There is a bewildering range of hiking boots and other footwear available to all outdoors enthusiasts, whether you a climber, serious hiker, mountaineer or just enjoy an afternoon stroll. There is a much wider choice than there was only 10 years ago, so much so that it can be confusing for anybody looking for their first pair. You may have read about, or been told about approach shoes, 3 season boots, 4 season boots, Gore Tex linings B1, B2 boots etc. If you are now confused, read on.
If you are looking to buy your a first pair, here is some advice to get started:
Don’t pay too much attention to reviews in certain popular magazines, everybody’s feet are different shapes and sizes, and we all have our own preferences with regards to fit, intended use, weight etc including the reviewers. Absolutely do not be tempted to buy a cheap pair of bargain boots from a large chain outdoors superstore. They will last for a very limited time, will be incredibly uncomfortable in use despite how they feel in the shop and could put you of for life. Similarly, do not think just because a pair of boots are the most expensive in the shop they must be the best for you. Go to a decent dedicated outdoors shop, get your feet measured and the boots fitted properly.
You may have seen approach shoes advertised, or heard people talking about them. Approach shoes were originally designed for climbers, to wear as the name suggest on an approach walk into a crag and for descending after a climb. Some approach shoes are also designed to wear for climbing lower grade routes. The classic Five Ten Guide Tennie is a great example of this category, it has been around for years and is a favourite with many mountain guides and climbing instructors. The grip on the soles isnt always the best for walking on walk grass or mud though. Similar to approach shoes are shoes / trainers that are much more suitable for walking. Some brands, shops or magazines may try to market these by given them different names, such as ‘multi sport activity shoes’. They are all much the same thing so don’t be fooled by marketing. Merrel in particular make some great models (my favourites anyway). These are only really suitable for dry weather unless you don’t mind walking with waterlogged feet. Personally, I wouldn’t usually wear these for walking in UK mountains, I like the security of a sturdy boot.
There are 2 main choices when it comes to hiking boots; fabric or leather (suede / nubuck are also becoming popular). Both have advantages and disadvantages. Fabric boots arelighter, usually cooler in summer but despite all the claims and after market treatments and Gore Tex linings, they are not really waterproof in heavy rain. Leather boots generally are heavier, although there is a big difference in weights between boots. They are sturdier, usually more water resistant.
Full-grain leather: Full-grain leather offers excellent durability and abrasion resistance with very good water resistance. Full grain leather is most commonly used mountain walking boots, where the terrain is more rugged. It is not as light or breathable as nylon/split-grain leather combinations. Full grain leather boots can take a while to ‘break in’
Split-grain leather: Split-grain leather “splits away” the rougher inner part of the cowhide from the smooth exterior. Split-grain leather is usually combined with a nylon based material to offer lower cost lightweight, breathable boots. The downside is less water resistance and abrasion. Many feature waterproof liners to try to counteract this.
Nubuck leather: Nubuck leather is full-grain leather that has been buffed to resemble suede. It is very durable and resists water and abrasion. It’s also fairly flexible,
Synthetics: Polyester, nylon and so-called “synthetic leather” are all commonly found in cheap modern boots. They are lighter than leather, break in more quickly, dry faster and usually cost less. There is a serious downside though; boots with synthetic uppers are rarely as hard wearing as natural uppers, due to more stitching on the outside of the boot.
There are specialised boot materials available for vegans, although you may need to ask your local shop to order these in for you.
Your choice of boot should be dictated by what you intend to do. If you only plan to do lowland walking, a lightweight pair will suffice.
If you want to do more mountainous walking, for example walk up Snowdon or Scafel or you will be scrambling e.g Crib Goch Ridge, go for something sturdier. These will be heavier though, but your feet will thank you for it. Good ankle support is vital; it is easy to twist your ankle on rough uneven ground. Wear a lightweight pair of boots when you are scrambling and your feet will be extremely sore (I speak from experience). Go to a decent retailer (note, I said a DECENT retailer, not one of the several high street chain stores with spotty school children staff). There are many good brands out there, my personal tried and tested favourite boots are from Meindl.
I’m going to add a little about soles at this stage. Many brands of boot manufactures use Vibram soles. Vibram is an independent company that make only soles. The boot manufactures will make their own boots, then buy Vibram soles for them. This is for a reason; Vibram soles are superb. They are very distinctive- they all have the yellow logo in the middle of the sole. Occasionally, one of the very good quality brands will use their own sole units but generally only the cheaper brands use their own inferior soles. Soles are very important, this is after all the part of the boot that touches the ground.
Gore Tex lining
Gore Tex is a semi permeable material that allows moisture to travel only one direction across it, hence is usefulness in outdoors clothing and footwear. Some boots have a Gore Tex lining, which will keep your feet slightly drier than a pair without. The downside is your feet tend to get a little sweatier, and the Gore Tex lining is easily ruptured by small stones in your boots. I have never found these lining to be particularly effective in the wet and wouldn’t buy a pair of boots just because they had a Gore Tex liner. Having said that, my favourite boots, Meindl Burmas have a Gore Tex lining, but I would have still brought them without one. It want a deal breaker for me.
B1, B2, B3 boots
If you intend do any winter walking, or cross any glaciers in the Alps or further afield, you will need to use crampons on your boots. They cannot be strapped to any hiking boots though, the boots need to be stiff enough. boots suitable for wearing crampons are categorised as B1, B2, B3.
B1 boots have a semi stiffened sole, with a supportive upper. These are only suitable with C1 crampons. These boots can be used for hiking all year round in the British mountains and are good for light winter walking where you will be crossing occasional patches of snow and ice.
B2 boots have a fully stiffened soled and are designed for winter use, although there are people who use these all year round. Use a C2 or C1 crampon.
B3 Boots are only designed for winter mountaineering and climbing, Alpine climbing or higher altitude mountaineering. They are fully rigid, and can be either leather or plastic. They are not particularly comfortable to walk in although you get used to the technique, but then they are not designed for hiking. Many good makes again, La Sportiva Nepals are, in my opinion a class apart.
What ever you do, do not be tempted to buy cheap boots from an army surplus store. I have heard so many people say things like, ‘the boots must be good if the army use them’, or ‘if they are good enough for the army they are good enough for me’. Utter rubbish. Army boots may be good for walking around your local woodland in, but think to yourself; why do so many people spend a lot of money on hiking boots? Why do so many soldiers spend their own money buying replacements for the standard boots? Most army issue boots are mass produced so they can be sold to the governments at the cheapest price possible. They are not well designed, they are not comfortable, they are simply strong.
At the end of the day, they are your feet so you make your own choice.
Of course, to go with your new boots, you need some new socks….