How To Choose Hiking Boots (in 7 Easy Steps)

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Written by: Ashley Vitiello

Updated May 17, 2023

Ever set off on a hike, only to have your journey cut short by uncomfortable shoes that left you with throbbing feet and a longing for the comfort of your couch? When it comes to hiking, the proper footwear can make or break your experience. When your feet are well-supported and comfortable, every step becomes a joy, every trail an invitation to explore.

This comprehensive guide is your passport to that joy, an all-access pass to the hiking trails of the world. Here, we’ll explain the process of how to choose hiking boots, giving you the insider knowledge to find that perfect pair that will transform your hiking experience from painful to pleasurable.

7 Easy Steps for How to Choose Hiking Boots

Here’s some simple steps to choose the right hiking boots for you. Each section is broken down into more detail below.

  1. Access your typical hiking experience like the terrain, frequency, and the weather conditions.
  2. Decide if you want boots, shoes, or sandals.
  3. Choose the best material for your typical needs.
  4. Try them on for the right size.
  5. Pay attention to how they feel right away.
  6. Break them in before taking them on big adventures.
  7. From there, take good care of them and replace them when needed.

1. Assess Your Hiking Needs

When you’re on the brink of your next hiking footwear purchase, it’s time for a bit of introspection. Reflect on your hiking style, the landscapes you often traverse, and the typical weather you find yourself in. Let’s dive into some essential factors: these considerations will steer you toward the boots that will serve you best.

Hiking Terrain

Is your path usually a well-established trail, or are you a conqueror of the wild, rugged, off-trail, uneven terrain? Your answer will significantly influence the kind of boots you need. Smooth trails don’t demand the highest level of support from your boots, but if your adventures lead you off the beaten path, you’ll want boots that can stand up to the challenge.

Hiking Frequency

The frequency of your hikes also shapes your boot selection. Casual hikers or those covering shorter distances might find that lightweight and budget-friendly boots or hiking shoes do the trick. But if you’re a passionate hiker setting off on lengthy treks, it’s wise to invest in boots that offer long-lasting durability and quality.

Weather Conditions

Take into account the weather you typically hike in. Regularly find yourself in damp or chilly conditions? You’ll need boots that are insulated and waterproof. If, on the other hand, your hikes are in warmer, dry climates, opt for boots that prioritize breathability and quick-drying features.

2. Understand Hiking Boot Categories

Deciphering the hiking footwear categories can be a real game-changer when you learn how to choose a pair of hiking boots or trail running shoes. There are three main categories, each catering to different needs and hiking styles.

Trail Shoes

Ashley’s trail running shoes that she uses for hiking.

Trail shoes or trail runners are an excellent option for hikers who prioritize comfort and breathability. A hiking shoe will be lightweight, low-cut, and designed for well-maintained trails with minimal obstacles. They offer moderate support and cushioning, making them suitable for day hikes or short backpacking trips.

Midweight Hiking Boots

Midweight hiking boots offer more support, durability, and protection than trail shoes. They are ideal for hikers who tackle moderate to rugged terrain or carry heavier loads. These boots typically have higher ankle support and sturdier soles, providing better stability and protection against rocks and roots.

Heavyweight Hiking Boots

If your adventures include long-distance treks, heavy loads, or challenging terrains, heavyweight hiking boots are your answer. They offer the highest level of support, durability, and protection, often featuring full-grain leather uppers and aggressive soles for ultimate traction and support. These are probably best for mountaineering boots and other super heavy duty activities.

3. Choose the Right Material

The material of your boots plays a pivotal role in their performance, durability, and how comfortable they are. Let’s explore some common materials and what they bring to the table:

Full-Grain Leather

Full-grain leather is a crowd-favorite for hiking boots due to its durability, water resistance, and its knack for molding to your feet over time. But remember, leather hiking boots might take a while to break in.

Nubuck and Suede Leather

Nubuck and suede leather are often used in midweight hiking boots. These materials balance durability and flexibility, making them comfortable and supportive. They are also more breathable than leather boots but may require additional waterproofing treatments.

Synthetic Materials

Materials like nylon, polyester, or synthetic leather are common in trail shoes and lightweight hiking boots. They’re light, breathable, and quick-drying, making them ideal for warmer or wetter conditions. But keep in mind that they might not last as long as their leather counterparts.

Waterproof Membranes

Many hiking boots have waterproof membranes, such as Gore-Tex, to keep your feet dry in wet conditions. While they offer excellent water resistance, they can compromise breathability, making them less suitable for hot or dry climates.

4. Consider Boot Fit and Sizing

A well-fitting hiking boot is crucial for comfort and support on the trail. Here are some tips for finding the perfect fit:

Measure Your Feet

Before you set off on your boot-shopping adventure, measuring your feet accurately is essential. Bear in mind after a long hike; your feet will swell. So, the best time to try on boots is in the evening or even after a hike, ensuring you find a fit that comfortably accommodates this natural expansion.

Wear Appropriate Socks

When trying on potential hiking boots, wear the same hiking socks you’d wear on your hikes. This simple step can help you get a precise fit and help avoid any discomfort or blisters. If you plan on wearing liner socks, bring those along too.

Try Multiple Sizes and Brands

Each brand and model of the boot can fit a little differently. So, try on various pairs to find the right hiking boots that feels like they were made for you. Don’t hesitate to size up or down – your perfect fit may not match your usual shoe size.

Check for Heel Lift and Toe Room

When trying on boots, you want your heel to stay put, with no lift as you walk. And ensure there’s enough room in the toe box for your toes to wiggle freely – it’ll help you avoid discomfort when descending steep trails.

5. Pay Attention to Boot Features

Hiking boots come with various features that can enhance your hiking experience. Here are some essential features to consider:

Ankle Support

Boots with a higher cut offer more ankle support, which could be a big help if you’re prone to ankle injuries or if you’re hiking on rough terrain. Low cut hiking shoes offer more flexibility and can be more comfortable for day hiking or well-maintained trails.

Lacing Systems

A secure lacing system can improve the fit and support of your hiking boots. Look for boots with sturdy eyelets, hooks, or locking mechanisms that help keep your laces tight and prevent them from loosening during your hike. Take the time to learn how to lace your boots properly as well.

Cushioning and Support

The cushioning and support in a hiking boot’s midsole and insole can significantly impact your comfort and stability on the trail. If you’re carrying heavy loads or have high arches, boots with ample cushioning and arch support can make a world of difference.

We’ve found that shoe brands put little effort into quality insoles, so the first purchase after new shoes is new insoles. This makes a huge difference right off the bat and makes your new hiking or backpacking boots so much more comfortable.

Traction and Grip

The outsole of your hiking boots should offer excellent traction and grip on different surfaces. Boots with aggressive lug patterns and durable rubber compounds, like Vibram, can provide you with optimal traction and grip, even in wet or rugged conditions.

6. Break-In Your Boots

Before you take your new boots out on their first big adventure, it’s crucial to break them in to avoid discomfort, blisters, or injuries. Start by wearing them around the house or on short walks, gradually increasing the duration and intensity of your activities. This process helps your boots mold to your feet and ensures a comfortable fit on the trail.

7. Maintain and Care for Your Boots

Taking care of your boots can extend their life, keeping them comfy and supportive for many future hikes. Regular cleaning, re-applying waterproofing treatments when needed, and replacing worn-out laces or insoles will keep your boots in top shape.

Know When to Replace Your Boots

While high-quality hiking boots are built to last, they will eventually wear out and require replacement. Signs that it’s time to replace your boots include worn soles, damaged uppers, or decreased support and comfort. Don’t risk injury or discomfort by wearing boots that are past their prime.

Consider Alternative Footwear Options

In addition to hiking boots, there are alternative footwear options, such as hiking sandals, which may be suitable for certain hiking conditions or personal preferences. Be open to exploring these options and finding the best fit for your hiking needs.

Trust Your Instincts

At the end of the day, the ultimate tip to choosing hiking boots is trusting your instincts. Take into account all of the factors we’ve discussed, but always prioritize comfort and what feels right for you. When your boots fit like a dream, you’ll have the freedom to fully immerse yourself in the joy of the journey, soaking in the beauty of the great outdoors.

Ashley is an adventurous soul who loves all things nature, especially warm sunshine, wildflowers, scenic snacking, and mushrooms. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast who has spent years enjoying time outside doing things like hiking, camping, and rock climbing.
Her goal with Know Nothing Nomads is to make these hobbies easily accessible through knowledgeable content and how-to’s based on all the stuff she’s learned on her journey. If she isn’t writing an article, she’s probably in a forest looking at big mountain views and tiny pieces of moss on the side of the trail.

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