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Choosing the Right Class of Boot


Why clop around in stiff, bulky boots all summer when what you need is a light, breathable strider. Follow these guidelines to pick the class of boot that’s right for you.


The lugs should have a beveled shape for easier mud clearance. Many outsoles will combine a variety of properties for traction and durability. Choose small lugs for delicate tundra and forest country, softer rubber lugs for traction, and tougher lugs for snow and talus.


The best midsoles provide a combination of cushion, protection against stone bruising, and flex control. There are a variety of materials that can be used in the midsole, but a more solid material is generally desirable. The softer the midsole, the faster the boot will wear out. The flex of the midsole is determined by a shank. The stiffer the shank, the more rigid the boot will be. Choose softer flex for fast striding and smaller loads, and stiffer flex for edging, climbing, and heavier loads.


Hiking boot uppers come in three categories: full leather, full fabric, or combination. Full fabric boots are still very scarce, but newer technologies are improving this category. Although easier to break-in, they tend to offer slightly less support than their leather counterparts. Full leather boots tend to be the most supportive and water tight, but they are also the heaviest. Most hiking boots fall in the combination category where breathability, support, water repellency, and break-in time is balanced. Choose high-cuff uppers for ankle support and low-cuff uppers for freer striding.


Consider buying some off-the-shelf footbeds for better padding and arch support. The supports will work with your foot to improve the fit, comfort, and support of any hiking boot. Plan on buying the supports before you try on the boots as they can change the fit of a boot.

Boot Classes and Characteristics

Trail Boots (low cut)

This category features lightweight, breathable footwear designed for fast striding on level trails with little or no pack weight. These boots will generally have a softer flex and a softer midsole for more cushion. They require little break-in time. Choose this category if speed and weight are more important than support.

Trail Boots (high or mid cut)

This category has the same features as the low-cut trail boots with a bit more ankle support. This is also where the waterproof/breathable membranes start to appear.

Rough-Trail Boots

This category offers much more support than the trail boot category, and is designed for use on any trail with a pack. The midsoles will be stiffer and the cushioning material will be denser to support some pack weight. This is the biggest category for waterproof/breathable liners. Boots of every style upper can be found here and they will be stiffer and more supportive than the trail boots. They require a moderate amount of break-in. Choose this category if your hiking is done mostly on-trail and your pack weight is moderate to heavy.

Off-Trail Boots

This category features very stiff boots that will support you on most any terrain. Most uppers will be full leather although waterproof/breathable liners are very common. The midsoles will have very a stiff flex and will be aimed more towards support than cushion so you can carry the kitchen sink with these boots on. However, they will require some considerable break-in time and will be much heavier. Choose this category if a majority of your hiking is done in the middle of nowhere or on talus.

Mountaineering Boots

This category features boots with little or no flex designed for edging and climbing in extremely rugged conditions. The midsoles will have a full shank and the outsoles will accept crampons for snow and ice. As with the off-trail boots, they will support any load. The fit is extremely important here because the boots will not conform very well to the foot. Choose this category if you have been buying hiking boots for a decade and don’t need this guide.

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