Choosing the Right Footwear
Choosing the right footwear may be the most important decision you make as a beginning backpacker. The shoes or boots you choose must be comfortable, durable and protective, mile after mile.
Step #1: Consider the Kinds of Trips You Have Planned
Outdoor footwear can be divided into 3 basic categories. Begin your search for the right boots or shoes by focusing on the category that best matches your backpacking plans.
- Lightweight hiking – These boots (and trail shoes) are designed for day hiking and very short overnight trips only. They stress comfort, cushioning and breath ability. As a result, they are less supportive and durable than the options below.
- Midweight hiking/backpacking – These boots are designed for on- and off-trail hiking with light to moderate backpacking loads. They are more durable and supportive than lightweight hiking boots, but they are still intended primarily for short to moderate trips over easy to moderate terrain.
- Extended backpacking/mountaineering – These boots are designed for on- and off-trail hiking with moderate to heavy backpacking loads. They are designed with multi-day trips in mind. Durable and supportive, they provide a high degree of ankle and foot protection. Some of these models are designed specifically for rough terrain with heavy backpacking loads. They offer the very best in durability, support and protection. Some are stiff enough to accept crampons for snow/ice travel.
Step #2: Consider the Materials
The materials used in a given boot or trail shoe will affect its weight, breath ability, durability and water-resistance. Since boots made of different fabrics can be very similar in performance, however, personal preference is often the key when choosing between them.
- Nylon mesh and split grain leather – Nylon and split-grain leather boots are lightweight and breathable, which makes them perfect for warm- to moderate-weather use and short to moderate backpacking trips. They tend to be softer on your feet, they take less time to break in, and they are almost always lighter than full-grain leather boots. They also cost less. Unfortunately, nylon/split grain boots tend to be less water resistant than full-grain leather boots (although styles that feature waterproof liners can be just as water-tight, if not more so).
- Full-grain leather – Full-grain leather is extremely water-resistant, durable and supportive (more so than split-grain leather or nylon). It’s used primarily in backpacking boots designed for extended trips, heavy loads and hard terrain. Not as lightweight or breathable as nylon/split grain combinations, but it typically lasts far longer. Full-grain leather usually requires a break-in period..
- Waterproof barriers – Lightweight, waterproof barriers (like Gore-Tex®) are built into many hiking boots to enhance their water resistance. These barriers are available in a variety of boot styles, from lightweight hikers to extended hiking/backpacking models. Waterproof performance depends upon the type of barrier used, the materials protecting it and how well the boots/shoes are taken care of. If cared for correctly, these waterproof barriers often last longer than the boots themselves.
NOTE: Be careful when shopping for backpacking boots to differentiate between the following:
- Waterproof leather — This is leather that’s been treated to be waterproof. It’s great stuff to have, but remember — leaks may still occur (depending on how well the boot pieces are put together).
- Waterproof (or water-tight) construction — This refers to construction techniques designed to keep leaks out (like seam-sealing, special stitches and precise designs). Water-tight construction is typically combined with waterproofed materials.
- Waterproof liners — These are the special waterproof barriers described above that are built right into the boot to protect you from whatever leaks make it through the boot materials. These liners typically do a great job of keeping you dry. But remember, Gore-Tex (and the others) don’t last forever.
TIP: The water proof (or water resistance) of your hiking boots depends significantly on how well you treat them. Be sure to follow all care instructions that come with your boots so that they can perform well and last a long time.
Step #3: Test for Fit
Once you’ve narrowed down your options to a handful of boots or shoes, the best way to decide between them is to try them on. Don’t rely solely on your “regular” shoe size when searching for the best fitting boots or shoes. One manufacturer’s “9” may vary widely from another’s (see below).
- Begin with a foot measurement – Have an experienced REI salesperson measure both of your feet using a Brannock device. Use these measurements as your starting point for trying on boots. If one foot is larger than the other (which is quite common), fit your larger foot first. You may need to use extra socks or an insert to take up extra space in the other boot.
- Pick the right socks – Wear the type of socks and sock liners that you’ll be using out on the trail whenever you try on boots.
- Check the initial fit – Lace up the boots and stand up. They should feel snug around the ball and instep of your foot, but loose enough that flexing your foot forward is not uncomfortable. Your heel should be held firmly in place. If your foot feels like it’s “floating” inside the boot, try a half size down. If your foot feels cramped or your toes make contact with the front or sides of the toe box, try the next bigger size.
- Take a walk – Take a walk and see how comfortable the boots/shoes are. Check for any looseness, foot movement and/or heel lift. Good-fitting boots will hold your feet firmly in place without binding or pinching them. New boots may feels a little stiff at first, but they should still be comfortable.
After a quick walk across a flat surface, step onto an incline facing downhill (if one is available) to check for foot slippage. Your feet should not slide forward easily, nor should you be able to move your heel from side to side. If either of these is possible, try a smaller (or lower volume) boot. If your toes make contact with the front of the boot without much forward movement, try a larger size or a different boot.
- Investigate your options – Try on a number of boot models before you decide on a single pair, even if the first pair feels good. Every boot model is built around a different “last” (standard foot shape), so each one will grab you a little differently.
Keep your boots and trail shoes clean between uses by brushing off dirt and mud (both can ruin leather over time). Most fabric boots/shoes can be washed on the outside with mild soap and water (not detergent).
If your boots get drenched, stuff them loosely with newspaper and dry them in a warm place. Never rush the drying process by placing them near a fire, heater or other heat source.
Boots, especially leather ones, should be conditioned from time to time to maintain your investment. This is true whether you hike in dry, hot conditions or wet, temperate ones.