Hiking Boot Buying Guide

Your Guide to Hiking Boots Fit Just For You

You need a good pair of hiking boots. The boots need to be a perfect fit for your feet and your hiking style. So, how do you choose the right boots? This step-by-step guide delves into what you need to know to choose your perfect hiking boots.


You should already know where and how you plan to use your new hiking boots. It matters. A boot built for day hiking differs significantly from a boot destined for a long-distance backpacking trip. Likewise, a boot designed for casual hikes on developed trails is constructed differently than one heading off-trail or to the mountain tops.

Knowing how you plan to use the boots will help you determine the boot type you need.


From lightweight trail shoes to beefy backpacking boots, the choices can make your head spin. Fortunately, the types of hiking boots can be pared down to three categories:

Hiking Shoes

Also called trail shoes, these low-cut or mid-cut boots with flexible midsoles are ideal for casual and day hiking. They are generally lightweight and flexible, ideal for established, maintained trails and dry climates.

Day Hiking Boots

Also called trail hikers, this boot style represents the middle ground between hiking shoes and backpacking boots. The styles range from mid- to high-cut, offering better ankle protection than hiking shoes. Sturdy yet lighter than backpacking boots, day hiking boots employ all-around features that employ good traction, stability, padding, and some models are completely waterproof.

Backpacking Boots

Let’s get serious. This boot style is for serious hikers who enjoy multi-day backpacking trips and long days on rugged trails. Heavier, stiffer, high-cut, and often more insulated, the boots offer an excellent foundation for carrying heavy loads and are ready to head off-trail. In addition, they feature full-grain leather uppers, aggressive rubber treads, and good ankle support. Seriously.


The four significant components that define the quality of a boot are the uppers, insoles, midsoles, and outsoles. However, backpacking boots also rely on crampon support. So, let’s take a look at all five components.


These are the materials used in the upper part of a hiking boot. The material decides the boot’s durability, weight, breathability, and water resistance. The materials typically used include full-grain leather, split-grain leather, nubuck leather, synthetics, waterproof membranes, and insulation.

  • Full-grain leather provides durability, water resistance, and protection from cuts and abrasion. While it is not as lightweight or breathable as split-grain leather, it is a better choice to withstand a beating in rocky terrain. A boot built of full-grain leather takes more time to break in than split-grain or nubuck leather.
  • Split-grain leather, also known as suede, is often paired with nylon, providing softness, lightweight, and breathability at the expense of protection from cuts and abrasion. Less costly than full-grain leather, split-grain leather construction typically has multiple seams. To help keep your feet dry, you will need to apply an application of waterproofing or wear waterproof socks.
  • Nubuck leather is full-grain leather that has been sanded, or buffed, to resemble suede but has more of a velvety texture. This type of leather is less waterproof than full-grain leather but more flexible.
  • Synthetics include various materials, usually in combination, that generally include nylon mesh, polyester, and Cordura. Synthetic materials wear more quicker than leather, but they are lighter and dry faster.
  • Waterproof membranes built into a boot are meant to keep feet dry in wet conditions. Popular waterproof/breathable membranes include Gore-Tex®, eVent®, and KEEN.DRY®, among others.
  • Insulation Synthetic insulation is used for warmth in some day hiking and many backpacking boots.


The insole provides cushioning and support directly underneath the foot. They are generally removable and can be replaced with options for better fit, extra comfort, warmth, and, if necessary, orthotics.


Located between the insole and outsole, the midsole cushions feet from shock as the boot strikes the ground while providing stability and support. The midsole also determines the stiffness of a boot. Made of either the lighter ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) or the more durable polyurethane (PU), the midsole provides support where needed across the sole of the foot.


Most hiking boots use rubber for the outsoles, although polyurethane and other synthetics are used. Simply put, the outsole is the outer part of the shoe that is in direct contact with the trail. It is generally referred to as the sole of a boot. The outsole provides traction and protects the foot from the trail surface. An outsole includes a lug pattern to improve grip and a heel brake to help avoid sliding on steep downhills.


A crampon is a metal structure with spikes that are affixed to a boot. While crossing snowfields, glaciers, icy rock, and snowy slopes, crampons are necessary for you to safely grip the ice and snow.  A hiking boot with crampon compatibility has a semi-rigid construction with horizontal frames.


Hiking boots need to be snug, not tight, everywhere but the toes. You should be able to wiggle your toes. To get the right fit for your feet, keep in mind all that you considered above and read on.

  • Know your boot size Chances are, the hiking boots you choose will be a half-or full size larger than your casual shoe size. The best boot fit will account for the socks you plan to wear while hiking and the swelling of your feet at the end of the day. In fact, waiting until the end of a day of activities is an excellent time to try on boots.
  • Length You want a gap of a half-inch (minimum!) between the tip of your longest toe and the end of the boot. Remember, you need to be able to wiggle your toes — even at the end of a long hiking day.
  • Width Remember, snug, not tight. The boot’s insole can help determine the width of the boot you need. If your foot hangs over the edge of the insole, you need to try a wider boot. If the insole extends beyond the edges of your foot, you need to try a narrower boot.
  • Socks and Insoles If you know the type of socks you plan to wear while hiking, wear them to the store. Also, if you wear orthotics or have a preferred insole, bring those too.
  • Wear the boots Once you find a likely fit, put on the boots, tie them snugly, and stroll through the store. Try to identify any uncomfortable pinching, seams, or bumps. If you feel these in the store, you will feel them on the trail. Or worse! Can you feel space above the top of your foot? If so, that’s another clue that the boot might not be suitable for you.

For a pleasurable time on the trail, choosing the right boots is one of the most important gear decisions you can make. Good luck, and have fun!



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