A Beginner's Guide to Hiking Boots

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While a boot isn’t the only type of hiking footwear, it’s a classic for a reason. A good pair of boots will take you over all sorts of trails for years of happy feet and happy exploring. 

Boots provide the most support and protection of any type of hiking footwear. They're great for multi-day treks where you’re carrying a heavy bag and need the extra ankle stability, and for newer hikers who may not be accustomed to going over more rugged terrain. You don’t necessarily need to start out with a super-chunky trekking boot. You may not even need boots at all and might be better off with a hiking shoe. But once you’ve established that you do, in fact, want a pair of hiking boots, your quest isn’t entirely over.

How to Find the Right Boot

There are degrees within the “boot” category. Lightweight day hiking boots come in mid and high rises and tend to be more flexible, while more hardcore backpacking boots with high cuts for ankle support are designed for heavy backpack carrying in the backcountry. Tougher isn’t better here, though: These boots are heavy and take time to break in. If you’re just doing the occasional day hike, there’s no need to weigh yourself down with a backpacking boot. 

We know everyone loves online shopping these days, but hiking boots are one of those purchases that it’s still better to make in person. Every manufacturer builds their boots a little differently, and it’s impossible to know which brand or style is going to work best for your feet without a few try-ons. Employees at outdoor goods specialty stores can help you figure out the best boot for your use, the one that’s going to fit you properly, and even the best way to lace them for maximum on-trail comfort.

How Your Hiking Boots Should Fit and Feel

Comfort is absolutely key on the trail. Your boots should fit snugly without being constricting, advises Brian Hall, Director of Product Development for Vasque, a company that’s been making quality hiking boots since 1964. 

“After a long day on the trails, your feet will swell some, so make sure there is plenty of adjustability in the lacing system to accommodate for that,” says Hall. “You are looking for a secure heel hold to prevent heel lift or movement, enough room for your toes to expand naturally in the toebox, and secure lace hold to prevent your foot from sliding forward in the boot.”

Basically, your foot should stay still inside the boot. You don’t want your heels sliding up and down or your foot sliding forward, but you should be able to wiggle your toes unimpeded. 

How to Break in Your Hiking Boots

While many modern boots are becoming more comfortable straight out of the box, a break-in period is key. You don’t want to find out your boot heel is too stiff when you’re halfway up the hill.

Start by wearing the boots with the correct socks (Hall recommends a light or medium weight high-quality merino wool hiking sock) around your house. Then work up to walks around town and out on shorter hikes. Try to mimic hiking conditions as much as you can, ideally wearing the socks and pants you’ll be wearing on the trail and carrying a backpack of roughly similar weight. If you feel any pinching or rubbing, stop and reassess. You may need to try a different lacing technique, different socks, or even a different boot if you can’t find a way to alleviate the issue. (Again, in-store try-ons are your friend here.)

This can be a long process depending on your boot, but don’t try to rush it with strategies like soaking your boots, which can damage the boot integrity. You want to soften the boot and have it take on the shape of your foot via the natural flexing that takes place over the course of use. A leather boot will have a longer break-in period than a synthetic one.

How to Tie and Lace Hiking Boots

As we mentioned above, you want your boots to be tight but not constricting. Too much extra room and you won’t have the support you need; too little and you’re going to start losing circulation. There are multiple ways to lace hiking boots, so during your break-in period, you can experiment with different options to see which works best for you. 

REI offers three different strategies you can try to target three different potential areas of discomfort. The surgeon’s knot will help with heel slippage, while window lacing will ease pressure you may be feeling on the top of your foot. The third option, toe-relief lacing, isn’t a great long-term strategy—good hiking boots shouldn’t leave your toes feeling pinched—but will help provide relief long enough for you to get home.

How to Clean and Care for Your Hiking Boots

Cleaning your boots regularly and properly is the best way to make sure they live a long and happy life. Hall recommends either a commercial boot cleaner made specifically for hiking boots or just good old warm water and a soft brush. Take the laces out and gently brush off any dust or dirt. If that doesn’t do it, bust out the boot cleaner and some water. Make sure to read the instructions on any cleaning products you’re using to ensure that they’re suitable for use with your boots and that you’re using them properly.

Once your boots have been cleaned, you can treat and condition them with a specialized treatment if you so choose. Synthetic and leather boots will have different treatments; again, make sure you’re using the right one for your boots.

Dry them well after cleaning or if they get wet during use, but do so without extra heat. Most boots are made with heat-sensitive glues, and high temperatures like those found in your car’s trunk or next to a campfire can compromise their integrity. Use a fan (away from a heat source) or stuff them with newspaper if you need to speed up the process.

“Taking the time to dial in your new pair of boots is well worth the effort and with some care they will be comfortable and last you for years to come,” says Hall.

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