Take a Hike: Tips for Buying Boots

From the WebMD Archives

June 25, 2001 -- Take it from one who's been there. When you're hiking -- especially on uneven terrain -- wearing the proper footwear can make a big difference between a carefree day of fun and downright misery.

Running shoes, tennis shoes -- they just don't cut it when you're on a hiking trail. We're talking blisters, twisted ankles, damaged knees.

"A good hiking boot is key," says Natalie Hummel, with the American Hiking Society. "Especially if you're a beginning hiker. You want something that's going to support your ankle when you're going up and down the slope. And if weather is bad that day, if there's rain, you want a boot that will provide good traction or you might slip and fall."

Lightweight boots -- made of sturdy plastic, nylon, or other synthetic fabric -- are very flexible and less expensive than leather boots.

"If you're going on a day hike, where you're not carrying much on your back, you can get by with a light boot," says Hummel. "But if you're doing backpacking, carrying heavier equipment, you'll need a leather boot."

The best hiking footwear has a rigid sole to prevent stress fractures and protect foot ligaments, says Warren Hammerschlag, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon and assistant clinical professor with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark.

"The sole absorbs the stress of repetitive steps," he tells WebMD. "Similarly, hiking boots have support for the foot and ankle. They stay aligned even though the ground underneath is changeable. A rock can give way, or the terrain may be uneven, but the hiking boot provides a stable environment for the foot."

But you're in the sporting goods store, staring at about 50 different styles and brands. How can you know which is best?

Indeed, there's a whole range of leather hiking boots out there, everything from "approach shoes" to extended backpacking boots to high-end mountaineering boots, says Chris Brown, a footwear designer for L.L. Bean.

Terrain determines the type of shoe you need. An approach shoe is a "very light greenway trail-type of shoe, a walking shoe; people even wear them to work," Brown says. Mountaineering boots have heavily lugged outsoles, which a day hiker does not need or want.

Cushioning underfoot is critical, says Brown. "Your strike area -- your heel -- is very susceptible to impact. You don't want to feel sharp rocks through the bottom," he says.

A boot's stability is another important feature.

"Boots that don't have a substantial 'upper' won't protect your ankle," Brown tells WebMD. "But there has to be a compromise. You also want a boot that will allow the foot to flex naturally as you go through your gait."

The boot's tread pattern gives you good traction -- like having tires on your feet. "Many hiking boots have a heel notch that helps when you're descending hills, gives you a grip," says Brown. "Generally, the deeper the lugs on the outsole, the more grip you're going to get."

How can you tell if the fit is right? Tips from the experts:

  • Because leather has a tendency to stretch, you want a boot that's a little snug.
  • Make sure there are no "hot spots" -- spots where the boot rubs and irritates your foot. Wear the boots awhile before you go hiking; break them in for a few days.
  • Grab the top of boot and try to bend it over sidewise. If bends easily, it might not provide enough ankle support.
  • Make sure boots are waterproof, especially if they are fabric. Leather boots are naturally somewhat water-repellant, but can be treated to ensure protection. If they're not, you'll be more prone to getting blisters.
  • Make sure boots don't slip in the heel.
  • Allow plenty of room in the toe.
  • Wear a thin pair of socks, covered by a heavier sock, for greater comfort. Don't wear cotton socks; they absorb sweat from your feet and cause blisters. Synthetic socks will keep moisture away from your feet.
  • Try boots on with the socks you will be wearing while hiking to ensure good fit.
  • If you are going to be doing any downhill hiking with a backpack, make sure the boot has little extra space. With the boot fully laced, move your foot as far forward as possible. You should be able to put your index finger in the back.
  • If you're prone to getting blisters on certain parts of your feet, put petroleum jelly on those areas or put medical adhesive tape on those areas.

Medically reviewed October 2001 by Gary D. Vogin, MD.