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Happy Feet: Selecting the Right Hiking Boots & Socks

Copyright 2003 by Michael Brochstein

Most hikers would agree that hiking boots (and appropriate socks) are among the most important pieces of gear one can wear on a hike. Hiking boots advantages over other kinds of footwear include better support, comfort and stability when walking over anything but flat and level terrain, protection from odd shaped rocks and roots as well as from water and snow, and a generally greatly decreased likelihood of injury.

Proper fit is the most important feature of a good hiking boot. Improperly fit and/or inappropriate socks can ruin a day on the trail and can cause serious consequences for you and your feet. Shop for boots using the socks you intend to wear them with (see below) and go late in the day as feet swell naturally as the day wears on.

Outdoor gear oriented stores that sell hiking boots generally have a small ramp to use to test your boots on. Its purpose is to make sure that your toes don't hit the front of the boot (ouch!) when walking downhill. Finding a salesperson with real experience fitting hiking boots is very advantageous as their experience can sometimes make up for any you lack. Some stores in the NYC area have excellent selections of hiking boots but may have some poorly trained salespeople.

A hiking boot that doesn’t breathe can be an uncomfortable and smelly boot in a short while with some very wet feet and socks inside (from perspiration). Boots that are marketed as waterproof may not be able to vent perspiration as they are little better than wearing a rubber boot on your foot. In fair weather it may be better to get a non-waterproof boot that vents over a waterproof boot that does not. Lower priced boots tend to be either breathable or waterproof but not both. If your average hiking is done in Harriman in non-winter conditions then a breathable boot is probably better than one that is waterproof but unbreathable.

There are various membranes designed into better hiking boots that keep your feet both dry when walking in water (or snow) and allow your feet to breathe. The most famous fabric that accomplishes this is called Gore-Tex. It is highly regarded and the author has always bought boots with it.

Hiking boots come in various heights. Low cut boots resemble sneakers while high cut resemble classic work or military boots. There is a direct correlation between height and support. While some swear by the low cut style of boots, this regular hiker recommends boots higher than the low cut style.

The type of socks worn with hiking boots is critical. Traditionally a thin liner sock made of a wicking material (such as polypropylene) is worn next to one’s skin and a thick rag wool sock is worn over that (the author wears this combination all year round). Why these two socks? Feet have more sweat pores per square inch than any other part of the body. Thin liner socks wick moisture away from your feet and do not absorb moisture. The air pockets in a thick rag wool sock allows moisture to evaporate. Wool socks also cushion your feet against various parts of the boot such as its laces and tongue and provides insulation in the winter. They also maintain their insulating properties when wet. Wearing two pairs of socks allows them to rub against each other as opposed to your foot rubbing against the boot when your foot moves within it (fewer blisters!).

There are a number of modern fabric socks designed for hiking that do not precisely follow the two-sock formula I have outlined above. Some work better than others and some work very well. Socks made of cotton are verboten as cotton absorbs moisture, do not insulate when wet, take a long time to dry and can hasten the appearance of blisters. Whatever type of socks you decide to use, it is important to wear them when shopping for hiking boots as their thickness is likely to be quite different than that of the socks you may typically wear for other activities (better outdoor gear stores generally have extra socks just for customers to use to try boots on with).

Comments: Michael_Brochstein@MABsystems.com

WARNING/DISCLAIMER: Outdoor activities can be dangerous and the information furnished on this website may contain errors!

Last revision: November 15, 2004

Copyright © 2008 Michael Brochstein. All rights reserved.