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Choosing Hiking Boots

Before you Begin
Hiking boots aren't just regular boots that you happen to wear when hiking, they are boots made especially for rugged hiking trails. And not just any ol' boot will do. Look for a hiking boot with a sturdy and thick sole. The idea is that you will not feel rocks or stones under your feet. Hiking boots should provide not only adequate protection for the soles of your feet, but should have enough padding that the sides of your feet are protected as well.

Before you begin trying on boots, think about what kind of hiking you plan to do. If you are hiking in a dry climate and on well-established paths that do not have a lot of rocks, a pair of trail shoes or boots with mesh uppers are fine. High-quality trail shoes are ideal for one-day hikes when you are carrying a light daypack. Boots with mesh uppers provides breath-ability and comfort for shorter hauls. If you are going to encounter steeper inclines, wet and muddy paths, or plan to stay out more than 3 days, then you will need some sturdier, high-cut, waterproof boots. These will provide added stability for rocky terrain and ankle protection from scratchy tree limbs. And remember, the more you are carrying, the more support you will need for your feet. If you plan to climb in the mountains you will want a very strong boot with a stiff sole to give your ankles support and protection as you climb on very difficult terrain.

Recognize that great hiking boots do not have to be super heavy to offer great protection and support. Today's high-tech materials have replaced the heavier elements that used to provide stability in a boot. As a result, hiking boots are lighter, but still offer plenty of support. Two types of boots to look at are fabric-and-leather boots and all-leather boots. Fabric-and-leather boots are lighter and easier to break-in, but all-leather boots offer added protection and durability in challenging terrain, as well as being water resistant and breathable. Look for hiking boots that are made with a lining that keeps water out while allowing perspiration to escape. A real plus if you encounter puddles and shallow streams.

Trying them on
Try on the boots with the socks you would normally wear when hiking -- two pairs are recommended. Avoid cotton socks. If they get wet, or if your feet sweat, cotton stays wet and holds moisture against your skin.  This can be very uncomfortable, and if the temperature drops below freezing, you could risk frostbite. The sock closest to your skin should be made of some sort of synthetic polyester that wick away moisture, and the outer pair should be of thick wool or synthetic blend for cushioning.

Hiking boot sizes may vary from one manufacturer to another, so don't rely on the size you always get. Try a lot of them on! Then ask yourself, is your foot narrow, wide, or flat? Do you need a lot of ankle support? Choose boots that target those areas. With your boots on, wiggle your toes and make sure they are not cramped. The boot should feel snug, yet comfortable, and fit securely around your ankle and instep. It won't feel as comfortable as your best running shoes, but it should not pinch or constrict you, either. 

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women's hiking boot With your prospective boots on, try walking down an incline. Your feet should be secure and not slide forward, and your toenails should not scrape against the front of your boot. If your foot slides forward, the boot could be too wide or the wrong size. If the back of your heel moves around, your boots might not be laced-up tightly enough, or it is too big for your foot.

What to look For
Waterproof boots are your new best friends. Look this over carefully. I recommend you look for hiking boots that have as few seams as possible. Why?  Water soaks into the boots through the seams.  Either buy hiking boots that are already waterproof, or be certain that you can waterproof them yourself. If you need to waterproof them yourself, you need to concentrate on the seams. You can buy a product for this at the same time you purchase your boots.

Breaking in Your New Boots
Once you purchase a pair of boots, break them in slowly with short hikes. Leather boots in particular take a while to break in, so take a couple of two or three-hour hikes before your big trip or wear them around the house or even while mowing your lawn. If you find any sharp pressure points, use leather conditioner to soften the leather. Be sure you wear the same socks you will wear and don't make any drastic changes right before the big hike. I had a friend who carefully took several weeks to break in her boots before a big trip to Minnesota, but then added heel lifts the day before the trip. This changed  the height of her foot in the boot and consequently, her foot did not "fit" in the broken-in shape and she got huge and uncomfortable blisters.

Care and Maintenance
Cleaning and waterproofing your boots from time-to-time is critical. When waterproofing leather, be sure to concentrate on the seams which can become porous over time. For boots with a lining, use a silicon-based waterproofing treatment, not a wax-based treatment. Wax-based treatments keep the leather from "breathing". On the trail, if a blister or hot spot develops, place padding such as moleskin or an adhesive bandage over the area. You can cut a "donut" in the moleskin to create a buffer around the blister.

Two last pieces of advice for hiking boots. One, wear a different pair of shoes to drive in. Secondly, wear a different pair around the campfire. "Camp shoes" should be easy to slide off and on, such as "boat shoes" or sturdy sandals. This can be a relief if blisters have formed, and camp shoes are easier on the environment.

Remember, hiking boots will never feel like your best sneakers or bedroom slippers, but if you take a  little time to choose wisely, they can give you years of hiking pleasure.