How to Find the Perfect Hiking Boot
Buying any boot or shoe is always an adventure in-and-of-itself. With so many options to choose from, so many features and specifications, it’s hard to know what you need and what you don’t. Then there’s finding the right fit, and that’s another struggle. Those challenges are magnified when picking out the perfect hiking boot or shoe. Many of us find a pair of boots or shoes we like and just stick with it. When the pair wears out we buy a second, but for one reason or another that doesn’t always go as planned.
Fortunately, that’s why we’re here to help. Our knowledgeable associates at Denali are expertly trained, ready to get you on the trail with the best possible gear. We also put our heads together, creating this guide to help you make an informed decision. If you’re asking “how do I buy a boot” or “what should I know about shoes,” we’ve got you covered. We’ve asked those same questions, and we’ve found the answers. We promise.
The Anatomy of a Boot
Let’s start with the basics. Manufacturers design most footwear with four basic elements. Starting from top to bottom, those are the upper, the insole, the midsole, and the outsole. Uppers are exactly what they sound like: the upper part of a shoe typically made from leather, suede, or synthetic material. The upper wraps securely around your foot and acts like a shell. The insole cushions your foot. Midsoles absorb shock, provide stability, and help to protect against the rigors of the trail. Outsoles, as you’d expect, provide traction and prevent slipping.
It’s easy to take note of the uppers and outsoles when buying a boot. They’re the most visible features, but of all four main elements the midsole is the most important. The midsole supplies all of the necessary support in the boot, and its geometry typically determines the boot’s fit and performance. This is true of running shoes as well. A tighter and deeper heel cup means less slipping and chafing, for example. A stronger and less-rubbery shank provides more durable arch support. In addition, a flatter heel-to-toe drop also allows a natural gait, and it can lead to greater balance.
As well as the midsole, it’s worth considering the insole when you go to buy a boot. Although manufacturers’ typical insoles cushion your foot and lend some measure of comfort, longer lasting comfort and enhanced support come from specialty insoles. Superfeet for example help to improve your gait, provide support, and cushion your foot. Developed with a distinct understanding of podiatric medicine and biomechanics, Superfeet improve your hiking, running, and walking efficiency. Purchasing Superfeet online can be tricky; each pair needs to be trimmed to match your foot and your boot. If you visit our stores, however, our associates will fit you with a pair of Superfeet to match your needs.
Lastly when considering basic design, you’ll need to choose between a traditional boot and a lightweight hiking shoe. Hiking shoes have become increasingly popular with outdoor enthusiasts. Sometimes known as low boots, hiking shoes typically have the same aggressive outsoles, protective rubbers, and geometries of their larger siblings. Unlike boots, they weigh significantly less, and they provide a fuller range of motion around the ankle. You can move faster in these, and the lower weight reduces foot fatigue. Boots on the other hand will offer greater stability, especially with a heavier pack.
That’s a lot to take in, but if you have to make a quick decision it’s what you’ll want to consider. With all of that in mind, however, there’s still more to buying a boot than just knowing how it’s designed. That brings us to the most important aspect of choosing a boot or hiking shoe: the fit.
Fitting footwear can get complicated. For one thing, how often do you measure your feet? Think about it. The answer’s probably not often enough. People often go decades without measuring their feet, but we recommend being sized every six months. As the body ages, its feet naturally change. Arches begin to collapse, and the foot widens. Our joints, our muscles, and the fat pads on the bottom of our feet will all shift. The foot also expands as we set more weight on it. Wearing a heavier pack will expand the size of your foot. All of this deserves particular attention because improperly fitted shoes will lead to long-term and irreversible health issues such as plantar fasciitis, hammertoe, and bunions.
Finding the perfect fit lets you avoid these adverse health effects. It also lets you hike longer, faster, and farther, suffering from less fatigue and less discomfort. If you wear orthotics or thicker socks when you hike, remember to wear these as you try on the boot. Orthotics and socks affect the size and shape of your foot, increasing total volume. Proper lacing techniques will also change the feel of the boot, ensuring that your heel fits snugly in the heel cup.
Remember too that different boots are developed with different geometries around different lasts or with different purposes in mind. This means that boots and shoes of the same size will fit differently from brand to brand as well as from style to style. A Merrell Moab 2 will fit differently than a Merrell Chameleon 7, and the Chameleon 7 will fit differently than the KEEN Targhee II. That’s what makes visiting our stores so important. Our associates will match your foot with the perfect shoe. Our stores and website also have a generous return policy to make sure that you’re happy with the right fitting shoe.
When you’re gearing up for the outdoors, you need to buy expertly-fitted footwear. Your podiatrist will thank you and so will your feet. The most important advice is to remember that good footwear should feel snug. The shoe shouldn’t feel loose or wobbly, but it shouldn’t feel uncomfortably tight. There’s a sweet spot right in the middle, and that’s what you want to hit. Remember also that boots and shoes take time to break-in, and they’ll begin to eventually feel more comfortable.
Here’s where picking a boot gets really interesting. You’ve found your fit. You know what you need. Now it’s time to pick your way through all the bells and whistles. Designers engineer hiking boots for the rough and variable conditions you’ll find in backcountry pursuits: scrambling over rocky surfaces, finding your footing on uneven terrain, and stomping through mud, snow, or rain. It’s hard to know what to expect on the trail, but it’s important to imagine what can happen.
If you plan to hike through the desert or through Shenandoah National Park on a sunny day, you’ll be fine without waterproofing. Your boots will be significantly more breathable. Breathability reduces foot fatigue. If your feet and boots do become wet, they’ll also dry out much more rapidly. In New England or the rainy Pacific Northwest, however, some degree of water resistance or waterproofing is a good idea. A Gore-Tex® membrane, often rendered as GTX on a tag, denotes a waterproof and breathable boot. With over 9,000,000,000 pores per square inch, a Gore-Tex® membrane allows vapor and heat to escape without letting larger water molecules in. That’s how the Vasque Breeze III GTX Hiking Boot provides superior waterproofing and breathability. Many branded breathable waterproofing technologies work similarly, like M Select™ Dry found in the Merrell All Out Blaze 2 Waterproof Hiking Shoe or B-Dry found in the Obōz Men’s Bridger Mid Waterproof hiking boot.
Considering trail conditions, you may want to think about outsoles. Superior outsoles supply more grip, translating to improved safety and performance on the trail. Outsoles are typically made from vulcanized rubber compounds, and many manufacturers rely on branded Vibram® compounds. Vibram® represents excellence in durability and traction, and it’s common in footwear from Merrell, The North Face, Vasque, and others. The Vasque St. Elias GTX boot uses a Vibram® Frontier Sole made with the XS Trek compound. This provides stability, cushioning, and responsiveness on unpredictable terrain. It’s also incredibly durable. Other compounds function similarly. Ultimately, you want to look for a sticky, durable rubber on the bottom of your boot. An outsole’s design also affects its performance. Deeper, more aggressive lugs supply greater grip on muddier or uneven surfaces, but they won’t perform as well on beaten paths. As another example, siping, the thin grooves in the sole, provides superior traction on wet or slick surfaces.
The Bottom Line
Like we said, there’s a lot to consider, but we’ve got you covered. Our associates aren’t just highly trained; they’ve been out in the backwoods learning just what to expect from the trails you’re going to face. Our staff can talk you through your planned hikes, through possible trail conditions, and through general expectations for your boots to make sure that you’re properly equipped. It’s that experience that makes gearing up at Denali an invaluable opportunity. We can find the right boot for you, and you’ll know you can handle whatever jumps up on the trail.