Women's Hiking Boot Buying Advice
By McKenzie Long ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab - Monday November 12, 2012
Do You Even Need Hiking Boots?
The recent trend in the hiking world is to hike in trail runners. These are lightweight, flexible, dry quickly, and still provide great tread and traction. As supporters of hiking light, our gear editors lean towards lighter footwear. So what is the case for a traditional pair of hiking boots? Why not always hike in lightweight trail runners?
Hiking boots generally offer the wearer more support and protection. If you have wobbly ankles, the higher profile of hiking boots supports your foot more. Also, if you plan to carry a lot of weight the added support of boots can be more comfortable. When hiking over uneven terrain stiffer boots can give you more purchase and support. Boots are designed with a shank, usually made of nylon, which creates the bottom rigidity of the boot, protecting your feet from sharp rocks and making travel over uneven terrain easier.
Boots usually offer more protection from weather and snow, and work better with instep crampons. If you plan to hike over snowfields, which is common in the Sierras, even in summer, boots would be more preferable. Boots will be warmer, dryer, and less painful to kick steps in snow.
Hiking boots tend to last longer than trail runners. All the same features that protect your feet also make the boot more durable, where a meshy, breathable trail runner would wear out and blow out. Even though boots are more expensive than trail runners, over the long run a solid pair of boots would be the most cost effective investment because they will last the same amount of time as two or three pairs of trail runners. Think of the cost in terms of cents per mile. If a $200 pair of boots lasts you 600 miles of hiking, and a $100 pair of trail runners lasts you 100 miles of hiking, the boots are the wiser choice for spending.
Hiking boots themselves come in different weights, so buying a boot doesn't mean you will be stuck with a heavy, clunky pair. See our breakdown below.
There is a frequently quoted theory that one pound on your foot equals five pounds on your back, which presents a strong case for selecting the lightest pair of hiking boots possible. Our gear editors believe this theory, and so do most long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. When hiking or backpacking, we aim to select the lightest gear possible, for our packs as well as our boots.
So would you ever want heavy hiking boots? Here is our gear editors' breakdown of when to wear what:
For a typical hike on groomed trails where you need good traction but don't need tons of support, a comfortable, lightweight and low-cut hiking boot or a trail runner would suffice, such as the Keen Targhee II or the La Sportiva FC Eco 3.0, both of which can be purchased high-top or low-top. Our tester found that it is infinitely more comfortable to hike in a shoe that is lightweight, making each foot lift easily off the ground every step. 9 out of 10 times we are going to select the lightest boot we can find. Unless the terrain requires extra support for safety, we are going to try and keep the weight off of our feet.
A short step away from a light dayhiker is the hiking shoe, which is usually low-cut and lightweight, yet still offers excellent traction and support. To get a better understanding of hiking shoes and the different categories of footwear for hiking, reference our Hiking Shoe Buying Advice.
If the terrain is rough, a light boot that offers support is the way to go. Boots like the Vasque Breeze or the Asolo Bullet provide ankle support and extra protection without getting too heavy. These boots also last a longer than a trail runner or lightweight boot, so if you are using your boots hard, midweight boots will give you more miles.
For rough, snowy, and harsh terrain, a burly all leather boot like the Asolo TPS 520 GV that can be worn with instep crampons would be in order. For example, if you are planning an extended backpacking trips over rocky terrain, with a lot of gear, and you find yourself groaning loudly as you haul your pack onto your back, that's when you should be thinking about a heavier and more supportive boot, which has real advantages in that situation. We like the fact that the ankle support is more substantial, because a heavy load on rocky terrain can turn into a nasty twisted ankle in the blink of an eye.
Gore-Tex or not? Water Resistance
Though all the hiking boots in this review have some sort of waterproof/breathable membrane except for the Keen Voyageur, it is worth considering if this is what you want in your boots. Even though these membranes are breathable, they are not as breathable as shoes without the waterproof layer, and the membrane adds weight to the boot. If you are hiking in hot, dry conditions, it might suit you to choose boots without the membrane so that your feet can stay dryer from the inside. However, if you are hiking in wet conditions, the waterproof feature is excellent in keeping your feet from soaking through from the outside. Just remember, water can still spill through the top of the shoe, and the membrane only protects in shallow water from below.
Fit is the single most important factor to consider when buying hiking boots. If a boot is too large, your heel will slide, causing blisters, and your foot will slide forward when you walk downhill, causing toe-bang. If a boot is too small it will cramp your toes, causing blisters, and also make portions of your feet go numb.
You want your toes to be able to wiggle around in the front of your boot, but you don't want too much extra length in the front. Make sure the boot laces around the volume of your foot securely, holding your foot in place in the boots.
When trying on boots, bring the socks and footbeds you plan to use, and spend some time walking around the store to get a good feel for how your feet sit in the boots. Try walking up or down in them and see if your foot moves forward or stays put.
If you have an unusual sized foot, such as particularly narrow or wide, look for a pair of boots that comes with sizing options tailored for your foot, such as the Vasque Breeze and the Lowa Renegade that come with narrow and wide options. Spending a little extra time to get the perfect fit will greatly improve your hiking experience.
Advice from an AT Thru-Hiker
We solicited advice from a gal, trail name Pixel, who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail the summer of 2011. After wearing through multiple pairs of boots and walking from Georgia to Maine, she had something to say about how to select the perfect pair hiking boots.
Pixel had heard the theory that one pound on your foot equals five pounds on your back, and she agreed with it. The heavier the boot, the more exhausted your muscles became, and compounded over 2,000 miles, well, that can be the difference between finishing or dropping out early.
The most important boot characteristics for a long-distance hiker are weight and comfort, which trump durability. Light hikers wear out, so multiple pairs are needed. A boot like the Asolo TPS 520 GV would likely last the whole trail, but they are so heavy that they wouldn't be comfortable and would slow the hiker down. It is better to wear through a couple pairs of Keens or Lowa Renegades.
Hikers have different preferences for some of the particular characteristics of a hiking boot, but Pixel and most of her hiking partners preferred the high cut ankle support on the light hiking boots for carrying a pack rather than the low-cut models. For hiking on the muggy East Coast, she preferred boots without Gore-Tex or similar waterproof membranes her feet would get wet no matter what, whether it was from sweat or water sneaking in the top of the boot. Without Gore-Tex, the boots dried more quickly. However, if you plan on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail on the West Coast, that may be a whole different matter. There the climate is dryer, the altitude higher, and snowfields are more common, so Gore-Tex might be a necessity.
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