The Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Perfect Hiking Boots

Hiking Boots

Hiking Boot Categories


Unsurprisingly, boots in this category are light and flexible while still being durable enough for a longer day hike or a quick overnight backpacking trip. Waterproof liners are common, but usually of the less expensive variety. Mesh and nylon are being used in construction materials more frequently than leather. As a result, they are less expensive and lighter, but less durable than some more expensive full-leather options. The structure won’t be as rigid either because the shank and support of the boot won’t be very substantial.

This lightweight subcategory of over-the-ankle trail runners has undergone some innovation due to the growing popularity of trail running shoes for hiking and backpacking. The basic idea is to take the base of a running shoe and raise the collar and lacing system by a few inches. This maintains the lightness, comfort, and speed of that footwear category while offering a slight boost in protection and support.

As we’ve discovered, Lightweight Boots come with a number of compromises, including toughness, protection for the toe and foot from thin materials, and stability on uneven terrain or when hauling a heavy load. However, those who enjoy quick, light movements—and maybe even a little running—may discover that the benefits of a boot with good maneuverability outweigh the drawbacks.


With sufficient support to carry a heavy load but without making you feel like someone stuffed lead in your socks, midweight boots are the perfect compromise. The demand from day hikers and backpackers for a relatively light but functional option is reflected in the category’s rapid growth.  The boots are a little bit stiffer (but not by much) than your day hikers thanks to the strong underfoot support. Prices in this category typically start at around $200 due to the high high quality of the materials and construction methods. At that price point, the waterproof bootie’s quality increases, and GTX (Gore-Tex) is frequently used.


Heavyweight boots are typically designed for challenging, rocky terrain and lengthy treks with large backpacks. While the Gore-Tex and thick upper materials provide excellent performance in the rain and snow, they will run warm in hot weather. By preventing the heel from dipping with each step, their sturdy construction also lessens the strain of long ascents. They are also frequently compatible with strap-on crampons for light mountaineering. One more piece of advice: Don’t buy a pair of these boots and start hiking right away. If you take the time to break them in, you’ll have a trusted partner for many years to come. For challenging terrain, heavyweight boots provide the best support and protection.

Things To Consider When Choosing Hiking Boots


It is equally clear how different weights affect how well a boot performs. First off, although there isn’t always a direct correlation, a lighter boot will typically provide less long-term durability, support, and protection. Going light can be a great idea for thru-hikers or minimalists, but it can be problematic if you’re carrying a heavy pack and traversing rough terrain.

Stiffness and Stability

Generally speaking, a hiking boot is made to be stable, which typically entails inserting a shank—a piece of hard plastic—between the midsole and outsole. Depending on the intended use, the plastic’s length can range from just below the arch to the entire length of the boot. A stiff boot has the advantage of preventing the heel from dropping during an ascent, which helps to lessen calf fatigue.

A lightweight and flexible hiking boot is essential for day hikes on easier or less strenuous terrain or if you want to move quickly and light. A more robust boot that increases ankle support is a better option as your trips lengthen and your pack weight increases. Heavyweight hiking boots are great for off-trail bushwhacking, traversing an exposed area, or trekking over difficult terrain at the extreme end of the spectrum.


Whatever the salespeople may claim, making a boot waterproof automatically reduces breathability. All types of waterproof footwear can get warm in the summer because they prevent water from entering from the outside and make it harder for moisture (your sweat) to quickly and easily escape from the inside. However, the ventilation capabilities of various boot models vary greatly.


The vast majority of hiking boots are waterproof, and the peace of mind from a sudden downpour while backpacking is enough for most people to select a GTX (Gore-Tex) model. A waterproof and breathable bootie is typically inserted inside the outer fabric of these boots to make them waterproof. The most common and well-known liners are made of Gore-Tex, but even proprietary technologies like KEEN’s KEEN are gaining popularity. The boot also has a water-repellent coating to help water droplets bead up and shed.

Although most hiking boots are waterproof, does that mean they should be? The waterproofing on a spring or summer backpacking trip in Canyonlands does nothing but make your feet hot and sweaty. It’s nice to have waterproofing so your feet does not get wet walking through mud or crossing a stream (we cover breathability in greater detail below). There is also a case to be made that, in genuinely dreadful weather, your feet will eventually become wet regardless of waterproof design. Some backpackers choose to wear non-waterproof shoes with gaiters on top for weather protection as an alternative. Even though water will still be able to enter the sides, the boots will dry far more quicker. Additionally, the gaiters prevent trail debris, water, or snow from entering over the top of the boot.

Our opinion of waterproofing is that it’s best for most people, especially those who travel to mountainous areas where the possibility of a downpour or water on the trail is always present. Despite some flaws in the designs, a good waterproof lining will keep you reasonably dry in all but the worst weather. Additionally, wearing an extra layer helps to insulate you from the cold if you hike in the cooler months. No matter how few options are available on the market, hikers in particularly hot and dry locations like Arizona and Utah might be better off using a non-waterproof model. 

Relating Article: How To Waterproof Leather Hiking Boots?

Lacing Systems

Although often ignored, hiking boots’ laces are a crucial component of fit and comfort. If a shoe’s lacing is shoddy and prone to loosening, you’ll have to adjust it frequently on the trail or risk getting blisters and hot spots. There are many high-quality replacement laces available if the problem is limited to the laces themselves (and can usually be found at a local outdoors shop). However, if the system doesn’t fit or hold your foot well, we advise looking elsewhere. We are hesitant to endorse Salomon’s and Adidas’ single-pull speed lace models because of this. Despite its convenience, customizing fit may be more challenging, which can cause discomfort over long distances and when wearing a heavy pack.

The lacing systems should advance as you upgrade to more aggressive designs. Locking hooks near the bend of the ankle are notable boot upgrades. These hooks do a fantastic job of holding the laces in place, which improves comfort and on-trail performance.

Comfort is significantly influenced by the lacing system.

Hiking Boot “Upper” Materials

The durability, water resistance, and breathability of a shoe are directly correlated with the material used in the upper, the fabric that connects to the rubber outsole. A boot or shoe is typically made of a combination of synthetic materials, mesh, and leather. There are some exceptions, especially with one-piece leather constructions. The advantages and disadvantages of the most popular materials for hiking footwear are listed below.

Synthetic Nylon and Mesh

On entry-level and mid-level boots, woven nylon and open mesh nylon panels are frequently used to increase breathability. Although they don’t have the same reputation for strength, they are excellent at reducing weight. In addition, the fabric can wick away moisture more quickly than a leather boot. 

Nubuck and Suede Leather

Nubuck leather, which is made of full grain leather but has a brushed finish that gives it a suede-like feel, is frequently seen on mid-range boots. Compared to conventional, glossy full-leather options, the softer touch leather is lighter and more flexible, but the thinner construction is less long-lasting. However, because it is more resilient than the majority of nylon mesh inserts, it is common to find a combination of Nubuck leather and mesh, with the leather bits giving the boots a little bit more sturdiness. Furthermore, due to its brushed finish, Nubuck leather has a tendency to breathe better than full-grain leather and is less likely to show scuffmarks.

Full-Grain Leather

The majority of the time, tough, heavyweight boots have this kind of upper. Although not as light or breathable, these designs are incredibly durable and water resistant. They do require some upkeep to keep the leather in good condition, but those cleaning efforts will be rewarded with a construction that is made to last longer than anything else on the market. Additionally, some boots can have their soles replaced, saving you from having to buy a brand-new boot when the lugs wear out.

Midsole Types

Your feet are put under stress when wearing hiking boots as these typically weight much. The midsole works in tandem with the rubber outsole to absorb shock from impacts and add another layer of defense against jagged rocks. Midsoles can range in thickness from very thin (as in a fastpacking boot) to stiff and substantial (full leather hiking boot). The majority of them are built using PU, EVA foam, or a combination of the two.


The majority of lightweight and midweight hiking boots have a midsole made of EVA foam. Impacts from your heel or midfoot are less painful thanks to this soft and light material. The proprietary versions of EVA range in stiffness from barely there to extremely soft, so not all of them should be treated equally. Instead of too much cushioning, we prefer a firm and supportive midsole for logging serious miles on more challenging terrain. Additionally, those excessively soft midsoles have a tendency to degrade over time, much like a running shoe. A better midsole design and a higher-grade EVA compound typically cost more.


Manufacturers will use a PU or polyurethane midsole for tougher applications or when it’s important to isolate your feet from harsh impacts. Compared to midsoles made only of EVA, this resilient foam is significantly less cushy but will last longer and support heavier loads. Additionally, they won’t compress as easily as EVA and will maintain their shape for a longer period of time.

Outsoles and Traction

Improved traction is frequently the driving force behind switching from a flimsy cross trainer to a real hiking boot or shoe. When the going gets rocky, slippery, or steep, hiking footwear is far superior that more casual footwear can never match. And Vibram occupies a similar space for outsoles, much like how Gore-Tex rules the market for mid- to high-end waterproofing. However, since the rubber company customizes its designs for the particular footwear and brand, not all Vibram models should be viewed equally. Some prioritize sticky rubber for climbing over rocks, while others feature much larger lugs for serious mud traction. Additionally, there are more affordable options that perform well on simpler trails (such as the lugs on the bottom of the Merrell Moab boots). The key takeaway is that it’s important to look at the lug depth and compound type description to determine where a particular outsole will function best.

One company that doesn’t outsource its traction requirements is Salomon. The company instead uses its own Contagrip brand for all of its boot and shoe models. They also don’t lack experience, having years of experience in everything from trail running to hiking. From their quick and light X Ultra Mid hiking boots to the robust Salomon Quest 4 backpacking boots, the level of quality and performance is consistent across the board with Vibram’s offerings.

Toe Protection

The front of many hiking boots is covered by toe caps or rubber rands, which is a crucial element to the design of backpacking boots. These substantial chunks of rubber are intended to protect your toes if you unintentionally kick a rock on the trail. Toe protection is one area where you might make a sacrifice if you want to go light.


A generic, flat insole is frequently to blame for how difficult it can be to get a shoe to fit properly. The good news is that changing your stock insoles for aftermarket ones that are tailored to your foot size and shape can solve the majority of shoe problems. New insoles can add or subtract volume to the shoe, improve the fit under the arch, and provide more or less cushioning and impact absorption.

Hiking Boots vs. Hiking Shoes

The choice between an over-the-ankle boot and a low-top shoe is a crucial one when selecting hiking footwear. For hiking and backpacking trips, we combine each approach because it has its own advantages. You can choose from stiff and supportive down to light and nimble hiking shoe models, which we’ve discovered come in just as many different styles as the boots mentioned above.

In the end, protection, stability, and weight are what set boots apart from shoes. A boot is the best choice for rocky terrain, water crossings, snow, and carrying a large backpack. However, the low-top style weights less, making it the obvious option for people who are focused on moving quickly and lightly without a large pack (especially in milder weather conditions and when traveling over less technical terrain). Although there isn’t a clear winner in this argument, taking into account the weight of your equipment and the weather you’ll be hiking in can make the choice much easier. Many devoted outdoor enthusiasts believe that their quiver should contain at least a pair of each.

Care and Feeding

Your hiking boots will last longer if you take certain measures, such as routine cleaning and pre-treating wear areas.

When a leather treatment is used, leather hiking boots become more durable and waterproof. An effective leather treatment is useful for leather uppers. The GORE-TEX membranes on hiking boots keep your feet dry inside, but the leather absorbs moisture. In addition to making your boot less breathable and heavier, this causes the leather to lose some of its suppleness.

A full line of leather and fabric conditioners, including solutions for suede, nubuck, and full-grain leather, are available on the market. These come in liquid forms that are applied with a sponge or in spray-on forms. Rub it on and then use a hairdryer to gently heat it until it melts into the leather. Depending on how many miles you put on your shoes, leather conditioners need to be reapplied every few months to annually.

Hiking shoes with uppers made of mixed materials work well with products that are made for synthetic fabrics. When a fabric treatment is used on the upper surface, it makes the shoe absorb less water, remain more breathable, and dry more quickly

Applying a seam sealer to the stitching in high-wear areas of your shoes is one of the most effective tips for extending their lifespan. Because the forefoot of the boot flexes with every step, uppers frequently deteriorate at the seams on the inside and outside of the forefoot. These are weak points regardless of the kind of fabric and thread used. Small amounts of sand and dirt find their way into these seams and act on the thread like internal sandpaper. Additionally, rock and tree roots can scratch up these areas. Applying Seam Grip or a comparable sealant to these areas prevents water from getting in while also keeping sand and dirt out and increasing scuff resistance. Applying a seam sealer to every visible thread on the upper is a great idea if you intend to abuse your shoes by traversing rocky areas or scree slopes.

Inside and out, boots get muddy and filthy and cleaning them of mud and sand extends their lifespan. On the outer boot, a soft bristle brush and warm water work best to accomplish the trick. Remove all mud, dirt, and debris that is readily visible using the least amount of pressure. Try your best to keep wet boots out of direct sunlight so they can dry slowly.

Additionally, make sure to take out and clean your insoles. Remove anything stuck to the bottom of your insole and shake any debris from the inside of the boot. Your insoles can be cleaned most effectively with warm water and a soft brush. Never put shoes or boots in the dryer and resist the urge to throw them in the washer. 

And finally, boots should not be worn in extremely hot weather. We’re all guilty of occasionally drying our shoes by the campfire, but if you’re not careful, the soles will melt off. Furthermore, leather that dries too quickly turns into hard, brittle material. If necessary, keep your boots no closer to the fire than where your bare hand feels secure. It is far preferable to continue your hike in damp shoes as opposed to a boot that has partially melted and been duct taped to your foot. We’ve had to learn the hard way, so we know! When it’s hot and sunny outside, your car’s trunk or back seat is another danger zone for boots. The soles may separate from the uppers due to the high temperatures during the midday sun. The same tragic outcome befalls shoes that are thrown into plastic totes in the back of a truck.