For our testing, we have all over Central Oregon and California's Sierra Mountains in every season, as winter transitioned to spring and again as summer transitioned to fall, through snow showers, rainstorms, and perfect sunny days. We tested these shoes on ice, snow, mud, sand, rock, and dirt. We put dozens of miles on each pair, comparing them back to back on short loops, and donning backpacks to see how they fared with weight on longer treks. We hiked up scree-covered buttes and traversed the high desert. Shoes were tested and rated on the following metrics: Comfort, Support, Traction, Water Resistance, Weight, and Durability. Here is how we specifically scored and tested each metric.
When determining the comfort of a hiking shoe, we primarily compared the comfort level of the midsole while hiking. We hiked with light day packs and with heavier, 20-30 lb packs to find the differences and limits in each pair. Some models are more comfortable because they favor the shape of one person's foot over another. For example, a narrower shoe will likely feel too tight for someone with a wider foot. While we did note if there are pressure points from the laces or tongue and if our toes fell asleep, our goal is for the rating to reflect something that we all experience regardless of foot shape. With that being said, we also make recommendations for what shape of foot each model will best accommodate.
For support, we looked at several components of the shoe: the arch support (both internal as well as the insole), lateral support, and support provided by the lacing system. Arch support is somewhat relative to the shape of each foot; too much can make a shoe uncomfortable for those with high volume feet. However, a good hiking shoe should provide some foot support to prevent fatigue and fallen arches over time. We rated the lateral support based on hiking experience (did the sole collapse on us, did we feel unstable on rocky ground, did our ankles cave in at all), and we also twisted each pair - in a motion similar to wringing out a soggy towel - to determine stiffness. Finally, we evaluated the lacing and adjustability on each pair, which affects how effectively we can secure our ankles and minimize heel lift.
There are also several factors that go into our traction score. A hiking shoe should provide traction on a variety of terrain, both going uphill and downhill, and on off-camber surfaces. We noted if we had any slippage issues on the trails, and then took all the shoes out at the same time and went up, down, and across rock slabs, wet logs, and rubbly cinder cones in each pair. We noted how sticky, soft or hard, the rubber was, and the effectiveness of the tread pattern on different surfaces.
We tested these shoes around Bend, Oregon, which is notorious for moody and unpredictable weather. There were plenty of rainy (even snowy) mornings, wet bushes, soggy trails, and mud puddles to help determine water resistance. We also performed a ten-minute bucket test with each pair to determine the effectiveness of the waterproof liner, weighing the shoes before and after to see how much moisture the materials absorbed.
Manufacturers state their product's weight in a variety of shoe sizes, so we weighed each pair on a calibrated scale to have a relative measurement that we could compare. Lighter shoes tend to create less fatigue over time and can be more agile for fast hikes. However, they also tend to be less durable, supportive, and stable for longer hikes. Fortunately, new technologies are allowing for lighter weight shoes that still offer excellent support and performance.
While we hiked hundreds of miles and thousands of vertical feet over the course of many weeks testing of these shoes, most hiking shoes fail around 300-500 miles, which we could not achieve in our testing time frame with this many pairs of shoes. However, we examined each pair closely for signs of wear or weak spots and also researched online user reviews to see if there were any consistent patterns of wear or weakness. For models that have been around a while, we were also able to examine some well-used pairs in our friends' shoe racks to get a sense of how they fared in the long term.