9 tips for finding the perfect hiking boots

When people learn about my job — which entails a lot of hiking in the Maine woods — they often ask me about the gear I use and my favorite trails. And one of the most common questions I get is: “Do you have any advice about hiking boots?”

Photo by Aisilnn Sarnacki. I introduce hiking buddy Ben Robie into the art of foot photos. We are sitting on a ledge on Knife Edge during the summer of 2010. Why: It's my favorite spot on Knife Edge because you can sit down and dangle your legs over a drop that is more than 1,000 feet with no danger of falling.

Photo by Aisilnn Sarnacki. I introduce hiking buddy Ben Robie into the art of photographing shoes on Knife Edge during the summer of 2010. Ben is wearing Solomon speed hiking shoes, and I’m wearing low-cut Asolo hiking boots.

I imagine my eyes light up every time someone asks me that, because yes, I do have some advice about hiking boots. I have a lot of advice. I worked at an outfitter for three years, and during that time, my favorite thing to do was help customers choose the right shoes — especially hiking boots.

But when I’m in public and someone asks me that question, I usually become a bit tongue tied. I don’t know where to start, and more importantly, when to end. I have so much to say, you see. So I usually offer one or two pointers and leave it at that. But I’m itching to say more.

Isn’t that what this blog is for, though? To share things with people who actually care to click and read and watch?

So without further ado, here are some tips for finding the perfect hiking boots:

A wall of shoes at Epic Sports in Bangor.

A wall of shoes at Epic Sports in Bangor.

#1. Have an idea of what you want to do while wearing the boots. As an outfitter employee, I was taught to always ask the shoe customer one question: What are you going to be doing in these shoes? And don’t just say “hiking.” I know that. Be more specific. Will you be doing overnight hikes, during which you’ll be carrying a lot on your back? If so, you might want to choose a more serious boot, one with a stiffer sole and ankle support. Will you be hiking the taller Maine mountains, which tend to be very rocky? Again, you may want a boot with a stiffer sole and ankle support. Or will you be going on mainly easy trails? If so, you may want to choose a low-cut boot that’s more flexible, allowing for a more comfortable step. Keep the intended activity in mind while you shop.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. My feet on Mount Abraham in summer of 2009. Why: It was a really muddy trail and I felt like complaining via photo.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. My feet on Mount Abraham in summer of 2009. It was a really muddy trail. I am wearing low-cut Asolo boots. They are waterproof.

#2. Do you want your boots to be waterproof? Again, you have to think of where you’re going to be hiking. If you’re hiking in Maine during the spring and early summer, you’ll almost certainly run into water and mud. And while it’s tempting to go off trail and hike around the mud and water, it’s not good for the landscape. That’s how trails become wide and filled with confusing side trails. If you have waterproof boots, you can walk through these puddles without spending the rest of your outing with soggy, uncomfortable socks.

On the other hand, if you’re going to be hiking on dry trails, you may opt for boots that aren’t waterproof, which tend to breathe more and be cooler. They also tend to be less expensive.

The most popular waterproof material used in high quality hiking boots is Gore-Tex, which is a boots2breathable fabric that keeps water out but allows sweat to wick away from the foot (evaporate out of the boot). So, if you see a little tab (often metal) that says Gore-Tex on a boot, it’s waterproof. Some companies use other materials, and they will often put a “waterproof” tab somewhere on the boot. In general a waterproof boot is about $25 more than its non-waterproof counterpart. Also, though high-tech waterproof materials like Gore-Tex breathe, they are an extra layer added to the boot, so they do tend to make the boot a bit stuffier.

boots9#3 You get what you pay for… usually. I like to shop around for deals like anyone else, and when it comes to hiking boots, I encourage you to do so. Sometimes you can find great deals on old styles or returned boots. Once, Marden’s surplus and salvage store in Brewer got in a shipment of Asolo boots and were selling them for 60 percent off the normal price. I wanted to weep with joy. But! In general, when looking at the retail price of boots, you get what you pay for. More expensive boots will likely be more comfortable, efficient and will last you longer.

However, don’t go overboard and pay for something you don’t need. Hiking boots come in different categories. There are hiking boots built for backpacking and mountaineering on one end of the spectrum, and there are lightweight speed hiking shoes (essentially trail running shoes) on the other end. And then there are a lot of styles of hiking boots that land somewhere in between. There’s no point in buying a $250 pair of leather backpacking boots if you’re just going to go on short day hikes, unless, of course, you want a lot of extra support and you want your boots to last for a long, long time. I do know a few people who wear backpacking boots on a regular basis, but these boots are not necessary for most hikes.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. My feet on the ladder of the old fire tower on the summit of Big Spencer Mountain during the summer of 2009. Why: Not really sure about this one. I was trying to get a better view of the surrounding terrain, but not necessarily a view of the ladder.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. Asolo Stynger waterproof hiking boots with high ankles.

#4 Look for light boots. When hiking, every ounce counts. Every step you take, you’re picking up the weight of your boot. Trust me, you don’t want those boots to be heavy if you can help it. And the makers of quality hiking boots seem to understand that, because they’ve learned to make sturdy, supportive hiking boots that don’t weigh much.

Try this. Go into an outfitter or sports store with a good selection of hiking boots. Pick up a cheap hiking boot (one that’s about $50) with one hand, and pick up a more expensive hiking boot (say one that’s more than $100) in another hand. Make sure they’re about the same size. And I can almost guarantee that the more expensive boot will be noticeably lighter.

Low-cut boots are popular for day hiking, and some people even wear them while backpacking.

Low-cut boots are popular for day hiking, and some people even wear them while backpacking.

#4 Do you want the boots to have a high, mid or low ankle? I used to think high-ankle boots were dorky. Maybe they are, but I’ve learned to love them. Why? Because I have a condition I like to call “wobbly ankles.” In other words, I tend to turn my ankles easily. I think the problem can be traced back to a few sprained ankles in my basketball days. At any rate, it’s wise for me to wear high-ankle boots when hiking over uneven terrain. They support my ankles better, plain and simple. I always wear high-ankle boots when hiking any sort of mountain or moderately difficult trail. On the other hand, I wear low-ankle boots or even hiking sandals on easier trails. You know your ankles and your ability to balance. Do what’s right for you.

I'm currently wearing Asolo Stynger waterproof boots with a relatively high ankle and a very stiff sole for mountain hikes. It's not for everyone.

I’m currently wearing Asolo Stynger waterproof boots with a relatively high ankle and a very stiff sole for mountain hikes. It’s not for everyone.

#5 Not all soles are created equally. Believe it or not, most of the support in a hiking boot comes from the boot’s sole, not the material around the foot or ankle.

(Side note: I think you’ve probably already figured out that I’m not into super minimalist shoes — you know, the shoes that are more like reinforced socks? Some even look like toe socks, with individual compartments for each toe. I know nothing about them firsthand. I’ve heard good and bad things. But my only experience, when it comes to hiking, is with boots. So let’s get back to boots.)

Most hiking boots have what’s called a “shank” — a supportive structure between the boots insole and outsole that supports a person’s feet and legs. (Shanks used to be made of metal, but are now usually made of nylon or some other material.)

boots6Some boots have a half shank (only covers the back half the boot), some have a ¾ shank, and some have a full shank. None of these are bad or good, necessarily. It depends on the person. If you want a flexible shoe, then you don’t want a full shank, which is very stiff. If you want a lot of support, you may go for a boot with a full shank. It’s up to you and what you’re comfortable with. One advantage of having a full shank or ¾ shank is that it minimizes the amount you’ll feel sharp rocks and uneven terrain beneath your feet. On the other hand, some people simply hate the way a full shank feels. It’s very stiff.

While you can’t see the shank in a boot, you can easily figure it out. Just pick the boot up and try to bend it in half, lifting the toe and heel upward. If the shoe bends in the middle, it’s got a half shank. If it bends halfway through the toebox, it’s got a ¾ shank. If the shoe really doesn’t want to bend at all, it has a full shank.

brake#6 Not all treads are created equally. Most people know to look at the tread (or very bottom) of a boot, but then what? What do you look for? If it looks “grippy”? When hiking — especially in Maine — you are going to need your boots to grip slippery rocks and roots. Usually, you can get a better feel for the general “grippy-ness” of the boot if you try it on and wear it around the store. Jump around, pivot, try to slip. Just be careful, OK?

And there’s one other thing. Look for what’s known as a “true heel” or “brake” — this is a cut (usually about 90 degrees) just before the heel. This cut or groove acts as a shelf that can catch roots and rocks to prevent you from slipping downhill.

boots1#7 Not all feet are created equally. Some are fat, some are skinny, some are flat, some are arched. People often ask me, “Well, what type of boots do you wear?” And I say, “I wear a brand called Asolo, BUT they aren’t for everyone.” You see, I have very skinny, long feet. I also prefer boots that have a full shank, meaning they are very stiff. So the Asolo hiking boots I choose are very stiff and fairly narrow. They drive some people crazy. That’s why it’s important to try on a lot of different brands and styles of boots to find the right one, the boot that fits your feet. It’s hard to get a feel for a boot inside a store. If you think a boot is comfortable but it’s a new style or brand for you, ask the store if you can purchase it, bring it home and wear it indoors for a while, and if it doesn’t work out, return it. The boot will still be sellable because you haven’t mucked it up outdoors. Which brings me to my next bit of advice…

Keen hiking sandals

Keen sandals that I use for easy trails and boat trips.

#8 Go boot shopping near the end of the day, after going for a walk. Your feet swell throughout the day, especially if you’re walking a lot. And when you hike, it’s the same thing. So you want to try on boots when your feet are at their biggest. The last thing you want to do is go home with boots that are half a size too small, wear them on the trail and have them be too small. “Stop being dramatic? What’s the worst that can happen?” you ask? Well, your big toenails could turn blue and fall off. That’s what could happen. I know. It happened to me. Twice. I hiked Katahdin in boots that were just a tad too small, and on the way down the mountain, my toes kept hitting the end of my shoes. It was extremely painful. I may have cried. And about a week later, my toenails fell off because my toes were so badly bruised. Do you know how long it takes for big toenails to grow back? About 6 months. Which brings me to my final tip (for now) …

By Aislinn Sarnacki. My feet in Speck Pond, the highest pond in Maine. Why: My feet have never been so happy to be dipped in cool water. I just climbed Speck Mountain, elevation of 4,170 feet)

By Aislinn Sarnacki. My feet in Speck Pond, the highest pond in Maine.

#9 You are not a size 7. Or a size 8. Or a size 9. Your feet are a certain length, but don’t count on any brand to run “true to size.” Brands vary when it comes to sizing, and furthermore, each design of shoe within a brand can be different when it comes to sizing. The best thing to do is try shoes on! If you usually wear a size 8, then try on a size 8 — and a size 7.5 and 8.5. Decide what’s most comfortable. For some reason, people have a hard time with this. As an employee, I saw it time and time again — people insisting on a certain size, even if it didn’t fit. And I usually don’t generalize, but in this case, I’m going to go ahead. Most women are scared of going up a size when it comes to shoes. And I think it’s because society looks at small feet as more attractive on women (for some weird reason). Or at least that’s the impression I get. I wear size 9.5 or 10 usually — pretty big feet for a woman. So I get it. I understand not wanting to go up in size. But I think it’s something that needs to be “got over.” On the other hand, I’ve noticed that men don’t want to go down in size. Society seems to look down on men with small feet (for some weird reason). That needs to be “got over,” too. Feet are feet.

boots10So how can you tell if a shoe fits? First of all, try on the shoe wearing hiking socks, which are thicker than your everyday socks. If you don’t have any on you, ask the store if you can borrow a pair.

In general, you want about a thumb’s width of space between your longest toe (which is not always your big toe) and the end of the shoe. However, with hiking boots, you can’t always feel where your toes end because the toebox of the boot is so stiff. So the only thing you can do is wiggle your toes and try to feel it out.

Walk around.

Jump up and down.

Climb some stairs, and more importantly, descend some stairs.

If a toe touches the end of the boot while you’re walking, the boot is too small. Kick something lightly with your toe, or tap the end of your toe on the ground. If your toe hits the end and hurts, the shoe is too small. If the toe only barely hits the end and it doesn’t hurt, you’re probably OK. After all, you’re forcing your foot to the front of your shoe. On the other hand, if the boots slip in the heel at all, then they’re probably too big or simply a bad fit for the shape of your feet.

Wear hiking socks when trying on hiking boots.

Wear hiking socks when trying on hiking boots.

And again, your feet may not be as swollen as they would get while hiking. So if you aren’t sure about a size, then ask the store if you can buy the boots, bring them home and wear them inside for a while; and if they don’t fit, if you can return them.

I did this the other day, actually. I purchased fairly expensive Asolo boots, brought them home, wore them around, and decided they were a half size too small. Thank goodness I was patient and didn’t wear them outside. I returned them to the store and purchased the next size up.

Alright. I’m done. For now.

I hope this post helps someone find the perfect pair of boots. Truly the best thing to do is simply walk into a store (not an online store, an actual building) and try on boots. Lots of boots. Don’t be shy. Ask the store employees questions. You never know, you may just find someone who is as enthusiastic as I am about finding you the perfect boots.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.