The Ultimate Guide to Choose Your Hiking Boots - From A to Z

Types of Hiking Boots

Hiking shoes

Low-cut design with flexible midsoles is excellent for day hiking when your pack is light and the trails are groomed. Hiking shoes have stiffer soles, more stability, and better traction than typical running shoes

Still, some professional ultralight backpackers may even choose trail-running shoes for long-distance journeys, since they are fully aware that added ounces and pounds on their feet take their toll in terms of energy expenditure by the end of the day.Altai Hiking Shoes

Day hiking boots

These range from mid- (6-inch height) to high(8-inch height)-cut models and are intended for day hikes or short weekend backpacking trips with lite loads. They often flex easily and require little to no break-in time, but they lack the extensive support and durability of stout backpacking boots.

Most suitable for beginner hiker who needs decent support and stability on their first few wanderlust journeys.

Backpacking boots

Their stiffer midsoles and durability are designed to carry heavier loads on multiday trips deep into the backcountry, yet flex enough at the balls of your feet for the shorter stride length dictated by challenging terrain and a heavy pack. Most have a high cut that wraps above the ankle for excellent support and is suitable for on- or off-trail travel.

Mountaineering boots 

Best to wear if you are traversing rocky territory, glacial trails and snow-clad paths. They are built to handle a heavy load and stand up against the most challenging terrain and slippery surfaces.Tough Terrains

 Anatomy of Hiking BootsAltai Hiking BootsUpper

Full-grain leather 

  • Pros: The most premium leather that offers outstanding durability, waterproofness and abrasion resistant. 
  • Cons: Expensive, heavy, offers limited breathability and requires more time to break-in.
  • Common Usage: For extended on & off-trail hiking trips, carrying heavy loads and/or hiking on rugged terrain.

Split-grain leather

  • Pros: Lightweight, breathable and more affordable.
  • Cons: Durability, waterproofness and abrasion resistant are weaker than full-grain leather.

Nubuck leather

  • Pros: Durable, reasonably flexible, resists water and abrasion.
  • Cons: Requires more time to break-in.


  • Pros: Lighter than leather, break-in more quickly, dry faster and usually more affordable. 
  • Cons: Easier to get wear.


Midsoles cushion and absorb shock to provide stability and comfort.

And that is determined by stiffness in the midsole; the stiffer the sole is, the better the boots in protecting your foot palm on rugged terrain filled with detritus

The most common materials used in the midsole are EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) and polyurethane.

  • EVA is untaxing, lighter and affordable. Varying densities of EVA provide firmer support where it is more needed (e.g., around the forefoot).
  • Polyurethane is generally stiffer and more durable, so it is usually found in backpacking and mountaineering boots.

Rubber Outsoles

To harden the outsoles, carbon will be added to backpacking or mountaineering boots to boost durability, but can feel slick if walk off-trail.Hiking Boots OutsoleTwo factors are deciding the gripping power of the outsole.

  • Lug pattern: Lugs are traction-giving bumps on the outsole. Deeper and thicker lugs are used on backpacking and mountaineering boots to improve grip. On the other hand, widely spaced lugs offer good gripping power and get rid of mud more easily. 
  • Heel brake: Located at the heel to reduce your chance of sliding during steep descents.

The table below summarizes characteristics of different types of hiking boots as mentioned earlier.

What is Considered a Good Fit?

As most people have a standard heel width, you can measure your foot length to get the size of your hiking boots.

When walking on flat ground, stairs and inclined surface, you should check whether the boots fulfill the below requirements to find your perfect fit.

  • Your entire foot should feel snug EXCEPT for your heel. Your heel will always slip a little (like 6-12mm space in between) in a properly fitted new boot. The slippage will vanish when you have broken in the boot.
    • If you are feeling too much slippage, the problems usually lie in...
      1. The boot is not laced tight enough.
      2. The boot is not broken in.
      3. The boot is too long for you. You can insert a heel grip to fix it.
      4. The boot is too high for you. You can insert a tongue pad to compensate for height.
  • Have a bit of wiggle room for your toes in the toe box. It will help if you buy your boots in the evening as your feet swell at the end of the day. If you can fit in your finger in the space between your longest toe and the tip of the toe cap, it is considered a good fit; but if you have a little extra space in your toe cap and the rest of the parts fit perfectly, you should keep it that way instead of sizing down.   
  • The widest part of your foot needs to be at the broadest part of the boot. Most boots come without arch support, but you can get some orthodontic insoles if you have flat feet.
  • Wear thick socks when trying on the boots. Most boots are manufactured to be worn with cushioned thick socks (with extra padding at heel and toe areas), they are also to protect you from blisters and hotspots. Opt for synthetic socks (e.g., Coolmax) instead of cotton one as the latter more likely to give you blister. 

How to Break-In Hiking Boots?

According to Survival Mag, most boots will stretch by only about a millimeter, even with a boot stretcher.

It is necessary to break-in your boots for them to take your foot shape to avoid blister, toe chop, calluses & corns, hammertoe, and more foot pains. 

The video below illustrates the steps taken to break-in your boots.

How to Clean & Maintain Your Boots for Long-Term Wear

Cleaning your boots regularly is one of the crucial ways to extend the lifespan of your boots.

According to REI, ignoring cleaning your boots after a rigorous hiking trip will cause particles of dirt, grit or sand to creep deeper into the leather and fabric, and grind like sandpaper every time your boots flex.

Not only that, mud sucks moisture from leather as it dries, making your boots’ leather less pliable and speeding up its aging process.

Besides cleaning, below steps are recommended to increase the longevity of your hiking boots.

  • Recurring waterproofing with wax or silicone treatments will soften leather, not only making your boots more comfortable, but also stretching them a bit. Especially on long hiking trips, bring along the waterproof spray to make your boots more supple and supportive. Click this link for more information about waterproof treatment.
  • Recondition your boots frequently with boot trees.
Boot Trees

How to Make Sure Your Boots are Comfortable?

You can check at the wear patterns on the soles of your worn boots, if they show severe wear on the inner side of the soles (pronation) or the outer side (supination), then your ankles and arches probably need custom molded orthotics.

If your feet still slip in your boots even though you are getting the right size, it might be due to the footbed. People with high arches sometimes need personalized molded footbed to support the sole in a neutral position and keep their feet from contorting inside the boot.   

The stiffer the sole (for backpacking & mountaineering boots), the more padded the tongue should be to counteract the torque of a rigid sole. Additionally, tongue padding should be relatively firm to avoid the cutting feeling from tight laces. These are essential, particularly on steep uphills or long downhills.

Lastly, make sure that you do not feel excessive movement and have ample padding in your internal heel cup to prevent chafing your ankle.

Heel friction is inevitable, but the discomfort can be minimized with a pair of properly broken-in hiking boots. If the issue persists, seek a specialty outdoor retailer to mold the heel cup for you. 

How about Hiking Sandals?

Casual hiker favorites its lightweight. For most, hiking sandals are best used for short and well-maintained paths or as a back up when the primary hiking boots are temporarily out of commission.


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