Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Summer 2019
Hiking Boots: Why You Don’t Need Them and What to Buy Instead
The Short Version
The Long(er) Version
OK, so here’s the deal with hiking boots… you don’t need them.
Because you’re not climbing Mount Everest.
You’re Joe or Sally day hiker or Billy backpacker who walks on mostly flat trail with the occasional rocky surface and your feet stay mostly dry.
Wearing hiking boots in these conditions, particularly if you have a lot of ground to cover, puts you in a terrible position.
Let me give you a personal story.
Jumping into the Deep End at Glacier National Park
Several years ago I went hiking in Glacier National Park.
Beautiful place, incredible sites, highly recommended – particularly if you like backcountry camping, which is what we were doing.
We took the 60-mile Many Glacier Loop, starting at Swiftcurrent Pass then on to Poia Lake, Elizabeth Lake, Stoney Indian, Fifty Mountain, Granite Park, and then thankfully we were out of there.
You see, the thing is… we had no idea what we were doing.
We had never gone on a backcountry camping trip before and we were in way over our heads.
Well, partly because expertise comes with experience (not necessarily true, and the relationship is certainly not linear).
And partly because good advice on backcountry camping is so difficult to find.
I scoured the internet for backpacking tips before I left.
But there was so much conflicting information; it seemed like everyone was trying to sell me something, so it was difficult to know which source to trust.
A Man Named Bill Gates
However, I managed to find a forum that looked like it was created in 1995 by Bill Gates, the man himself, or Al Gore, (can we ever really be sure?).
This terse backpacker with over a thousand posts said hiking boots were a mistake.
Why did this mysterious sage in his infinite wisdom say wearing hiking boots into the backcountry was a mistake?
Because they are heavy, non-breathable, and, most importantly, they cause your feet to “sweat.”
But wait a minute, feet don’t “sweat” says the man who’s never been on a backcountry trip before in his life.
Well, let me tell you something.
They may not sweat, but when you wear hiking boots, especially waterproof ones, which is what I did, your shoes will trap moisture within the waterproof membrane, causing moisture to build around your feet.
What exactly is the effect of moisture building around your feet, you say, when hiking 60+ miles over 6 days?
If I could sum it up in one word: misery.
By day two I had a large blister covering the balls of my feet on both feet.
How did this feel as I was hiking up and over Red Gap Pass?
Each step was more excruciating and painful than the last until my body finally gave in and took pity on my soul by numbing both of my feet.
Which was great!
Until I stopped moving, and then the pain would set in again.
But as long as I kept going, the pain stayed away.
A Sage's Advice
So people, don’t make the same mistake I made.
Listen to the sage man who writes on obscure forums that look like they run on MS DOS.
Because he’s not selling you anything, has years of experience doing it for himself, and has no incentive to tell you what you want to hear.
Unlike all of the other listings for hiking boots on Google, that go through the pros and cons of each: this one weighs two ounces less and that one has two inches more “ankle support.”
Let me tell you, in the backcountry, it’s not the little things that will kill you, it’s the big things.
Like bears or buying the wrong hiking shoes.
Hiking shoes are the most important investment you can make as a backpacker because you depend on them with every step.
And whether it has two ounces less weight or two inches more “ankle support” will not make a significant difference to the success of your trip.
I promise you.
What will make a significant difference is making a better choice with your footwear, and that’s where Bill Gates (or was it Al Gore?), that old sage from the backpacking forum comes in:
Buy trail running shoes, he said.
They’re lighter and more comfortable than hiking boots and also more breathable.
All of which are critical factors if you’re heading into the backcountry and relying on your feet to perform over dozens of miles and several days.
But wait a minute, what if it rains or there’s water along the trail?
Great point, Joe or Sally day hiker.
There could be rain and there could be water along the trail.
In fact, it did rain on my trip around Many Glacier Loop, on the third day. And do you know how long it took my waterproof hiking boots to dry?
That’s two days of miserably squishy feet hiking over Stoney Indian Pass and up Fifty Mountain with their several thousand feet of elevation change.
Because the waterproof membrane traps water in the interior cushioning of the shoes and makes it much more difficult for your hiking boots to dry.
If I had listened to Bill Gates, my shoes would have dried overnight and I could have hiked Stoney Indian and Fifty Mountain with dry feet.
But no, this random guy on the internet couldn’t know what he was talking about.
Surely all of these fancy retailers (I won’t name them) with incredible outdoor credentials and expensive-looking websites wouldn’t lead me down the wrong path.
Surely they wanted me to make the “best choice” with my money and buy what was right for my trip.
The Retail Machine
Retailers want to sell the most volume because they make a standard margin on each product they sell and if they sell more product, they make more money.
And so how do they do this?
By telling you what you want to hear.
By confirming your intuitions and making you feel smart about the purchasing decision you deep down already wanted to make.
But wait, that’s a little cynical… certainly these companies care about customer satisfaction.
You’re right, they do care about customer satisfaction.
But only insofar as it leads to higher sales and more profits.
Satisfying customers beyond this point results in diminishing marginal returns, which leads to negative return on equity, which leads to unhappy shareholders / investors, and that's bad for business.
La Sportiva to the Rescue
So what should you do?
Listen to the man from the internet and buy trail running shoes that are NOT waterproof.
They have better tread than standard running shoes and are lighter and more breathable than hiking boots.
We specifically recommend La Sportiva trail running shoes.
Don’t other companies make good trail running shoes?
Yes, some of them do.
Like Altra, which makes the Lone Peak 4 Trail Running Shoe that is excellent for backpacking.
But we’re not going to mention all of them here, although we could make more money by doing that.
We’re going to keep it simple and only talk about La Sportiva because it’s an outstanding company (no, they’re not paying us to say that; but La Sportiva, if you’re out there, hit us up on Venmo) that makes great trail running shoes that are perfect for backpacking or day hiking, and there’s no reason to go anywhere else.
So we’ve listed the ones we recommend here:
- La Sportiva Ultra Raptor
- La Sportiva Bushido
- La Sportiva Bushido II
- La Sportiva Akasha
- La Sportiva Wildcat
Staying on Track
Again, keep it simple.
Go to Amazon, read the reviews, buy the ones you like. You can’t go wrong with any of them.
Is one of them more suited for this than the other?
And will some of them perform better in these conditions than those conditions?
I would imagine.
But remember: big things.
Don’t overanalyze the details.
I personally went out and bought the Akasha Trail Running Shoes as soon as I got out of the park.
I had seen someone in the backcountry, just as it was beginning to rain on the third day, who looked fairly seasoned, like he knew what he was doing.
That person was wearing Akasha Trail Running shoes, so I went out and I bought the same pair.
It was one of the first purchases I made after leaving Glacier, and at the time I thought I was way overpaying for hiking shoes.
But looking back, it was some of the best backpacking money I’ve ever spent.
So go out there. Don’t listen to the crowd.
Or to the vast number of marketing dollars telling you to buy Gore-Tex this or waterproof that.
Unless you’re hiking in snow or up a serious mountain, you will not need hiking boots, and you will never regret not having them.
If you are hiking in snow or up a serious mountain, then you probably know what you are doing, and will be sophisticated and experienced enough to know how much of this applies to you and how much of it doesn’t.
But if you are Joe or Sally day hiker or Billy backpacker like I was and you’ve been wearing hiking boots for years on short out-and-backs thinking all that “ankle support” was keeping your ankles intact, think again.
Go out and buy some trail running shoes.
And you’ll never look back.
A few Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) for your reading entertainment
What are the best hiking boots?
The best hiking boots are no hiking boots. See above.
Are Timberland boots good for hiking?
They are absolutely not.
How do I choose a hiking boot?
You go to the store, ask the first person you see where the hiking boots are, then immediately walk in the opposite direction to the trail running shoes.
Do I really need hiking boots?
You do not.
How do you waterproof hiking boots?
What are hiking boots used for?
You could use them for kindling a fire (not recommended) or recreational gardening (highly recommended).
Is it bad to run in hiking boots?
Can I wear hiking boots everyday?
Go for it.
Should I get waterproof hiking boots?
No, you should not.
What hiking boots to buy?
There’s clearly no reasoning with you.
How do you break in hiking boots?
By throwing them in the garbage bin then ordering trail running shoes online, which are instantly broken in.
Why are hiking boots so heavy?
Because they’re made of full-grain leather, like it’s 1935 and we want these things to last 100 years.
What reason do people commonly cite for wearing hiking boots?
They say that hiking boots help prevent cuts and scrapes along ankles when hiking around sharp rocks.
That they provide “ankle support” to prevent ankle rolls on uneven terrain with a heavy pack.
That they keep your feet dry.
All nonsense of course.
And we’re not saying you shouldn’t buy hiking boots.
If you’ve read our article and still feel strongly that that’s what you want: please, go buy them.
It doesn’t bother us at all.
And, honestly, maybe that’s the best hiking shoe for you.
Maybe you really do need hiking boots and none of what we are saying applies to you as you're confident this is the right decision for you.
But for 98% of you, buying hiking boots will be a big mistake.
You will have blisters.
You won’t be at any reduced risk of rolling your ankle.
Your feet will be wet.
But if you’ve been brainwashed since you were a child that this is what you need and there’s no one and nothing that can convince you otherwise, you have our blessing to buy hiking boots.
Please keep the retail machine running and keep those companies in business.
But as for the rest of you: don’t do it.
Just run the other way.
What are some of the most recommended hiking boots?
Well, I’ve done my best.
For those inveterate souls who still wish to buy hiking boots after reading our article, it’s clear that I cannot steer you away from the dark side.
But since you’re here, and you’ve made it this far, I feel compelled to at least help you purchase the best hiking boots money can buy.
And while I haven’t used any of these, as I do not buy hiking boots, and therefore cannot personally recommend them, these are the boots I would buy if I were to purchase hiking boots.
So here goes:
- Keen hiking boots come highly recommended, particularly the Keen Targhee II Mid WP; they also make the Keen Targhee III Mid WP, Men’s Voyageur, Durand Waterproof Mid, and Targhee Exp Waterproof Mid
- The Merrill Men’s Moab 2 Low and Merrill Men’s Moab 2 Mid Ventilator are very popular
- Columbia makes the Redmond Waterproof Low Hiking Shoe, the Newton Ridge Plus II Waterproof Hiking Boot, and Wayfinder Mid OutDry Boot
- The North Face makes the Ultra Fastpack III Mid GTX hiking boot
- Salomon makes the Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX hiking boots, which are possibly some of the most popular hiking boots on the market. GTX stands for Gore-Tex, by the way, which means that it's waterproof and "breathable." Salomon also makes the Quest 4D 3 GTX hiking boots, which have a certain following
- Then, lest we forget, there are the Oboz Bridger Mid BDry hiking boots
- Timberland, I stand corrected, makes the Earthkeepers Mt. Maddsen WP Mid hiking boots, but I would be reluctant to buy them
- The Lowa Renegade GTX Mid hiking boots are also popular
- Then there are the Vasque Breeze III Mid GTX hiking boots and, if you want to get fancy, the Alterra GTX Hiking Boots by AKU – these have especially good reviews
- And then the creme de la creme, Zamberlan Vioz GTX Hiking Boots with Vibram soles
I'm sure there are other new arrivals we haven't mentioned, but this is fairly comprehensive.
If I were forced to make a decision, I would probably go with the Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX hiking boots, but that’s only because I’m familiar with and like the brand due to their trail running shoes.
There you have it.
Take your gift cards and go buy your brown hiking boots or GTX hiking shoes.
But don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Final Thoughts on Hiking Boots
While backpacking boots, waterproof hiking shoes, and leather uppers will always be part of some hikers' vocabulary, we hope you'll learn from our mistake and buy trail running shoes instead for your next day hike or multi-day backcountry camping trip.
And, if your next backpacking adventure turns out to be a huge success due to your new footwear, be sure to send Bill Gates a little note thanking him for his infinite wisdom.
Looking for more on Hiking Boots and Trail Running Shoes or other tips on outdoor adventures? Try these:
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- 17 Best Backpacking Hacks for 2019 & Beyond
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