Advice: Hiking Boot Shopping 101 - How to Choose a Pair of Hiking Boots

The Bottom Line Try them on, make sure to wear socks you’ll wear hiking when trying them on, take them home, wear them around the house to break them in and make sure they fit well before going on your first hike with your new boots 

So you’re in the market for new hiking boots?

For anyone walking up to the hiking boot display at an outdoor gear store, the experience can be pretty intimidating. Not only are there plenty of different boots to choose from, you are usually deluged with information and suggestions from the salesperson, who may or may not have your best interests at heart.

What to consider first when shopping for a new pair of hiking boots…

Whenever I go shopping for hiking boots, the first thing that I try to remember is that just because a boot looks good, doesn’t mean it’s the boot for me. I also try to temper my expectations of finding a deal, since usually boots on sale are on sale for a reason or are rarely the exact size that I should be wearing. Also, I make sure I know what kind of boots I’m in the market for – that is, am I looking for lightweight day-hiking boots, more sturdy, heavy-duty backpacking boots or am I looking for mountaineering boots that I can use crampons with in the wintertime?  Having answers to these questions helps you narrow your search in the store and respond to salespeople when you are asked questions about what you are looking for.

I find that it also helps to consider what kind of store you are going to go shopping at. Outdoor gear sections in department stores generally lack decent hiking boot selections, the outdoor gear sections in athletic stores tend to have mainly lower-priced, light day-hiking boots, while the boot sections in outdoor gear stores tend to have the widest selection of boots, from light day-hikers to technical mountaineering boots. With the wider selection, the outdoor gear stores also are likely to have the highest prices.  That said, in many cases I've found with boots that you do get what you pay for.

So where should I shop?

It really depends on what you are looking for.

Should you be the type of person who only goes on non-technical day-hikes and who is looking for an entry-level hiking boot that will last for several seasons, by all mean go and look at the boot selections in the athletic stores. Most of the boots are not bad boots, they just aren’t made to withstand heavy-duty hiking use. These boots also tend to be less expensive, but should your level of use increase or you start using them for more than light day-hiking, it’s likely that the boots won’t stand up to the increased use and you’ll need to replace them.

If you’re considering more technical day-hikes that involve climbing or you’re looking for a boot for overnight backpacking trips, you are going to want a heavier hiking boot that can support you, provide good traction and withstand the rigors of the harder level of use.

In that case, it’s best to travel to the outdoor gear store. There you will have a choice between all of the hiking boot types, from the light day-hikers to the heavy mountaineering boots.

What’s the difference between the boots?

Light day-hiking boots are generally made from lighter materials such as nylon and may include waterproof materials such as gore-tex. These boots generally have a comfortable fit with a soft in-sole material and a Vibram bottom that allows the boots to grip and stick to rocks and rough terrain. Another feature common to most of these boots is their light weight, most run are around three pounds or so in weight for the pair, which makes them less taxing to wear than heavier-duty hiking boots.

As you move up the scale from light day-hiking towards backpacking and then mountaineering, the boot material generally changes from lightweight fabrics to leather and plastic. These more rigid boots provide extra support and can better withstand the heavier weight loads and use that would be expected from backpacking. The most rigid of these backpacking boots, made with reinforced leather and other materials are generally strong enough to use for lighter winter climbing, as you can place crampons on the boots if they are stiff enough and do non-technical climbing.

When it comes to technical winter mountaineering/climbing boots that rigid leather is generally made even more rigid by replacing it with and making the majority of the boots out of plastic with a fabric liner to provide warmth. This gives a strong and solid base for the crampons to fit on and lets you more easily climb with the crampons, as the boot is rigid.

What should I bring with me to the store?

Bring (or wear) the socks you generally wear hiking when you go hiking boot shopping. This will give you the most accurate feeling of how the boots will feel when you actually lace them up and start hiking.

If you’re in a situation where you are  trying boots on without your hiking socks, try to extrapolate on how they would feel while wearing the thicker hiking socks. However, this really is no substitution for wearing your hiking socks while trying out boots. You just won’t get a good fit unless you do.

I always find bringing someone else along helps too, if only to deflect a bit of the salespersons attention away from you. A friend also helps to act like a sounding board, since you are more likely to be honest about how a boot feels to them, then to a salesperson who’s trying to get you into the most expensive boot in the store.

I know what kind of boot I want, how do I decide which one I want?

Here’s the challenging part of boot shopping, as what first grabs your eye when you walk in due to style or type may not be the boot for you when it comes to comfort and fit.

The best thing to do is to find a price range you are comfortable with and then look at the boots that are available within that price range. From there, get your hiking socks on and start trying on the boots.

The trick to finding the best fit and the most comfortable boot in to wear your hiking socks, lace the boot up like you were hiking and then really try the boot out in the store.

So if the salesperson brings out the boots and they are not laced properly, take the time to lace them up. Slip them on and then tie them as if you were hiking and then get up and get around the store.

All good outdoor gear stores will include a ramp and some stairs in their boot area. This gives you a chance to see how the boots work on something besides the flat sales floor. Spend some time going both up and down the ramp, just as you would be hiking up and down a sloped surface. Flex the boots as you wear them on the slope, leaning into the slope and getting to see how firm the boot is and how your foot feels in it while it flexes. Use the steps to see how heavy the boots are as you are climbing.

Don’t be afraid or ashamed to walk around the store, stretch out, stand up on your toes or even jump around a bit. You want to make sure that the boot both fits your foot and more importantly is comfortable.

As you walk around and try out the boot, make sure there is no movement in the heel area, as rubbing is what can cause a blister. It also helps to check out the space between your toes and the end of the boot, as too much space can lead to your foot sliding in the boot, which can lead to blisters.

Once you’ve narrowed down the choices to those that are comfortable and fit your needs, you can bounce off the pros and cons of each boot to your friend and also consider the prices of the various boots. Your decision should be guided by price (if that’s a concern to you), but shouldn’t be made by price. Your decision should be for the most comfortable boot that meets your needs.

I have got my boots at home, now what?

I would suggest never, ever, ever going hiking with a brand new pair of hiking boots. You are just asking for trouble. Well, not so much trouble but plenty of blisters at the very least.

You should always break your boots in before hiking. I do this by wearing them around the house for at least a few full days before I take them hiking while wearing the socks I’ll be wearing hiking. This gives the material time to stretch and conform to your foot and gives you a chance to make sure that the boots truly are comfortable in a real world situation outside of the store. Get out and mow your lawn or do anything where you’ll be wearing and working out the boots.

If at any point the boots are uncomfortable or you just feel like they aren’t the boots for you, take them back and try a different pair. You don’t want to be stuck with a pair of boots that you don’t find comfortable.

First hike

Hopefully at this point, the boots have made it past their initial break-in period at home and you’re still comfortable with them. That said, on your first hike with your new boots, make sure you bring some medical tape or moleskin, just in case you do end up getting a blister, since sometimes even with the best fit and broken-in boots, you can still get one when you are actually hiking.

Put the boots through their paces while you’re hiking and make sure they are what you want and they feel comfortable. If they are, then great – you’ve gotten yourself a pair of hiking boots. If not, take them back to the store (most outdoor gear stores like EMS, REI and Campmor have excellent return policies) and try a different pair of boots. The one thing you don’t want in the woods is sore feet – since a bad pair of boots will make any trip miserable.

What about shopping online?

I don’t recommend shopping online for hiking boots unless you’ve already gone to a store and tried out the boots. In that case, if you want to shop online for a lower price on that exact boot model, go for it. But to just blindly buy a pair of boots off the internet you are asking for trouble and more likely than not you’ll probably end up wishing you had tried out boots first.

Final Thoughts

Shopping for boots can be a long and drawn-out process depending on what kind of boot you are looking for and how easily you can find a boot with a comfortable fit.

It’s best to shop around and try everything out, making sure to wear the same socks you’ll be wearing in the woods. Then when you’ve found a pair of boots you like, take them home, wear them around the house doing chores to break them in and then take them hiking. If at any time something doesn’t feel right or they are uncomfortable, consider returning them and trying something else – as sore feet make any hiking trip horrible.

After all that, you should end up with a good pair of hiking boots that will let you get out into the outdoors and enjoy it.

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