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Backpacking and Hiking Footwear: Choosing Hiking Boots or Shoes

Hiking footwear is the most important item you'll bring with you out on the trail. This guide will educate you about the parts of a hiking boot, how to fit your boots, how to waterproof them, and how to take care of your feet.

When choosing a pair of hiking boots or shoes you’ll need to think about where you’re be going to be traveling. Will you be off-trail on rugged and rocky terrain? Will there be snow on the ground along your path, or is there going to be a trail that’s well maintained that you’ll be traveling on? These questions are important because they’ll help you to decide which type of footwear you’ll need out on the trail.

If you’re planning to do some mountaineering in the deep snow of winter then a pair of high-cut hiking boots made of full-grain or top-grain leather, and synthetic materials with a Gore-Tex waterproof membrane will be your best option due to the stability, and longevity of the boots, and ability to accommodate crampons for icy conditions. In contract, If you find yourself in desert conditions, or on a well-maintained trail, a pair of lightweight trail runners without Gore-Tex will allow for rapid drying and maximum breathe-ability, and will be your shoe of choice.

Let’s get into the details of the different types of hiking footwear, the anatomy of a hiking boots, and what the different uses of different styles of hiking boots are used for further. We’ll also suggest some shoes which are among the highest quality hiking boots on the market today. Also, check out our article on the best ultralight and lightweight hiking shoes for women on the market by clicking the link below.

Types of Hiking Footwear: Low Cut, Mid Cut and High Cut Hiking Shoes and Boots

The cut of a shoe describes how high the ankle section of the shoe goes up your leg. A low-cut shoe’s a shoe that’s ankle is below the ball shaped bone on the side of your ankle (the end of your fibula). Mid-cut and high-cut shoes extend the ankle above the fibula and provide more ankle support for when you’re carrying a heavier backpack and generally have larger lugs which provide improved traction with heavier loads.

Low Cut Hiking Shoes – Trail Runners

Typically a low-cut hiking shoe is known as a the trail runner. Trail runners are great for day hiking, but they’re also used by ultralight gear enthusiasts on long distance adventures as well.

These shoes do well on maintained trails and with lighter backpack weights. What these shoes lack is ankle support, but they make up for it with their lightness. These are our shoe of choice out on the trail unless we’re winter backpacking.


Mid Cut Hiking Boots or Shoes – Day Hiking or Heavy Backpacking

A mid cut designed boot provides more ankle support and is perfect for carrying heavier weights across more rugged terrain.

These boots aren’t necessarily needed by someone traveling on a well-maintained trail, but if you’ve had an ankle injury in the past you may want to try some of these on and see how they feel.


High Cut Hiking Boots and Shoes – Heavyweight Backpacking/Mountaineering

A high cut designed boot has the most durable materials which makes this boot style built for trekking through snow with a heavyweight backpack. The ability to accept crampons, as well as being perfect to wear with snow gaiters, makes high cut boots the ideal for mountaineering or deep snow hiking.

The disadvantage of these boots is their weight, but they make up for it with durability and ultimate ankle support, but there is a higher chance for Achilles tendinitis if the boots are not laced properly. We’ll get into how to prevent that later.


The Anatomy of a Hiking Boot

The anatomy of a hiking boot is more complex than people think. With an understanding of all the different parts of a boot you can improve your knowledge and choose the best footwear for your needs.

Last – The Last is a plastic or wood foot mold that a boot’s built around in order to give it its shape, form and fit. A last makes a big difference in how a boot’s going to feel. Each company uses their own type of Last which means each company will have a different boot design.

Upper – The Upper is the entire exterior section of the boot which can be made of leather, plastic or fabric. The upper is the outside of the boot.

Outsole – The Outsole is the rubber base layer on the bottom of the boot that comes directly in contact with the trail. The outsole provides grip to the trail, strength to the bottom of the boot and traction in the form of Lugs. The outsole is typically made of Vibram rubber which is designed to have excellent traction on a wide range of surfaces.

Lugs – The Lugs are small or large sized sections of an outsole that poke out and stick into the ground to improve traction on the trail. The larger the lugs the better they are for heavyweight backpacking, and the smaller the lug the better they are for traction while lightweight backpacking.

Midsole – The Midsole is a supporting layer that adds padding and rigidity to a boot or shoe and is made from EVA (Ethylene-vinyl acetate), Polyurethane, or Nylon.

An EVA midsole gives good cushion and is lighter than polyurethane. This makes EVA ideal for ultralight trail runners. However, over time an EVA midsole will become packed down, and it will need to be replaced after a year or two.

A polyurethane or nylon midsole can last a lot longer and sometimes even outlast the rest of the shoe, but these materials weigh a lot more. If it isn’t labeled on the box, there’s an easy way to tell the difference between a Polyurethane or EVA midsole.

When you press your thumb against EVA it tends to feel more like foam, and contains tiny wrinkles on its surface. Polyurethane however is more like a thick rubber and isn’t easily compressed at all.

Shank – The Shank is an insert placed in the midsole typically made of steel, or nylon, that protects the foot from objects that may pierce the boot, and also provides extra rigidity and stability.

For rough and rugged trails, or for heavy backpacking, you’re going to want a shank insert in your boot. For well-maintained trails, while doing light to medium backpacking, you probably don’t need a shank in your boot or shoe.

Plate – Placed between the shank, and the outsole, the plate is another layer of protection for the foot from potential piercing objects, and also helps keep the foot protected from bruising when walking on the most rocky uneven terrain.

Achilles Notch – The Achilles’ Notch is a section at the back of the shoe at the top by the ankle which is a cut out that fits around your Achilles tendon to provide cushion. With a high cut, or mid cut shoe you should pay careful attention that the Achilles’ Notch is sized to your Achilles tendon well, and is comfortable.

Rocker – The Rocker is a section of the Outsole on the outer edge that rounds out the boot and makes for a more smooth walking motion. Without a rocker, a shoe would be flat putting a lot of tension in your ankles. With a high cut boots that are not as flexible it is important to check the rocker and make sure that it is well rounded.

Rubber Band – The Rubber Band is at the front of shoe by the toes and is sometimes called a Toe Cap. The rubber band keeps water out of the front of the shoe and improves the durability making it last longer.

When choosing an insole it is critical that you choose one that is shaped to your foot’s curves. It is worth it to find a Dr. Scholls Kiosk and figure out what your foot’s shape is, so that you can find the best insole that fits your foot, and avoid Plantar Fasciitis.

Heel Counter – The Heel Counter is a hidden part of the heel that provides stiffness and supports the heel. On shoes that lack a heel counter you can push down on the back of the shoe where the Achilles’ Notch would be and it will completely compress the back of the shoe.

Liner – The Liner is the fabric and foam on the inside of the boot that provides comfort and ventilation and comes directly in contact with the foot. Over time the liner will degrade and can eventually expose the heel counter which can cut into your heel and cause bleeding. Taking care of the liner of your boot or shoe is important and it’s really easy. All you have to do tie and untie your shoes every time you use them instead of slipping them on, or forcing your foot into them.

Membranes – The Membrane is another hidden part of a hiking boot, or shoe built into it which keeps out water, and allows for ventilation. Two common membranes are eVent and Gore Tex, and many people believe that these are on the exterior of the boot, but they are inside of the Upper and the Liner.

They are similar to a one way permeable membrane that allows your feet to vent moisture out in one way. Hiking boots or shoes that have a membrane take a lot longer to dry out than ones without a membrane once they get soaked.

Tongue – The Tongue is a piece of padding designed to help the boot fit to different feet. A tall foot will force the tongue to rest higher, a smaller foot will allow the tongue rest lower.

Tongue Gusset – The Tongue Gusset is a section of waterproof fabric that connects the tongue to the upper and keeps out water and debris. When purchasing a high cut boot the boot will only be water proof up to the top of the tongue gusset, then water will seep into the boot around the tongue.

Types of Hiking Boot Materials

Leather Hiking Shoes and Boots

Leather is one of the best materials you can have in a mid-cut or high-cut hiking boot. The durability, and rigidity of leather allows it to last a very long time if properly taken care of.

If you had time to read through the anatomy of a hiking boot section above, you’ll have previously read that polyurethane outsoles are more durable than EVA outsoles.

So, by combining a leather upper and a polyurethane outsole, you can have a very durable boot that can handle off-trail rugged terrain or mountaineering. The next question though is what type of leather do you choose?

There are several different types of Leather that you’ll need to know about to get some high quality leather hiking boots: Full-Grain, Top-Grain, Genuine Leather, and Bonded Leather.

Full-Grain Leather is the top of the hide and includes the surface of the skin. It’s the toughest part of the hide and the most durable leather that’ll give you your best boot, but it’s also the most expensive, and not the most beautiful. If you’re planning on doing some heavy backpacking and want some solid leather boots that will last a very long time, this is what you’re looking for in an upper. If you’re planning on hiking in deep snow you’ll also want to find a pair with a synthetic liner for added insulation.

Top-Grain Leather, also sometimes referred to as Nubuck Leather, is made of the layer just below the Full Grain. This is also a great choice for heavy backpacking, but it isn’t as strong as Full-Grain leather. Top-grain leather is made by sanding, or buffing off the full-grain leather from the top of the hide to remove all of the imperfections and create a uniform appearance. Top-Grain Leather is also often used in high quality furniture, and wallets.

Genuine Leather, also known as Split-Grain Leather, or Suede, is a decent leather. Genuine is not the best leather, but it’s still leather. If you’re looking for a pair of hiking shoes for light, or ultralight backpacking this can be a good choice, but it isn’t the most durable leather you can get and can wear out in a similar fashion to synthetics.

Bonded Leather is a composite material using polyurethane, or latex, as a binder and tiny fragments of the sanded leather that has been ground off of the full-grain part of the hide in the process of making top-grain leather. Avoid this “leather” like the plague. This is the least durable “leather,” and also goes by reconstituted leather, or blended leather.

Synthetic Hiking Boots and Shoes

Synthetics are often used in conjunction with leather, but are also used alone. Materials such as polyester, or nylon are more lightweight, and dry out faster than any other material. They are a favorite of ultralight backpackers, but they wear out a lot faster than a full-grain leather hiking boot.

If you’re planning on day hiking, or section hiking with a light backpack then synthetics are a good choice. We personally don’t suggest thru-hiking with synthetic shoes, and we would choose a full-grain leather trail runner or hiking boot, but a lot of people have made synthetics work and had no issues at all.

Waterproofing Membranes Inside Hiking Boots

With more than nine billion holes per square inch, a waterproof membrane acts as a one way passage for sweat vapors to escape, while keeping water out. There are a bunch of different examples of waterproof membranes, but a few popular ones are eVent, Gore-Tex, and Sympatex.

These membranes are built into the shoe between the upper and the liner, and are really nice for hot desert hiking, or rainy weather conditions, but there is a caveat in that they do take longer to dry out if they get soaked.

This may seem contrary to common sense, but a lot of hikers prefer to not use waterproof membranes if they’re planning on traveling through a lot of rainy weather. This is because even if you have a “waterproof” membrane, your feet are still going to get wet.

Since shoes with waterproof membranes take longer to dry out, it’s better to have a synthetic shoe that can dry out faster. Waterproof membranes are really more water resistant than they are waterproof, but they are still really great for hot desert, or dry summer hiking as they evaporate sweat out of the boot very well.

Shoe Fitting Guide: How to Size Your Hiking Boots

Now that you understand the different parts of a hiking boot, and what they can be made of, we can talk about the easiest way to test your shoes to determine if they’ll work for you on the trail. Nothing beats going to an actual sporting goods store and trying out a bunch of different shoes, so you need to know the most simple tests to find a good pair of shoes or boots.

If you managed to make it this far, you’ll know by now that if you’re hiking with a heavy backpack in winter, mountaineering, or going off-trail you’ll want a pair of mid cut or high cut hiking boots preferably made of full-grain, or top-grain leather. If you’re traveling on a well-maintained trail during the spring, summer, or fall with a light to medium weight pack. you should choose top grain leather, genuine leather, or synthetic trail runners.

We suggest that you don’t buy your first pair of boots or shoes off the internet. You need to go size your feet, and try on at least a dozen shoes. Do not settle on footwear either. If you’re saying, “Yeah, these are alright,” then you still haven’t found the right shoe. You should be saying, “I really like these, and they’re really comfortable.”

The Wiggle Test

The first step everyone knows, the wiggle test! You put on a shoe and you wiggle your toes to see how far they are from the tip of the shoe. As you’re wiggling your toes pay special attention and check to see if they are rubbing on the sides of the shoe. If they are, you need a wider shoe which has a larger toe box. If they aren’t rubbing on the sides, go onto the next step.

The Thumb Test

The second step to finding the perfect hiking boots is to size your foot, and make absolutely sure you have enough space between the tip of your toes and the front of the shoe. You want to plan for a shoe that is anywhere from a half size, or a full size larger than your foot.

This is to ensure that when you’re hiking down a steep hill the tips of toes are not hitting the front of the boot. If they are, you can end up losing your toe nails, which is a lot of fun, but don’t worry they’ll grow back!

Aside from just using the size of your foot as measurement you can use the width of your thumb to gauge how much space you will need. Overlay your thumb on the top of the shoe and put your thumb between the tips of your toes, and the tip of the shoe. If you have about a thumb’s width gap, that tends to be a decent way to checking if your shoes are a good length, but you’ll want to use the third step too.

The Toe Tap Test

The third step once you have found a boot that you think is comfortable, and you think has a wide enough toe box after lacing up like you’d wear it, is to point your toe down towards the ground and tap the ground with the tip of the boot.

You may want to get a bit aggressive at this point to make sure that your toes aren’t hitting the front of the boot, and not hitting the sides. If they are hitting the sides, you still need to find a shoe with a wider toe box. Don’t settle! You really want the perfect shoes for hiking or you’re going to suffer in the long run.

How to Break In Hiking Boots and Prepare Them for the Trail

The larger your hiking boots, the more you’re going to want to break them in. A pair of full-grain leather high cut hiking boots are going to take a lot more time to break in than a pair of genuine leather, or synthetic trail runners, which are often times ready to go right out of the box.

The first step to breaking in hiking boots is wearing them around the house. Since you’ve just bought them, they’re nice and clean. Lace up your boots and walk around your house doing basic chores for an hour every day for a few days.

When you’re lacing up your boots place your foot into your hiking boot and lace up until the last two hooks. Then tilt your knee forward a bit toward the front of the boot, about ten degrees, to leave a gap between your Achilles’ Tendon and the Achilles’ Notch. You should be able to fit your index finger into the gap that is created.

Then lace up the last two hooks on your boot with your leg tilted forward. This gives you a bit of wiggle room and allows you to go through your normal movements without grinding your ankle into the heel counter, liner, or upper, which causes blisters as you walk over time.

The next step is to take them outside for some light yard work, or for a couple mile walk, every day for a few days. If you want to protect your feet from the potential wear and tear during this step, we suggest you put large patch bandages on your heels, since this is the spot you’re most likely to experience blisters, and wear two pairs of socks in order to mitigate the friction in other locations.

Once you’re through the previous stages, and you feel comfortable in your boots, we suggest that you start walking a couple miles per day wearing a backpack that weighs about twenty percent of your body weight on flat surfaces for a few days. This is going to be good practice for you and prepare you for what you’ll experience out on the trail.

If you’re doing well after the previous steps, and you find your boots comfortable, it’s time to set out on the open trail. Locate a trail that’s well-maintained and walk for at least five miles. If you’re feeling extra adventurous you can get your boots a bit wet. Rain and stream crossings help your boots conform to your feet.

This will be the ultimate test for your boots. We still suggest you wear large patch bandages on your heels, and two pairs of socks, in order to defend your feet against the uneven terrain and any potential blisters.

If all of this goes well, then your boots are perfect for you at this point, now it’s time to start thinking about waterproofing them with the proper treatments which will loosen them up and make them more comfortable, allowing them to stretch, and softening them up to make them more comfortable.

How to Waterproof Your Hiking Boots or Shoes

Most hiking boots already come with a treatment on the surface of their upper which protects them from absorbing moisture, but over time this treatment will degrade and you’re going to want to apply your own waterproofing measures to keep your boot in good shape.

Leather in particular is influenced by water and temperature a great deal. When it becomes wet it will expand, and when it dries it will contract. With proper waterproofing your leather boots can last a lot longer, but they’re still susceptible to being damaged if they’re dried from an external heat source.

We suggest that you never keep your boots in the trunk of your car, heat them by a campfire, a stove, or any other source of extreme heat, and never put your boots in the clothes dryer. While some of these sound like a great idea to dry out your boots, or to store them, it degrades the boot a great deal.

External heat sources will cause the leather to dry out and contract causing it to shed a lot of its waterproofing and make it more susceptible to cracking at its bend points. If you’re going to own leather hiking boots you need to take care of them, but how do you do that?

How Often You Need to Waterproof Hiking Boots or Shoes

How often you need to treat your boot or shoe depends on how active you are. If you’re outside in wet conditions, and every day you’re really pounding your boots on the trail, you’re going to want to take care of them a lot more.

There’s no definite answer to how often you should be treating your boots, but if we were to give you an estimate, we would say if you’re thru-hiking or section hiking a long trail that’s particularly wet, you should waterproof them at least every other week. If you’re casually day hiking once a week, then waterproofing once every month should be adequate if the conditions are mostly dry.

Your boots really are your life line out on the trail and the longer they last, the longer you’ll have with a pair of nicely broken in boots. Nothing is worse than the blisters of having to break in a new pair of boots, so you need to take care of them, but how do you take care of hiking boots?

How to Care for Leather and Synthetic Hiking Boots and How to Waterproof Them

Caring for your hiking boots is pretty simple, every time that you come back from a hike, you’re going to want to let your boots naturally dry at room temperature, then clear away any debris on the boot’s upper with a soft hairbrush, or a toothbrush.

When you’re ready to waterproof your boots then you’re going to want a wax such as dubbin wax, or beeswax if you’re treating full-grain leather boots, or a silicone water repellent spray for synthetic shoes. Each product’s different, so you should follow the instructions that are on the container.

For leather boots we suggest using Obenauf’s Heavy Duty Beeswax. This is top of the line stuff and it’s what we use on our full-grain leather boots. It works wonderfully and brings out the color in the boot making them look really nice. If you would like to shop around you can follow this link to see other Waterproofing Waxes for Leather Boots.

For synthetic shoes we suggest using any of the following Silicone Based Sprays. We’ve personally used the Atsko brand for our trail runners and it’s worked just fine, but any of them will do. Make sure that you apply the spray in a well-ventilated area since the smell is pretty pungent.

Conclusion

There’s a lot to know when it comes to hiking boots, but we feel this guide covers most of the information. We’ve covered the different cuts of hiking boots and their purposes, the materials they’re are made of, the anatomy of a hiking boot, how to size your boots and how to care for and waterproof them.

We wrote another section to this article which covers the risks of improper sizing and how to treat foot related hiking injuries.

You can that article at this link: A Guide to Healthy Hiking Feet: Hiking Foot Injuries and Foot Care.

We suggest you check out that guide because it covers the injuries that your feet can sustain while you’re out on the trail.

If you have any questions, comments, concerns, or suggestions please do leave a comment down below. We’d love to hear back from you so that we can improve our content.

Thank you so much for being here, may the trails treat you well and as always have a wonderful day!

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2 comments on “Backpacking and Hiking Footwear: Choosing Hiking Boots or Shoes

  1. Great info! Thanks. I know I need something way better than my old faithful, do I dare say, Nike’s, soon 😳😄🤔

    • Thanks for the kind words! I’m editing and improving all of the articles on the website, so I’ll be looking over this one again soon to make adjustments and add more information. As for shoes, my trail runners are so worn down that I need to look at getting a new pair as well! Anyways though, Happy Trails!

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