Choosing Hiking Boots: Guidelines for Happy Feet

One of the items that is essential for spending time in the outdoors is good footwear. Whether you are committed to thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail or simply heading out to the local trails for the day, the right pair of boots can be the difference between enjoyment and misery. I’ve compiled tips for choosing, improving, and maintaining footwear to keep your feet happy and your outdoor adventures enjoyable.

Get boots that fit your foot. That seems obvious, but people behave strangely when it comes to shoes. Yea, those limited edition Italian trekking boots with leather and nubuck suede uppers look badass. Oh wait, your heel keeps slipping around no matter how small you size down. Take a moment to blame your stupid feet for ruining your chance at happiness and keep looking. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a pair that is just as pretty. (Probably not, but at least you won’t have blisters.)

Try everything on. Find a retailer that carries different brands and lots of options. The more you try on, the better you’ll be able to judge what feels right for you. Ankle support, breathability, cushioning, weight, stability, and the lacing system are some factors to consider. Spend time (at least 15 minutes in each pair) mimicking how you hike. Many stores have ramps where you can test uphill and downhill movement. Pay attention to how your feet move inside the boot and if your toes bump or feel squished. Take note of how the boots feel at the start and finish of the test walk. Most boots feel pretty good when you first put them on, but after having them on for a period of time, you will notice any pressure points or areas of discomfort. If you can’t wait to take them off, move on to another choice. While it is true that you can ‘wear in’ a shoe, that doesn’t apply to shoes that are unbearably uncomfortable. There is the saying, “if the shoe fits, wear it”. So, if it doesn’t . . . don’t!

Two additional try-on suggestions:

1. Go when you’ve already been up on your feet for a while. Feet swell throughout the day and are typically larger later in the day than when you first hop out of bed.

2. Wear the socks you will hike in. Socks are part of the footwear system and have an effect on how the boots fit.

Replace the factory insole. It’s not the shape of a real foot and is quite useless. Superfeet provide the correct support for a variety of different foot volumes and types. This is a relatively inexpensive solution that will greatly increase comfort. An insole that works with your foot reduces that feeling of soreness in arches and heels.

Socks! Yes, the aforementioned socks, a key component in the system. The right socks can completely alter the experience you have in your hiking boots. Thankfully this part is easy because there are socks designed, tested, and marketed specifically for different types of users. Day trippers, trekkers, backpackers – there is a special sock for each. Usually 100% wool, a wool blend, or a high-performance synthetic, these socks offer the appropriate amount of moisture regulation, thickness, and cushioning to complement the level of activity. SmartWool and Wigwam are two brands that cater to a hiker’s needs and are a good place to start if you are overwhelmed by options.

Clean boots thoroughly after returning from a trip. You get to use a cute tiny boot brush to remove dust and dirt particles. And if that doesn’t motivate you, keep in mind that you will extend the life of your boots by taking care of them. Boots last longer and perform better, particularly features like water repellancy, breathability, and traction when they are aren’t clogged up. Cleanliness is important, but don’t overdo it. There is no need to scrub down your boots every time they are exposed to the earth, but you definitely don’t want them to sit with mud caked on them all summer either. Dirt grinds away at the boot’s material and impacts both durability and performance.

Treat boots to maintain their technical features. Always clean before applying treatments such as sprays or lotions. Wet spray + dirt = microscopic mud in the shoe pores. A good cleaning ensures that the new coat of waterproofing or leather conditioning you apply will work properly.  Treatments should only be applied once or twice per season, unless noted otherwise on the product label.

Spend quality time investigating before buying a new pair of hiking boots. Footwear is among the most important items of gear you will carry with you. Ignore the price tag, appearance, brand loyalty, and other biases. Focus instead on how they make your feet feel. When you’re on mile 15, day 60 of the AT, with hundreds of miles to go, you will only love your boots if your feet are happy.


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