Hiking can be very physically demanding and nowhere more so than on your feet. Therefore, it’s crucial that you have comfortably fitting and protective, durable footwear and there are a number of things you should consider when deciding to purchase the correct footwear to suit you.
What Kind of Trips do you Intend to Make?
Hiking boots or shoes can vary tremendously in price – from the relatively cheap to the extremely expensive. However, if you’re intending to do a lot of walking, it pays to invest a little extra in sturdy, comfortable footwear.
When choosing, you should focus on the kinds of activities you intend doing. Hiking footwear can be broadly split into 3 categories. If you’re only going to buy one pair, then you should choose the category which best fits your activity plans.
If you’re engaging in, what some would call, ‘lightweight’ or just simple day/overnight hiking, boots (or trail shoes) which are designed for this purpose tend to be less supportive and durable than other boots but are perfectly adequate and suitable for these kinds of activities. They focus on comfort, cushioning and breathability and are intended for short to medium walks over fairly easy ground.
Mid-weight hiking boots are preferable if you’re carrying fairly light backpacking loads. They are more supportive ad durable than lightweight boots but are still intended for shorter walks over easy or moderate terrain.
Extended backpacking or mountaineering boots are at the top end of the market and should be used if you’re carrying heavy loads over, what is often, difficult terrain. They tend to provide a greater level of ankle and foot protection and offer the very best in support, durability and protection.
Boots – Materials
What the boot is made from will have an effect on its breathability, durability and water resistance and the type you choose will probably be down to personal preference.
Nylon mesh and split leather boots are lightweight and breathable which makes them ideal for warm to moderate weather use. They tend to be easier on the feet and take less time to break in and they are usually the lightest form of boot and tend to cost less. However, they can be less water resistant than other types, although some models feature waterproof liners which can be just as good.
Leather boots are the most water resistant, and offer more support than nylon mesh/split leather and they are the most durable. They are designed for extended backpacking trips and for carrying heavy loads over rough terrain. These boots are not as lightweight as leather/nylon mesh combinations but they tend to last far longer. You should buy them well in advance of your trip, however, as they tend to take longer to break in.
Waterproof barriers such as Gore-Tex™ are built into many hiking boots to increase their water resistance and can be incorporated into both nylon mesh/split leather boots and full-grain leather ones to give them added protection. Their success, however, lies in the quality of the boot in the first place and how well you care for your them.
Choosing the Right Size
It’s important to remember that footwear sizes tend to vary between manufacturers so you should never think that because your shoe size is, say, a 9, that all size 9 boots will fit.
It is obviously preferable when buying footwear to be able to go to the shop and try out different sizes and makes of boots to get a pair that you feel most comfortable wearing. If you’re going to do that, make sure you’re also wearing the type of socks that you intend wearing on the trip. Check the initial fit by seating your heels firmly against the heel cups of the boots, lace them up properly and then stand up. They should feel snug around the ball and instep of your foot but loose enough so that if you flex your foot forward, it isn’t uncomfortable. You should be able to slip a finger into the heel of the boot quite comfortably and there should be a thumbnail length’s distance between the top of your toes to the top of the boot.
Your feet aren’t going to be exactly the same size so make sure you try both boots on then, if it’s possible, try walking on both hard and soft surfaces to get an idea of different surface traction. Vary the emphasis of pressure. Take turns in putting pressure on the heel area, then the balls of your feet, then the instep. Don’t make a rash purchasing decision based on the idea that they’ll feel more comfortable once you’ve broken them in. Whilst it is a fact that footwear adapts somewhat to your feet and will feel more comfortable with frequent usage, the boots you try on in the store should still feel comfortable the first time you step into them.
If you’re buying hiking footwear sight unseen, it’s always more of a gamble than, say, buying a pair of dress shoes that you’re only going to wear casually. However, if that’s what you’ve decided to do, ensure you select the right size. Your foot size can vary a little over time so you should always measure your feet. Once again, do this towards the end of the day and remember to put on the kinds of socks you’ll be looking to wear with the boot.
To accurately gauge your foot size, it’s handy to get a piece of paper then trace around your foot and then measure the length of the drawn outline from the base of your heel to the tip of your big toe. Measure both feet then use the longest measurement for reference. Most online or catalogue shoe/boot shops will have converters to change inches or centimetres into shoe sizes but remember that all manufacturers sizes can tend to vary and don’t forget if you’re buying from overseas to convert the foreign size into the UK equivalent or vice versa.
Although hiking boots can be costly, a decent pair cared for properly will last you for many a year.