How Do I Choose Hiking Footwear?

It’s time to ask yourself “how do I choose my hiking footwear”. We are going to try to help by asking some questions and giving you some basic information and tips to aid with the process.

How Do I Decide What Type of Hiking Boots I Am Looking For?

Walking into the local sporting goods store or getting on the web to pick out hiking footwear can be intimidating. You have walls covered in “hiking” boots/shoes,and thousands of choices on the net. They can range from monstrous boots to little light shoes, often with crazily ranging prices and accessories that let you connect to your smart phone or claim to be mud proof!

Using the questions below, you will be able to narrow down your search into a more reasonable task. Once you have that information you can start the search for yourself on the web, or you can go to your local outfitters ,and provide them with your needs to be sure they bring you in the right direction.

Lets get started!

Question 1: What will I be using my hiking footwear for?

You just have to decide which situations you will most be taking part in. Will you be: trail running, day hiking, going weekend backpacking, or maybe even longer multi-day backpacking trips (Several of the types of shoes can be used for more than one activity but we will discuss that further later)?

Depending on the activities you choose it will help steer you more towards one option over another. Hiking footwear is placed into a several categories: light hiking shoes, hiking boots, backpacking boots, and mountaineering boots. (Where you are going also plays a part, so make sure to check out our side note on *Terrain)

Light hiking shoes – excellent for day hiking on mild terrain with little to moderate elevation gain
Hiking boots – Often intended for day hikes or weekend backpacking trips with a light to moderate load. Ideal on easy to moderate terrain.
Backpacking boots – designed to carry heavier loads on multi-day trips. Often used for trekking over rougher terrain and increased support offered to carry a heavier pack. Due to the extra durability and support, these boots are good for on and off-trail travel.
Mountaineering boots – These boots are extremely durable and designed for maximum support and foot protection. They have thick, stiff soles to help navigate difficult mountain topography and significant elevation gain.

Question 2: What are my personal needs?

Personal needs are just that, they’re personal. Meaning the needs of, and physical attributes, of your ankles and feet. Do you have weak ankles? Then you may want a mid or high cut boot with more lace support. Are you a goat and can hop back and forth with no worries, then go lighter and lower with a low cut shoe. Are your feet tired and sore at the end of the day? You may want to think about soft sole inserts and whether a stiff or flexible sole is going to be more comfortable. What about the height of your arches? Some people can’t wear certain makes of shoes/boots due to high arches, or may need to buy additional arch support.

Question 3: What type of boot cut am I looking for, or do I need?

A low cut shoe is often good for a day hike with just a small backpack on maintained trails.  They can also be used for shorter backpacking trips, but lack the stability of mid and high cut boots. A mid cut boot offers extra stability and protection for your ankles. Although heavier than a low cut shoe, the additional protection is often welcomed by hikers on both day trips and weekend backpacking trips. A high cut boot offers enhanced balance and ankle support on rough trails and terrain. High cut boots should be considered when routinely carrying loads 40+ pounds or hiking off-trail. TIP: A too heavy boot can cause fatigue and blisters. A too-light shoe can lead to twisted ankles.

Question 4: I see both leather and synthetic boots out there. What’s the difference? Is one better than the other? Well, unless you’re a card carrying member of PETA, you’re going to have a choice to make.

Leather boots have been the “old reliable” since people have been wrapping their feet, and hitting the trails. These boots have proven their worth time and time again when it comes to durability, stability, warmth, long life, and the ability to hold out water (the addition of timely added oils and waxes can also give the boot what seems to be a brand new waterproofing) However, these advantages comes at a price. They are almost always a little heavier than the synthetics and less breathe-able ,which adds to warmth ,but lets your foot stew in its own juices a warm day. And once they are wet…well, you’re going to have a wet boot for awhile.

Synthetics on the other hand have their made their mark on the hiking world, and are here to stay! With their flexibility, ability to breathe, and lighter on the foot feel, synthetic boots have earned big points with people who like comfort. Synthetics however, are quicker to let in water and get wet before leather boots, but it only takes a third of the time to dry them. They also tend to lack the stability of a leather boot for those who need the extra support.

Hybrids are a combination of synthetics and leather. They take the best parts of both worlds and combine them to try and hit that middle ground. Many hybrids do a great job at doing this. Just remember, anytime you meet in the middle ground you are giving up something. So do your due diligence if you go this direction and read some reviews, and try them on! *see tips for trying on footwear

What you’re going to encounter on the trail does have an impact on the type of footwear you should get. So think back to the “common activities” question, and let’s determine where you’re going to be. If most of your hiking will take place in the northeast, you may want to prepare for rocks, mud, water, mud, elevation, mud… (Adirondacks anyone? lol)  So think about water proof, stability, durability. If your trips are more rolling hills and grass lands, think  light , flexible, and comfortable. If the terrain is hot and arid, well then breathabilty is for you my friend. A little planning ahead can make a big difference out there. Luckily most companies make their products to be versatile enough to handle many different situations.

Now I know you’re dying to get out there and try out some new hiking shoes or boots. Just remember, before you start your searches make sure you answer those questions above, you know your priorities, and you have a budget. Don’t get talked into spending more than you want.

Whether you are a web person, or you like the local shop feel, you really should try on those shoes/boots. All shoes and sizes are not made equal, so it’s super important. Now I know its a little awkward to go to a shop and try something on and then not buy it, so if you must… buy yourself a bandanna or a water bottle to quell that guilt. 😉

Below are some general tips to keep in mind while you are shopping for your hiking footwear:

  • Try to shop at the end of the day when your feet are slightly swollen, just like they will be on the trail
  • Wear the socks that you plan on wearing while hiking
  • Try on a minimum of three pairs of boots
  • Your boots should feel snug around the ball and instep of your foot, but loose enough so you can flex your foot forward comfortably. Rock onto the balls of your feet and then back on your heels. This motion should not make your feet feel restricted.
  • Your toes should not hit the end of the toe box. You should be able to wiggle your toes comfortably inside the toe box. The right amount of room in the toe box allows you to spread your toes for stability and provides for the small amount of swelling that will occur when you hike.
  • Most outfitters have a boot test area with simulated rocky terrains and inclines. Use it. Walk uphill to determine if your heel stays in place. It should. Walk downhill to determine if your feet slide forward. They shouldn’t. Place the sole of your shoe over edges to simulate rock edges to determine if the sole offers enough protection.
  • Comfort means a lot.  Really think about how your feet feel in the shoe and if you can feel any pressure points, pinching or uncomfortable folds. They will only get worse on the trail.

Print out this information sheet for easy access while you’re shopping! Shopping for New Hiking Footwear


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