The wrong hiking boots can turn an enjoyable activity into an experience to be endured. Manufacturers of hiking boots use a rating system from A to D to classify hiking boots - A being light and flexible to D which is heavy and rigid. Each type has its place in hiking. You'll know what you need based on the kind of hiking you plan to do.
Sandals are lightweight and breathable. They work best on easy terrain and shorter hikes. Many hikers bring along a pair of sandals for crossing water or to let their feet breathe when the terrain allows.
Technically a running shoe, these shoes have extra support and design features to help on trails. They have extra toe reach and the traction is designed to maximize grip on terrain that may have loose dirt, rocks, and sticks. They often provide more protection from weather conditions as well. This type of hiking gear is lightweight and comfortable. They are best used on easy terrain.
These entry level boots are made with lightweight materials such as nylon or suede coupled with sturdy leather. They are heavier than a trail running shoe but can usually be comfortably worn right out of the box or with little breaking in. They are designed with extra support for the foot and ankle to prevent injury while hiking. Heavier boots in this class will have extra features such as a gusseted tongue to prevent water from entering the boot. They are sometimes cut below the ankle bone but many will come over the ankle for added support.
The sole of this type of boot is more rigid to allow you to use them on rougher terrain and with a pack. Rigid soles protect the feet and arches from fatigue and injury. The materials used in their construction, such as the leather, are thicker making them more durable. The cut is over the ankle and more rigid for protection during falls or while walking over rough terrain. You will need to break in this type of boot to be able to use them comfortably on a long hike.
These boots are intended for rough terrain and some are designed to use crampons. Design is more technical with toe camps, specially designed cemented outsoles, and molded midsoles. They are often lined with synthetic materials for better comfort. The heavy construction of this type of boot provides added support and protection but does require training and breaking in to get used to them.
These are the most rigid boots and some border on being strictly for mountaineering. Most are designed to be used with crampons and have special attachment features on the toe. They are intended for climbing the roughest terrain and mountains. Some have hinges at the ankles, similar to ski boots, to aid in climbing on ice and other adverse conditions. They can be uncomfortable to wear on long hikes and require extensive training to get used to them. Some boots in this class will have a hard plastic shell while others have more flexibility with a thick leather exterior. Because they are often used at high altitudes, they also have extra insulation for warmth.
Know the type of hiking you plan to do and what you are comfortable wearing. All you may need is a sandal but if having dirty feet makes you uncomfortable a trail runner will work just as well. If you plan to carry a pack, remember that the heavier the load you carry, the more rigid your footwear needs to be.
Hiking boots should feel light on your feet unless you are getting a heavy duty boot for rugged, off terrain hiking. You want the lightest boot in the class you are considering. Light boots will help prevent lower body fatigue. Check the fit of the heel by lacing the boots tightly and rocking back and forth in the boot. If you heel comes up before the boot rises from the ground, you are going to get blisters. Boots should be snug but leave enough room for swelling after a day's worth of hiking. Buy boots that fit correctly the day you buy them. Anything you add on later should only add to the comfort.
Hiking boots should be able to grip in a variety of terrains and conditions ? wet, rock, sand, gravel, and mud. The softer the rubber the better the grip you will have. However, soft rubber does wear away quickly. Keep in mind that the more rigid the boots are, the more important their ability to grip becomes.
Mud can quickly build up and clog the bottom of your boots adding weight and compromising your grip. Boots with widely spaced lugs will shed mud more easily.
Releasing moisture is especially important if you hike in hot conditions. When your feet can't breathe moisture builds up and can begin to cause many problems beyond discomfort. Look for boots with good breathability. Many are designed with mesh uppers to allow moisture to escape. Cold weather boots should have some kind of breathable liner that allows moisture to move away from the foot.
The brand and line of boot that works best for you will be largely based on the shape of your foot so be sure to try on your boots before buying if at all possible. The brand is less important that fit.
Merrell is a well-known brand of hiking boot. Their Wilderness Original is a heavier boot but molds to the shape of your foot for maximum comfort.
Another solid brand in hiking boots, provides solid construction with good flexibility. Check out their TPS 535 for men or women.
Clarion and Breeze are two very popular and well-made Vasque boots. Vasque has a wide variety of boots from which to choose.