ASK THE EXPERT: WHAT BOOTS SHOULD I BUY AND HOW DO I LOOK AFTER THEM?
Top 10 Essential Tips from RAW Travel’s qualified mountain leaders
1. Buy the right style of boots for you. But which ones are the right ones? Let’s start with the musts. They must be waterproof, and they must have a good sole with good grip – look for Vibram or a similar recognised mark such as Contagrip. Whether to go for full leather boots or lighter-weight fabric and Goretex, is up to you – it’s purely a matter of personal choice and what else you might use them for. For example, we wouldn’t choose heavy leather boots if we were planning a trek in a very hot country, or taking them on a long backpacking trip; but they would be perfect for a more technical route where crampons might be required, or for trekking in a colder/snowy country, or using them for snowshoeing.
2. Choose boots that are the right length for your feet. There are many good makes of hiking boots, and to be honest finding the right make and model for you just comes down the the fit on your foot. In an ideal world, you’d find a pair of boots that gave you about 1cm or one thumb-width (whichever is greater) between your toes and the front of the boot, and they would fit everywhere else – the heel, width, and so on – perfectly. Unfortunately, humans don’t have identikit feet, so this rarely happens. The golden rule is never try to accommodate another part of your foot (narrow heels, slim ankles, etc) by going a size smaller and pushing your toes too close to the front of the boot. Why? Because you can make adjustments for most other parts of the foot, but you cannot change the fact that a boot is too small and your toes will be in agony squeezed up against the boot.
3. Prioritise toe room when buying boots. Of course, ideally, you should try on several different makes and find one which suits your feet everywhere. However, if you’re experiencing trouble with many boots having too much volume around the heel and/or ball of the foot, experiment with heel gel pads and/or insoles to take up the volume. This is also recommended if you’ve already bought a pair of boots and are finding they have a little too much room round the ankle or ball of the foot.
4. Try the boots going uphill and downhill This means outdoors (if at all possible) or at least on a proper boot-trying ramp with an uneven surface/stones etc. Any good outdoor retailer should provide one of these. Going up and down the stairs simply isn’t sufficient.
5. Wear the same socks you prefer to wear for hiking. There are all sorts of opinions on socks so you need to decide what works for you and stick to it. Take your own socks with you. Don’t rely on the testing socks in the shop: they usually bear no resemblance to the socks you’d wear on a trek.
6. Ask the shop assistant to explain the lacing system. This is really important. If they don’t have a clue, either take a friend who is a regular hiker with you, or shop elsewhere.
Okay, so you’ve found a great new pair of boots you’re really happy with – now what?
7. Look after them! Fabric boots usually need gentle scrubbing. Never use detergent, only tepid water or very mild soap flakes; detergent can ruin your waterproofing and is very difficult to rinse off. Then they will need respraying or recoating with Goretex-suitable waterproofing, at least once a year and maybe 2-3 times if you use them a lot. Leather boots need slightly more work – continual applications of a suitable leather/nubuck cream or wax after every few hikes. They also need treating after you get them out of the cupboard if you haven’t used them in a while (and ideally before you put them in the cupboard, too).
8. If you get soaked, dry your boots slowly and carefully. Never apply too much direct heat – don’t put boots on radiators, or too close to roaring fires. Be very careful with the hot-air blowers designed for ski-boots – don’t have them on too high a setting and don’t leave your boots on them for more than a couple of hours. It is better both for the longevity of your boot and the state of your feet to dry them slowly, even if it means they aren’t 100% dry the next day, than to blast them and end up with hard crinkly boots which no longer fit your feet as well.
9. Store your boots properly if you aren’t using them regularly. Bear in mind that storage itself can age and damage boots. Don’t just assume you can take your old favourites out of the cupboard and wear them on a trek without checking them over. In the case of leather boots, they will need a pre-use treatment with suitable wax or cream. For all boots (especially if you live in a hot humid zone) check that the sole isn’t becoming detached from the upper.
10. Check the grip on the soles of your boots. Regardless of the state of the uppers, if you have worn the soles down to the point where there is little grip, you either need them re-soling (proper Vibram or similar soles, no compromises) or you need new boots.
Good luck and happy walking!