Now originally, I had planned on writing some scrumptious recipes and some seasonal organic growing advice this week, but then something happened: Mother-in-law, a sprightly 70 year old, broke her leg whilst out with the dog when she lost her footing in the woods. This was largely due to inappropriate footwear. Yes, she was wearing walking shoes, but they just weren’t the right footwear for those surroundings. So, she inspired me to create this comprehensive walking boot buying guide. It’s suited to a whole variety of people: dog walkers, fitness enthusiasts, preppers, and those who grow their own food and spend much of their time outside.
Whether you want boots for growing crops, taking long walks, camping, or homesteading, or you’re planning for a zombie apocalypse or some other kind of societal breakdown, you essentially need the same kind of boots, although we’ll dig into tactical boots and safety footwear for the survivalist homesteader in another post. The right kind of outdoor footwear is a major player in the success of any activity, whether that’s running from zombies or digging into some compacted soil. You need outdoor boots that can withstand the elements and long periods of vigorous activity. This complete walking boot buying guide gives you all the information you need to make an informed choice.
The fit is the most important element when it comes to buying boots. Even if you buy the best, most advanced, rugged pair of boots, if you don’t get the fit right, those boots will tear your feet right up. You’ll end up with painful rubbed spots and blisters that make every step pure agony. Even if you’re just a casual walker or hiker, this is pure misery, and, on the homestead or outside in the vegetable patch, the discomfort from ill-fitting boots kills your motivation and ruins your productivity. And, in a survival situation, there’s likely no time to find boots with a better fit or time to allow your feet to rest and recover, so ill-fitting boots are dangerous and potentially a threat to your survival.
When and How to Try on New Walking Boots
However active you are, your feet swell over the course of the day as you move from one activity to the next. Therefore, you’ll get the best fit by trying on your boots in the afternoon or early evening.
Remember to try them on with the type of socks you plan to wear with your boots. After all, a thin everyday cotton sock, which is an awful choice for hiking and vigorous activity when wearing boots anyway, is significantly lighter and thinner than a heavyweight boot sock. This obviously impacts the fit, so it makes sense to try the boot on with the right sock.
Because the vast majority of us have one foot slightly larger than the other, it’s important to accommodate the larger foot. Always choose the size that fits best on your bigger foot. If there’s a little too much room in the boot with the smaller foot, you can counteract that by wearing an extra pair of socks, but if the larger foot is uncomfortably tight inside the boot, you can’t easily shave a bit off the foot.
It’s important that you consider the type of terrain you expect to encounter and purchase a pair of boots that match it. If you’re super lucky and you’ll only be walking on well-maintained trails and pathways, a pair of hiking shoes will do the job. If, however, you think you’ll encounter something more challenging, you’ll need to up your boot buying game.
General, lightweight hiking boots are suitable for light to moderate trails but, like hiking shoes, aren’t the best option for long days and nights on your feet. Nor are they really supportive enough for regular use on rough terrain. You’ll find these kind of lightweight boots are comfortable for short trips and require minimal breaking in time. Day hiking boots have a distinctly flexible sole and come in mid- and high-cut varieties. They are well-suited to day hikes, bearing a light backpack load.
Backpacking boots are tougher, stiffer, and, providing you invest in a high-quality pair, more robust than other types. These boots are designed for multi-day trips across rugged terrain, including steep gradients. Usually, these boots are high-cut, wrapping well above the ankle with a padded collar. This provides a high degree of support. Backpacking boots should be your choice if you expect to be making long trips or journeying over challenging terrain, as their durable construction and stiff midsole work well with heavy loads on and off the trail.
Mountaineering boots are specialist backpacking boots, designed for extremes. Each pair has different features, with some having heavy insulation to maintain warmth and foot health at high altitudes or in extreme temperatures. Others feature tear- and puncture resistance, along with extra stiffness and support in the form of carbon shanks.
If you want to cover all your bases, but aren’t expecting to climb mountains in extreme cold, a high-quality pair of backpacking boots is the best choice. They offer enough support for the majority of scenarios, are less expensive than mountaineering boots, and significantly easier to break in.
Hiking boot uppers are generally made from some type of leather, although synthetic options are also available. There are pros and cons to each type of fabric, so be informed before you buy. As well as the upper material, those used in the midsole, inner, and outsole are equally important.
The upper refers to the uppermost boot layers, so the bit that covers the foot rather than the footbed and sole. The construction of this portion impacts weight, support, durability, waterproofing, and comfort.
Full-Grain Leather Walking Boots
The material of choice for many, full-grain leather walking boots are exceptionally durable and resistant to abrasions. The main downside is the cost, as full-grain leather is considerably more expensive than many other materials. Full-grain leather walking boots require a lot of breaking in before you use them for an extended trip. However, once broken in they offer a high degree of comfort and support. Full-grain leather boots will last for years if cared for correctly and they are naturally resistant to water, but it’s important to note that they aren’t as breathable or as lightweight as other options. If you want a pair of high-quality backpacking boots that will withstand the toughest trails and terrain and will offer you a long lifespan, so for full-grain leather.
Split-Grain Leather Walking Boots
Split-grain leather is popular with those who are looking for budget-friendly boots that don’t compromise comfort and support. Split-grain is real leather but the hide is split and the innermost layers removed during the manufacturing process. This greatly reduces the weight of the boots, particularly when, as is most common, the split-grain leather is used in conjunction with nylon or another synthetic. This type of boot is considerably less expensive than full-grain leather models. However, the lower cost, increased breathability, and lower weight is offset by less natural water resistance and less durability and resistance to abrasions. Split-grain leather boots are a solid compromise between cost, comfort, and support.
Nubuck Leather Walking Boots
Nubuck leather has many of the same qualities as full-grain leather. It’s essentially full-grain leather with the outermost layer “brushed” or abraded to look like suede. Yes, they are pretty, but they are expensive and the brushing of the leather compromises durability and water resistance to a degree. It is more flexible than full-grain leather but still requires a significant amount of breaking in time.
Synthetic Walking Boots
Synthetic materials are becoming increasingly popular. Synthetic walking boots are generally far less expensive than leather models. In spite of the low cost, think carefully before purchasing synthetic boots. With advances in technology and construction processes, synthetic materials continue to improve and they are lighter, dry out faster, and are easier to break in than leather boots. But they simply aren’t as durable. They usually also require regular waterproofing. Synthetic hiking boots are a good choice if you’re shopping on a budget or are looking for lightweight boots for gentle to moderate terrain.
Waterproofing is essential if you expect to be hiking difficult terrain, think it may be necessary to cross wet areas, and may be hiking in heavy rain. Wet feet lead to may problems, including blisters, store spots, fungal and bacterial infections, and will make you miserable. If you haven’t gone for full-grain leather, your boots aren’t naturally waterproof, so ensure you look for boots with waterproof membranes with tough materials like Gore-Tex® or eVent®. Just remember, the increase in waterproofing will reduce breathability, even if you choose a breathable waterproof membrane.
The midsole determines the stiffness of a boot and also provides cushioning and shock absorbency. While you may think that a stiff boot sounds uncomfortable, just remember that long hikes and moving across rocky or uneven terrain is torturous with a flexible boot as your feet feel and flex around every stump, root, rock, and hillock. Therefore, a stiff boot definitely keeps you more comfortable long-term, provides a higher degree of support, and helps keep your feet healthy.
Ethylene vinyl acetate, or EVA, is among the most common choices for midsole construction. It is budget-friendly but still provides plenty of cushioning. To increase stiffness and support, extra layers of EVA are used for a firmer feel around key areas like the forefoot. This high-density foam also offers a high degree of shock absorption.
Polyurethane lasts longer than EVA, is firmer, and gives more support. It is most commonly used in the midsoles of high-end backpacking and mountaineering boots. This material is more durable but costs more than EVA.
Multi-layered Gore-Tex is often used as a lining material. This technologically advanced fabric creates a dry environment inside your boots by wicking moisture or perspiration away from your feet and socks to the exterior. It also stops moisture penetrating the boot from the outside. This is a great choice for warm-weather boots as it offers a high degree of breathability and maintains a dry environment even when your feet are sweaty. You’ll also find insulated Gore-Tex liners in cold weather boots that trap body heat while still drawing away moisture.
Many hiking boots and the majority of backpacking boots feature internal support structures. These generally increase support and offer protection against terrain and obstacles.
Walking boot shanks are plastic or metal strips that sit between the outsole and the midsole. Shanks offer support and shape the boots’ arch. These inserts are generally between 3 and 5 millimeters thick and their presence adds load-bearing stiffness to the boot. Some boots have shanks that run the entire length of the midsole while others have a three-quarter or half-length shank.
Plates are important if you expect to be faced with really rough terrain. These thin, tough plates are semi-flexible and sit between the midsole and the outsole and offer protection against bruising from uneven ground.
Choosing the right outsoles is important, as they determine traction, stability, and, to some degree, support and load-bearing capability.
The lugs or the tread of the boots is crucial to safety and support. Look for deep, thick lugs as these maximize grip and provide optimal support, even for those bearing heavy loads. Make sure the tread or lug pattern is widely spaced as this ensures stability and a high level of traction. A wide-spaced tread pattern also provides a self-cleaning feature, as the treads are able to shed mud and debris as they flex with your footsteps.
The heel brake is a distinct tread pattern. Clearly defined, the heel zone is separate from the forefoot and arch. This increases traction when faced with slopes.
Carbon rubber has been chemically altered from its natural state and has had carbon added. This enhanced rubber is the most popular material for walking boot outsole construction due to its improved performance and comparatively low cost. It is lighter, more robust, and offers a higher degree of shock absorption than natural rubber.
The insole is the layer that’s in direct contact with your foot. It provides a cushion between the midsole and your body. Usually removable, insoles are crucial to your comfort. However, because they are removable, if you find that your insoles wear out or aren’t terribly comfortable for the shape of your feet or arches, you can simply purchase and insert new insoles. Look for features like extra shock-resistance, pressure relief, and anti-microbial or anti-fungal properties.
That’s it. Everything you need to know to fit and buy the right boots. Soon, we’ll be adding walking boot care advice, and some reviews of our preferred walking boots, work boots for the homestead, and bugging out boots. If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this guide, please do let us know in the comments.