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Buyer's Guides

Three-Season Walking Boots | Buyer’s Guide

Check out our top tips to help you decide which is the best three-season walking boot for you.

Traditional leather uppers as seen on this Meindl Bhutan are durable and tough but need ongoing care.

Walking footwear is one area of your gear you absolutely want to get right – badly fitting boots or shoes will spoil your day in the hills big time and just to make things a little more difficult, it’s also a very personal choice on two levels.

First, everyone’s feet are different and the best boot in the world is useless to you unless it fits your foot shape. You’re looking for a fit that’s close enough not to feel sloppy, but with no tight spots. Bear in mind too that most modern boots shouldn’t need much breaking in thank’s to supple materials and cunning design.

Fabric uppers, often mixed with suede save weight and mean reduced breaking-in.

Second, what works for one person, may not work for another. Some walkers prefer solid, stiff-feeling traditional boots with lots of underfoot stiffness and high-ankled leather uppers. Others will prefer a lighter, more flexible boot with a more precise feel or even a lightweight trail shoe on exactly the same terrain. There is no wrong or right answer here, just what works for you.

Lighter, more flexible options tend to feel more agile and easier going over a long day, but they also demand better foot placement and agility. Heavier boots are more forgiving of rocky surfaces and tend to last longer as well, but you’re lifting more weight with every step.

For specific reviews including some recommendations in each category, check out our Best Three-Season Walking Boots 2016 round-up.

An all-round rubber rand, as seen on this AKU boot, improves resistance to abrasion damage from rock and scree.

All About Fit

We can’t stress this enough. Our advice is to find a good outdoors shop with experienced fitters and try lots of different brands till you find a pair that feels right on your feet. Ideally shop in the afternoon as your feet may swell slightly during the day and take your own walking socks and any aftermarket footbeds you use with you.

Uppers

Traditional leather tends to be durable and comfortable, but also a little heavier compared to fabric and hybrid-uppered boots. It also needs regular cleaning and treatments to keep it functioning at its best. It may also need more ‘breaking in’ before it fits your foot well.

If you like the feel of a higher-ankled boot, make sure there’s enough padding for comfort and enough flex built into the upper design that your ankles don’t feel splinted in place. Memory foam as used by the likes of Meindl, Mammut and Berghaus is the gold standard for padding as it moulds to your contours giving a great mix of comfort and support.

Slick lacing systems with optional locking lace hooks make for optimum adjustment and better comfort as a result.

Waterproof Liners

It’s actually quite hard to buy a walking boot without a waterproof liner these days. The omnipresent Gore-Tex is the most common technology,  but there are other, effective alternatives. Our favourite is the rare OutDry, which rather than being a floating sock liner, is bonded to the inside of the boots uppers which stops water pooling between outer and liner. See the Scarpa Marmolada Trek GTX for one of the few boots with this technology.

Upper Protection

Some boots designed for mountain use will have reinforcements to counter abrasion from rocks and scree in particular. These range from simple toe and heel reinforcements through to all-round protective rubber ‘rands’ which cover the lower section of the upper right the way round. Good for durability but they also add weight and rescue breathability.

The near-ubiquitous Gore-Tex liner tab, there are other decent waterproof options out there too.

Underfoot Structure

It’s a misconception that stability is down to supportive uppers. Most of it, in fact comes down to the ‘chassis’ of the boot and good heel fit. You’re looking for enough lengthways flex for comfortable walking – it’s a personal choice this – combined with a fair degree of lateral twisting resistance. Grab the heel and toe of the boot and twist in opposite directions, there should be a reasonable level of stiffness.

Boots which are really stiff lengthways walk best if the sole has a curved ‘rocker’ design so it rolls as you walk. Stiffer boots also work best for scrambling and for occasional crampon use. Its all very personal though, one walker may be happy in a flexible fell shoe, another will want a stiff, almost rigid platform on the same terrain. Neither is right or wrong, it’s just personal choice. If in doubt, aim somewhere in the middle.

Outsole

The best known outsole brand is Vibram, with its distinctive yellow label, but it’s by no means the only option, though it tends to give a good blend of grip and durability depending on the rubber compound and sole design. As a rule, deeper, big lugs will give more purchase on softer ground, while grip on rock and harder surfaces is determined by the rubber compound, with softer rubber like Vibram’s Megabyte, biting harder on rocky holds and in the wet.

Another market leader is the Vibram sole. Lots of different treads and compounds, but all with the same yellow badge.

Lacing

Something else to look out for is how slick and easy to use the lacing system is. Why? Laces that slide easily make it simpler to adjust tension to the most comfortable level. A further refinement used by some brands, are locking lace hooks that mean you can lace the forefoot and ankle sections of the boot to different tensions, which allows you to, say, have a snugly-held forefoot combined with a looser ankle for more comfort on walk-ins say.

Cushioning

Again it’s a personal call, but on harder ground, more cushioning will give you a softer, more comfortable ‘ride’. Many lighter boots use running shoe-style EVA foam mid-soles, which are springy and light, but deteriorate significantly faster than the heavier PU alternative.

KEEN has an interesting system which puts a plug of PU directly under your heel to give an impressive combination of comfortable cushioning and durability.

The toothier the sole unit, the more grip you can expect on softer ground, while rock tenacity is down to compound.

Footbeds/Insoles

Even top footwear brands tend to use very basic insoles to save costs. You can swap these for aftermarket footbeds from the likes of Superfeet and Sole, which give more support, but can also be used to slightly adjust the fit of the boot or shoe by reducing overall volume.

You can also fit so-called ‘volume adjusters’ under the footbed to achieve the same aim of changing the volume of a boot to better suit your foot. Worth a try if you’ve bought boots which are slightly too roomy for you and if you have issues with heel-lift on uphill stretches.

A well-designed ankle cuff will give a good balance of support, mobility and comfort.

Last, A bit About Lasting…

One final tip: a ‘last’ is a plastic or wooden foot form that the boot is built around and each brand has different lasts and sometimes several different lasts depending on the type of boot – technical mountaineering boots tend to have a closer, more precise fit.

What you’re looking for is the brand that uses the last which is closest to your own foot shape, because then the boot will fit you. It’s easy to be carried away by magazine reviews which laud a particular boot, but bear in mind, that if that boot’s last doesn’t suit you, it’s essentially useless to you.

In a nut shell, the best boot is the one that fits your foot best and, at the same time matches up to your personal preferences for weight, flexibility, ankle height, materials and more. There is no ‘best boot’ or ‘best buy’ just the one that’s best for you.

Ultimately, there’s no ‘best boot’, just what suits you. This Hoka One One is a classic leftfield choice.

We’ve reviewed around 20 of the best three-season hill and mountain-walking boots on the market to help you decide which might work best for you in our Best Three-Season Walking Boots 2016 round-up with individual mini-reviews of each boot, links to more detailed reviews and our picks for the best in different categories.

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