hiking boots guide

Hiking Boots

As the old saying goes, if the shoe fits, wear it—but there are a few other considerations you should take into account when choosing footwear for outdoor activities. Selecting the proper shoe or boot can make all the difference between having fun… or hobbling around in pain for hours with sore feet! The following provides useful tips on finding the right shoe for you.


Hiking shoes and boots are designed for those out on more than a single-day trek to the woods or mountains carrying relatively heavy backpacks, and dealing with varied, primarily uneven terrain. A more or less high boot is generally the best option in such cases, since it will protect the top of the foot and lend it stability, while also support the ankle properly in order to avoid sprains.

Because it provides outside sturdiness and internal comfort, leather construction is preferred most of the time. Some hiking boots feature waterproofed leather uppers and breathable membranes (such as Gore-Tex®) inside. Leather is a naturally breathable material, while such interior membranes let heat and sweat escape.

Soles have to be stiffer to ensure good traction and prevent the ankle from bending from side to side, which once again minimizes the risk of sprains. The longer the hike, the more rugged the terrain, and the heavier the backpack, the stiffer the sole has to be to guarantee comfort.

Hiking shoes or boots often feature shanks in order to increase the rigidity of soles and provide additional protection against damage from pointed rocks and other sharp objects.

Finally, outsoles should feature lugs which have sufficient grip to ensure good traction but are also spaced out enough for any mud or earth that could get stuck in between them to clear out on its own.

Shoe construction

In general, shoes comprise a number of parts. The first is the upper, which refers to everything above the sole. The upper includes the vamp, which forms the top of the shoe, from the toe to the instep (in line with the lower part of the ankle); the toe box, which, as its name suggests, covers the toe area; the tongue, an extension of the vamp (or located beneath it) protecting the front of the foot; and the collar (or cuff), which provides a kind of seal to prevent anything from getting inside the shoe. Finally, the back of a shoe is made up of a heel seat joining the quarters, the two rear sides of the upper, which sometimes incorporates a counter, a kind of reinforced support that keeps the heel firmly in place and minimizes the risk of spraining an ankle.

For its part, the sole is made up of three layers: the outsole, which comes into direct contact with the ground; the insole (or footbed) that the foot rests on; and the midsole, which is sandwiched between the previous two and absorbs shocks. The midsole is sometimes topped by ashank reinforcement of varying length for extra rigidity. A removable sock liner (or comfort sole) is often put inside the shoe, while a lininghugs the foot to ensure comfort and support.

Shoe materials

Of course, leather—flexible, hard-wearing, breathable, relatively water-resistant and able to be waterproofed, is the material most commonly used in making shoes. Full-grain leather is particularly sturdy, but more expensive. Leather that comes from a thinner part of an animal hide will be more affordable, but less durable.

Suede is created by sanding the interior side of a hide. It is more flexible and breathable, but also less hard-wearing. Another type of finishing process involving sanding can transform leather into nubuck, which gives it the look of deerskin.

Leather is also often used for shoe linings, since it is comfortable and takes on the shape of the foot more quickly. However, it will then make the shoe heavier.

Resembling the real thing at first glance and nearly waterproof, synthetic leather nonetheless does not wear as well, is less breathable, and tends to crack with too much exposure to the sun. In all other respects, however, it shares practically the same properties as leather, and costs less.

Used in extreme hiking or mountaineering boots, plastic is just as waterproof as it is rigid. It is sometimes also used to fashion certain shoe components, such as toe boxes and shanks.

A number of synthetic fabrics frequently go into the making of shoes and boots because of their light weight, low cost or relative breathability. Polyester or nylon is generally used for vamps or linings, while polyester is most often preferred for the inside of a shoe. However, there are a few exceptions in which leather is used instead, particularly in the case of hiking boots.

A recent generation of designs features varying-sized areas of nylon or polyester mesh to ventilate uppers.

In the opposite vein, rubber stands out for its waterproofness, but this advantage has its downside—imperviousness, which keeps heat and moisture in. On the other hand, it is very practical for making certain parts of an upper and, in particular, a hard sole.

The insides of shoes sometimes incorporate breathable membranes to help wick moisture away. Similar membranes are occasionally combined with mesh so that the shoe both breathes and remains waterproof.

Finally, midsoles may be made of polyurethane, which is relatively heavy, or Evazote (EVA), if the design aims for comfort and durability. For their part, carbon or fibreglass are often used to lend more rigidity to a shank.


Before being able to get full use of your new hiking shoes or boots, it’s sometimes necessary to have to break them in by first wearing them in a different situation than the one for which they were designed, so that they will take on the shape of your feet. This will enable you to avoid ending up with blisters—or very sore feet—the first time you put them on to go out on a serious expedition. The best method for breaking them in is to wear them at home for a while, being sure to climb some stairs and try out some of the moves you know you’ll be making in the great outdoors.

Ideally, in order to keep them in good condition for as long as possible, leather styles should be given a protective treatment and/or waterproofed before being worn and exposed to bad weather. Certain types of seams should also be sealed with a specialized product in order to ensure that the shoe will be completely waterproof.

To avoid blisters when you’re out on the trail, make sure that your socks fit well and are made of quick-drying materials like synthetic fibres or merino wool. You can also wear a very thin synthetic-fibre liner sock under the regular pair, which will help prevent skin from rubbing against the inside of the shoe. Finally, you can sprinkle talcum powder on your feet before pulling on liner socks and socks to maximize the chances of them staying dry. If, despite all these precautions, you do end up with a blister, cover the skin with a bandage or moleskin (double-layered flannel padding).

If it’s been a hard day and you go back to your camp site with a pair of dirty shoes or boots, wash them with water, if possible, and then let them dry in the open air and away from the sun, to prevent UV rays from affecting the uppers. Also make sure shoes or boots aren’t put too close to campfires, wood stoves or other similar sources of heat, which is sometimes much stronger than you would think and which can result in irreversible damage.


A good pair of hiking shoes or boots will last for a considerably long time if they are properly cared for. The first thing to do is read the manufacturer’s recommendations on the protective products that should be applied.

If your shoes or boots become particularly soiled after a bout of heavy use, you should thoroughly rinse them (first removing the laces) and then go over them with a soft brush, if necessary. Leave them to dry in the open air, ideally in shade.

Remove sock liners regularly in order to dry them—and cut down on the smell! For the same reason, you should also wash them from time to time.

It is strongly recommended that you reapply a protective treatment and/or re-waterproof leather styles at least once a year, or more often if they’ve been worn a great deal. They’ll last all that much longer for it.