A good boot is hard to find. In Nessmuk’s words: “Light boots are best. Not thin, unserviceable affairs, but light as to actual weight.” This advice is still valuable because walking just one mile will mean lifting each boot as many as 1,000 times, and the ounces add up. His advice is tough to follow today. We’ll cover here how you can find the best hiking boot for you. By the way, Nessmuk’s real name was George Washington Sears, he was a sportswriter for the magazine “Forest and Stream” in the 1880’s. George was an early conservationist and used the pen name “Nessmuk” in honor of a Native America he knew as a child. He was also a cobbler by trade and he made his boots to his own specifications and advised others to do the same. That old woodsman never dreamed what a profusion of ready-made footwear would be available one day. To find the right pair for your feet and your purposes is no easy task.
Buying Hiking Boots
Most people tend to buy boots that are too heavy. Think about how you plan to use yours. For day hiking in summer along an established trail with fairly even terrain, 2-3 pound trail or work boots may be sufficient; they are light, their soles are flexible, and they give better support and protection than sneakers. If you are going to climb on a major peak, you need rugged mountaineering boots, solid and heavy (5 pounds is the minimum) with rigid lug soles and many layers of insulation.
In between there exists a wide range of medium-weight hiking and climbing boots made for backpackers. The good ones have full-grain leather uppers, that are high enough and tough enough to protect and support your ankles; durable soles that can be replaced when needed; and firm internal support that prevents your arches from breaking down under the extra poundage of a full pack.
Waterproofing Hiking Boots
To make waterproofing hiking boots more effective, boots should have few seams, none of them sewn through, and the tongue should be gusseted at the sides to keep moisture out. Such extras as interior padding and scree collars (they seal the top of the boots, making gaiters unnecessary) are matters of personal preference. Each has potential drawbacks: Padded boots can become very hot on a long hike, and scree collars sometimes put strain on the Achilles tendons. Good boots do not solve every problem. Whatever boots you wear, keep your feet dry with wool socks, even in summer. If wool irritates you, wear inner socks of silk – never cotton. Two pairs of socks insulate better than one if boots are not tight.
How To Buy a Pair of Boots That Fit
Among the many styles of hiking boots made by top manufacturers, there is almost sure to be a pair just right for your feet. Your second day in the wilderness is too late to discover that you failed to find them. The average shoe store does not stock a wide selection of hiking boots, so seek out shops catering to backpackers. Plan to visit several and be ready to make a pest of yourself. Try on as many boots as necessary until you find a proper fit: snug enough to prevent your feet from moving inside (which is how blisters are born) but not so tight as to constrict circulation. Try on both boots of each pair over wool hiking socks, and do not buy any boot until you have walked around in them for 15-20 minutes. When trying on hiking boots follow these steps:
- Before lacing, push foot forward. One finger should fit behind the heel.
- Lace boots and stand. Wiggle your toes; they must not be cramped.
- Kick a wall. Your toes should not touch the end of the boot.
- Rock up and down; squat and bounce. Your heel should not move in the boot.
- Stand on the sides of your feet to test for ankle support and painless flexibility.
When you are shopping, keep in mind that there basically four types of hiking boots. Shoe-like trail boots have flexible soles but give little support. Hiking boots are tougher and stiffer, and a bit heavier. Mountaineering boots are heavy, well insulated, and very rugged. Climbing boots have rigid soles and narrow welts for support on tiny footholds; walking any distance in them can be uncomfortable.
Caring For Your Hiking Boots
New hiking boots are best broken in gradually by walking. Walk in them for several hours over a period of several weeks if possible before your hiking trip. But if you need a quick job, fill boots with water and let them soak for a few minutes. Put them on wet, and walk for an hour or two so that the leather will conform to your feet. Afterwards to dry them out, stuff boots with newspaper and put them in a warm, but not hot, place.
The welt of the boot is where the sole joins the uppers. This is a vulnerable area. Inside stitching is durable but must be done by hand, so it is expensive. In Norwegian welt, the stitching is exposed and water can seep through. Protect this welt with an epoxy sealer. Bonded welts are waterproof, but the soles cannot be replaced.
When the leather on your boots looks cracked and dried out, you will want to use a conditioner. You can also use a conditioner on new leather boots that need to be broken in quickly. Normally you do not have to condition other kinds of leather like suede and nubuck. When using a conditioner, a little goes a long way and helps to keep leather looking and performing at its best. If you use too much conditioner, the leather on your boots will become too soft and that will reduce the support they provide your feet. A word of caution — do not use Mink Oil or oils meant for industrial work boots as they will cause the type of dry-tanned leather used in hiking boots to become too soft.
How to Clean Hiking Boots
Hiking boots will get muddy and dirty from hours on the trail. They are made for this kind of use but will need to be cleaned afterwards before storing. If properly cleaned and cared for, your hiking boots will last many years. Cleaning your boots soon after your trip will keep particles of dirt and grit from grinding deeper into the leather like sandpaper. If your hiking boots got muddy, leaving that mud on will suck out the moisture from the leather, causing your boots to crack and age more quickly. Your investment is worth caring for, so if you follow these 8 cleaning steps so your boots will be your companions for many years to come.
- Remove caked-on mud from the soles of your boots. That will restore them to full traction.
- Remove the laces first and used a soft brush to carefully remove dirt. Use water and a boot cleaner as needed. Rinse afterwards with clear water.
- Air dry the insoles by removing them from the boots.
- Find a place that is normal temperature with low humidity to dry your boots. You do not need a heat source as that will age the leather faster and cause the adhesives to weaken.
- If you need to dry your boot quickly, put them in front of a fan.
- Or you can stuff wet boots with newspaper, remember to change the paper when the paper becomes damp.
- Waterproof your clean boots while they are still wet.
- Once your hiking boots are clean and dry, store them where the temperature is normal. Do not store in damp or hot places like an attic or a garage or they may mold.
One last word of advice — go shopping for your new hiking boots at the end of the day as your feet will be a little swollen. Try them on with the socks you are planning to wear. You’ll have a better chance of getting the right fit. Happy Hiking!