Types of Hiking Footwear
At OutdoorGearLab, we encourage lightweight options in outdoor gear. Many hikers assume this means choosing trail runners or lightweight hiking shoes, but many hiking boots weigh in just mere ounces more than hiking shoes, yet offer a significant increase in support and stability. For some women, hiking shoes will result in the most efficient use of energy, but others will find that boots, now in lighter weight models, provide added support that lends to greater comfort and enjoyment on the trail. All of the boots in our review are within a pound in weight of the top hiking shoes we reviewed, making them a great option for day hikes and long backpacking trips. Your needs as a hiker will vary based on how much ankle and foot support you need, trail conditions, and pack weight. Below is a breakdown of the most popular hiking footwear options and their distinguishing qualities.
Best Uses: day hikes, general hiking, moderate backpacking, long distance lightweight hiking and backpacking.
When travelling through shallow waterbeds and across spring and summer snow fields, boots provide features for keeping your feet well gripped and dry. All of the boots in our women's review have either a waterproof lining and/or outer water resistant treatment. Compared to hiking shoes, boots have technical tread patterns constructed of harder rubber soles with deeper and wider spaced lugs. This handles rugged terrain well.
Boots are in fact heavier than hiking shoes, but only by a few ounces to a pound. All of the women's boots we reviewed weigh between 1.5 and 3.5 pounds per pair. To put this weight in perspective, our reviewed women's hiking shoes weigh in between 1.3 and 2 pounds. The extra weight of boots comes with a longer life span, more durability in rugged terrain and conditions, as well as the above mentioned support and stability. Your hiking objectives will determine whether a shoe or a boot is most appropriate.
Best Uses: for the beginner and occasional hiker, day hiking and backpacking, off trail travel, rugged terrain, backpacking with light and heavy pack loads, spring or summer hiking where snow will be encountered.
Best Uses: high alpine travel, winter hiking and climbing, general mountaineering (especially in snow), ice climbing
Styles of Hiking Boots
Hiking boots are offered in lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight versions. This correlates to the actual weight of the boot and suggests different intended uses.
The lightweight models in our review are the Ahnu Montara - Women's, Columbia Redmond Mid- Women's, and the Keen Targhee II Mid - Women's.
The midweight models in our women's review are the Salomon X Ultra GTX Mid 2- Women's, OBoz Bridger Mid BDry- Women's, Lowa Renegade GTX Mid - Women's, and HOKA ONE ONE Tor Ultra HI Women's.
Boots excel while backpacking for multiple days. Spending days, weeks, or even months on the trail is completely different from any single day on the trail. It demands comfort in your footwear as you will spend miles in a single pair of boots. Whether progressing a couple miles each day or aiming to hike 20+ miles per day, your footwear should meet the demands of the most challenging terrain you anticipate hiking across. Boots have rigid soles intended for rough surfaces, but don't forget to consider cushion and padding in the fit of the shoe. Backpack weight loads of 20-40 pounds are suitable with any of the boots in our review. Mid-weight boots are preferred over light weight boots when carrying mid- to heavy-weight pack loads.
Rugged terrain includes rocky trails, exposed tree roots, loose scree, talus, and potential snow crossings where kicking footsteps are required. Loose and rough terrain presents plenty of opportunity for rolled ankles and loss of traction. Trails that meander through rugged terrain demand boots (or shoes) that maintain traction, provide adequate stability (particularly under a pack load), and a high ankle shaft for keeping feet dry and debris free. All of the mid-weight boots in our women's review are suited for hiking in rugged terrain. Light weight boots are suitable for some rugged terrain, but are soft and closely resemble hiking shoes, limiting their support and stability in rugged environments.
The majority of hiking is in a day hiking style. This hiker will find herself on the trail only for a single day, and for as little as a single hour. On trail, provisions such as water and snacks are carried as well as minimal gear such as a water filter and an extra layer. The pack load is considered light weight based on the few items in comparison to an overnight trip. Day hiking will take you to incredible places that are relatively close to a trailhead. Light weight boots and shoes are suited for day hiking. Consider the Ahnu Montara - Women's or the Keen Targhee II Mid - Women's. Women desiring firmer support in the ankles and underfoot may consider a mid weight boot like the Oboz Bridger Mid BDry.
Other Key Considerations for Selecting a Women's Hiking Boot
Before setting out on the trail for the first time or the hundredth time, it's important to clarify your hiking style so that your gear suits your intended adventure.
For the fast and light hikers, seek out a boot that feels light on the feet, which is not always reflected in actual weight. While reviewing boots, we found that sometimes boots that weighed more felt lighter while hiking than others that weighed less but were less balanced.
For the leisurely hiker, emphasize comfort and support in your boot.
For the overnight hiker and backpacker, a boot that provides long-lasting comfort day after day while remaining supportive is best.
If you plan to hike or backpack with a heavy pack load, be sure that your footwear reflects your needs. More weight on your back demands more support in your feet. The most supportive boots will not only keep your feet stable and comfortable, but will also offer added support throughout your back body.
Hiking boots should be selected based on the most difficult terrain you expect to encounter. Trail conditions vary greatly from region to region. You may plan to hike locally in a landscape that is familiar or you may have a goal of trekking internationally through foreign landscapes. No matter where you plan to hike, the comfort of your boots is fundamental. It is likely that the purchase of hiking shoes will require replacement within a couple seasons, but boots can last for a couple years of hiking. For this reason, it is important to consider the diverse terrain you intend to hike through so you can get the most out of your boots.
Trail Conditions: Trail conditions are as diverse as the landscapes we venture to. The varying terrain demands different levels of tread aggression from semi-aggressive to aggressive. A semi-aggressive tread will have shallow lugs on the bottom of the boot and will have less diversity in the tread pattern. A semi-aggressive tread is suitable for on trail hiking in terrain that is well traveled. An aggressive tread will have deep lug depths and have a varying tread pattern for managing the terrain. An aggressive tread becomes necessary in loose, steep terrain, off-trail travel, or where mud, rain, or snow are anticipated. All of the women's boots in our review are suitable for varying terrain, from deep mud to loose talus to steep slopes.
Water: Water, either falling from the sky, or obstructing the trail, has the potential to alter your hiking plans. All of the women's boots in our review are designed with waterproof/breathable membrane linings that keep your feet dry, taking the guesswork out of selecting the right boot. In high elevation environments snow and raging creeks are common, even in late summer. Creek crossings and snow crossings are appropriate applications for a waterproof model. The higher the ankle shaft, the less likely your socks will get wet.
Seasons: A boot capable of providing comfort throughout all four seasons is ideal. Women planning to hike in hot summer months should consider the breathability of their footwear. All leather may not be most suitable as it will provide the least amount of breathability in hot temperatures. If winter is your favorite time to hike, consider more aggressive tread patterns and higher ankle shafts for managing potential snow underfoot and keeping snow out of your boot. Just as the consideration for varying terrain conditions in diverse landscapes, the four seasons present different aspects to consider for hiking comfort and enjoyment. Any of the boots in our review can be used year round hiking although strap-on crampons may be necessary in some winter conditions and not all of the boots offer adequate breathability designs for hot summer hiking.
Water resistance is determined by the boots' ability to keep your feet dry when in contact with water. It allows you the ability to cross a creek, but if you stand in the water for an extended period of time (in our tests, this is more than a couple minutes), the exterior of the boots begin to absorb water and water leaks through the eyelets. For the intended uses of hikers, this is plenty adequate so long as you don't stand in water for prolonged periods of time.
Water resistance of boots may be attained by either a waterproof/breathable membrane or with an exterior chemical treatment. All of the boots we reviewed have either a Gore-Tex or similar lining such as eVent that offers waterproof qualities and breathability. An exterior chemical treatment creates a chemical wall that is impenetrable by water. Products like these are available at outdoor retailers. We don't recommend purchasing a non-water resistant boot model only to apply an outer treatment, although after long-term use, this chemical application is effective in restoring the original water resistance.
Breathability ensures that your feet stay well ventilated, reducing or eliminating the build-up of moisture in your socks and foot bed. Air flow is achieved by mesh panels and lightweight, breathable materials being used in the design of footwear. Boots are not typically known for being breathable because they have historically been designed of all leather for durability and support, and some models are still constructed of full leather outers. The use of mesh and lighter weight materials allows more breathability in boots.
A bonus feature associated with breathability (or sometimes the lack thereof) is technically designed foot beds that offer anti-odor, anti-microbial, and climate control. We think these are notable features associated with breathability and comfort in hot and cold temperatures.
Fit is the most important factor to consider before selecting your boots. We have provided you with a thorough comparative review of the best women's boots and noted where individual styles vary in widths, but getting a proper fit is best when trying a boot on in person. After all, your new boots should last you through hundreds of miles of trails, and ensuring the best fit will lend to long-term comfort and support. Below are important considerations to guide you through the fitting and sizing process.
Fitting in person:
Properly fitting a boot starts with having a comfortable pair of socks, preferably the pair you intend to hike in. This accurately sizes the foot to how it will fit while on the trail. Another tip to achieve the accuracy of sizing is to try boots on in the afternoon as opposed to the morning. Many avid hikers will attest to sizing hiking footwear up a ½ or whole size above your street shoe size. By trying boots on in the afternoon, your feet have had an opportunity to warm up and expand from their early morning, rested size.
Next, be sure that your feet have wiggle room in the toe box but do not shift around inside the boot from side-to-side or front to back. An accurate length and width in sizing will reduce the likelihood of toe jam, blisters, and other sizing related discomforts. Each manufacturer uses a foot mold, or last, to shape the inside of the boots. Some foot molds may not fit your feet as well as others. Experiment with different brands and different models. Many boots, such as the Lowa Renegade, are available in narrow, regular, and wide widths.
Ideally, your new boots will provide support under the arches of your feet and offer stability underfoot. Comfort may be customized by replacing the included insoles with aftermarket insoles like Superfeet; insoles and orthotics offer the ability to alter the arch support and overall foot comfort by creating more or less support.
Hiking boots should be firm and should not bend in the sole. A sturdy shank will ensure a firm sole and midsole. The shoe should resist a downward bend but lend enough flexibility for the natural bend in the top of the foot around the toe box.
Lastly, your foot should not lift up in the heel while hiking.
Experiment with lacing systems by tightening and loosening the laces. If you are restricted in the toe box but your heel lifts, loosen the laces on the lower portion of the foot, tie a knot, then tighten the laces up high. If you need more security on the top of your foot and more space in the ankle shaft, tighten the laces on your forefoot, tie an optional knot to secure, then lace up loosely along the ankle. There are many ways to lace your boots so that you experience an ideal level of comfort, support, and stability.
Fitting at home:
A proper fit will be challenging to achieve from home, especially if you are unfamiliar with certain brands and their fit on your feet. See the individual manufacturers' website for sizing charts and step-by-step instructions for measuring your feet. A great option is to find an online retailer that accepts returns and order more than one pair of boots from different brands to experiment with sizing and fit.
Be sure to find a boot that is comfortable, leaving room for movement and activity, yet not allowing too much room for sliding around. You want to be comfortable and well supported while also feeling stable in varying terrain.
Anatomy of a Hiking Boot and Materials
Understanding the different components of a hiking boot can also help you to better understand the materials used in construction. Why is this relevant? Hiking footwear, and most other shoes for that matter, are advertised with a lot of jargon to highlight materials and construction methods to assure you, the hiker, that your boots are suitable. But if you don't know what all of the jargon means, the highlighted aspects of the boots become irrelevant. Below is a breakdown of the anatomical parts of a boot from top to bottom, and the recommended materials to look for:
The upper of a boot is essentially all of the material above the rubber sole. It refers to the main materials used to keep your feet protected from the elements. This part of the boot should offer breathability and is also the most important when considering water resistant qualities. Abrasion will test this material's strength and durability, so opt for materials that are abrasion-resistant or can withstand high abrasion such as abrasion-resistant mesh, leather and synthetic leather, and suede. Solid leather uppers tend to be the most durable and long-lasting, but will be the least breathable and take the longest to break-in.
All of the boots in our review are constructed of leather uppers. Nubuck leather is not as stiff as full grain leather, nor does it require as long of a break-in period. It is durable against abrasion and water. Full-grain leather is a heavier material but endures long term trail use.
The interior of a hiking boot is lined so that the hiker is not relying on the upper and sole to provide comfort and support. The lining and insole marry together to provide you with support underfoot, comfort all around, and then influence the size and shape of the inside of the shoe. Another important role of the lining is to serve as a water barrier and to also manage moisture from sweating, wet trails, and rain. Lining is responsible for insulating your foot as well. Summer hiking doesn't require much insulation but if you intend to hike in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall or end up shopping for a heavier duty boot, consider the insulating properties of the lining. Common lining materials are synthetic fabrics, polyester mesh, abrasion resistant fabrics, and waterproof/breathable linings. The waterproof lining is comparable to wrapping your foot in a plastic sock, or waterproof bootie, before putting it in your boot, except this technology is already designed into the lining to keep your feet dry from outside water contact. Popular brands such as Gore-Tex and eVent provide a waterproof lining that also allows your foot to breathe.
Insole, Midsole, and Outsole
The insole is what your foot rests on. It is the material directly under foot. Insoles are often removable and customizable. Molded EVA is the common factory insole that comes in the shoe upon purchase. Customizable insoles for increased ergonomical support and comfort are made of foam. Carbon fiber, memory foam, and gel are the common materials used to construct insoles that can be formed and fitted to your boots. These will replace the factory insoles.
The midsole sits between the insole and the sole of the shoe. This provides much of the support. Dual density EVA molded midsoles are the most common in hiking boots. EVA stands for ethylene vinyl acetate. Basically, it is a plastic foam-like material that can be more or less dense before constructed into a shoe. The more dense the EVA midsole is, the longer the break-in period will be. Typically, hiking shoes utilize an EVA material that is soft and flexible to ensure immediate comfort. In contrast, a hiking boot will utilize a dense EVA or polyurethane alternative to ensure more support under weight and pack-loads.
Support is gained by shanks and plates incorporated between the midsoles and the outsoles. Shanks and plates are layers of nylon or thermoplastic urethane that stiffen the boot under foot. This adds support and significantly minimizes bruising of the feet from rugged terrain such as rocks, roots, and branches on trail. Shanks can either run the full length of the boot or only run 3/4 length. Boots with full shanks should not bend or flex under the forefoot or beneath the middle of the foot. The heel should feel stabilized.
The sole, or outsole, of a hiking shoe is the bottom part of the shoe that makes contact with the trail. This is often constructed of a hard rubber that is capable of maintaining traction and stability on a variety of terrain conditions from mud to dust to snow. Proprietary rubber blends are designed to provide the highest degree of stability, shock absorption, and traction. Softer rubber will offer better grip on smooth surfaces but will also wear out at a faster rate. Harder rubber will offer less sticky traction on smooth surfaces but will endure long term wear better. Tread patterns that have various size and shape of lugs, or cleat-like features, tend to offer better traction than uniform patterned tread. Lugs should release ground material without accumulating underfoot. Widely spaced, aggressive lugs with depth are ideal for hiking boots.
The insole, midsole, and outsole are the key factors for comfort and support. While the midsole and outsole are not customizable, the insole can be customized to offer added support and comfort.
The best toe protection is offered by a rubber toe cap. A rubber toe cap is the coverage of rubber or similar material that covers the toe area of the hiking boot. Toe protection is necessary on most hiking trails as you will likely encounter hard surfaces to bump and kick your toes into. Some boots have rands that are strips of rubber that may cover only the toe area or may extend around the circumference of the shoe for added durability and protection from abrasion and water. It is often reinforced with an inner form to create a stiff toe area. This reduces the risk of pain and discomfort from unintentional toe contact with external things such as rocks and also strengthens the shoe from potential damage.
Boots usually require a break in-period. The stiffness of the outer materials could warrant a break-in period of a few hours on trail or a handful of longer hikes before maximum comfort and fit is achieved. Don't be discouraged to purchase a boot that requires brief discomfort during initial hikes because the long-term durability of the boots will outweigh the benefits of a lightweight shoe that requires no break-in period. Fabric and mesh panels designed with leather reduce the break-in period, as these materials are softer and more flexible by nature. A boot constructed of all leather uppers offer more protection and durability in rigorous terrain but will require a break-in period that lasts longer than hybrid construction designs. Beginning with a proper fit upon purchase will ensure long-term comfort.
For breaking-in your new hiking boots, start with short hikes. If your hiking objectives involve multi-day trips, wear your hiking boots on a few day hikes before committing to an overnight adventure. This will present a great opportunity to fine tune your lacing as well. If your feet slide around or feel cramped, consider changing your style of socks. If you experience sharp pressure points when wearing all-leather boots, consider using a leather softener. Taking the time to break your hiking boots in will lead to greater enjoyment on longer trail days and overnight trips.
Ask an Expert: Kasey Stewart
Kasey has worked as a trail crew supervisor and wilderness ranger for the US Forest Service for over 10 years throughout Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Each summer she spends 16-20 days a month backpacking and hiking in the backcountry.
What kinds of things do you do to help break in your hiking specific boots?
I make sure that I buy hiking boots that fit well and then I don't ever have to break them in. I do this with the confidence that allows me to backpack 10 miles the first time I wear a pair of boots and come out blister-free. When I try the boots on, if there is a hot or sharp spot, a rub, a slip, or anything funny or mildly uncomfortable, then a boot is not worth it. In the field I might get them soaking wet and let them dry while walking in them - perhaps laced a little extra tight. I do this because I have had hiking boots which are repeatedly soaked and dried in the hot summer sun which causes them to shrink. I have taken them to a leather worker to stretch or rub on a bar.
What characteristics are you willing to go without to save on weight? What things are you not willing to compromise to save on weight?
Weight is one of the lower-priority things I consider when buying hiking specific boots and I usually don't buy the lightest-weight hiking boots for work. I am a trail crew worker who repeatedly wades through swamps, scampers across scree fields, backpacks with a 50 pound pack, works in creek beds, etc., so my first priority are boots that are rugged and durable, and that support my feet and ankles. I prefer solid leather boots and will consider GoreTex in a hiking boot, but it isn't a necessity for me. Most boots have nylon, plastic or rubber additions to save on weight. These things require glue or stitching which will usually be the first source of weakness or failure once you put several miles in your boots.
What is the most important thing you consider when choosing hiking specific boots?
I mentioned this above, but fit, construction, and materials are my essentials. They need to fit perfectly when I try them on at the store. I strongly prefer solid leather boots with minimal stitching. Then I'll go for the lightest boot from there.
Do you use any accessories with your boots? What types of socks do you use? Do you use any special inserts or foot beds?
Yes. I always replace the stock foot bed liner with either a SuperFeet or Down Under foot bed in my hiking boots. Even if you don't have any special issues with your feet, when you are walking and hiking for long distances, I find the extra support of these foot beds to be crucial to keeping my feet happy. I always wear medium weight hiking socks made of some type of performance wool material. This is also really important to keep your feet dry and blister/rub free.
What tricks do you have to prevent blisters?
If I get a hot spot I treat it quickly and aggressively. I do my best to remove whatever is causing the rub (for example, re-arrange my socks or boots, dump out the pebbles or dirt). Then maybe I'll change my socks, or re-tie the boots, or put duct tape over the hot spot. If I do get a blister, I leave it alone and I try my best not to pop it. I usually cut out a circle or oval of duct tape (the rounded corners are key because they don't catch on socks or boots when you are walking and start to peel off) and place it over the hot spot, pressing it firmly on and allowing the heat from my hand to make it stick better. It will eventually form a callus and that will protect that spot from rubbing issues for the rest of the season.
If your boots get wet, how do you dry them?
I try not to dry my leather boots quickly and I avoid drying them in heat (like a campfire), or in direct hot sun. I have had issues - this causes the leather to crack or the leather and rubber to shrink. I prefer to dry them slowly in a cool place or wear them until they dry.
Do you like waterproof boots or would you rather have more breathability?
I really prefer a waterproof boot in my line of work. Usually I'll use a water-proofing leather spray or wax and sometimes I'll buy GoreTex. However, if I get GoreTex boots, I usually find that the water-proofness wears out after a season or so and so I need to use water-proofing wax for the leather after that.
What kinds of tread do you like or use in different situations?
I like an aggressive Vibram sole that is grippy in all situations – it's really helpful for muddy conditions, but also if you need to do a little rock scrambling.