Hiking boots are the most essential part of enjoying those outdoor adventures with the utmost comfort. From dry desert trails that traverse rough rocky outcrops to wet and muddy trails that cross rivers and streams — and all those trails in between — knowing how to choose hiking boots for your adventures is a decision that could leave you dealing with painful blisters or hiking miles of trails on a bed of clouds.
You’ll want a pair of comfortable hiking boots, resist the elements or allow you to embrace the elements and fit like a glove. So whatever you’re trying to decide — from hiking shoes vs boots, if you need a waterproof, quick-drying or breathable pair — the most important things about choosing hiking boots are the fit, support and material.
The wrong hiking boots could leave you clamoring for the nearest ice bath, while the right hiking boots provide comfort, may last longer and have exactly what you’re looking for! From how hiking boots should fit to the materials to look for and how long they should last, this is the ultimate guide for how to choose hiking boots!
Hiking Shoes vs Boots
When choosing good hiking shoes or boots for your trek, it’s important to know the difference between each and which are better for your trek. There are really four types of hiking shoes and boots on the market (five if you count those crazy hiking sandals popping up everywhere): ultralight trail running shoes, hiking shoes, day hiking boots and backpacking boots. Let’s take a look at each type.
Trail Running Shoes
Chances are you’ve probably seen someone sprinting past you on a trail somewhere. I don’t know how they navigate all those rocky outcrops so quickly without turning an ankle, but they do and I’m impressed.
Trail running shoes are defined by being ultralight shoes that have some level of gripping on the bottom. They’re super flexible and can usually just be taken from box to trail and feel just as comfortable as your most broken-in (or worn-out) pair of tennis shoes.
Trail running shoes are crafted as low-cut around the sides, so they offer nearly no support. Unless you’re a trail runner, I suggest you stay away from these because they aren’t very good for hiking.
Hiking shoes, on the other hand, are perfect for hiking. Hiking shoes are defined by their low-cut model around the ankle and, typically, flexible midsoles that allow a lot of movement. You’ll see a lot of people out on the trails with hiking shoes because they’re an excellent choice for conquering the trail safely.
However, if you have trouble with your ankles, stay away from hiking shoes because they offer little support for your ankles. Sure, they help to stabilize your feet. But, unless you wear an ankle brace hiking (if you do, I’d still suggest hiking boots), they won’t keep you from rolling an ankle on the trail.
Day Hiking Boots
The first type of hiking boot is a day hiking boot. Day hiking boots are usually mid- to high-cut around the ankles, so they offer much more support than hiking shoes. Day hiking boots can be used on longer, multi-day hikes, but you may start to see some blistering here and there if you’ve been in them for a while.
Day hiking boots are decently flexible, so they’re pretty comfortable from the first hike on. These models are perfect for day hikes or weekend hikes with a light load in your backpack. Personally, I love my day hiking boots, and they’re comfortable enough for two- to three-day hikes.
Backpacking boots are your end-all-be-all hiking boots that offer the most support, least flexibility and are often the most durable hiking boot you can ever buy. Backpacking boots are usually heavier than day hiking boots, so they allow you to take a heavier load in your backpack for extended hikes.
Backpacking boots will, undoubtedly, give you the most ankle support because they wrap around the ankles and lace all the way up. Since they’re heavier, they can be a burden to take on short, energy exerting hikes. Plus, they’re usually not as breathable, so your feet may burn up during those summertime hikes.
What to Look for in Hiking Boots
The three most important things to look for in hiking boots are the support it gives you, what materials it’s made from and the boot’s fit. If you get the support and fit features right, then determine what kind of materials you need most for your hikes, you’ll be hiking in comfort in no time!
If you do the majority of your hiking in the Colorado mountains, Pacific Northwest, pretty much any area on the East Coast or another region that’s chalked full of lakes, streams, rivers or rainy weather, waterproof hiking boots are your best option.
Waterproof hiking boots are typically made of leather (whether it’s full-, split- or nubuck leather, each may be paired with suede or suede-like material to create a more lightweight hiking boot that still gets the job done.
These keep your feet as dry as a desert in summertime, even when you step directly in a stream to test them out. As long as you don’t go in water past your socks, your feet will remain dry from the outside. However, waterproof hiking boots don’t let anything in, so they may encourage your feet to start sweating on hot days. You can combat sweating by throwing on a pair of Merino Wool socks.
Quick-drying hiking boots are the next best option if you’ll be coming in contact with a fair share of water but you also want a pair of breathable hiking boots. Quick-drying hiking boots are usually made from synthetic fabrics like nylon or polyester.
While they won’t keep your feet dry, they’ll dry quickly and air out much better than waterproof hiking boots. If you come in contact with a little rain here and there and don’t want the bulky waterproof boots, these are your next best bet.
While mostly all quick-drying hiking boots are breathable, not all breathable hiking boots are quick-drying. If you do most of your hiking in desert landscapes like Central Arizona and parts of Utah, you probably won’t need waterproof or quick-drying hiking boots.
It’ll be pretty hot outside, so your main concern will likely be getting your feet some air so you don’t go home with a pair of raunchy smelling hiking boots after a weekend of many miles on the trail. Breathable hiking boots are similarly constructed to quick-drying, as they’re both usually made from synthetic fabrics.
For those cold days of winter or chilly days at altitude, you may want to invest in insulated hiking boots. Insulated hiking boots are usually made from synthetic fabrics that provide warmth throughout the day. They’re typically waterproof, too, so you’ll be just fine hiking through snow or glaciers
Whether you’re a big-time hiker who’s investing in full-grain leather hiking boots or you’re like me who’s investing in a suede-leather final product that resists water and abrasions, you can expect leather hiking boots to last the longest or any hiking boot or shoe.
Leather hiking shoes are designed to be more durable on the trails, handle heavier loads for longer periods and be resistant to many things, like water and those sharp rocks you catch on the side of your boots from time to time. If you hike often or go on extended hiking trips, you’ll want to invest in leather hiking boots. Otherwise, you’ll be making a trip to buy a new pair every three months or so.
How Should Hiking Boots Fit?
Hiking boots should fit snug all the way around and leave a bit of wiggle room for your toes. If your toes are touching the front of the boot while standing still, you’ll need to size up. Keep in mind that when you’re hiking, your toes will constantly be pushed against the front of your boots, especially with a backpack on. Your heel should always remain locked in place and touching the back of your hiking boot as well.
The most important thing to do when trying on hiking boots is to do so at the end of the day. If at all possible, take a hike before you go to the store. After you’ve walked around all day, and especially after going on a hike, your feet naturally swell up. So the boots you try on and fit snug at the beginning of the day may be too small for your swollen feet at the end of the day.
When you go to the store to try on your boots, make sure you take a few laps around the store to really get in tune with how they feel. After all, you probably won’t be able to take them back once you hit the trail for the first time. Remember to bring your insoles or orthotics with you as well!
How Much Toe Room in Hiking Boots?
The general rule of thumb is to leave about a fingernail’s length of room between your big toe and the end of your hiking boots. You’ll want to keep your heel snug against the back and allow some wiggle room for your toes.
When you’re hiking, especially downhill with a pack, your toes will naturally get closer to the front. It’s important to never let them hit the front. If they do, you may need bigger hiking boots.
How and Where to Buy Hiking Boots
Look, online shopping is tremendous. If online shopping had a mascot, it would probably be me. I’ve always despised going into stores, spending hours deciding what I want and then having to physically return said items because they weren’t what I thought they’d be. But never, ever, ever but hiking boots online.
Unless you’ve already been to the store to try on a pair of hiking boots — and then you buy the exact same pair online for cheaper — you should always try on and buy hiking boots from a physical store. This will take the guessing work out of it and will allow you to try on multiple boots for maximum comfort.
Even if you intend to buy a model of hiking boots that have the same name but are a year newer, I still highly recommend going into the store to try them on. You never know what could change year over year. And comfort is the most important aspect of hiking boots.
How Long Should Hiking Boots Last?
Depending on what kind of hiking boot you have, how much you wear them out and how well you take care of them, hiking boots should last you anywhere from 400 to 1,200 miles. Ya, that’s a wide spread, but every boot is different.
If you’re a hardcore trail runner who has emphasizes lightweight over durability, your hiking shoes will likely only last 400 to 600 miles. But if you opt for top-of-the-line leather hiking boots and take care of them, they could last you from 900 to 1,200 miles. And if you want a durable but breathable pair of synthetic hiking boots, those can last you from 600 to 900 miles.
The length at which hiking boots last depends on the quality of the boot, how well you take care of them and how much you wear them out.
Are Hiking Boots Okay for Wearing on Flat Ground?
Yes, hiking boots are okay for wearing on flat ground. Whether you’re hiking the flat trails of Florida (I did that all through college [go UCF!]) or the flat trails of any other part of the world, hiking boots are ok to wear there. You probably don’t need them, but they’re a good alternative to keeping your regular shoes clean.