Designed with a burlier and beefier build, backpacking boots can be considered the older brothers of day hiking boots. They are intended to support and carry a heavy pack. Their internal support and cushioning system are stiffer and less flexible than day hiking boots because of their intended purpose: to overcome tricky and dicey terrains while carrying packs of more than 50 lbs. Brands have been very creative in formulating rubber compounds that offer different degrees of traction. Also, their pattern varies per brand. Backpacking boots are your ideal footgear when you are heading on multi-day backpacking trips with a heavy pack. Keep in mind that this type of footwear sometimes requires an ample amount of break-in period. This is critical to avoid issues when you embark on your outdoor adventure.
Things to look for in backpacking boots
Brands have come a long way in marketing their backpacking boots. Almost every manufacturer offers a certain level of comfort. This feature is indeed subjective and may take a lot of your time and patience before you meet the most comfortable boot for you. However, you must not be misled by these marketing strategies. Pain can ruin your adventure so securing your comfort is a priority.
Cushioning. This benefit mainly comes from the midsole and insole (footbed). Most common materials used for the midsole are polyurethane (PU) and ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), sometimes, a combination of both. These two can be formulated with varying densities, offering different comfort levels.
Alternatively, insoles (footbed) are often removable. This allows users to customize the fit according to their comfort level, desired arch support and foot volume. There are a lot of aftermarket insoles that can fit the insides of your backpacking boots catering to your needs. Remarkably, some brands use both footbed and removable insole together in a boot.
SIDE NOTE: The debate on the amount of cushioning is still on-going—whether a more cushioned shoe is better than the minimalist (less cushioned) shoe. One of the claims in this debate states that wearing excessively cushioned footwear does not mitigate the impacts. Instead, it only reduces your connection to the ground. Consequently, it creates sloppiness on foot landing leading to discomfort and injuries. Nevertheless, whichever works best for you, regardless the amount of cushioning, go for it.
The hiking footwear business has vastly developed when it comes to designing and creating backpacking boots. The demand for “lighter” backpacking boots has prodded many manufacturers to carefully select and pick materials, even develop new technologies to be used on their products. Materials used in backpacking boots or any hiking boots are the primary contributors to weight. From the boots’ upper down to the outsole, even an ounce can make a huge difference.
Fit and Sizing
Getting the right fit and sizing on your backpacking boots is not as easy as buying your average day hiking shoes. Foot length, width and volume are all considerations. You can obtain your fit length and width just by merely tracing your foot on a paper. Make sure that your foot is firmly touching the floor and you are holding your pen upright. Your foot length is from the tip of your longest toe to your heel. On the other hand, foot width is the measurement across the widest part of your foot. Widths are represented by letters after the size of your backpacking boots. There are narrow, standard, wide, extra wide and sometimes, triple wide variants depending on the brand. Foot volume is the overall mass of your foot. This includes the height of your arches and instep. Insoles usually solve issues with volume.
You might have heard of shanks and plates but how do they differ? A shank is an inset that is carefully placed into the shoe. It provides structure and rigidity, especially when carrying loads. There are full-length and mid-length shanks. The sturdiest backpacking boots are often equipped with the former, making them hard to bend. There are also plastic, fiberglass, nylon and metal shanks that have varying weight, durability and flexibility. On the other hand, a plate is sometimes located below the shank. It is the protection of backpackers against punctures of spiky rocks and other pointy objects. Plates used in recent hiking footwear also offer a good amount of flexibility. So, shanks and plates are for support and protection, respectively.
Most backpacking boots are hydrophobic. The leather is a typical upper material used and this is naturally water-resistant, while others have a membrane that takes care of the waterproofing. This feature is pertinent to backpackers as they encounter a number of wet conditions on their adventure. From stream crossing to varying weather conditions in the mountain, waterproof hiking boots can be advantageous.
Backpacking boots are known to have a more substantial weight than your day hiking boots. This is mainly due to the terrain they are designed to overcome and the load they need to support. Looking at the weight of manufacturers’ backpacking boots, it ranges from around 1000 g to as heavy as 2000 g per pair. Some experienced adventurers use backpacking shoes as the reduction in weight is a great relief.
Manufacturers of backpacking boots developed technologies that give autonomy to users in customizing the fit. Lacing up footwear especially those backpacking boots can sometimes be stressful particularly when you need to adjust it during your journey. Some brands combine different types of eyelets depending on their design and purpose. Some have free-moving hooks partnered with lace-locking hooks. Moreover, there are also brands that have webbing and metal eyelets.
It is imperative that backpackers have a good knowledge of what lacing style works for them. Most of the time, users experience pain not because of their backpacking boots, but because of how they lace the boots. Popular lacing styles used are surgeon’s knot, heel lock, window lacing and overhand knot. These styles offer varying levels of tightness and pressure relief.
The bottom of your backpacking boots that comes in contact with the ground is the outsole. In contrast to hiking shoes, the outsole of backpacking boots is usually thicker and has more pronounced lugs. Some brands create their outsole, while others work with a manufacturer. An outsole is usually made of rubber mixed with a compound.
What are lugs and treads?
Lugs are the raised sections on the sole while treads are the fissures between each lug. In backpacking boots, these two are aggressively patterned and arranged. The lug patterns, be it circular, rectangular, square or irregularly shaped, offer an amount of grip to it. The treads channel out the trapped water to limit the chances of slips and falls.
When backpacking, you face several types of land topographies. Backpacking boots are constructed with technologies that offer protection against accidental bumping, edgy rocks and muddy trails. Some of the protective features of backpacking boots are rubber toe and heel cap, rubber rand that wraps the boot just above the outsole, plates and gusseted tongue.
What is bellows tongue? How does it differ with a gusseted tongue?
When it comes to purpose, a gusseted and a bellows tongue are the same. They render additional protection against debris, water and pebbles. Their difference lies in how they are constructed. A gusseted or the half-gusseted tongue is the one that extends only before the ankle area. The fully-gusseted, or the bellows tongue, extends up until the top of the boot.
When you go on your multi-day backpacking trip, there are chances when you encounter snow. With crampon-compatible backpacking boots, you are prepared to tackle such. Boots are rated according to their rigidity and flexibility. The ratings are B0, B1, B2 and B3. The compatible crampons, on the other hand, are rated too for easier reference: C1, C2 and C3. There are steel and aluminum crampons too. Additionally, crampon points are the spikes that allow a backpacker to move on snowy terrains. Note that not all backpacking boots are crampon-compatible. The crampon inserts are sometimes designed on the midsole, while other boots have it as part of the outsole.
Getting the right fit in backpacking boots
Do your shopping in the afternoon. This is the most straightforward rule when you are out to look and fit your future backpacking boots. You may already know that your feet tend to swell in the afternoon so trying on your new backpacking boots at this time is ideal. When you hike, your feet swell as you tackle on terrains. Trying it on when your feet are a bit pudgy can give you the closest feel and fit of your boots on your adventure.
Try different brands. If you already have a backpacking boot brand in mind and you know that it is the best for you, then congratulations! However, if this is your first time buying a backpacking boot, it is wise to try on different brands. You may have referrals from your friends but keep in mind that no feet are alike. What works best for them might be the opposite for you. Also, even if you are a loyalist of a particular brand, maybe because their running shoes support you well or their hiking shoes cater to all your needs, it does not mean their backpacking boots can do the same. Remember that these types of footwear are way different from each other. Keep your options open. Explore other brands. Research on the technologies applied. Read customer reviews and ask on forums.
Look out for any pressure points or unnecessary movements. When trying on your backpacking boots, walk around the store. There are retail shops that have ramps or inclined areas that allow you to test for ascents and descents. While you are on it, feel for any rubbing, pain, tightness or if it is too spacious that you feel like your feet are swimming. If it is too loose, you may experience heel slippage and develop blisters. If the fit is too tight, you may experience blackened toenails or even numbness.
Customize. Backpacking boots are made with different lasts and sizes. If you feel good with the backpacking boots you are holding, but think that something is missing, try working on the removable insoles and the customizable lacing. Make some adjustments. If possible, bring your preferred insole. Replace the default insole that came with the boot and discern the difference. Remember that issues with foot volume are sometimes solved by insoles. Likewise, if you feel that the fit is not snug enough, try experimenting on the lacing system. Alter how you lace-up the boots. Try different techniques and you may as well, create your own style.
Socks. Your socks play a vital role in the selection of your next backpacking boots. If heading to a retailer to fit one, make sure that you bring your socks that you plan to wear with your backpacking boots. Some overlook the importance of socks in backpacking without realizing that before the insides of your boots, your socks are the ones in contact with your skin. Any ill-fitting or coarse socks can cause pain.
The rule of thumb in selecting your socks is never to wear cotton. Evidently, cotton feels comfortable when worn as everyday casual wear but for socks, it is a no-no. Cotton fabrics absorb and retain sweat that can initiate friction, thus can give you blisters. Likewise, when you are backpacking in colder temperatures, they do not offer insulation. Thus, they can contribute to coldness especially when they become damp. You want to avoid hypothermia while on the trail. The best fabric is the merino wool. It is durable and breathable. It is comfortable and offers varying levels of temperature management. The thicker the merino wool sock is, the warmer it is.
How to test backpacking boots in the store
Now that you have your future backpacking boots in mind, it's time to put them to the test in the store. The real test is when you finally use them during your quest.
The Finger Test
Slide your foot inside the boots and insert one fingerbreadth at the heel. This space serves as your allowance that prevents toes from jamming during descent and heel slippage during ascent.
Wear your future backpacking boots barefooted. Feel every inch and corner of the boot. Observe for any pinching or pressure points. If everything feels okay, remove the boot and this time wear your socks for backpacking with the boots. Feel and walk. Observe how the boots adapt to the curves of your foot. Check for its flexibility, rigidity and cushioning. If this boot passed the finger test, ensure that there is no heel lift or toes jamming in the front. Pay close attention to the ball of the foot, heel, toes and how your foot fills the volume of the boots. You are aiming for a snug fit—not too tight, not too loose.
The Slope Test
Some retailer shops have ramps or inclined boards that boot buyers can use in testing their boots. Do not hesitate to walk on these slopes as testing helps a lot in determining if you got the right fit. When you ascend, feel your foot inside the boots. Are they slipping to the back of the backpacking boots? Do your ankles feel constrained with the collar of the boots? Is there any hard or annoying sensation in the heel cup? If none, proceed to testing the descent. This time, check if your toes are jamming the front of the boots. Do you feel any pain in the heel of the boots? Can you bend your ankles freely? If the backpacking boots you fit pass this test, then they might be your match!
How to check the quality of your future backpacking boots
However famous a particular brand is for their quality, you should still be wary before you purchase one of their advertised backpacking boots. There is always a chance that defects from the factory are not thoroughly checked so if you are not lucky enough, you might be one of those consumers who gets a defective pair of backpacking boots.
Pay utmost attention to the stitching of the boots. You do not want a pair that could easily break just because the stitches are substandard. Carefully stretch the upper away from the outsole. Look for any weak spots that can eventually lead to the outsole separating from the rest of your backpacking boots too soon.
If you are trying on a backpacking boot that has a full-length shank, try to bend it. If it bends effortlessly, then something might be wrong. A boot with a full-length shank should not bend easily. Scrutinize the eyelets. Are they placed according to how the brand presents the boots? Are there missing pieces? Moreover, do not forget to check the outsole, the default insole, the tongue and the overall construction of your future backpacking boots. Any inconsistencies must be raised to the store or the manufacturer.
However, if you are purchasing online, checking the quality of the backpacking boots may seem distant unless it arrived on your doorstep. A good tip before you click that buy button is to read their return and exchange policy. This can help you save bucks especially when the one delivered to your doorstep is not the one that you fell in love with.
Other considerations in buying your next backpacking boots
When you are out on the hunt for your next backpacking boots, ensure that you have considered the terrain you're about to take. Backpacking boots are a bit pricey than your hiking sandals, trail shoes or hiking boots. So you have to make sure that you are investing in the right footwear.
Once you have decided that you are going on a multi-day backpacking trip with a heavy load, the type of backpacking boots you are wearing is of significant concern. Any foot pain, issues or injuries can ruin your trip so if this is your first time buying one, take your time. Scour the net as early as possible for the best backpacking boots available.
Concerning ankle support, the claim that mid-cut and high-cut backpacking boots are the most supportive is still in dispute. Some state that support comes from the strength of your lower leg and does not rely much on how high the cut of the boot is. An apparent sample is when experienced backpackers choose low-cut hiking shoes over sturdy backpacking boots.
Nonetheless, once you have decided on what backpacking boots to purchase, keep in mind that it does not end there. It may require a break-in period to get the best out of it. Moreover, this type of footwear requires aftercare to enjoy its long-lasting performance.
How to determine if it is time to replace your old backpacking boots
As much as you want your backpacking boots to last forever, you eventually have to retire them. The pair may have been your best boot purchase, but all good things come to an end. How would you know that your backpacking boot already needs replacement?
Here are a few signs:
Check the midsole. One part of backpacking boots that are subjected to too much stress is the midsole. As you put more miles into your pair, the midsole or the cushioning of the boots wear off. To do this, place your thumb on the sole and press it towards the midsole. If there are numerous, heavy creases on the sides of the boot, it could be a sign that the midsole has lost its bounce and can’t provide you the support and comfort you need.
Evaluate your backpacking boots. You can start on the upper. If you have leather hikers, look closely for holes or any cuts. If these are present, they can make your backpacking experience wearisome. Next, check the eyelets. Are there any missing hoops? Remember that lacing plays a vital role in getting the right fit for your boots. With missing hoops or eyelets, it can give you a loose fit which can develop blisters. How are the lugs and treads in the outsole? Are they still sufficient in providing you with grip and traction when you are out in the mountains? How is the integrity of your backpacking boots? Have they lost their shape? How about the collars?
Look out for leakage. For waterproof backpacking boots, this is an important item to check. One of the most popular waterproofing company said that as long as the lining is not punctured, the boot remains sealed against water entry. For wearers who use a treatment to make their backpacking boots waterproof yet still find water from the outside seeps in quickly, then it could be a sign that a replacement is needed.
Unquestionably, if your worn out boots are already giving you pain after years of comfort, then you do not need to look and wait for all the signs above. Maybe it is time to break up with your old backpacking boots.
Care and maintenance of your backpacking boot
Clean them after use. If possible, remove dirt or any mud that got stuck on your backpacking boots after every use. Leaving them behind can make your boots wear out faster. Use a soft bristled brush when scrubbing the upper of the boot.
Dry them. To avoid the development of stink, dry your backpacking boots. Do not expose to extreme temperatures as heat can damage the construction of the boots. To facilitate faster drying, separate the laces and the insoles. Using a fan is also advisable.
Waterproofing and conditioning as necessary. A good sign that your backpacking boots need re-waterproofing is when the water does not bead up on its surface. You do not need to apply the treatment after every use though. Conditioning, on the other hand, maintains the prime look of your leather backpacking boots. Always consult the manual or the manufacturer before applying any treatment.
Proper storage. Avoid storing it in a place that is under direct sunlight. Likewise, when storing your boots, ensure that it is completely dry. Keeping it while still wet or damp can develop mold and odor.
Frequently asked questions
Can I use backpacking boots for day hiking?
Yes you can, but keep in mind that it is an overkill. Backpacking boots are bigger and beefier than your day hiking boots and they are made to support and carry heavier packs. Take note, sometimes, too much support can be inconvenient.
Can I use backpacking boots in snow?
There are backpacking boots that are compatible with crampons, so yes you can. Some boots have moderate insulation and are waterproof, too. However, if you are tackling a massive amount of snow, it is best that you go with mountaineering boots.
Why is breaking in my backpacking boots essential?
Breaking in your backpacking boots is crucial as it helps you get the best fit of your boots, though this may take some time. Note that some boots do not feel comfortable right out of the box. Imagine yourself backpacking in a pair of boots that are too stiff and too snug. It can give you discomfort, or worse, ruin your entire trip. Users who are not familiar with the weight and feel of their new pair of backpacking boots can eventually experience foot fatigue. Breaking in is tantamount to getting to know your backpacking boots more. You give your feet and your boots time to sync.
Do backpacking boots really prevent ankle twisting?
This topic still stirs arguments. Some people claim yes, they prevent ankle twisting because of the higher shaft or collar. Others say no because it depends on how developed your leg muscles are. Here is a thought. Ponder why there are hikers or backpackers who always use a higher cut of boots but then end up getting their ankle twisted on the trail. Also, why are experienced backpackers able to complete their journey uninjured with the mere use of low-cut hiking shoes?
15 best backpacking boots
Aku Alterra GTX
Zamberlan 1025 Tofane NW GT RR
Arc'teryx Acrux TR GTX
Zamberlan 996 Vioz GTX
Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX
Salewa Alp Trainer Mid GTX
Lowa Tibet GTX
Salewa Mountain Trainer Mid GTX
La Sportiva Eclipse GTX
Salomon Quest Prime GTX
Danner Mountain Light II
Oboz Wind River III BDry
Vasque Sundowner GTX
Vasque St. Elias GTX
Salomon OUTback 500 GTX
Paul loves adventure. Over the past 20 years, he has climbed, hiked, and ran all over the world. He’s summited peaks throughout the Americas, trekked through Africa, and tested his endurance in 24-hour trail races. He has worked in the outdoor industry as a whitewater and hunting guide, gear tester, copywriter, and outfitting specialist at places like The National Outdoor Leadership School, No Barriers USA, and Sierra Trading Post. He has been quoted in NYMag, NBCNews, and Business Insider to name a few.
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