Authors: Cole & Sam Johnston. Why should you listen to us? We have spent a lifetime exploring the outdoors, particularly our home country of New Zealand and have used dozens of different boots for different activities over the years from day hikes to alpine climbing.
We often get asked the question 'how do I choose the right pair of hiking boots?' and unless you are an experienced hiker or manage to find a fantastic store with knowledgeable staff that have the time to help you find the right pair of boots it's not as easy as you think! The right pair of boots will be one of the best pieces of equipment you'll ever buy and can last you for decades if treated right. Thanks to a lifetime of exploring New Zealand's stunning outdoors and regularly guiding clients from around the globe on some of New Zealand's incredible hiking trails, we've become experts in this area. This blog does get right into the details of finding the right pair of boots, but by the end of it, you'll be able to purchase new hiking boots with confidence!
Naturally, the right boot depends on what level of hiking you're performing, so we run through the different features to look at and how they apply to various activities, so you have the knowledge to obtain the perfect pair of boots! In this blog we talk about and picture multiple different brands, between us we currently use six different brands of boots for various activities, so have no ultimate preference of brand and are not sponsored by any of them.
In essence, the higher a boot is, the better the ankle support it provides (this also depends on materials and lacing). Boots are generally classed as low, mid or high ankle cut, a low-cut boot doesn't offer much more ankle support than a sturdy running shoe, a mid-cut boot will cover your ankle bone and the start of your leg rather than just your foot, and a high-cut boot will come partway up your shin to provide the most support. If you are hiking on steep or rough terrain, carrying a heavy load, or hiking for multiple days, you're going to want excellent ankle support as you have more chance of slipping, have more weight on them or will get fatigued and need to concentrate more on placing your feet, etc. Some people simply want better ankle support, so they have more confidence in their boots and don't worry about slipping or sore joints.
Additionally, a higher boot means more protection against anything going into your boots (we all what a pain a stone in your shoe can be!). This can be particularly important if you have a waterproof boot and are hiking in wet conditions or crossing streams and waterways, a high-cut boot will give you more leeway to step in those puddles, wander through that long grass and cross that small stream!
Boot size is an obvious one, but what many people don't realize is that your feet can swell when hiking, particularly if it's multiple days, wet conditions or in a colder climate. This means you probably want your boots a little larger than you would buy your shoes but be sure not to go too large otherwise your feet will move, and ankles may lift.
Boot width is a personal preference depending on your feet, some people are wide while others are narrow, this one will come down to trying the boot on in-store and then wearing it in around the house to see if it is the right fit. Generally, 90% of people will fit a standard boot but if you have extra wide feet look for a 'wide' branded boot – most major brands such as Lowa, Salomon, Merrel, etc. offer wide versions of their favorite models.
Material is a primary consideration when purchasing boots, commonly boots will either be leather, synthetic, or a mix of the two. Leather boots are often designed for more heavy duty, offer better waterproofing, and provide stiffer ankle support; however, they'll probably be heavier, require a little more care and take longer to wear in. Synthetic boots are often used for less 'intense' boots, being light, breathable, easier to look after and quick to wear in, but often don’t provide the same level of waterproofing and may not last as long as leather boots.
Depending on the activity, waterproofing and warmth need to be considered, this generally depends on the climate and season. Warmth comes from a combination of materials and the amount of insulation inside the boot, if your feet are too hot, you'll sweat more and have a higher risk of blisters (the same is true for wet feet), but you also don't want cold feet. Sock choice also becomes a big part of the equation as you obviously can't have a different pair of boots for every activity!
If you're hiking in warm, dry conditions, a synthetic boot with less insulation is probably the best option as it will be more breathable, and you don't need to worry about being completely waterproof. For wet, cold conditions a leather boot will be ideal for keeping you warm and dry, you can always use a lighter sock if the conditions are warm.
Having adequate tread can make all the difference for your boots and give you the confidence needed in slippery or rough terrain, basically the 'chunkier' the sole of your boot looks, the better the grip. You'll notice that on some boots the tread is very thick and provides a substantial 'heel brake,' which can be great in steep downhill conditions, especially in wet, muddy conditions. Having a bit of space between the lugs on your boots is essential as this allows mud etc. to channel outward between the lugs; otherwise, your tread will just fill up and become less efficient. Some boots will also have the tread extend up the curve of the boot underneath your toes, while this part of the sole rarely gets used it can be helpful in very steep environments.
There are several different lacing techniques and tricks to help keep you comfortable when out hiking. However, there are also a few features that some boots provide to make life easy by saving time and effort when hiking.
Smooth flowing eyelets – If your laces can move freely without much friction through the lacing eyelets, your laces will settle as you start walking and distribute the load evenly between each cross of the laces. This is great to provide constant pressure across your feet and reduce high tension spots that may cause blisters. Lots of boots now have metal eyelets, some even have ball bearings built into the eyelet to reduce friction even further!
Self-locking lacing hooks – Some boots provide these at the bottom of the tongue that allows you to lock your laces across your ankle, meaning that you can separate the amount of tension placed on your foot vs. your lower leg. This can be particularly useful if you have extended uphill and downhill sections as people often lace their boots accordingly for such terrain.
Tongue stud – A stud on the upper tongue of a boot that allows you to cross the lace around it and back the way it came to keep the tongue of your boot centered and provide an even load right across your lower leg.
Overall comfort is the ultimate factor when choosing your boots, no matter how expensive, or how many excellent features they have, the boots will be no good unless you personally find them comfortable. The best thing to do is to go in-store knowing what boot type you need (i.e., a full height leather boot for multi-day hikes in wet conditions) and then try on different options and brands that provide these features until you find the best fitting and most comfortable boot. Then you want to wear them regularly within the first few days or weeks indoors to make sure you're happy, and they are still comfortable when worn for hours on end – most stores will let you return your boots as long as they haven't been worn outside.
Sole stiffness varies greatly between boots; basically, most boots have a rigid 'shank' built into the bottom of the boot to prevent the sole of the boot from bending. How stiff a boot is dependent on how thick and stiff the shank is, and how far it extends through the boot, generally the more 'heavy duty' a boot is, the more rigid the sole.
A lightweight boot made for mostly day hike will be super flexible, providing greater comfort but with less stability. If you’re doing some serious multi-day hiking or want crampon compatibility then you will need a pretty stiff sole – most people land somewhere in the middle!
The number one thing to do after getting your boots is to wear them in! Wear them around the house at first to make sure you're happy with wearing them for long periods and are still comfortable before moving into the outdoors. Start out with short walks and everyday activities (walking the dog, etc.) before moving on to day hikes and then multi-day hikes if that's what you aim to do. The 'heavier duty' the boot the longer it will take to wear in properly, leather, in particular, can take longer to wear in but will last for years and be super comfortable once you have!
All boots require long term maintenance, simply follow the instructions that come with your boots – clean them regularly, use waterproofing products and leather care, basically just look after them, and they’ll become the most reliable piece of outdoor gear you own and hopefully last you for years.