Boots are probably the most important item you will purchase. Your feet will get you there and back, hopefully without blisters, lost toenails, twisted ankles or an aching back. For thorough coverage of boots, I highly recommend The Backpacker’s Handbook by Christopher Townsend. Boot construction and care are also covered in minute detail. Ranking up with the importance of boots are socks, which I will cover later on this page. Backpacker.com also has an excellent page on selecting, caring for, and fitting boots, as well tips for tying your boots to keep them from slipping and causing blisters on the trail.
Unfortunately many people don’t know how important their feet are until something goes wrong. That’s a horrible time to find out, believe me! If your feet aren’t happy, there’s no way you will be either. I recommend checking out a web site devoted to foot care called the Foot.com. The site includes a question and answer area, a news area and the opportunity to participate in live chats online with advisory board members, which includes podiatrists, orthopedists, pedorthists, professional athletes and more.
I can’t stress enough how important a good quality pair of boots is to your health and well being. For feet’s sake, do not skimp on your boots! Having been a backcountry ranger at Grand Canyon, I could tell you horror stories of how people have suffered with improper footwear.
In one instance, I treated someone wearing tennis shoes who had one foot completely covered by a single blister, top and bottom! Many, many people lose all ten toenails because they were wearing boots that were too small in the toe box or in the overall fit.
You can own the best pair of boots available, but if they don’t fit properly, your purchase was in vain. When looking to purchase boots, it is very wise to try them on late in the day since your feet swell, just as they will when you hike. And try the boots on with the socks you will be wearing. Often the stores will have thick socks available to try on with the boots to assure a good fit.
Important tip: Clip your toenails as short as possible just before your hike, and ladies, I don’t mean a manicure at the beauty salon! You need to clip them so there is no extra nail length at all. If needed after clipping, file down until your nails are flush with the skin. (Straight across, not curved, to prevent hangnails.) They will grow back. But if you don’t get them as short as possible before your hike, it is possible to lose them and they could take up to a year to grow back!
One of the most common problems I have seen in working with the hiking public is that they wear boots that are too small—especially for the canyon country of the southwest. I found some wonderful, sound advice in Townsend’s book (mentioned above) on how to find boots that fit properly.
Put your foot in the boot without tying the shoelace and slide your foot forward until it hits the front of the boot. If you have one finger’s thickness of space at your heel, the boot fits properly. If you have more room, the boot is too big, less room and the boot is too small. Again, it is very important to find a good store with experienced help that can assist you in fitting your boots properly.
There is also a very effective way to tie your boots for the long, downhill grades in canyon country. You’ll find this helpful tip, with photographs, on the Boot Lacing Technique page along with other useful information.
There are many styles and models of boots to choose from; be sure to find a pair that meets your individual needs. The amount support you require will vary with the length of trip, weight of your backpack, the weather, and the type of terrain you will be traversing; the more difficult the trip, the more support required.
Some important features to look for in boots are:
- Vibram® or comparable high rubber-content soles with deep lugs to provide good traction.
- Sturdy, high tops with padding to protect your ankles while providing good ankle support. It is also very important that boots have a stiff heel counter, or heel cup, to support your foot and ankle.
- Uppers made of leather or a leather/Cordura combination. For those of you who plan on wet-weather hikes or walking in wet areas, look for lightweight leather boots with fewer seams in the boot construction. Seams are vulnerable to leakage and must be carefully waterproofed. (As a side benefit, less seams means less chance of the boots coming apart.) Some of the combination-style boots are also made waterproof with a breathable membrane insert.
- Removable insoles that provide good instep support, cushioning, and, in some brands of boots, allow fine-tuning of the size to fit individual needs. They can also be replaced once worn out, extending the life of your boot’s comfort.
- Boots rated for the length of your trip and the weight you will be carrying. The better boots will have “specs” showing what activity the boot is constructed for: day hiking, short backpacks, or multi-day trips with a heavy pack.
- A lacing system that incorporates D-rings and speed hooks is especially helpful when putting boots on and removing them. This also allows variable lacing techniques for better support in different terrain. You can tie the laces so that it allows room for your foot to swell, while tightening the lace at your ankle to help prevent your foot from sliding forward. This is a very important feature when you will be doing a lot of downhill hiking.
- Lightweight, while still providing sufficient support. In the book, Backpacker’s Handbook, Second Edition, Townsend states that one pound on your feet equals five on your back!
- Sewn-in, gusseted tongues are an important, necessary feature to look for in waterproof boots; if tongues are separate from the boot, they will be vulnerable to water getting in around the laces and tongue. I insist on this feature even for keeping debris out of my boot.
Because the human body is not perfectly symmetrical, your feet are bound to be slightly different sizes. In some people this could amount to a half-size difference! Be sure to fit the pair of boots to your larger foot. You can always add socks to fill in the extra space, but there is nothing you can do to shrink your foot. I have seen some very imaginative (or just terribly desperate!) people cut the top of the toe box of their ill-fitting boots off just to give their foot breathing space so they could complete their hike.
Fortunately, many of the newer lightweight boots do not require the break-in time of the older, heavyweight leather boots. Still, it is important to break your boots in, even if it’s just to make sure that the boots are comfortable before you take your trip. Try them on some inclines and rough terrain. Any problems detected early will only be amplified on the trail, especially with the weight of a pack compounding problems. I always tell people that it’s cheaper to get a new pair of boots than to go to the doctor to have a problem taken care of later. If your feet feel good, so will you.
One tip I received from a reader sounds great to me. Use a pair of toe gel pads (made for ballet point shoes) to protect your toes on those long, relentless downhill hikes found at the Grand Canyon. You can find some of these pads online at various places. I found some online at Amazon.
Once you have the boots, it’s important to care for them properly. Clean them after your trips; waterproof them when necessary. With care, good boots will provide years of enjoyment and comfort. One thing I do every night of a hike before going to bed is to remove the insoles and stand them upright through the mouth of the boot. This allows them to dry thoroughly, which keeps foot odor down. In the desert, it has the benefit of making you check your boots in the morning for things like scorpions!
For boots to do their job well, the right socks are necessary. Go to the store and you will find multitudes of socks to choose from. The material and construction of your socks are very important considerations. Cotton, Ragg wool, merino wool, acrylic, and polypropylene, are some of the materials used in socks. They each have their strengths and weakness, which I will cover briefly here.
- No cotton! Cotton is a wonderful fiber for many things, including socks for everyday use. However, it is a mistake to wear cotton or cotton-blend socks while hiking. Your feet sweat and cotton absorbs and retains moisture, keeping your feet damp and causing the skin to soften. Add to that the friction caused by hiking and conditions are ripe for blisters.
- Ragg Wool is the classic choice of fiber for backpackers’ socks and is still one of the best. Ragg wool wicks moisture away from the foot, keeping the foot much more comfortable. It doesn’t mat down as quickly as some of the terry-looped socks available on the market, providing some welcome cushioning for your feet. The main problem with Ragg wool is that many people are allergic to wool. One way to get around this is to wear polypropylene liners under the wool socks. Another nuisance with Ragg wool is the special care they must be given. As a ranger, I wore wool socks with liners through all seasons. They took good care of my feet and I never got blisters-even with new boots! The problem I found the most difficult was laundering them. After a few months, the socks would be so tight with their elasticity gone that it was difficult to get them on my foot. I ended up replacing them after only a few months of use, even though the socks themselves were in good shape.
- Merino Wool is my favorite choice for socks. High quality merino wool has all of the good characteristics of Ragg wool without the problems. There is one brand in particular that I find exceptional—SmartWool. Not only is the fiber of superior quality, but the construction of the sock is wonderful as well. One major problem with finding good socks is finding some that fit your foot snugly, not too tight and not too loose. SmartWool socks fit beautifully with just the right amount of elasticity to hug my foot. Many people who are allergic to wool can wear high-quality merino wool. Another benefit of these socks is that they can be laundered without losing their elasticity. I still don’t put them in the dryer.
- Acrylic and acrylic-blend socks are also good choices for hikers. Although they do not last quite as long as wool and tend to be hotter as well, they do wick moisture away from the feet. The synthetic socks I find the most comfortable and that fit me best are Thorlos, but there are other brands to choose from that may fit your feet as well. Some of the synthetic socks have nice cushioning in areas that get the most impact. Again, fit is extremely important.
- Polypropylene is primarily used in liners – thin socks worn under the thicker main socks. The purpose of liners is to wick moisture away from the skin and out to the main sock, where it is dispersed. Liners can also be used as a protective layer to keep wool from touching the skin of sensitive individuals. They can also reduce friction between the foot and the boot. If your boots are a little big, liners can fill in some of the extra space so your foot doesn’t slide around.
- Silk is also used in liners for the same purpose as polypropylene. It feels wonderful but must be pampered somewhat when laundering.
Construction is nearly as important as the material used in socks. Features to look for are:
- Flat seams, especially above the toe. Bulky seams can create areas of sensitivity where blisters are likely to form.
- Snug, not tight, fit. I prefer socks with good elasticity that hugs my foot comfortably, preventing the material from bunching up.
- Thick socks that provide cushion for the ball and heel of your foot.