Part VI: Backpacking Boots: How to Choose and Where to Find Them
This article, part 6 of a 7-part series, describes where to look, what to look for, and how to choose backpacking boots. In this article, you will find all you need to know to make sure you get the quality you need.
This article is all about high-quality backpacking boots, which means that cost is a secondary consideration. If you are choosing between day-hiking boots and backpacking boots, you must first consider the kind and amount of hiking you will be doing (see part 1 and part 2 of this series). If you're still not sure, bear in mind that buying more boot than you need might cost more initially, but higher-quality boots, properly cared for, will last longer than lesser hiking boots, and might end up saving you money in the long run.
If you have never done any serious hiking, you absolutely must buy your first pair of backpacking boots in a hands-on experience. Yes, there are great deals to be had on the Web, but the wrong boot for you is not a good deal no matter how much money you saved. You should shop the Web only if you've had a good deal of experience with backpacking boots and you know exactly what you're looking for. I'm being honest here (habit of mine). Yes, it is in my interest to persuade you to buy your hiking boots through my Web site, but I won't do that if it is not appropriate for you. Buy your first pair of backpacking boots from a regular store with a knowledgeable and helpful sales staff, then come to my Web site for your next pair. (If you're looking for a third or fourth pair, you probably made some poor choices for your first pairs. They should last you nearly as long as your feet will last.)
To set your expectations, serious backpacking boots can be had for as little has $80.00 or can run as much as $200.00 or more. Rarely, you may find a bargain below that range, but don't count on it. At the high end of that range, you're beginning to look at mountaineering boots, which may be more than you need.
So, let's talk about the kinds of places to shop for backpacking boots, features to look for, pitfalls to avoid, and techniques to make sure you have the right fit.
For some of this month's best-selling hiking boots, with reviews based on real-world experience, visit OutdoorEquipmentReport's Hiking Boots page.
Where to Shop for Hiking Boots
When shopping for hiking boots, look for an outdoor equipment store or a military surplus store rather than a shoe store. For one thing, a shoe store is not likely to stock genuine backpacking boots (though they may have hiking shoes or day-hiking boots), but even if they did, the sales clerks are not likely to know enough about them to be helpful.
Make sure the sales clerk you're talking to knows about backpacking boots, preferably from first-hand experience. Talk about hiking, and ask about the clerk's experience with rugged trails and/or multi-day backpacking trips, and what the clerk learned about hiking boots along the way.
Even if you're shopping on the Web, you are probably better off with a specialty source rather than a general-purpose retailer. The market for backpacking boots is comparatively small, and driven more by quality and reputation than by price competition, so places like Amazon can only make their profits on the top-selling brands and highest prices. Sure, you can find a good deal there, but check the specialty shops before you make your final choice.
You do need to pay due attention to brands, but the best sellers are not necessarily the boots with the best quality or the best prices. There may be brands that nobody has ever heard of because they don't make good boots, and other brands that nobody has ever heard of because they are so specialized in making excellent backpacking boots. The only way to know the difference, and to find the quality you need without getting ripped off is to talk to those who know the difference and to read reviews from people who have actually used the hiking boots in the field.
I've mentioned military surplus a couple of times. Military-style combat boots can be excellent and relatively inexpensive backpacking boots. They are well worth a look. Bear in mind that the sales staff at a military surplus store may not know much about hiking, so bring a knowledgeable friend along on your shopping trips. Avoid the 'Nam jungle boot style (with cotton canvas panels on the sides) unless you will be hiking in either desert or jungle conditions. The cotton canvas is lighter and cooler than leather, but it is not waterproof. Lack of waterproofing doesn't matter in the desert, of course, but it is oddly advantageous in jungles or other extremely wet conditions: The canvas panels allow water to leak out, and thus keep your feet drier in conditions where getting water in your boots is inevitable.
Amazon's best reviewed men's backpacking boot:
Features to Look For in Backpacking Boots
Here is what you need to look for:
- Deep tread in a soft sole for traction.
- Appropriate height (at least ankle-high, and probably higher).
- Soft, wide, thick scree collar on ankle-high boots, maybe no scree collar on higher boots.
- Full-length shank (steel is preferred, fiberglass may be okay).
- Tongue attached at least up to ankle height.
- Crampon attachments.
- Hooks for the laces above the top of the foot. Accept full-height eyelets only if you're prepared to take the extra time required to tighten and loosen the boots.
- Eyelets are preferred for the lower lace attachments. D-rings and webbing might not last as long as the rest of the boot.
- Good insulation and padding all around, firm on the bottom, with a tough but smooth lining.
- Removable inserts. Not all hiking boots have them, but removable liners will help you dry your boots when they get wet.
- Double stitching on all visible seams.
- Full-grain leather is preferred. Fabric or split leather may not last as long as they should. Synthetic leather may be acceptable, but I have no experience with it. Check the reviews.
- Fewer seams is better. The best leather boots have only one seam, up the back, but these are very expensive to make.
Most of these features are self-evident, but here are a few techniques for evaluating specific features.
- Tread should be deep enough that the cuts into the sole that form the tread are at least half of the total thickness of the sole.
- To measure the softness of the tread surface, press your thumbnail into it. You should not be able to cut it, of course, but you should be able to make a visible indentation that springs out in a second or so.
- To measure the stiffness of the shank, hold the heel in one hand and the toe in the other, and try to twist the sole. You should not be able to twist it, even a little.
My hiking shoes have the typical
eyelets and hooks.
My day-hiking boots have webbing
and hooks. Webbing is not recommeded
for backpacking boots, as it might not last.
I can twist the sole of my hiking shoes. This
should be impossible for backpacking boots.
Common Pitfalls to Avoid in Hiking Boots
There are two likely points of confusion in buying backpacking boots. First, you might end up buying mountaineering boots, which might be unsuitable for the type of hiking you want to do. Second, you might end up buying heavy duty work boots rather than hiking boots.
Mountaineering boots are more durable than typical backpacking boots, but not necessarily better. They are often specialized for things like ice climbing, where you don't want your boots to be flexible at all. They can be very uncomfortable on long hikes. So make sure you avoid things like rigid plastic shells or otherwise overly stiff or heavy boots.
Heavy-duty work boots can be very similar to backpacking boots in all features except the sole. An otherwise excellent boot with shallow tread or a very hard sole may serve you well in the workshop, but it is not appropriate as a hiking boot.
Fitting your Hiking Boots
As discussed in earlier parts of this series, you must fit your hiking boots with any orthopedic inserts, off-the-shelf insoles, and the hiking socks you intend to wear with them. A good rule of thumb is to start with one full size larger than your regular street shoes.
With all the inserts and insoles in place and your hiking socks on, but with no laces in the boot (or with the laces absolutely slack all the way to the bottom), put the boot on and push your foot all the way forward until your toes touch the front. You should have just enough room behind the heel to slide your finger all the way in. If the boots are very high, you may need to bend down the uppers in order to get your finger behind your heel, but make sure there is enough room for one and only one finger.
Next, lace the boot up snugly and walk around. The boots will be stiff and uncomfortable because they're not broken in, but they should not allow your foot to slide or rub.
Stand on a steep slope with your toes pointing down. You should be able to wiggle your toes, and they should not touch the front of the boots.
If you bought the boots via the Web, do this fit-test as soon as you get them. Even if you think you know your size, boots from different manufacturers might fit differently. Check the size and fit immediately, and return them for a replacement if they don't fit right.
Copyright © 2008, Charles J. Bonner, All Rights Reserved
If you are looking for your first pair of backpacking boots, you must do your shopping in an outdoor equipment store or a military surplus store where you can handle the boots and talk to knowledgeable sales staff. Only if you have considerable experience with backpacking boots, take advantage of the bargains available on the Web. Even on the Web, look for retailers that specialize in hiking gear rather than general Web retailers. Consider military surplus, as combat boots can be excellent backpacking boots.
Check for the features that identify a quality hiking boot, and avoid buying either a mountaineering boot that you don't need or an excellent work boot that is a poor hiking boot.
Bring all the inserts and socks you will wear with your hiking boots, and check for a firm but comfortable fit with no rubbing or sliding.
Look for genuine quality, and expect to pay for it, but don't pay more than you have to for features that don't really contribute to the durability, comfort, and effectiveness of the hiking boots.