HIKING BOOTS: HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT PAIR + THE BEST WOMEN’S HIKING BOOTS
With hundreds of options available, at some point every hiker wonders about how to choose the best hiking boots that will be the right pair for them. From leather to mesh, to ankle stability or that barely-there feel, the market is full of different styles of shoes and boots that look like they can get the job done. So, how do you choose?
To help you guys and gals find your sole mate (sorry, we had to), here are the top factors to consider when buying a hiking boot that will hopefully last you lots of miles of wear and tear on the trail. We’ve even included a few of the best women’s hiking boots based on Bearfoot Theory staff recommendations.
Learn how to choose the best hiking boots for your feet and adventures in this new blog post.
The Basics of Choosing Hiking Boots
How to choose the best hiking boots depends largely upon what kind of hike you are taking. Whether it’s the climate and terrain, length of the hike or the activities you’re doing (think: backpacking or day hike?) will determine what sort of boots you should buy. To help you make the best decision here are a few basics to consider before you choose hiking boots. And while our shoe recommendations are specific to women, the tips for how to choose the best hiking boot apply to both women and men.
LENGTH AND TERRAIN OF THE HIKE
The length of your hike matters when it comes to footwear. So does the type of terrain you’ll encounter out there. A multi-day backpacking trip will require much sturdier boots with better tread and ankle support than an easy to moderate trail on flat ground would need. We’ll cover more about this further on in the article.
WEATHER AND CLIMATE
The weather conditions and climate of the area will play a large factor in determining what kind of boots to wear. If it’s cold and rainy or you’ll be trekking through streams and snow, waterproof boots are a must to not only keep your feet dry but ward off any hint of hypothermia. Typically we recommend a Gortex-type boot or shoe for most mountain hiking. On the other hand, mesh paneling and ventilation is better for when you are hiking in a hot and humid climate – like Hawaii or Central America.
ACTIVITIES YOU ARE DOING ON YOUR HIKE
Different types of boots and shoes are suitable for different types of activities. Some boots, like mountaineering boots, will have high ankle support and rigid soles that don’t allow for much flexibility to help you stay steady. Others, like trail shoes will be less stable on rocky terrain with low or mid cut upper for more movement, however, they won’t hold up as well if you’ve got a full pack.
HIKING BOOT SOLE
Every hiking boot has a sole — three of them to be exact: an insole, midsole and outsole. Each of these three soles help to support your foot while walking, and you can find a variation of options depending on what activity you are doing.
The insole of a shoe is that soft and cushioned portion that you feel right beneath your foot when you slide your shoe on. It can be removed and replaced with one that better suits the shape of your foot, so, make sure you know how much arch support (if any) you need and what kind of insole supports your foot best. Collapsed arches or an arch that’s too high doesn’t help evenly distribute the weight while walking and can cause wear and tear on your feet, ankles, knees and hips. While you’re out on the trail for days at a time carrying a heavy pack, this is not a good problem to have, so make sure you do your research and beforehand and even try on some diferent insoles in the store if you need more or less support.
The midsole is the second layer of cushion placed in between the insole and outsole to help absorb the shock of walking of hard and rocky surfaces. Most times the midsole is attached to a piece called the shank that provides extra sturdiness and is often made out of composite or steel. You won’t find this in very light and flexible trail shoes, but you will definitely find it in a hiking boot.
The outsole is the thick, rubbery outer portion on the very bottom of your shoe or boot. Most hiking boots have dense outsoles with treads (also called lugs) that are good all-terrain footwear thanks to the traction and grip it provides on granular or slippery surfaces. You’ll want to have bigger treads for better traction – like Vibram, a patented form of treads that are found on a lot of brand name hiking boots. Hearty tread is important for multi-day backpacking adventures and trails with hard-to-walk on or slippery surfaces.
BREAK IN PERIOD
A hiking boot is constructed from heavier and sturdier materials than trail shoes and most others. Whether they are made of all leather or is a mix of leather, mesh and suede, they are more durable, can withstand wear and tear, and built to last longer. For this reason, the heartier the hiking boot the more time it will take to get broken in and mold to your foot. You’ll want to break the most heavy duty hiking boots in gradually and overtime to prevent painful blisters. If you’re breaking in all leather boots, start by taking short walks around the house, the block and eventually on short hikes about a week or two before you wear them out on the trail to soften the material.
You never want the first time you wear a hiking boot to be the first day of your multi-day backpacking trip.
If your boot has a mixed material construction, they will be more flexible to begin with and break-in should only require a couple of short walks.
How Should Hiking Boots Feel?
Having the right fit and feel is a huge part of how to choose the best hiking boot for your foot. There are a few key factors to be aware of when you are trying on your boot:
- As a good rule of thumb, always try your shoe on at the end of the day when your foot is the largest and slightly swollen
- If you wear insoles, make sure to bring them along when you try on boots in-store
- You should have enough space in the toe box to slightly wiggle your toes
- You want the shoe snug enough that your heel won’t lift up when hiking up and downhill, but you don’t want your foot to feel squeezed
Also, make sure you wear wool socks that are breathable and durable enough to protect your feet and keep you comfy. A pair like Darn Tough wool hiking socks (our favorite!) will do a great job of regulating the temperature if your feet get sweaty and cold on a hike.
Different Styles of Hiking Boots
There are 4 major categories of hiking boots. We discuss them below in order of the lightest and least amount of support (trail-runners) to the most heavy duty (mountaineering boots).
If you are not a fan of hiking in bulky, heavy boots some folks will make the argument that lightweight trail running shoes are just as good an option. Since they are lightweight, many thru-hikers, like those on the John Muir Trail & Pacific Crest Trail, choose to hike in trail runners. They aren’t for everyone there as some feel that they need more ankle support when carrying a heavy backpack. If you aren’t sure what side you’re on here is a quick breakdown so you can decide for yourself.
Trail runners are good if:
- You are hiking in extremely hot weather
- You want very lightweight shoes
- You don’t want to have to break them in
- You want versatile shoes
Trails runners are not good for things like:
- A long-lasting shoe; you will need to replace them more often
- Good Traction
Kim (Bearfoot Theory’s former Community Manager) wearing trail shoes on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Low Ankle Trail Shoes
Low ankle trail shoes are lightweight, flexible with low cut uppers. Typically, they are a combination of fabric and leather, so they breathe well to help keep your feet dry. Just be sure to wear wool or socks inside in case you encounter rain or have to walk through water.
Use a low-ankle trail shoe if:
- You are hiking shorter distances or just day-long hikes
- You are carrying a light load on your back
- You will be on well-worn and flat trails with a well-defined surface
- You do not need ankle or knee support
LIGHTWEIGHT BACKPACKING BOOTS
If you are curious about how to choose hiking boots that are more suitable for all kinds of terrain, then lightweight backpacking boots are a broad enough category to find your perfect fit. This style will have high ankle support for good stability, features like waterproof leather or suede, more cushion in the midsole that is also stiff enough to support your foot while walking, and in general is more durable and rigid than a trail runner.
Go for a lightweight backpacking boot
- You are hiking in variable conditions like muddy, steep or rocky terrain
- You are going on a multi-day hike
- You are carrying a heavy load on your back
- You need more support for your ankles and knees
- You are a beginner who wants to improve and eventually tackle more challenging hikes
Boots made for mountaineering are the most sturdy and durable kind and are really only needed if you’ll be trekking up very rugged alpine peaks. These boots might require attaching extra features such as, crampons or microspikes for better grip and in general are better on hard-packed icy terrain. These boots have a heavy and durable construction, so you will need at least a week or two to break them in and feel comfortable. You are most likely not going to choose a shoe as specific as mountaineering boots, so we recommend sticking to hiking shoes or backpacking boots to get the most out of your footwear.
The Best Women’s Hiking Boots: Bearfoot Theory Recommendations
Kristen’s Pick: Oboz BDry Hiking Shoes
I have had a lot of foot issues in the past, and I absolutely love Oboz women’s hiking boots. The Oboz Bridger BDry Boots are my go-to for any adventure. They are what I took to Alaska on my 10-day backpacking trip last summer where we were hiking in very wet conditions. My feet stayed warm, surprisingly dry, and blister-free. They have a sturdy sole and are moderately stiff, but were pretty easy to break in. If you don’t like a boot that goes up this high they have a similar low-cut model, known as the Oboz Low BDry Hiking shoe.
Kristen’s shoe buying advice: I wear a size 9.5 and have flat feet. The Oboz run true to size, and if you need additional arch support, you can put in an aftermarket insole. I have a small heel so one of the main things I look for when trying on new hiking boots is that my heel doesn’t slip, since that’s a major cause of for blisters.
Kim’s Pick: Altra Lonepeak or Brooks Cascadias
Ever since hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Kim has been converted to trail runners as her go-to women’s hiking shoe. She’s a big fan of both Altra and Brooks. If it’s a more treacherous hike or Kim feels she needs more ankle support then she’ll pack her La Sportiva Synthesis Mid GTX women’s hiking boots as back-ups.
Kim’s shoe buying advice: “Trail runners don’t last as long as hiking boots, it’s important you replace them when they’re worn out so you protect your feet from injury.
Linda’s Pick: KEEN Terradora Waterproof Mid Women’s Hiking Boots
Linda just recently bought the KEEN Terradora Waterproof Mid Women’s Hiking Boots and loves them. They are really lightweight and breathable, but still sturdy and have ankle support. She also likes that they look more like normal shoes (compared to some of the more intense looking hiking boots out there). “I’d be comfortable wearing them from the trail to wherever I go next, whether a bar or restaurant or hopping on a plane.”
Linda’s shoe buying advice: “I’m a size 7.5 shoe normally but wear 8 in hiking boots to give myself some wiggle room, since our feet often swell when hiking. My feet are flat and somewhat wide. My new Keens fit great and work for people with flat and average to wider feet.”
Katherine’s Pick: Vasque Talus Mid UltraDry Hiking Boots
Katherine has the largest shoe size amongst the gals on our team. She generally wears a 10.5-11 women’s wide. Her feet are fairly flat, and she’s dealt with a number of foot problems, so finding a good women’s hiking boot that fits is a top priority for her. Katherine raves about Vasque hiking boots, check out Vasque Breeze III Mid Women’s Hiking Boots. They are waterproof and have sturdy soles for putting in the miles.
Katherine’s shoe buying advice: “When I’m in the market for a new women’s hiking boot, I like to bring my socks and insoles along for a try-on and always make sure that there’s enough room to not only wiggle my toes but allow my foot a healthy range of motion while I walk that’s not too soft or too stiff but just right.”