Backpacking Boots

7:12 p.m. on May 17, 2004 (EDT)

I am currently trying to purchase a pair of boots for backpacking. I want to know what the difference is between light, mid, and heavy duty backpacking boots, so I can purchase the best pair for me.

9:35 p.m. on May 17, 2004 (EDT)
4,419 reviewer rep
6,010 forum posts
Simple-minded answer

...difference is between

light - light in weight, light duty, for light to no loads. Depending on your legs/ankles/feet might not give enough support for anything beyond good trails and short hikes, although some of us have been known to use trail-running shoes for carrying full climbing packs (70-80 pounds with all the ropes and hardware) crosscountry and up talus slopes with no problems. Usually these are soft enough that they require little to no breaking in and usually produce fewer blisters if the fit isn't perfect.

mid - midway between "light" and "heavy". Good compromise in support, durability, and boot weight for moderate backpacking. If fit by a good bootfitter (not your neighborhood Big 5 store, or even most REI or EMS sales types), these break in fairly easily and will give good service on trails that are not well maintained, plus moderate crosscountry hikes.

heavy duty backpacking boots - heavy to very heavy in weight, very stiff (may take literally hundreds of miles and several years with lots of blisters to break them in, unless you get a top-notch bootfitter), for heavy loads carried long distances over rough terrain, especially crosscountry. If you get into serious mountaineering terrain, you will want heavy duty boots.

Note that an important term here is "bootfitter" - preferably very experienced, professionally trained. If the boot is fit properly, it will require much less breaking in. If not, you will be in for lots of blisters, possibly sore arches, ankles rubbed raw (even with top-quality socks), sore achilles tendon, shin splints, lots of other leg and foot ailments.

Some other things to look for - weight - "a pound on the foot is equivalent to 5 pounds on your back" (a scientific study of this old saw was published in the last year, and the equivalent they found was 1 pound on the foot to 6.4 pounds on the back). Heavier boots will take more energy to hike in, although they will protect your feet better.

mesh vs all leather vs .... - If you will be hiking on dusty or sandy trails, the fine particles can get through the mesh found on the tops and sides of some boots and many trail shoes and trail-running shoes. This will work its way through your socks and can rub your feet raw. Mesh also lets water through during rain or when crossing streams and marshy places. But, the mesh is nice for hot humid weather, because it allows your feet to breath, so a tradeoff. Goretex-lined boots are pretty waterproof, but may not allow your feet to breathe sufficiently if you tend to get sweaty feet. Full leather boots don't breathe as well as mesh, especially the thicker heavy duty boots, and the leather requires more care than fabric boots. But it sure is nice when it gets properly broken in (I use all-leather boots for my day hikes and backpacking trips, but sometimes use the trail-running shoes to lighten the load on my feet if the trail is not a dusty or muddy one).

Consider custom footbeds, especially the thermofit type. They sure make the boot fit better and hike more comfortably, even when your feet fit a particular boot "perfectly" (as mine do in certain manufacturers' lines). A top-notch bootfitter will be able to handle this.

enough for now, since I know others will chime in - Ed? Jim? Les? Brian? Steve?

11:09 a.m. on May 18, 2004 (EDT)
28 reviewer rep
1,261 forum posts
Sorry, not much for me to add to this most excellent post

The only boot concerns I have as a Southeastern hiker is:

Is the boot waterproof

Is the boot breathable and won't make my feet swet

Is it high enough to keep sand from flicking into the boot.

I just purchased a Vasque Talus GTX mid height trail running boot. Synthetic uppers and built on a running shoe last. These will be my boots of choice from now on.

I also have a pair of Vasque Clarion GTX boots that are meant for "light" hiking. Nice boots, but very stiff for me.

2:14 p.m. on May 18, 2004 (EDT)

Sorry, not much for me to add ...ditto here, but...

Danielle... If you ask a broad question, Bill S will swallow it hook, line, and sinker and starts a whole new chapter on it. I mean it in a nice way because I always enjoy reading his threads and I do learn a lot from him (Thanks Bill ;-).

If you think you need to narrow down your choice, you may repost with your style of backpacking or post more info, e.g. urban-Euro backpacking, gentle trail hiking, steep-long hiking, pack weight, body weight vs. physical condition vs. ankle support, multiple stream x-ing, regional climates/seasons (FL, AZ, NH, WA, AK...?),...etc, etc; and perhaps someone here can help you further to narrow down your choice.

Keep in mind that you may not find the right pair of boots in your first try, so make sure you can return for exchange/refund, or prepare to resell them on the web.

I tailor what I wear (light sneakers or med-wt army boots) base on pack weight, trail condition, remoteness, weather (temp, rain, snow), gut feeling, and experience. I'm not a booty gear head, so I'll pass on any further discussion.

Enjoy your backpacking :-)

9:13 p.m. on May 19, 2004 (EDT)
37 reviewer rep
749 forum posts


I am currently trying to purchase a pair of boots for backpacking. I want to know what the difference is between light, mid, and heavy duty backpacking boots, so I can purchase the best pair for me.

Hi Daniele et All... (;->)
I can tell by the way you phrased this question that you do not know what kind of terrain you are going to be on, but I'm guessing that someone is taking you backpacking in beginner mode which means you will be on trails carrying somewhere between 15 and 30 pounds, and you are not currently in condition to carry that pack too awfully far.

I have to use a different grouping than Bill...
Real heavy - serious mountaineering boots for crampons.
mountaineering heavy leather boots.
Medium weight hiking boots of thick leather.
Light weight hiking boots - medium construction with lighter materials - still protect ankles.
"High topped tennis shoes"

The last would weight the least, but the weight on your back might destroy your feet in that light of shoe, I'm guessing here that you don't have extremely strong tough feet. I would suggest a light boot that comes above your ankle, is relatively thick on the top to provide padding to your ankle and to help avoid a twisted ankle should your foot slip off a rock, and a good tread on the sole. The presence of a vibram sole probably indicates that you are on the right track. Lastly, they should fit like a glove, but not too tight. I generally put on twp pairs of socks when I buy boots, then wear one only when hiking - your feet swell and this extra space is needed.

June 23, 2018
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