What’s the best footwear for hiking?

By Graeme Shaw of Hiking Britain

VERY often, the first question a new member asks when posting in Hiking Britain is something along the lines of “I’m new to hiking and I don’t know what boots I should buy. Which brand should I get?”

And before long the question will be met with answers giving recommendations for 20 different brands.

It can seem confusing and for longer term members, a little irksome, as they often see the same question posed in the group every week from the new arrivals. The question is always answered with good grace and good humour because Hiking Britain members know that we all had to start somewhere and just because the question has been asked a hundred times doesn’t mean it’s any less valid or the information the questioner seeks is any less important to them.

The truth may shock you!

The surprising answer to the “best boots for me” question is that there is no particular brand that rises head-and-shoulders above all others, and it always comes down to personal preference. Some members swear by very costly high-end boots, while others have nothing but good to say about budget brands. There is a good reason for such diverse opinion on brand and it has nothing to do with – and yet everything to do with – brands. Confused yet?

Ok, let’s put brands behind us for a moment.

The most important rule when buying boots is: Fit. Fit. Fit.

The most important thing about your boots is how well they fit you. No matter if they are £25 end of line bargains or £350 top brand boots, the single most important thing is ‘foot comfort’. If you can’t walk because your boots don’t fit then no matter how much money you spent buying them, they are worthless to you as hiking boots. You might as well just turn them into plant pots.

Boots that seemed just a teeny bit tight when you tried them on in the shop could cause you some real issues on a hike and could put you off hiking for good. Badly-fitting boots are painful and can even be dangerous, leaving you unable to walk and still miles left from journey’s end. No one on a hike ever said “oh thank goodness I have developed painful blisters on my feet as I was having too much fun!”

Because everyone has slightly different foot size and shape the best way forward is to visit a specialist hiking/outdoor activities shop or superstore and speak to the staff there. Almost always there is a footwear trained member of staff on hand to give out advice and guidance.

Some people have wide feet, some narrow, some have high arches, some not, some people have feet that are two different sizes. We are all different. So why should the make of boots that that fit me be necessarily suitable for you?

The shop staff member will measure your feet, toe-to-heel, across the foot and height of arch and then suggest which boots are most likely to suit your foot shape.

Do also remember to wear a pair of walking socks when trying your selection of boots at the shop. You are most likely going to be wearing thick socks when walking so it makes sense to try and replicate as closely as possible how your feet will be on a walk, in the shop. Otherwise you run the risk of buying boots that seem fine in the shop but suddenly feel too tight and cramped when you are wearing hiking socks on your walk. Try both boots on and fasten them as you would if you were heading out into the green and the grey.

Some people even buy a size larger than they would normally wear in a shoe to accommodate for thicker socks. I personally don’t with the brand of boot I currently wear as they fit my foot shape perfectly. Yours may too. Then again they may not. Purchase accordingly.

A boot should always feel good on the foot. It may feel a little strange at first to those of us not used to wearing the footwear equivalent of Land Rovers. They will probably feel a little heavy and clunky and even slightly restrictive. That is okay. What you need to be aware of are pressure points and even obvious pain. If they don’t feel okay in the shop then they aren’t going to get better. Don’t kid yourself that they will ‘bed in’ because they won’t. That is not what bedding in is about.

Remember when I wrote earlier that “there is a good reason for such diverse opinion on brand and it has nothing to do with – and yet everything to do with – brands”? What did I mean?

Simply this. Some brands are better suited to certain foot-shapes and some brands are better suited to other foot-shapes. So when someone finds a brand that fits their foot-shape well then they often stick with that brand. Hence the sometimes seemingly rabid support for some brands from some members. Indeed, I myself have a brand I am loyal to as their boots are very well matched to my foot-shape. The brand I am loyal to offers boots in normal and extra wide fitting, as of course do some other brands.

Once you have found your fit, you will need to think about the terrain you intend to walk across on a regular basis and what are you going to ask of your footwear.

Do you only plan to walk in summer when it is typically dryer underfoot than the other three seasons? If so you may wish to consider a material that allows more air to permeate through the upper of the boot, or even a boot that is vented. Keep in mind that that style of boot is typically less waterproof. Not really a problem on a dry day when you accidently get your foot wet in a stream but not good at all for prolonged wet, muddy conditions. For those conditions you will need to look at a boot that offers better weather protection and is more waterproof.

Do you walk in wetter areas or at all times of the year? Will you be walking on rocky surfaces? Then perhaps you would consider leather uppers or a specialist man-made equivalent for the better waterproof barrier it offers. Leather also offers good side penetration protection from jagged rocks and thick or broken branches and it is easy to maintain and keep relatively waterproof.

Higher boots offer more ankle protection from twisting and knocks to the exposed ankle bone but some walkers feel more restricted in their lower foot movement range and of course the more boot there is, the heavier the boot is.

What is ‘Bedding in’?

Bedding in’ is the given term for what your boots do when they are going from the new unused state to the fully ‘in use’ state. The new material will bend and fold and form around the contours of your foot for the first time as you walk in your boots and thereafter always in that spot. This happens quickly in some boot brands, not so quickly in others. They have completed the bedding in process when the folding, bending and forming has reached a set resistance and is not going to resist any less. They will always bend and stretch in those same places thereafter. You’ll probably find that with a comfortable pair of boots you’ll feel a little discomfort after your first long walk so start comfortably and see where there is pressure build up when you walk. There should be no pain or rubbing or crushing or numbness when you first put on the boots. If there is then your boots do not fit and no amount of bedding in will help.

Blisters, the hiker’s enemy!

Keep in mind that the cause of blisters is the build-up of heat in a very localised area. The reason this build-up happens in the boot is because of friction between the sock and the skin of the foot. The reason the sock and the skin of the foot are experiencing friction is because they are moving against each other.

They are moving against each other because the boot is loose. Discounting badly fitted boots from the off (because you had your feet measured correctly and chose your footwear accordingly) there are usually only one or two reasons why blisters are developing:

1. Your foot is wet

Water lubricates, to a point. A wet foot is wet enough for the foot to start sliding a millimetre or two inside the sock. It can be caused by sweat just as much as it is caused by rainwater getting inside the boot. The key is to stop the friction against the skin. If you can, remove your boot and dry your foot, change socks and apply a foot plaster over the affected area if you have such with you (you should). Retighten your laces and make sure they are tensioned correctly.

2. Your boot is too loose

A boot that is too loose doesn’t even need to be wet inside to cause friction. Obviously a loose boot will allow the foot to move around inside it and friction will build up between sock and foot. Apply a foot plaster over the affected area and retighten your laces, making sure they are tensioned correctly.

Always carry clean hiking socks and foot plasters. You may never need them but it is always better to have and not need, than to need and not have.

Look after your boots!

Clean your boots regularly. Cleaning the boots allows you to closely inspect them for damage or faults and wear. Follow the manufacturer recommendations for cleaning and reproofing. Always allow wet hiking boots to dry naturally. Don’t force-dry your boots buy putting them next to a hot radiator, camp fire or other heat source. Excessive heat can damage your boots.

We understand that this is just a basic guide to choosing the right hiking boots so please feel free to ask further questions in the Hiking Britain group if you have them.

Thank you for reading this far.

Graeme Shaw

Hiking Britain

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