1. Find a good fit
The key to finding your ideal hiking boot is getting a good fit: an equation of length, width, and volume, says Taku Hokoyama of Mountain Equipment Co-op in Vancouver. But don’t expect the boots to feel light and loose like street shoes, he warns. A proper fitting boot might feel a bit foreign at first. “Most people assume that because they’ve been wearing shoes all their lives that they understand what a good fit feels like, but it’s actually not true,” says Hokoyama.
Well-fit boots help to stabilize your feet as they tense up crossing uneven terrain, working to prevent end-of-the-day soreness and fatigue. Post-hike blisters and toenail-loss are the calling cards of poor fit. Ultimately, boots should be snug in the heel and arch, but with ample toe space.
2. Seek expert advice
Many people bypass the greatest resource in an outdoors store—the salespeople. Let the experts coach you through the steps to find your ideal boot with the best fit, advises Hokoyama. And don’t be wedded to a single brand just because your hiking buddy is a fan. Every foot, and every brand, is different.
3. Consider intended use
It’s important to determine the main way you intend to use your boots. Will you be backpacking and carrying heavy loads, or going for short, easy day hikes? What kind of terrain will you typically cover? Will you need moisture protection, or breathability? A seasoned boot fitter should guide you through these questions, and help you narrow down your choices.
Your level of activity is also a strong consideration. Hokoyama says he and many of his MEC colleagues can get away with day hiking in trail runners because their tendons and ligaments are conditioned from years of trekking. Someone new to the trails might require a heavier boot with more stability.
4. Choose the right material
As well as considering boot height and stiffness (with higher and sturdier boots more appropriate for serious mountaineering), prospective buyers need to choose between synthetic or leather hikers. Leather is more durable and will form to the foot over time. Boots made from synthetic fibres are usually lower priced than leather, more breathable, and dry faster. It comes down to personal preference.
5. Invest in a quality sock
Once you’ve tried wearing form-fitted hiking socks ($30, give or take), you’ll be kicking your saggy tube socks to the curb, says Robin Woollacott of Coast Mountain Sports in Prince George. As with buying boots, when selecting socks you need to consider intended use. Do you need a thick, expedition-weight style? The wick-away moisture protection of a combination sock and liner? Or the extra cushioning of two pairs worn together?
In any case, good hiking socks are likely to contain a mix of Merino wool, synthetic fibre, and about 5 percent elastane (sold under the brand name Lycra or Spandex), which provides elasticity. Avoid cotton socks, which soaks up water and expand, causing blistering and cold feet. “Yes, cotton is the enemy,” says Woollacott.
It’s important to bring along proper hiking socks for your boot fitting, suggests Pat Valade of Valhalla Pure Outfitters in Kamloops. Save your low-cut athletic socks for the tennis courts.
6. Avoid the rush
Allow yourself enough time try several pairs of boots before buying, advises Valade. He prefers to spend at least a half hour with a customer, helping them find the best pair. “People tend to rush, then they buy the wrong size,” says Valade.
7. Ask about return policies
Even a boot-fitting guru can’t predict exactly how a new pair will perform for you on the trail. It’s wise to inquire about the store’s return policy before slapping down your credit card.
8. Maintain your good relationship
Quality boots will cost anywhere from $150 for day hikers, up to more than $300 (and even $500) for a hard-shank mountaineering version—so you’ll want to protect your investment. After a trek, brush any dried dirt from the boots and use an aqueous wax (which is applied to a damp boot), or a paste wax to condition and renew waterproofing. Proper care and maintenance will extend the life of your boots, says Woollacott—who speaks of her own leather and GORE-TEX-lined hikers, which have taken her all over the province, with an unmistakeable affection.