We’ve all been there. Standing in the outdoor store, hovering in front of a wall lined with hiking boots, meticulously examining each, turning it over in our hands like we know exactly what we’re doing.

“Do you need help with footwear?” the salesperson asks. “Just looking,” we stammer, rushing to place the boot back on the rack, hesitant to admit we’re in over our heads.

Thermoplastic urethane shanks? EVA midsoles? A myriad of materials claiming to be both waterproof and breathable? The descriptions alone can be overwhelming.

Set your fears aside. Here at Terrain, we believe in helping you be prepared for your outdoor adventures, and that means being prepared when selecting the right gear — footwear included. To that end, we consulted Angie Bono, store manager, certified pedorthist, and longtime footwear fit specialist at Alpine Shop, to get some expert tips on what to consider when braving the search for the right boot.

“Do. Not. Skimp,” Bono stated, showing me a “budget” boot she had sawed in half to show its balky innards. “When it comes to footwear, you get what you pay for,” she said, pointing out the cheap foam, metal shank, and what amounted to a plastic bag for “waterproofing”. “A nylon shank, waterproofing that’s breathable, sculpted foam through the ankle — it’s more expensive, but it’s oh-so worth it.

“Boots, socks, and insoles. Think of them as an investment. Your feet will be doing most of the work when you’re hiking, and you want them to be happy. If your feet are miserable, you will be miserable, so make an investment in keeping your feet happy.”

The Best Boot
Every foot is different, which means that every boot fits differently. The key to keeping your feet happy is finding the right fit for your feet. “There’s no such thing as the best boot,” said Bono. “The best boot is the one that fits your foot and fits your functionality.”

“Fitting your foot” involves matching the boot shape to your foot shape. Some boots are made for narrow feet, some for wide. Some are made for high arches, others for those with no arches at all. Profile, volume, heel width, toe box — all are key factors to consider when selecting footwear.

As for fitting your functionality, that comes down to what you’ll be doing while wearing said footwear. “I start with a simple question: ‘Where are you going?’ That gives me an idea of what types of activities they’ll be getting into, and I can start to match the boot to those activities.”

Closeup shot of a hiker's leg on mountain trail

The bottoms of hiking boots provide friction, traction, and shock absorption.

There are key differences between light trail hikers and technically built backpacking boots; the former bends easily through the midsole while the latter typically has some sort of nylon shank, making it stiffer, designed to help carry a heavier load.

“Try on a few styles that fit your functionality and see what feels best on your foot. Take note of what a ‘bad fit’ feels like. Take the boots for a walk; test them on an incline to make sure your toes aren’t touching the ends and that your heel isn’t slipping.”

Bono recommends having about a thumb’s width of room at the end of your hiking footwear. This allows space for your feet to swell while on the trail, alleviating cramped toes, blisters, and lost toenails. Note how the boot fits around your heel, ankle, and Achilles tendon. You want it to be snug but not too tight or constricting.

She also recommends appropriately sized socks and inserts (when necessary) to improve your foot’s comfort and performance. Some prefer a thick wool sock, while others prefer a thin synthetic sock. It all comes back to what feels good on your foot. Same with inserts: some provide high arch support while others are made for cushion. Match your needs with the right inserts to fill out your footwear system.

“Having the right footwear makes all the difference. With the right boot, you won’t have to worry about how your feet feel, allowing you to focus on the things that brought you outdoors to begin with,” said Bono.

Sound advice from a certified expert: Make an investment in your footwear and leave the worries at the trailhead.

Core Components
Knowing the fundamental parts of a hiking boot can help you ask the right questions and refine your selection.

Upper. Made of leather (durable, heavier) or synthetic material (lighter, more breathable) the upper protects the foot and provides lateral support on the trail. Ankle height or “cut” can be low, mid, or high.

Midsole. Adds cushioning, absorbs shock, and largely determines a boot’s stiffness when walking. EVA midsoles are lighter and less dense while Polyurethane midsoles are longer lasting and firmer for rockier terrain.

Internal Support. Shanks and/or plates between the midsole and outsole provide torsional stability. Usually made of plastic or metal to deliver more firmness on longer trips or when carrying heavy loads.

Outsole. The bottoms of hiking boots are deeply lugged and normally made of a fairly soft, grippy rubber to ensure optimal friction and traction. In addition, the outsole affords a layer of shock absorption.

Author: Nick Tilley is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.