Knowing how to choose the right pair of hiking boots is essential to a long-term trip with plenty of outdoor activities planned. Here’s how to choose the right pair.
“Do we really need these when we’ve already packed trainers?” asked Kia, holding up her hiking boots. More accustomed to ballet flats and heels on the pavements of London than the Munros of Scotland, she couldn’t quite appreciate their worth.
Decent hiking boots are one of my 10 travel essentials so naturally I insisted that yes, we really need them. Twelve months later, she was extremely grateful we had packed them. While not quite as nimble as trainers, our sturdy boots have been invaluable on a number of excursions, from the rocky plains of Mount Yasur volcano to the multi-day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu.
If you’re planning to trek, hike or climb on a long trip abroad, then knowing how to choose the right pair of hiking boots is essential.
Know your requirements
Before you consider the following points you need to know what you’re going to be using your boots for. If all you plan to get up to is some basic off-road day hikes then you can go for lighter hiking trainers with a good grip. If you’re scaling K2 mid-winter (are you crazy?), you’re going to need something like a heavy plastic mountaineering boot.
Consider if you’re planning to go for short day hikes, multi-day treks or high-altitude expeditions. How cold and wet is it likely to get? Will it be soft underfoot, hard rock or loose scree? Research the terrain as best you can before you buy and you’ll make a better, more suitable choice. When we travel we take a pair of Keen Uneek lightweight cross-sandals and a pair of sturdy hiking boots. That way, every eventuality is covered.
On smooth terrain, a good pair of trainers will do just fine. On rough or slippery terrain, however, hiking boots are the far better choice. When darting over loose rocks or grappling for footing amid big boulders, it’s deceptively easy to fall and snap an ankle.
You have a choice between low-, mid- and high-cut ankle support. The higher the support the more roll-resistance you’ll have for your ankles. As I need hiking boots for a range of activities – from trekking Machu Picchu to climbing Aconcagua – I tend to pack the high-cut Anatom Q3, a pair of all-weather full grain leather boots, which offer support across a range of terrains.
There are few things more miserable than soggy socks on a multi-day trek – trust me, I know. On such a trek across the South Downs last winter, I found my aging lightweight fabric boots letting in water despite full-length ankle gaiters, so I made the painful decision to finally retire them.
Thankfully, my new leather pair proved 100% waterproof on a springtime trek across Dartmoor. If they managed to repel the rain of the English spring, they’ll do just fine south of the equator. Check the spec of your boots’ membrane to make sure they’re waterproof (or prepare yourself for the old English tradition we call soggy socks). There’s a trade-off between leather and fabric: between waterproofness and breathability.
While durability is essential, flexibility is important too. Unless you’re attaching crampons or going on multi-day treks, then you probably want something pretty flexible. When Kia went to the Covent Garden branch of Cotswolds on her lunch break, she was tempted to buy a pair as heavy duty as mine. She tried on the Anatom Q2, insisting that they were comfortable.
Luckily, Cotswolds is full of experts, one of which promptly pointed out that the boots were too stiff for her petite feet. He prodded the tip, showing her that she could barely bend her toes. He suggested a more lightweight pair of Keen Terradora instead, which were perfect. When trying on your boots, spend a few minutes walking around in them and make sure you can bend your toes. Otherwise, a long hike will quickly become unbearable.
My hiking boots are one of the heaviest items in my bag so be aware of this when choosing yours. Don’t automatically opt for the most durable pair. If you’ll only be going on leisure hikes, you don’t need an extra two kilos on your feet. For men, depending on your size, up to about 1,800 grams is acceptable. For women, I would suggest between 700and 1,200. Don’t pay too much attention to the figures, the important thing is to get into a shop and try on different pairs to see what suits you.
It’s important that your boots fit you well but make sure they’re not overly snug. Put on a thick pair of socks when trying on your boots to make sure they can accommodate them. Thick socks are essential on long hikes, even in hot weather. If you wear them with thin socks or, even worse, trainer socks (like Kia did on Matavanu without my knowledge), they will likely chafe, cause blisters and fast become uncomfortable.
A good pair of boots will last years if chosen with care so don’t rush your purchase. In a mere 12 months during our first time around the world, mine trekked volcanoes, mountains, canyons and craters – and there’s so much more to come!