These Boots Are Made For Walking: A Guide to Hiking Boots

Airing a pair of walking boots with green tents in the background.

The walking boot has been a companion to the long-distance walker for millennia; protecting the feet of centurions on the wall and hikers – on its ruins – from the same bitter border weather, supporting the tired ankles of pack-men and mountaineers on long descents, marching beneath armies and DofE groups alike.

The basic design, from the centurion’s calcei to the trespasser’s welted hikers, has not changed much in two thousand years – neither have our feet. The terrain, that which hasn’t been tamed by tarmac and concrete, remains much the same too; sometimes hard and uneven, sometimes boggy and unending. What has changed however, is the human capacity for the trail and the mountain path. We hike, scramble and run like never before and with this explosion of interest has come the inevitable expansion of the market for outdoor gear.

The days of boot-making families in the Yorkshire hills and boot sales from the back of a van at fell races has passed; now there is a dazzling array of footwear on offer for the aspiring tramp, each with an even more impressive and rugged sounding name than the next. Outdoor stores have rooms of running shoes, trail and approach shoes, hiking boots and mountain boots and for the first-timer or even the experienced walker it can be daunting to work out what you need. Those same shops usually also have enthusiastic and approachable staff who can help but some knowledge of what you are looking at, as well as what you are looking for, is essential.

Which shoe fits?

The walking boot remains the standard for long-distance trails, mountaineering and mountain-walking and will be our primary focus. However, there is always a lively debate around trail shoes and hiking boots and which work best in which environment. There are three main things to look for to establish which may better suit what you are doing.

1. What distance will you be travelling?

Over short distances, even on easier mountain paths, a trail shoe (or even a running shoe) may provide enough comfort and support. For long distance days or multiple days hiking, even on low-level and even terrain, a walking boot will provide more protection from the persistent strain and impact on your feet and ankles.

2. How likely will it be that you will need waterproofing?

If you are likely to be jumping puddles, dodging peat-bogs and perhaps fording the odd stream then waterproofing is an essential consideration; not least due to the prevalence of bad weather in the hills. On all walks but more commonly on the longer ones having wet socks and feet can increase your chance of blisters, which can also lead to other injuries (for more information on blisters click here).

Modern trail shoes are generally water-resistant and for short days or for fair-weather will be fine in most cases. They often are more breathable, helping to release moisture from the foot but will slowly start to let moisture in for this same reason. The walking boot on the other hand is usually cut higher, allowing less water in, as well as being designed to be more robust with less entry points for water.

3. How much ankle-support and flexibility will be necessary?

The human foot and ankle joint is a mix of moving parts – tendons, bones and ligaments. Most modern walking shoes protect or reinforce the toes, arch and heel of our feet as well as supporting the movement of the lower talofibular ligaments and most of the foot. However, as you tire on the long or multi-day trail or move on uneven and rocky ground the ankle needs more support and suffers more twisting and rolling (also known as eversion and inversion). The walking boot, with its ‘high cut’ design and usually stiffer fabric structure restricts or strengthens these movements more efficiently. This design also adds support to other crucial elements – the achilles tendon, the fibular and tibia bones and the upper tibiofibular ligaments.

Made For Walking

The original Roman army footwear of choice, the sandal or Caligae, set the standard for the modern walking boot; consisting of a series of leather strips that encased the entire foot and lower leg whilst leaving gaps in areas prone to friction (and therefore blisters) on long marches. As their armies spent more time stationary, guarding distant walls in decidedly non-Mediterranean weather, the design of the boot changed to afford more protection from the wind and rain and the Calceus was born. One piece of warped leather (the ‘Upper’) now enclosed the foot and lower leg as before but without gaps and two leather soles (the ‘Insole’ and ‘Outsole’) nailed together, along with the Upper, to form the boot.

The walking boots we use today follow this same basic structure with a moulded leather (sometimes synthetic) Upper and an Insole and Outsole. There have been several innovations in the material used to make them and various additions to this structure but in essence they remain the same.

Most modern boots now also contain a Midsole, sandwiched between the Insole and Outsole to add more cushioning, along with heel and toe ‘bumpers’ (or the ‘Toe Box’ and ‘Heel Counter’) which reinforce those areas respectively. The material used for the Outsole has thankfully undergone big changes since the 1960s; as nailed leather soles, not known for their comfort, were replaced by first moulded rubber and then synthetic soles.

The Upper now includes a Tongue, which is usually attached to bellows (sometimes referred to as ‘Gusseted’) that ensure the boot remains flexible but waterproof beneath the laces. Some synthetic designs have an open, breathable mesh in the Tongue that can decrease their water resistance. Most boots now have this breathable material as a Liner inside the boot as well. The Upper will be either ‘mid-cut’ – covering the foot and ankle joint – or ‘high-cut’ – protecting and supporting more of the shin and lateral achilles tendon above the ankle joint. The higher cut boots can also aid proprioception over a longer period. Some walking boots may also have a scree collar, a reinforcement at the back of the neck of the boot – adding protection to the Achilles tendon – as well as a Rand which does the same on the outside of the toe of the boot.

Lastly, there is a rating system for walking boots from 1-season to 4-season:

1-season boots are usually synthetic and will be more flexible and lightweight, with reduced grip and support (also usually not very waterproof).

2-season boots will be more rigid but still flexible, with better grip and a waterproof membrane. They are suitable for most trails and even off-path walking, the best for when you need support without restricting the natural movement of the foot too much over longer distances. However, on steep ground they do not offer as much grip, rigidity and support as well as being less robust on scree and rocky ground.

3-season boots are usually leather and offer as much support, waterproofing and grip as you need for most days and most terrain in the hills. For long-distance trails, including The West Highland Way, or on uneven or steep ground, for example Ben Nevis, they would be the boot of choice. Some at the higher end of the rating may also take a flexible crampon, at this end of the scale though they are more technical than most hikers will require.

4-season boots, often referred to as mountain boots, are designed mostly for mountaineering use, with crampon attachments (an additional shank in the soles adding to sole rigidity) and a solid upper that allows little movement in the lower leg and ankle. They have their own secondary rating (B1-3) but are not recommended for long-distance walks or non-technical mountain walking. They are designed for technical terrain for example The Skye Cuillin Ridge or for winter mountaineering.

Leather or Synthetic

Drying walking boots by an open fire in a bothy

These days the debate over which is the best fabric for the boot, certainly when it comes to the top-end boots, is largely moot. Synthetic boots (usually a mix of suede, mesh and polyutherane) have developed to the point where the difference between them and the leather variety is minimal. However, the leather boot is still the most consistently reliable both for durability and waterproofing (although bear in mind nothing is ever 100% waterproof).

Leather has its drawbacks, chiefly that the boots often take much more breaking in before they become comfortable; although this strength is also the reason they tend to last a lot longer. They also require a lot more care following on from each walk and will likely set you back more money – although this is no doubt saved in the long-run. Walking boots are one of those items that, if chosen well, can give you many years of use and avoid the added expense of podiatrist fees!

There is one other boot material available, although rarely on offer in outdoor stores – the rubber boot. Not recommended for hiking in the UK or in colder, mountainous regions (especially as they are not usually designed for hiking). Rubber boots are more appropriate in hot climates, where your feet are wet whatever you do, as they dry more quickly. The wellington boot also gives protection from plants along the jungle trail and combined with a pair of boardshorts allows for heat to be released from behind the knee without exposing much skin to the persistent leech and mosquito. One for consideration during peak midge season perhaps.

No Two Feet Are The Same – Some Shopping Tips

With the above in mind, it’s time to shop. You know you want a walking boot for your upcoming long-distance trek, probably leather with a high-cut upper and all the trimmings. What other things should you consider, especially given the range of boots still available to you?

Firstly, it is fairly essential that you visit a store in person to get your boots. If you’re not using them much, then online purchasing may be fine and similarly you may get lucky in finding the perfect pair from a webpage. However, going in person gives you a few other advantages to help you find your dream boot.

Once in the shop it’s important to find out what boots better suit the particular peculiarities of your feet, be it width or the size and shape of the arch of your foot and similar. The ever-indulgent assistant on hand can usually do this for you and then recommend different brands accordingly. It’s important to remember that your feet swell over the course of every day, so it is generally better to visit the store in the afternoon so as not to buy a boot that will restrict this swelling when you wear it.

It’s important to try the boot on, usually with whatever thickness of sock you may use. Again, the store will usually oblige you with a pair of walking socks to test this out; as well as often a platform with mock terrain (such as scree and path) to test the movement of the boot and your foot inside it. The boot may feel stiff, which is normal – especially the leather ones – however it should feel comfortable with minimal space between the boot, your heel and your toes.

Once you have bought the boots it will also be important to try walking in them for longer, to see in advance if there are any effects from prolonged use (such as rubbing in a particular area). Most stores will accept a return as long as it is clean and in the same condition as purchased. To achieve this the best trick is to wear them inside as much as possible before they ever see mud or a rocky trail.

Afterword: Aftercare

Washing a pair of walking boots and a pair of approach shoes in a bath.

It is important to look after your boots once you have purchased them, in two key areas – protection from the corrosive effects of dirt over time and also protection from damaging drying techniques. Most boots also require occasional reproofing to maintain their waterproof efficiency. These considerations apply especially to leather boots, as synthetics generally do not degrade in the same way as leather does if not cared for.

At the end of every walk (technically every day of walking) you should brush off as much of the dirt and debris as you can and wash off the rest. Fairly simple stuff really, avoid using salt water. There is no special chemical necessary for washing your boots, you should however also avoid putting them in the wash with your muddy trousers and base-layers as it will ruin the boots!

When drying your boots after washing (or in a bothy after a long boggy day) you should try to avoid using artificial heat (fire, radiators, ovens!). All types of fabric will suffer in prolonged exposure to these elements – leather of course especially so. Boots have a tendency to burn when placed too close to fires (socks too – I have witnessed a walking sock practically unravel just in the heat of a campfire). If you are desperate to dry them before the next long boggy day then try to only leave them close to the heat for short periods at a time.

Newspaper is very useful for sucking moisture out of a boot (as well as for lighting the bothy fire) and a few sheets rolled up inside the boot will help dry them out more quickly (although not entirely only using this method). You should replace the newspaper after a few hours if you have enough to spare.

Lastly, most boots will come with care guidelines so check yours for advice on waterproofing. The boots are treated with a waterproof substance that degrades over time and needs to be replenished. Usually you will clean the boot, leave it damp and spray on a mist of whatever proofing solution you have found (many providers are available).

Dual Use

Person Welly Wanging a Pair of Walking Boots on an Expedition

We hope this guide to the walking boot and what to look for when buying a pair of boots has been useful. A good tip for the outdoors, when it comes to kit, is to work out what other uses each piece of equipment has to justify its space in your bag. The walking boot is often overlooked but it has a multitude of potential other uses. A sturdy boot with long laces to swing, for example, makes an excellent prop for some impromptu welly-wanging on expedition.

Walking boots make great holders also, for those must-have items in the night such as a torch or water-bottle; as well as being useful for storing your compass and holding down your precious laminated map on a windy night. I’ve even seen old walking boots used as plant pots outside a hotel on The Cape Wrath Trail and old Outsoles used as hinges on gates in South America. The sturdy toe-boxes are great for kicking holes in the ground when you have forgotten your poo-trowel and the heel-counter and stiff leather add good heft when the boot is required to discourage a badger from your precious food supplies.

Whatever their use however, once you have found your match among the many pairs on offer; your walking boots should offer you many years of comfort, security and companionship as you adventure out into the hills.

About the Author

Ed Terry is a qualified Mountain Leader who has been working as an outdoor instructor both guiding adult groups and working with young people in schools or on overseas expeditions. An accomplished traveller, Ed discovered a love for trekking in the canyons and mountains of South America and has since applied this to the hills and trails of the UK. He is a passionate environmentalist and can often be found mending footpaths, dry-stone walling or running educational sessions on conservation issues.