Boots on the Ground

So you’re going to go backpacking and you need a new pair of hiking boots. What to do? There are so many styles, so many brands, so many different kinds of soles, so many types of stitching and construction, so many different fits, so many choices! Should boots be Gore-Tex lined or not? Read Backpacker magazine and you’ll think that all of these subtle differences are important. They are not! Choosing boots and other gear is not the rustic equivalent of rocket science. In fact, Backpacker frequently tests and rates hiking shoes (and every other chunk of gear imaginable), though I suspect that their ratings are based more upon potential advertising revenues than product quality. But I digress.

Well here’s the simple truth. Buy a pair of boots that covers the anklebone and feels sturdy, fits well and is comfortable. It’s that simple! Forget the hype and the technicalities. I can assure you that most any boot from a reputable manufacturer will do the job if you have a comfortable fit. That’s all that really counts. Personally, I find that Merrell and Keen boots work well with my feet, and Marilyn finds that Vasque boots work well for her. But  everybody is different. Our primitive ancestors ran around barefoot or clad with animal hide footwear. Lewis and Clark would have eaten barbed wire for any modern hiking shoe, though they’d have had a tough time locating the barbed wire in 1804.

Gore-Tex or a similar liner? Sure, pay extra if you like; unless you wade in a creek that’s over your boot tops they will keep your feet a bit drier than other boots, especially when fairly new. Maybe. But I guarantee that with enough backcountry backpacking – in places like Yellowstone, Wyoming, and Montana – through soaking vegetation, your feet will be wet with any footwear short of rubber fishing waders. Which really isn’t a big deal, because it’s only water. And no, contrary to popular mythology, wet boots/socks do not cause or exacerbate blisters. Poorly fitting boots do! And you’ll probably have a dry pair of light-weight camp shoes to change into when you get to camp, anyway.

If you have rapidly growing children or teens, don’t feel that you have to spend a fortune on hiking boots that they’ll soon outgrow. A sturdy pair of modern athletic shoes — which they probably already have — will do just fine for nearly all backpacking treks.

So again, forget the hype. Don’t order boots online or from a catalog unless you are replacing a reliable worn out pair with the exact same model and size. Go to the store and bring your hiking socks (I recommend thin synthetic or wool liners worn underneath light to medium-weight wool socks) and find some boots that feel great and have plenty of room in front of your toes. Try sliding forward to make sure your toes don’t hit the front, an important consideration for long down-hills. Consider that by afternoon your feet will grow a half size when on the trail with a 35-40-pound pack on a warm day. Make sure your heels feel great and aren’t rubbing against the back of the shoe. And unless you’re planning to climb Denali, a light-to mid-weight boot is fine. Remember, comfort is the foremost consideration! Do not let an overeager salesperson convince you to buy boots that don’t feel great in the store. Also, be sure to break in your boots well before you hit the trail. And remember that the reason that you love to backpack is to enjoy wild nature, not to ruminate endlessly about the technical pros and cons of various kinds of gear.

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