How to buy hiking boots
March 23, 2006 8:01 AM   Subscribe

Let's say you just joined a hiking club... you're in decent shape, but haven't really hiked on any kind of regular basis since you were a Boy Scout. You need boots... boots that would cover a variety of hiking situations, most anyway. What would you do?

Are we simply talking about going to the mall and letting some high school kid "fit" me for some quality hiking boots? Or is there a more professional and dependable way to go about getting the right pair of boots (and socks) for me? I've read a few "buying guides", like this one, and they've been helpful. Suggestions for my northern Virginia area are welcomed.
posted by Witty to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (42 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If I were looking for boots, the first thing I'd look for is a Red Wing store.

I don't know if they still exist. I don't even know if they're still any good. But when I was in Scouts, lo these many years ago (bit more than 20), Red Wing made some of the best boots you could buy. Comfortable, sturdy, and wore like iron.
posted by Malor at 8:17 AM on March 23, 2006

If I were you, I'd hit up the REI store. It's a lot more likely that someone on staff will be into hiking, and will be able to give you advice with some actual experience behind it.
posted by Jart at 8:24 AM on March 23, 2006

The kid at the mall will sell you whatever his manager wants him to push. The Merrell Wilderness is the best hiking boot around, and they should have it at REI.
posted by nicwolff at 8:28 AM on March 23, 2006

I'd order Cresta hiking boots from LL Bean. Because those are the boots that I own. I've looked hard because I've been hiking all my life. I like them so much that I own a pair to just wear and another to hike in. Lots of active recreational hikers buy them through the mail. Order your regular size and anticipate using a medium-weight sock.

I can make a more informed sugestion if you say how much you're willing to spend. But the Crestas are an excellent value if you're willing to pay for them.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:29 AM on March 23, 2006

With the variation in terrain you're going to be covering, you want ankle support. This means boot tops above, not below your ankle. This can mean a jump in price but you'll want high boots for anything more involved than light day hiking. Boots are not something to cheap out on.

If you think you're going to be doing a lot of hiking, I wouldn't trust this to a mall department store. They have alright selections but the staff, as you allude to, are very often clueless. I haven't bought boots from anyone but L.L.Beans in years. If you're near Mclean, VA there's a retail store here: Tysons Corner Center. The L.L. Bean website also says they have stores in Columbia, Maryland and Marlton, New Jersey. I can't speak to every store staff, but at least back home in Maine they're the very best place to go for knowledgable, friendly staff who will get you the RIGHT boot, regardless of how long it takes. It makes a huge difference to try them on before you buy, believe me.

My boyfriend has been very happy for several years with these from Beans, everything from dayhiking to weekend backpacking. I own the lowtops version, but again I wouldn't use those for real hiking. I myself adore these (linked to the guy's version) although they might be a little rugged for your purposes. They worked in very quick and are so so comfortable and can take a mighty beating.

That's another thing, when do you start with your club? Don't buy your boots the day before your first hike. Get them and WEAR THEM for as long as possible before you take them out on the trail. Your feet with thank you.

Socks: midweight to heavy WOOL socks. Wool is breathable, wickable, and natural. Don't need to mess with the best. You should get your boots fitted while wearing such socks. Personally, I think SmartWool is amazing, and worth very penny.

On preview: REI will treat you right as well, if getting to one is easier for you!
posted by nelleish at 8:30 AM on March 23, 2006

Vasque Sundowners? (I don't know if they are still made or to the old standards, but they used to be awesome for a variety of conditions)

Hudson Trail has a variety of store locations in the NoVa area.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:30 AM on March 23, 2006

Others will disagree (including nellish above), but if you don't have ankle problems, I would STRONGLY recommend trail running shoes (sneakers with better tread) and good insoles (SmartFeet are good) over full boots for most hiking.

Within the backpacking and distance hiking community, there is a strong movement towards ultralight hiking, and heavy boots actually cause you to exert (a lot) more effort without providing any increase in support. That high boots provide ankle support is a myth which has largely been fund to be untrue.

Read, for example, here or do some google searching.

That having been said, I'd strongly agree with wool socks (I like Thorlo and Smart Wool). REI is a good place to go, but basically, you're looking for the same fit as running/walking shoes.
posted by JMOZ at 8:37 AM on March 23, 2006

My boot of choice is the Vasque Sundowner. I haven't used the new model of the boot yet, but I think they still sell the old model as the Sundowner GTX Classic. This is the boot that took me hiking for 9 months in various parts of the world, and performed like a champ.

What I'm looking for in a boot is an all-leather upper with as few seams as possible. I also want it to feel good on the foot right out of the box. None of this "it will feel fine once you've broken it in" stuff. Yes, it will feel better, but it should feel fine on the first try as well. You're going to want to get some Sno-Seal (or other sealant) to treat the leather parts of the boot, to make them more water proof and more resistant to wear and tear.

I'm also not a big fan of the Gore-Tex linings that most boots come with, as they seem to trap water in the boot as often as they keep it out. But seeing as most high-quality boots come with the GTX I guess I'll leave that concern until the market wises up.

The suggestion to go to REI, (or MEI or Whole Earth Provision) is a good one.
posted by zueod at 8:41 AM on March 23, 2006

I got my Ecco boots from a store in the mall and they're superbly comfortable and waterproof and great for hiking.
posted by thirteenkiller at 8:46 AM on March 23, 2006

I can make a more informed sugestion if you say how much you're willing to spend.

As with most thing, or so it seems, you can spend almost as much money as you can imagine. So I know $100 is easy, and expected. I guess I was figuring on $150, unless that proves to limit my options too much. But what do I know?

Great responses so far... and totally forgot about REI. That's a definite right there.
posted by Witty at 8:47 AM on March 23, 2006

Talking to folks at REI or EMS (Eastern Mountain Sports) is a great way to start, especially if you're in a hurry to get boots.

I assume you're looking for boots that will be sturdy enough for day hikes in any season. I've had great experiences with LLBean's boots.

Considering the hikes on the page you linked to, it looks like you'll want something that can handle stream-side/mud situations and some rocky terrain. I suggest you look for a boot with ankle support, some kind of waterproofing, and a 'Vibram'-brand rubber sole. My suggestion is that you invest in these, or something like them. You probably don't need Gore-Tex, but I do suggest you err on the side of too much support, rather than too little. I have a pair very like those - Gore-Tex, Vibram, all leather - and I wear them for summer hikes and for shoveling snow. Any hiking situation where they're too much shoe is a situation where you can probably wear a decent pair of sneakers.

on preview: I agree with nelleish about breaking them in and getting some Smartwool. JMOZ makes an interesting argument for ultralight hiking, but I stand by my recommendation because of the versatility of the boot I recommend.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 8:47 AM on March 23, 2006

I should mention that the rule of thumb I've seen/heard/experienced is: 1 pound on the foot = 5 pounds in the pack from an effort standpoint.

Even if you end up ignoring my advice, I'd strongly urge you to consider lighter shoes rather than hiking boots. Making the change really improved my life (as a hiker and backpacker, anyhow).
posted by JMOZ at 8:48 AM on March 23, 2006

There's an EMS in Arlington, and they've been very helpful to us in the past. There are good options in the $100-150 range for hiking boots. I've got a pair of Merrell Pulse II boots that I love; my girlfriend loves her Garmont Flash boots. Some of these models can be very foot-specific, so don't be afraid to try several models and sizes.

And yes, try them with at least medium weight wool socks.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 8:49 AM on March 23, 2006

I'm a fan of trailrunners as well. However, you mentioned that you joined a hiking club. I couldn't open your link, but some clubs, such as the AMC Boston Chapter, have certain gear requirements. When I hiked with them, I had to wear full boots (no trail runners allowed on official hikes).
posted by justkevin at 8:57 AM on March 23, 2006

From someone who's hiked over 20 miles a day over hilly terrain, all you need is running shoes and liner socks (unless you have ankle issues or will be on particularly rocky or steep terrain). That's all I use.
posted by driveler at 8:59 AM on March 23, 2006

If you'll be doing a lot of backpacking you should get full leather boots and treat them well to keep them waterproof. For lighter day-hiking you can get by with lighter boots as long as they have full ankle support. Beware of what I think are called "trail shoes", which are basically brown sneakers.

Gore-tex boots are sort of gimmicky, since they'll suffer a lot of wear and tear and the Gore-tex will wear out before the boot does.

Merrill, Vasque, and Limmer (though I don't think they make custom-fit boots anymore) are all decent brands but there are plenty of others.

The main thing is, make sure they fit well. Don't go shopping for a certain brand/model simply because somebody suggested it. Use suggestions as a starting point only. Go to REI or a similar outdoor store, try some on and walk around the store for awhile. Go to the backpack department, throw on a pack and fill it with some weight. Keep walking. Walk up and down the boot ramp a few times. Climb stairs.

If they feel a bit "off", they're not the right boots. Leather boots do need some breaking in but they should still feel ok from the get-go.

You don't want "the kid" to fit it for you. You want to fit it yourself. Have him/her help you, sure, but beware of him pulling something off the shelf and trying to push it on you. A generic boot that fits is better than a name brand that doesn't.

Everybody's feet are different so a boot someone will rave about might be useless for you. For me, Vasque Sundowners have always been perfect the second I put them on. YMWV.

Make sure when you try them on you wear the socks you'll be hiking in. Stores usually have a basket of socks to use but a thousand bare feet have been inside them before you.

Spend as much time as you need, don't worry about wasting anybody's time. Best to go during a weekday when they're not busy and they can give you plenty of attention.

Socks: You want polypro liner socks with some wool or synthetic outer socks. NO COTTON. Wearing two pairs will help keep some of the friction off your skin as well as wicking moisture away.

If you're really serious, go get some Murray Socks, designed by Dr. Murray Hamlet, who for years researched Cold-Weather Injuries for the US Army Natick Research Labs. He knows his feet and he knows what works with them.

(and if you ever get a chance to see one of his talks, it's worth it for the trench-foot slides alone. Don't plan on eating afterwards.)

Pack a shitload of moleskin in your first-aid kit and learn how to treat blisters. Duct tape also works well. I once wore a piece on my foot for five days. Taking it off sorta sucked.

This advice is all assuming you'll be doing a lot of hard hikes. If you're less serious about it and you'll only be doing an occasional short hike up an easy trail then you can get by with a lot less.

have fun!
posted by bondcliff at 9:01 AM on March 23, 2006

I think you have to find a store to go to, and not at the mall, a specialty shop.

All of the brands mentioned here are fine, in particular the Merrells and anything from REI and I would hope, but am not certain of, Bean. Other brands are Vasque, Raichle, Lowa, Han Wag, etc.

But that's not the most important thing. It's FAR from the most important thing. As long as you're buying a real hiking boot from a real boot manufacturer, the quality is going to be generally fine - what's important is that the boot fits your foot.

All boots are definitely not made equally in this respect. Each manufacturer has its own set of lasts - basically, sized foot-shapes around which to design and build their boots. These are not standardized and there is considerable variation in shape, volume, proportion, and overall size.

So how to approach this? First, I would take these great model recommendations and do a little research.

--What price point are you comfortable with?

--Do you really need a full leather upper? (Hint: these can be expensive, and you can easily get away with an initial season with a lighter nylon model while you make sure you wish to continue).

--How about a shank? This is the insert in the sole that runs forward from the heel of the boot. There are very rigid full-shank boots that provide a great deal more support at the expense of general comfort and longer time to break in; there are half-shank boots that achieve a good medium between the two. Shanks can be made of different (more or less rigid) materials as well.

--Other construction stuff - you probably want Vibram soles in a more expensive boot as they will be easier to replace. In a cheaper boot, not as important. A heel counter is the cup in which your heel sits in the boot - it should be rigid and fit your foot well. Tongue - a full bellows tongue will be more waterproofable. How is the upper attached to the sole?

Second, I would to to the shop and try on boots. If you can find a specialty shop, which you should do, describe your foot and ask for suggestions. Try on different models to find which one fits YOUR foot best. Try on BOTH feet! Take the time to do it right. Once you've found a brand that fits well, in general (though not always) each model from that company will generally fit you as well - though there are differences in "feel" related to the construction.

Then - make your choice!

Another caution: many people in a hiking club will be gear fiends, just like in any adult-oriented club. Just like a middling wine aficionado will think he needs a tastevin, hikers will think they need the $250 Merrells. Sorry but that's just not true. A good non-running-show light hiking boot (by a boot maker) will be JUST as good and MORE comfortable and WAY easier to break in than a full leather boot. And much cheaper.

A more expensive boot will last longer, so eventually you're going to want to make the investment. But you don't need to do it at all for your first pair.

[credentials: I used to sell boots at a hiking shop in Banff AB and counted several park rangers and other in-boots-all-day people among my clients]
posted by mikel at 9:07 AM on March 23, 2006

I hiked for years (decades) with boots (Reichle, Zamberlains and Vasques --- my favourites were the Reichle's), but I've since come to the opinion that the ultralighters are right. It's way more fun to hike in good shoes. I'd recommend it to anyone who doesn't have chronic ankle problems. I've used New Balance 606's with great success. My feet don't hurt at the end of the day!

If you do decide on boots, don't listen to specific product suggestions. Most of them are great boots (like the Vasque Sundowner, for instance), but the best boot in the world may not fit your foot well. Fit is critical for boots.

Remember too that your feet swell (this is my main problem with boots) and that you'll need to go larger than you think. Wear at least thick double-wool socks when you do your tryons. I've hiked with many people who start with triple layers of socks in the morning and are down to a thin polypro sock by day's end. Avoiding this was the major decider for me switching to the more flexible shoes. I'd lost too many toenails to boots.

Smart wool socks are indeed the best thing to come along in ages. Don't hike with anything else. Also, I remain deeply, deeply skeptical of anything GorTex for footwear: GoreTex does not work well when dirty, and GoreTex is fragile compared to most fabrics. Do not expect a Gortex boot to last well.

Finally, if you're hiking in an area with ticks (NE NA) or that's wet (the PNW), get gaiters. They make the experience much more pleasant.
posted by bonehead at 9:08 AM on March 23, 2006

11 years ago, a friend recommended Vasque Sundowners--he had his pair for 6 years. I've had mine for the last 11 years. They are nothing short of awesome.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:16 AM on March 23, 2006

If you don't have problematic ankles, I'd recommend trail running shoes of some kind: New Balance 803s or whatever. They're way lighter than hiking boots, they dry fast, they have plenty of traction and they're cheap. They'll wear out a bit faster than boots, but that won't be a consideration for anything other than an AT thru-hike. I did a thru-hike of Vermont's Long Trail (~300 miles) a few years ago in some old Nikes, and they held up quite well.
posted by cog_nate at 9:43 AM on March 23, 2006

I've worn my Zamberlan boots for more than 12 years now, and they are still good to go. I bought a second pair of Zamberlans last year, in case these ones wear out. The new pair might spend another year in the box, given how slowly the current Zamberlans are wearing out.

I hike most weekends (ah, the glorious Pacific Northwest weather!!) and am very hard on my boots. I also have some mountaineering boots by La Scarpa which are getting on in years yet still feel like bunny slippers when I put them on.

Key points to remember - your boots must be comfortable from the get-go. Forget that old adage that you have to 'break in' your boots for a few weeks until you ease into their proper fit. That's thinking that leads to blisters and general lack of comfort. That lack of comfort might also turn you off from hiking - you don't want that to happen!!

As a poster above me pointed out, your feet will swell during a hike (particularly if it's a hot day) so buy on the larger side, but not so much that your foot 'swims' in the boot when you start your hike. Best to buy perhaps half a size too big.

Having said this, nothing beats an experienced fitter in a store - REI, EMS for example hire people who have a passion for the outdoors, and who know about gear. You want your toes to fit comfortably in the front, and your heel to be properly anchored in the shoe. Too much space, and you will get blisters. Too little space - blisters too.

Once you bought your boots, it's good to wear them indoors (at work) for a few days before taking them to the trail. Let the boot get acquainted with your foot, and vice versa. Wear them as though you were already outdoors - eg with the double-socks. Wearing the boots indoors gives you the opportuntity to experiment with sock arrangements too.

As others pointed out, don't look at the brands as much as the fit of the shoe. Pay particular attention to seams that itch, toeboxes that bind, or heels that feel tight. And, when you do go shopping for shoes, go mid-week yes, and near the end of your day, so your feet will have swollen somewhat already, and are closer to the shape that they will be in when you are a few hours into your hike.
posted by seawallrunner at 9:53 AM on March 23, 2006

Here's some general information from the Mountain Equipment Coop.
posted by mikel at 9:55 AM on March 23, 2006

The ultralighters are only partly right. If you hike on well defined and wide trails and in clement weather then hiking shoes are fine. If you're going to be walking through any kind of vegetation that has prickles or is wet or will break off and stick to you or it's going to rain or maybe snow you want leather boots that keep your feet dry and won't get beaten to shit in a week. If you're walking on hummocky or rocky ground you want a stiffer sole than a running or hiking shoe offers as you can twist and sprain your foot or ankle quite easily with a pack on.

Personally I say stay away from Goretex apart from snowy conditions- all it does is make you feet hot and it will leak in things like tall wet grass. It's more splashproof than waterproof, IMHO. That's why I prefer leather which is getting quite hard to find. I'd recommend REI or EMS for the best selection.

I like Lowas, and have the boots and the hiking shoes. I also really like the Keen hiking shoes. I buy my shoes and boots kind of big and sloppy and wear Smartwool socks (wash them first!) and I've done lots of 10+ mile days and been happy. I've also hiked 10+miles in cheap hip waders and survived so it's not like that's the acid test.
posted by fshgrl at 10:06 AM on March 23, 2006

posted by rxrfrx at 10:06 AM on March 23, 2006

Whatever you get, make sure you get a good sole: big chunky cleats, a distinct heal. All the goretex in the world won't make up for a too-smooth sole, and will murder your feet on the way down. As said above, Vibram soles are awesome.
posted by skree at 10:08 AM on March 23, 2006

btw it also makes a huge difference where you plan to end up at the end of the day. If you're returning to your car, wear whatever you want, probably lightweight shoes. If you're going to be camping in a damp forest then you probably want dry feet!
posted by fshgrl at 10:09 AM on March 23, 2006

Another tip: 2 pairs of socks: a thin one on the inside, bigger on the out, stops blisters from forming by reducing friction.
posted by skree at 10:17 AM on March 23, 2006

As an experienced backpacker, both on- and off-trail, scrambling peaks, grunting along wet-coast trails, and all that jazz, I think I have authority behind my opinion.

I have a pair of higher-end Scarpa boots. Full leather, seamless as possible, Vibram sole, full shank, all that jazz.

I wouldn't do it again.

My wife purchased a pair of cheap, lightweight boots to replace her Scarpas when they finally kicked the bucket. They have fabric, they aren't waterproof, they do have a half shank, they do have ankle protection, and they weigh next to nothing.

Were I to purchase another pair of boots, it would be with light weight in mind. If she's able to comfortably hike the same trails as I do in the Scarpas — and that includes scrambling mountains and slogging through mud — then why on earth would I ever choose heavy boots that kill my feet as I break them in?

I don't think you'll need to spend more than about $120 on your boots. Go for comfort and a sole that is grippy even when wet (that's the biggest difference between her boots and mine; her soles suck on wet rock.) Put in some good footbeds (ie. Superfeet) and go have fun.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:20 AM on March 23, 2006

Disclaimer: I work part time for L.L.Bean.

It makes me all warm and fuzzy to see all the recommendations here for Bean. Backpacker magazine also regularly lists our Crestas as "Best Buy" boots, for what its worth.

That having been said, here's the best advice I have for you.

1) There is no single boot that will work for all terrain. In general, the heavier your pack (ie: multi days) and the more rugged the terrain, the more support you're going to need from a boot. While I appreciate the arguments in favor of lightweight trail running shoes, the experience of most customers I speak with on a daily basis says that with a heavier pack or on more uneven terrain, you'll need some kind of ankle support, especially as a novice hiker.

2) Go to an established and reputable shoe store in your are (ie: probably not the Foot Locker in the mall) and ask to have your feet measured using a Brannock Device. Make sure you are being measured by someone trained and experienced in the use of the Device, and that they are using the device appropriate for your gender (the device is marked Male Adult or Female Adult right on the face). Make sure both feet are measured. This way you will know your "regular" (ie: industry standard) shoe size, including width.

3) Call L.L.Bean at 1-800-341-4341 anytime between 8am and 10pm Eastern Time. Tell the nice rep who answers that you need to speak with a Hiking Boots Product Specialist. Wait while you are transferred.

3a) We have a small but dedicated staff of experienced hikers who do nothing but answer questions like yours. Roughly half the Hiking Boot staff has hiked significant portions of the Appalachian Trail, and all of them have used and tested the products we sell. We don't sell on commission, so they have no incentive to recommend for you a boot that is more expensive than you need.

If you live near one of the retail stores and want to go try the boots before you buy, that's great. However, we also work very hard to size all of our boots to standard Brannock sizing (and do lots of fit testing so we can tell you "these run a half size small" or whatever), so you can be confident that if you know your Brannock measurment that you'll get the right size the first time.

If you have other questions, drop me a note -- my email is in my profile.
posted by anastasiav at 11:31 AM on March 23, 2006

My Sundowners are 13 years old, and on their sixth set of soles.
posted by Kwantsar at 11:32 AM on March 23, 2006

I've bushwalked a lot in Australia, the US and Europe. 10-hole Doc Marten boots and a good pair of medium-thick, woollen socks is the best footwear I've found. I've walked 28km in a day (through Lamington National Park) without a blister with that combination. has them for US$105.
posted by goo at 11:36 AM on March 23, 2006

This thread is amazing.
posted by Witty at 11:42 AM on March 23, 2006

Oh man, what a can of worms...

There is no single boot best for everybody, or even for a single person. It depends a lot on your foot anatomy and intended use (load you're carrying, trail condition and intended mileage/speed.)

Look at The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher and Chip Rawlins before you go to the store. If you read it carefully you might know more than most sales help, and at least you'll know if they're feeding you B.S.

The rest of this turned out to be ridiculously long, so here are the highlights if you don't need details:

1) Sneakers might be good enough if you're sticking to maintained paths.

2) Never buy a boot without trying it on.

3) Fit is the most important thing. Weight is less important unless performance is an issue.

4) You want boots where your feet don't slide or bump against the front.

5) You want boots that make it easy to keep your feet dry.

6) If you have "bad feet," consider the degree of ankle support the boots offer. Arch/sole problems after purchase can be addressed with inserts.

Okay, now for the long-windedness:

Many of the hikes on your link look like they're on maintained paths. If you're sticking to those sneakers might be the way to go. Once you get onto more traditional hiking trails it's a tradeoff between support/protection and weight. I tend to put more emphasis on the first set of factors, but again that's a personal choice.

The most important thing: DO NOT buy a boot unless you've tried it on and are sure it fits you. This means staying away from internet deals unless you know that specific model definitely works for you.

Some general tips once you're at the store:

The most important thing is finding boots that fit your feet. This is why it's so hard to make general model recommendations. Secondary to that is weight, unless you'll be doing a lot of long-distance or multi-day hiking with heavy packs or are trailrunning or hiking with a fast group.

If your hikes will take you up and down hills, make sure you have plenty of room in the toe box to prevent bruising on downhills (which will make it very difficult to walk for several days afterwards.) Most stores have a ramp you can use to test this (face downhill and REALLY TRY to slide forward in the boot.) I cannot emphasize enough how important this is if you're planning multi-day hikes.

Look for a boot that minimizes sliding in the ankle and heel area. You get blisters when your feet slide around and a well-fitting boot minimizes that. Also make sure that when you step forward the crease that forms in the toe doesn't rub against your foot -- over the long run this can cause blisters or rub skin away.

You don't want to hike any significant distance with wet feet. If you'll be fording streams no deeper than your ankle, boots lined with Gore-Tex can help -- you don't have to take them off when you cross and your feet will stay dry. Also consider if the boots breathe enough so if they do get wet, the insides'll dry out relatively quickly. If you'll be doing a lot of crossings where you have to take your boots off, consider how easy they are to remove/put back on.

Ankle support is key for me; I don't know how important it is for people with normal feet (I have no arches to speak of.) I try pushing against the cuff of the empty boot while holding the sole in my other hand to get an idea of how much support a given model offers.

After you've put a few miles on the boots, if your feet hurt consider SuperFeet or similar insole inserts. If you are getting blisters (which can happen even if you've picked the best-fitting boot) consider wearing liner socks (very thin socks) between your foot and hiking socks.

I like boots with nylon cutouts as they help keep your feet dry in warm conditions (and I never really had problems with cold toes in temperatures as low as 20 deg. F -- YMMV.) The tradeoff is that if you'll be doing a lot of hiking where you need to jam your boots in between rocks to climb or descend the boots will get tend to get chewed up/peel where the leather meets the nylon. I suspect (heavier, warmer, and generally damper) full-leather boots don't have as big a problem with this, but I just use duct tape where mine separate.

For background, but not a recommendation: What's worked for me are the intermediate-weight Vasque Gore-Tex boots (Rangers maybe? The model name escapes me.) I get about 1000 miles out of a pair before I have to replace them. This is hiking in NE US hilly/rocky conditions, fording an occasional stream and climbing the occasional mountain, with loads/distances ranging from ~10 lb. day pack/sub-10 miles to 40+ lb. multi-day/long-distance. Your best choice might be something else completely, but I have no substantial complaints with the Vasques.

Email me if you want some more specific tips.
posted by Opposite George at 12:02 PM on March 23, 2006

I haven't read much on the ultralight tip but the thought of exposed ankles makes me shudder. I did a fair amount of hiking over a number of summers working in the Sierras at a scout camp and good lord, few things are worse than a sprained ankle. For the day hikes your group is planning its probably not much of an issue but being laid up backwoods ain't where it's at.

I also think about anklebone barks, snakes, pebbles that will get in there, eugh. This being said, perhaps my hiking experiences are a bit more offroad-burly than most but I keep envisioning moments where I'd be saying "damn, wish I'd had tougher boots".

Lots of folks have recommended thin socks/woolies, though doesn't look like anyone's recommended polypropolene inners. Makes feet ten times happier.

I'd put the kibbosh on the Asolos. They are fairly decent boots but the ones I had were adhered-sole and not stitched. Dragging one's toepiece down the trail with it affixed ductape wise is not Good Times.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 1:16 PM on March 23, 2006

For inner sockwear, polypropolene is the sweetest thing ever invented. A Must Have. One would be stupid to not wear them.

For outer sockwear I love me my Thorlos. But others would do just as well.

I have done the conventional wool socks thing and I don't recommend it. They're leagues better than cotton and cheap artificial fiber. They're leagues worse than Thorlo and other purpose-built socks.

I would certainly expect ankle protection. Why bother risking an ankle injury? Keep 'em covered.

I am very skeptical of GoreTex for several reasons. One, it is extremely susceptible to dirt and oil contanimation, both of which are inevitable in a footwear environment. Two, it isn't very breathable despite all of Gore's claims to the contrary. A waste of money, IMO, better spent on a better footbed.

GET A REAL FOOTBED. Your foot's stability depends on a deep heel cup, proper arch support, and a stiff base.

Full leather dries much more slowly than the super-tough fabrics used in hiking boots. Full leather is more waterproof, but breathes less. It also requires more care.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:48 PM on March 23, 2006 [2 favorites]

"Others will disagree (including nellish above), but if you don't have ankle problems, I would STRONGLY recommend trail running shoes (sneakers with better tread) and good insoles (SmartFeet are good) over full boots for most hiking."

From someone who's hiked over 20 miles a day over hilly terrain, all you need is running shoes and liner socks (unless you have ankle issues or will be on particularly rocky or steep terrain). That's all I use.

Just have to say I agree with these comments. I've had a pair of Vasque boots with Gore Tex and good ankle support for about 8 years, before which I just used my running shoes. And after using the Vasques for a few years, I found myself going back to running shoes in most situations where there wasn't going to be snow or lots of mud/water. Having ankle flexibility instead of support seemed to be a plus when navigating boulder fields or trickly steep slopes (though those are some of the places where you're more likely to really hurt your ankles if you make a mistake) -- I could use my feet better. Not to mention it's a bit lighter, and they get hot less easily.

I do like the Vasques in the snow or cold weather, and I have tromped through small ankle deep streams of running water in them and remained dry. My running shoes are not good for this. :) And for some longer hikes, I'm less concerned with using my feet than... saving them. :) So I'm thinking of looking into some kind of lower hiker soon.

Credentials: nothing, really, just about 10 years of wandering around northern and southern Utah.
posted by weston at 2:15 PM on March 23, 2006

I purchased a new pair of Merrell Pulse II boots at REI about a month ago.
While I can't vouch for their long-term durablity, in the short term they have proven extremely comfortable, with excellent ankle support.
One of the things that sold me on them was their unbelievably light weight. They also have a Vibram sole.

Purchasing from REI is a smart choice because of the REI Guarantee. They are very very open to returns and exchanges in case your boots stretch too much/little or are just plain uncomfortable.
I don't work for REI. I'm just a happy customer of over 18 years.
posted by whoda at 5:17 PM on March 23, 2006

Another vote for running shoes or Chaco sandals.
posted by atchafalaya at 8:01 PM on March 23, 2006

Another vote for Asolos here. I've had my FSN 95 GTXs for going on four years now, and still love them. First time I put them on, I thought they were custom-made for my feet, they were so comfortable. Had them resoled and some minor stitching done a year ago. Averaging 100miles/year on them. My wife got her TPS 535s last year, and loves them, too.

It's been said before, but: before you buy walk around the store in them (climb on stuff, if you can) and get some good liner and hiking socks and better insoles.
posted by DakotaPaul at 11:46 PM on March 23, 2006

I don't do overnighters or anything, but I quite like the odd hike and I vastly prefer lightweight footwear. I prefer the comfort and I like to move over the ground fast. I've never had any problems with support or stability. (I've also never hiked in snow, we don't get much of that here.)

Like the others said, try before you buy.
posted by The Monkey at 3:39 AM on March 24, 2006

My dad had a pair of Merrells that I tried a long time ago and liked a lot. They were lightweight and comfortable. Every other hiking boot I've worn has been heavy and reliably gave me blisters on the backs of my heels. I long ago gave up on these and used my sneakers for my many hikes in the northeast.

Merrell has since started making sport sneakers (for lack of a better term). I've been wearing a pair of Pulse IIs around NYC for the last year or so, and they're great. I'm certain I'd be happy with them on a real hike.
posted by A dead Quaker at 8:43 PM on March 24, 2006

Thanks everyone. I just got back from REI (and a visit EMS too). I tried on several types of shoes and boots, various brands, etc... and settled on a pair of Keen's - Targhee Mids. Come to find out, I have two different-sized feet. Who knew? These boots seem to accomodate that difference pretty well, better than the others I sported around the store for a while. So we'll see.

I also picked up some socks of course... a shell for inclement weather, and a 70 oz. camelback pack. GO CREDIT!

Thanks again.
posted by Witty at 10:03 AM on March 25, 2006

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