Whether you like to tramp, hike, stroll, strut or frolic through the wilderness there's probably a dozen boots that will fit your needs. Unfortunately, all that choice can make finding the perfect companion for your feet a little daunting and time consuming especially if it's your first foray into the wonderful (cult like) world of outdoor gear enthusiasts. By all means do your homework and read reviews on your favourite products as part of the decision making process but nothing beats sliding on the real deal and dancing/lunging/pirouetting around a store to get that authentic real-world hiking feel. Before you hit the shops check out this overview of what to look for and the main features that make up the difference between a $200 and $600 dent in your pocket.
Top tips for trying on boots
- Ask for recommendations from staff - they'll know which boots are narrower fitting than others and they're likely to have tried them on themselves so you'll get some good insider knowledge straight away
- Bring the socks you intend to wear with the shoes or boots and if you use orthotics make sure you've got them to try on with you at the time
- Get you foot measured and try a couple of different sizes in each brand to get a feel for your size across the different boot manufacturers (I range from a 39-40 depending on brand).
- When possible, walk up and down some stairs when trying boots as you're more likely to discover spots that have the potential to run or become uncomfortable
- Boots shouldn't need too much breaking in, don't buy something that's uncomfortable in store and expect it to soften up everywhere after a couple of trips. They should be 95% comfortable out of the box with the stiffness of the sole and around the ankle perhaps relaxing a little over time.
The 1-2 hour weekend off-roader
Do you mostly go out for shorter stints on well-formed tracks with just a small back pack and your iPhone ready for that perfect instagram shot? You're probably looking for a light, low cut shoe with a good amount of cushioning and perhaps a waterproof membrane to splash confidently through very shallow puddles. You don't need the ankle support of a boot because you're mostly on relatively even paths and you want a good amount of flexibility in the sole as you're carrying light loads and moving reasonably quickly. The good news is you also don't need to spend too much on a light hiking shoe - something in the $120 - $180 range should do everything you need it to. Look for models in the trail shoe family if you want something that crosses over into off-road running as well.
- Good grip on the sole, this is the biggest difference between your gym trainers and an actual trail shoe and you'll notice it quite clearly as soon as you hit wet sections of track
- Cushioning under the heel, they should feel comfortable right out of the box and shouldn't need very much breaking in at all
- Waterproof membrane, even walking through wet grass can soak through non-waterproof footwear and no one likes wet socks
- Flexible sole - you should be able to bend this shoe easily making it less work on your feet taking each step and allowing you to be a bit more agile than in stiffer soled boots
- Fit should be fairly true to your everyday footwear. You should be able to wiggle your toes freely but feel snug (not tight) across the top of your foot and around your heel. Make sure you walk (normally) around in them for five minutes after lacing them up to see if they're rubbing anywhere or your heel is lifting noticeably at the back.
The all day track wanderer
You're mostly completing day trips of more than 4 hours on tracks with some uneven surfaces, mud and other fun obstacles. You're only carrying a day pack but you're on your feet for a while and sometimes go wandering off trail. This is where we transition into boot territory as you want that extra ankle support for less well formed tracks and sometimes steep inclines. A cushioning sole unit is important but due to the light pack weight you don't need anything too heavy duty.
- A rugged sole with some extra protection around the toe
- A waterproof membrane to keep your feet dry
- The boot shouldn't be too high at the ankle, just enough to stop you rolling your ankle laterally but still have some flexibility as you bend forward
- Lightweight and flexible through the sole unit - if you're not carrying heavy loads then go for the comfort of a more flexible boot. Synthetic boots are usually lighter than their leather counterparts.
- Fit should be the same or around half a size bigger than what you normally wear in casual shoes
The Great Walker
You love multi day hiking but you only go a couple of times a year so you want comfortable, sturdy boots that will last you for years. While you can walk for days, it's usually on pretty well formed tracks with minimal off-route wandering but a solid 65L pack on your back. The key for you is a great sole unit to support those heavy loads but a lightweight upper as your boots don't get bashed around too much. You want great ankle support, some extra toe protection but not a full rand, and they should definitely be waterproof.
- Go for a slightly higher cut ankle than the day-walkers for those stream crossings and boulder hopping where you need the extra support.
- A waterproof, breathable membrane like eVent will help keep water out while still letting your feet breathe
- You want a sole with lots of super grippy lugs for wet tracks and a partial shank for carrying those heavy loads. Your boot should still have some flex in it but it shouldn't feel bendy like the boots and shoes mentioned above.
- Fit should be half to a full size bigger than your everyday shoes as your feet will swell after a day of walking and your toes are likely to hit the end on a steep down hill in your regular size. If you stand up straight in the boots before they're all laced up, give your toe a few solid taps on the ground before placing it back flat on the floor. You should be able to fit three fingers down the back of the boot if the fit is big enough - if your whole hand can slip in then try half a size down.
The choose your own path, bush-bashing free spirit
You're not sure where you need your boots for exactly because you tend to take the path less marked by DOC. A normal weekend might involve some scree running, wading through matagouri or trudging up a river bed for 6 hours. You just need to know that wherever you end up, your boots will do the job. You're probably carrying at least 15kg and sometimes up to 25kg for that five day traverse to nowhere you keep talking about. Durability is a big deal as your boots get worn as often as any other pair of footwear in your wardrobe and you don't want to have to replace them too often. Having something that you can throw a crampon on is a bonus and you want serious traction control from your soles.
- A full rand - it'll protect your boots from getting shredded on scree slopes and your feet from sharp rocks
- Waterproof and breathable - for those few occasions when you're not wading thigh deep through rivers all day
- Crampon compatible midsole (this is usually a separate insert to the sole which creates a heel lug with which to attach a semi-automatic crampon)
- Stiff sole with little flexibility or if you never intend to use crampons go for something with a fraction more movement when you bend your foot
- Fit should be a size above what you normally wear in your everyday shoes and try them on with both a liner sock and a thicker hiking sock
- Lacing should lock your heel back and down into the sole
The Mountain Purist
If you're this person then you probably don't need to be reading a "how to" blog about boot buying but just for comparisons sake I'll finish off with actual mountaineering boots. Without getting into an argument about whether plastic boots are better than leather I've stuck to the more traditional leather boots which are totally suited to NZ climbing especially if you're just starting out. The most readily available which you can purchase in store are La Sportiva with their Nepal Evo at $949.90, Scarpa's Ortles GTX at $749.99 and Garmont's MTN Guide Pro GTX for $899.99. These boots are fully crampon compatible, insulated and completely rigid. They do not make good general hiking boots because there is no flexibility for walking on trails and they're much heavier than traditional backpacking boots. They're designed for snow, ice and rock and are necessary if you want to progress from the odd alpine pass to actual mountaineering.