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Hiking Boots: Choosing and Caring for the Most Important Piece of Hiking Equipment

A seven-part series describing how to choose the right pair of hiking boots, what to expect from them, how to care for them, and how to know when it's time for a new pair.

Hiking Boots Series Part I:  Hiking Boots:  An Introduction and Overview Part II:  Types of Hiking Boots and Hiking Shoes Part IV:  Hiking Boot Accessories (socks, insoles, laces, crampons, etc.) Part V:  High-Quality Inexpensive Hiking Boots:  How to Choose and Where to Find Them Part VI:  Backpacking Boots:  How to Choose and Where to Find Them Part VII:  Cleaning, Care, and Maintenance of your Hiking Boots Navigation, Hiking Boots Series
[ Hiking Boots Series ] [ Overview ] [ Types ]
[ Accessories ] [ Shopping for Day-Hiking Boots ]
[ Shopping for Backpacking Boots ] [ Maintenance ]

Part III: Hiking Boots: Parts and Construction

Part III of a seven part series of articles on hiking footwear.

When shopping for a pair of hiking boots, it is important to know how they are made. No, you don't need to know how to make your own, but you have to understand what goes into them and how it affects the comfort and durability - the overall quality - of the hiking boots. In this article, part 3 of a 7-part series, I will describe the parts of a hiking boot, what they are made of, and how they come together to form the ideal hiking boot for you. As you read this, keep in mind the general purposes of hiking boots (described in part 1 of this series): warmth; protection; traction; and keeping your feet dry. Also keep in mind the four main types of hiking boots (described in part 2): hiking shoes and sandals; day-hiking boots; backpacking boots; and mountaineering boots. Be aware that lighter hiking boots and hiking shoes will not necessarily have all the same parts that the general hiking boot has.

Like any shoe, a hiking boot consists of an upper and a sole joined together by a welt and with an inlet at the front covered by a tongue, and the whole is lined with various pads and cushions. But, of course, there's more to a pair of hiking boots than that. I will discuss each of those parts in detail, in terms of what they are made of and what to look for in various types of hiking boots.

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Sole and Welt

Let's start at the bottom. The soul of the hiking boot is the sole.

Soles are usually made of synthetic rubber made in varying degrees of hardness. The hardness of the sole is all about compromise. A harder sole will last longer, but generally will have poorer traction on hard surfaces (such as bare rock) and will provide less cushioning. A softer sole gives you the cushioning you need for long hikes and the traction you need on rough ground, but it will wear out faster.

Manufacturers have made their trade-offs in choosing the materials to make their boots out of. The final choice is up to you when you choose which boot to buy. If you expect to do most of your hiking on soft surfaces, such as desert sand or bare soil, you might lean more toward harder soles. But most of us hike on fairly rugged trails where there is a good deal of bare rock, and we need the traction of a softer sole.

Inside the sole is a structure called a shank. It is a stiffening structure, either fiberglass or steel, that prevents the sole of the boot from twisting and that provides solid arch support. Shanks may be only three-quarter or half-length. Hiking shoes generally have no shank at all, deriving all their stiffness from the molded rubber sole. Good day-hiking boots may have a full-length fiberglass shank. Only when you get into high-quality backpacking boots will you have to face the choice of fiberglass versus steel or full- three-quarter or half-length. It will depend on how strong you need your hiking boots to be, and how heavy.

Look for deep, knobby tread. Deep cuts in the sole allow water and mud to flow out so you can get traction. "Fake" hiking boots, designed to look like hiking boots but not to perform like them, may have thinner soles and shallow tread. Working boots also may have shallow tread, and they generally have harder soles than hiking boots have.

The welt is the connection between the sole and the upper. These days, you will be hard pressed to find hiking boots with an old-fashioned sewn welt. Virtually all hiking boots these days are glued together. And for most purposes, you really don't have to give it a thought. Only if you are buying a very expensive pair of backpacking boots should you give any preference to a sewn welt. Boots with a sewn welt will be easier to resole when the original sole wears out, and that is the only advantage they provide. For most purposes, especially for hiking shoes or day-hiking boots, when the sole wears out, the upper is not worth salvaging, either.

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The upper of the hiking boot provides warmth, protects the sides of your feet and ankles from rocks and brush, and repels water. It must also allow your feet to "breathe," so that moisture from perspiration will not build up inside the boots and cause blisters.

Uppers of hiking boots are just about always at least partially made of leather. High-quality backpacking boots are usually always made of full-grain leather (leather that has not been split). Lighter boots may be made of split-grain leather (leather that has been split or sueded on one side), or a combination of split-grain leather with various fabrics. Rarely, you'll see hiking boots made in a combination of full-grain leather with fabric (such as the ‘Nam jungle boots that were once briefly popular), or even suede (very light leather split on both sides).

Cotton canvas (as in the ‘Nam jungle boot) is not waterproof, but it may be suitable for desert hiking, or for hiking in conditions that are so wet that no amount of waterproofing will help.

Fabrics that are combined with leather are usually some type of nylon. Heavy nylon wears nearly as well as leather, and it is much lighter and cheaper than leather.

The thing to be aware of in any hiking boot, especially those made of combinations of leather and fabric, is that there will be seams. Seams are bad. Seams are points of failure. Seams are points of wear, as one panel of the boot rubs against another. Seams are penetrations that are especially difficult to waterproof.

The uppers of backpacking boots are sometimes made of a single piece of full-grain leather with only one seam at the back. This is good, for all the reasons that seams are bad, but it is expensive.

You're going to have to deal with seams. But as you are shopping for hiking boots, look for customer reviews that mention failure or undue wearing of the seams, and avoid those brands.

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Inlet and Tongue

There are two things to look for in the inlet and the tongue:

  1. How the laces are attached and adjusted
  2. How the tongue is attached to the sides of the inlet

The inlet may be provided with eyelets, D-rings, hooks, and webbing, each alone or in combination. They each have these advantages and disadvantages:

  • Eyelets: Simplest and most durable way to lace a boot. Not so easily adjusted.
  • D-rings: Easier to adjust than eyelets, more durable than hooks. More failure-prone than eyelets. (They can break, and they can tear out of the leather.)
  • Hooks: Easiest to adjust of all lace attachments. Subject to getting hooked on brush, or bent or broken in impacts with boulders, main cause of breakage of laces.
  • Webbing: Cause less chafing of laces allowing laces to last longer, slightly easier to adjust than eyelets, slightly more durable than D-rings. More failure-prone than eyelets.

By far, the most common lace attachment of any hiking boot is eyelets below ankle-level and hooks above. You may see eyelets all the way up, as in classic military-style combat boots, or a combination of either D-rings and hooks or webbing and hooks. (My current day-hiking boots have webbing and hooks, and I have no complaints.)

The laces themselves play only a minor role in your choice of hiking boots. You can easily replace them if you don't like them, and you probably will replace them at some point.

The attachment of the tongue is a critical factor in how waterproof the hiking boots are. Provided the leather and/or fabric and seams of the boot upper are waterproof, water will not get into the boots until it gets higher than the attachment point of the tongue.

Most hiking shoes are not really waterproof, and that's okay. You're not going to be hiking long or in deep water in this type of footwear anyway.

Most day-hiking boots have the tongue attached all the way to the top. If the tongue is not fully attached, consider carefully whether you will need that extra inch or two of waterproofing.

Typically, backpacking boots have the tongue attached only partway up, but that still reaches higher than most day-hiking boots. It's difficult to get the boot on and off if the tongue is attached very high.

hiking shoes with eyelets and hooks for the laces

My hiking shoes have the typical eyelets and hooks.

hiking boots with webbing and hooks for the laces

My day-hiking boots have webbing and hooks.

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Linings and Pads

There are many pieces that go into the lining and padding of a hiking boot, but two in particular you need to pay attention to:

  1. The sole lining
  2. The scree collar

The sole lining must be appropriately cushioned. Don't look for a feathery-soft lining, as this will simply wear out quickly. You want a firm, durable surface in immediate contact with your socks, but enough cushioning below that to absorb impact.

The scree collar is a cushion right around the top of most hiking boots. It enables you to pull the boots tight enough to keep out loose rocks ("scree") but without causing the top of the boot to chafe against your ankle and Achilles tendon. This is frequently the thickest and softest cushion in the whole hiking boot, and it needs to be. It must be soft enough to conform to your ankle and Achilles tendon as they move, and still keep close enough contact with your leg to keep the rocks out.

Very high hiking boots, such as military-style combat boots, may have no scree collar at all. In boots like this, the height of the boot is what keeps the rocks out. There's no need to adjust the boot so tight around your ankles, because that's not where the rocks are.

Throughout, the lining and padding of the hiking boots must be thick enough to provide the warmth you need, durable enough to last, and smooth enough that it will not cause chafing and blisters.

hiking boot with wide scree collar

The scree collar on these day-
hiking boots is about an inch
and a half wide.

hiking shoe with narrow but well padded scree collar

Even these hiking shoes have a
good scree collar, which is the
main reason they rise higher than
a typical sneaker.

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So, these are the things you need to pay attention to when choosing a pair of hiking boots. Be prepared to compromise, and pay attention to which features are really important to the style of hiking you intend to do.

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Other Articles in this Series

Read more about how to choose the right pair of hiking boots, what to expect from them, how to care for them, and how to know when it's time for a new pair.

Other parts of this series:

  1. Part I: Hiking Boots: An Introduction and Overview
  2. Part II: Types of Hiking Boots and Hiking Shoes
  3. Part III: Hiking Boots: Parts and Construction (This page)
  4. Part IV: Hiking Boot Accessories (socks, insoles, laces, crampons, etc.)
  5. Part V: High-Quality Inexpensive Hiking Boots: How to Choose and Where to Find Them
  6. Part VI: Backpacking Boots: How to Choose and Where to Find Them
  7. Part VII: Cleaning, Care, and Maintenance of your Hiking Boots
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Copyright © 2008, Charles J. Bonner, All Rights Reserved