A newbie hiker’s guide to the best hiking boots or shoes for your money


… This is a guest post by James Menta of Sole Labz …


Let me tell you about my absolute worst hiking experience with Lance, my mentor at the time.

In the process, I might mention a few places that you never heard of but don’t worry about that, all you need to know about these places is that they’re usually very cold.

Anyway, back to our story and the morals of it…

It was Alaska Day, and instead of going all the way to the Gulf for the official parade in Sitka, we’ve decided to soak up some October sun on the trail. The plan was to hike from Angel Rocks to Chena River, take a dip in the hot springs while we’re there and hitchhike our way back to the car.

Sounds good, right?

It sooo wasn’t. The experience made me wish we took that 600-something-miles trip to Sitka.

Wrong_choice_hiking_boots

What was my mistake?

Aside from the fact that we couldn’t find any room in the trail shelter, or refill our water supply on the dried out spring not far after, my worst mistake was picking the wrong hiking boots for the trail.

It was around 8 hours and almost 9 miles of pure misery with a very blistery aftermath.

I’ve put countless a miles behind me since that day at Angel Rocks and made many more mistakes over the decades of hiking.

The purpose of this article is to make sure YOU don’t repeat my mistakes when you choose the hiking footwear that’s best for you.

The inner workings of our feet

The human foot is a very intricate and delicate mechanism optimized for shock absorption and propulsion of our bodies.

It consists of:

  • 33 different joints
  • A network of 100+ ligaments, muscles, and tendons
  • 26 bones

The bones_and_tendons_of_human_footLet me tell you what I’ve learned over the years.

Hiking boots or hiking shoes

In my experience, this is the most puzzling question for young hikers. Let me give you a definitive chart of factors that’ll make this conundrum as easy as pie.

hiking_boots_versus_shoes

Hiking boots are your best option if:

  • You’re going against a particularly rocky trail
  • Objects on the trail make in uneven and jagged
  • You listened to the weatherman and you’re expecting snow
  • Some parts of the trail are steep
  • You have sensitive ankles or knees
  • You’re heading out with a heavy backpack
  • You’re just starting out with hiking and your legs need additional stability and support

Hiking shoes are OK if:

  • You’re taking a short day hike on a well-kept trail
  • You’re mostly hanging around campsites
  • The muscles in your legs are well-developed (you’re an experienced hiker)
  • You’re not carrying heavy loads

Last but not least, just the fact that a model has the word hiking in the name, doesn’t mean it’s the best option. A good example of that are tactical boots, the better models offer the protection of a trekking boot and the lightness of a trail runner.

Tactical boots for hiking

It’s just something worth exploring…

Tight-fit hiking footwear = asking for trouble

I know people are often advocating tight fit as the way to go, but I’m still standing behind my subtitle. Your feet will inevitably get swollen on the trail, and if there’s no extra room in your hiking boots/shoes you’re trouble.

Every foot is different and no two trails are the same, but here are some general guidelines that should help you hit closer to home:

Tips for choosing the right fit:

  • Use the same type of socks for testing the hiking boots/shoes you plan on wearing on the trail. It might not be a big deal but thickness of the socks can make all the difference.
  • Once you put them on without lacing them, make sure you can slip your index finger between your heel and the back part of the shoe
  • Do the lacing afterwards and check out if you feel your heel moving backwards
  • Your toes shouldn’t touch the front end when you walk around, even at sudden movements
  • Check if your heel and the shoes’ back end are moving together. You don’t want there to be any slipping going on inside. That’s just a blister waiting to happen.

The features

Let’s dig a little deeper and see what makes a good hiking boots and shoes tick.

What makes a good hiking boot

The uppers

The material used for the upper of your hiking footwear will determine its breathability, weight, durability, abrasion and water-resistance.

Let’s see what’s “on the menu”:

  • Full-grain leather – Or just “leather” is pretty resistant to water and abrasions, offering optimal durability as well. It lacks in breathability and break-in time, but it’s the best way to go for longer hikes, rough terrain and heavy loads
  • Split-grain leather – Is a mix with nylon mesh for better breathability and light weight. It’s cheaper but less resistant to water and abrasions
  • Nubuck leather – Is a “buffed” full-grain to closely resemble suede. It features almost the same PROs and CONs as full-grain but offers more flexibility
  • Synthetics – We’re talking synthetic leather, nylon, polyester… They’re lighter than leather, break in quicker and dry faster. They’re also cheaper, but they’ll show signs of wear much sooner

Midsoles

They’re there to buff the cushioning, offer shock-resistance and are a key factor in your footwear’s overall stiffness.

We have two key players here:

  • EVA – Stands for “ethylene vinyl acetate”, feels cushier, lighter, and it’s the cheaper choice of the two. More commonly used option also
  • Polyurethane – It’s firmer and sturdier, thus more durable

Outsoles

Hiking boots and shoes all feature rubber outsoles. Carbon and some other materials can be added for extra stiffness, but that’s backpacking/mountaineering territory.

Additional considerations:

  • Lug pattern – Lug is jus a fancy term for built-in “crampons” for better grip. In hiking shoes and boots we want them smaller and spaced widely for better mud and debris removal. Vibram soles (patented diamond-shaped lugs) are an excellent choice
  • Heel break – “Lugless” part of the outsole designed for slowing you down on steep descents

Rands

They can be sporadically found on hiking footwear, and are just rubber wraps encircling the toe part or the entire shoe/boot. They’re there for additional rock and abrasion-protection.

Is water-resistance just clever marketing?

This is a burning question in hiking community, and I would have to say NO.

Do I consider lighter options to be a superior choice in most cases? YES.

But that doesn’t mean water-resistance doesn’t have its purpose. I’ll always opt for a more breathable model that dries quicker, but Gore-Tex is almost a bulletproof plan for keeping your feet dry in, let’s say, snow-covered trails.

Thinking outside of the box

It might come off as a surprise, and it might be a wrong place for this segment, but you might want to give hiking sandals a try if you’re just starting out or doing this casually, especially in warm climates.

They’re super light and comfortable plus they make water-crossing look so much easier. Best hiking sandals will always feature some kind of toe-guard, though, protecting you from debris and rocks. They’re known as “foot-liberators” around camp sites, but should only be used on well maintained and short trails.

Let’s wrap it up

End of the trail

I hope you definitely got a good pointer or two out of my many mistakes over the years.

I’ve started out during the “internetless” times, so it was live and learn for me. You can just read a couple of articles and already have miles of head start. Use that opportunity to your advantage.

I can’t tell you the exact boots/shoes to get because of the endless scenarios and needs, but it’s my hope that this guide pointed you in the right direction.

Safe trails

 

This has been a guest post by James Menta of Sole Labz who has been giving this newbie some much needed footwear advice and helped kit her out with her first pair of hiking shoes ahead of her first hike with the Twelve Apostles Lodge Walk.

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  1. Good points to consider. I would also say that what works for your friend, or everyone in your hiking club, may not work for you. It can be really hard to evaluate a shoe in the store, or even walking around your house. That’s why stores like REI are great because of their generous return policy. The best pair of hiking shoes I’ve ever had were a random Steep N Cheap purchase – ordered online for about $50. I got lucky!

    • Good advice! And if only you could know in advance that the random cheap pair were going to turn out so well, I’m sure you’d have bought three or four pairs 🙂

      As for me I’ve been gently working up from just walking around the shops to long walks in the bush in my first pair of hiking shoes and am feeling good about how we’re going to go together on my first big hike. Of course, that said, watch this space! Hopefully that will be what I’m sharing on the blog in a few weeks time…

  2. This guide is going to be of immense help to me as I go on trekking quite a lot and the points you have mentioned here are really valuable. Keep up the good work 🙂

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