Buying new hiking boots, especially for the first time hillwalker, can be a precarious and daunting prospect.
So how do we make sense of the technical jargon and the bewildering array of styles, designs and prices available?
The first thing to consider is the type of terrain are you likely to be using your footwear on. Hiking boots are now produced to suit all types of terrain, from easy graded trails to high, pathless mountainsides. Understanding this will help you narrow down your choices considerably.
To simplify it down a little let’s look at the five most common styles of hiking boots.
Trail shoes are lightweight and comfortable, with a flexible and soft sole, they are cut low around the ankle and offer very little ankle support. They look a lot like runners and perform in a similar fashion.
The sole pattern is generally quite shallow and will not provide a lot of grip on wet slippery ground. They might also have a waterproof liner which would be effective on wet grass and small puddles.
These shoes are only really suitable for walking graded paths and trails in dry and warm conditions, and the shallow sole pattern reflects this. They certainly would not be suitable or safe for open mountainsides or rocky terrain.
Mid -height Lightweight Hiking Boots
This is a very common style of hiking boot found in the footwear departments of outdoor stores. They are reasonably priced, lightweight, comfortable and require no breaking in, they can be worn straight out of the box. Therefore they are very popular as a first-time hiking boot.
They will be made from stitched fabric panels with perhaps some leather in parts and will have a Gore-Tex or similar internal membrane to make them waterproof.
The ankle ‘cuff’ will be what is called ‘mid-height’, this allows for a degree of ankle support without feeling too stiff and restricting. It also protects from (shallow) water seeping over the top and twiggy debris and small stones getting into the boot.
The boot will be fairly flexible and soft, not ideal for serious rocky mountain terrain, and the sole pattern can range from quite shallow to a more aggressive pattern with deeper ‘lugs’. Shallow pattern soles will soon clog with mud and can lead to slips and falls and therefore are best suited to sumer conditions and easy terrain.
The internal membranes in this style of boot often rupture after a couple of years and this leads to leaky boots and wet feet.
These boots are most suited to summer use in the mountains, hill paths and easier mountains in Ireland and the UK year round.
General purpose or ‘3-season’ Hiking Boots
This style of boot has a higher ankle cuff to support the foot, the uppers will comprise some stitched fabric but may predominantly be made of leather for improved weather resistance and ruggedness. They will also have an internal waterproof membrane.
There may also be a rubber ‘rand’ around the edge of the boot, this gives added protection against water ingress and against damaging the boots on rocky terrain.
The sole pattern will be quite aggressive, with a distinct heel step, which serves to give better grip on slippery ground and in descent. The boots will feel a little stiffer and heavier as a result, but still with enough flexibility to make them comfortable to walk in.
This boot type can be worn straight from the box, but would benefit from a few shorter walks before you take them out on a big day.
Good for all upland terrain in Ireland and the UK, both on and off trail they would suit those hikers who head across open mountainside and moor in most weathers.
If kept clean and in good condition they should last you a long time.
This type of boot is often referred to as ‘three season’. However, they would not be suitable for full winter conditions where there is a lot of ice and snow about, and would generally be too flexible to take a crampon.
Designed for rocky alpine ascents, scrambles and more difficult mountain terrain, this style of boot is similar to the mountain boot above.
However it would be a good deal stiffer in the sole and more supportive. This can make them uncomfortable to walk in over a long day and therefore they would not be ideal as first-time hiking boots, though some hikers with foot problems find the extra stiffness they provide a help.
They are likely to have a heel notch to take a crampon for winter use, and may be cut a little tighter in the toe box to allow for a bit of ‘feel’ when climbing.
Winter Hiking Boots
Winter specific boots are solidly made, are very stiff and have an aggressive sole pattern. Constructed of leather or a tough nylon like Kevlar they are extremely rugged and can be quite heavy. A high ankle cuff is standard, as is a waterproof membrane and some insulation to keep the foot warm.
Designed for full winter use they will have fittings for attaching crampons, and a large ‘rand’ for protection. Heavier than the other styles here, they are made for use in snow and ice in the higher mountains of Ireland and the UK.
In the better stores you will see boots classified as either B0, B1, B2 or B3, where there is no B number given it is reasonable to assume the boot is classed as B0.
This is simply a measure of the stiffness of the boot particularly the sole, and therefore its suitability for different mountain activities.
Most hiking boots will be classed as B0, low stiffness, and this makes them ideal for walking as they have a reasonable amount of flexibility in the sole. When you hold this type of boot in two hands and twist, it will flex easily, making for more comfortable walking.
B1 and B2 boots have increasingly stiffer soles and are ideal for climbing and winter mountaineering, but can be uncomfortable and tireing on very long hikes.
B3 boots are often made of plastic with a good deal of insulation and are designed for high altitude climbing in the Greater Ranges.
In the ever-increasing push for sales, manufacturers now produce footwear to cover every possible usage and terrain type. By knowing what you intend to use the boots for you can focus in on the type of hiking boots most suited to your needs.
Russ Mills is the owner of Mountaintrails.ie, a guided hiking and mountain skills training business based in Dublin, Ireland.