Hiking boots recommendations.
December 29, 2003 4:21 PM   Subscribe

In October, I will be going on an extensive backpacking trip across Europe, and I'm looking to buy (and break in) some hiking boots well before I go. [more inside]

These boots will be my only set of footwear for the trip, and must be good for extensive walking (pavement and dirt), rain and likely snow, as well as hot and cold climates (from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean). Although I'll be carrying a big pack, I'm hoping it won't be gargantuan, so I'd prefer some light boots to enormous things. (While I say 'hiking,' I imagine it will really be more 'walking,' but because of the weather requirements, I imagine that a hiking boot is a better pick than a walking shoe.) I have fairly wide feet, which are neither huge nor tiny [size 11 in Canada]. Oh yes, and I'm male, if that's relevant.

Thanks to all and any for their help
posted by Marquis to Shopping (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You say only "pair". Point this out as your "feet" are your main transportational tool.
posted by thomcatspike at 4:28 PM on December 29, 2003

It'd be difficult to find anything you're equally comfortable in pounding the pavements in cities and climbing mountains, but anyway:
- I'd look for Vibram soles - they're great shock absorbers, and the compound sticks to many *dry* rock surfaces (although watch out for the wet).
- I have a high arch and therefore a high 'top' to my foot; so I look for boots that allow me to lace loosely over this part, before being able to cinch tightly around the ankle.
- Rain/snow. I'm not up on the latest lightweight breathable materials, but if you're looking for rugged, extensive walking, I'd look for lightweight leather that you can then treat with a waterproofing compound (in my experience and those of friends, leather boots hardly ever fail, whereas canvas/leather mix 'trail boots' sometimes do).
- Look for European brands such as Raichle.
- If you have experienced any foot/walking problems in the past go to a physical therapist and get your gait analysed to see if you need extra arch supports or anything like that; these can be custom moulded to your foot.
- Check the stitch count for quality.
- Be wary of boots with large amounts of padding inside, this is often an excuse for a poorly designed and/or cheaply assembled boot that fits no-one.
posted by carter at 4:42 PM on December 29, 2003

I see from your profile that you're a Montrealer. A quick trip to MEC might be your best answer. Boots are a very personal thing. Trying on a bunch is the only way.

You probably will like a low-cut boot. You might also look at trail runners. Don't bother with gortex boots. They don't breathe as well (hot), and aren't much better than regular (waterproofed) boots, in my experience.

Also, think good socks. I really like my marino wool ones. Cotton is awful. Blister city. Remember that your feet swell over the course of the day. Leave room for feet to expand. A friend of mine used to start with two pairs of socks in the morning and remove a pair at lunchtime.

When you've bought 'em, wear them around the house, not outside, for a few days. That will start to break them in, or give you enough chance to decide if they should go back without mucking them up. When you've got boots you like, and they're still clean, waterproof them with sno-goo or beeswax or similar.

Try not to get on the plane with boots you've never worn. Done it, not fun for the first few days.
posted by bonehead at 4:44 PM on December 29, 2003

I second the call for trail runners. Walking on pavement with hiking boots is murder on the feet.
posted by mcwetboy at 5:23 PM on December 29, 2003

Although. conversely, hiking cross-country in the wet with wet trail runners is misery of a different kind ...
posted by carter at 5:40 PM on December 29, 2003

I can't beat my US-Army-Issue (go for the milspec, NOT THE COMMERCIAL SPEC) boots from Altama. Their Desert Tan boot is, without a doubt, the most comfortable footwear I have ever owned. I also own a pair of their All-Leather Speedlace boots for when it gets nasty outside.

Beware buying Altamas from a neighborhood "surplus store" - if their prices are lower (by more than $5-10) than those listed on the Altama web site, it means the store has bought "factory seconds" boots with minor defects. I found this out by buying my first pair of all-leather commercial-spec boots from the local surplus store and having them fall apart after three days. I took them back and exchanged them for a pair of mil-spec, and have been happy since. When I bought the desert boots, I ordered direct from Altama.

I used to wear Doc Martens, but ever since the company was bought in '98 or so, their product quality has gone down the toilet.
posted by mrbill at 6:03 PM on December 29, 2003

If you're carrying a pack, do your ankles a favor and wear real hiking boots. I've had the same pair of Merrill Wildernesses for fifteen years or so; they were comfortable from the day I put them on and ever since, through a lot of hiking but also on long walks on wet or snowy city streets - they're my everyday bad-weather boot.

Oh, and socks = Smartwool.
posted by nicwolff at 7:01 PM on December 29, 2003

For all leather hiking boots, check out the Vasque Sundowner. My friends and I have put literally thousands of miles on these boots. Trusty, sturdy, and not the huge heavy monstrosities some hiking boots can be. These Zamberlans from MEC look good too (I've tried them on, but not worn them on trail).

However, I'll bet the conditions underwhich you need a serious boot will be more exceptional than average, so you might consider getting something with fabric and gore-tex, rather than slogging the weight of leather around.

Also, consider (especially if you're going to the Mediterranean) bringing along some sandals. Chaco Canyons are the best.

Second the call for smartwool socks. I have very soft feet, socks make all the difference.

Also, consider the advice of my friend: bring half as much junk, and twice as much money.
posted by daver at 7:05 PM on December 29, 2003

I backpacked across Europe in Montrail Moraines...and I was quite happy with them. Good shock absorption in the city, great grip on the trail. But, I speak to the women's shoe. Some men have told me that the Montrail is too narrow. I second the opinion that you have to go try a bunch on before you find the one that fits you. Go in the afternoon or evening if possible, so that your feet are at their biggest.

A few tips. Make sure you pack hiker's moleskin, bandages and tape for quick foot repair. Always wear at least two pairs of socks...the one closest to your feet should be a lightweight wicking material to keep your feet dry. Never, ever wear cotton socks...trust me on this one.

And what daver said about stuff and money.
posted by dejah420 at 7:30 PM on December 29, 2003

The Sundowner is reknown in the backpacking world, and I daresay there is a reason.

I've owned two pair of Scarpa: they are, in every respect, an amazing and wonderful boot. They are also hell to break in, heaven to wear, waterproof, weigh a metric ton, and are completely bomb-proof.

My wife owned a pair of Scarpa. They, too, were an awe-inspiring boot. They also never completely broke in for her weirdly little feet.

She has also owned HiTech "trail runners": they were okay. Then she got a pair of Vasque Clarions, and was delighted with them: no break-in, good support, light as a feather. The only downsides were (a) not waterproof and (b) on wet rock, slippery as snot. More slippery, even.

I own a pair of erstwhile "trail shoes." They suck supremely: the edges tend to buckle under, throwing out my ankle, and they're slippery. I don't wear them any more.

My next pair of boots will be lightweight. Lightweight means longer distances and less tiring.

They will probably not be waterproof: while my old non-waterproof boots ended up with me having cold wet feet after stream-crossing, my new boots end up with me having hot wet feet after sweating it out. "Waterproof breathable" is a lie. I will carry plastic bags for the water-crossings.

They will have replaceable soles with a grippy-when-wet rubber. They will have the traditional hiking grip pattern. They will have a 3/4 plastic shank, like my old boots; toe flexibility but foot support. They will have mucho ankle support.

I always have Superfeet insoles, and if I were going to be walking non-stop for weeks at a time, I'd consider getting professional orthotics. *GET REPLACEMENT INSOLES* It's a world of difference.

I wear Thorlo hiking socks with a polypropelene inner sock.

It will be expensive to outfit your feet correctly and comfortably. It's worth every penny. Try at least a half-dozen boots for an extended walk around the store: comfort is most important.

If you're not doing heavy-duty multiday excursions into the mountains, I can vouch for the fabric-and-leather combination.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:46 PM on December 29, 2003 [1 favorite]

i've an old pair of scarpas - they've always leaked.

i'm always amused at students doing the european tourist thing dressed as if they're climbing mountains, but travelling around cities and staying in hostels (or organized camping sites). i know some people do camp out in the middle of nowhere - but they tend to be the same people who already own a pair of boots.

europe has public transport, electricity, hot running water - it's really quite developed these days. you will be just fine in comfortable shoes or trainers. you'll also look less like yet another american tourist (you could try wearing some slightly smarter clothes, and avoid white trainers). save the money and spend it on a decent meal or two instead.

and if you find that you really need a pair of boots at some point you'll be in a place where they are for sale. we have shops in europe too.

sorry of this seems too negative. i'm a bit depressed at how much of askme is dedicated to buying stuff. why does everything have to have its own specialist equipment? this is just walking. some of us don't own cars and walk around every day. it's not a big deal...

(and yes, i travel with a rucsac - but i'm only carrying it between where i stay and the transport i'm using. most of the time it's not on my back. it certainly doesn't justify boots.)
posted by andrew cooke at 8:29 PM on December 29, 2003

[unsolicited advice]
A good site about packing light for lengthy urban adventures: Onebag.
posted by daver at 8:33 PM on December 29, 2003

And what Andrew said. Unless you expect to be carrying a load of over 35 lbs on your back all day, some waterproof runners will probably be fine. The lightweight hiking croud does this up and down the Pacific Crest Trail with surprising regularity.
posted by daver at 8:38 PM on December 29, 2003

I agree with andrew and daver, largely. While I value my Vasque boots highly, I hiked for years around Utah and Arizona mountains, deserts, and red rock territory in various types of sneakers, from your basic Target $20 hiker to pricier running shoes. These worked pretty well, by and large, except in the winter (when I went with a pair of moon boots). Anyway, eventually on several recommendations, I got the Vasques, and found while they were exceptional at keeping my feet warm and dry (and they tended to wear well and still look somewhat classy), they were harder to balance on a boulder field, and were a bit much.

I still do use the Vasques (and they are tough), but when I went to Australia for a few weeks years back, I took Target $20 hikers and was really quite happy, both for the hiking we did and for urban sightseeing.
posted by weston at 9:03 PM on December 29, 2003

If this is strictly walking on asphalt, strolling on hardpack, carrying a bookbag with lunch and a rainjacket, I'd be looking for lightweight comfort first and foremost. A good walking sneaker or walking dress-shoe. And a SuperFeet footbed.

If this is carrying an overnight bag and toiletries, and carrying that all day, I'd be looking at a light fabric&leather walking/hiker, with emphasis on a supportive footbed and light ankle support. And a SuperFeet footbed. And better socks.

If this is carrying a tent and stove and such, ie.) about 25lbs and up, I'd be looking at a sturdier, but still very inexpensive, hiker, with the shank and heelcup and ankle support et al. And a SuperFeet footbed. And better socks. And a trekking pole.

If this is heading into boulder slopes and mountain trekking, with a multiday backpack, then it's time to consider a real hiking boot. The quality of the terrain is what really decides it here: if it's hardpack, you can still do well with the lightweight hiker; if it's scree and boulders, the full hiker is appropriate. With a SuperFeet footbed. And better socks. And a trekking pole. And another trekking pole.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:39 PM on December 29, 2003

If you decide on a light- to mid-weight hiking boot, may I suggest REI's in-house model, the Monarch? I've worn mine probably 90% of the last two years, and they still look decent. They're waterproof up to the point the water is pouring over the top of the boot, yet breathable. You can lace the top and bottom to different tightness (making them the only shoe I could wear comfortably when I sprained my ankle). They wash off easily, and the soles wear like 90,000-mile Michelins. With a set of Superfeet insoles and Smartwool light-hiker socks (jesus, i sound like such a shill), your feet will have little reason to complain.
posted by notsnot at 10:08 PM on December 29, 2003

Response by poster: Wow - thanks for all the first-rate comments! I'm writing down the particular boot/shoe suggestions and will try them on at the MEC or any other trekking/quality footwear stores I stumble across. Also appreciated are the particular tips for finding the right shoe for me...

Although I realize that a heavy-duty mountain-hiking boot is going to be overkill, I also know that I'm going to be spending months in these things, walking for hours and hours every day, and it's not something I want to skimp on: my trip will be hell if my feet are unusable. A light hiker seems to be the thing to look for - with fancy non-cotton socks, for sure.

Is one always advised to buy some (Superfeet?) insoles? Or are they something to get if things aren't going well?
posted by Marquis at 10:28 PM on December 29, 2003

Start with MEC: they're informative and honest. Then shop around: different companies have different ideas on lasts: some fit narrow, some wide; some high, some low.

The more Superfeet insoles in your life, the better your life will be. There are some other brands, too; Superfeet is the minimum requirement for a good insole, so compare designs.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:33 PM on December 29, 2003

Also, you'll need to change Superfeet regularly. I get about a season of hiking out of mine; they're okay for my slippers after that.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:34 PM on December 29, 2003

Lots of good stuff here.

I have a wide flat foot -- finding good footwear (regardless of type) is a challenge. For hiking, I am currently using a Raichle all leather no-Gortex boot. Yes, they are very waterproof.

With the walking around France and Europe that I have done, most of the time the boot is overkill but I am glad to have it every time I want to step precariously onto a rock -- come to think of it, it is with the rocky paths that my boot really excels. I do not feel individual pointy rocks beneath each step.

It is difficult to pack light and have one shoe to do it all. My wife's cousin, who hikes more than anyone I know, is often seen in the Massive Central of France with nothing more on his feet than casual socks and a pair of very worn Paraboot shoes. (Very worn I would imagine because they don't make them like they used to. I imagine he removes his shoe when he needs to cross a stream. Yes, he is half goat.)

My biggest bit of advice: do not rely on "breaking-in" your boots (or any shoe) to have it feel comfortable. If it is not comfortable at the moment you slip them on, they will never be. (Note does this not necessarily apply to Italian leather pumps. Not that I would know about that. Really.)
posted by Dick Paris at 7:41 AM on December 30, 2003

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