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Outdoor footwear can be divided into a few basic categories. Begin your search for the right boots or shoes by focusing on the category that best matches your hiking or backpacking plans.
Light hiking - These boots (and trail shoes) are designed principally for day hiking. They focus on light weight, flexibility, comfort and breathability. As a result, they are less supportive and durable than your other options.
Hiking and backpacking - These boots (and a few shoes) are designed for on- and off-trail hiking with light to moderate loads. They are more durable and supportive than lightweight hiking boots, but they are still intended primarily for short to moderate trips over easy to moderate terrain.
Extended backpacking and mountaineering - These boots are designed for on- and off-trail, multiday hiking with moderate to heavy backpacking loads. Durable and supportive, they provide a high degree of ankle and foot protection. Some of these models are designed specifically for rough terrain with heavy backpacking loads. They offer the very best in durability, support and protection. Most are stiff enough to accept crampons for snow/ice travel.
Which Cut Is Right For You?
Low cut shoes - These are fine for lightweight travel, but they provide less roll-resistance for ankle joints. Plus, on muddy routes or trails filled with scree, grit or sand, it's tough to keep this debris out of your shoes. They're a good choice for lighter loads on maintained trails.
Mid cut boots - These wrap around your ankles and offer some cushioning and protection from debris and hazards. They're a smart pick for shorter multiday trips with moderate loads.
High cut boots - These give you leverage and ankle support on irregular trails or cross-country routes. If you routinely carry heavier loads, high cuts make good sense. Take the time to break them in before starting a long-distance trip.
Get the Right Fit
Once you've narrowed down your options to a handful of boots or shoes, the best way to decide between them is to try them on and give them a test drive.
A good fit involves:
The first two can be measured with a Brannock Device. The third, volume, refers to the space your foot occupies, top to bottom, inside a shoe. A high-volume foot may feel snug in some footwear; a low-volume foot may feel too loose. If you have a high-instep (the top of your foot near your ankle), you likely have a high-volume foot.
Different brands and styles will fit different combinations of width and volume. A good fit allows you to easily wiggle your toes inside the footwear. Feet should not slide around inside footwear. Good-fitting boots hold feet firmly without binding.
When trying on shoes, walk on inclines and declines. If you detect heel-lift on inclines, adjust the tension of your laces atop the instep and try the incline again. On declines, toes should not feel too compacted in the toebox.
TIPS: Bring along a pair of your own hiking socks when trying on shoes in store. And it's best to try on footwear later in the day; feet tend to swell a bit during the day.
Know Your Upper Materials
The materials used in a given boot or trail shoe will affect its weight, breathability, durability and water resistance. Since boots made of different fabrics can be very similar in performance, however, personal preference is often the key when choosing between them.
Full-Grain Leather - This is your best choice for durability and abrasion resistance. It resists water very well, too. It's used primarily in backpacking boots built for extended trips, heavy loads and rugged terrain. Full-grain leather is not as lightweight or breathable as nylon/split grain combinations. It usually requires a break-in period.
Split Grain Leather - This material is usually paired with nylon or nylon mesh to offer lightweight, breathable comfort. Split-grain leather splits away the inner part of the cowhide from the smooth exterior. It tends to be softer on your feet, takes less time to break in and is lighter than full-grain leather. These boots also cost less. The downside is that they are a bit less resistant to water and abrasion than full-grain leather boots (although styles that feature waterproof liners can be just as watertight).
Nubuck Leather - Nubuck is full-grain leather that has been buffed to resemble suede. It is very durable and resists water and abrasion. It usually requires a break-in period.
Synthetic Material - Polyester, nylon and so-called "synthetic leather" are all commonly used materials. They are lighter than actual leather, break in quickly and usually cost a bit less. The downside is that they may show wear sooner.
Waterproof Linings - Waterproof, breathable membranes (such as Gore-Tex XCR or eVent) are bonded to the uppers of many boots to help keep feet dry. These barriers are available in a variety of boot styles, from lightweight hikers to mountaineering models. Boots made with Gore-Tex keep feet dry in wet environments with a slight trade-off in breathability.
TIP: The waterproofness (or water resistance) of your hiking boots depends significantly on how well you treat them. Be sure to follow all care instructions that come with your boots so that they can perform well and last a long time.
Construction and Components
Upper Construction The more seams a boot or shoe has, the higher the risk for leaks and blow-outs. Leaking occurs when water seeps through the needle holes or spaces between the boot panels. Blow-outs occur when general wear, repeated flexing or a snag causes a stitch to break and two panels to separate. In general, the fewer seams an upper has, the more water-resistant and more durable it will be.
The Construction Between Upper and Sole Hiking boot soles these days are typically cemented to the rest of the boot. Faster and less expensive than traditional stitching methods, cementing creates durable, long-lasting bonds (how long depends upon the process and specific adhesives used).
Can Footwear Be Resolved? The answer is yes for mountaineering boots and most backpacking boots. It's no for most light hiking footwear, because new-generation materials and designs lack the structure necessary to accept new soles. Plus, resoling can be costly, making it less feasible for lower-cost footwear. When in doubt, have a local cobbler evaluate your footwear. If none is available, one option is Seattle-based cobbler Dave Page (davepagecobbler.com).
Midsole Materials Midsoles of hiking footwear usually feature EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) or polyurethane. Both absorb shock and provide cushioning. Generally, EVA is a bit lighter, while polyurethane is a little more durable.
Support Components Hidden inside hiking footwear are a variety of components designed to lessen trail shock and provide support for your feet.
Shanks - These are inserts made of steel, plastic or nylon. They add load-bearing stiffness to the midsole of a shoe or boot.
Plates - These thin, semiflexible inserts serve two functions: 1) They help stabilize your forefoot, and 2) They protect your feet from getting bruised by roots or uneven rocks.
TPU - This stands for thermoplastic urethane. It's commonly used in flexible plates or other shoe stabilization devices.
Outsole Materials Most outdoor footwear uses rubber or Vibram rubber outsoles. Vibram brand outsoles are well-known for their grip and durability.
Choosing Hiking Boots
Get the Right Fit
Construction and Components
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