How to Choose the Perfect Walking Boots
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Two things are true when it comes to choosing the perfect walking boots;
1) Probably one of the top three essential bits of kit you need to spend both time and money on when it comes to choosing the right pair (along with waterproof jackets and a good rucksack). A good pair of well fitted boots could make the difference between a truly epic and god-awful walking experience. The moto “pay less – buy twice” certainly applies here and whilst you don’t need to spend the earth, its recommended that you go for at least the mid-priced range of boots if you want something that is comfortable, durable and well designed.
2) We all come in different shapes and sizes, and no more is this the case when it comes to our feet. Some are short and some are long, some are narrow or wide, and some are just plain wonky and bumpy due to inflictions or genetics. It just so happens that this is also the case for boots, it’s important that we understand that even though a certain manufacturer might be known for wider fitting boots, say Salomon, each model will be made from a different last, therefore each particular design from a manufacturer is likely to fit that bit different to the rest of their range.
Don’t fear though, there is a boot out there for all of us……it just takes time to find the right partnership, and partners they are in landscapes such are the ones we like to frequent in our free time, like a faithful old dog or trusted horse…
Having spent many years in the industry fitting outdoor footwear to good people like yourselves, this article will hopefully give you some insight and knowledge to help you navigate safely through the different options and types of footwear in today’s market, of which there are many!
There are a few crucial areas we must take into initial consideration when choosing an outdoor boot: –
Boots are categorised into different seasons in order to help you pick the right weapon for the right environment or situation, choosing a boot for summer and spring seasons should yield different results compared to choosing boots for winter mountaineering. If you’re someone who spends time in the outdoors all year round then ideally you would have a boot for each season, obviously this can start to cost quite a bit alongside your other kit expenditure so some boots can be used for several seasons if not all year round, but worth understanding that these will likely have their limitations.
The categories below can be helpful when choosing footwear for a particular month or season;
B0 – 3 season boots that are unsuitable for winter usage, super flexible and best used under the snowline, these boots cannot be used in conjunction with any crampon system.
B1 – Usually referred to as 3-4 season boots and suitable for general winter mountaineering. A stiffer set up with deep lugs and more aggressive sole unit, these boots can be used in conjunction with C1 crampons.
B2 – A 4 season boot that is fully stiff and suitable for winter mountaineering as well as climbing and more extreme winter environments. A higher and more insulated system offering maximum protection and can be used in conjunction with C2 or C1 crampons.
B3 – A hardcore fully ridged boot designed for winter climbing routes.
Are you someone who likes to hit high tops and ridges with scrambling thrown in, or are you more likely to wind your way through valleys and up to mountain lakes at most? If the latter applies then listening to Fran from Facebook’s recommendation (recommendations on social media – we’ll go there later) of Meindl Burma’s being the best boot she’s ever worn, they might not be the best option for your chosen activity. Likewise, if you choose lightweight mid-boots for Grade 1+ scrambling routes, then you’re likely to wish you had something more suited to the task.
Ultimately cost will play a key part in your decision making process, boots can cost £80-£350 (extreme examples) and whilst you don’t need to spend the top end of that ball park figure, we would recommend not paying the least expensive price, such footwear is likely to perform poorly and will not last. Likewise, if you spend half your pay check on fancy rigid winter mountaineering boots and use them on the odd occasion throughout the year, then are you really getting your money’s worth?
Where to Start?
Once you have considered the above points then you are probably in a good position to spend your hard-earned cash on a brand-new pair of boots…why not second hand you might ask? Well as explained previously we all have very different shaped feet and if the previous user has “worn in” the pair they are selling, then they will not be suitable for your feet. By all means if a second hand pair have had minimal use then you might just get away with it, but you will not be covered by a manufacturer’s warranty, nor will you be able to return them in most cases.
We have all read in the news about the decline of high street retail, but believe me when I say this – get yourselves to a good outdoor store and speak to a staff member in the footwear department, discuss with them planned activity, time of year and budget, and let them recommend a range of models for you to try on. Don’t be afraid to try as many pairs on as possible, they will all feel very different and it is important you find the right fit for you.
A good footwear specialist will measure your feet and offer you a thick sock before going through a number of options, it’s worth trying on different variations in different sizes, say in half size increments, so if you are a size 8, well worth trying on an 8, 8.5 and 9, basically if you haven’t caused a mess on the shop floor then you are doing it all wrong! A good store will have a ramp so you can simulate both ascending and descending with boots on, don’t be shy to really kick on the decline to see how much your feet slide forward to the front of the boot, if you have any contact here then you will feel it 10 fold on the back half of a full mountain day, they are too small!
Once you have narrowed it down to a few pairs then you have a few options, you can either bite the bullet with one pair to take home, or if you have the funds then you can always take a small selection home with you to try on and narrow down further in the comfort of your own home. Some shops you can order several online to be delivered in store, the funds then do not come out of your account until you have tried on in store and picked the best one to take home, Cotswold offer this service.
It’s worth mentioning that not all stores are equal…without naming and shaming there are stores who have rocketed over the past few years and who offer heavily discounted prices across their range of outdoor clothing and equipment, whilst this sounds inviting I have found that not all of their staff are outdoor enthusiasts. It’s my belief that even though a staff member might have received product training, unless they have used footwear (or any other piece of essential kit) in anger in the mountains, then it is very difficult to give recommendations based on product claims. Whilst I don’t like seeing generic posts on social media asking, “what are the best boots at the moment”, a better question to ask is “where is the best place to get footwear fitted in my area?”. *
You’re skipping down the high street with your newly purchased boots in hand, you’ve put the effort in and are ready to hit the mountains, right? Not quite yet. Holding onto your receipt will allow you to return within / up to 30 days and receive a full refund. This is a golden opportunity to further test at home to make sure they are absolutely right for you.
Your feet will swell throughout the day so trying on your footwear at home late in the evening will give you an idea of what your boots will feel like towards the end of a walk. Try on with your own socks, load a rucksack and put that on as well, climb and descend your stairs….as long as you don’t dirty, damage, discard any labels or packaging then there is no reason why you can’t wear your boots for 10 days indoors before changing them if they aren’t right for you. At this stage, even if you have landed on “the ones”, then it’s still worth wearing them at home to break them in as much possible before using them outdoors, this will make your first outing in them much more enjoyable.
Hopefully the above will have helped you somewhat through the thought and buying process of buying a new pair of boots, to get the most out of your new boots then looking after them in the form of cleaning, proofing and storage will increase their longevity.
Use and abuse but look after them and they will return the favour!
Afterthought – Leather or Synthetic?
I’ve purposely left this information out of the thought process above for a reason, I don’t think there is clear cut argument over which one is better or worse, even though someone might tell you otherwise. For me it’s a personal preference and one that you need to find out for yourself. The long and short of it is leather boots tend to be more durable but will often be heavier, they take longer to wear in but once they have moulded to the shape of your feet then they can often be more comfortable.
You also don’t need to give them as much care as a fabric alternative, although regular cleaning and treatment is still highly recommended. Fabric boots are generally lighter and more flexible straight out of the box but can be less durable and need more cleaning and care to keep them in good condition…….so advantages and disadvantages for both.
* This article was written at the time during UK wide isolation due to COVID-19, obviously visiting outdoor shops is out of the question but you can still order online to be delivered to your home, the returns period still applies so you can return if not right. Even when we are out of this mess some readers might be more inclined to use online stores as a preference to buy boots which is fine, it’s just highly beneficial to discuss these points with a professional in store…..it also supports and protects the future of these high street treasures.
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siBased out of Shrewsbury Shropshire, I spend most of my free time across the border into Wales, primarily in Snowdonia. A keen walker and explorer who has completed the Top 100 mountains in Wales and Shropshire's 50 hills. Taking on such challenges enables me to travel to remote, quiet areas and away from the crowds, those are my favourite mountain days. I very much look forward to contributing to the forum that is Mud & Routes, with route guides and gear reviews. Instagram: @rikthehiker Twitter: @RikTheHiker