Whether you are new to hiking and needing your first pair of boots, or a veteran who has had to relinquish an old pair after long and faithful service, choosing a new pair of boots is an all important decision that can have lasting consequences for your comfort and enjoyment on hikes for years to come.
The choice is not straightforward, especially when faced with a display of boots from well known manufacturers covering a whole wall of the store. Do you buy all purpose boots or boots for a specific terrain? Are hiking boots better than walking shoes? Should they be leather or synthetic, waterproof or breathable, and of course how much should you pay …
Without doubt, the most important criterion when buying is comfort. As women move differently than men you should consider buying footwear specifically designed for women. Women have wider hips and a lower centre of gravity due to differences in the Q-angle between the knee and the hip. It is normally less than 15 degrees in men and less than 20 degrees in women, and in women this puts more stress on the knee.
A big issue, at least for me, is the material – leather or synthetic. Leather is breathable, waterproof, durable and longer lasting but it is more expensive and needs wearing in. It is also generally heavier than synthetics and this can add to the strain of walking – it’s been estimated that every pound of boot is like carrying 5 or 6 pounds on the back. Synthetic boots are lighter and more comfortable than leather straight from the box so there is very little or no wearing in, however they will not last as long as leather boots. The choice of material depends to a large extent on the type of hiking to be done, with leather boots more suitable for tougher hikes when carrying heavy loads and synthetic boots appropriate for less demanding hikes. I used to swear by leather boots but have to admit to being very pleased with the very lightweight walking shoes I bought for a trip to India when I did not want to wear heavy boots on a long plane and bus journey, or carry them in my luggage – however, 6 months on and still wearing them on all my hikes, I realise they are not going to last like leather.
Another important decision when buying is whether to go for a boot or shoe. Shoes are light and less constricting but for tougher routes boots give the ankle support needed to help avoid twists and sprains. Boots themselves are sometimes classified for walking or hiking, the latter have more rigid sole, additional cushioning and greater ankle support for carrying heavy loads.
Breathability and waterproofing are also key factors. Boots and shoes can become wet from the outside in bad weather or when hiking through boggy terrain, and wet from the inside because a foot can sweat up to 2 pints of fluid per day! Leather is naturally breathable and can be waterproofed by treating with dubbing or proprietary waxes. Boots with one piece of full grain leather upper are easy to waterproof as they have fewer seams and the leather is less likely to split (however they are heavier, stiffer and can take weeks to break in). Synthetic boots on the other hand often have breathable waterproof membranes that protect from wetness outside and let moisture out from inside. They keep feet dry so long as the membrane is not damaged with even the smallest hole but can retain heat and make the feet quite hot. Membranes, in order of their tested effectiveness, can be made from eVent, Gortex-Tex XCR, Gortex and other proprietary materials.
Other synthetics boots have no waterproof membrane – they use instead a lightweight moisture wicking membrane or net inserts that dry out very quickly after getting wet.
The type of sole should also be considered. Soles may be cemented or stitched or both to the uppers and the join must be waterproof. Multi-directional lugs or treds, are designed to grip whatever the terrain, that being said, softer lugs have more grip but wear down quicker. Wider spaced lugs tend to shed the mud quicker so the sole is lighter and less likely to pick up a thick layer of mud when walking through sticky clay soils or carry dirt into buildings.
Other things to think about are a V notch at the back of the ankle padding for comfort and an integrated anti-bacterial lining that reduces the build up of sweaty smells.
In summary the type of boot or shoe you choose will depend on the type of hiking you do;
- Lighter hiking boots or shoes are good for the occasional hiker who carries a light backpack,
- Quick drying hiking shoes or boots without waterproofing are suitable for dry warm weather hiking,
- Heavy leather or synthetic boots are best for the serious hiker or backpacker undertaking long trips carrying a heavy load
Never buy without trying on. It’s best to go to the local store, but if you decide to buy on-line choose a company that offers free shipping on exchange. Also, order two or three pairs at the same time and send the unsuitable ones back, which of course may be all of them.
Try on late in the day when your feet are hot and swollen as your foot can increase by half to a full size on long day trips. You should also try on with your hiking socks and I almost always wear two pairs (to protect against blisters). Should you want to add insoles, buy them at the same time and try the boots on with the insoles fitted.
Above all else the boots or shoes should feel comfortable with the laces tied properly but not too tightly. The boot should fit securely around the instep and ankle, your toes should have wiggle room and should not touch the top of the toe box – so err on a roomy rather than a close fit. A rule of thumb is to be able to be able to put a finger between your heel and the back of the boot but this will depend on the socks you are wearing and how swollen your feet are at the time. You should try walking on a slope (the store should have a ramp) and simulate banging your foot against a rock. At no time should your foot slide forward or your toes hit the front of the boot. You might also like to walk over a wet surface to check the grip in wet conditions, and if you will be wearing them when backpacking, test when carrying a full load. Tests of course must be done without damaging the boot so that they can be returned to the store if unsuitable.
Regarding the price, the general advice is to spend as much as you can afford on a comfortable pair of boots or shoes as, if well cared for, they will be your companions on many a hike.