A little help in choosing the right hiking boots?
Table of Contents
- The importance and role of hiking boots
- Common questions you may have:
- The criteria for choosing your hiking boots
- The season and weather conditions are key elements in the choice of your hiking boots
- Your morphology, an essential criterion for finding the right shoe
- Technical characteristics and anatomy of hiking boots
- The soles of hiking boots: grip, adherence and cushioning
- A brief overview of the big names in hiking boots and their characteristics
- Do not neglect your socks for the comfort of your hiking boots
- How should hiking boots fit! User manual...
- How to break in hiking boots
The importance and role of hiking boots
If you’re here, it’s probably because you’re not one of those people who are convinced that you can hike with any so-called sport shoes.
And you are right: as strange as it may seem, to hike, you need a pair of hiking shoes.
Undeniably, even if it is first of all to take some fresh air, to admire the landscapes, to travel at a slow pace… from the small walk to the trek around the world, hiking is a sport activity requiring an adapted equipment.
And as hiking is essentially about putting one foot in front of the other, the best way to prepare your hikes so that the practice of this activity remains above all a pleasure, is to take care of your feet and their comfort!
What happens to your feet when you walk?
When your feet are enclosed in a shoe, they sweat.
This leaves your skin soft and vulnerable, which is the best way to get blisters.
If you hike in city shoes, your feet will not be sufficiently supported, which will cause frictions, the first factor in heating up the feet… and the appearance of blisters.
Moreover, in the outdoors, the ground can be unstable, wet, slippery, uphill, on a slope… in short, so many parameters that underline the importance of having your feet well supported.
Very well, but how to find the pair of hiking shoes that will make you happy on any path?
I will try to guide you here…
Common questions you may have:
- “I don’t want fabric shoes because they are not waterproof”
- “Leather shoes, they get wet”
No, leather is quite waterproof when it is well maintained, that is to say nourished. It is not for nothing that bikers appreciate it… Read the explanations.
- “My feet always hurt in hiking boots”.
Perhaps you have a particular foot morphology to which any, necessarily standardized, shoes are not well adapted?
Have you thought about insoles? They are essential for your comfort and can really make a difference: go and see below what I say about them.
- “With socks, I’m OK, I have plenty.”
Forget your usual socks: hiking socks have special qualities, adapted to walking, which is indeed a sport. And it would be a mistake to do without them, as they are an essential comfort factor. Don’t sacrifice this accessory, you won’t regret it!
The criteria for choosing your hiking boots
Choosing your hiking boots requires to specify several parameters that I will review with you:
The characteristics of hiking boots: height of the upper, sole, material, laces… and how to choose the best specifications for your foot and your hikes.
I will also help you find your way around the brands according to their footwear.
I’ll give you a few tips on how to try on shoes in the store… That way, hiking boots will no longer hold any secrets for you!
For each type of hike there is a type of hiking shoes
Depending on the type of hiking you do, you will not use the same walking shoes.
What are the different categories in hiking? What to look for in hiking boots?
For the promenade and short walk
Walking for a few hours, on marked trails, easy level, with nothing on your back or just a small day hiking backpack.
Low to mid-top shoes, preferably soft and light.
This type of shoes are multiactivity oriented, you can use them for Nordic walking as well as for mountain biking and orienteering.
Be careful though, they will not replace a real trail shoe, much more efficient for running.
My suggestion for short walks
For active hiking
A sporty approach to walking in the plains and medium mountains at a steady pace.
The terrain is varied with few or many changes in level.
Suitable shoes with low, mid or high uppers depending on the environment.
The main advantages of these shoes are their flexibility and their traction.
My suggestion for active hikes
For short hikes
From a few hours to a few days, 2 or 3 at the most. For beginners, if you choose to go on a several days hike, start with easy path with low gradient.
Preferably shoes with medium to high uppers. Indeed, it is advisable to have a good support of the ankle while keeping a flexible sole but able to support your weight and possibly that of a backpack for several days.
My suggestion for short hikes
For trekking and long-distance hiking
Trekking and long-distance hiking are two practices that are more demanding for the choice of your shoes.
You will walk during long hours, on sometimes very uneven grounds and alternate between positive and negative changes in level.
Well adapted, high, rigid (or semi) and robust boots.
My suggestion for long-distance hikes
For approach walk
My suggestion for approach hikes
The season and weather conditions are key elements in the choice of your hiking boots
The weather and the climatic conditions are the criteria that will allow you to decide what to take and wear between walking sandals, waterproof shoes, canvas or leather shoes…
In summer, in the heat, on flat ground
Why not sandals?
Walking in closed shoes can be uncomfortable because of poor breathability.
No one likes the feeling of sweaty feet, trapped in shoes when the weather is nice and warm.
To hike while letting your feet breathe, opt for walking sandals, open or closed depending on your practice.
Walking sandals are perfect both for hiking and as a spare pair for bivouacs.
In summer on steep terrain
Light and breathable hiking shoes.
You are hiking in steep terrain, roaming, crossing poorly marked trails… even if it is hot, it is safer to walk with hiking shoes.
Indeed, to cross high grass, for example, sandals are not adapted. Choose hiking shoes, low or high, made of light and breathable mesh materials.
And in the rain?
No perfect shoes, but solutions…
It is always difficult to protect yourself completely from the rain.
Unfortunately, to date, apart from rain boots, no shoes are watertight: we talk about water repellence or waterproofing.
From hiking boots with water-repellent treatment to Gore Tex membrane walking shoes, you have a choice.
Note that in case of intense rain, even the most waterproof shoe will not last a full day, so you will have to use gaiters and overboots to protect yourself to the maximum.
Your morphology, an essential criterion for finding the right shoe
The foot is a sensitive part of the body, with a complex anatomical structure, yet it is often neglected and mistreated because we don’t take the time to analyze it.
To avoid premature fatigue or pain in the feet and the rest of the body, it is essential to choose the right shoes, especially for sports activities.
We do not suspect all the notable differences from one foot to another: the shape of the toes, the arch of the foot… in fact, all feet are different, there is no “universal” foot.
Hence the importance of carefully choosing your shoes so that they are best suited to your particular podological characteristics.
To avoid feet pain: Choosing the right shoe size
The inner edge of the shoe must be straight without any deformation.
The width of the shoe should ideally be within 10 mm of the width of the forefoot.
How much toe room in hiking boots? The length of your boots should be 1 to 2 cm longer than your foot so that it is not in abutment at the end of the hiking shoes.
Moreover, during the effort, the volume of your foot will change, it is thus necessary to leave some extra space for your feet to adjust during the day.
To stop foot pain: The importance of insoles
Let’s stop for a moment to talk about insoles and their importance for your comfort in a hiking boot or other shoe.
The discomfort felt with a hiking boot on your feet is, 9 times out of 10, caused by poor foot arch support. It is then necessary to put insoles in your shoes.
In fact, 90% of customers leave a hiking gear shop with a pair of insoles to put in all their hiking shoes: as I have said, your foot is not universal.
Did you know that?
A foot is made up of 28 bones, 27 muscles and 33 levels of articulation!
The different parts of the foot have different volumes, sizes or postures from one individual to another.
In addition to the variable characteristics of the foot, there are multiple shapes and volumes with hollow feet, flat feet… not all will behave in the same way.
To choose the right insoles, it is best to know if you have pronator or supinator feet.
Examine the wear and tear on the soles of your shoes:
Pronation: If the inside of your sole is very worn, then your foot is pronated.
Pronation is a normal and natural shock absorption movement of the foot and is characterized by a slight inward bend.
Supination: the outside of your sole is the most damaged, so your foot is supinator.
Supination is an outward movement of the foot.
There are two main families of insoles
The "ready-to-wear" insoles and the preformed insoles, be careful not to confuse them:
The so-called "ready-to-wear" insoles are either deodorizing or antibacterial insoles, or shock absorbing insoles, or insoles that are aerated to be more breathable than the insoles sold, by default, in the shoes.
The non-deformablepreformed insoles are those that will effectively correct the plantar support of your feet: and therefore, those that I recommend.
I will present here two types of insoles, and it's up to you to try them out and feel what best suits the shape of your feet.
The 3 Feet insoles are designed to adapt to the three different types of arch: high, mid and low in order to meet the support needs of each morphology.
As a result, the whole posture is improved: the alignment of the body is better, as well as the stability thanks to a good distribution of the supports.
Available in two versions, classic or slim, they will fit perfectly in all types of shoes.
Superfeet ergonomic insoles feature an ADD/APT stabilizer system with a heel cup that encapsulates the fat pad under the heel to promote natural shock absorption.
Consequently, they limit the phenomenon of foot dropping and excessive pronation/supination, and therefore protect your knees, hips...
Available in different materials and volumes, they offer an answer according to the morphology of the feet, the shape of the shoe and the activity practiced.
Now that we have studied the feet, let's go further into the analysis of hiking shoes.
Technical characteristics and anatomy of hiking boots
Cushioning, sole, grip, rigidity, height of the shaft... are all criteria to be studied in order to choose the right pair of walking shoes.
This will help you to quickly sort out, among all the pairs you will have in front of you, those which are suitable for your practice or not, and to look for the characteristics that will be the most useful to you.
Collar height: 3 cuts for 3 different supports
The high cut: the most secure.
This height of the upper perfectly supports the ankle, even on very steep terrain.
High-cut shoes, also called high ankle hiking boots, are ideal for long hikes and treks, as fatigue sometimes causes you to take false steps: whatever happens, the upper will hold the feet and ankles effectively.
The mid cut: the most versatile.
The medium upper, called "mid", is the perfect intermediate between the high and low upper.
Like all "in-between" products, it is intended for versatile use, from short hikes to itinerant treks on easy to medium trails.
The mid cut holds the ankle more flexibly than a high upper and therefore makes the shoe lighter.
The low cut: the lightest.
It leaves the ankle free to move, perfect for strolling, active walking and short hikes on easy trails where you don't want the constraints of high uppers.
Some shoes have lower uppers that are stiffer for hill running or fast hiking; these are called trail shoes.
The soles of hiking boots: grip, adherence and cushioning
The outsole of hiking shoes is made of a rubber compound of varying degrees of softness that determines the durability of the shoe.
The softer the rubber, the better the cushioning and grip, but the sole will wear out more quickly than with a hard rubber.
What are the technical characteristics of hiking shoes soles?
The traction is the ability of the shoe to progress on hostile and unstable terrain (mud, sand, snow). Good grip is provided by deep, sculpted crampons.
The traction allows you to walk easily on rough but hard terrain (rocks, stones). For a good grip, the shoes are equipped with wide and shallow patterns.
Cushioning is a real criterion for comfort and protection of joints and tendons. Depending on the shape of the sole: flat, raised at the front or at the back, the cushioning helps to reduce the impact of the feet on the ground.
The width of the sole says a lot about the stability it provides. A narrow sole is made for precision in difficult or very difficult terrain.
It is recommended for mountaineering shoes, approach walking or challenging hiking.
A wide sole, instead, is intended for a large footprint on the ground, so stability is perfect.
On the other hand, in steep terrain, this type of sole is much less suitable because it will take up too much space on the ground.
The stiffness clearly indicates for which type of hiking the shoe has been designed. It is tested by trying to bend the hiking boot:
A rigid sole is intended for experienced hikers, for hiking and trekking on challenging terrains.
Soft (or semi-rigid) soles are for easy trail hikes or for active hikers who need good thrust.
Just as there are different qualities of rubber in car tires, there are different qualities of shoe soles: Contagrip, Vibram, Michelin...
Stone guards, self-locking hooks and laces are elements not to neglect
The stone guards
It is a kind of shell, located at the front of the shoe to protect your toes in case of impact with stones or from abrasion.
An element not to disregard, especially for long-distance hikers, trekkers or even occasional walkers who walk on uneven ground.
Proper lacing of your hiking boots is essential, yet few hikers give it the importance it deserves.
Laces guarantee the final support of your shoes, they "lock" your feet to ensure they are as secure as it should be.
A poorly laced shoe is the number one factor in hiking injuries, both in terms of falls and foot injuries.
In fact, with badly laced shoes, your feet move, a real invitation to friction, resulting in blisters.
The simple laces, or classic laces, are the laces we all know, but they are more resistant so that they hold up over the long term. Round or flat, it's up to you, the trick is to tighten them well.
The quick-pull system, also called pull-cord lacing system, is quick and easy to use: pull on the handle and the shoe is tightened. The tightening is homogeneous, the feeling of support is very satisfactory.
The heel lock eyelets (hooks), or lace lock, are potentially a criterion of choice since they allow you to tie your hiking boots properly.
Thanks to the self-locking hooks, your laces are maintained and do not risk to loosen.
Advantages and disadvantages of different hiking boots materials
Hiking shoes are usually either leather or synthetic and each material has its advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages: very supple, durable because it is a resistant material and naturally waterproof: it prevents water from passing through the shoe by absorbing it, but it should be noted that by soaking up water it becomes considerably heavier.
Leather is also, to a certain extent, breathable, even if it remains true that in case of warm temperatures synthetic shoes will be greatly appreciated.
To overcome this problem, some hiking boots are made of nubuck or suede, which are more breathable but also more sensitive to rain.
Disadvantages: it requires constant and rigorous maintenance. It must be nourished, moisturized and treated to keep its natural waterproofness.
Don't confuse nubuck with suede leather
Nubuck leather comes directly from classic leather that has been sanded to give it a soft feel and a velvety appearance. When you touch nubuck leather, you can sometimes still feel the grains of leather that have resisted sanding.
Suede leather is totally different: it is the "underside leather" because it is really the back of the animal skin.
Hiking boots manufacturers use robust materials such as Nylon, Kevlar and Polyester.
Advantages: a flexible, light material with real breathable qualities. Much more pleasant than leather, especially in summer.
Disadvantages: a synthetic hiking boot is not waterproof: if it rains, water immediately runs through the fabric.
However, to improve their water resistance, many hiking boots are made with waterproof membranes (the next paragraph will tell you more...).
Synthetic shoes are slightly less robust than leather shoes.
How to waterproof a pair of hiking boots ?
As we have seen, apart from (well-maintained) leather shoes, hiking shoes are not naturally waterproof.
Fortunately, there are several ways to remedy this:
Prefer waterproof membranes
These do not only exist for clothing.
Gore-Tex, OutDry, eVent are all brands of membranes that can also be found in the world of footwear.
Remember, a waterproof membrane is not watertight!
In fact, we even talk about a waterproof-breathable membrane because it prevents the raindrops from passing through it while letting water vapor (perspiration) escape.
But in the long run, the water ends up passing through.
Use waterproofing products
They are not as effective as a membrane, but they do provide a water-repellent treatment to all your hiking boots.
It's as if you were smearing your shoe with a rainproof film.
Don't forget that this treatment will wear off with each exposure to rain, so it should be done more or less regularly depending on your use, or even better: in regular maintenance.
Equip yourself with gaiters or overboots
Finally, whether you have shoes with membrane or not, it is possible to improve the waterproofing of your shoes in extreme conditions with gaiters or overboots.
Gaiters and overboots protect the upper and the shaft of the shoe from water penetration.
Gaiters and especially overboots also have an undeniable windproofing effect which can be indispensable in high mountain or polar regions.
The Old Hiker’s Advice
We don't always think about it, but when you use a rain cape or a hiking poncho, it is strongly advised to equip yourself with a pair of gaiters.
Because the water that will slide down your rain cape will drip directly onto your shoes.
By wearing gaiters, which will cover the collar of your hiking boots, you will prevent the water from entering and getting your feet wet.
A brief overview of the big names in hiking boots and their characteristics
As we have seen throughout this guide, the criteria for choosing hiking shoes are numerous and all equally important.
I am convinced that there are no bad brands or bad hiking boots: there are simply different volumes of foot and different fit depending on your feet.
In short, finding the ideal shoes will require some compromises between the fit and the many technical features of the shoes.
The following indications will help you to find your way around the brands, bearing in mind that this is only a summary.
The "medium to fine" fit
Hanwag, Asolo, Salomon.
The "rather average" fit
Lowa (but it depends on the model).
The "rather large" fit
The brands Meindl, Tecnica, Merrell, Columbia.
At Hanwag, the "Bunion" range leaves a lot of space in the forefoot, especially for people with hallux valgus, but with a fairly thin heel counter for support, and the "Wide" range which offers good space in the instep.
Additional resources: https://outdoorswithnolimits.com/best-hiking-boots-shoes/
Do not neglect your socks for the comfort of your hiking boots
What's worse than having a feeling of dampness in your shoes?
It's not raining, you haven't walked in water and yet you feel that your feet are wet.
Your socks are responsible. You should not go hiking or trekking with the first socks you can find without worrying about the material, size or thickness.
The sock contributes 100% to the comfort of your hiking boot. Just like a thermal underwear, hiking socks are technical and fundamental for the well-being of your feet.
Socks must fit your feet perfectly, like a second skin, without wrinkles or hypertension of the fabric.
Your pair of hiking socks should insulate you from the cold, while allowing your feet to breathe.
Be careful not to choose socks that are too thick, which could add bulk to your shoes.
There are more parameters to take into account depending on the sources of discomfort that we have all, at least once, had the opportunity to experience: sweaty feet, socks that quickly get holes, heavy legs, etc.
Here is a small summary of the constraints that summer socks must meet:
The feet enclosed in the shoes are not ventilated.
Choose socks made of moisture-wicking materials (Coolmax polyester, polypropylene) and whose design creates a permanent air movement in the shoe to evacuate humid air upwards and let dry air in (X-Socks patents, Pody Air technology from Thyo, for example).
They come from bacteria that feast on the moisture in the shoes. Wool is naturally antibacterial. Some treatments and fibers (silver ions, for example) artificially reproduce this quality. Note that bacteria are also partly responsible for overheating and, eventually, blisters.
Rubbing, folds, heat, blisters.
Synthetic materials heat up faster than natural materials. Socks that fit the feet perfectly and do not slip limit the risks (good fit of the upper, at the instep, presence of elastane for those who can tolerate it well, size "to fit" and right/left foot construction for greater precision). Finally, to prevent blisters, there are double socks, or socks that are well reinforced in key areas, with materials such as Friction Free.
Heavy legs after exercise or at the end of the day.
This time, socks are not responsible, however, they can provide a solution, with the compression that promotes venous return and reduces fatigue.
How should hiking boots fit! User manual...
We are getting close!
You've narrowed down the huge selection of hiking boots on the market.
Now it's time to pick a pair and put them through the ultimate test of fitting to make sure they're really worthy of your feet.
Bring a pair of hiking socks with you
Tighten your shoes as usual and walk, climb stairs, if possible on a slope for a real life test and above all do not remain seated.
Don't hesitate to keep your boots on for at least an hour and exaggerate your walking movements. Unroll your foot to the extreme, go down small slopes...
How do you feel?
Your foot should feel supported without being compressed, with enough room to be comfortable.
The heel must be well anchored in the shoe, we will tolerate a small detachment of about 0.2in (½ cm) but not more.
Last but not least, your toes should be comfortable, not curled up or squashed. The foot should spread out over the entire length of the shoe and across the entire width.
How to break in hiking boots
Properly cared for, hiking boots guarantee maximum comfort with optimal support.
Let's take a look at how to make sure your hiking boots are both flexible and rigid enough to keep you safe without causing blisters.
When new, hiking boots can feel stiff and cause discomfort, sometimes pain, or blisters on your first few outings.
Fortunately, there are a few tricks to avoid this and feel as comfortable as possible from the first time you wear them. It's all about maintenance and good habits.
Before the first use
As with any pair of shoes, especially leather ones, it is always advisable to wear them at home several times before using them for the first time and even use them in short walks.
This way, your feet will get used to them and the boots will already start to become more flexible and adapt to the shape of your feet.
Finally, you should know that there are softening products specially designed for hiking boots.
However, be careful to choose a product adapted to the main material of your shoes, at the risk of damaging them.
If they are made of leather, it is essential to nourish the leather from time to time with a suitable cream or wax, which is also the best way to protect them and guarantee their longevity.
Finally, don't forget that your shoes must be rigid enough to ensure sufficient support and avoid any injury.
It is therefore useless, and even dangerous, to try to soften them too much.