Look, I loathe shopping as much as the next outdoor nut, but if there’s one piece of hiking gear that’s essential to buy in store, it’s boots. There’s too much at stake in terms of sizing, fit, and quality to risk pixel picking. The wrong boot can turn an otherwise glorious hike into an insufferable pain in the foot. And I don’t just mean blisters. After section hiking the Maine Appalachian Trail with improper boots, it was three months before the sensation in my toes returned to normal.
The obvious benefit of shopping in-store is you can try on several pairs. If the store has one of those fake rock mounds, take the opportunity to climb over it. What do you notice? Are your toes touching the front of the boot on decline? Does your heel rub against the back? Both of which could be a sign that the fit isn’t right. (Or maybe you aren’t lacing them properly. Section Hiker has an informative post on lacing techniques here.) You’ll also want to wear your hiking socks when trying on boots for a realistic fit.
The other bonus of in-store shopping is talking to a sales associate. On a recent trip into Cadillac Mountain Sports in Bar Harbor, I learned it isn’t the cut of the boot that provides ankle support so much as it is the dexterity of the sole. Try twisting the boot sole in your hands to simulate what happens during an ankle roll. The easier the sole twists, the less support it provides.
In-store shopping can also allow you evaluate a boot’s rubber sole. As a rule of thumb, softer rubber provides better grip, but harder outsoles are more durable. To learn more about this, check out Matt Heid’s article in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Equipped blog. The line of demarcation here appears to be between hiking and backpacking boots.
Another noticeable difference between hiking and backpacking boots is the use of Gore-Tex, and the subsequent waterproof claims, being more prevalent in the backpacking boots. The thing is, as good as Gore-Tex is at keeping water out, it’s equally effective at keeping water in. And one way or another, regardless of whether you wear gaiters, water will find a way.
Hopefully, you now have a better idea for what to look for in a hiking boot. Time to hit your local retailer and try some on. Well, not so fast…
Don’t Buy Hiking Boots in Stores
When this article was first published, Phillip Werner added a comment below noting that most retailers don’t carry a good selection—he’s right. The image above shows nearly the entire selection at my local EMS, a mere sampling of what’s available on EMS’ website. Nor have I found a retailer in the Northeast that can shake a stick at the Candyland offering of Backcountry.com. Especially if you want winter mountaineering boots.
When it comes to shopping in store, do you really want a regional sales manager, who’s probably not a hiker, selecting a short list of boots for you to pick from?
So what should you do?
Consider buying online with a credit card, and order two different sizes, or two types of boot. Then do all of your in-store testing from the comfort of your home—just don’t wear the boots outside until you’ve made a selection as it may nullify the return policy. Place the order at the beginning of your credit card billing cycle, and you should have ample time to send back the unwanted pair to avoid getting double billed.