“What hiking boots should I buy?”
The answer to this common question is simple: buy the boots that fit your feet!
“I could list a whole lot of attributes that I think a hiking boot should have,” mountaineer and adventurer Peter Hillary told me when I interviewed him for an article on bushwalking technology and safety some years back, but if you find boots that lack in some areas but are really comfortable, they are the boots for you. “If you’ve got uncomfortable feet your great adventure has got serious limitations.”
And not everyone is a fan of traditional hiking boots at all. One of my close friends wore elastic-sided boots in all conditions and some people still swear by Dunlop Volleys!
I recently had to buy new boots, an activity I dread more than scaling a steep scree slope or navigating a slimy log, because while my feet are a standard, off-the-op-shop-shelf width and length, my toes are slightly squared, so many boot lasts – the last is the foot-shaped mechanical form around which the boot is made – don’t fit. I am extremely jealous of friends who have found a boot brand/style perfect for them and buy the same one each time without issue.
In contrast, my hiking boot history is a who’s who of manufacturers. Over the years I have walked in Zamberlan, Hi-Tec, Scarpa, Footprint (made by Birkenstock) and Oboz boots but I have always been eager at day’s end to slip my feet into something more comfortable! My first hiking boots were too small (incorrectly fitted), which contributed to the near life-long abuse of my big toe nails. Some boots have rubbed, necessitating the taping of toes and heals before every walk. One pair made my feet sweat worse than usual – which is saying something – so I on-sold them soon after purchase.
This time around I spent four hours trying on eight different pairs of fabric, hybrid and leather boots in Melbourne’s Little Bourke Street. The heftiest and most expensive proved to be the most comfortable so I brought home a pair of leather-and-goretex Asolo 520s. Frustratingly, our on-track relationship is not yet living up to the in-shop promise but a podiatrist thinks it is my feet rather than the boots and, unfortunately, I can’t sell them on ebay!
With a few helpful hints, though, you might have more success.
What do you want the boots for?
Footwear is a vital piece of hiking kit but the variety can bamboozle. While walking sandals suit many situations, including hikes with water crossings, because they grip while allowing your feet to breathe, ankle support is important on rougher tracks and when carrying a pack. You need a sturdier boot for heavy pack walks than you do on lighter weighted day walks, because the added burden on your back changes your posture and bodily stresses.
Boots should have a thick enough and firm enough sole to protect your feet from rocky ground and side protection from rocks and sticks.
Talk to the salespeople. Many know what they are talking about and will point you towards the right style of boot for the job.
Size and fit?
Even if you have worn the same shoe size for years, get your boots professionally fitted.
Boots should fit snuggly, so your feet don’t move around, but not tightly, and allow your toes wriggle room. Try them on at day’s end (when your feet are swollen) and with the socks you plan to wear.
With the boot fully unlaced, move your foot as far forward in the boot as possible. In a correctly sized boot you should be able to slip your index finger down inside the boot at the back of your ankle. This determines there’s space when your foot slides forward on descents under load.
Also walk up and down the ramp (good shops have them). And put your foot behind you and tap the toe on the ground; you should not be able to feel the front of the boot with your toes (vitally important on long descents).
Try on several different boots and compare, even one of each make on different feet. And don’t buy the first one that feels good; you can always come back to them.
Do try makes recommended by friends but remember that their shape might not suit your feet.
Put a sock on it?
Socks affect comfort and safety. Ask shop staff what they recommend but only trial and error will reveal what your feet prefer. Having worn thicker, wool-and-nylon blend Explorer-type socks for years, and tried the double layer system that many hikers swear by, I now wear thinner, left-and-right socks for a perfect fit.
Wear them in?
ALWAYS wear-in your new boots/shoes at home and on short walks before tackling anything major. And treat hot spots as soon as they develop, because blister pain can turn bushwalking bliss into hiking hell.
Feet booted and comfortable? Get walking!