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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 III:  Hiking Boots:  Parts and Construction Part IV:  Hiking Boot Accessories (socks, insoles, laces, crampons, etc.) 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 ]
[ Parts and Construction ]
[ Accessories ] [ Shopping for Backpacking Boots ] [ Maintenance ]

Part V: High-Quality Inexpensive Hiking Boots: How to Choose and Where to Find Them

This article, part 5 of a 7-part series, describes where to look, what to look for, and how to choose day-hiking boots. In this article, you will find all you need to know to make sure you get the right quality without overpaying.

This article is all about inexpensive hiking boots, which primarily means day-hiking boots. You will want good quality, and you will have to pay for it, but you don't have to pay extra for features that you don't need.

If you have never done any serious hiking, you will want to buy your first serious hiking boots in a hands-on experience. 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. And if you don't accept that I'm just an honest person, consider this: Even aside from ethical considerations, it would be bad business for me to create a lot of dissatisfied customers telling their friends about their bad experience. No, I'm just being honest. I don't want to take your money and leave you unhappy. Buy your first pair of hiking boots at a brick-and-mortar store where you can handle the boots and try them for proper fit. Then, when you have had enough experience to know what you want in your second pair of hiking boots (or third, or ...), you can take advantage of the lower prices available on the Web.

Just to set your expectations, day-hiking boots range anywhere from $40.00 to $150.00. The high end of that range is beginning to cross into backpacking boots, but anything below that range is either an exceptionally good deal or an imitation hiking boot that will disappoint you badly.

So, let's talk about the kinds of places to shop for hiking boots, features to look for, pitfalls to avoid, and techniques to make sure you have the right fit.

Search for
hiking boots
at Amazon.com.

For some of this month's best-selling hiking boots, with reviews based on real-world experience, visit OutdoorEquipmentReport's Hiking Boots page.

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Where to Shop for Hiking Boots

When shopping for hiking boots, look for an outdoor equipment store rather than a shoe store. The sales clerks in a general shoe store are not likely to know the difference between real hiking boots and fashion imitations of hiking boots. You might pay more money at an outdoor equipment store, but you will realize the savings out on the trail.

Once you're in the store, ask about some of the things you read in this series of articles. If the sales clerk doesn't know what a scree collar is or why round laces are better than flat laces, look for another sales clerk, or another store.

If you are ready to buy your hiking boots on the Web, you can take advantage of the best of both worlds. You can buy from a high-volume store that has the best prices, but first get your advice, recommendations, and reviews from affiliated Web sites (like HikingWithChuck!) that specialize in hiking equipment. To provide a specific example without appearing to be too self-serving, you could visit a Web site like mine for recommended hiking boots, then click on my affiliate links to buy them from Amazon.com.

Wherever you choose to buy your hiking boots, make sure there is a reliable, knowledgeable person in the loop somewhere. If the sales clerk or Web site seems too eager about making the sale and not interested enough in discussing and comparing features, you should look somewhere else before you make a final decision.

Especially when you are shopping the Web sites, you may need to pay attention to brands. Certain brands have a well-deserved reputation for good quality, and you should not ignore that. On the other hand, some brands have an overblown reputation that often has more to do with fashion than with genuine quality. The only way to know the difference, and to find the quality you need without paying for fashion that you shouldn't care about 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. Even then, you have to apply a little discretion. The sales clerk might be leading you toward his highest commission rather than the best hiking boot for you, and the reviewers might have some agenda, too.

While I'm on the subject, I might as well spell out why I think you can regard HikingWithChuck.com as a credible source of information. Most months, when I update this site for seasonal recommendations, I'll list items that Amazon.com is selling, and I'll describe them as "Amazon's best reviewed ..." These are the items that customers who write reviews on Amazon.com are speaking of most highly. I haven't used these products, and I'm not telling you that I have. I'm telling you that other people seem to like them. If something stands out as an exceptional deal, I will check its features and read its reviews (on multiple sources) very critically before I recommend it. Only rarely will I mention something you can buy for which I have first-hand knowledge (such as those crampons I picked up just before the last ice melted). I believe in buying something that will last, then wearing it out, so most of my hiking and camping equipment is so old you can't buy that exact model anymore. If I recommend something, I'll tell you why: Either the reviews look good and I'm asking you to trust my skeptical reading of the reviews; or I have some first-hand knowledge of the brand and I'll tell you how my brand knowledge relates to the particular item; or, rarely, I have first-hand knowlege of the particular item.

Amazon's best reviewed men's
day-hiking boot:


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Features to Look For in Day-Hiking Boots

Here is what you need to look for:

  • Deep tread in a soft sole for traction.
  • Appropriate height (just above the ankle).
  • Soft, wide, thick scree collar.
  • Fiberglass shank. Steel is okay, but fiberglass is better because it's lighter. Full-length is preferred, but shorter shanks may be acceptable if you are planning more moderate hiking.
  • Tongue attached at least up to the top of the foot, or higher if you plan on crossing streams frequently.
  • Crampon attachments optional (but maybe you want to look at backpacking boots if you think you need crampon attachments).
  • Hooks for the laces above the top of the foot. Accept full-height eyelets or D-rings only if you're prepared to take the extra time required to tighten and loosen the boots.
  • Choose eyelets, D-rings, or webbing for the lower lace attachment points as a matter of personal taste. My experience does not indicate any one to be better than the others for day-hiking boots. Eyelets will last longer, but D-rings and webbing seem to last as long as the soles anyway.
  • Good insulation and padding all around, firm on the bottom, with a tough but smooth lining.
  • Double stitching on all visible seams.
  • More leather and less fabric is better, but tough nylon is acceptable enough that you shouldn't pay extra for leather in a day-hiking boot. Split leather is fine (and you'll almost never find full-grain leather in a day-hiking boot), but not full suede.
  • Fewer seams is better.

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 two fifths 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.
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. Webbing is not recommeded
for backpacking boots, as it might not last.

twisting the sole of a hiking shoe

I can twist the sole of my hiking shoes. This
should be impossible for backpacking boots.

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Common Pitfalls to Avoid in Hiking Boots

The biggest problem you're likely to find in shopping for day-hiking boots is cheaply-made "imitation" hiking boots. They are designed to look like hiking boots, but not really built to stand up to trail conditions. These "wannabe" hiking boots might actually be serviceable as hiking shoes, but not for rugged conditions. They will not last long, and they will not give you the traction and water resistance you need.

You can tell an "imitation" hiking boot from the real thing by these characteristics:

  • Mild tread. If the tread is less than about two-fifths the thickness of the sole, it's not a real hiking boot.
  • Hard tread surface that you can barely indent with your fingernail. These might be work boots, or imitation hiking boots, but they won't give you good traction on hard rock.
  • Non-attached tongue.
  • Non-rigid sole that you can twist by hand.
  • No scree collar. Often, the outside of an "imitation" hiking boot will have patches of leather or a different color of fabric to simulate the look of a scree collar, but if it doesn't have padding around the inside of the top of the boot that is considerably thicker and softer than the rest of the padding, it's not a real hiking boot. It might not keep the little pebbles out, and it might chafe or constrict your ankles and Achilles tendon. In either case, it will not serve you well on a serious hike.
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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.

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. (Use the fitting horse that has an angled portion where you're supposed to put your foot to lace the shoe while sitting. Go ahead and stand on it.) 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.

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If you are looking for your first pair of serious hiking boots, you must do your shopping in an outdoor equipment store where you can handle the boots and talk to knowledgeable sales staff. Only if you have some experience with day-hiking boots, take advantage of the bargains available on the Web.

Check for the features that identify a quality hiking boot, and avoid the "fake" hiking boots.

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.

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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
  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 (This page)
  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