Last updated: January 17, 2019 at 10:21 am
Walking boots are perhaps the single most essential item for hillwalkers and walking enthusiasts. Here in the UK, walking is a national pastime and from light aficionados to die-hard daredevils, we definitely like to get our walking boots on. With this in mind, it follows that investing in a loyal pair of walking boots is a must and we’re here to help you get that choice right.
From one-season to four-season variations, upper, midsole and sole construction, different styles and a range of special technical features to consider, we’re going to make wading through the vast selection on offer easy with this extensive guide.
Why Walking Boots Are Important to Wear
First up, let’s take a look at why women’s or men’s walking boots are so important to wear on trails and treks, as opposed to normal shoes. When hiking, what to wear on your feet is the single biggest determining factor of your comfort and success throughout the duration of the journey; so straight off the bat, pay attention to your footwear and purchase pairs wisely.
It doesn’t take much experience or skill to figure out that subjecting your legs and feet to the physical strain of walking or hiking necessitates a supportive environment. The primary function of walking boots is to provide comfortable environs for your feet to be in as they flex and stretch to accommodate your forward movements on the track.
Walking boots are designed to support your foot’s natural shape; in addition, to supply comfort and protection, they can be waterproof and breathable. A waterproof structure ensures that no moisture penetrates the boot and your feet stay dry, while a breathable membrane works parallel to this by allowing moisture accumulated in the boot through your feet’s sweating to evaporate freely, maintaining this comfortable dryness.
Since walking boots are such a vital kit piece for walking, we recommend investing in as good a pair as you can afford. Generally, the more technical and feature-rich the boots are, the higher the price tag – but remember that this is truly an investment in your pastime and well-being and comfort while pursuing it, so it will be worth it.
Walking Boots or Shoes?
You’ll find there are both walking boots and walking shoes on the market, so how do you decide which footwear configuration is best for your walking needs? More and more walkers are opting for shoes in the warmer months and for casual trail runs.
These are the major differences to note between walking boots and walking shoes:
|Walking Boots||Walking Shoes|
|Most popular and preferred choice for hillwalkers||An alternative, casual option for seasonal walkers or short-distance trekkers|
|Sturdy and versatile; suitable for a wide range of challenging terrain||Lightweight and super comfortable; ideal for easygoing trails|
|Generally fully waterproof and breathable||Limited waterproof protection and some breathable properties|
|Top ankle support||No ankle support|
|Perfect for long hikes in uncertain conditions and standard British weather||Ideal for shorter trails in warm, dry weather|
The take-home message here is that walking boots are especially suited for hiking and provide superior protection, while walking shoes are lighter and easier to sport, yet don’t perform as well in harsh conditions or over long distances.
You’ll always be on the safe side if you match your style of shoe with the type of activity you’re planning.
What Are Walking Boots Made Out Of?
Let’s now take a good look at the basic anatomy of walking boots. The construction of the boots is split into three main sections: the upper, midsole and the outsole.
The upper construction of walking boots refers to everything outside the shoe that is above the midsole. This is where the bulk of the technical features lie, and what gives the boot its shape and look.
The upper can be made out of a variety of materials and fabrics, but the most common are leather, suede, mesh and polyurethane. All of these have different benefits and advantages and will influence the technical features of the boot, as well as its style. Leather, for instance, is highly waterproof and extremely durable, yet requires more care and attention than synthetic materials, as well as breaking in before use outdoors. On the other hand, a combination of suede, mesh and polyurethane combines the best of both worlds and offers great waterproofness and good durability, as well as more comfort in most cases.
In walking boots, the tongue is sometimes gusseted. This additional feature looks like a webbed extension of the tongue and prevents debris and moisture from seeping into the boots through the lace eyelets or the space between the tongue and the uppermost part of the boot. The tongue should also be padded well enough to prevent the pressure of the tied laces from being felt by the top part of the foot.
Heels and toes in walking boots will often be reinforced to protect the feet from knocks when walking on rocky terrains. These may be highlighted as heel and toe bumpers, or else simply incorporated into the build of the boot.
The midsole is the layer of material sitting between the upper and the outsole, which lies at the very bottom of the boot. The midsole’s main functions are to provide support, and together with the outsole, prevent sharp objects from penetrating the soles and reaching the feet.
Commonly, materials used for midsoles are EVA or Phylon rubber – itself a compressed form of EVA – and increasingly, a combination of both. EVA is lightweight and comfortable but eventually loses its shape over time as the air trapped inside the foam is squeezed out, so it’s frequently reinforced with Phylon rubber, which offers optimal cushioning properties due to its higher density, durability and ability to hold its form.
Two-season, three-season and four-season boots often feature a supportive shank as part of the midsole construction. A shank is a metal insert measuring approximately 3 to 5mm which adds to the boots’ stiffness and acts as an extra level of support, stabilising the arch of the foot.
The outsole is the part of the walking boots that works the hardest against the elements and constant friction of walking, so it is without a doubt the most important feature of walking boots’ anatomy to consider.
The outsole tackles two opposing forces: the first is the weight of the body and feet acting upon the boots, which require constant support and protection; the other is the force of the ground below as it brushes against the boots and supplies debris and moisture which might enter the boots. This means that in combating these two forces, the outsole has a dual function.
The high levels of friction and impact endured by the outsole will test its quality and longevity. Vibram® soles are routinely used in the make-up of outsoles and are renowned for their excellence. Vibram soles are certainly a formidable indicator and guarantee of quality. The brand utilises a special combination of rubber, carbon and silicone to form a stiffer and denser resultant rubber with exceptional grip thanks to the tread patterns designed for improved performance.
Different boots will have different treads designed to aid traction, and as a rule of thumb, the deeper the lugs, the better the traction the boots will offer. Hillwalkers and especially mountain climbers should make sure that the lugs on their walking boots are deep enough to still maintain a good grip in mud and wet conditions, yet not as deep as to cause loss of stability on rocks – a good balance is key. Widely spaced lugs greatly help traction and are also less easily clogged up with difficult-to-remove mud clots. Look out for angulations in the lugs, as these are a technical feature that provides even better grip when walking downhill.
A system based on how many and which seasons walking boots are built for is used for classifying them into categories, ranging from one-season boots to four-season boots. The table below illustrates the highlights of each type of walking boots and their best applications, as well as where and when they should not be worn.
|Rating||Description||Best Suited For||Not Suitable For|
|1 season||Lightweight with flexible soles, one-season boots have mobility at the forefront of their design concerns. This means that protection is compromised as flexibility of movement is prioritised.||General everyday use and flat, easy trails in summer.||Use in cold or wet weather as waterproof protection is limited.
Multi-day walks or hikes carrying anything larger than a daypack.
Dangerous to use on rugged terrain, where foot protection and ankle support are crucial.
|2 season||Two-season boots are slightly more reliable, generally featuring better ankle support and more substantial foot and toe protection.
Stiffer and also more durable, the upper is normally made from a mix of synthetics, mesh and lightweight leather.
|Spring and especially the British summer, when the terrain is firm, low-level and not particularly steep.
Mild and wet conditions brought on by the typical British summer drizzle.
|Multi-day walks or hikes carrying large and heavy loads.
Foot protection is considerably higher than that found in one-season boots but two-season boots are still not made to tackle very rocky terrain or cold, snowy or wet conditions.
Not for use with crampons.
|3 season||Three-season boots are the most versatile and useful footwear for walking in the UK, as well as walkers’ most popular choice.
Not as stiff as four-season boots yet able to provide top-level protection without requiring any breaking in, the materials used for the upper are either full leather or a mix of majority suede and leather. Increasingly, mesh and synthetics are being used.
Usually, an EVA or polyurethane midsole will support the foot and provide comfort on longer walks.
|All-year-round use in the UK due to its versatility, suitable for traversing rocky terrain and steep paths.
Reliably waterproof, they can be used up to the snowline and even attached to flexible crampons for a short period of time if the boots are crampon-compatible.
|General use above the snowline if crampons need to be used for a prolonged period and extreme mountain conditions prevail, such as extreme cold, ice and precipitation.
Some boots within this tier will tend to require above-average levels of breaking in and will feel clunky and tiring on easy, bottom-level walks.
|4 season||Often referred to as mountain boots, these top-tier performers are custom designed to handle extreme conditions at high altitudes on mountains. Stiffer soles featuring a greatly hard-wearing upper make these very technical, specialised pieces of footwear.
Frequently made from leather averaging a thickness of more than 2mm to protect the foot. There are also Alpine boots on the market – mountain boots made from very light synthetic materials in place of leather.
|Able to handle extremely tough conditions, including severe snow, ice, rain and wind, these boots are however not the most comfortable to wear – especially for extended periods – due to their rigidness and stiffness.||Walks in warm or mild weather on terrain that is not challenging. These boots will feel uncomfortable and tire feet quickly unless worn for their specific mountaineering purpose, or high-level hikes at the very least.|
Tips When Buying Walking Boots
Get the Correct Fit
This will literally make or break your purchase, so make sure that the boots’ fit is at the very top of your list of things to look out for. Getting your walking boots fitted will make the imperative difference in how comfortable they feel when on and how kind they are to your feet over time and long distances.
It’s not just the size that has to be spot on, but also the shape of the boot. Measure the length and width of your foot before shopping around for your next pair, and take note of any unusual quirks your foot might have that call for a customised fit. Better yet, ask one of our staff members in-store for a professional fitting and live advice on the best walking boots solution for your needs.
The boots should have a snug and comfortable fit as soon as they’re worn, with no space for the foot to move around in yet not too tight that any part of the foot feels crammed. Remember that the fitting will only return accurate results if you’re wearing the right kind of socks and those which you’ll eventually be donning for your walking.
Pay Attention to and Test the Waterproofness
The second most important concern to a buyer is how waterproof the walking boots are, and this can normally be verified instantly through the specifications. All walking boots are water-resistant to an extent, although some will be significantly more waterproof than others. The outsole and upper keep water out through their respective materials, and the upper also has a breathable function so that the feet’s dryness is kept intact.
Generally, leather walking boots are considered the most waterproof and durable, with suede and other fabrics following suit.
Whatever the material, taking care of your boots is a must, especially when it comes to maintaining their waterproof properties. Reproofing boots is a material-specific process, so pay attention to the different steps for leather, suede and fabric boots. If you look after your boots’ waterproof membrane and service it regularly, your boots will retain their waterproofness and last you a very long time.
Settle on a Material that Suits
The decision about the material of the boots also depends on your specific needs. Leather walking boots are waterproof, durable, tough and breathable, while also heavier and more rigid, which makes them less comfortable than their synthetic fabric counterparts. Leather boots also have to be broken in before you can wear them out for a hike if you want to avoid considerable discomfort and potentially even pain.
Fabric walking boots have a much more diversified upper which might make them more aesthetically appealing to some, and they are also softer and generally more comfy on the feet, although much harder to clean.
Your personal preference will dictate these choices, so always follow your instinct and look at your walking experiences so far to determine which material will satisfy your requirements and taste.
What Socks To Wear with Walking Boots
Essential to the fitting, a great pair of hiking socks is an absolute must. Not only will the socks protect your feet from blisters and allow your feet to breathe during the walking activity, they will also fill out the boot to complement the shape of your foot and maintain warmth without stuffiness. Walking socks have special features including padding, insulation and elasticity which will all come into play to maximise the boots’ comfort and protection.
Pick your perfect pair in advance or at the same time you’re selecting a pair of walking boots – this way you know that the socks will complement your boots and you’ll have made a heavenly match for your feet. Read more about how walking socks professionally support your walking here.
How Long Do They Generally Last?
The lifespan of walking boots depends on a range of different factors, such as their quality, how frequently and intensively you intend on using them, the kind of terrain they will mostly be facing, your weight and how well you’re likely to look after them. This question is similar to how much mileage a car is expected to clock up in that it’s very subjective and depends on a whole host of variables.
For a top-of-the-range pair of boots with Vibram soles and standard good performance overall, expect them to last you for around 1,000 miles of walking across diverse terrain. This can vary wildly, however. If you’re an occasional or weekend hiker whose trails consist of simple, flat ground, your boots’ lifetime is going to stretch on for way longer than the avid hiker who goes out multiple times a week and tackles rocky terrain and muddy plains.
Weight plays a role too – and not just a person’s body mass, but also the size of the load you’re carrying around. So if you’re on a multi-day hike carrying a heavy rucksack full to the brim, the extra weight added to your body frame will put more stress on the boots and wear them out sooner.
Walking boots maintenance is also crucial in determining how long your pair is going to last. Looking after your boots means giving them material-specific care. Washing them down, cleaning them and drying them after each use is essential, while reproofing, waxing or polishing can be done when the need arises, or after several sessions. More detailed information about walking boots care can be found here.
And there you have it – our complete guide to making the best use of your walking boots possible and buying a pair that will become a worthy companion. Check out our walking advice section for more of our expert guides to the essential elements of the world of walking.