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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 III:  Hiking Boots:  Parts and Construction 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 ]
[ Parts and Construction ] [ Accessories ]
[ Shopping for Day-Hiking Boots ]
[ Shopping for Backpacking Boots ]
[ Maintenance ]

Part II: Types of Hiking Boots and Hiking Shoes

There are many types of hiking boots and hiking shoes, and the choice can be bewildering. While there are some kinds of hiking footwear that will not fit neatly into any category, I will discuss hiking boots and hiking shoes in terms of four categories, based on the general kind of hiking for which they work best.

  1. Hiking shoes and sandals. These are for very short walks in the outdoors, for knocking around in camp, and for use during easy interludes in an otherwise serious hike.
  2. Day-hiking boots. These are for moderate hiking, such as day hikes, short hikes in very rough country, etc.
  3. Backpacking boots. These are for more serious hiking, like multi-day backpacking expeditions.
  4. Mountaineering boots. These are for the most serious hiking, mountain climbing, and ice climbing.

In this article, we will concentrate mainly on what the categories are and what types of hiking boots belong in which category. In later parts of this series, we will get into more detail regarding how hiking boots and hiking shoes are constructed and how to choose the right hiking footwear for you. For now, let's just talk about what kinds of hiking boots and hiking shoes are out there.

Generally, as you move up the scale of these categories, you also move up in price. Naturally, that also means that you have to give more serious thought and do more careful shopping the higher up the scale you look. But before you begin your serious shopping, get a handle on what types of hiking boots are available so you will be ready to look for the right kind once you know what you really need.

Don't be scared off by the prices, and don't make the mistake of assuming that you don't need special-purpose hiking boots. You probably don't need $200 mountaineering boots, but that doesn't mean you should try a twelve-mile day hike in your tennis shoes, either. In this article, you will learn how to decide which general type of hiking boots are right for what you want to do. Then you'll be prepared to look deeper into exactly what you need.

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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Hiking Shoes and Sandals

Hiking shoes can be multi-purpose footwear. If you are new to hiking, and planning only short hikes on well-maintained trails, you might already have suitable footwear. Cross trainers, trail running shoes, or any reasonably sturdy sneaker may be suitable for light hiking.

I have used baseball shoes with aggressive plastic spikes as hiking shoes. They worked quite well, though the traction on hard rock left something to be desired. Currently, I use purpose-designed trail running shoes as my hiking shoes (as well as my jogging-in-the-woods shoes).

Shoes designed for trail running and light hiking typically rise a little higher than conventional sneakers, and they usually have a padded "scree collar" (see part III of this series). They are usually not waterproof, though they may be somewhat "water resistant," and the tread is not very aggressive.

Hiking shoes are suitable for short hikes on reasonably dry, reasonably smooth trails where you will not be carrying much weight. If you will be crossing streams, climbing steep slopes, walking on snow and ice, or carrying more than about twenty pounds of gear, you should probably look into day-hiking boots or backpacking boots.

Hiking sandals are a special class of hiking footwear. When you consider the four purposes of hiking shoes laid out in the first part of this series - warmth, protection, traction, and keeping dry - sandals might seem like a joke. But think again.

Obviously, you're not hiking in winter in hiking sandals, so keeping your feet warm is just not a consideration that hiking sandals address. Sandals certainly can protect the soles of your feet from rough surfaces and sharp objects, but they can't protect the sides of your feet from rocks and brush. They can provide good traction, all right.

But what about keeping your feet dry? Don't laugh! No, sandals will not keep the water out as you wade across a stream, but neither will they keep the water in when you step out of the stream. Believe it or not, I know several serious hikers who carry sandals in their backpacks and switch to them whenever they cross a stream that they know is going to overtop their hiking boots.

Yes, hiking sandals do have their place. If all you are going to do is relatively light, short hikes on relatively clear, level trails in warm weather, sandals are worth at least a little consideration. More importantly, if you want a pair of hiking shoes to switch out in the middle of a long, serious hike, hiking sandals may well be worth the space they take up in your backpack.

In later parts of this series, I will not be discussing hiking shoes or hiking sandals in any more detail. There's just not that much to say. Look for the same kind of traction and ruggedness you might want in a pair of outdoor running shoes. And if you don't like the way they wear, try something different next time.

Amazon's best reviewed men's hiking shoe (Price varies by size and color. If you are stuck with the $99.99 sizes, consider Chaco Men's Canyonland Low Sneaker.):


Women's (Price varies by size and color, but all on sale this month. Not too bad.)


Men's hiking sandal (Sale on selected colors and sizes):


Women's (On sale this month. Not too bad. And don't let the "kid" part fool you.):


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Day-Hiking Boots

Day-hiking boots are purpose-designed for hiking. If you are planning to do any moderately serious hiking, such as any all-day hike or even short hikes on rugged trails, you will need to give some serious thought to your footwear.

Day-hiking boots typically rise just above the ankle, and they always have a padded "scree collar" (see part III of this series). They usually have a fairly stiff fiberglass shank to reinforce the sole and arch supports. The tongue is partially attached, sometimes fully attached, to provide waterproofing. They usually have a moderate to aggressive tread design.

Some day-hiking boots have crampon connections - pronounced indentations in the edges of the sole at the toe and heel that can accommodate crampons. This is usually not an important consideration in selecting your day-hiking boots, because if you expect to do that much hiking on ice, you should be looking at backpacking boots. I wear light crampons on my day-hiking boots occasionally, even though my boots were not designed for it. The light crampons I use for the occasional icy patch were designed to attach to any shoe by clamping onto the lip of the sole.

To accommodate the higher rise and to allow you to adjust the tightness easily, day-hiking boots nearly always have hooks for the laces on the upper part of the boot. Some have eyelets all the way to the top, but these are hard to keep properly tightened.

Beware of imitations! The fashion industry has caught on to the style of hiking boots, and you will find many shoes that look like hiking boots, but are better suited to hanging out at Starbucks than to hiking the backwoods. Look closely, and you can tell the real hiking boots from the wannabes:

  • Scree collar
  • Stiff shank
  • Attached or partially attached tongue
  • Genuinely aggressive tread

None of these features show when you're just looking cool, so the imitation hiking boots don't have them.

Day-hiking boots are good for moderate hiking, such as an all-day hike in fairly rugged country, or short hikes in very rough conditions. If you will be hiking for long, multi-day backpacking trips or hiking very frequently on very rough trails or off-trail conditions, you should consider backpacking boots instead.

There is a lot to consider when looking at day-hiking boots, and I will go into more details in later parts of this series. I will discuss how they are constructed, with a view to how you should choose the right hiking boots for you, and where to find the best deals, meaning the right boot for the money, not necessarily the least expensive.

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


Women's:


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Backpacking Boots

Backpacking boots are designed for long wear under fairly harsh conditions. If you are planning to do a lot of hiking, especially multi-day backpacking trips or all-day hikes on rough trails or off-trail conditions, you will need backpacking boots. And don't be put off by the prices: A hundred-dollar pair of boots that lasts five years is cheaper than buying a forty-dollar pair every year. And more comfortable, too.

Backpacking boots usually rise well above the ankle. Very high-rise boots, like military-style "combat boots," may not have a padded "scree collar," but lower-rise boots will have one. They have a very stiff shank, which may be fiberglass or steel, to provide stiffness and arch support. The tongue may be partially attached on high-rise boots, or fully attached on lower boots. It will always be attached to a point fairly high on your ankle to keep out water. Backpacking boots always have a very aggressive tread design.

Many backpacking boots will have eyelets for the laces all the way up. This makes the boots harder to put on and take off. It also makes the laces more difficult to adjust than if they had hooks, but the eyelets are less prone to catching on brush or getting bent closed when you bash your leg against a boulder. D-rings, used on the upper parts of some hiking boots, are a good compromise. They are less prone to damage than hooks, but more easily adjustable than eyelets.

There are heavy-duty boots out there that are not suitable for hiking. Work boots can be very similar to hiking boots in every detail except the tread. When choosing backpacking boots, make sure the tread is designed for the trail and not for the workshop.

Backpacking boots are what you want for serious hiking such as multi-day backpacking trips, or very frequent hiking in rugged conditions. For even more aggressive expeditions, such as ice climbing or hiking up Mount Everest, you will want more specialized mountaineering boots.

Purchasing a pair of backpacking boots is an investment that needs careful consideration. Before you run out and buy a pair, read the rest of this series, where I will discuss backpacking boots in more detail. I will discuss how they are constructed, so you know what features to look for and how to evaluate the right pair for your purposes. And I will show you how to find a good source to get the most hiking boot for the money.

Amazon's best reviewed men's backpacking boot:


Women's:


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Mountaineering Boots

Mountaineering boots are specially designed for serious expeditions in primitive and rugged conditions. The term "mountaineering boots" generally also includes such specialized footwear as ice-climbing boots.

I'll be perfectly honest here (habit of mine): I have no personal experience with mountaineering boots, nor with the conditions that require them. So I don't have much to tell you about them other than that they exist and that, depending on your requirements, they may be what you need. When you are ready to take a good look at mountaineering boots, I can only advise you to look for suitable advice.

Mountaineering boots are generally completely rigid, made of thick, heavy leather or molded plastic. They are quite heavy, and difficult to walk in under most normal conditions.

Don't be oversold. If you are looking for backpacking boots, you don't need special-purpose mountaineering boots. This is one case where buying more hiking boot than you need can actually be detrimental. Mountaineering boots are what you want for climbing Mount Everest, but not for hiking in the typical National Park.

In later parts of this series, I will not be discussing mountaineering boots in any more detail. If this is what you're looking for, you will need more specialized information and advice than I am able to give you.

Amazon's best reviewed men's mountaineering boot:


Women's:


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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 (This page)
  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
  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