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.
Walking boots are perhaps the single most essential item for hillwalkers and walking enthusiasts.
From one-season to four-season variations, construction, different styles and a range of special technical features to consider, we’re going to make wading through the vast selection on offer easier with this simple guide.
- The Importance of Walking Boots
- Walking Boots vs. Walking Shoes
- What are Walking Boots Made From?
- Walking Boot Purchasing Tips
- Cleaning Your Walking Boots
- Reproofing Your Walking Boots
- How Long Will My Walking Boots Last?
- Season Ratings
Why Walking Boots Are Important to Wear
First up, we should explain the reasons why trainers won’t cut it when hiking on treks and trails. There are reasons related to both your comfort and safety, as trails often cover different terrains and require strong, gripping footwear that’ll keep you stable.
It goes without saying that walking uphill can be strenuous on the legs and feet, which explains why it is so important to choose the right pair for your individual needs and get the right fit.
Walking Boots or Shoes?
More and more walkers are opting for shoes in the warmer months and for when pursuing casual trail runs.
These are the major differences to note between walking boots and walking shoes:
|Walking Boots||Walking Shoes|
|The 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 terrains||Lightweight and super comfortable, ideal for easygoing trails|
|Tend to be fully waterproofed and breathable||Limited waterproof protection and some breathable properties|
|Ankle support||No ankle support|
|Perfect for long hikes in uncertain conditions and standard temperamental 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.
If you’d like to read more information on the differences between the two, we recently published an article discussing the pros and cons of whether to choose walking boots or shoes.
What Are Walking Boots Made Out Of?
The upper construction of walking boots refers to everything outside of the shoe above the midsole. This is where the bulk of the technical features lie and what gives the boot its shape and style.
The upper can be made out of a variety of materials and fabrics but the most common are leather, suede, mesh and polyurethane. All have unique advantages and will influence the technicality of the boot.
Leather, for instance, is highly waterproof and extremely durable, yet requires more care and attention than synthetic materials and a good breaking in before outdoor use. On the other hand, a combination of suede, mesh and polyutherane is a fantastic all-rounder that offers great waterproofness, durability and comfort.
In walking boots, the tongue is often gusseted. Questions might arise when you see this in the features but this additional benefit simply prevents debris and moisture from seeping into the boots. The tongue should also be well padded enough to prevent the pressure of tied laces from straining your foot.
Your heels and toes will be protected more than a normal shoe as walking boots are designed to protect your feet from knocks when walking on rocky terrains.
The midsole is the layer of material that sits 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 boot that works hardest against the elements and the constant friction of walking, so is undoubtedly the most important feature to look out for.
The outsole tackles two opposing forces: the first being the weight of the body, and the second being the force of the ground below that brushes debris and moisture towards the feet. This means that in combating these two forces, the outsole has a dual function.
High levels of friction and impact endured by the outsole will test the boot’s quality and longevity. Vibram soles are routinely used as a foundation for the boot, offering a renowned level of excellence. These soles are certainly a formidable indicator and guarantee of quality. The brand utilises a special combination of rubber, carbon and silicon to form a stiffer and denser resulting 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 mountain climbers should always ensure that the lugs on their walking boots are deep enough to maintain a good grip in muddy and wet conditions. Balance is key!
Tips for Buying Walking Boots
Get the Right Fit
Buying the right size for your natural foot shape will make or break your purchase. 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 both over time and distance.
It is not just the size that must be spot on but also the shape of the boot. Measure the length and width of your foot before shopping, and take note of any unusual quirks your feet may have that could require a customised fit, such as a larger width.
Walking boots should be snug and comfortable, with no space for the feet to move around in, but not too tight in order to allow them to remain breathable. When trying on boots, perhaps wear thicker socks than usual to keep in mind that you’ll need additional space for hiking socks.
How Tight Should My Walking Boots Be?
When trying out hiking boots for the first time, you should make an effort to go later in the day. Feet swell up throughout the day and trying boots towards the evening will provide a more realistic fit after a day on the move. Find a pair in your size, and make sure to bring along some walking socks so you get a more accurate gauge for the fit due to them being thicker than normal socks. They should fit your feet well with a small amount of space at the front so your toes aren’t scrunched up.
Test the Waterproofness
All walking boots are water-resistant to an extent, though some will be significantly more waterproof than others so it is worthwhile checking this. The outsole and upper keep water out, and the upper also has a breathable function so that the feet’s dryness is maintained.
Generally, leather walking boots are considered the most waterproof and durable, with suede and other fabrics following close behind.
Whatever the material, taking care of your boots is a must, especially when it comes to maintaining their waterproof properties. Waterproofing walking 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 boots is dependent on your specific needs. Leather boots are waterproof, durable, tough and breathable, but also heavier and more rigid, meaning they are sometimes less comfortable than synthetic fabrics.
Fabric walking boots have a much more diversified upper that can make them more aesthetically pleasing to some, and do not require as much breaking in as they are generally softer. They also have a few disadvantages though, as they are often 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 blistering and provide additional breathability, but 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 so there are plenty of options to choose from once you have decided what’s most important to you.
Breaking in Walking Boots
As we’ve already established, walking boots usually require breaking in. Leather boots more so than fabrics, although it’s always recommended that you test the waters before heading outdoors anyway.
To break in your boots, simply wear them around the house whilst wearing the socks that you plan on using beneath them. Do this for an hour or so a few times before wearing them out to the shops or for a quick walk, and don’t attempt to take them for a long trek too quickly as you’ll likely regret it and end up with blisters.
Cleaning Your Walking Boots
Following their inaugural hike, walking boots will hopefully be nice and muddy. To keep your boots fresh for as long as possible, you should clean your boots after each walk or hike. Cleaning your boots isn’t only important for how they look but also for their performance, as if left dirty, leather can become irreparably damaged from mud drying it out.
Simply use tap water and a brush to clean them – whether that’s a boot brush or a toothbrush, whatever works best for you. If you want to be extra careful, then you can use specialised boot cleaners. However, this is only necessary after several heavy uses and should not be used after every single wear.
We would advise to let the boots air dry and not to use any heat appliances to speed up the process.
Washing and Reproofing Your Walking Boots
If you’re not satisfied with the simple water and brush technique then you can wash your boots more thoroughly.
Choose a cleaner that is suitable for the boot’s material and follow the instructions as advised to give them a proper clean. Again, this isn’t necessary every time but only if there’s stubborn dirt or debris that won’t quite shift with the brush.
For any time that they’re specifically wet or damp then you can reproof the boots by applying a waterproofer, which should only ever be done when the boots are completely clean. Re-proofing your hiking boots is an excellent way of keeping them good for longer, saving you money in the long run.
How Long Do Hiking Boots Usually 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 a good performance overall, expect them to last you for around 1000 miles of walking across diverse terrains, but this can vary. 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 heads out multiple times a week to tackle rocky terrain and muddy plains.
Weight plays a role too – and this is not just a person’s body mass, but also the size of the load you’re carrying around. 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 boot 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 of use.
In addition to cleaning and waterproofing your boots, you can ensure a longer lifespan by choosing a top-of-the-range pair of boots with Vibram soles and good performance overall. These boots are expected to last you around 1,000 miles of hiking across different terrains. And for those who usually walk trails that consist of flat ground, your boots will last even longer.
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 boot 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 designs. 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 or traction aids.
|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 or traction aids 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.|
And there you have it – our complete guide to making the best possible use of your hiking boots and buying a pair that will become a worthy walking companion.