Gear Guide: How to pick out your first pair of hiking boots

I define hiking as walking outside on an unpaved surface. Which could be why I have an unpopular opinion about hiking footwear.

My hot take on hiking boots: 90% of people getting outside probably don’t need hiking boots in the first place. They’re expensive. And most hikes the average Outdoor Beginner goes on don’t require that level of grip or ankle support.

If your regular sneakers aren’t cutting it, first try Brooks Cascadias to see if they’re comfortable. And then wait for last year’s model to go on sale and snag them for under $100.

As a general rule of thumb, you do not need the newest model of anything. So if you find a brand and model of any footwear that fits for your hiking needs, wait for them to go on sale or see if last season’s model is already on sale. (I actually have a whole blog on saving money on outdoor gear if you want to more of that information.)

But if Cascadias aren’t comfortable. Or you want more ankle support or a waterproof shoe (BUT Cascadias also have waterproof models!), you could consider hiking boots.

What makes hiking boots different than sneakers?

As you may have guessed by now, ankle support. If the trails you’re hiking on (or want to hike on) are rocky or otherwise irregular terrain, the stability of hiking boots can be a welcome relief to rolling your ankle every time you hit the trail.

Hiking boots also have really excellent grip, which again comes in handy when you’re on rocks or slick surfaces. If you’re hiking on smooth dirt, you probably don’t need to worry about having better grip. Vibram soles are sort of the gold standard of grip (you’ll recognize that name from the barefoot shoes that were all the rage for a while). I have Merrell hiking boots with Vibram soles an do love them, but rarely *need* them.

Hiking boots typically have a bit more cushion than regular shoes. This makes walking over rocks or roots more comfortable, but mostly only matters if you’re hiking all day long or for multiple days in a row. If a product description includes a “rock plate” or “rock shield” or “rock barrier,” this is what it means.

Finally, most hiking boots are waterproof, which is really handy for muddy conditions or crossing water. If you hike in muddy, rainy places a lot (I’m looking at you East Coast), this could be helpful. But most hiking boots/shoes are breathable enough that if you wear non-cotton socks and get your feet wet, the water drains out quickly and you’ll be fine without waterproof footwear.

I think I still want hiking boots. But I hate how they look.

Totally get that. First of all, hiking boots have come a LONG way. Even since I first wrote this blog, companies like Merrell (and others) have really upped their design game and come out with really cool looking boots. So don’t immediately discount boots without taking a look.

If you absolutely don’t want something coming up over your ankles, there are plenty of options! Hiking shoes and trail running shoes are also super grippy and come in waterproof styles. I’ll say it again: Brooks Cascadia trail runners are an awesome option frequently on sale.

There are hundreds of choices. How do I narrow it down?

During the coronavirus pandemic, it’s obviously much harder (and less safe) to be spending hours in a store trying on shoes on in person. Shopping online, or at least researching online, beforehand can be much safer or at least make your in-person trip more efficient. It’s an easy way to hone in on a few possibilities.

I recommend starting on a site like REI. There are tons of brands, plus they have an excellent return policy (use your gear for up to a year and return them if it doesn’t work out, no questions asked). Their curbside pick-up has been really easy, too.

When you click on the hiking boots section of their website, you’re met with hundreds of choices. First filter your results by your shoe size and the review rating. I wouldn’t bother looking at anything with under four stars. But on REI’s site that’s still 132 possibilities.

Are the boots waterproof?

I don’t think hiking boots are worth the investment if they aren’t waterproof. If you don’t need waterproof shoes for what you’re doing, save the money and just wear sneakers.

Your feet will be a little hotter in waterproof shoes or boots. Make sure to look for mentions of breathability (or lack thereof) in reviews.

A note for vegan readers: a lot of waterproof shoes have leather on them. If that’s an issue for you, REI has a handy “Vegan” filter you can apply to your search. If you’re on another site, just make sure to closely read the product description.

Are your feet wide or narrow?

If your feet are wider, Merrell’s Moab boots are a popular option (but one I haven’t personally tried). Unfortunately, your options are way more limited if you need a wide footbed.

If you have narrow feet, you’ll want to filter by Regular Width and then search reviews to get an idea of fit. I have narrow feet and Merrell boots also fit me well. So do, you guessed it, Brooks Cascadias.

But it all comes down to comfort.

It’s 2020 and a good hiking boot should feel comfortable right out of the box. If you put on a pair and think “ehh these will be comfortable after I walk in them and break them in,” move on! Don’t think that any weird pressure points will magically disappear. If they aren’t comfy right away, they’re not for you.

Don’t be shy about busting some moves in your boots. Try walking on your tip toes, walking up or down stairs, do some laps around your house or the store. REI has a handy-dandy faux rock to climb on. And with REI’s return policy, you can test them out hiking and then return them if they don’t fit right.

Comfort means more then cushioning, though.

Hiking boots also vary in weight, and unless you’re doing some really intense hiking (in which case you are reading the wrong blog) anything heavy is just going to be a chore to wear. If they feel heavy when you’re walking around your apartment, I gaurantee you they’re going to feel WAY too heavy when you’re hiking.

The bottom line

If you’re still overwhelmed by options, don’t be shy about just trying on a pair that you like the looks of. There’s no shame in wanting to have fashionable footwear in the outdoors! Once you’ve got a few pairs on your feet, go for the pair that’s the most comfortable (physically and financially). And don’t forget to look for sales!

Who Am I?

I’m a beginner, just like you.

Until a few years ago, I never even owned a pair of hiking boots.

I grew up in Maryland running around in the woods like a wild child, either on foot with my dog or on the back of a pony that I’m sure was wondering why the @#$* it was out past dinner time thanks to my ridiculous hijinx.

But then I grew up. 

I always wanted to be outdoorsy, but it wasn’t really part of the culture in the suburbs where I grew up. You do that stuff as a kid, but then you grow up and go to the mall. You know, to be cool. My friends didn’t want to go hiking (I was also too afraid to ask), and I was too scared to get outside my comfort zone and do it on my own.

When I met my now-fiance, his dating profile said he wanted to someone to hike the John Muir Trail with. I had no idea what that meant, but in the first year of dating he took me on my first real camping trip, taught me why I needed hiking boots, and introduced me to my new lord and savior, REI.

But not everyone has that someone.

And what I really wanted was information from other beginners.

I quickly discovered that none of the “beginner’s guides” I found were actually written by a beginner, so I thought I’d solve the problem myself.

And that’s why I started this blog. Besides my random reflections on being an outdoor beginner, I’ve got campground reviews, trail guides, gear reviews, and how-to’s like how to pack for your first camping trip and how to pick out hiking boots when you have no idea what you’re doing.

I’m still no expert, but I hope Outdoor Beginner is enough to help you get your own adventures started.

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