A good hiking boot should be well padded to help absorb the shocks from hiking over rough terrain and a high “collar” that can be laced up to help protect the ankles. Although they should be “waterproof” the more important factor is that they should have a moisture wicking liner that will help keep your feet dry and warm especially in winter. A boot with a Gortex membrane will be your first choice but they are usually pricey. Gortex does allow your feet to “breath” and thus stay drier for longer and dry feet are happy feet.
I personally have an issue with “waterproof” as I have owned lots boots that were waterproof but they all eventually get old and start to get wet. Water enters usually from the top as it runs down your legs into your boots, and all you can do is to try and prolong this whole process. Wearing rain or long pants together with gaiters will help keep your boots dry for a bit longer. The only truly waterproof boots are rubber “gum” boots.
When choosing a boot look for one that is made of one piece of leather with minimal stitching in the front and sides. The shrubs and low bushes are quite harsh on the stitching and it will not take long before the stitching gets damaged and you start to have issues. Most synthetic boots have exposed stitching were a leather boot will have far less exposed stitching.
A good hiking boot should have a sole that grips well in most if not all circumstances, in wet and dry conditions. A desirable feature is the rubber welt that surrounds the boot, as this helps protect the boot from rocks and stones you might accidentally kick. Vibram soles sets the standard for good quality soles however there are some brands that have their own rubber soles that does very well.
The weight of your boots is another factor to consider. Synthetic boots are usually lighter while leather boots will usually be heavier. A heavy boot is also more ridged that offers better stability on rough terrain and provides better ankle protection. Synthetic boots are lighter on your feet and do not always provide the same protection for your feet especially with heavy loads. However, don’t write synthetic boots off because there is a place for them and they do make a good starter boot as they are sometimes a bit more affordable.
When sizing your boots, you should be able to insert your forefinger and middle finger between the back of your ankle and the inside of the boot without the laces done up. This is to allow for thicker hiking socks, and to ensure that when going downhill, your toes do not slide to the front of the boot. Your hiking boots should therefore be at least one size up on your normal, everyday work and leisure shoes.
Socks & Gaiters
Socks form an integral part of your hiking boots and it’s very important you choose the correct socks. Purpose designed hiking socks is usually thick and padded with a dedicated LT and RT foot shape and often has moisture wicking and thermal insulation futures built in. Most socks are made of a blend of mohair or wool and synthetic fibres and different mixes are more suitable for different seasons.
Some hikers will wear two pairs of socks to help reduce the formation of blisters or hot spots from forming. However the best way to prevent blisters is to keep your feet as dry as possible. This is sometimes easier said than done especially in the summer months with rain always being a possibility.
Gaiters come in two main forms: anklets and full-length and the full length also help keeps the water that might enter into your boots to a minimum. A good pair of gaiters will even help keep water from entering your boot when you step into deeper water for a second or two, they will however leak if you keep them submerged for longer. The main reason I use gaiters is to help keep debris, grass seed and stones out of the boots and keep my laces hooking onto the bushes and coming undone. The added benefit is that it gives me some protection from the shrubs and low bushes especially brambles. It is however debatable if a gaiter will offer protection against snake bites – you do get anti-snake bite gaiters but they are not very flexible.
In rainy condition you should wear your rain pants over your gaiters to help water run down the pant leg and not down into the gaiter and into your boot. Although, in snow, the opposite is true as this will keep snow from pushing up the leg.
Gaiters and socks together with the wicking layer and Gortex liner all works together to help keep your feet dry and blister free. Remember you need to look after your feet as they are your only means of transport in and out of the mountains.
Your hiking boots were a big investment so you also need to look after them. Although they are made to very high standards, they will not last forever and you should get a good few years of use out of them if you keep them maintained. After every trip you need to clean them with water and wash any mud and dirt from them. Let them dry out in a shady place out of direct sunlight, remove the insoles to help them dry quicker. You can also place newspaper inside to help the drying process. Never dry your boots in front of a heater or fire as this will break the soles down a lot quicker.
Leather boots should be treated with water proofer after they are dried; this also helps keep the leather supple and soft. Synthetic boots usually dry quicker and also don’t normally get a treatment, however saying this I have seen a synthetic boot water proofer that gets applied to the boot while it’s still wet. Remember that all of this water proofing is just temporary and wears off quite quickly from rubbing on grass, brush and other plants.
New leather boots usually need to be worn in and usually take longer than synthetic ones to adapt to your feet. During the wearing in period you will most likely develop blisters, especially on your heels. So it’s a good idea to wear them around the house for a few days or just walk with then on short walks till they are comfortable to wear. Synthetic boots usually do not need much of a walk in period, however, still be on the lookout for hot spots as these could lead to blisters.