Picking the Perfect Hiking Boots

Home & Family, Outdoors
on June 1, 2003

Invigorating and healthy, hiking is fun—until your feet start hurting. Whether enjoying day hikes or overnight treks, some simple foot care can keep feet stepping comfortably.

Proper footwear depends on the type of hiking planned. On maintained trails, below the ankle boots are great. A good comfortable running shoe also will work on maintained paths if there are no rocks or potholes and if you’re not carrying a lot of weight, says foot and ankle specialist Dr. Marion Bartl—but sneakers and tennis shoes aren’t recommended. “A running shoe has a wider heel base that rolls with the foot,” Bartl says.

A high-cut boot providing lower leg and ankle support is best for rough trails and steep terrain. For bumpy off-trail routes, a mid-cut boot that wraps and supports the ankle is best. “Ankles are the most vulnerable part of the body when stepping around and over rocks and logs,” Bartl says.

When buying new footwear, keep these tips in mind:

  • Walk in the shoe. If it rubs anywhere, don’t buy it.
  • Purchase shoes and boots at the end of the day when your feet are swollen.
  • Wear socks you would normally wear when hiking.
  • Don’t be talked into buying uncomfortable boots, no matter how good they look.

Socks play an important role in foot care. Wool and cotton absorb perspiration and provide cushioning. Some of the newer synthetic socks wick away moisture, too. Wearing a thin liner sock inside the outer one will keep feet warmer and dryer. Also, any boot friction will occur between the sock layers. Blistering is less likely when wearing two socks, as long as there’s enough boot room.

To further prevent blisters and sore toes, before setting out on a first hike check for boot and foot compatibility by walking in the neighborhood. “If you can’t walk comfortably for an hour and a half, don’t go up into the mountains,” Bartl says. “If your feet become sore after a few miles, you probably haven’t done long-term damage, but if you’ve hiked in 10 and out 10, chances are you’ll take a lot longer to heal.”

To prevent stress fractures, don’t hike downhill too fast, she adds. “Take as long to go down as you took to go up.”

Wash and dry feet thoroughly after hiking, especially between toes. Bring an extra pair of socks so you can change out of wet ones.

For young hikers, parents should check last year’s boot size. Children’s feet grow fast, and old boots may not fit. Adult feet change, too. If it’s been a few years since you’ve worn your hiking boots, check the fit. And for some, a good boot isn’t enough. Arch supports or tongue padding may be required. Folks with diabetes, circulatory, or nerve disorders should consult a physician before hiking to learn how to prevent foot infections.