Choosing and Caring for Hiking Boots
Bushwalking footwear needs to protect feet from damage and to provide a solid grip. Other considerations, depending on the individual or the trip, may include keeping your feet dry and ankle support. Durability, cost and weight will also come into the equation. The good news is that there are so many good products on the market now that there is bound to be something just right for you - all you have to do is find it.
How to Choose the Right Footwear
The type of environment you will be walking in is a key consideration as a day stroll on your local constructed walking track is a far cry from carrying a backpack for two weeks through the bogs and mountains of Tasmania. The survival of your footwear (materials, construction), the sort of ground you will be traversing, how much you are carrying and the amount of water protection required all need to be factored in.
Personal considerations will include how strong your ankles are, what type of footwear you're used to and the shape and size of your feet. People's feet come in all sorts of odd shapes and sizes, but unfortunately footwear doesn't. It's not uncommon for feet to be slightly different sizes, even up to one full size, which you need to allow for when getting an ideal fit.
For many walkers, the answer is a range of footwear types to cover diverse activities. Although strong sandshoes are still seen around, the advent of modern lightweight boots has almost eliminated the old division between sandshoes and heavy boots.
Consider the type of trip you are planning
Outdoor footwear can be divided into basic categories. You could start your search for the right boots or shoes by focusing on the category that best matches your trip plans.
Sandals - durable, all-purpose sports sandals are designed for walking and water wear with athletically-inspired outsoles for traction on a variety of surfaces. Lightweight sandals offer stability and comfort for everything from day walks to days at the beach.
Approach Shoes - are used to approach various outdoor activities such as rock climbing or paddling. They are great for scrambling, fast hiking, or technical terrain. The emphasis is on lightness and sensitivity, with a function-specific sole which maintains traction on steep gradients. Generally an approach sho won't be lined or insulated so isn't suited to long hikes.
Lightweight walking - these shoes and boots and shoes are designed for day walking and very short overnight trips only. Emphasis is on lightness, comfort, stability and breathability. As a result, they are less supportive and durable than the options below.
Hiking/backpacking - these shoes and boots are designed for use on two to three day walks with light to moderate backpacking loads both on and off the beaten track. Although emphasis is still on lightness and comfort, these boots should also be durable, water resistant and supportive.
Trekking/bushwalking - these shoes and boots are designed for long distance walks over moderate to rough terrain 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 and as a result, they are heavier, and will take longer to break in than hiking boots. Emphasis is on control, long-term support, water-resistance and the boots' ability to withstand abuse. Some are stiff enough to accept crampons for snow/ice travel.
Mountaineering - boots are designed for mountaineering, glacier travel, or aggressive backcountry travel. These boots are stiff and very durable. Mountaineering boots are compatible with step-in crampons for more technical walking/climbing.
The materials used in a given boot or shoe will affect its weight, breathability, durability and water-resistance. Different fabrics can be very similar in performance, so personal preference is often the key when choosing between them.
Full-grain leather - cut from the complete cowhide which retains the hide's tough outer surface, it's denser and therefore more water resistant and supportive. It is used primarily in boots designed for extended trips, heavy loads and hard terrain. It conforms well to the foot over time, can be waterproofed, is abrasion resistant and will last for years when properly cared for. Full-grain leather usually requires a break-in period.
Nubuck leather - is full-grain leather that is distinguished by its sanded, textured finish that looks like suede. This finish is more resistant to marking than a full grain but requires more maintenance. Otherwise it has similar characteristics to full-grain leather.
Suede (split leather) - does not retain the outer skin membrane. Compared to full-grain leather, it is generally less abrasion resistant, is more prone to stretching and less stiff, but still water resistant and durable. Although suede is less appropriate for heavy-duty applications, its flexibility, breathability and lower price make it a good choice for lightweight boots and shoes.
Fabric (usually mesh or 1000-denier nylon) - is often used in lighter shoes and boots for its breathability, low cost and ease of breaking in. Fabric is often used in conjunction with suede or leather to construct footwear that achieves a good balance between support, lightness and breathability. Fabric is difficult to waterproof, but can be treated to become water resistant. It's not as durable as leather, so it is usually found only in lighter-duty footwear.
Plastics (or Nylon) - are used in mountaineering boots. They provide absolute waterproofness and durability. The rigidity of plastic boots makes them well suited to use with crampons in extreme conditions. Plastics, however, will not break in and are used almost exclusively in "double" boots where a padded inner boot buffers the foot from the outer shell.
Waterproof barriers - Lightweight, waterproof barriers (like GORE-TEX® membrane) are built into many boots to enhance water resistance. These barriers are available in a variety of boot styles, from lightweight walking boots right through to the trekking 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.
Liners - Most boots are lined with Cambrelle™, a fabric that absorbs sweat. Some high-end boots are lined with leather, which requires a longer break-in period but results in a custom-molded fit. Cambrelle is a breathable, absorbent lining fabric that transfers moisture away from the skin. It resists odour and mildew.
Leather remains the preferred boot material, although it's often combined with lighter synthetic materials. The best leather is full-grain leather. Lightweight boots may also have this mixed construction, or consist of light (2.0-2.5mm thick) full-grain leather. Heavy backpacking boots are made of full-grain leather, robust stuff 2.5-3.0mm or thicker.
The more seams a boot or shoe has, the higher the risk for leaks or blowouts. Leaking occurs when water seeps through the needle-holes or spaces between the boot panels. Blowouts occur when general wear, repeated flexing or a snag causes stitching to break and the panels to separate. In general, the less seams an upper has, the more water-resistant and more durable it will be.
The connection between the upper and the sole
The soles are either stitched or bonded/cemented to the rest of the boot. Stitching is durable and can be undone to replace the sole. Once it has worn down it is a more expensive process. Bonding is faster and less expensive than stitching, resulting in lower boot prices. Traditionally bonding was not as reliable, but most modern methods produce durable, lost-lasting bonds (depending upon the process and specific glue used). Some bonded boots can now be resoled just like traditional stitch-down models.
The midsole of a boot provides lateral support via a shank - a piece of molded plastic, fibreboard or metal that cradles the foot. To absorb shock it also contains an insert made of EVA, polyurethane or rubber. The shank varies in length depending upon the intended end-use. For trekking or bushwalking a three-quarter or half-length shank will suffice and is more comfortable. Most day walking boots or shoes omit the shank, relying on construction more similar to running shoes. If you are a mountaineer, a full-length shank will hold the foot rigid on difficult terrain.
The outsole of a boot needs to be durable, with a deep tread pattern for grip in a variety of conditions. Typically outsoles are made of rubber, with some companies mixing in sticky rubber for enhanced grip on hard, rocky surfaces. All outsoles must make a trade-off between durability and good grip, softer soles grip well, but wear out fairly quickly.
Once you have narrowed down the options to a handful of boots or shoes, the best way to decide between them is to try them on, as every boot model is built around a different "last" (standard foot shape), so each one will fit you a little differently, but buying online shouldn't get you scared if you measure your foot, follow the brand specific size chart online, and ask the store for some advice if you feel you need to.
Don't rely solely on your usual shoe size when searching for the best fitting boots or shoes as one manufacturer's sizing may vary from another's.
Boots or shoes must fit well, so don't be rushed into buying a pair that only might do. Try to be certain. Following are some tips that apply mostly to boots.
- Before fitting, test the flex of the sole, it must bend where your foot does, at the ball of the foot. Allow for some initial stiffness of the sole.
- Pick the right socks. Wear the type of socks and sock liners that you will be using when you plan to use them, whenever you try 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. Slide your feet forward in the unlaced boots - one finger should fit behind the foot, but not two.
- Kick the feet back in the boots and lace up firmly. The 'ears' of the boot at the lace holes must be well separated.
- Do some deep knee bends. The heels should not rise in the boots more than about 3mm.
- Stand with the heels hooked on the edge of a step and your mass pushing your feet forward in the boots. Your toes must be free to wriggle and should not touch the front of the boots.
- Stand flat on the floor with someone holding the boots to restrain them from moving. Try to move the front of the feet sideways with the heel as the pivot. No side movement of the ball of the foot should be noticeable.
If your feet feel like they are "floating" inside the boots, try a pair half a size down. If your foot feels cramped or your toes make contact with the front or sides of the toe box, try the next size up. If the boots are a little tight sideways, remember that, they often stretch in width, but never change in length - the fitting of heels and toes is more important. New boots may feel a little stiff at first, but they should still be comfortable.
NB. Most manufacturers design footwear for both men and women. Women's are usually distinguished by a narrower heel cup and foot-bed.
Important to note, feet often swell becoming longer and wider, with both walking and the carrying of a load. Your footwear may need to be larger than that usually worn.
Breaking in new boots
Shoes and hybrid lightweight boots usually need little breaking in. It is disastrous however, to start a trip with new leather boots that haven't been worn-in. All too often people buy boots a day or so before departure and the resultant blisters and discomfort ruin the whole trip. If you have not been walking regularly, you may also need to break in your feet. Even joggers can cause rubbing to tender feet on a long walk.
The process of breaking in boots involves getting them to soften and mold to your feet, instead of the factory's, and that basically involves wearing them. The following procedure will work, but it may take longer with tougher boots.
- Apply a waxed-based leather conditioner and warm the boots in the sunshine or a warm room so it soaks in.
- Put the boots on with your walking socks, lace them up and walk them in on generally level ground.
- Keep doing plenty of short walks before going overnight and always keep them laced firmly to prevent movement.
Boot care basics
Keep your boots and 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 newpaper 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 their suppleness. This is true whether you hike in dry, hot conditions or wet, temperate ones.