I had to retire my hiking boots recently. They had hundreds of miles on them and they developed a crack on the side – which ended any hope of keeping the water out. Waterproof shoes are really essential for hiking in Pennsylvania because you will probably encounter water somewhere on almost every hike. I’ve crossed small streams in those boots without getting my feet wet, which, as avid hikers and members of the military will tell you, is crucial for a successful hike. So, the crack finally forced me to face the fact that I needed to retire my old friends and find a new pair of boots, but how do you even begin?
First, you need to decide what kind of hiking boot or shoe you need. You have to think about the kinds of terrain you will hike, how long you plan to hike and how much weight you will be carrying. According to Backcountry.com, there are three main types of footwear for hiking/backpacking. They are hiking shoes, hiking boots and backpacking boots. Hiking shoes are mainly used for more level terrain, well-defined trails, shorter distances or for more experienced hikers who are not carrying a lot of weight. They are the lightest of all types of shoes. Hiking boots offer more support, are a bit stiffer in the sole and are a bit heavier than hiking shoes. Hiking boots are used for longer hikes with more weight on your back, more uneven terrain, or for those who need more ankle support – like in my case where I have a tendency to roll ankles on rocky terrain. Finally comes the backpacking boots. These are the heaviest of the hiking shoes. They are the stiffest of the three types and usually require a break in period (recommended two full weeks of wearing them before a major backpack trip). These shoes are designed for hikers going on multiple day backpack trips on varied terrain while carrying a heavy load. They are the most durable of the three types of shoes.
One shoe type that Backpacker didn’t mention was Trail Runners. These are very light shoes that offer great tread and dry quickly. They are becoming very popular with AT thru-hikers, despite the lack of ankle support, due to their light weight and ease of use. They are very easy to slip on and off during a hike to air out your feet, they require a short or even no break-in period, and the tread can keep you out of trouble on those slippery trails. Keep in mind though that they don’t offer any ankle support (although high-top versions do exist) and that you may require a sturdier shoe for your foot-type or terrain.
If you prefer to hike fairly flat surfaces or roads, you probably won’t need a hiking boot. You can get away with hiking shoes or trail runners. When I hike on slick rocks, I love my trail runners with the massive grip that they offer. However, when I’m hiking the AT, I need something that is fairly flexible, waterproof (but still breathes for those hot humid days), has good ankle support and a rugged tread.
Once you figure out what overall type of shoe/boot you need, you need to think about fit. (Don’t forget to take any special orthotics with you when trying on the new shoes.) You want a wide toe box so your toes don’t get mashed on the downhills, but you don’t want the shoe to be so wide that your foot shifts around. It is recommended you first try the shoes on while untied, stand up and shift your foot to the front of the toe box. If you can fit your index finger between your heel and the shoe, the fit is pretty good. Walk around in them and make sure your foot isn’t floating around and your toes aren’t hitting the toe box as you walk. If the store has a ramp available to simulate up and downhills, use it. You want to try to imagine walking your miles in the shoes. Do they feel heavy? You might want to look for a lighter model. Do they pinch anywhere? Try a bigger size. Look at the tread. Is it rugged enough for the terrain you are hiking? These are all factors to keep in mind.
I recommend going to a good outfitting store that has knowledgeable employees to begin your search. The salespeople can be a huge help when finding the right shoes. When I went to the store, I let the salesman know exactly what I was looking for: I needed something that was waterproof, not too heavy, pretty flexible, wide toe box, grippy tread, and with good ankle support. Once he had all of that information, he was able to narrow down the field and recommend a few different models from a few select makers. That can make such a difference. If you just Googled “Hiking Shoes”, you would be immediately overwhelmed with hundreds of styles and brands. Having someone knowledgable to help you zone in on a few specific options can save you so much time and effort.
Also, keep in mind that you may eventually wind up with more than one pair of hiking shoes. I have two pairs of hiking shoes/boots now, a pair of running shoes and a pair of water shoes -which I take on hikes with larger stream crossings.
One last word of advice, don’t fall in love with a specific brand/model of shoe. I’ve had a few favorites in the past and it never fails – the one I love is either phased out or the company changes hands and they change the way the shoes are made. It can be so frustrating.
So, I used all of this information and I was able to find the perfect pair of boots for me. Although I’ll miss my old friends, there’s nothing like a new pair of boots just waiting to hit the trail!