Let's face it - when hiking your feet are pretty important things to take care of. As with all things, there are many different things to consider, and many footwear manufacturers ready to supply footwear with features you may or may not need.
There is a traditional view of a hiker lumbering along with heavy hobnailed boots. Do you need to go to that extreme? Consider the ultralite philosophy in which boots are eschewed in favor of sneakers. They don't last long, but are light and cheap. While the lack of ankle support is an obvious issue, this has been argued against by the ultralite folks. Personally, if you are restricting yourself to maintained and groomed (or at least relatively clear) tracks, they could be fine. Cross-country might be a different matter. Repeatedly digging shoes out of mud could get a bit ordinary after time.
Basic army-style combat boots obviously can handle a range of hiking conditions. From experience, they are generally up to the task, but may be heavier than civilian boots, not overly comfortable, and remember - army equipment has probably been made by the cheapest contract bidder.
There are a myriad of civilian boots to choose from. What are the considerations?
I won't go through a tedious listing of the range of features – feel free to comment if I have made some glaring omission. Remember to think how they relate to the type of hiking you want to do. Day hikes on groomed paths, multi-day cross country, and so on. The illustrated models are simply to illustrate points - not endorsement. There are a veritable buttload of footwear models to try out and choose from. I personally have a lower-priced high cut leather boot.
It is nice to get a pair of footwear that fits well in length and width. Most manufacturers provide a range of different width fits. If they don't, compare different brands. Sizings can vary between brands. There are a couple of things to remember when fitting footwear. First - wear the type of socks you intend to wear while hiking. The thin cotton socks with pom-poms you wear while shopping may lead you to select a pair that are too small. Second, go shopping in the afternoon. Your feet expand later in the day as they heat up. It is preferable (if you can't get a perfect size) to have your boots a bit bigger rather than smaller and scrunching your toes. Undersized boots will lead to blisters and cramps. Oversized boots just lead to blisters. Third - and a trick for young players - if you plan to wear undersoles make sure the boots are high enough inside so that your feet are not pressed against the inside top of the boot upper. Most good outdoors stores (particularly those that sell rock climbing gear) will have some sort of inclined ramp to stand on and work out how the pressure on your foot changes with slope. Check out how the footwear feels on uphill and downhill slopes. Going downhill will put pressure on your toes, uphill will put pressure on your heels. Check also how they feel laterally (side on) on the slope.
Footwear can range from running shoes through mid-length to high-length combat-type boots. Personal opinion... select according to task. Light low-cuts are fine for clear tracks. You won't drag your feet as much. Hence you are less likely to trip over, and more likely to look around and enjoy yourself. Medium height boots are more secure on your feet, and I find are less prone to attacks from deadly burrs and speargrass, which are totally annoying. This can be reduced by using gaiters. I just use bloused pants (elastic at the bottom of my pants) to serve the same purpose.
Personally, I wear higher lacing army-style boots. Force of habit. I'm used to them, and they are general purpose. I don't derisively sneer at those with you-beaut light go-fast boots. I just enviously try to keep up.
One comment on eyelets and lacing. I recommend avoiding fast-lacing systems - particularly the open U-shaped eyelets. One snag on a branch can release them and you have to re-lace. The closed O-shaped rings are tolerable. I prefer the good old fashioned eyelets. If your laces come undone, the boots still stay on.
Material and structure
There is a current trend for synthetic, usually touted as waterproof, materials to be used for the boot upper. These materials are generally light and waterproofness may be seen as an advantage. Often they are coupled with insulating materials such as Thinsulate. I have reservations about their longevity – particularly given the cost - and the overemphasis on waterproofing. I prefer leather.
To explain... Hiking boots are not gumboots/wellies/rubber boots (terminology depending on where you come from). You will get water in them. You can have beautifully waterproof low-cut boots, but they will not survive the first river crossing dry. As an aside, I used to hunt with some guys who hiked in gumboots. They swore by them. I just got blisters when I tried. A certain degree of waterproofness is good if you are walking through damp grass and want to keep your tootsies dry - I waterproof the toes of my boots. However, trying to tiptoe over rocks to keep your feet dry during a river crossing is a recipe for a twisted/broken ankle or knee. Far better to bite the bullet, get a firm footing and wet tootsies, and dry out on the other side. I keep it simple with my leather GP boots with some waterproofing wax compound. As a caution, too much waterproofing can soften and stretch leather, so be sparing.
One of the buzzwords that's get bandied around is the degree of support a boot provides. It has been argued (not unreasonably) that you should not rely on a boot to provide, say, ankle strength. Your body should be conditioned well enough to do any hike in sandshoes. Low-cut, and even mid-cut boots provide limited support anyway. That being said, I've twisted my ankle a few times in my GP's. Admittedly I was racing around in jungle with a full pack. I consider the ankle support issue to be a bit of a non-issue (with one notable exception - see below). If you have light boots, you can place your foot more readily and not get tired as quickly. However, under load that extra bit of support can help.
One feature you may find is a metal shank in the sole to provide 'support'. I'm sceptical of these for normal hiking (why add the weight?). My GP's don't have one - they seem fine. I have another army-style pair with a ¾ shank, and I don't notice any increase in support. There is one situation that springs to mind in which a stiffening shank is very useful - wearing crampons and ice climbing. This is also a situation in which ankle support is useful (mentioned above). My ice-climbing experience is limited, so I welcome comments from anyone about their opinions on suitable boot options.
In the bad old days leather boots needed to be broken in, usually by soaking in water and hiking around in them. There is less need to do that with modern materials however I do recommend some breaking in before a long hike. This is as much to break-in your feet, as well as your boots. If the most you walk during a day is to the office coffee machine, then your feet will be soft. Combine this with getting wet feet on the trail, and your feet sliding on the inner sole of the boot up and down hill, then you could be in for a sore time. I've never had blister problems, even in crappy army boots. However I also used to wash my feet in methylated spirits for a week or two if I had been out of boots for a while. It hardens the skin. To all you dirty filthy smokers out there - extinguish your durries before doing this!
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