Hiking boots are all based on something called a “last,” which in footwear lingo is the solid plastic mold around which the boot is built. The last is an approximation of what the manufacturer assumes to be the average foot. (If you’ve ever had a pair of hiking boots that absolutely, positively did not fit, you know what happens when the manufacturer assumes).
Some high-end catalogs describe what type of foot their lasts are based on. Others simply leave it to you. If you find a boot manufacturer whose product just seems to fit like a glove — or a better yet, a sock — you are likely to be better off sticking with their products…at least until their lasts change.
Forming the Upper
A leather upper is formed around the last, and the segments are stitched together. These stitched areas are called seams. More seams allow a boot to fit more conclusively, they are also the weakest link and the first thing to blow out on the trail. As an example, the Danner Radical has multiple seams while the Danner Shasta has a minimal number of seams. Look for seams that are double-stitched. Triple or quadruple stitching is best, but naturally you’ll pay for it. Single-stitching is usually the mark of a discount boot — but not necessarily a bad boot — that probably won’t last as long. But keep in mind that if you pound a lot of trail miles and you’re on a tight budget, the discount boot might be your best choice. But I digress.
The thickness of the leather used to make the upper is called the gauge. The leather will be either top-grain (formerly the outside skin of a cow) or “other.” Virtually all mid-range to high quality boots use top-grain. The leather is either smooth-out or rough-out. Smooth-out is the skin side out; rough-out is “inside out” if you will. Smooth-out is more stylish but less resistant to abrasion. If you want to look really cool at the ski lodge and limit your hiking to gentle trails, get smooth-out. If you plan on hiking the rocky trails in the Adirondacks, get rough-out.
The upper is then attached to the sole. This is called “welting,” and can be done in a variety of ways. The two basic styles of welting are “turned in” and “turned out.” On cheaper boots, the welting is done by vulcanizing (heat). Moving up, the best price/performance is welting with cement (an impressive euphemism for glue). The top of the ladder is welting by stitching the upper to the insole, and some employ stitching and cementing.
European style welting is “turned out.” The upper is — you guessed it — turned out, and stitched to the ledge of the sole. The Montrail Mazama is one such boot. You see the stitching on the ledge, or top of the sole.
The “Blake” or “Littleway” welt has the upper turned in, and the stitches are “inside” the boot. Stitching is done to the insole and midsole. The stitch is protected, and the boot is usually lighter by this design. Another advantage is that a turned in welt can be finished with a big smooth rand wraparound. This usually results in better weatherproofing and a longer lasting boot, although the darn things add a lot of weight.
The part of the sole that your foot touches is the insole. The part under that is the midsole, which today is often made of foam. The bottom is the outsole. The harder the outsole material, the better it is for dirt and grass. A softer outsole is better for rock…pick your poison based on your hiking preferences, or if you can afford it, own a pair for each.
When examining the treads, consider the ratio of rubber to open space. Deep lugs with lots of open space is best for mud. Minimal open space/maximum rubber is best for rock.
The tongue is usually one-piece in most hiking boots, although split designs allow boots to open wider and sometimes fit wider feet better. Lacing is usually through eyelets, speed hooks, or d-rings. Eyelets offer the sturdiest, best fit, but take longer to lace and are most prone to problems. Speed hooks offer convenience and seldom break but provide the least secure lacing. If you haven’t guessed by now, d-rings are becoming more and more popular by providing the best of both worlds. Many boot designs use d-rings or eyelets on the foot and speed hooks on the ankle.
Boom, boom, boom, boom…
The old favorite is the stomper, or heavyweight boot. Trudge along, blast your way down the trail, secure in the knowledge that you are creating small seismic disturbances with each footfall. Heavyweight boots usually tip the scales at five pounds or more, and are downright exhausting. Remember that each pound on your foot is the same as carrying five on your back. For every extra pound your boots weigh, you lift the equivalent of one extra TON of weight per mile (one pound per step times 2,000 steps in the average mile…think about it).
The Heavyweight boot does have the advantage of versatility. You can strap crampons to them, and you can carry the heaviest loads knowing that your feet and ankles are secure, if not a bit tired. You can also soak your fellow hikers when you stomp through a puddle.
These are boots that weigh 2½ pounds or more, usually all leather, decent weatherproofing, fairly deep tread. This is the average hiking boot, and suitable for most backpacking. Certainly suitable for slackpacking.
Light as a Feather
Boots under 2½ pounds are known as lightweights. These usually look like hybrid running shoes/boots, and are generally constructed of suede, fabric, leather, nylon…in some combination thereof. Some lightweight hiking boots weigh in at barely more than a pound. The casual hiker will love these, while the backpacker will limp into camp. One of the best designs, the Reactor from HiTec, will set you back a few bucks.
Whether you shop at the trendy outdoors store or Walmart, your method should be the same.
Preparation is easy: Walk around for an hour in uncomfortable shoes…get your feet nice and swollen. (Yeah, I know) Then go into a store (yes, a real store with real people, not some online emporium) and try on the hiking shoes. Make sure you are wearing the heavy socks you hike in. Try on different sizes for the same boot. Try different style boots. Make sure the width is right.
Push your foot to the front of the boot. If you can fit one finger into the back of the boot, you’ve got a potential fit. Two fingers is too loose; a squeezed finger means the boots are too small.
Flex your foot up and down on the toe, and step up as if you are climbing something. If your heel moves noticeably, be ready for blisters.
Where are your toes? (Kick your boot gently to the floor if you can’t tell). Your toes should NOT be pressing against the front of the boot; they need to move inside the toebox to maintain your balance on the trail.
Lace the boots tight. Have 1/4″ to 1/2″ between the eyelets (or d-rings, or whatever). More means the boot isn’t wide enough; less means the boot is too wide.
When you’re in the store, after you’ve tested, retested, and you feel good…buy the boots. If you positively must shop online, or if the sales clerk is so boorish that you can’t envision spending your money at that store, memorize the boot brand, model, and serial number and…buy online. You can also buy online if you are really familiar with a certain manufacturer, and know for sure that their “lasts” for your size fit you
I’ve often touted the myriad opportunities available through ebay. I purchase a lot of outdoor gear this way…usually used, usually cheap. I can’t recommend this with hiking boots. If you are on a budget, you are better off buying junky boots with a good fit from a mass-merchandiser than buying high-end name brand boots that you aren’t sure of…and don’t ever, ever, purchase used boots that have been “broken in.”
— Rick Bolger