Choosing Hiking Boots for Beginners
Whether you’re out for a day or a month, hiking on a defined path or trailblazing a new one, you’ll need the right kind of boots to get the job done. It’s a nightmare for hikers of all kinds to get a blister halfway through the trek and can easily change a trip from “I never want to go back home” to “All I want is a foot bath on the couch”. We’ll be going through the different types of hiking and the kinds of beginner hiking boots necessary for each, as well as some technical information like how to care for your new boots.
Different types of hiking need different boots
To simplify things a bit, there are four basic categories of hiking.
- Day hiking is pretty much what it sounds like – a trip out and back in one day. It’s good for beginners to get acclimatized to the great outdoors without carrying a heavy pack and usually only requires a low-cut hiking shoe.
- Base camping is essentially day hiking from a predestined camp site, where most of the gear only has to be carried out and back one time, possibly over multiple days. With this change comes the potential for more difficult trails and terrain, which may result in the need for an upgrade from day hiking boots. These are higher-cut models that offer more support than shoes without the rigidity of backpacking boots.
- Section hiking has more to do with time than difficulty, and is one way to finish a long trail from start to finish by knocking out sections at a time.
- Thru-hiking is doing this all at once, requiring a significant amount of planning and restocking of supplies throughout the journey. Each of these categories could be easy or difficult depending on their Class, which is a way of rating the experience needed to properly tackle a particular trail.
Mountain Madness describes Class in terms of how you’re interacting with the landscape over the course of your trip. They range from Class 1 to Class 5, the former consisting entirely of walking on a defined path, the latter being full-out mountain climbing. Class 3 makes the distinction of using your hands in what is called a “scramble”, and often means the terrain is rocky and uneven. A good rule of thumb is to use hiking shoes for walking paths, backpacking boots for multiday trips on uneven terrain, and hiking boots for everything in between.
Hiking boots vs trail shoes
The good thing about hiking or trail shoes is their lightweight flexibility and comfort. They are perfect for trail-runners where pace of travel is of concern, or for joggers who are tired of getting their exercise on city streets. Ultralight backpackers might even choose this model for long-distance journeys, although they lack the durable versatility of boots.
Benefits of a day hiking boot
Day hiking boots are flexible and don’t take as long to break in as they are basically higher-cut hiking shoes for a little extra support around the ankles. They’re great for trips of intermediate difficulty and carrying light loads for an extended period of time. However, nothing compares to the stability and protection of actual backpacking boots.
Backpacking boots are best for tough terrain
High cut with a rigid frame offering excellent ankle support and a hard sole for saving your feet from rocks and roots of all sizes, they are suitable for long trips with heavy packs. Anything above a Class 2 trail will often require a backpacking boot.
Leather hiking boots or synthetic?
The difference in boot quality has most to do with the materials used. Beginning with the upper, or main part that encompasses your foot, there are a variety of leathers and synthetics whose properties are responsible for their recommended use and are priced accordingly.
- Full-grain leather uppers offer the best durability and abrasion resistance while also holding up against water. This material is not as light or breathable as other options and requires significant break-in time before a long trip. However, once they are broken in, they are often the desired choice for extended trips and heavy loads on rugged terrain.
- Split-grain leather is usually combined with nylon for a lightweight boot that is very breathable. They will cost less than full-grain leather boots, but lose some of the durability and water resistance in the transition.
- Nubuck leather is full-grain material that has been buffed to resemble suede.
- Polyester, nylon, and “synthetic” leathers are lighter than the real thing and break in more easily. They also cost less, but don’t last as long due to the extra stitching on the outside of the boot.
- Fabric or synthetic boots are the modern alternative to leather. Many of the most popular brands nowadays use a combination of different synthetic materials to maximise the durability and make the best boot possible. The Merell, Timberland and Saloman walking boots shown in the pictures above are all synthetic and well liked by many walkers.
Waterproof membranes are great for trips that will ensure adverse weather conditions, but reduce breathability and so depending on the individual model these might not be the best hiking boots for hot weather. Something more lightweight and airy such as a trail shoe would probably be your best bet.
What about boot shape and support?
Other qualities of boots like midsoles, internal supports, and outsoles mostly have to do with adjusting stiffness to offer more or less support depending on the terrain you’ll be walking on. A stiff boot will help your foot from tiring out by wrapping around each rock and root you encounter. Midsoles are most commonly made of EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) with varying densities in areas that count. Internal support is made up of shanks and plates, which are different ways of adding extra support between the midsole and outsole. Rubber is used on all hiking boot outsoles. Carbon is sometimes added for an added hardness useful in mountaineering, but can feel slick of trail due to their incredible stiffness.
You can even get hiking boots for plantar fasciitis or ones that are more suitable to people that have flat-feet or overpronate. If you suffer from either of these then consult your local store who will guide you appropriately.
How to take care of your hiking boots
Once you’ve returned from the trip, it’s important to clean your boots properly in order to get the most life out of them. No-on likes cleaning, but putting it off lets particles of dirt and sand creep into the surface of the upper, grinding away the material like sandpaper and sucking moisture as it dries. Boots can be cleaned with a nice stiff brush and a cleaner of saddle soap or mild solution of dishwashing soap and water.
A couple of things to make sure of are not to use bar soap or put boots in the washing machine, and always rinse them with clean water after a scrub-down. Dry the boots at normal temperature with the insoles removed. Accelerate the process with a fan, not a radiator or fireplace, and stuff them with newspaper. Condition leather boots when they seem dry or cracked, or to ease the break-in process. Synthetic leathers do not need conditioner, and using too much will reduce the support your boots provide in the first place.
Deciding what type and style of footwear for any given hiking trip requires a consideration of the temperature, weather and terrain of what you expect to encounter out there. It is worthwhile taking the time to find the right beginner hiking boot that will ensure safe and blister-free travel, giving you the utmost opportunity to fully enjoy your time in the great outdoors. We hope this article helps, and happy trails!