Best Hiking Boots the Features and Styles to Look For

Preparing to explore the world on foot? Great idea!

Hiking can reduce depression and mitigate the effects of stressful life events. It can also lower your risk of heart disease, strokes, and various cancers.

Pretty good motivation, right?

But before you run straight for the hills, you need to choose the best hiking boots, for both feet and function.

There’s a lot of factors to consider, such as style, cut, fit and stability. Here’s a go-to guide that’ll help you make the most of your time with nature.

Let’s get into it.

Style

Your most important decision and one which should be based on the terrain you’re most likely to hike. You’ll find almost limitless sub-styles for each of the below.

Here are the big three:

1. Mountaineering boots

Cumbersome boots which focus on hardcore protection and are suitable for different terrain. Provide lots of support, but can get uncomfortable over time.

2. Hiking boots

A slightly toned down version of the above. Still very durable and protective but notably lighter than mountaineering boots.

3. Trail shoes

Often referred to as shoes rather than boots, these are lightweight and breathable. They’re more stable than regular running shoes and well-suited to longer trips. However, they’re not ideal for rough terrain as they lack support.

Cuts

As well as three main styles, there are three different ‘cuts’:

  1. Low
  2. Mid
  3. High

Simple enough.

The higher the cut, the more ankle support. If you frequently hike off-road in dangerous terrain, a higher cut is preferable. The trade-off is increased weight and reduced flexibility.

Typically, the best hiking boots are the ones that provide necessary durability, without being excessively heavy for your needs.

Material

Heat and weight are the real factors at play here, both dictated by the material of the ‘upper’ component.

You’ve got four main options to consider:

1. Synthetics

Usually nylon and polyester, synthetic boots are lightweight and will mold to the shape of your foot relatively fast. They’re rarely fully water-resistant, but their thin nature means they’ll dry off quickly.

2. Split Grain leather

A middle ground option, split grain combines leather and textile mesh. An excellent choice for those looking for a boot more durable than synthetic options, but without the added weight (and cost) of full leather.

3. Full Grain leather

Highly durable? Check.
Water resistant? Check.
Effective ankle weights? Check.

Full grain leather boots are most popular with the mountaineering style boot — hot and heavy but will last you a lifetime.

Tip: the extra rigidity means they’ll take a while to break in. Bear this in mind if you’re shopping for a hike in the near-future.

4. Nubuck leather

Nubuck is full-grain leather, but with a twist. It’s been buffed to give the appearance of suede.

Aside from the cosmetic value, Nubuck boots are similar in profile to full-grain leather, but with a touch more flexibility.

Waterproofing

The best hiking boots will come with a degree of waterproofing as standard. How this works though, is dependent on the material.

For synthetically based boots, the use of Gore-Tex or eVent is common. This technology is effective but will ramp up the heat of your feet.

Full leather boots are waterproof by nature but do require a level of maintenance. Specialized treatments are available, but traditional boot wax will usually do the trick. Over time, the wax will help the leather stretch slightly, giving an even comfier fit.

If your boots are Nubuck leather, you can still use this method, but it’ll put an end to the smooth suede look you were working with.

Fit

Ill-fitting hiking boots are the perfect pre-cursor to injury. Get the fit wrong, and you’ll pay for it.

In fact, 75% of people in the US develop foot pain, and ill-fitting shoes are the primary cause. Take heed of the tips below, or you could end up re-aggravating that old ankle sprain you’ve had for years.

Here’s how to get a perfectly snug fit…

1. Get properly measured

Take no shortcuts here — have the length, width, and arch of your feet measured by a specialist. Most retailers catering to outdoors people should have a specialist in store to help with this.

2. Come prepared

You won’t be wearing everyday dress socks for hiking (we hope), so make sure to bring your walking socks for fitting. The same applies to any custom orthotics.

3. Consider re-lacing

There are three main lacing styles which best suit hiking boots.

  • Army style: increased flexibility
  • Hiking style: tighter fit to prevent slips and trips
  • Lock lacing: helps prevent heels slipping forwards

Don’t be afraid to re-lace to your suited style in-store; it’s worth the effort.

4. Wear them in

It takes time for you and your boots to bond. Wear them in — on both an incline and decline — before heading out on a long hike.

Support & Stability

So, you’ve found a boot you love, and it’s the perfect fit?

That’s great, but hold fire.

Most boots feel great initially, only for comfort problems to show further down the road. That’s an issue, especially if you’ve already hiked 10km on said road.

Check your new favorite boots against the below as final indicators of support and stability:

1. Midsole

The midsole provides a buffer between your feet and the ground. It’s the primary cushioning element of a hiking boot and density can vary greatly.

Most boots use either EVA or Polyurethane for the midsoles. You’ll find that EVA is typically lighter and cheaper, while Polyurethane gives a stiffer, more durable surface.

2. Shanks & Plates

These fit between the midsole and outsole of your boots. Together they add a degree of stiffening to your boots to protect damage from sharp, loose rocks.

3. Tongue Padding

This prevents laces digging into your flesh. Poor tongue padding is often the reason for anterior shin pain during incline walks. Another reason to test your boots on an incline before purchase.

4. Ankle Padding

A tight fit is essential here. The less ankle movement, the better. Poor ankle padding leads to chafing on longer hikes and is a leading cause of blisters.

If you’re happy that your boots pass the support and stability test, great, you’ll all done!

Best Hiking Boots?

Use the above as a starting point for your online search. Then make a list of 3-4 pairs that meet your requirements and get out to a local store and try them on.

To determine the best hiking boots for you, it’s essential that you shop the market.

One final tip — budget boots are a big no-no. Commit for the long-haul and your investment will prove its worth over time.

Once you’re happy with how they feel, it’s time to hit the trail.

Check out our favorite fall foliage locations for some inspiration.

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