Your hiking boots can make or break a trip. If you’re planning on going on a multi-day trek, you will be spending a lot of time with your boots. So it’s a good idea to get to know them well before you set off, and to pick wisely (or else you might find yourself, quite literally, in a whole heap of pain). 

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Yeah, you don’t want this. Avoid at all costs by following our guide. Image iStock.com/Colby Lysne

Hiking Boots or Shoes?

Hiking-appropriate footwear comes in two main varieties: trekking boots or trekking shoes. You will always encounter some trekkers who claim that you only need a pair of running shoes, and while these may be more comfortable when things are going well, they are less likely to protect your feet and ankles from the strains of uneven terrain.

The advantage of shoes over boots is that they are generally lighter, whereas boots provide more ankle support. Also, if you are going on a longer trip and want to pack light, trekking shoes can often double as city shoes for general activities and sightseeing. Trekking boots look like nothing other than trekking boots, so if style or multi-purpose use is a priority, boots may not be best.

There are a couple of important rules of thumb to remember. Trekking shoes are a good idea for day hikes or when you know that the terrain is going to be easy, such as on established paths. Trekking boots, on the other hand, are preferable for multi-day hikes when your feet and ankles need as much support as they can get. And, the more experienced a trekker you are, the lighter the shoe you can get away with wearing.

Tip: newbies going on a multi-day trek are better off choosing boots.

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Boots or shoes? Boots will give you more support, shoes tend to be lighter, and are good multi-taskers.

When Should You Buy Them?

Trekking boots (or shoes, if that’s what you’ve decided to get) should never be bought immediately before a multi-day trip. Doing so means that the boots will not be properly worn in before you have to use them. Plus, if there are any issues with the fit or even the quality of the boot, you won’t have the chance to see to any problems before having to spend several days on end with the shoe on your foot. You risk debilitating blisters forming, or finding other problems with the boot or the fit at a point where you can’t do anything about it.

You should also shop for trekking boots later in the day, ideally in the evening, when your feet are swollen from a day’s use. Trekking—especially in warm weather—will cause your feet to swell. You want to ensure that the boots are a good fit then, not just when your feet are cooler and therefore smaller.

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Wear those bad boys in! Image: iStock.com/deimagine

How Should They Fit and Feel?

Because hiking boots are being put to a different use to regular shoes, you need to check for different feelings when trying them on. It’s no good just to tie them up, pace up and down the room a couple of times, and buy them, as you might with other shoes.

Try boots on with hiking socks. Even buy some hiking socks. These are thicker than normal socks to protect your feet from blisters and keep them warm. Ordinary thick woolen socks aren’t a great idea as they are more likely to get wet and rub after a while. Good-quality hiking socks made from synthetic material are designed to wick moisture away from the surface of your skin.

Now you’ve got the boots on, how light do they feel? If they’re heavy they’re going to take more effort to lift with each step. While that might seem like an insignificant factor—especially if you’re fit and have strong legs!—on a challenging trek, extra weight is important. However, lighter isn’t necessarily better. As with the boots versus shoes debate, you’re likely to get more support from a (good quality) heavier boot. If you know you’ll be carrying a heavy backpack, a heavier boot is a better idea. Don’t automatically assume that a boot must be better if it’s lighter. You need to consider how, when, and where you’ll be using it.

There should be room to wiggle your toes, ideally with about an inch of wiggle room at the ends. But your toes shouldn’t slip and jam against the front of the boot as you walk. That indicates that it doesn’t fit well on other parts of the foot. Ideally, find a ramp in the shop that you can walk down. Stairs will also do. See how much room your toes have while walking on different kinds of surface. Also, the boot should not feel tight anywhere, including (and especially) the ankle, heel, or Achilles tendon. If a boot rubs at the heel, your trek will probably be ruined. Make sure you can fit a finger between your heel and the boot.

Tip: If your feet are of a non-standard shape, consider buying insoles to improve the comfort and fit.

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So now you’ve nailed the fit, what else should you consider? Image: iStock.com/hiking_photographer

What Else Should You Look For? 

You’ve narrowed the selection down to a couple of pairs of boots that feel good. What else should you look out for?

The material is important. Are they leather or fabric? Leather can be tougher and more waterproof, and last longer than boots from synthetic materials. But, they can take longer to break in and are heavier.

Is the tongue gusseted, meaning, is it connected to the boot beneath it with a flap of fabric? If so, it’ll protect your feet from sand and other bits and pieces getting into your boot. It’ll also be more waterproof.

Finally, check the stitching. Lower-quality boots will often have a single line of stitching in a place where there should be double, or ends will be loose or unsealed. These will come unravelled quickly and reduce the longevity of your boot. Plus, loose stitching can let fine sand in. Many boots are unseamed, particularly at the part where the sole meets the body of the shoe. This is to stop grit getting in. But, make sure any glue is strong and nothing looks like it’s in danger of coming apart.

Tip: If you know you’ll be trekking in very wet or rough conditions, buy a pair of gaiters to slip over your boots, to stop water or other debris getting in.

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Look at all that sand. Choose a boot that keeps it at bay. Image: iStock.com/PalleC

You Get What You Pay For.

This old adage is true to a large extent when it comes to trekking boots. While some outdoor gear brands are certainly overpriced, it is wise to purchase boots from a reputable brand that prioritises substance over style. This may mean paying more than you normally would for a pair of shoes, but think of trekking boots as an investment, whether you hike once a year or every weekend. Buying knock-offs that fall apart after one wear—or worse, in the middle of your trip—is a false economy.

Hiking boots should be seen as an investment in your comfort and health, and buying them should be taken seriously. Take your time to choose the right pair, and you won’t be sorry.

Now that you know how to look after your feet, why not road test them on one of our epic trekking holidays with only the best local guides and hosts.