Hiking Boot Guide

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Three different hiking boot examples.

Three different hiking boot examples.

Believe it or not, hiking boots are fairly complex. They incorporate many materials of varying water resistance, flexibility and durability to create a foundation for your foot, your legs and ultimately your entire body. Understanding how a hiking boot is put together, what features it provides, and what to look for can be the difference between accomplishing a 10 mile hike and enjoying the outdoors or getting blisters, bruises, a bloody heel or ending up with bunions from repeated abuse. Let’s start out by defining the parts of a boot so we can refer to them later and begin to understand their purpose.

  1. Last – a foot shaped mold that hiking boot manufacturers use to build boots around, sort of like a shoe mannequin. Vasque tends to use narrower lasts, Keen has wider lasts (since they started out focused on sandals meant to free your foot) and Merrell is known for using lasts of average width which is part of why they are one of the most popular brands and most commonly seen on the trail.
  2. Upper – the outer part of the boot covering the top of your foot, usually made from leather, fabric materials or a combination of both. The upper protects against scrapes, dirt, water, and anything else that might otherwise come into contact with your foot. It connects to the edges of the outsole and forms the boot housing. Without an upper you’d be left with a sandal or thong, and that’s no good for serious hiking!
  3. Outsole – the rubber part of the boot on the bottom that protects your foot and grips the trail, also referred to as simply the “sole”. Vibram is a very popular brand of outsole that many hiking boots feature, it is a composite rubber that is designed to be very rugged and long lasting while still providing excellent grip. Named after its founder, Vitale Bramani, Vibram is credited with producing the first rubber soles for boots and was inspired by the tragic deaths of six mountaineers (friends of Vitale) who had inadequate grip.
  4. Achilles Notch – the cutout area at the top back end of the boot, where the achilles tendon runs in your ankle. Designed to help prevent and relieve achilles pressure on long descents, an important feature for anyone with achilles discomfort or Tendonitis.
  5. Rocker – a gentle curve in the footbox / toe area of the sole that allows the boot to roll naturally forward as steps are taken. Depending on the stiffness of the midsole and upper the rocker may bend at your toes or be completely stiff. Imagine that your boot is a chair resting on the ground, rocker allows it to roll forward and back like the legs of a rocking chair instead of just remaining static. This is important in higher end trekking boots because they are so stiff that there is no other way to smoothly transition forward without rolling and “rocking” the boot.
  6. Rubber Band – a rubberized cap that increases durability on the toe area of the boot. A rubber band will also protects against water and may sometimes be found at the rear heal area of the boot.
  7. Lugs – rubber nubs on the bottom of a boot’s outsole designed to help with traction. Larger lugs will last longer but not grip as precisely. Smaller, thinner lugs will wear down quickly, especially on concrete surfaces, but provide more grip under light loads. Notice that light hiking boots usually have narrower lugs and outsole patterns vs. mountaineering boots which have big knobby lugs).
  8. Heel – an extended area at the back end of a boot’s outsole designed to provide stopping power and braking. Imagine the heel on high heel shoes, you could really put the brakes on by jabbing them into the mountain… if they didn’t break off so easily :)
  9. Notches – indentations on the upper and midsole at the heel and toe ends of a boot designed for use with step in crampons and snowshoes. These usually look like ridges or little ledges that you could connect straps to on the outside of a boot. 95% of light and mid hiking boots don’t have notches, it’s really just for high end mountaineering boots and snow boots. More pronounced notches can be found on cross country and downhill ski boots.
  10. Exoskeleton – just like insects and crustaceans, boots can feature hard plastic, rubber or fabric exoskeleton that protects vulnerable areas and reinforces foot support & fit by connecting to laces and buckles.
  11. Midsole – This part of a boot rests on top of the outsole and is connected to the upper. Simply put, it’s what your insole rests on and what provides strength and support for your foot! The midsole provides structure, arch support, and padding and can be made of foam, rubber, metal or hard plastic (usually a combination of several materials working together). It will be stiffer for backpacking and long distance boots, to the point that you can hardly bend it. Consider this, as weight and distance bear down on the tiny bones and joints of your toes, more discomfort and fatigue will occur. For this reason stiffer midsoles are required to shift movement and work from your toes and arch to larger muscles in your calves and thighs. Most light hiking boots and running shoes use EVA foam in their insoles which is lighter and more shock absorbent but shorter lived (it lasts ~500 miles or about 2 years). You can tell when EVA is wearing down because it will start to show wrinkles and crease marks along the side of the boot. Polyurethane is a popular alternative and the standard in higher end hiking boots that lasts longer, won’t pack down and provides more support (usually 5 to 8 years or as long as the rest of the boot).
  12. Insole – this is the thin piece of foam or rubber that sits on top of the midsole and actually comes into contact with your foot. Most shoes and boots feature removable insoles that can be replaced to alter arch support or provide more comfort. Popular hiking insole replacements include Sole and Superfeet.
  13. Heel Counter – a rigid cup that sits inside the upper and inner lining of the heal of a hiking boot. Although this piece cannot be seen it can be felt when boots are put on and will stabilize the foot and provide support for the heel. Sometimes on older boots, as internal fabrics and foams wear away, you will be able to see the heel counter poking through or possibly even feel it rubbing directly on your heel causing blisters or bleeding.
  14. Liner – the layer of fabric and foam connected to the inside of the upper that comes into contact with your foot. Basically, the inside of the boot, padded and coated to add comfort insulation and ventilation.
  15. Membrane – a layer of material placed in between the upper “outside of the boot” and liner “inside of the boot” that may provide water proofing or breathability. Popular name brand membranes include GORE-TEX and eVENT. These membranes strive to provide both ventilation and water stopping power by using polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) fabrics. Many people think Gore-Tex is some external layer or coating… let’s get this straight. Imagine that in between the layers of your boot there is a plastic sack glued in so that when you step into a puddle, water won’t leak through the boot to your foot. That’s essentially what these fabric membranes do. In addition to water proofing and ventilation membranes add stiffness to boots and many people complain that they make boots much hotter (due to decreased ventilation) though they are designed to be one way permeable and thus allow for venting. If you’re going somewhere hot and humid consider straying away from waterproof membranes in favor of something with more ventilation. Usually boots with membranes cost a bit more.
  16. Tongue – the flap of fabric and foam padding that covers the top of a boot, it is designed to slide inside the upper when laces are tightened and allow for custom fit and flexibility of boots and shoes. Make sure you pull the tongue all the way up when you begin lacing and as you work your way up the boot tuck it back into the sides for maximum comfort.
  17. Tongue Gusset – the layer of fabric connecting the sides of the tongue to the upper. This layer is especially important in hiking boots as it provides a seal against dirt, temperature and most importantly water. Remember that your boot can only keep out water using its membrane as high as the tongue gusset goes.

Now that we’ve identified the different components that go into a pair of boots, let’s talk about how to wear them correctly. Most important, you’ll want a good pair of socks. Make sure your socks reach all the way up to the top of your boots ankle support so you have a layer of padding between your skin and the boot liner. Make sure your boots are laced all the way up and held on tight. The idea is for the boot to act as a natural extension of your foot and leg, providing its own support and padding through the insole, midsole and outsole. If you have not laced them up correctly and are relying on movement between your foot and the insole to provide cushioning then it might be time to get a new boot, or at least tie your shoes! Imagine this, the more movement and flexing that your foot endures as you walk, the more tired your joints and muscles will become. You only want flexibility and movement in your foot when using light hiking boots for shorter hikes. Imagine ice skating with a pair of skates that weren’t tied correctly, the weight of your accelerated movement and the instability created by the thin blade could damage your ankle. In the same way, when hiking on loose debris and carrying extra weight your foot needs the support of a correctly worn boot.

The final step in proper hiking boot usage is having a contingency plan. Bring extra socks along with you, consider using Moleskin (an adhesive resin applied directly to the skin in high stress areas). Always bring a band aid or two so if you feel a warm spot or end up with a blister or cut you can apply protection and mitigate the damage. Check out the video and images below for more examples and information.

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