The notion of reviewing boots, as you have probably guessed, is a semi-frivolous one. It’s not really possible to rank boots in the same way as other gear because there are so many relative factors. Just as everybody’s feet are different and have a unique collection of needs, so all boots are different (but not necessarily better). Having a trained fitter look at your feet is always the best option.
With all that said, we still do think reviews are important and beneficial. We also think that you can make some general qualitative judgements applicable to all models. The purpose of our reviews, and this site in general, is to help you acquire a body of knowledge about some of the different models on the market. Couple that with an understanding of your feet and you should be able to decide which are best for you and your type of walking activity.
Our method is essentially quite simple. First, we will (loosely) place the boot into one of the three categories described below. We’ll then evaluate each of the different parts of the boot in a top down manner, beginning with the upper and ending with the sole, whilst always keeping the particular kind of activity we think it’s best designed for in mind.
Type of Activity
The first step is to determine which type of activity a boot is best suited for. This isn’t a qualitative criteria as such. There really are no hard and fast rules about which boots are suitable for different types of hiking activity, despite what many would have you believe. I know people who have walked entire trails in sandals and ascended mountains in trail shoes.
That said, we do offer some loose (and I emphasis that term) guidelines about what kind of boots are best for specific activities. Generally speaking we have three categories: low, medium and high intensity walking, with a lot of cross-over in-between.
High-Intensity covers every type of activity short of mountaineering. Backpacking over long distances, mountain and munroe ascents and rocky trails with lots of scrambling. There’s two main criteria at play here: the length of time that you need to use a boot and the amount of protection that you’ll need (including support). A great example of a high-intensity pair of boots are the Meindl Burmas. These will commonly be referred to as Trekking Boots or Backpacking Boots.
Medium-Intensity refers to lowland trail-walking, weekend hikes and activities of a similar sort. Medium intensity boots need to have good protection and medium support, and be made with durable materials. Immediate comfort is more of a criteria here and we’ll look for a reasonable amount of flex right off the bat.
The Lowa Rangers are a superb example of what we would consider a mid-intensity pair of boots, as are the Keen Targhees.
There’s a lot of crossover between medium and high intensity models (The Scarpa Rangers, for example). Hill-walking boots (as they’re commonly called) are a good example that fall in this middle ground.
Low-Intensity are boots with minimal protection whose intended use is light (day-trips) hiking and everyday use. Comfort is paramount. They’re usually referred to as Approach Shoes.
Evaluating the Boots
We find that we can usually cover all of these criteria by looking at the boot in a top-down manner: starting with the upper and moving down to the sole.
- Weight: The lighter the better. The type of activity is important to remember here.
- Upper: We will look at the toughness of the materials, the breathability, the waterproofing and propensity of the design for leakage (especially the seams in fabric boots) and the quality of both the lining and cushioning.
- Heel-Counter: Stiffer is usually better except in approach shoes.
- Toe-Cap: We like solid toe-caps. Period.
- Insole: We look for good cushioning (preferably with some kind of memory-foam material). Higher-end boots will usually have a good insole.
- Midsole: The main purpose of the midsole is to support your foot and absorb shock. High-intensity boots need harder mid-soles to withstand continued shock whereas for lower intensity models comfort is more important.
- Outsole: Traction and durability are what we’ll look for. We like deep lugs and hard-wearing rubber.
- New technologies: We like to learn about the “new technologies” that have supposedly been invented for each new pair of boots and how they improve any of the factors described above.
Performance & Quality of Materials (Waterproofness, breathability, texture etc.)
Waterproofness and breathability are fairly easy to determine. It’s unusual for a pair of boots not to be waterproof. Seams are the main point of leakage after hard wear.
The term “support” refers to a boot’s ability to restrict the sideways movement of your ankles. Protection refers to the extent to which your foot will be protected from jagged and uncompromising terrain. A stiff sole and midsole will provide this. Rands are good.
Different materials tend to offer different levels of comfort and we try to take as objective a few as possible when analysing comfort. Comfort isn’t a hard-and-fast feature that can readily be measured. A fast-breaking soft boot like the Karrimor Aspen, whilst great for everyday light walking, will have you grimacing in pain after several days on a tough trail whereas the reverse is true for a rugged pair of boots like the Meindl Burmas.
Traction (Quality of Sole)
It can seem, due to the fact that the majority of boots nowadays are made using a Vibram sole, that traction isn’t really an issue any more. Not all Vibram soles are made equal, however. There’s also a lot of good boots (the Salomon Quests and the Keen Targhees for example) that don’t use Vibram. This tends not to be an issue with higher-end models so we focus on this more for boots further down the price range.