There are 3 main advantages to leather. The first being its natural water resistant properties. You can be wearing your boots for long periods of time and if your feet become wet not only can it be uncomfortable but it can also lead to damaging medical issues.
The second benefit is strength. Leather is a very tough material and can withstand a lot of contact with abrasive terrain. This means your boots or shoes will last longer and are less likely to get damaged or rip.
The third advantage is quality. Leather is usually used in the higher range of boots, ensuring that you receive a high level of quality throughout.
This does however have a disadvantage, which is cost. Leather walking boots and shoes do tend to be more expensive than other materials.
The other issue you may find with leather is that it will require some time to break in. The leather is initially quite stiff and can rub your feet if used for long periods of time. The way to prevent this is to gradually wear your boots for increasing amounts of time to slowly mold the leather to the shape of your feet and making it more supple.
Synthetic fabrics are a man made material and have some great benefits.
They are ideal for beginner to itermediate walkers and hikers. These boots and shoes tend to be cheaper than their leather counterparts.
There are 3 main advatages to synthetic materials, the first of which is breathability. Haveing a breathable boot keeps your feet cool and comfortable which in turn makes them idea for warmer climates and long periods of walking.
Some of the higher end boots use Goretex which is hard wearing, breathable and water proof also.
The second benefit is weight, sythetic materials are light which reduces weight on your feet whilst walking cutting down fatigue.
The third and final advantage is that synthetic boots don't need to be worn in. Meaning they are good to go out of the box.
The downside to synthetic fabrics is that they are generally not as hard wearing as leather boots. Although Goretex in particular will easily stand up to most uses.
Idea for keeping your feet protected in harsh environments, or on longer walks.
Idea for shorter walks where total protection isn't required. Generally comfier than full boots.
So should you buy hiking boots or shoes? Your foot wear is one of the most important things you'll need when it comes to hiking so when it comes to choosing the right pair, you're spoilt for choice. This process can be made easy however by asking yourself some simple questions.
How much walking am I actually going to do? If you are planning on doing a lot of walking you are going to want a boot with a higher quality sole, footwear with a specific 'last' and ankle support (which makes boots an ideal choice). If you are planning on doing shorter walks where ankle support isn't required as much then more comfy walking shoes are a better choice.
The next question is, where will you be walking? Terrain can differ immensly and having the right footwear is a must, if you are going encounter harsh terrain then leather or goretex boots will provide you with fantastic protection. If however you're sticking to walking paths then again shoes are the better option.
Want more advice on choosing walking boots? Click here.
There is now an enormous range of walking boots on the market with variations aimed at summer walking to more rugged winter conditions and a huge range of fits for differently shaped feet so you’d be forgiven in needing advice in this minefield. Hiking boots are great to buy online because you have the benefit of wearing them around the house before deciding to commit. You can spend time feeling the fit rather than being rushed or talked into buying boots in a store.
There a plenty of factors to consider when purchasing a pair of walking boots and we have included these below. If you’re a beginner to walking and hiking your requirements will differ to if you are an experienced hiker looking for a rough terrain trekking boot and we’ve attempted to cover all angles here.
What type of walking will you be doing?
Walking is just walking right? Your boot requirements will depend on the conditions you will be walking in, the distance, type of terrain and if you’ll be carrying a pack. Check out the guide below for the features you’ll need to consider.
If you’re walking less than 8 miles look at light, mid boots or even a trail shoe.
If you’re hiking all day a higher cut boot will provide much needed ankle support
Backpacking for a week? You’ll need a more rigid boot as flexibility isn’t a great feature for long distances. A stiffer midsole will support the arch of the foot and toe box.
Is it wet, hot, sunny, dry? Consider a membrane in the lining of the boot like Gore-Tex or own brands like Omni tech and Sympatex.
Will you be crossing streams? A membrane and as few seams as possible is ideal. Consider a full leather boot with large blocks of material.
What will the terrain be like? Rough terrain will require larger lugs for grip and possibly a vibram sole for stability.
Types of shoe & boot
Ideal for resting your feet at camp or crossing a river where you do not want to get your main boots wet. They may also be used in warm weather on easy low level walks as they allow excellent ventilation. If you plan on using them on walks look for good support, strong straps and a good moulded grip on the sole.
Trail running shoes
These are running trainers with special grip and extra padding to support the demands of trail running. They can, like sandals, be used at base camp as a lighter weight alternative to normal boots.
These should be considered the minimum footwear requirement for the serious hiker. Ideal for well maintained low level walks, these offer a lightweight alternative to hiking boots. Their increased support will also help on longer or even multi-day hikes. They are generally made out of slightly tougher leather or a combination of tougher synthetic materials and leather parts. The sole and the general construction are less flexible and give increased support to your ankle and bridge. These shoes generally require some breaking in.
These are traditional boots designed for less smooth trails and light off trail terrains. Their increased support will also help on longer or even multi-day hikes. They are generally made out of slightly tougher leather or a combination of tougher synthetic materials and leather parts. The sole and the general construction are less flexible and give increased support to your ankle and bridge. The cut reaches over the ankle which may cause discomfort if you are not used to having your footwear reach that high. These boots will require some breaking in.
Rough Terrain hiking boots
These boots have a more technical construction with the use of toe caps, cemented out soles, moulded mid soles and synthetic linings. Inner membranes often feature Gore-Tex or other multi-purpose materials. Some variants are compatible with crampons for mountaineering purposes. The constructions of these boots are intended to give maximum support and shock absorption while remaining water resistant/proof and breathable. The increased weight and stiffness of these boots require getting used to and training but this stiffness will allow you to use a heavy pack and walk over 25 miles a day in comfort.
These are top end boots ideal for specialist activities and prolonged treks in harsh mountain terrain. Mountaineering boots are popular for climbing mountains, ice climbing and are considered too stiff for usual backpacking. A typical boot would be extremely durable, rigid, heavy and supportive with enough warmth to prevent frostbite. These boots will be compatible with crampons to assist your ascent and provide confidence in any terrain. Lighter weight mountaineering boots are classified as ‘single boots’ meaning the insulation is permanently attached to the boot. ‘Double boots’ are constructed from a shell with a removable insulating liner which means the liner can be removed if damp and the shell allowed to dry out. Single boots are therefore ideal for single day trips, whereas a double boot is ideal for multi day trips.
Selection of the right grade of high quality leather to meet the end use requirements of the boot is an essential and highly specialist skill. The origin of the hides, the age, rearing and care of the beast and the subsequent tanning process are all critical elements which will affect the finished boot. Amongst the leathers commonly used are.
A high quality leather usually of around 2.4mm to 2.6mm in thickness, ideal for lighter weight hill walking boots, which require less breaking-in.
A 2.7mm - 2.9mm leather. The extra thickness and durability of this leather is perfectly suited to stronger hill and mountain walking boots, where extra support and resistance to scuffing is important.
Here, the outer surface of the leather has a finely sanded, texturised finish, which gives the boot an added appeal. Nubuck leathers will give similar performance as traditional leather, although the sanded and texturised surface finish will change over time. Nubuck is a quality leather and should not be confused with suede.
Crosta leather is an Italian term for a cut leather. This is in reality a very rugged version of suede. To improve its water resistance, it is commonly treated with a water resistant treatment or backed with a water resistant liner.
Reversed Anfibio Leather
This is premier leather frequently used at 3.0mm -3.6mm thickness. Reversed Anfibio is primarily used on full mountain boots where maximum strength, support and abrasion resistance is required. These leathers may be used with the tanned surface out or reversed with the textured side out and the tanned surface inside. Reversing the leather protects the hide's best surface from scuffing and abrasion, which improves durability and water resistance. Reversed Anfibio is expensive, prime quality leather and should not be confused with Suede or Crosta leathers.
Fabrics and Fabric/Leather combinations
These are a great alternative to leather boots. Fabric will be more breathable than leather but not waterproof and so usually used with membranes. Fabric combinations usually have a lot of stitching which can fail over time due to rotting and layers can separate. Ultimately, stitched seams are a weak point and can let in water. Fabrics have little abrasion resistance and are therefore not ideal for the heavy duty hiker.
Features Of A Walking Boot
We’ve broken down the parts of a typical walking or hiking boot and explained their importance.
Waterproof and Breathable Membrane Linings
Customers often consider this one of the most important aspects when selecting a boot as generally you want to feel comfortable and therefore dry when walking and prevent blisters forming.
A membrane such as Gore-Tex, Sympatex, ClimaDry, Air8 or OmniTech is seam-sealed and positioned between the outer and an inner lining of a boot to protect it from scuffing and abrasion damage and will add stiffness to the fabric. Membrane linings are frequently used on fabric boots to improve wet weather, however, waterproof/breathable linings actually work best in cold dry conditions. In continuously wet weather the boots outer and padding can become saturated, impairing the breathability of the lining and making condensation inside more likely. For really wet conditions, therefore, non membrane-lined models may be more suitable. We would suggest a full leather boot without a membrane in this condition as leather is both naturally breathable and waterproof. Stitched seams should be kept to a minimum as these are weak points and can let water into the boot. A waterproofing wax can be applied to seams for improved water resistance.
To protect your trousers and socks from getting wet, consider overtrousers and gaiters. The former are light waterproof trousers, the latter knee-high waterproof leggings that button or tie up and attach to the boot. Both have their champions, but both can be difficult to put on and take off, and neither will keep you dry if you choose to wade through a river.
A tongue can be an overlooked part of the boot but is important if you don’t want to keep stopping to get stones and grit from your boot. There are two types of tongue; a one piece and a half gusset.
A one piece tongue can be full or gusseted meaning it’s sewn to the upper of the boot and both will reduce the amount of debris entering your boot as you hike. The one piece tongue comes up higher but can move under lacing. The gusseted version sits better under lacing and won’t shift and also reduces water ingress.
A half gusset tongue only comes up so far and then separates from the boot. As it doesn’t come up as high as the rest of the boot some grit will enter as you move.
Quality footwear is built around a foot shape model known as a Last and determines the boots characteristics such as fit, width and activity it has been designed for. Female specific lasts will shape a woman’s boot and these will usually have a slimmer fit around the heel whereas men’s lasts are wider.
Lacing can make all the difference to a poorly fitting boot and there are various styles of lacing that are better than others.
Roller lock lacing is the ideal system. This has a little roller inside which allows the lace to roll in and out and therefore allows for easier adjustment.
Locking Instep laces allows the foot to be pushed into the heel cup which prevents heel slip and chaffing. These allow for easy adjustment to the volume on the foot, lock in on the instep and can be further adjusted on the ankle and work well with roller locks.
D Ring lacing is a basic system and doesn’t allow easy adjustments to the fit.
Footbeds and Insoles
Removable insoles are ideal for drying out the boot and great for replacing with your own orthopaedic footbed. Usually removable insoles offer little protection but are standard in normal walking boots.
Inbuilt footbeds can be found in mountaineering boots and are designed to hold the foot in a specific position which allows the natural absorption pads of the foot to work effectively.
Midsole and Shock Absorption
The midsole (or dual density sole) is the layer underneath the foot bed but above the sole and is designed to absorb shock. Jarring can lead to fatigue, sore feet and, in extreme cases, tendinitis and joint injury. Midsoles are usually made from a softer rubber for shock absorption and in lighter models wedges of ethyl vinyl acetate or EVA are often used.
Midsoles are great but need to be considered when carrying a backpack. The construction of the midsole varies from EVA to a rubber polypropylene or polyurethane material. EVA is compressible and therefore will not support heavy loads as it compresses over time. EVA midsoles will let your heel rock and are ideal for light trails where durability isn’t an issue.
Middle of the range are polypropylene or polyurethane midsoles which are still compressible but have some stiffness and so are ideal for a standard walking boot and light pack.
Large pack weights can be carried when the midsole includes a fibreglass or steel shank and these midsoles still provide great shock absorbency.
Shanks are designed to stiffen the midsole and will support the arch of your foot when carrying a pack.
There are two types of shanks; a full length style and a three quarter shank which stops before the toe box. These are designed to prevent the boot from bending when pressure is applied.
Fibreglass and steel shanks can be found buried in the midsole of the boot and are essential for carrying a heavy back when walking. Shanks also prevent you feeling rocks and provide extra protection against the ground. For long hikes of over ten miles with a heavy load choose a full shank. Synthetic shanks are lighter in weight but are just as good as a steel shank.
Many big named brands are collaborating with Vibram to add a great sole to their boots. Vibram soles wear evenly and offer great traction.
A curved sole or rocker shape is ideally the shape your sole should be as this minimizes effort when walking. Many boots are naturally shaped this way out of the box, however some brands provide a flatter boot which will naturally change to the curve over time.
Sole rigidity depends on the type of walking you wish to do. A very rigid sole is for large packs, mountaineering with crampons and ideal for long distances where work will transfer from toe joints to legs. A flexible sole or one that easily bends during each step will offer little support on extended trips so great for trails and light walking. Ideally, for a general walking boot you should seek a sole with a little flex in the centre from toe to heel but remain stiff from side to side.
Lugs are found on the under side of the sole and will offer grip and traction on different surfaces. Larger lugs will hold mud and stones and will add unnecessary weight to your boot and slow you down but will wear down more slowly and are great for carrying heavy backpacks. Small lugs can be ineffective on loose surfaces and cause falls. Ideally your lugs will be large enough for traction but without large dips where mud can collect.
Many brands now offer lugs that automatically shed mud so look out for these.
The rand connects the top of the sole to the upper and is seen as a strip on the boot to provide durability against scuffs and scrapes. A Toe rand is like a toe bumper and can cover a fair bit of the toe box.
The ankle cuff sits around the ankle or lower calf and can be padded for comfort. This cuff, like the tongue will prevent scree entering the boot as well as providing support to your ankle and foot. Cuffs aren’t super critical to your hike but make it a little more pleasant.
Hiking boots are available in mid and full height cuffs and is entirely up to the customer which to choose. Mid cut boots will strengthen ankles as they don’t come up as high and therefore offer less support. These are ideal for light hikes. If you’re planning a long hike with a pack consider the extra ankle support by choosing a full height boot. Trekking poles can further help with support especially on uneven terrains.
Breaking In And Fitting Your Boots
Trying a potential pair of walking boots at home before committing to buy helps you to decide if the fit is perfect for your needs and means you can also wear them with the hiking socks and rucksack that you intend to carry on your hike.
Breaking in walking boots is essential for a comfortable hike and will soften and mould the shoe to your foot. The longer you take to break your boots in the better they will feel on your trip and will prevent the formation of blisters. We suggest the following to fit your boots:
Wear at the end of the day when the foot is slightly more swollen and warm.
Try on both boots as fit will vary
Wear the socks you intent to wear, ideally those designed for hiking and the weather you intend to wear them in. Cotton socks will absorb sweat alone so try to find one mixed with a wicking material like coolmax. Sock seams should be smooth to prevent chaffing and consider a thin liner sock to wear underneath a synthetic sock to prevent chaffing of the skin.
Break in the boot for a minimum of an hour around the house only.
There are three main points to consider when fitting a boot, especially when sizing varies from brand to brand.
Does the heel fit snugly to minimize heel slippage? When trying your boots for fit the foot should not slide forward but instead be cupped by the heel. Tightly lace the boots and then use the finger test - Unlace boots and slide foot forward in and see if you can fit finger in the back around the ankle. If your finger fits snugly it’s a good boot. If your finger won’t fit or there’s too much wiggle room consider a different size. When fully laced there should be no heel slippage but you should still be able to wiggle your toes. If you can’t decide between sizes here’s a tip; over time boot length will shorten due to a curving up of the sole so sway towards the larger.
Instep or width of the boot. Simple really; if the boot feels tight across the toes and across the bridge of the foot this will rub over time. If the width is too wide this will cause slipping and friction too.
Toebox. Don’t let feet jam into the toe box. This can also be solved by trying the finger test.
1 Season Boots
These are for standard walks on a path with very little variation to the gradient and ideal for summer use. They are quite basic in that they won’t provide much waterproofing or ankle support and the soles will be flexible. Fabrics are lightweight and will therefore be a great lightweight boot for warmer climates.
2 Season Boots
These will be waterproof and so ideal for spring and summer use. Sole traction will be reasonable for a varied terrain and you’ll be able to take them off path. Ankle support will be standard and the sole will be still fairly flexible but stiffer than a 1 season boot. Materials will be lightweight and still swaying towards a fabric composition.
3 Season Boots
These boots are ideal for a day roaming mountains and foothills and will therefore have a chunky sole with big lugs for a good grip on loose soils and stones. The ankle support will be at a good level and waterproofing will be good. At this stage you may be able to add crampons for winter use. Some 3 season boots come in fabric but they are more likely to be a leather boot.
4 Season Boots
The 4 season boot is a top end boot with an extremely rigid sole for the roughest of terrain and this will allow the fitting of crampons. These boots will have great insulation, a leather upper, brilliant ankle support and will of course be fully waterproof. 4 season boots are only ideal for winter and would be too much for anything other than winter use.
Torsional Rigidity: What keeps you upright on steep ground?
We know that boots flex across their width when we walk, but did you know that the midsole also flexes along its length? This is called torsional rigidity.
To explain this: hold your boot at toe and heal and try to twist it. A B3 boot should twist very little or not at all, a B1 boot will twist a reasonable amount.
Now imagine that you want to traverse a steep ground or cross an angled frozen snow slope. In a B1 boot you have a far greater chance of going over on your ankle when standing with your body weight on the inner/outer edges of your boots, whereas a B3 boot will give a far greater feeling of security.
A B2 boot will have a measure of torsional rigidity; and in general terms, it is the ideal type of boot for most conditions encountered when walking in the British hills. This will include winter conditions where you may have to deal with gentle snow slopes.
The potential for a fatal injury when wearing crampons is magnified if you do not match the Boot Grade with the Crampon Grade: do not be mislead by what some Gear Review gurus have to say in the walking magazines, our technical guide is based around what the manufacturers recommend. A B3 boot can be used with a C1, C2 and C3 crampon, a B2 boot is compatible with C1 and C2 crampons only and a B1 boot can only be used with C1 crampon.
Boot Grading: As the manufacturers explain it
B:0 (Walking Boots)
These boots are unsuitable for use with crampons.
B:1 (Hillwalking Boots)
Suitable for the easiest winter conditions. Flexible walking crampons with a strap attachment (Crampon Grade C1) can be used for limited periods or in emergencies, for example when crossing a patch of snow or ice, rather than for a full day's walk using crampons.
B:2 (Mountaineering Boots)
All boots within this range are compatible with articulated crampons with straps or a combination of strapped front and clip-on heel (Crampon Grade C2) for winter mountain walking or glacier traverses.
B:3 (Climbing & Mountaineering Boots)
These boots have fully stiffened soles and are compatible with articulated or fully rigid crampons with strap or clip-on systems (Crampon Grade C3).
The introduction of lighter mountain boots and new types of crampons and bindings has brought to a head the difficulty many people have when choosing the correct combination of boots and crampons. It is vital for safety in the mountains that the correct footwear is chosen, particularly when used in snow and ice conditions.
Footwear manufacturer Contour have developed a grading system to help determine the correct boot/crampon combination. The grading System is based on a proposed System by Mountaineer and Mountain Guide Brian Hall. It should be stressed that this is only a guide and should be used as a supplement (not a substitute) for good advice from experienced shop staff, experienced mountaineers or mountain guides.
B0 Boots are unsuitable for crampons. Most walking boots are designed to flex for comfort and do not have sufficient lateral and longitudinal rigidity in their midsole. Additionally the upper is often made of soft calf leather or a combination of suede/fabric which compresses easily under crampon straps causing discomfort and cold feet.
B1 Boots are suitable for the easiest snow and ice conditions found when hill walking, using crampons more for emergency or for crossing a short patch of snow or ice, rather than setting initially fitted for a full days walk. They have a reasonably stiff flexing sole and the uppers provide enough ankle and foot support for traversing relatively steep slopes.
B2 Boots are a stiff flex boot with the equivalent of a three quarter or full shank midsole and a supportive upper made from high quality leather (probably over 3mm thick). These boots, designed for four season mountaineering, can be used all day with crampons, whilst easy alpine terrain and easy Scottish snow and ice climbs can also be covered.
B3 Boots are a technical mountaineering/climbing boot regarded as "rigid" both in midsole and upper. Used for mountaineering and ice climbing.
Compatible crampons are graded as follows:
C1 Crampons are a flexible walking crampon attached with straps, with or without front points.
C2 Crampons are articulated multi-purpose crampons with front points. Attached with straps all round or straps at the front (ideally with a French ring system) and clip-on heel.
C3 Crampons are articulated climbing or fully rigid technical crampons attached by full clip-on system of toe bar and heel clip.
Boots in the B3 category are ideal for C3 crampons and will also take C2 and C1. At the other end of the spectrum a B1 boot could only be recommended with a C1 crampon.
Caring For Your Boots
If you’ve spent a lot of money on your walking boots you will need to care for them so that they last for as long as possible. We suggest using Nikwax products which offer a range of products from footwear cleaning gels to waxes that will suit all walking boot fabrics including those with technical membranes.
The most important thing you can do after your hike is dry the boot out. This means the dampness inside can evaporate and not only ensures that they are dry for your next excursion but also prevents damage to the boot such as rotting thread on sewn seams. Shoe trees can be added to the boot to facilitate airing but we find scrunched up newspaper also works well. Never leave your boots by a radiator or fire as this will crack the leather and can weaken the glue between the sole and the upper meaning your boots are no longer waterproof or as comfortable.
Only once your boots are completely dry you should clean them. For leather boots use oil designed for wax which will not only re condition the leather but also provide a waterproof layer, alternatively pick from any of our creams or waxes. Always pay close attention to seams and stitched areas as these are the weakest part of your footwear and can degrade over time.