Hiking boots are the single most important piece of equipment for a hike, especially a longer hike or anything involving some uphill/downhill.
Boots that aren’t broken in, aren’t fitted well, or aren’t laced properly can cause foot damage, fatigue and lots of misery. However, the right boots will give you confidence and some safety, especially in areas of tricky footing.
How to Shop for Hiking Boots
There is a lot of advice on the internet about how to select boots – I would definitely go to an outdoor equipment store such as REI and try on several types rather than order online. Go near the end of a day when your feet are slightly bigger from walking all day and bring a pair of socks you will typically hike in.
Try the boots on and walk around the store. If you notice any hotspots (areas where the boot rubs or pinches), address them or switch boot brand. Once you get them home, you MUST break them in before a long hike. Wear them around the house, take them on shorter walks, and make sure they remain comfortable.
If you intend to eventually do more than day hiking (such as overnight camping with tent, sleeping bag, food, etc. in your pack) you should consider boots that are maybe ½ size bigger than you need in the store. A 25 to 30-pound pack on your back while hiking for hours will cause your feet to swell a bit and you’ll appreciate the bit of extra room.
As for the socks–for hiking, avoid cotton, which retains moisture. Go with synthetic or wool instead and make sure they fit properly: too big and you can have wrinkles; too small and you can create pressure points and sock slippage. See REI Co-op Lightweight Merino Wool Hiking Crew Socks.
What Kind of Boot for Hiking?
I favor high-ankle types rather than low-ankle running shoes. Properly laced, high-ankle boots will usually prevent ankle damage if you step on a loose rock or get into an ankle-twisting situation. High-ankle boots also give you two lace-lugs up higher that you can use to cinch the lacing tighter for descents. That pulls your foot back in the boot so that your toes don’t jam into the front as you head down. For uphills you would lace those a bit looser.
Then there is the flex of the boot. For most hiking and some climbing, I like medium-flexibility boots – not too flexible because you’ll feel rocky trails through the sole and not too stiff (like serious climbing boots) because they will increase leg-muscle work. Climbers need some stiffness so that they can put a toe on an inch or two of rock protrusion and the whole boot will still act like a platform rather than bending and slipping off the rock. For me, Lowa has a boot that is a good compromise, but that’s just me.
I love the Vibram “sticky” soles – great for walking on rocks and slabs.
I believe in orthotics – anything but the thin place keepers that come with the boots. There are some standard inserts you can buy, probably in the same store where you got the boots. Since I hike a lot, I had custom orthotics made like the kind you put in ski boots. They can help your individual physical oddities, especially if you are older. Good feet comfort is critical to enjoying the outdoors hiking. Just do it. In fact, it would be best if you get the orthotics you intend to use before you go for trying on boots – and use them in the trials, as they can change the boot size you need, and even which boot feels best.
There are different styles of lacing which you can read about on the REI website. I like what is called the surgeon’s knot on the top two lugs even on looser ties for uphill hiking because that tends to keep the tie stable and not loosen. That merely means wrapping the laces around each other twice instead of once.
Remember, on descents, re-tie the top two lugs tighter to pull your toes back from the front of the boot. It will make a big difference.