Backpackers and hikers often penetrate deep into the backcountry, probing and exploring, recording what they find or simply taking in the regality of nature’s beauty. Hikers are frequently only stopped by their own physical exasperation or a limited amount of time afforded them by circumstances back home. In fact, except in the most extreme cases, hikers and trail runners generally only face limits imposed by hiking gear that comes up short. Nothing is more critical for hikers than their hiking boots. Really simple day hikes with little elevation change and brief excursions into the wilderness along clearly defined walking trails can theoretically be tackled with little other gear besides hiking boots and the 10 essentials. Hikers had better make sure they invest in the best hiking boots they can find for simple excursions and more challenging day hikes.
Like many other pieces of outdoor equipment, hiking boots are deceptively simple on the surface but actually rife with technical details and performance functions that many hikers don’t think about until some malfunction reveals a shortfall in the design. Ill-fitting hiking boots are obvious when the boot fit is severely unsuitable, but there is more to a perfect fit than meets the eye when it comes to hiking footwear. Savvy hikers will know how to examine hiking boots and low-cut hiking shoes (and know the difference between the two) for solid construction in the insole and outsole, wiggle room in the toe box, ankle support and midsole cushioning that provides comfort for their foot’s insole, grip on the bottom, and lacing that won’t break or give out after prolonged use (or a simple software update). Hiking boots with the right fit will allow you to hike further and carry a heavy load without worrying about your hiking footwear giving out in the middle of a glorious hike.
Read through this guide to learn all you need to know about hiking boots, their construction, and how to know when you’ve found the perfect fit that will enable you to turn all your day hikes into multi-day hikes.
Material and construction of hiking footwear
Hiking boots and hiking shoes both have a long history of innovation in both their design and the materials they’re built with. Naturally, manufacturers have been trying to improve overall comfort in their hiking footwear, but they have also made great inroads in technological designs for useful features like odor-resistance and waterproof construction. Durability is a key feature of hiking boots since backpackers tend to beat them up on the trail. Most hikers tend to deal primarily with the lacing of their hiking footwear, but there is much more in the design.
The bottom of hiking boots and hiking shoes holds a large proportion of their functionality on the hiking trail. There are three main parts in the bottom of a hiking boot. The insole, or the part of the hiking boot that touches the foot directly, provides the majority of the ankle support and cushioning. The outsole, which is the name given to the outer part of hiking footwear, is constructed to be durable and offer good traction that will prevent slipping on slick surfaces like rocks or ice. Additional tools such as snow chains can help improve this traction in snowy and icy conditions. Hiking shoes and running shoes may forego construction materials in the outsole that will add unnecessary weight, but hiking boots frequently have heavier materials and metal toecaps for added durability.
A toecap is a piece of material attached to the outer toe of a hiking boot to give the toes extra protection. The inside of the toe of a hiking boot is called a toe box. Tons (tons!) of very smart scientists have done extensive research into the toe box and the effects on toes and toenails from long-term use of hiking boots that are ill-fitting in the toe box. There should be enough room in the toe box for hikers to wiggle their toes and toenails shouldn’t be touching the tip of the boot. Otherwise, hikers risk injuries such as blisters or their toes slowly becoming crooked over time. There is a general period where hikers will need to break-in new boots, but there is a difference between some slight tightness in the insole and an ill-fitting hiking boot that can cause injury to the wearer.
The tongue of a hiking boot is the long, often moveable section just underneath the lacing. Manufacturers have sought methods of construction that will prevent sticks, stones, and other debris from entering the hiking boot through the tongue. If the hiking boot is waterproof, then the tongue will generally be covered in a material like Gore-Tex and designed to be completely snug and airtight to prevent water from entering the hiking boot. The collar is the top of the shoe near the ankle. Whether low-cut hiking shoes or hiking boots that sit high on the ankle, the collar should be constructed with a durable material that won’t show wear and tear after prolonged use.
Human anatomy and comfort in hiking footwear
The human foot has 26 bones and 33 joints, which makes it very important for hikers to look for and invest in the best hiking boots they can find. Long hikes in ill-fitting hiking boots or hiking shoes can take their toll on the foot. The best boot will completely protect the foot, especially in the most sensitive areas. Ankle support will make a huge difference for hikers who have moved on from older hiking boots to a new pair that features it. Hiking shoes can offer some ankle support, but the higher collar of hiking boots provides much more ankle support and cushioning that will help prevent a sprained or twisted ankle. Make sure the collar isn’t too tight, though. You should be able to comfortably get an index finger into the hiking boot while the lacing is tied without having to force it. The hiking boot should be snug around the ankle for maximum ankle support, but not overly so.
The midfoot has 5 irregularly shaped metatarsal bones (you don’t have to remember that word at the shoe store) that are fairly sensitive, which makes cushioning in the instep and the footbed of a hiking boot really important. For a really great boot fit, the insole should be cushioned but not so cushioned that your foot is being shoved into the tongue or the side of the hiking boot. Most retailers of hiking footwear also sell removable insoles for added comfort on long hikes. At the end of the day, most hikers will be really impressed with a really plush insole, and some manufacturers know that. Make sure that a well-cushioned insole doesn’t take precedence over other equally important design features like ankle support or enough room in the toe box.
Blisters can form from prolonged use of ill-fitting hiking boots. The wrong kind of hiking socks can add to this problem, but hiking shoes or hiking boots that are too tight or too loose are the main cause of blisters. Tight hiking boots will rub against the foot and a loose boot fit could leave just enough room for hikers’ feet to slide against the footbed or the sides of the boot, causing blisters on the part of the foot most impacted by footfalls. Don’t neglect to inspect the lacing of hiking boots before you buy them, either. Lacing should enable hikers to keep their hiking boots snugly against their feet. It’s up to you not to tie the lacing too tight, but a hiking boot with shoddy lacing may as well not have other features like a cushioned footbed or waterproof design.
Waterproof hiking footwear
Hikers who go trail running or take multi-day hikes in the backcountry have likely had their fair share of encounters with heavy rainstorms, river crossings, and snowdrifts. For these trail runners and long-distance hikers, it will be completely obvious that the best hiking boots will be waterproof. For novice level hikers who might be thinking that waterproof designs are not effective or just a bit of salesman’s exaggeration, you’ll see when you accidentally step in a river or puddle exactly how awful it can be to continue on a long hike with water in your hiking boots, or to be stuck waiting for waterlogged hiking boots to dry so you can continue. Waterproof hiking boots are a must-have for hikers who don’t want to be limited by a little water hazard on the trail.
The tradeoff with completely waterproof boots or galoshes is that they are usually not breathable, meaning hikers’ feet will be clammy and sweaty after prolonged use. These are best reserved for fishermen who may stand in the middle of a river to fly fish for a prolonged period. For hikers and trail runners, hiking boots that are designed to be both breathable and waterproof or at least water-resistant will make a huge difference. This constant battle between breathability and waterproof design has been raging throughout the modern age of hiking boot manufacturing. Essentially, the material used in waterproof hiking boots cannot be porous and there obviously must not be any holes or splits in them.
Gore-Tex, invented in 1969, is one of the biggest names is waterproof materials. Gore-Tex is designed to repel liquid water while allowing water vapor to pass through for breathability. The polytetrafluoroethylene (another word you won’t need at the shoe store) used in Gore-Tex is really elastic when heated and after stretching becomes a lightweight material that is 70% air. This means that Gore-Tex is both waterproof and adds a bit of cushioning to a hiking boot. Be forewarned, though, the waterproof design of Gore-Tex does tend to wear down over time due to wear, holes, and accumulation of dirt. A new pair of hiking boots with waterproof Gore-Tex will likely be completely waterproof, but older ones may start to let some water in. Keep in mind as well that Gore-Tex is designed to repel water from rainstorms and things like that, not prolonged exposure to standing water.
Waterproof design is essential for hikers and trail runners because otherwise comfortable shoes with plenty of cushioning can become injurious if water gets in. Blisters can be made worse and even get infected if the water entering them is from a stagnant source that’s especially dirty. The lifetime of hiking boots and hiking shoes can be severely shortened by water and hikers will regret the decision to go hiking at all if they have to spend the entire hike sloshing around in wet hiking boots. That being said, a hiking boot being waterproof is only useful if no water gets in through the top, so if you’re going to be in really wet conditions, consider extra covering or hiking boot covers. Long-time hikers have probably experienced the putrescent effluvium that develops from water-logged hiking boots over the course of a long hike.
Hiking boots and hiking shoes are the most critical tools for hikers, trail runners, and backpackers alike. Whether you expect to go out on the trail with almost nothing or you plan to be backpacking on a long hike and carry a heavy load with everything but the kitchen sink with you, your hiking boots are going to have to able to take a beating while giving you comfort. Entire hiking trips can be ruined by a single blister or soaked hiking socks that need time to dry. Backpacking boots especially need to be able to go for miles and miles without the tread wearing down. Lacing is equally important in terms of a good boot fit and also in terms of durability. A broken bootlace can spell ruin for hikers who go out on multi-day hikes without spare laces. Extra lacing definitely isn’t a go-to inclusion in most packs or first aid kits because most hikers look for lacing that won’t give out.
There are many bones and joints in the human foot and the best hiking boots are designed with cushioning to protect these sensitive anatomical features from taking damage on a long hike. Footsteps may seem simple enough but there’s a reason they are so often touted by astronauts and philosophers alike. The human body actually takes quite a beating doing normal things like taking steps, and that goes double for hardcore hikers, backpackers, and trail runners. The rough conditions and pure physical exertion required by hiking trails and mountain paths can be very harmful if your feet are not protected by the best hiking boots you can find.
In our modern age, most outdoor equipment has undergone significant development. Hiking boots and hiking shoes are no exception, and most now feature waterproof design and waterproof materials like Gore-Tex are included in hiking boots with greater frequency. Lacing has also been improved over the last decade or so and new materials to construct stronger laces that won’t snap are being integrated into hiking boot lacing design. Lacing is integral to maintaining a good boot fit. Without it, features like ankle protection and a cushioned footbed will come to naught. A loose fit caused by shoddy lacing can lead to blisters or let water in through the collar, negating any waterproof design the hiking boots might have had.
At the end of the day, hikers go out into the wild to experience the wonders of nature and to push themselves. So we don’t really want to put too much thought into things like how our hiking footwear fits most of the time. Luckily, manufacturers of hiking boots and hiking shoes have been putting tons of thought into hiking footwear design for decades. Now that you’ve read through our guide on the requirements for a good hiking boot fit, you should be able to hit the trail without needing to put a second thought into your hiking footwear. Go out and break-in your new boots with confidence that you have done your due diligence and found the best hiking boots you possibly could. You won’t regret the forethought when you reach your destination and make it all the way back to the trailhead without needing to put any more thought into your hiking boots than perhaps a quick stop to tie them up again.
Bonus tip: Watch this video to learn a cool method of lacing your hiking boots for a better fit!