With the onset of summer comes the urge to spend more time enjoying intense sunshine, solitary alpine lakes, and trails winding through wooded shade. The most basic equipment required to access these places is proper footwear. Choosing a pair of comfortable hiking boots will leave you free to notice the birds dodging between branches instead of focusing on the painful mess of blisters forming on your feet. Here are our tips on how to select and properly fit the best footwear for hiking.
First and most important, choose a shoe or a boot that is the right weight for your intended hiking needs. Wearing heavy boots on a short and easy day hike can feel like lugging weights on your feet. By contrast, wearing a lightweight trail running shoe while carrying a heavy pack over a talus field can make your feet raw and sore. The trick is to pick a shoe or boot that matches your usual hiking style and terrain while keeping in mind that old adage: a pound on your feet feels like five on your back.
There are now many quality hiking shoes on the market that offer excellent traction and foot protection for under two pounds a pair. Hiking shoes are usually the lightest option and do not require a break-in period. They are like hiking in gym shoes, but with better traction. This style is ideal for low mileage day hikes, mellow terrain, and lightweight backpacking. Check out our reviews of the best hiking shoes on the market.
Lightweight hiking boots are mid-weight options, and typically have a higher rise around the ankle. Often, a brand will offer versions of popular hiking shoes with more ankle support, to provide a little more protection in a still lightweight package. Lightweight hiking boots do not require a break-in period either. These are best for long day hikes, moderate terrain, lightweight backpacking, and for people with weak ankles or calves on short hikes. Check out our reviews of the best light hikers on the market.
Today, the category of backpacking boots includes everything from the iconic leather, red-laced boot featured in Wild, to much lighter but equally functional modern equivalents. Backpacking boots will be the heaviest but most supportive option for hiking. This style is ideal for long, heavy backpacking trips, rugged terrain, or people who require more support for their ankles and feet. Check out our reviews of the best backpacking boots on the market.
Light is right
Just because you are heading out for a few nights and carrying a backpack does not automatically mean you need boots. The current trend in backpacking is to go lighter with everything—tent, sleeping bag, backpack—and yes, even shoes. Depending on the type of backpacking you do, you may be happiest with either a pair of hiking shoes or lightweight hiking boots. Lighter footwear means less pounds carried and less strain on your legs, which means you can go longer and farther before tiring. Lightweight shoes and boots are also less likely to cause blisters. Heavy shoes can pull away from your foot with every step, rubbing and irritating with every motion, whereas lightweight shoes hang onto your feet without complaint.
But, when you need boots, you really need boots
If you are going on an extended trip over very rugged terrain, carrying a 50+ pound pack, or will be trekking through snow and might need to kick steps or strap on crampons, then traditional hiking boots with a lot of ankle support and a burly sole is what will keep your feet most protected and comfortable.
Tips for trying
Once you have an idea of the type of hiking footwear you want, the next step is to try them on your feet. You can do this by going to your local specialty outdoor store, which has the benefit of many models and sizes for you to try-on, or by ordering popular products from a website that offers free returns. This usually has the benefit of letting you pick exactly the shoe or boot that you want. Wait until the end of the day, preferably after you have been on your feet for a bit, to try on the shoes. Everyone’s feet swell a little by the end of the day, so you want to make sure your feet are at their largest before deciding on a nuanced fit. Wear the socks you like to wear hiking and insert any footbeds or orthotics that you usually use. Then, walk around. Whether you are in a store or at your house, make sure to get some laps in on flat ground and inclines. Hike up the stairs and back down. Stroll up and down the wheelchair ramps. Give your feet a chance to really feel what it is like to live in those boots.
Let the toes twitch and keep the heels still
And what are you feeling for as you try-on your hiking footwear? Most importantly, you want there to be space between your toes and the front of the shoe. When you hike down steep trails, your feet will slide forward slightly in your shoes, and you don’t want them slamming into the front. You also want to leave a little space for when your feet swell or for wearing a thicker pair of socks. Similarly, you want to make sure that your heel is locked in place. There should be no sliding up and down with each step and you don’t want your foot to slip too far forward when going down. A little movement forward is normal, a lot of movement forward means your heel isn’t properly held in place. The laces should be firm and snug over the arch of the foot, but nowhere in the boot should feet tight.
If you read our reviews to get a sense of the best hiking footwear available, and follow this advice for choosing and fitting the perfect pair, and you will be set to tackle trails in comfort this summer season.