How to Choose Hiking Boots
Hiking boots were and are some of the most important pieces of equipment we have in our arsenal of outdoor equipment. They provide the protection and support hikers and adventurers need for stability and sure footing. But there are hundreds of hiking boots to choose from. Finding the best boots are the ones that will serve your needs for your kinds of trips.
For our full guide to best hiking boots and our top five recommended hiking boots of 2019, read our Best Hiking Boots 2019 story.
If you’re looking for a lightweight hiking shoes, check out our Best Hiking Shoes story.
For other hiking or backpacking gear, you may enjoy our related stories: Best Hiking Poles, Best Backpacking Backpack guide, our Best Backpacking Tents guide, or our Best Backpacking Sleeping Pads story.
Hiking Boot Criteria
Breathability is one of the key issues for any boot and even the best waterproof boots (using Gore-Tex, e-Vent or a proprietary technology) suffer from some reduced breathability.
All of our winners feature waterproofness, but if you plan on wearing boots in the summer or live in a warm or dry climate, consider choosing a water-resistant boot that allows for more breathability.
If you plan on wearing the boots in the colder seasons, or see yourself hiking through snow or a lot of rivers, consider waterproof boots. Their lowered breathability also means they’re a little warmer as heat (as well as moisture) will not escape as easily.
Many boot models are available in different materials tailored towards your preferred use scenario. The Merrell Moab 2, for instance, is offered in a proprietary waterproof version, a Gore-Tex version and a ventilated mesh version. Besides being about $20 less, the non-Gore-Tex version is a more ideal boot for the summer.
If you find a boot that you really like that fits you well, we recommend getting that same model in a waterproof winter-friendly material and a more breathable summer material. This will give you versatility throughout the seasons.
Leather has been the go-to fabric for footwear since cave folk first put anything on their feet. It’s durable, and provides protection and warmth. Adventurers and explorers turned to leather as the material of choice for centuries.
Modern footwear is a bit different and most boots now feature a mix of leather and synthetic materials in their uppers to help reduce weight, increase comfort and breathability. Uppers are the material above the foot, including the laces and boot shaft.
Still, many synthetic or knit materials on shoes and boots just don’t hold up as well as leather. If you’re looking for a boot that’s vegan or uses a lot of synthetics or knit materials, make sure your boot uses a tougher material than found in a running shoe or town shoe. Toes and heels are often the first place where holes develop. We suggest looking for extra toe and or heel protection if you know you’re choosing a synthetic boot.
All of our winners have extra material on the toe that not only protects your toes from feeling the impact of kicking a rock or stumbling over a branch, they also protect the boot from tearing. It’s harder to impact the heel in the same way, but if you do stumble or someone kicks rocks down a hill and they hit you in the heel, it’s nice to have some additional protection there.
Tread design is another thing to look at in a boot. You definitely don’t want the same type of tread in a gym shoe or climbing shoe as you do in a hiking boot. Most boots feature a mix of tread patterns designed to help you gain traction going up the hill and give you braking traction on the way down the hill.
The best treads for boots are somewhat asymmetrical and more zonal. On the toe, some boots feature larger lugs—the indentations on the sole that provide traction. This will help you grip to slabby rock and or give you a more forward-angled grip. On the heel of the boot, lugs should angle rearward to provide braking capabilities. The middle of the boot should have smaller lugs to provide traction on obstacles.
The boot’s underfoot stiffness is a factor to consider as well. A softer sole means the boot will flex with your foot more. It also means less overall support and cushioning.
A good boot has a mix of torsional and lateral stiffness that helps you get over the bumps in the path without feeling them. It should flex for climbing up angled surfaces. But it should still provide support when wearing a heavy backpack or if you’re wearing snowshoes or additional tread like microspikes.
How do I Choose a Hiking Boot? How Do I fit a hiking boot?
Hiking boots should fit your feet comfortably, without any tight or extremely loose spots. When trying them on, wear the type of sock you plan to hike in or the thickest type of sock you plan to wear while using the hiking boots. It’s best to try them on at the end of the day, when your feet have swelled due to the day’s activities. If you can, time when you try on your boots to be after a walk or hike.
Make sure the boots are snug to your feet and heels. The tongue and ankle cuff shouldn’t constrict your ankle or rub against your shin uncomfortably, either. Also, make sure the boots are wide or narrow enough to fit the balls of your feet and that they support your arches without constricting them.
There should be a little room in the front for your toes—about a half inch—as you don’t want them smashing into the front of the boot all day, nor do you want your toes swimming around in the toe box. Too much room allows your foot to slide, causing friction and hot spots that can lead to blisters.
We recommend purchasing your boots from a retailer that has a good return policy. We especially like REI’s return policy, which allows you to take the boots out on trails and return them up to one-year from purchase. Many other retailers--online and otherwise--won’t accept worn boots, even if you aren’t satisfied with their fit or performance.
Before buying boots, we recommend ordering several different sizes to find the one with the best fit for you, or going to your local outdoor shop or outfitters and trying them on before purchase. A good pair of hiking boots should last for years with a little care. Moreover, with most boots costing $150 or more, you want them to fit well and last for years.
This author has had the same pair of Kayland Zephyrs since 2009 and still loves them! He’s worn them to the top of Kilimanjaro, scaled 14ers in the dead of winter and snowshoed in Colorado’s wilderness in them. He’s washed and treated them with waterproofing a couple of times and they still hold up to a walk through a ravine or a day in the snow—with gaiters, of course. For more on how to get the most life out of your hiking boots with gaiters and waterproofing, see the Care and Maintenance section.
When trying boots on at a store, ask store associates if they have a climbing wall or any obstacles that you can try the boots out on. You can also ask them if there’s a chance to wear them with a weighted pack on to simulate the weight you plan on carrying while hiking—particularly if you plan on backpacking with them. If you ordered your boots to your home, wear the boots with your fully loaded backpack. Go up stairs in your home or step on a chair or stepping stool to simulate what wearing the boots with your backpack feels like on a mountain climb.
Whether trying hiking boots on at home or at the store, you want to simulate the types of conditions you’ll be using the boots in. Make sure the ankle collar is flexible enough to point your toes up or down while still providing lateral ankle stability. At the same time, you want to make sure the soles of the boots are grippy enough to grab on rock surfaces for climbs. They should also grip on descents across slabby rock and loose surfaces, like scree.
From there, we used these criteria to select our final winners for our full story on the 5 Best Hiking Boots!