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Hiking Gear: Choosing the right boots

La Sportiva Mountaineering Boots - a great choice
La Sportiva Mountaineering Boots - a great choice
Matt Payne

The weather is nice, the birds are chirping and your friends are prodding you to join them on their weekly hike up to Barr Camp. Well, what are you waiting for? Go! Not so fast! Before you head out the door, make sure you put on the right footwear to keep your feet dry and comfortable for the hike.

There is a lot of controversy on several related hiking and mountaineering forums about the merits of hiking boots vs. tennis shoes or approach shoes. Naturally, this is a matter of personal preference; however, I am going to try to sell you on why I believe hiking boots are the logical choice.

When it comes to hiking, boots are a critical component of your success. Boots serve several functions for hikers:

  1. They keep your feet dry and warm
  2. They provide traction on loose, icy, or wet terrain
  3. They provide crucial ankle support and prevent injuries
  4. They provide appropriate attachment points for specialized gear such as crampons (for you mountaineers out there)
  5. They provide protection to your feet for rugged terrain such as boulders, rock faces, and ridge traverses

In order to choose the right boot for you, you'll need to consider how important each of the above functions is for your hiking needs. Are you planning on hiking around town on easy trails? What about glacier travel? Ice climbing? Snowshoeing? Backpacking? The answer to this question will lead you to the right boot.

Evaluating the warmth of a boot can be somewhat difficult. Some manufacturers will rate a boot to a certain threshold (say, -20 degrees); however, these are often innaccurate. The best thing to do is to read the reviews of the boot online to see what kind of terrain people have worn the boot in with success.

There are many materials out there that will assist with the boot's ability to keep your foot dry in one way or another. The number one thing to consider is how well will the boot keep water out. A boot lined with Gore-tex and a fully gussetted tongue will provide the best water protection. Consider a boot like the La Sportiva Trango (read my review of that boot HERE)or the La Sportiva Nepal if you are going to be doing any ice climbing or extreme mountaineering. Also, just because a boot has a Gore-tex tag on it, does not necessarily mean it is water-proof. Again, research the boot throuroughly before purchasing it. You can also purchase after-market sprays and waxes to assist with water-proofing, such as NikWax. These products work quite well; but be aware that their effect does wear off and you will need to be vigilant in your application of the product on a regular schedule, such as before or after each outing.

To consider how well a boot will perform on the expected terrtain you will be on, it is crucial to read reviews on the product and to see what kind of material the sole is made out of. Most modern mountaineering boot soles are made out of a rubber material manufactured by Vibram. Vibram offers a wide variety of material types, which can be found HERE. The boot manufacturer usually indicates which type of material is used on the sole. For example, I own a pair of North Face boots that are made for winter hiking. I usually only wear them for snowshoeing; however, they have a special kind of sole made out of a material that changes properties as the temperature drops, allowing the boot to gain traction in colder weather and ice. These are things to consider when you begin researching the boot you want to get.

Ankle support is a crucial function provided by a hiking boot. Despite what others may tell you, the material which extends up high on your ankle on a boot prevents injuries, simple as that. I can't tell you how many times I've stepped on a loose rock or boulder and had my boots save me from a critical ankle injury. If you have ankles made of titanium or if you hike on very flat surfaces, then maybe you don't need boots; however, in my travels up mountains and through the wilderness, the ankle support provided by my boots is invaluable.

Another thing to consider before purchasing a boot is whether or not you will be doing any hiking which requires the use of crampons. Crampons are a device used by mountaineers to gain traction on ice and hard snow on steep slopes. In order to properly utilize crampons, you'll need a boot that can accomodate them. For a good example of this, see the La Sportiva Trango boots above, they provide a special fitting on the back of the sole that facilitates the use of crampons.

Lastly, boots provide added protection to your feet. If you are planning on doing a lot of scrambling and ridge traverses on rugged rock, an extended rubber siding is what you need. Most basic boots are lacking in this department; however, a good mountaineering boot like the La Sportiva Trango or Nepal has this feature. Basically, the material helps protect the sides of your feet. Let's say you are in a boulder field and you step in between two rocks that are sharp. Upon stepping on them, one of them gives and pokes your foot's side. No worries, the boot has you protected! I have found this feature to be a must for me, as it has allowed me to be a little less picky about where I step and it has made my foot placement decisions that much more forgiving when they are not quite right.

One final word of advice - do some research on brands and sizes. Not all companies make boots the same way. For example, La Sportiva tends to be a tad narrower than other brands, which may be perfect for you. The best advice I can give is to head to your local mountaineering shop, like Mountain Chalet, and try the boot on before you buy it. Make sure you bring the socks you plan on hiking in as well to maximize the accuracy in your fit.

Good luck in your selection and happy hiking!

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