Boots are designed and made with a specific hiking environment in mind.
Depending on the type of terrain and conditions you expect to hike in, you should chose your boots with the features and characteristics that you need, for example, the sole stiffness and the degree of ankle support.
Where are you going to hike?
This is the first question you must ask yourself.
For tracks and low level routes when you might have only a light pack, then lightweight flexible boots would suffice. In this instance you might even choose to hike in trail running shoes, the ultimate in lightweight footwear!
More demanding ground, such as rocky, high mountain paths would require a more rigid boot, with a stiffer more aggressive sole for grip and perhaps a higher level of ankle support. This would apply also if you were carrying a heavier load, as you might on a backpacking trip.
In the world of hiking boots you very much get what you pay for. A cheap pair of boots will not be as comfortable, as durable or as waterproof as the more expensive ones. I would advise that you buy the best boots that you can afford, you won’t regret it.
Nearly all good boots are now deemed to be waterproof, this most often means they have an inner bootee made of Goretex or a similar membrane to keep the water out. A traditional leather boot will also be waterproof if regularly cleaned and treated with wax.
Light weight fabric boots, with a mid height ankle cuff, are ideal for hiking summer trails in southern Europe.
Types of boots.
As mentioned above, the lightest form of footwear for the hills would be trail running shoes. These are fine for low level routes on good paths were ankle support is not required.
Trail hiking shoes are becoming more popular, they are light, comfortable, have a low ankle and a flexible and moderately grippy sole and are aimed at the trail hiking market.
Neither would be suitable for mountain hiking over rough terrain and in inclement weather.
Fabric and leather mix boots are now very popular, and are the type of boot most often seen on our hikes, they are a good for general hiking use and would be an ideal first boot purchase. These boots combine comfort and lighter weight with a good sole unit for grip, and often have options of a mid height or a full height ankle cuff for support. They should also have a waterproof membrane.
This type of boot would be ideal for general trail hiking, the higher mountains in summer and routes such as the Camino de Santiago.
The authors well worn footwear. From left to right: Trail shoes, fabric and leather boots, traditional full leather boots and mountaineering boots.
For higher mountain trails, rocky paths and wilderness hiking you will need a more durable boot that has a semi-rigid construction, higher ankle cuff, toe protection and an aggressive and grippy sole for security on steep ground.
Some stiffness in the sole is important, as hiking all day over stony ground can be very painful on the feet if not adequately protected. Likewise a toe rand or stiffened toe box will protect the toes from stubbing against rocks. The high ankle cuff gives support when feet are twisting and turning, and when carrying a heavier load.
These boots were traditionally made with full grain leather uppers, a durable and waterproof material when treated properly, and recommended for backpacking trips and hiking the mountains of Britain and Ireland in all but full winter conditions. They are now also available with synthetic uppers and a waterproof lining.
Mountaineering boots are designed for winter and alpine use on glaciers and above the snow line. They are stiff, with a very aggressive sole and are compatible with crampons. They often incorporate an insulation layer to keep feet warm.
Do they fit?
All of this means little if your boots do not fit properly, and getting the right fit is the primary consideration.
Our feet are all different, and to try to cater for this boot manufacturers make their boots slightly different in width, some manufacturers will make narrower boots than others.
Firstly, forget your shoe size, unless you are used to buying hiking boots it will be of little use to you, get the store to measure your feet to determine the size and width that you need.
Secondly, wear hiking socks that you typically might use when trying on the boots, if you don’t have any the store should give you a choice to try. Once you have the boots on walk around the store, try some stairs if possible, good outlets will have a ramp to walk up and down to check for heel lift and toe squeezing.
Finally, try on several different pairs from different manufacturers, go to other stores if necessary, and get the best fit you can.
Wearing them in.
You should be able to wear your new boots around the house for a few days, and return them if they are not suitable. But beware, once you wear them outdoors they are yours.
Start by wearing them for a few hours at a time on shorter hikes, take the time to stop and adjust the lacing if necessary, to get it just right.
Work up to half day hikes before using them for a full day.