Every hiker eventually conducts a search for the perfect boot in the mission for ideal foot comfort and freedom from blisters. While there are many entries in this search—in fact, so many that it can be confusing—there is a way to find that perfect boot for you.
To stay blister-free, the most important factors are socks and boot flexibility. If there is any foot slippage from a thin sock or a stiff boot, you can rub up a blister in minutes. For instance, I never wear stiff boots and I sometimes wear two fresh sets of SmartWools.
My search for the perfect boot included discussions with the nation’s preeminent longdistance hikers, Brian Robinson of Mountain View (7,200 miles in 2001) and Ray Jardine of Oregon (2,700 miles of Pacific Crest Trail in three months). Both believe that the weight of a shoe is the defining factor when selecting hiking footwear. They both go as light as possible, believing that heavy boots will eventually wear you out by forcing you to pick up several pounds on your feet over and over again.
It is absolutely critical to stay away from very stiff boots and thin socks. Always wear the right style boots for what you have in mind and then protect your feet with carefully selected socks. If you are still so unfortunate as to get a blister or two, it means knowing how to treat them fast so they don’t turn your walk into a sore-footed endurance test.
Selecting the Right Boots
The first time we did the John Muir Trail, I hiked 400 miles in three months; that is, 150 miles in a two-month general-training program, then 250 miles in three weeks from Mount Whitney to Yosemite Valley. In that span, I got just one blister, suffered on the fourth day of the 250-miler. I treated it immediately and suffered no more. One key is wearing the right boot, and for me, that means a boot that acts as a thick layer of skin that is flexible and pliable to my foot. I want my feet to fit snugly in them, with no interior movement.
There are four kinds of hiking footwear, most commonly known as: 1. Hiking boots; 2. Hunting boots; 3. Mountaineering boots; 4. Athletic shoes. Select the right one for you or pay the consequences.
One great trick when on a hiking vacation is to bring all four, and then for each hike, wear different footwear. This has many benefits. By changing boots, you change the points of stress for your feet and legs, greatly reducing soreness and the chance of creating a hot spot on a foot. It also allows you to go light on flat trails and heavy on steep trails, where additional boot weight can help with traction in downhill stretches.
Lightweight hiking boots are basically Gore-Tex walking shoes. They are designed for day walks or short backpacking trips and look like rugged, lightweight athletic shoes, designed with a Gore-Tex top for lightness and a Vibram sole for traction. These are perfect for people who like to walk but rarely carry a heavy backpack. Because they are flexible, they are easy to break in, and with fresh socks, they rarely cause blister problems. Because they are light, general hiking fatigue is greatly reduced. Like many, I’ve converted over 100 percent to them.
On the negative side, because hiking boots are light, traction can be far from great on steep, gravelly surfaces. In addition, they provide less than ideal ankle support, which can be a problem in rocky areas, such as along a stream where you might want to go trout fishing.
Regardless of the distance you anticipate, they are the footwear of choice. My personal preference is Merrell’s, but New Balance, Salomon, Asolo, Zamberlan, Vasque, and others make great hiking boots. Many of the greatest long-distance hikers in America wear trail running shoes.
Hunting boots are also called backpacking boots, super boots, or wilderness boots. They feature high ankle support, deep Vibram lug sole, built-in orthotics and arch support, and waterproof exterior.
They have fallen out of favor among campers and backpackers. On the negative side, hunting boots can be quite hot, weigh a ton, and if they get wet, take days to dry. Because they are heavy, they can wear you out. Often, the extra weight can add days to long-distance expeditions, cutting into the number of miles a hiker is capable of on a daily basis.
They are still popular among mountaineers who hunt. Their weight and traction make them good for trekking off-trail or for carrying heavy packs because they provide additional support. They also can stand up to hundreds of miles of wilderness use, constantly being banged against rocks and walked through streams while supporting 200 pounds. My favorite hunting boot is made by Mendl, out of Germany. I have also used Danner, Cabela’s and RedWing.
Mountaineering boots are identified by midrange tops, laces that extend almost as far as the toe area, and ankle areas that are as stiff as a board. The lack of “give” is what endears them to mountaineers. Their stiffness is preferred when rock-climbing, walking off-trail on craggy surfaces, or hiking along the edge of streambeds where walking across small rocks can cause you to turn your ankle. Because these boots don’t give on rugged, craggy terrain, they reduce ankle injuries and provide better traction.
The drawback to stiff boots is that if you don’t have the proper socks and your foot starts slipping around in the boot, blisters will inevitably follow. If you just want to go for a walk or a good tromp with a backpack, then hiking shoes or hunting boots will serve you better.
Vasque makes my favorite mountaineering boots for rock climbing.
At the Store
There are many styles, brands, and price ranges to choose from. If you wander about comparing all their many features, you will get as confused as a kid in a toy store.
Instead, go into the store with your mind clear about what you want, find it, and buy it. If you want the best, expect to spend $85–200 for hiking boots, $100–250 for hunting boots, $250–300 for mountaineering boots. If you go much cheaper, well, then you are getting cheap footwear.
This is one area where you don’t want to scrimp, so try not to yelp about the high cost. Instead, walk into the store believing you deserve the best, and that’s exactly what you’ll pay for.
You don’t always get what you pay for, though. Once, I spent $200-plus on some hunting boots that turned out to be miserable blister-makers and I had to throw them out. Even after a year of trying to get my money’s worth, I never felt they worked right on the trail. Adios. Move on to what works.
If you plan to use the advice of a shoe salesperson, first look at what kind of boots he or she is wearing. If the salesperson isn’t even wearing boots, then their advice may not be worth much. Most people I know who own quality boots, including salespeople, wear them almost daily if their jobs allow, since boots are the best footwear available. However, even these well-meaning folks can offer sketchy advice. Plenty of hikers claim to wear the world’s greatest boot! Instead of asking how great the boot is, ask, “How many blisters did you get when you hiked 12 miles a day for a week?”
Enter the store with a precise use and style in mind. Rather than fish for suggestions, tell the salesperson exactly what you want, try two or three brands of the same style, and always try on both boots in a pair simultaneously so you know exactly how they’ll feel. If possible, walk up and down stairs with them. Are they too stiff? Are your feet snug yet comfortable, or do they slip? Do they have that “right” kind of feel when you walk?
If you get the appropriate answers to those questions, then you’re on your way to blister-free, pleasure-filled days of walking.
Excerpted from the Eighteenth Edition of Moon California Camping.