A good pair of hiking boots can keep you on the trail for years, and a bad pair may march you right back to the store.
Before you even think about buying, be sure to be clear about how your hiking boots will be used. What kind of terrain are you planning to encounter? Hikes in the muddy Northwest require waterproof hiking boots while hikes in the dry Southwest suggest breathable lightweight hiking boots.
Not only should you take weather and terrain into consideration, but it’s critical that you realistically evaluate the intensity and duration of your hikes. Leather hiking boots made for extended backpacking trips are more durable, but much heavier than lightweight hiking boots intended for day hiking.
Never rely on shoe size alone to determine what you should buy. Online boot shopping is a mistake, unless you are ordering a pair that is identical to boots you already own—right down to the size, brand and model. I’m sure it’s not news to anyone to report that footwear has one of the highest customer return rates in the mail-order biz.
Hiking boots can vary quite a bit in terms of their construction, comfort, and durability. Until about the 1980s, most hiking boots were made of leather. Now boot-makers offer leather-synthetic combos and all-synthetic models—a wide variety of men’s hiking boots, women’s hiking boots, and even children’s hiking boots. Many of the stalwarts in both the shoe biz and the outdoor recreation and apparel industry market a full line of hiking footwear.
Don’t expect hiking boots to last all that much longer than running shoes. Some lightweight boots on the feet of aggressive hikers offer only 300 or so miles of wear. The uppers often can go several hundred miles more, but soles lose their tread and can eventually start splitting from the rest of the boot.
Discount hiking boots or cheap hiking boots can be a good deal—provided they’re a good brand on sale (for example last year’s model or color combination). Don’t bother with hiking boots that are cheap only because they are of poor quality.
If you are as averse to getting rid of things as I am, you can always look into resoling your boots—particularly for the heavier leather hiking boot varieties, not the lightweights. It’s also a nice way to keep an otherwise sturdy pair around a whole lot longer.
Manufacturers can have you believing that you need a different pair of hiking shoes for every kind of terrain you encounter. This is certainly true in some cases—warm beach walks and snowy mountain hikes each require different features to keep both you reasonably comfortable, and your hiking boots in good shape. But as a rule, hiking is hiking, and a hiking boot either fits or it doesn’t.
The other caveat, however, is that you need to consider how likely it is that you’ll be hiking in the rain and mud. When it’s wet going, a hiker wearing hiking boots that are mostly “breathable” nylon mesh will soon have soggy feet and soon thereafter an unpleasant time on the trail.
Kinds of Hiking Boots
Lightweight Hiking Boots These are made to be worn on day hikes and light overnight trips. Also included in this category are trail-running and all other low-top trail shoes. Lightweight trail shoes/hiking boots are usually a combination of split-grain leather and nylon mesh, and have a thinner sole than heavier boots. As a result, they don’t last nearly as long as the others, but are a great choice for both novice and expert day hikers because they aren’t at all cumbersome and require little to no break-in time.
Midweight Hiking Boots These are designed for backpacking trips or off-trail day hiking. They typically require some breaking in. If you have injury-prone ankles, midweight boots are also a good choice for lighter day hikes because they provide ankle support and are sturdier (but heavier) than their lightweight counterparts. The ankle support offered by mid- and high topped boots is an especially welcome feature when traveling unstable terrain.
Heavyweight Hiking Boots or Mountaineering Boots These are what the big-time backpackers and mountaineers wear. Almost always made of full-grain leather, they feel like stiff cement blocks when you first put them on. Needless to say, these hiking boots are very heavy, extremely durable, and take a long time to be broken in.