Your new boots are one of the most important items you can buy for hill walking. Choose your boots carefully, ensure they fit you correctly, look after them properly and they will serve you well. The boots you choose must be comfortable, supportive and suited to your chosen activity in order for you to get the most out of them and your activity.
This guide is designed to give you practical advice on everything you need to know to make the correct purchase. There are also tips on boot and foot care to help you get the best out of your boots over the years.
- Consider what type of boots will best suit your activity. There is a baffling variety of boots so narrowing your choice according to activity will make buying boots an easier task. Mountaineering boots will be too stiff and heavy for trail walking and vice versa.
- What materials will you need? What are the most important features for your end use - durable, waterproof, breathable, lightweight etc?
- Try on your new boots with the socks you will be wearing whilst walking. Walk around at home for as long as possible to get a better feel for the fit.
Which type is for you?
Boots can be divided into 3 broad categories:
- Lightweight Walking – These boots are designed for general day walking and therefore are made for comfort, normally have cushioning and generally have a waterproof membrane for wet weather protection. However, they are less supportive and durable than the following and designed primarily for use on easy terrain, like trails and easier hills.
- Mid-weight Walking/Backpacking – When carrying a heavier (multi-day) load, it is essential that your boots can support the extra weight and pressure. These type of boots are designed to be more durable and supportive (and are therefore heavier) than lightweight boots and are intended for shorter trips over moderate terrain. They are suitable for going cross country and venturing onto steeper and more rugged terrain.
- Mountaineering – Top end boots are designed for extended trips or specialist activities. They are therefore generally heavier, more rigid, more supportive and durable than any of the above types of boots. The majority of these types of boots are suitable for use with crampons. Use these for scrambling, via ferrata, mountaineering or climbing.
Leather is still the principal material used to make boots. It is available in 3 main types - full grain, nubuck and suede/split. Depending on the combination of the thickness and the tanning process the suppleness, support, durability and water resistance of the uppers will all vary. Lightweight boots utilise softer leather to give instant comfort and performance. In conjunction with the uppers the foam, stiffeners and lining fabrics in a boot will all vary according to end use.
Full grain leather is used in footwear for its durability, support and water resistance. It is generally used in boots designed for lengthy trips, tough terrain and when support and protection are paramount. Full grain leather boots are heavier than those made with fabric or split leather and are therefore more durable and suited to regular use. They will tend to need some breaking in.
Boots made with split leather, suede, nubuck and/or nylon tend to be softer, lighter and easier on your feet than full grain leather boots. They are therefore more suited to day trips and shorter overnight trips. They generally come with a waterproof membrane such as Gore-Tex or Sympatex and are therefore guaranteed waterproof*.
*The waterproofness of your boots is dependant on how well you look after them. For information on caring for your boots see Care.
An often overlooked (but important) part of boot fitting is ensuring you wear a suitable pair of well fitting socks. Socks can greatly alter the fit and comfort of you boots. Ensure they are well matched to your boots and activity. They can be made from a number of different materials including wool, nylon, polyester or a combination of these and others. The material will have an effect on the warmth, comfort, fit and cushioning of the socks and can be the difference between happy feet and uncomfortable walking.
Finding the right fit
When trying on boots (the later in the day the better to mimic the swell that occurs when walking) ensure they fit snugly around the heel and ankle, but leave ample room to wiggle your toes and curl them without restriction. When you first try on your boots don’t worry about a little heel lift of a few millimetres; as the boots break-in and mould to your feet, this will decrease and disappear. A boot which is too large can, if necessary, be adjusted with a thicker sock, volume reducer or footbed, but a boot which is too small will cause blisters and discomfort and can never be made to fit. Boots can be stretched and tweaked by our expert staff to give a better fit. Even the way the boots are laced can have a dramatic impact on their fit. Try on both boots (most people have one foot slightly bigger than the other) and take a walk around indoors. Try to walk on an incline (such as up and down the stairs) if possible.
If the boots feel comfortable, keep them on for a couple of hours to allow your feet to settle into them and warm up. If the boots do not feel comfortable after this period or it is a great relief to take them off, do not wear them outdoors, return them to the shop and try again. You may need to try a different size, or a different model, or even both. If necessary we encourage you to keep repeating this exercise until you find boots which are comfortable and compatible with your feet.
No matter how good the footwear is, if the fit is bad the boots will not meet your expectations.
Breaking in new boots
Modern technology and designs have virtually eliminated the traditional discomfort of breaking in new boots. You should not need to suffer any agonies! However, a few simple precautions are well worth taking when wearing your boots outdoors for the first time. Wear a pair of good quality, well fitting socks and start by going for a short walk in your new boots. A long day in a pair of brand new boots may lead to some discomfort but if a long walk is unavoidable, take alternative footwear with you in case of problems.
The most important thing you can do once you have purchased a new pair of boots is to look after them properly. If they are cared for from the start, they will perform better and last much longer. If your boots have been neglected, it is much more difficult to bring them back to life. Be careful not to over treat your boots with wax as this can have a detrimental effect on the performance of the boots and make repairs much more difficult.
All leather boots need to be maintained periodically with proofing such as Sno Seal or Grangers G-Wax to ensure that they remain supple and water repellant. It should not be necessary to do this after every outing – sometimes a good clean (inside and out) will suffice. Before wearing your leather boots outdoors for the first time, we recommend that you go over all the stitching with one of the above products. A new boot should not need any other dressing at this stage.
This type of boot is generally made using suede and nylon with an additional waterproof membrane such as Gore-Tex or Sympatex. Boots with a waterproof membrane still need to be treated to protect the uppers and stop them from absorbing water. It is recommended that after each walk the footbeds are removed to clear out grit, stones and other debris as these can puncture the waterproof membrane if left in.
More boots are damaged by heat than any other single cause. Wet leather cannot tolerate direct heat. After returning from a wet walk, it is a good idea to lift the footbeds out from the inside of your boots and stuff your boots with newspaper. Allow your boots to dry slowly in a cool, airy place away from any direct heat source. If they need re-proofed, it is a good idea to remove the laces whilst also making sure the uppers are clean before applying any treatment.
We offer our own in house outdoor footwear repair service and operate the only specialist walking boot repair workshop in Scotland. Our specialist can repair or resole virtually any walking or mountaineering boot, provided that it is economical to do so.
It is not only your boots which require care and attention, but also your feet. Wearing fast drying socks with man made and/or natural fibres will help to wick moisture away from the skin preventing the heating and softening of your feet and therefore reduce the chance of blistering. Avoid wearing cotton socks if at all possible. On an extended trip take a spare pair of socks; sometimes they can give your feet a new lease of life.
Look after your feet and boots and they will look after you!