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Adventure, Alpine, Wellness / October 9, 2016

How to pick the perfect boot

Written by: Renee Howard

Simply put, the best boots for alpine hiking are the boots that fit.

The footwear industry offers hundreds of different pairs of boots, but the world is home to more than seven billion pairs of feet. That makes knowing how to choose the right hiking boots something of an art.

To learn more about finding the boot that fits, I went straight to the local expert. Kevin Dana is a respected hunting athlete and the co-owner of Barney’s Sports Chalet in Anchorage, Alaska. He shared these tips:


Study the ingredients

A boot's tongue is often an afterthought. But the wrong shape can cause considerable discomfort on long hikes.

Factory insoles (left) are almost always thin and cheap. Consider replacing them with an aftermarket insole like the one on the right.

Like good meals, good boots are made up of quality ingredients. So before you even put a pair of boots on your feet, research the materials used for these components:

The outsole: Good boots usually have a high end Vibram outsole, bound to the body of the boot with a tough rubber rand. Similar to a bumper on a car, the rand protects the boot from punctures and cuts.

Insulation: A quality mountain boot has the highest grade 200 grain Primaloft synthetic insulation or something comparable. Look out for Thinsulate, which is used in lower-end boots. This stuff doesn’t dry quickly, and that lasting moisture can mean very cold feet. 

Insole: The factory insole in almost any boot is going to be cheap foam. Replace it with an aftermarket insole that is tailored to your foot.

Midsole: The midsole provides all of a boot’s support, but it’s often a place where company’s cut corners. Cheap, foam-injected midsoles tend to break down after a short period of time, leaving the boot with a sloppy fit. Most quality midsoles are made of polyurethane and will never deteriorate.

Leather: Different types of leather offer different experiences. Rough grain leather will not break in as much. It can feel rigid, but offers great support. Fine grain leather is softer, still supportive, but tends to break in faster and mold to your foot over time.

Boot tongue: No shin forms a perfect half-moon shape, so neither do great boot tongues. Anatomical tongues, like on the the Lowa Evo are slightly flat on one side. The shape gives an extra bit of fit, and makes it easy to lace the boot up correctly and to avoid heel slippage and ankle pinching.


Try before you buy

To choose the right boot, you'll want to know more than just your shoe size. Measure your foot's length, width, and arch height before trying anything on.

If possible, test your boots on a short hike before committing them to a serious outing.

This one is sort of obvious—before you shell out $300 or more for a pair of boots, you should try them on. When you do, there are few specific things to check for:

Get the right fit (duh): Start by getting both feet measured in the standard Brannock device for width, length and arch height. This will factor the best insole and boot build for you. Ask about wide and narrow fitting options in the boots you’re considering. 

Try them on (also duh): When you try on boots in the store, wear the socks you intend to wear in the field. Walk up and down any available inclines, and pay special attention to the position of your heels and toes. Try walking downhill with weight on your back, and make sure your toes don’t smash into the front of the boot.

Take them home: Take boots home and wear them around the house for a day. Sometimes it takes a couple of hours in a new pair of boots to realize they don’t fit. If the return policy allows for it, take the pair for a short hike. 


Wear them right

Socks are almost as important as boots. Dana recommends the Darn Tough brand.

A "surgeons knot" will help lock your heel in place.

The process of boot fitting doesn’t end at the point of purchase. Every time you lace up your boots, you have an opportunity to customize their fit.

Invest in an insole: Aftermarket insoles can make or break a boot. These soles add volume to the boot, which prevents slippage and adds arch support. Try out a number of insoles before your trip—different brands are designed to fit different foot shapes.

Choose the right socks: Believe it or not, bulky socks are not your friend in a mountain boot. A thinner, merino wool sock that has contoured cushion in specific places will prevent your feet from hanging onto unwanted moisture. Kevin specifically recommends Darn Tough “Cushion” or “Full Cushion” socks because of the design and high merino content.

Customize your lacing job: It’s not necessary to lace every one of a boot’s eyelets—if the boot pinches while you climb uphill, re-lace and skip the eyelet that causes the trouble. If you find your heel slips, tie a “surgeon’s knot” (pictured above) for stability.

In short, choosing the best boot for alpine hiking takes some time. Pack load, activity level, climate and foot type all play into boot selection, as do about a dozen other factors. Choose a reputable retailer for your purchase, and ask lots and lots of questions.

about the author

Renee Howard

Renee is a photographer and writer based out of South-central Alaska. Her interest in bridging gaps between all manner of outdoor sports, philosophy, folk culture and backwoods artistry is a significant motivation for her work.

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