Hiking Boots

Saturday, 11 August 2007 | Tags:

Fun for all ages, hiking is most enjoyable when you've got great scenery, and the proper footwear. We find out what it takes to get booted up right for a good trip.

The Basics

Forget about fashion and think about comfort and functionality. Hiking boots can be divided into four basic categories:

    • Lightweight hikers, aka Outdoor Cross Trainers, closely resemble running shoes, but are made with darker colours and heavier soles. They have enough support for a half-day hike while carrying a light daypack. They’re also great for travelling, trail running, and other activities, but they’re not usually waterproof.

    • Backpacking hikers are best for day-long hikes while carrying a backpack weighing up to about 30 pounds over variable terrain. Usually made from a combination of leather and fabric (although some are all leather), look for waterproof if you plan to be around lakes and rivers, or hiking during wetter months.

    • Heavyweight hikers are great for hikes that take you off the beaten track for several days at a time. Generally made of all leather, they have stiffer soles and uppers, and most are waterproof.

    • Mountaineering boots are all leather, very stiff and technically designed since they’re meant for tough conditions and terrain over several days. They can support a pack weighing up to 100 pounds, are waterproof, and can usually be affixed with crampons (metal strap on devices for walking on snow).

Once you’ve determined the level of hiking you plan to do, become familiar with the different parts of the boot so you can decide what features are most important for your particular hiking experience. These include:

    • The upper, upper part of the boot, should have as few seams as possible. A one-piece upper is the most water-resistant.

    • The sole has three parts: a padded footbed layer, an insole below the footbed, and an outsole on the bottom. For light hiking, the insole can be soft. For heavier duty hikes, it can be stiffened with a shank of plastic or steel for added support. The outsole is made of rubber (Vibram is a well known brand name).

    • The lug is the pattern (or tread) on the bottom of the boot (the sole), designed to grip terrain. Deep lugs are best for steep and rugged terrain while shallow lugs are designed for lighter and more flexible footwear.

    • The gusset is the thin piece of flexible leather sewn to both the tongue and the upper to keep out water, stones and dirt. A bellows tongue has wide gussets, allowing it to open wide so it is easy to put on.

    • The back-stay is a strip of leather sewn over the back seam. If it gets torn or chafed, it is almost impossible to replace. Look for one that’s as narrow as possible.

    • The welt is the stitch that connects the upper sole. Look for one that’s double stitched for the greatest strength and stiffness.

    • The rand is the wide rubber strip protecting the stitching that holds the upper to the sole.

In each category of boots there are distinct features to look for:

    • In lightweight hikers, look for an ankle-high or low-top shoe with flexible, well-cushioned soles and lateral stability. Fabric or leather construction keep the boot light and cool, but keep in mind that what you gain in comfort and flexibility you will lose in water resistance and support.

    • In backpackers, look for rigid heel cups, a solid toe box and quarter-length steel shanks for added support. Also look for stiffer mid-soles and lug soles. Although this boot is stiffer than the lightweight hiker, it should still be relatively flexible.

    • In heavyweight hikers, look for soles with deep, high-traction treads and stiff, above-the-ankle support. The best of these boots are all-leather and have very few seams, which adds to the boot’s durability and waterproofing capabilities.

    • Mountaineering hikers’ soles are curved, or rockered for trail comfort, yet stiff enough with a three-quarter to full-length shaft for rigidity when climbing and wearing crampons. Remember that these boots are very heavy-duty and need an extended break-in period. Be sure you’re buying full grain leather with gusseted tongues or plastic shells.

Shopping Tips

  • Getting the right fit is critical to buying the right boots. Everyone’s feet are different and so you should seek the help of a professional. You’ll probably be better off shopping at a specialty store with staff who really know their merchandise.

  • Fit: A salesperson should get a good look at your feet to determine whether they’re narrow, wide or have an unusually high arch, and will consider several measurements, including heel to toe, heel to ball-of-foot, overall shape and width when finding the right boot for you.

  • Try the boot on at first with no socks to help you get a feel for any areas that could rub or may be too tight.

  • Be sure to shop with the socks you’ll wear when you go hiking. Experts recommend wool or synthetic socks as opposed to 100% cotton, since wool or synthetic socks do a better job of wicking away moisture. If your feet get wet with perspiration, blisters are sure to follow!

  • Feet should be measured from a weighted (standing) position and don’t be surprised if your feet are two different sizes. Your new boots should be fitted to the larger foot.

  • There should be about a thumb’s width of space between your toes and the end of the boot. You’ll need this extra space when walking downhill. Try kicking your foot against a wall or the floor. If your toes hit the end of the boot move to a larger size.

  • The boots should be tight, but not too snug around the ankle.

  • Walk around in the boots for at least ten minutes in the store. Most specialty stores have rock inclines to help you get a feel for what the boots will be like in the great outdoors.

  • Remember that hiking boots vary in size from one manufacturer to another. A size seven in one maker is not necessarily a size seven in another.

  • If you have narrow feet, be prepared for the shopping process to take a little longer. Most boots are made for medium to wide feet.

  • If possible, go shopping late in the day or after you’ve walked a considerable distance. This is when your feet are most swollen, just like they will be after a hike.

  • And for the best deal, shop at the end of the summer when most hiking equipment is on sale. Don’t forget to always ask for a better price!

Other Considerations

  • Full grain leather is the outermost part of a cow’s hide. It is the stiffest and most waterproof type of leather. It is often turned inside out (rough out), so the smooth outer layer won’t get scratched.

  • Once you get your boots home, wear them around the house for several hours just to be sure you’ve got the right fit before heading out onto the trails. Plus, the more time you spend breaking in your boots the better off you’ll be when you hit the trails.


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