Getting the right pair of boots is the most important part of kitting yourself out for any adventure. It can be the difference between having the walking holiday of a lifetime or one where the abiding memories are of pain and discomfort. Unlike choosing a cosy hat or some cool sunglasses, getting the right boots is actually more of a case of seeing which boots will pick you. Because, much like feet, boots come in all shapes and sizes. Here are our top hiking boot tips to ensure that your boots really are made for walking.
Talk to the experts
Don’t just Google ramblers’ reviews and then do a late-night online shop. You will be so glad that you have taken the time to go to a specialist outdoor shop and chat with an experienced boot fitter in person. A good boot fitter will listen to what you need from your new boots, recommend a few options and then take you through the process of fitting. The choice of boot may also differ according to the terrain, of course, so if you are walking in the Pyrenees, you may want a different boot to the Atlas Mountains. A good fitting can take up to an hour (sometimes longer), so set plenty of time aside.
Size really does matter
Get your feet measured. Your feet never stop changing, and life changes like pregnancy can have an impact on their size, so it’s important to have your feet measured. Our experts at The Natural Adventure know for a fact that this is something most people have not done since their school days, so people don’t know their real shoe size. Poor-fitting footwear can lead to lots of problems later in life, not just in your feet. You also want to protect your back and hips if you want to do a lot of walking in the future.
A good boot fitter will get you sized up before getting you into boots. There are claims that you should buy a size too big, sometimes even (weirdly) a size too small. But the fact is that your boot should be the size you need, and it’s different for everyone. A fitter should check the length, width, arch height and volume of your feet before starting to choose boots. It’s also worth noting that every manufacturer makes boots differently, so a size six in a Merrell boot might feel different to the same size in a Zamberlan. Similarly, La Sportiva typically sizes for more narrow feet than the wider boots from Germany like Meindl and Lowa.
Don’t judge a boot by the cover
It’s important not to set your heart on boots simply because of how they look. Or based on what the latest trend is. Often the least attractive boots are the most comfortable and robust. And anyway, they all look the same after wrestling them out of that big boggy puddle you hadn’t seen coming.
Looking after hiking boots
As clichéd as it sounds, if you look after your boots, they’ll look after you. Leather boots are generally easier to care for than synthetic ones, usually because they’re made of smooth leather with little stitching and detailing. For leather, you want to brush off any dried-in dirt, then wipe them down with a damp cloth. Once dry, apply a coat of wax or any specialist leather cream. If you choose to wear leather, then it’s remembering that leather is skin after all, and so it’s happiest when moisturised.
At some point we’ve all misjudged a sodden path or had to wade through a stream, so if your boots get wet inside, you need to get them dry asap. It’s tempting to put them next to a fire or under a heater, but this will dry out your leather and cause it to crack. Instead, fill the boots with newspaper and leave them in a warm room. The paper will extract the moisture, and your boots will thank you for it. If you can’t find a newspaper, then use a towel. Remove the insoles and laces, stuff a corner of the towel into the boot. Another great tip is filling a sock with rice and putting it in the shoe to absorb the moisture.
Synthetic boots can typically be cleaned with spray-on cleaners and can usually be re-waterproofed the same way. As we transport your luggage for you on our walking holidays, you have room to pack one in your suitcase. If you don’t want to bring a spray on your travels, you could always bring a product like this Boot Buddy.
Leather or synthetic hiking boots?
Many people still picture hiking boots as old and a bit battered, with tough leather uppers and heavy clunky soles. But boots have moved with the times. Synthetic boots are a lightweight and usually more forgiving option. And, of course, many people choose not to wear leather anymore for ethical reasons.
With synthetic boots, the fabric can move freely with your foot which means you have a shorter breaking-in period. Whereas leather is a little more rigid and supportive, but it will eventually mould to your feet (your fitter can actually stretch leather boots to minimise breaking in). It often comes down to personal preference, but our in-house experts recommend leather if you are doing lots of robust, regular walking. If you’re a more casual walker and want something comfortable but supportive, go synthetic. They’re usually lighter than leather boots, but their lifespan can also be much shorter.
How do you know when it’s time to get new boots?
Sometimes it’s obvious, for example, if you can see your toes poking out the end then it’s probably long overdue! Generally, if you find that your boots don’t stay waterproof or are showing cracks and holes, then it’s time to replace them. If the boots are still in good shape, but the soles are worn right down, consider re-soling or replacing them. Worn soles won’t give you the right support, so it’s important not to be doing big treks with them. Many good outdoor providers will offer a resoling service, or they can recommend one. In the UK, for example, Lancashire Sports Repairs is one of the best, and you can do it all by post.
Does it cost a lot to keep your boots waterproof?
No, wax is super cheap and lasts for a long time. You’ll also find that more and more companies are using environmentally friendly substances to avoid any harsh chemicals seeping out of your boots, such as Fibertec eco shoe wax, available at a lot of outdoor shops. Speak to your boot fitter about caring for your boots, and they will recommend the right products.
Hiking socks – two pairs or one?
Again, this is a personal choice, but our in-house experts recommend one pair. Your boots should always be fitted with a typical hiking sock and the fitter will make sure there is very little to no movement to avoid blisters. If you’re venturing out in winter, go for a pair of quality merino wool socks. Merino wool is lightweight but still insulates, protects against moisture, and doesn’t scratch or smell too much. If you are wearing two pairs, always make sure the inner pair is a liner sock. This should help keep a snug fit, and liners are perfect for keeping the heat in on those cold days.
Hiking sandals tips
Hiking sandals are a good choice for more casual trails. They offer good support underfoot but have the benefit of airing and drying out much more than shoes or boots. They’re also lightweight and easy to adjust. For longer, more strenuous hikes, shoes or boots offer better traction underfoot, more ankle support and protect your feet from things like stubbing your toes and even sun exposure. On trips like our Tour du Mont Blanc tours or our Caminos, which are longer adventures, many of our walkers take one pair of boots and one pair of sandals so that they can interchange between the two.
Winter walking boot tips
As we are offering a growing number of winter walking tours, as well as some tougher treks that take you into snowy elevations all year around, getting the right winter boots is really. This is because, in winter, they’re as much a safety instrument as any other tools you might use. Generally, winter boots have a much stiffer sole to accommodate crampons, and are rated on a scale of B1, B2 and B3, to correspond to the type of crampon they can take. You’ll also find that a winter boot might not have the typical Gore-tex lining that your summer boots have. This is normal and is mainly to help regulate moisture and temperature inside the boot, so don’t worry if you don’t see the Gore-tex tag on there.
From a lot of experience, our in-house expert recommends the Scarpa Ribelle as a winter walking boot, which comes in a few variations. It’s a really good B2 boot that’s firm enough for crampons, but comfortable enough to spend the day in. They do come up quite narrow, so if you have wide feet they might not be for you, but your boot fitter will guide you on this one.
Breaking in your hiking boots
It’s vital to wear your new boots and walk a good distance with them regularly before embarking on your holiday. Try them on lots at home before trying them outdoors, and if they don’t feel right while just walking around the house, go back to the shop and talk with your boot fitter. Once you are comfortable, you can start wearing them outside and incorporating them into your walking holiday preparations. But do always break in your boots.
For more hiking prep and tips, take a look at our blogs on How to prepare for a hiking trip, What to pack for a hiking trip, Staying in a mountain hut on walking holidays and Tips on walking responsibly.