How to choose the right hiking boots – Lessons learned

Choosing the right boots for hiking is a challenge faced by most outdoor people. In this article, Georgie highlights some hard earned  lessons on her quest to find the best hiking boot.

Boots are a favourite topic of conversation in wilderness huts each night, as walkers hobble in and peel off smelly wet socks to reveal tender, prune-like skin and painful blisters.  The socks don’t often rate much of a mention, but the praising or colourful cursing of boots gets plenty of air time.

I bought my first pair of real hiking boots to walk the Overland Track in 2009.  I liked the blue colour, they were comfortable, and I was assured they were waterproof and suitable for the OT.  And they were 20% off.  However, after 6 days on the OT with constantly sodden boots, wet socks and wrinkled feet, I realised that the colour should perhaps not have been such a big influence in my decision.
Make sure you select the correct boots
When the boots eventually dried out I took their wrinkled corpses back to the retailer, who suggested the boots might have a waterproof lining fault.  He offered to swap them for another, identical pair – an offer I tried to decline but had to accept, due to a No Refund on Sale Items policy.

Two lessons were learned here:

  • Buy boots for ALL the things I want them to do, not just because of any one feature, such as colour.
  • Pay full price, so I have control over what happens next if the boots need to be returned.

I decided to bite the bullet and buy new waterproof boots.  A trip to Fortitude Valley in Brisbane had me in K2, being fitted with a pair of mid weight Vasque Wasatch GTX boots.Vasque Wasatch GTX boots

These wide-fitting boots were comfortable and the salesman absolutely guaranteed they would handle Tassie’s wet and muddy conditions.  So I bought them and tried to ignore the fact that they were brown.  They took about 4 weeks to thoroughly break in, but  are now extremely comfortable to wear all day on all terrains.

I did the OT again in Nov 2010.  I knew Tassie’s very wet winter and spring meant there would be a lot of mud and deep water puddles the whole length of the track, so I applied multiple coats of Sno-seal to the waterproof suede outer and hoped the Goretex liner would perform as promised.

Thankfully, my new boots didn’t let in a drop of water for the whole 6 days.

  • they were still soft and flexible
  • there was little obvious wear on the Vibrim soles
  • the laces hadn’t frayed or broken from using my gaiter clip
  • And the knobbly soles worked very well as downhill brakes

The boots cost $350, but after that very wet trip I feel it was money well spent.

Most walkers have great horror stories about boots, or  favourite old boots.

We would love to hear yours, so we can have a laugh and learn from your good and bad experiences. You can share by leaving a reply in the box below.

Till next week,

Georgie

Image: Mirsasha – via Flickr

Comments

  1. says

    Buying boots is a bit like buying backpacks, you can try them in store, but you can’t tell whether it will still feel like the right product after 5 days of hiking. So the first pair you buy is often the wrong one, then you learn from it and buy a different one, that’s ok.

    I used to have a lot of trouble with blisters, but I just returned from a trip where I walked up to 10h per day and didn’t have any problems with blisters. I could walk a whole day without any pain. I found out (at least in my case) it’s much about finding the right combination of socks, so your feet sit perfectly in your boots and don’t move around. It also shouldn’t be too firm so your toes don’t get squeezed. It may take several long trips to find the right combination. I suggest buying boots a size bigger than you normally need. Then wear 3 pairs of socks, a thin pair of Injinji toe socks as base layer, it’s good against blisters. Thick hiking socks as outer pair. Then simply try different socks between, until your feet sit perfectly inside your boots. May sound crazy but worked well for me.

    • Barbara says

      Good idea to try different sock options. I use thin socks. I can take a couple of spare pairs without overloading, I can rinse them and they dry really quickly. My boots fit snugly with thin socks. I tried wool socks because all the recommendations from those with vastly more experience were to wear thick wool socks. I now just wear them at home as slippers on cold nights. As a skier I know a lot of people who when they get cold feet add thicker socks. All that does is make your boots tighter, impede your circulation and you get even colder feet! (Just give yourself time to try the options in advance.)

    • Georgie says

      Hi Matthias. Your advice about socks is good, but I still think the best strategy is to get really well fitting boots in the first place. I think a lot of people would give up walking because of bad boot experiences, rather than go and buy more boots. Your comments inspired my next stories – about good fitting, and boots for the job. Regards, Georgie

  2. says

    Great information! I used to get some bad blisters. Before buying new boots I decided to play around with socks too. I discovered I was on the low end of a large sock (I wear size 9…the large said it fit sizes 9-12). I bought some med socks (size 6-8.5) and the blisters stopped. Problem solved!

  3. Sarina says

    Waterproof boots that actually don’t let water in? I’m very impressed. I’ve always been told (and had to experience) “get used to wet feet – don’t bother putting on dry socks cause they’ll just be wet again very soon”. I’m now filled with hope!

    • Georgie says

      Hi Sarina. The boots themselves are fabulous, but I am sure their waterproofness is helped by the Sno-seal. I take a pot with me and each night re-apply to the creases created during the day’s walking. It was great to have dry feet for 6 days on the OT. Regards, Georgie

  4. says

    I’ve given up on boots. Seriously. I prefer my Chacos or Tevas even with a heavy pack – and trust me I get the look from others who don’t think I have a bloody clue about what I’m doing. Yes I schlep my present Asolo boots with me and wear them for the first 3 miles. I have Morton’s neuroma on the 4th toe of each foot so after 3 miles I usually have shooting pains that can literally bring tears to my eyes. It’s actually amazing that I hike at all. (And I just booked my accommodation for 2011 – my daughter and I are hiking around Mt. Blanc). Now I prefer to wear a lightweight hiking shoe that has some flex in the sole & that way I can avoid most of the pain. I buy a gortex version. I bring extra socks & gaiters. If it’s not really cold I’ll switch back and forth between hikers & scandals. Feet look like hell at the end but that’s ok. I hate socks too and only wear the lightest liner ones – ever. Weird I know.

    • Georgie says

      Hi Leigh. I can imagine the looks you get. I saw a fellow on the Overland Track wearing an Australian brand, Blundstone, workboot called ‘Brutes’, with steel toe caps! Turns out he gets gout at random times, and has to keep his toes clear of touching the end of his boots, hence the steel caps. He said they were heavy but very comfotable, and he was used to the weight, but not to having to justify wearing them to other walkers. He had waterproofed them, they had terrific gripping soles, and only cost $150. Have a great Mont Blanc trip. Regards, Georgie

    • New Mexico Mark says

      I’ve tried everything from traditional hiking boots to trail runners. Each has their pros and cons, but I kept feeling like there had to be a better way. However, last year after doing considerable research, I started hiking and trekking barefoot and I’ve gone about a thousand miles so far. My feet have never felt better.

      For longer trips, I still carry VFF’s or sandals for really extreme conditions. I.e. temps considerably below freezing. But there really aren’t many situations where healthy feet require footwear. (Use your hands a a guage. If you don’t require heavy gloves, you probably don’t need footwear either.)

      Advantages of bare feet?
      Lightweight. Can’t get any lighter!
      Waterproof. No Sno Seal needed.
      Easy to clean and condition.
      Self-repairing.
      Closer to the trail you got out to enjoy in the first place.
      Cooler in the summer, can be warmer (ground heat) in the winter.
      Healthful. Shoes cause or contribute to almost every known foot problem.

      There are times I’ll wear something on my feet because of extreme conditions or because I need to maintain a much faster pace. However, for pure enjoyment and better health, I can’t think of a better choice that what I have with me 24/7.

      • Georgie says

        Wow, you are amazing, Mark. We have horses and I follow the barefoot philosophy with them. They are never shod and still have healthy feet after metres of rain this summer. But I don’t know if I am game to do it to myself. I can imagine how lovely the earth must feel beneath your feet. Well done. Regards, Gerogie

    • Diane says

      Leigh, the only time I get Morton’s type symptoms is when I wear shoes/boots with a rigid sole. I get the hairy eyeball from shop assistants all the time when I flex shoes before trying them. Worst was an expensive pair of waterproof boots for NZ. I’ve seen people with trail shoes on the OT – it just depends how much support one needs for ankles and whether the sole is thick enough to protect one from rocks. “Iron man” runners doing the six foot or Kokoda challenge wear light shoes…..
      I buy boots that have some flex and ensure they get worn in – although increasingly I’m finding that brands such as Ecco don’t really need it. Downside is that these only last a few years.

  5. says

    Good article and very useful info. I’m just getting back into hiking and have a couple pair of hiking shoes that I like but you provided some good info when I get in the market for a pair of boots. I for one will not be hiking barefoot anytime soon.

    • Georgie says

      Hi Eric, good on you for getting back into hiking, it is such a great activity. I am glad you found the info useful, thanks. The best bit for you at the moment is about checking your old boots to make sure they are still up to the job, as you don’t want the soles and uppers to part company mid walk. A couple of the OHBers above had their boots checked by a cobbler, and I think this is a very wise move with old boots. Tell the cobbler what you intend to do and would appreciate their expert opinion on whether the boot is still up to it. The info in the articles should help you make a good choice when you do buy your new boots. Happy walking, Eric. Regards, Georgie

  6. fred jones says

    The thing I don’t get about this story is if the boots were sold as waterproof but were not. You had every legal right to get a cash refund as they were not fit for purpose and advertised as something they were not ie waterproof.

    Stick up for your rights!

  7. Diane says

    Aldis have inexpensive thin woolen socks in with their ski gear (not the thicker ski socks which they also sell) which are perfect for the thin sock layer. They have light elastic around the arch so the sock stays in place when the next one is placed. Don’t get bamboo for multiday hikes they take FOREVER to dry.
    Best tip I have for boots – never have just one pair on the go or they will let you down at the last moment, If you see your favoured pair on sale and you have onely one or two pairs – get them or you will regret it. Conversely don’t have too many because they will deteriorate in the cupboard – I’ve seen soles fall off mid-walk from that. The OT has clay mud which sucks leather conditioner out of the shoe – bring some!

  8. Catherine says

    My mum and i bought a pair of hike boots for me (after my last ones gave me blisters because they were getting to small) – I have had these boots for about 6 months now, the label said waterproof, with a gortex liner. I have waterproofed them multiple times yet I always get very wet feet. They are a suede and mesh type combo.

    On the other hand my bother has full leather boots which have NEVER let the water in. He has also never had to water proof them (i think!). He does’t get blisters with them and he can walk through puddles without having to worry.
    Mum says i need to wait until my feet stop growing for me to buy that sort.

    What is the best start for me? Should i be looking at a specific material, as well as all the other criteria? If so, what material is best? Have you got any fps and tricks for waterproofing, and do you have any good brands of waterproofer that you could recommend?

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