team and he review hiking footwear or, as they say it, “Protect Good People from Bad Shoes.”