When considering 'outdoor' shoes, almost anything goes, as long as you are comfortable with your footwear. Comfortable here means that when you step onto the trailhead, you aren't thinking about your feet. For most people this means that their shoes provide good traction on the terrain they will be covering, protect the foot from injury, and fit well. So, if you're hiking in southern Utah on slickrock with no chance of rain, road running shoes are just about perfect. For the hills overlooking Oakland, CA in the rain, expect mud and lots of switchbacks, so waterproof shoes with aggressive tread and lots of support would be a good idea. If you're carrying a 22 pound pack for 25 miles, you should consider a boot.
Boots by definition are taller and usually heavier than shoes, and outdoor boots are broadly categorized as hiking or backpacking. The shorter the distance covered or the less strenuous the adventure, the lighter and more flexible your footwear can be. The extra height and eyelets of a well-fitted boot will do a better job of reducing inside foot movement, keeping your heel down and toes away from the front of the shoe, reducing the chances of problems and improving your confidence on the trail. Additionally, the waterproof-breathable system will come up further and the ankle collar will offer more protection to that joint.
For all outdoor activities, some research and information is necessary before making good gear selections. Define where you're going, what you're doing, and if you've done it before. If the adventure involves a lot of trail time in whatever weather comes along, you should be considering a boot. How much you're carrying and how far you're going are the main deciding factors for how much boot you need.
Backpacking: A well fitted 60 liter trail pack may weigh over 40 pounds depending on your food and gear selections. That additional weight should be riding on the pack's hip belt and into your legs, which means you will need a better platform for every step, which is what a classic backpacking boot is designed to provide. Typical features will be an all- or mostly-leather upper with relatively few seams, a midsole of firm EVA foam or PU, though a very few models are still built with leather midsoles. An aggressive outsole and waterproof-breathable lining are essential for when you don't have a choice about getting back.
Hiking: Covering less than 15 miles but 1000 feet of elevation change is a pretty challenging day, especially if your legs and feet are tired or sore from the odd angles of crossing a hill face or stepping on a rock the size of your head because it's the only place to get across the stream. A standard hiking or light hiking boot upper will have a combination of nylon fabric and suede or split-grain leather and be far more flexible and can be much lighter and more comfortable out of the box, but the increased number of seams usually means less durability.
Weight is a serious factor in gear selection. Keep in mind that 'light' and 'heavy' in reference to a boot is comparing it to other similar products, not an overall standard. So, if you think your cowboy boots are heavy, expect that anything in the backpacking category will feel impossible. Hiking is an energy-intensive activity, and every ounce you carry requires calories to be burned, so less weight carried can improve the miles covered and reduce fatigue, but lightweight gear is less durable and protective, so consider what you will be walking on, through, and with when selecting your footwear, and remember that it's hard to be a happy camper with unhappy feet.
How do you know they fit? It doesn't take long for the wrong boots to cause problems, so it's worth taking some time to get the right ones.
Note: An appropriate hiking sock is absolutely necessary for your boots to really work. More can be found on that subject HERE.
Start at a shop with a good selection and the ability to measure your feet and assess any width or volume issues. If you know you have wide or narrow feet or a high instep or arch, let the staff know as they are measuring your feet. The Brannock Device is the industry standard for defining foot and arch length and foot width. It's where the staff should start, because while you might know what size shoes you wear, that might not be the same as your foot size. Keep in mind that a shoe size is just the length and width of the bottom of the inside of the shoe, with some interpretation by the designer.
Once your feet have been assessed, your options might be limited by sizes or styles that are not available or appropriate. With the scope of current outdoor footwear options, with few exceptions there is a boot out there to fit you perfectly. Knowing when the fit is as close as possible can be tricky and might require kissing a lot of frogs, but when you walk around in the right pair, you'll know it. A very few situations might require modifications to the boot or shoe, but that is a subject for trained staff one-on-one.
On most hiking shoes, the toe box construction is too stiff for the traditional 'feel for the toe' measurement. To quickly determine length and overall size and compare several boots, we'll do the 'Toe Room Dance.'
-Slip on both boots and leave them very loose- not laced up at all.
-Stand up and tap the toe of your longer foot on the floor, moving your foot forward until your big toe touches the front of the boot, then set your foot flat on the floor, keeping your toe in the front of the boot.
-Sit back down and slide your index and middle fingers down your Achilles' tendon to the sock liner at the bottom of the boot. When you move your foot back into the heel cup, this is how much toe room you have. You should have just enough room for your finger, maintaining contact with both boot and sock. Doing the same with the other foot can be very informative.
With some practice you can accomplish all this sitting down, but the stand-and-tap is still the best way to get the toes all the way down there.
Of course, no two people's fingers are the same dimensions, but this is an excellent way to establish for yourself a gauge of how well a model or size fits, and to quickly compare several shoes to a standard. The process of sliding your foot forward will also show you the difference in volumes among several boots of the same listed size.
Footwear brands will have different definitions of what a size means. For example, brand A makes all their shoes To Brannock, meaning that if your foot measures exactly as a 9, it will touch the heel and toe inside a brand A size 9, so you should try the 9.5 to get the toe room we've discussed. Brand B, on the other hand, makes their shoes To Fit, meaning the same foot has suitable toe room in a brand B size 9. This should be fairly consistent across a brand, and the shop staff should help, but trying on more shoes is the only way to find the best fit for you.
Once you've found the right size, you need to lace the boots up and walk around in them. You should get the laces pretty tight the first time to see how much effort it will take, and compare the volume match of your foot and the boot.
The basic fit of a boot should be that your toes do not touch the front or top of the toebox as you walk, and the width of the footbed and volume of the upper are such that the shape of the shoe is holding your foot firmly in place without painful tension on the laces.
- If the lacing placket is bunched up or spread very far apart, you have mismatched the volume of the last to the shape of your foot.
- If you feel heel movement, several things could be happening:
A stiffer upper and midsole won't flex with your foot when new, so your heel will lever up out of the heel cup. This will settle down with wearing as you establish a 'toe crease.'
Your sock may be a bit thin to take up the right amount of space in the boot, which can be remedied with a liner sock or different weight of main sock.
It could just be that the heel cup is just larger than your heel and the additional height and eyelets of the boot won't be able to compensate.
There will be other things you note with different boots such as where the tongue meets the front of your ankle, how much side-to-side movement you have in the toe, and differences in stitching and design. The larger your 'sample set,' the more familiar you will be with how boots fit versus what you want in a boot.
Last: Foot form that a shoe is built around. For most outdoor footwear companies, a different Last will be designed based on the intended activity for a shoe or boot. Usually, running shoes will have a narrower, lower-volume Last, while backpacking boots will have more width and volume, especially in the toebox. Unless specified, you should assume that different models from the same company will have slightly differing Lasts.
Outsole: The part of the shoe in contact with the ground. In most outdoor shoes, the speed and purpose of the activity the shoe is designed for is very evident here. Lighter colors will be softer, stickier, and less durable, darker the opposite. More corners and edges on the tread design anticipates loose natural materials like trail, smoother for rock or pavement.
Midsole: Material between the Outsole and Upper. Can vary greatly in materials and construction based on the intended use of the shoe. Lighter, more flexible and cushioning EVA foam for faster movement with less load and need for durability to heavy, dense, stiff, leather for slower movement for big loads over long hauls and many years. As a rule of thumb, lighter colors denote less dense/stiff/durable properties, increasing as the color darkens
Upper: All the parts that work to hold your foot on the midsole. Synthetics will be used to save weight and create specific shapes while leather is still favored for durability, maintenance, and long-term comfort as it shapes to the foot.
Shank: Stiffening element in the Midsole usually placed under the Arch. Can be metal or synthetic, simple or more technical based on the designed use of the shoe or boot.
Lacing placket: The material, eyelets or lugs, and lace of the Upper.
Toe box: The front of the shoe, ending at the lower end of the Lacing Placket. The dimensions (shape, height, width) on hiking shoes will usually be more generous, allowing the toes to spread out, improving balance and stability on rough terrain.
Sock liner: Removable material inside the shoe between the foot and the midsole. Not to be confused with an Insole, the Sock liner is frequently the cheapest part of the shoe and is intended to give a good first impression of a shoe in the store. Most can be removed and crumpled in one hand. An actual insole will provide true arch support and more durable materials.
Insole: Supportive device between the foot and midsole. Should be selected based on specific fit and features for the wearer/footwear.
Heel Cup: Back of the shoe. Should be shaped such that your heel matches up pretty closely. Poorly fitted/worn shoes are obvious when the lining has been worn away by too much heel movement.
Instep: Highest part of the top of the foot. What you see when you look down. A 'taller' instep generally denotes a higher 'volume' foot.
Arch: The part of the bottom of your foot that is (usually) not in contact with the ground when standing. Can also describe the bone structure of the foot where the calcaneus, talus, and navicular bones meet. When the bones are properly supported, the joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles have less work to do, and fewer problems are likely.