This question keeps popping up from our readers: what are the best hiking boots?
After years of wearing the same brand of boots, I was forced to start over.
As a day hiker and scout leader I had become a big fan of Hi Tec Altitude IVs. Not only were they my hiking and camping shoe, they had become my work shoe. A cotton button-down collar shirt, a pair of khaki pants, and hiking boots were my ‘official’ work clothes.
As a production planner/project manager I spent as much time out in the shops as I did in an office. Concrete floors, diamond plate platforms and anti-skid surfaces were hard on shoes.
The Hi Tec boots served me well. Being waterproof was one of the properties I really liked about them. Walking in damp places, I use to joke about being the only one with dry feet. In their price range, I never found a nicer boot.
Last year, while hiking the Appalachian Trail, my favorite boots wore out. Through the years it was common for me to wear the sole smooth. This time there were no visible clues. Not only was this painful to the foot, but it also cut off the circulation to my toes, causing a numb and aching pain. Each step was painful. One foot hurt so much that I was in tears. At a road crossing in Tennessee, I realized that the interior foam support had collapsed, leaving a divot where the ball of my foot sat.
Sandy asked if I could make it another thirty-plus miles to Erwin. When I said no, we called for help. Thanks to trail Angel Miss Janet, we were picked up and delivered to a very well stocked outfitter.
When I showed their “boot expert” my boots, he told me that they were “great boots,” good for about 500 miles. I thought how far we hiked on the AT, added the mileage back home, and yep, I was right at 500 miles.
Here’s where my boot story turns. They had my Hi Tec Altitude lVs, and they were even on sale. But the thought of boots failing again, in another 500 or so miles, worried me. After walking in pain for days, I wasn’t looking forward to doing it again. In retrospect, I wish that I stuck with what I knew were good comfortable boots – bought two pairs of Hi-Tecs and sent one ahead to myself.
Instead, I tried on every pair of boots that they had in my size. Unlike my usual shopping habits, I never even looked at the price. I didn’t want the dollar signs to cloud my foot comfort. When it was over, I had paid more than I had ever paid for a pair or shoes or boots. I was the proud new owner of a pair of Vasque Bitterroot GTX.
They were leather and waterproof like my old Hi Tecs, but they were much more ruggedly made. We took a couple of zero days around town to let me have a little break-in time for the boots. I had never needed “break-in time” in the four or five pairs of the old boots I had worn out. Nor had I ever had a single blister. That’s right, I had never, never, never had a blister! Even with two 50 mile Florida backpacking trips as a Boy Scout, or while hiking at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Never!
This would quickly change. The boots were so stiff that I felt like I was walking like Frankenstein. I had to look down just to make sure I was wearing the boots and not the boxes. Moleskin, blisters bandages, and duct tape were all that let me continue along the Appalachian Trail. I now knew what blisters under blisters felt like.
Later, down the trail, I retired the Vasques, and replaced them with a pair of Oboz trail runners. The outfitter didn’t have my size, but I was ready to take my chances with a pair of shoes a half size too large than to continue in such pain.
The Oboz were below the ankle and light weight. My feet and legs were happy. Rock hopping, while not fun, was much easier. Another wonderful benefit of these lightweight, non-water-proof shoes: they dried quickly and easily, something that none of my old waterproof leather ones could do.
When we got back home I retired the Oboz. There’s nothing wrong with them, but that “half size too large” doesn’t work for me now that my feet are normal size again. Yes, your feet “pancake” on a long distance hike and grow a half size or more, another issue for boots fitting properly.
I still hike in a pair of waterproof leather Keens when the conditions are right. Most of my miles are now in a pair of low cut lightweight Hi Tecs. When we were hiking in South Florida this June, during each hike they were fully under water. I was ever so happy to not be in heavy waterproof boots while wading the swamps.
Someday, I hope to be able to hike long distances in just trail runners, eliminating those few extra pounds my legs must lift with every step. Sandy swears by New Balance trail runners, she’s been wearing them for years, including for all of our miles on the Appalachian Trail. But they’re not enough support for me, yet.
I don’t believe that there is any one perfect boot. What works for one person may not for the other. I have met people, most with more trail miles than me, that would swear by their Vasque boots. Boots are a personal thing. You need to be comfortable in them. It’s just you and them, mile after mile.
PS. I know of this pair of very low mileage Vasque Bitterroot GTX for sale. Only used by a little gray-bearded hiker on Sundays.