Everything you need to know when choosing hiking boots

By October 6, 2019Adventure Hacks, Gear, Reviews

Andrew – Vast Outdoors

“Which are the best boots?” is a question I hear a lot, but the answer is rarely simple.  This is an attempt to provide a bit more information to help you in your search, but it is always beneficial to deal with a store where the staff know what they are talking about.  

There are many variations in the design of hiking footwear: height around the ankle, how stiff the sole is and the materials they are made from.  Some are waterproof; some aren’t. If you can imagine a sliding scale of the type of hiking people do, with easy afternoon walks along well-made trails at one end and multi-day off-track treks through rough alpine area at the other end.  The footwear required for each end of the spectrum is very different.  

A basic rule is: the rougher the terrain and the heavier the load you are carrying, the stiffer the sole and the higher around the ankle your footwear needs to be. This theoretically reduces the chance of injury and prevents fatigue.

The above images show the varying degree of flex in boots under the same load pressure

Once you’ve got a rough idea of what you want, you then have to find a pair that fit.  Correct fit is about so much more than just getting the size right — the width, volume and shape are all important.  The foot needs to be stable, with no significant movement or changes of shape. A stable foot will minimize strain and fatigue. 

The only way to find the best fit is to try the shoes on.  Sure, you can get a basic idea looking at the shoes, but you’ll never know for sure until you’re walking around with them on your feet.  

Step-by-step guide to trying shoes on

Before you try on new shoes, make sure you are wearing appropriate socks.  Most stores can lend you a pair if necessary. Have a good look at your feet to check for any signs of irritation (red skin, sensitivity) and other things like your longest toe (it’s not always the big toe) and any bony protrusions like bunions.  New shoes can exaggerate the discomfort these issues cause.  

Once the shoe is on your foot, it needs to be laced correctly, firm from toe to ankle.  This can be changed to work around certain problems, but more on that later. First, check there is enough room for your toes to wiggle around and not feel squashed.  Then, ensure they won’t make contact with the front of the shoe. There are many ways to check this — most good shops will have a ramp you can stand on to simulate walking downhill, but the bottom line is you don’t want to feel your toes make contact with the end of the shoe, or get squashed at the sides if the shoe narrows towards the front.  

There is no specific clearance measurement required to ensure a contact-free fit.  We often say the width of a finger is a good gauge (my index finger is 2cm wide), but less will be OK if the shoe secures your foot well.  Next, check is how secure your foot is inside the shoe. You are looking for excess movement (which causes blisters); the most obvious point is in the heel.  It will feel like your foot is lifting out of the shoe. This is usually a sign that the volume of the shoe doesn’t suit your foot (too much space over the top of the foot), but it could also mean the laces need tightening.  

Some shoes are made of very stiff materials which can take a couple of weeks’ wear to soften and mould to the shape of your foot, so when they are new you need to tie the laces tight to force the material into the right shape.  It could also be caused by the size being too large. Don’t be afraid to try multiple sizes to ensure you have the right one. And don’t get caught up with the size on the box, there can be huge variations from different manufacturers, so buy the ones that feel right. 

Once you have established a great size and secure fit, it’s time to check the finer points of fit.  At this point, it comes down to how it feels. You are looking for pressure points, rubbing and general discomfort.  Have a good walk around, spend some time in them. First impressions are very important, but the true character of the shoe will only show through when you have done some distance in them. 

How to break your boots in  

I always recommend building up the distance in stages.  Start by wearing them around inside your house — just having them properly laced up on your feet will begin the breaking-in process.  If you notice some discomfort, most shops will happily work with you to remedy the issue or exchange/refund if the problem can’t be fixed.  

Once you are reasonably comfortable in the shoes start walking shorter distances — or if you have to take them on a long walk — maybe carry a second pair of shoes just in case, or at least some form of blister prevention or treatment. 

Footwear’s more than just shoes or boots

Don’t underestimate the importance of good socks.  A sock needs to be a cushion between your foot and the shoe, so some padding on the bottom (at least for the heel and the ball of the foot) is essential to wick perspiration away from the skin.  If your skin is damp, you will blister more easily.  

The best all-round material is wool, with a natural spring in the fibre which makes it great for cushioning. Wool also absorbs a significant amount of moisture into the fibre before feeling damp to the touch.  All socks will have some synthetic component, usually elastic to improve fit and nylon to strengthen the high-wear areas. Some socks blend in synthetics that help wick perspiration where it can evaporate quicker.  These will generally cost more, but perform better (my favourite brand is Bridgedale).

Lacing techniques are hard to describe; it’s much easier to look at pictures.  This link is to an American magazine that has republished some photos from one of the training manuals I use.  It is by no means a complete list, but it covers the main techniques I use. Try googling “lacing techniques for hiking boots” to see just how many variations there are.


To try on footwear with no obligations, visit Vast Outdoors at 880 Nepean Hwy, Hampton East. There is no substitute for coming in and trying stuff on but for more information, phone (03) 9555 7811.

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