By Jane Marshall

Your feet. They’re your connection to the earth. Your foundation. And if you don’t treat them well, they do protest. Black toenails (think Wild), throbbing blisters and rubbed tendons. And it’s not as if you can stop using them. They’re pretty critical in terms of getting down a scree field, reaching the end of a hot sandy beach, and navigating tree roots on a backpacking trail.

That’s why it’s important to work with a professional to get the right pair. Not only will your tootsies be grateful, good footwear lasts longer and performs better. Especially in the great outdoors.

So how do you find the right pair?

First, determine your activity. Here are the main footwear categories:


  • Provide ventilation
  • Lightweight
  • Best suited for water activities, kayaking and canoeing, and hot climates

Trail Runners

  •  Beefed up running shoes
  • Sturdy soles with extra lugs to grip uneven terrain
  • Waterproofing often available

Hiking Shoes and Light Boots

  • Feel good right out of the box
  • Offer good support
  • Great for day hikes, but not meant for carrying weighted loads on longer trips

Cross hikers and Mid-Weight Boots

  • Good for weekend trips
  • More support around ankles and heels
  • More rugged soles

Backpacking Boots

  • Increased ankle support
  • Sturdy materials
  • Stiffer sole
  • Aggressive lugs on the soles
  • Designed to handle more pack weight


Good salespeople will size your foot either with a Brannock Device, or by removing the insole and having you stand on it. There should be some insole visible beyond your toes (this way your toes won’t hit the ends), but not too much, because if the footwear is too big, your foot will slide and get blisters.

Breaking In Your Boots

In the olden days when hiking boots meant wearing big leather beasts, a breaking in period had to happen. The leather would mould to your feet after a period of purgatory, and then they’d become your best friends. Now, with new materials and lasts (the form boots are built around), most footwear feels good right away. Full leather boots will take a little longer.

Your feet are another thing though — it’s likely you aren’t used to wearing boots for an extended period of time. Take walks before you leave. This helps toughen up your skin and will help you and your boots make nice.


This is key for multi-day hikes where there’s nowhere to warm up and dry off. Wet feet are a real downer. It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be cold and cranky out there in the wild. Dry feet help ensure comfort.

Waterproofing is often done with a full inner bootie made of either  Gore-Tex, or the footwear company’s own waterproofing, and the boot is built around it. It’s a good idea to add a breathable waterproof coating to the boot’s exterior too.

Take a Peek at What’s Underneath

You’ll get a good idea of a boot’s life purpose by looking deep into its soul. I mean sole. Rugged lugs are designed for variable trails. Think roots, rocks, mud. Lighter soles are better for trail running, though they’ll still look mean and aggressive as you’ll be running on uneven ground. Walking shoes have smoother soles and are more comfortable on flat trails and concrete.


If you know you’re going to be hard on your footwear, choose something with a toe bumper. Look for tough leather or abrasion-resistant material.