When you go to outfit yourself for hiking, it’s best to start literally at the bottom – and that means your boots. The quality, condition and fit of your boots can make or break your hiking experience, so it pays to make your selection carefully, break them in before you hike in them, and keep them clean and waterproofed.
Hiking boots generally fall into three categories: Trailrunners, Dayhiking Boots, and Backpacking or Extended Backpacking Boots. Trailrunners are usually low-cut shoes based on running shoes, with extra reinforcement of heavy Cordura and leather at points of abrasion. They offer little ankle support but have a fairly aggressive lugged sole and are designed for people doing fast hiking/jogging on mountainous trails, but who are not carrying much of a load. If you have to cross any running water or the trail is muddy, count on having wet feet in these. A running shoe or cross-trainer without a lug sole and side/toe protection is not a good choice except on the best of trails, such as the paved tourist walkways at Mt. Rainier.
Dayhiking boots are built from a combination of nylon mesh, Cordura, and leather or synthetic leather. They can be either high or low cut, have a decent lugged sole, and offer better ankle and foot support than Trailrunners. These boots are readily available and fairly reasonably priced, and can be used for school shoes on bad weather days. Some reputable brands include Nike, Salomon, Merrell, Montrail (formerly Onesport), Tecnica, New Balance and Adidas. These boots have the advantage of being tough and light (lighter means less tiring), but they are usually hard to waterproof due to the use of mesh. Prices run from around $50 to $110 or so.
A backpacking or extended backpacking boot will generally be constructed entirely of leather or a treated leather such as Nubuck. Expensive models will have some parts of injection-molded plastic as well, but try to stay away from full-on mountaineering boots, which are mostly plastic, very stiff, and hard to fit. A good medium-duty boot will have a deep lug sole attached by heavy stitching or injection-molding, high tops with ample ankle support, and usually a tongue system designed to keep water out. Some also have Gore-tex linings to help keep your feet dry. If you do much serious hiking or backpacking, this is probably your best choice, but good boots in this class are not cheap. Prices run from roughly $80 to over $200, so you may want to hold off on buying really good ones until you think your feet have stopped growing. On the plus side, these boots are really tough and can easily last for ten years or more. Some of the brands to consider are Raichle, Tecnica, Salomon, Montrail, Merrell, Scarpa, Asolo and Nike.
Whichever boot you choose, it is critical to make sure it fits you properly. Try the boot on for at least fifteen minutes and walk around the store if possible. Make sure you have room in the toe box for your foot to slide forward slightly on descents, and that there are no pressure points that will cause blisters. REI’s downtown and Redmond stores have test areas where you can see what the boot feels like when you go up and downhill. Good online sources include Sierra Trading Post, REI and REI Outlet.com and Campmor.
Once you have the boots, you need to break them in. This means wearing them to walk in for gradually increasing periods of time. You can start by just wearing them around the house, then around the neighborhood and maybe to the mall. Try to identify hot spots or fit problems before you take them out in the woods; if you have pressure points a shop that also sells ski boots can push them out for you with a manual or hydraulic boot press. Keep in mind that boots which are perfectly comfortable on the flat may cause heel and/or toe pain when going up and down on steep terrain – in the mountains, you will be doing this all day long!
Whatever you do, don’t take a new pair of boots on an overnight hike without trying them out for several days first.
A new leather boot will also need to be waterproofed before you use it. This involves applying a waterproofing agent (Sno-seal, Nikwax) several times and letting the leather absorb it. Many people use heat to aid in this process, either by putting the boots in the oven on low heat, letting them sit in the hot sun, or using a hair dryer. Repeat this process as needed throughout the life of the boots, but make sure they are clean and dry before reapplying the wax.
Two other items you need to consider are socks and gaiters. Try to stay away from cotton socks for hiking. They work fine at school but get really filthy and perform poorly when damp. A wool blend or polypro blend is your best bet. Many people like to use a light sock underneath and a medium one over it. Some people use only a medium sock most of the time but put on a thin inner sock as well for going downhill. Some people use only one fairly heavy sock all the time, or one pair of multi-thickness socks, such as Wigwam's Ultimax socks, which are fairly thick around the toe and heel and thin elsewhere. Try different sock combinations while you are breaking in the boots and see what feels good – the idea is to cushion your feet and avoid friction points that may cause blisters. Just in case, you should always carry some moleskin and tape in your first aid kit to pad a blister before it becomes unbearable.
Gaiters are an almost essential accessory, especially if there is much snow or mud on the trail. Wearing them, especially over tights, will keep your lower legs clean and keep debris such as rocks and twigs out of your boots. Take your boots when you go to buy the gaiters and make sure the gaiters fit your boots and legs properly.
If your boots are properly cared for, they will last a long time. When you come back from a hike, clean them with a brush and water (if necessary) and vacuum out the insides. Let them dry out thoroughly by natural heat (try not to use hair dryers or hot air outlets if possible), and re-waterproof them if needed after they are dry.