Bushwalking Boots |Selection and Fitting Criteria

Having difficulty in deciding what sort of hiking boots to buy? Should I get tramping boots with a Gore-Tex lining? How grippy should the soles be? What about one piece leather boots? Mid or high sided; what should I get? How do I make sure I have the correct size?

My latest boots: Scarpa ZG10 GTX

Some selection criteria include:

  • Type of walking
  • Season
  • Type of sole
  • Type of midsole
  • Amount of ankle support
  • Weight
  • Waterproofness
  • Cost
  • Material
  • Comfort
  • Fit
  • Lacing

The first step in choosing a pair of hiking boots is to decide which type of walking you will be doing, as this determines the type of boot you will need. Will you be walking on roads, on trails, above the snow line or off track? Will the track be slippery, rough, wet, icy or sandy? How much weight will you be carrying? Generally the greater your pack weight the more ankle support you will need and less flexible the sole should be so that you don’t feel  the stones you are walking over.

Boots are rated according to season, a bit like tents ; 2 season, 3 season and 4 season. The correct selection can be critical if you are walking above the snowline or in icy melt water as frost bitten feet can easily occur with 3 season boots.

The type of sole is critical as it determines how grippy it will be, so if you are likely to be climbing over wet rock or tree roots, then you will need soft grippy rubber soles. The problem is that softer rubber wears quicker, so you need to be prepared to have them resoled or buy new ones more often than you would with hard rubber. Not all boots are resoleable, so  check before you buy. Usually a resole costs about a third of a new boot, but it does of course have the advantage that you have already broken you boots in.

The type of mid-sole decides how stiff your boot will be. You may want a stiffer midsole when walking over rocky ground and a more flexible when on soft or smooth ground. If you need crampons for crossing ice or will be doing some serious scrambling then you will need a stiff mid-sole that doesn’t flex.

The next consideration is the amount of ankle support you will need and this is determined by the load you will be carrying and the nature of the track. Rough uneven ground with a heavy pack requires high sided boots so you don’t roll an ankle. This is the problem with wearing sneakers / cross trainers; there is no ankle support. (NB some ultralightweight walkers would suggest that with a medium weight pack that ankle support is not needed and would promote the use of lightweight DVs ( Dunlop Volleys) and KT-26s for more rugged tracks)

The better the ankle support, the more waterproof and the harder wearing the sole, the more likely that the weight will be higher. So there is always a compromise to be made. We would all like to wear ultra-light boots but the degree to which we are prepared to sacrifice functionality for weight is a personal choice. As a guide, top quality 4 season leather boots weigh about 1750 g whereas good quality cross trainers will weight about 750 g.

Are you going to walking through wet grass, shallow creeks or tracks that are rivulets? If so, one piece leather or a Gore-Tex inner is necessary. If the water is higher than the top of your boots then no matter how waterproof your boots are, the water will get in. If you want them to drain quickly, then probably you don’t want a Gore-Tex liner. Of course, having wet feet is normal in many bushwalking environments and can’t be avoided, even with gaiters. You just need to accept that when you walk through knee deep mud and water that you can’t avoid wet feet. Of course with use your Gore-Tex liner will wear away and a boot that depends on this liner will become very leaky. It is worth checking that the tongue of your boot is integrated, so that water can’t seep past.

Cost is never irrelevant but the advice to “buy the best your can afford” is always true for your boots. Unfortunately, I have always found that the best is usually the dearest. There are however often bargains where a pair of boots might be marked down 30% if it is about to be discontinued. Often Club membership gives you a discount with some outdoor shops, or if not , always ask your favourite shop to match any competitor’s price

To me comfort overrides all other criteria, as without comfort there is no point is bushwalking. It is difficult to enjoy a hike when you have blisters or the soles of your feet are tender. This is to some extent determined by the size of the boot you choose. Too small and your toe-nails will go blue and probably you toes will become blistered. Too big and your foot will move around and probably cause heel blisters. Check that the tongue of your boot is well padded as otherwise there can be considerable pain as the lacing forces it against the top of your foot. You may find that the boot where your smaller foot goes can be packed with a boot liner/inner sole or perhaps you can wear two socks on your smaller foot.

The material your boot is made from also determines comfort,  as one piece leather boots take much longer to mould to your feet. Leather has its advantages however as it is more waterproof than fabric and more abrasion resistant. High quality leather boots will be made of a single piece of thick leather (2.8 mm thick) and this adds to the cost. Leather boots do however require much more care and it is not uncommon, even in top quality boots, for the leather to split and leak through the flexion points just above the toe cap.

The fit of your boots is very important. As a starting point, ask for your normal shoe size plus a little ( half a size or 1 Euro size)  as you will be wearing thicker socks but remember it is very common to find that one foot varies from the other by up to a half size, so you must try on both boots.Check whether you have a narrow or wide foot, as some brands don’t have both fittings. You should put on as many socks as you intend to wear. Are you going to be wearing orthotics, in which case wear them when trying on your new boots. Wear your boots up and down stairs, checking whether the toes hit the front of your boots on the way down. If so, you probably need a bigger boot. Without your boot laced, check that you can just slide a finger firmly down the back of heel in both boots, with your toes forced to the front of the boot. If not, you need a bigger boot. Adjustments to boot volume can be made with thicker footbeds and foot comfort can often be increased with padded footbeds or those with arch supports.

The lacing of your boots is more than just convenience. It determines how quickly you can put your boots on and take them off. The nature of the eyelets determines how quickly the laces will wear out and if they are not strong enough, they can pull out of your boots. A good lacing design will have hooks towards the top, which allow you to tighten more effectively and get your foot in and out more easily. Often the tongue will have a hook or loop towards the top which allows you to tension the tongue upwards.

Related post

Bushwalking Boots | Preventing Blisters in Poorly Fitting Boots

Further Reading:

Fit and Sizing Selection (Scarpa)
Midsoles (Scarpa)
Accessories (Scarpa)
Boot Care (Scarpa) 
How to Choose the Right Size… Advice on Fitting Boots ( Big Black Boots)
Hiking Boots Buying Guide – Buy the Best Day Hiking Shoes (ABC-of-hiking)
Hiking Boots – Features and  Characteristics (ABC-of-hiking)
Hiking Boot Types – Different Types of Hiking Boots (ABC-of-hiking)
Choosing and Caring for Footwear (Paddy Pallin) 
Boot FAQ (v.1.5)
FAQ – Equipment Footwear ( Roger Caffin)

  Creative Commons License This article by Bush Walker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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