Mountain Footwear

Support for any load or stride — the best approach shoes, day hikers, and backpacking boots

How do you like your wilderness? maybe you chug it, swallowing the miles at a near-run, carrying little more than an energy bar and a water bottle. Or perhaps you savor it at a leisurely pace, carrying a day’s worth of food and extra clothing. Or maybe you’re a glutton for the backcountry, strapping to your back everything you’ll need for days on end. Whatever fits your habits and pace will determine the boots you should have on your feet. The choice isn’t as simple as it used to be, but that’s good news: With today’s broad selection — ranging from lightweight approach shoes to heavy-duty backpacking boots — compromise is a thing of the past. Now you can find footwear that’s perfectly suited to your needs in the wilderness.

Narrowing the field

Approach shoes: fast and free. There’s a direct correlation between the size of your load and the heft of your boot. If you’re traveling fast and unladen, or doing a lot of scrambling over slickrock and rocky, dry streambeds, consider an approach shoe. With its thin, limber sole (which keeps you closer to the ground than hiking boots) and relative lack of cowhide to tote around, you’ll feel light on your feet.

Day hikers: support for light loads. Throw 20 pounds of gear on your back and head out for a full day, however, and most approach shoes will feel too flimsy. Those who day hike, not surprisingly, need boots that offer more support and water-resistance than an approach shoe can muster.

Backpacking boots: high-payload footwear.Multiply that load by a factor of two or three and head out for a week, and you need more support still. Now the backpacking boots that felt so clunky in the store suddenly feel stable, supportive, and just right.

Anatomy lesson

Look to the insole for protection. There are as many ways to build a boot as there are to enjoy the wilderness. Most approach shoes are slip-lasted, which means they’re built like running shoes and have a similar feel underfoot, although the uppers are more substantial. Approach shoes are great for moving fast, though not so great for protecting your feet from sharp stones. Day hikers and backpacking boots are generally board-lasted, which means just what it sounds like: They have a stiff board, called the insole, that protects your feet from stone bruises. The bigger your load, the stiffer that insole should be. Inexpensive day hikers have insoles of fiberboard, often reinforced with a thin steel shank from heel to ball. This insole is stiff under your arch — where it provides support — yet flexes from the ball of the foot forward. Such boots are fine for light use, but aren’t as supportive over the long haul as boots made with costly molded nylon or polypropylene (plastic) insoles. The extra investment gives you long-lasting support, plus a more even flex pattern and greater torsional rigidity in the toe area (an asset off-trail). Better day hikers and nearly all backpacking boots use supportive, molded insoles.

The midsole: How much cush is too much? Just beneath the insole, in most boots, lies the midsole, which is responsible for shock-absorption and cushioning. Most approach shoes cushion with EVA, à la most running shoes. EVA is long on cush but short on durability. Most backpacking boots, and many day hikers, use polyurethane midsoles, which last longer and feel more stable underfoot when load-hauling. Other boots have no midsole per se, using instead a two-density outsole with a top layer made of softer rubber.

The last component of the sole is the outsole, where rubber meets reality. Look for shallow lugs and sticky rubber if you’re roaming the slickrock or approaching a climb over smooth granite slabs; look for deeper lugs if you’re traveling over dirt, mud, or snow. The Vibram logo is an assurance of quality, but all reputable boot manufacturers use trustworthy soles.

The upper: fabric cools, leather supports. Above the sole lies the upper. Low-cut uppers feel fast and frisky but do nothing to prevent sprains or protect your ankle bones from bruising on scree slopes. High-cut uppers feel more confining but offer much-needed support and protection when you’re carrying a big pack. Midheight uppers split the difference. As for materials, look for large fabric or mesh panels if you want light weight and breathability; seek leather — the more the better — for support, durability, and water-resistance. Expensive full-grain leather, which contains the tough, water-repellent outer surface of the hide, will last longer and shed water better than less-expensive split leather (suede), which is cut from a middle layer of hide. Regard with skepticism, however, all claims that a particular leather is “waterproof.” If you want a truly waterproof boot, you need an upper that contains a waterproof bootie made of Gore-Tex or another waterproof-breathable material, such as Sympatex. The booties add about $15 to $45 to the cost.

Fit and finish
Whether slip-lasted, board-lasted, or a combination thereof, all shoes are built on lasts, which give them their shape. Every manufacturer uses its own unique lasts, so fit varies significantly. Approach shoes intended for scrambling should fit more snugly across the toes than day hikers and backpacking boots, which should give your toes enough room to play the piano. Your boots should be snug around the instep and close-fitting in the rear so your heel stays put. Remember that feet swell up on the trail: A boot that binds in the store will kill you later.

Put a pair through its paces. Once you’ve found a promising candidate, walk around the store. Stand on a sharp edge to feel the arch protection. Check stability and ankle support by rocking your foot from side to side. Test for length by hooking the heel on a step (toes pointing downward) and pressing your foot forward. If your toes hit the end of the boot now, they’re sure to do so when you’re hiking downhill. If you’re trying on backpacking boots, do these tests while carrying a pack loaded with the weight you’ll be lugging in the woods.

If you’re a scuffer like me, you’ll appreciate a rand — a rubber strip around the boot’s perimeter that protects the upper from abrasion. Also, don’t let a few ounces sway your decision; a weight difference of less than half a pound per pair is imperceptible. As for the 15 picks that follow — which to my feet represent the best approach shoes, day hikers, and backpacking boots around — weights given are per pair for a men’s size 9.

B E F O R E   Y O U   B U Y
Match platform to payload: Approach shoes — little or no weight. Day hikers — a daypack load. Backpacking boots — the works.Try them on under the load you’ll carry; a stiff-feeling boot might turn to mush when ferrying 40 pounds.

Break-in isn’t the ordeal it used to be. A good fit should guarantee a happy ride.


What to look for

  • Weight magnifies the ankle-twisting effect of rocky trails. A high-cut upper is the solution.
  • Know your midsole. For a heavy load, firm polyurethane cushioning beats out soft EVA.
  • Aprotective rand saves the upper from scuffs.
  • The deeper the tread, the better the traction in dirt, mud, and snow.
  • Synthetic-rubber Vibram is reliable, but not the only choice for a tough hiking boot outsole.
  • A block heel — and/or angled lugs — give a boot extra bite when you’re headed downhill.
  • Sharp edges allow experienced paddlers to grab water and slice a turn.
  • Full-grain leather is durable and supportive, but hotter and heavier, too.
  • A gusseted tongue keeps the detritus out.

Footwear care
Cleaning and conditioning can save your hide. A little hiking-boot dermatology goes a long way toward ensuring your footwear has a long and productive life. It’s mostly about caring for leather: After all, what would your skin look like after years of neglect?

No shortcut to break-in. Don’t apply neat’s-foot oil or mink oil to soften up stiff leather — too much conditioner will break down the hides. Instead, loosen up a new pair of leather boots on some short, unburdened walks and hikes.

Dirt is the enemy. Grit can infiltrate seams on any kind of boots, so wash off excessive amounts of mud with a nylon brush and warm water. Abrasive trail dust can also wear out the linings of your boots. The best tactic is to prevent grit from entering in the first place by wearing a pair of ankle-high gaiters, which will help preserve both your boots’ and your own hide.

Keep leather in condition. Whenever the leather appears dry or no longer repels water, apply the conditioner recommended by the maker. Avoid heavy, wax-based formulas; they can leave a tacky finish that attracts dirt. I like Biwell — which dries to a hard finish — and Nikwax, which I prefer for breathability. Nikwax also makes a compound that will make fabric/leather uppers more water-repellent, but don’t expect any fabric/leather boot that lacks a waterproof bootie to become truly waterproof.

Store them right. Never expose leather boots to more heat than your own skin can tolerate; leather can dry out, and soles may delaminate. Store boots in a cool, dry place. Stout, all-leather boots should go on shoe trees — otherwise, the front ends will curl and the fit will feel tight.

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