Choosing the right walking boots

Good boots are an essential part of the walking kit so make sure you're choosing the best ones for you.

Boots are the most important piece of walking kit, so it pays to get the best fit you can. With the huge range of boots now on the market, your feet shouldn't get a hammering every time you go out walking. If boots don’t fit properly, you won’t have support for your feet and ankles, and you’ll be prone to blisters, chafing and other foot problems. Too much room and they’ll rub up and down, too little and your feet and toes will be scrunched up.

Before you start looking at boots, you need to think about what type of terrain you’re going to be walking on most of the time because this determines the type of boots you need. If you do mostly lowland, forest and track walking then a pair of lightweight waterproof fabric-style boots will probably do the job. If you plan on tackling tougher places including long distance trails, peat bogs, hills and mountains then the more solid and tough leather boots are better.

Here’s our top tips for buying walking boots:

Terrain

Think about what type of ground you’re going to be walking on most of the time; this determines the type of boots you need. Lighter weight boots, often made from fabric, are OK for lowland, forests and tracks, long-distance walks, and can also be used in drier weather on hills and mountains, but for boggy ground you'll want a more solid leather upper that will be more waterproof. If you ever intend to wear crampons for winter hill walking you need to make sure that your boots are capable of taking them.

Foot size

The best time to try on boots is probably in the afternoon; this is the time between your feet being slightly smaller than normal and a bit swollen and larger as the day goes on. Your left and right foot will almost certainly be a slightly different size, so it’s best to try both boots on; and always go for boots that fit your largest foot.

Seasonal fit

Your feet tend to be bigger in spring and summer so what do you do? The answer is to buy your boots so you’ve got a little bit of extra room for the warmer months (say a half size bigger), but not too much so they’ll also fit in winter and your feet won’t move around in them. You can always use either thicker socks or a thin insole in winter, but you can’t make boots smaller than they are.

The other thing to consider is warmth. In winter you will want warmer materials, often meaning thicker leather. In summer breathability is key, with fabric breathable membrane boots being lighter and cooler. I personally find that even the lightest waterproof boots are too warm, so if there is no chance of wet weather I'll go for a non-waterproof boot or even a lightweight shoe, depending on the terrain.

Socks

Ideally, you should try boots on with the type of socks you usually wear. If you’re buying boots for the first time, try them with a pair of medium thick walking socks. If you prefer walking with a thin sock and a thick one over the top then take them along to the shop. You need to wear whatever socks are comfortable for you, as long as they’re good quality and fit well.

Flexible friends

All boots have a certain amount of ‘give’ in them, and you need to be able to flex and bend your feet to a reasonable extent with the boots on. The more lightweight the boot usually the more flex you’ll get, but with all boots you should at least be able to wriggle your toes around. More flexible boots are more comfortable for long distances, and perfect for flatter ground, but in rocky terrain and steep slopes a stiffer sole gives more stability, better protection and gives more grip when digging in your toes.

If you do plan to use crampons be aware that the flexibility of the crampons needs to be matched to the boot, as otherwise they tend to come off.

Big enough?

There are 3 ways to test for correct boot size:

  1. Finger test – push your toes to the end of the boot and then put your index finger down the back of the boot. If you can do this, you've probably got enough room for your toes to move about, but not too much so you’ll slip around inside.
  2. Bare feet test – sounds weird when you’ll always be wearing socks, but you can get a feel for where any parts of the boot might rub or make your feet sore by putting them on without any socks.
  3. Measurement test – this is done in most outdoor leisure and shoe shops using what’s called a Brannock’s device, incidentally designed in 1927. This isn't an instrument of torture, it just accurately measures the width, length and arch of both your feet to help you choose the the right size and fit.

Load test

Weight is important in footwear - you'll notice a few extra grams in your walking boots far more than in a rucksack. The right weight is a compromise between the insulation and features you need without adding anything additional, and is one reason why you may want a lighter pair for longer, easy walks and a heaver pair for more challenging routes.

Breaking them in

With modern boot materials your feet don’t have to go through torture until your boots were comfortable to walk in, known as ‘breaking them in’. The boots should adjust to your feet, not the other way round. However, it’s wise to wear them in the house after you buy them, and a fair bit more on shorter walks outside before you take them out on a long trek.

With harder leather boots getting them a bit damp will make them more flexible, so a short walk in wet grass is effective. Wear them for a short distance them let them dry naturally and they will have moulded themselves to your feet more.

Don't make the mistake of buying brand new boots the day before a multi-day walking trip, or your likely to find your enjoyment spoiled by uncomfortable fit or blisters.

Test your boots at home

Most shops and online stores will allow you to return boots after a reasonable time as long as you haven’t worn them outside, you've kept the box, and they can still sell the boots to someone else. Check this before you buy - if the shop won’t agree to a refund or exchange if worn at home, then go elsewhere. This is important because the best way to test boots for comfort is by wearing them over a period of time, not just in the shop.

Once you get your new boots home:

  • Wear them around the house for periods of say an hour at a time – this builds up the heat of your feet naturally as they would when you’re out walking.
  • Climb the stairs in them to mimic uphill and downhill.
  • Do the hoovering in them to get your feet moving and twisting.
  • Walk on different indoor surfaces and check for any signs of discomfort, rubbing or tightness.
  • Wear them at different times, because your feet swell the longer they're in them and more so later in the day.
  • Try lacing them up differently; keep laces loose, tie right up to the top, overlap top laces.
  • This is when you test out the theory that they’ll ‘stretch a bit’.

There's likely to be a few small niggly feelings of discomfort at first, but this is usually due to the boots getting used to your feet, or that your feet are not used to wearing boots. However, if you have any doubt about the fit, particularly that they’re too small – never say ‘they’ll just do’, take or send them back and try a different type or size.

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