When it comes to hiking, having the right gear is essential for a successful and safe trip. One of the most important items you need is a good pair of hiking boots. Hiking is a great way to stay in shape, both mentally and physically, but without the right footwear you’ll be signing up for many twisted ankles, bloody toes, and blisters.
I’m sure we’re all guilty of hitting up a weekend hike in our favorite pair of Nikes, and you can get away with that on a one-off hike, but frequent hikers need a proper pair of hiking boots to do the job. We often take our feet for granted, but they’re doing most of the work down there. Even with the best ultralight backpack and the brightest headlamp, your performance will suffer if you aren’t taking care of your feet.
I’ve bruised, battered, and beat my feet on many trails, and I’m ashamed to admit I’ve even hiked in flip-flops. Luckily, I’m here to help you skip that B.S. by sharing everything it takes to find the perfect boots for your outdoor adventures.
Important things to consider:
- Environmental: Are you planning to hike in wet and muddy conditions or dry and humid climates? If you're hiking in areas prone to heavy rains, waterproofing will be a top consideration, while drier areas will need greater breathability (which some waterproof boots aren’t great at).
- Weight: The weight of your hiking gear is always important, even with boots. Old-school adventurers will swear by clunky leather boots, while modern ultralighters wouldn’t be caught dead in something that weighs over a pound. For the average hiker, I’d suggest a pair of mid-weight boots, which usually weigh between 2 to 4 pounds per pair.
- Support: With hiking boots, most of the support comes from the midsole and ankle cuff. Stiffer midsoles will give you more support and protection from rocks and roots, while higher cuffs keep your ankle in place. Be careful not to go too firm and stiff with either, because that will lead to blisters and sore feet.
- Materials: Hiking boots are made from a wide range of materials, each with benefits and drawbacks. For example, Gore-Tex is great for waterproofing but will reduce the breathability of the boot. Nylon and other synthetics are lightweight and fast-drying, but might wear down much sooner than more robust materials like leather.
How do I find the right fit?
This is the trickiest part. First, be sure there’s enough space for your toes. Slide your foot in the boot and push your toes as far forward as possible. Then, place two of your fingers in the back of the boot, behind your heel. This is to check how much wiggle room you’ll have for your toes, and you want at least half an inch of space. If you can’t fit your fingers in the boot during this check, they’re probably too tight.
When you go downhill while wearing a heavy pack, your foot will naturally slide forward in your boots. That is why it is important to have enough space in front of your toes since you don’t want them pressing against the front of the boot.
You’ll also want to check for a snug fit around your heel. To do this, tap the heel of the boot on the ground so your foot falls all the way back. Tighten your laces and stand up. Walk around the room and pay attention to the movement of your foot. You don’t want your heels to lift with every step. They should stay securely in place and move with the boot.
Also, consider the width of the boot. If your toes are pressing against the sides of the boot, you need to find a wider fit. Many boots are made in both a regular and wide fit, so keep an eye out for that.
Finally, don’t be afraid to take your time. You’re going to be wearing these boots for long stretches and they need to be comfortable. If there’s something bothering you in the store, it’ll only be worse on the trail.
Which type of hiking boot is best for you?
Now that you have a better understanding of the process behind choosing a boot, let’s get to the best boots on the market today. I’ll break down these boot choices based on the activity they’re best for.
Day-hiking boots: Made with mid- to high-cut cuffs and flexible midsoles. Easy to break-in and comfortable enough to get you through the day, but lack the durability and support of proper backpacking boots.
Backpacking boots: Usually characterized by high cuffs that wrap all the way around your ankle. Made with stiff and rugged midsoles to get you through rougher terrain and longer journeys with a heavy backpack.
Ultralight boots: New to the hiking boot realm, ultralight hiking boots usually weigh less than two pounds, and are made from lightweight materials like Nylon, Polyester, and Gore-Tex.
Hiking shoes: Characterized by a low-cut cuff and flexible midsoles, and work best for day hikes with light loads. Usually more durable, stable, and weatherproof than regular running shoes or trail runners.
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Salomon’s X Ultra 3 Mid Gore-Tex are the top-rated favorite of the outdoor community, coming in at number one across multiple 2022 gear lists. From day hikers to serious multi-day trekkers, this boot has generated a lot of buzz for being sturdy, durable, and incredibly comfortable. This mid-height boot features Salomon’s Descent Control technology for better stability on downhill slopes and has a Contagrip outsole for traction and protection from rocks. The Gore-Tex waterproof fabric breathes well, so your feet will remain dry but not sweaty. It’s a great choice for hikers of all levels of experience.
The Altra Lone Peak is a stylish ultralight boot that remains comfortable even as you cross into your third day of hiking. At only 12 ounces, this boot will keep you agile and fast, while also putting extra spring into your step thanks to a cushy insole and 25mm thick midsole. The Lone Peak performs well in puddles and the occasional drizzle, but is not a fully waterproof boot. This enhances its breathability, but I would not recommend it for extended hikes in dreary weather or snow. Still a solid option if you want to add an ultralight boot to your collection for under $200.
The Vasque St. Elias are ideal if you’re looking for the look, feel, and performance of the backpacking boots of old. From the camel-colored leather, to the firm high-cut cuff, these boots are designed for the rough and tumble conditions found deep in the wilderness. This is a heavy-duty boot made with full grain leather and a waterproof Gore-Tex membrane. It weighs in at over three pounds, but that weight pays off in long-term performance. These boots might even outlast you and will still be kickin’ around for your kids to sell as “vintage'' in 2062.
The Scarpa Zodiac Plus GTX are designed after a mountaineering boot and comes highly recommended from seasoned hikers and mountain climbers. Usually, hiking boots of this caliber are quite bulky, but the Zodiac is sleek and fitted thanks to the elastic inner sock made from S-tech Schoeller fabric. On the outside, this boot is made with a suede upper layer, and a thick Vibram outsole gives you great traction and protection. Inside your feet are cushioned and dry.
KEEN’s Targhee III Mid is the latest iteration of a long-time budget favorite. These boots are rugged but still extremely comfortable straight out of the box. Made with the KEEN.DRY waterproof membrane and a reinforced leather upper to protect your feet in multiple climates. An all-terrain rubber outsole increases traction and grip, and inside the footbed is specially designed to provide arch support and cradle your foot. Solid, comfy, and a great choice for weekend warriors.
For thru-hikers, the Salomon Quest 4 GTX will do everything you need, and more. With a high-cut ankle cuff and firm midsole, these boots keep your feet secure on any terrain. The Quest is made with a new ADV-C 4D Chassis, which encases your foot and provides excellent support around your heel. This unique design helps to reduce muscle fatigue while carrying a heavy pack, which makes it the ideal choice for extended backcountry trips.
The Adidas Terrex Free Hikers will turn heads on the trail and in the city. These hiking shoes are made with Primeknit fabric uppers, which give the shoes a stretchy sock-like feel. The cuff wraps tightly around your ankle to keep dust and dirt out, but the shoes still breathe well. The Gore-Tex lining offers waterproofing, and the Continental Rubber outsole is grippy even in slick conditions. For a shoe so stylish, it holds its own on longer day hikes, and is extremely comfortable to boot. Plush, fashionable, and versatile — what’s not to love?