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.
I’ve tried every combination of sock and insole in every style of boot. After 25,000 trail miles, I have found the perfect boot setup for me. What works for me is this: I wear thick SmartWool socks (not the thin ones), Dr. Scholl’s Double Air-Pillo insoles, and Merrill Reflex Gore-Tex Mid Hikers. I’ve had no blisters in the past 1,500 miles. But the same setup will not work for you. Like my pal, the great hiker Francis Tapon, says, “Hike your own hike.” Figure out what works for you and do not compromise based on what works for anybody else.
Gel insoles may be great for people who stand for long hours at their jobs, but they’re not good for hiking. Your foot can shift and rub against the gel insole, causing a blister, rather than conforming to a fitted shape. A cushion-type insert is best.
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 long-distance hikers, Brian Robinson of Mountain View (7,200 miles in one year) 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, heavy, leather 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, you must know 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.
For many years, people have had four choices of footwear for hiking: hiking boots, hunting boots, mountaineering boots, and athletic shoes. I’ve tried them all, each for hundreds of miles. My opinion is to stay away from hunting boots, mountaineering boots, or athletic shoes. (The only exception is while rock climbing, when mountaineering boots work best.)
The era of lightweight hiking boots is dominated by what are best described as Gore-Tex walking shoes. These shoes are designed for day walks or short backpacking trips. At first look, they can appear to be a rugged version of athletic shoes, designed with a Gore-Tex top for lightness and a Vibram sole for traction. There is no reason to get anything else because: 1) They are flexible, 2) They are easy to break in, and 3) With fresh socks, they rarely cause blisters. Since they are light, general hiking fatigue is greatly reduced. The models I like have some extra muscle built into them so that they can work for backpacking (and weight bearing).
On the negative side, because hiking boots are light, traction can be far from great on steep, gravelly surfaces. In addition, some 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. (I prefer midlevel for ankle support.)
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.
You can identify mountaineering boots by their midrange tops, laces that extend almost as far as the toe area, and stiff ankle areas. This lack of “give” is what makes them great for rock climbing. Their stiffness is preferred when walking off-trail on craggy surfaces or hiking along the edge of streambeds, where walking across small rocks could cause you to turn your ankle. Because these boots don’t give on rugged, craggy terrain, they reduce ankle injuries and provide better traction. Vasque makes my favorite mountaineering boots for rock climbing.
But for long hikes, they don’t work. The drawback is that if you don’t have the proper socks and your foot starts slipping around in the boot, blisters will inevitably follow.
At the Store
There are many styles, brands, and price ranges to choose from. A store like REI can have hundreds of hiking shoes available—Merrill alone offers a dozen different choices. If you wander around the aisles trying to look at all of them, you’ll get as confused as my wife in a chocolate factory—you’ll want to try everything.
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 $100-175 for hiking boots. If you go much cheaper, well, then you are getting cheap footwear.
Walk into the store believing you deserve the best and that’s exactly what you’ll pay for. However, you don’t always get what you pay for. Once out of necessity for an unexpected hike, I spent $175-plus on some boots that turned out to be miserable blister-makers. I had to throw them out. Adios. Then 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, often 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. Every hiker I know claims that they have chosen 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 every 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 Twentieth Edition of Moon California Camping.