Season Ratings: Manufacturers really like season ratings. For all year round mountain walking below the snowline, most people will be happy with a 3-season boot. If you occasionally wear crampons, a crampon-compatible 3/4-season boot is a reasonable compromise. If you plan to use crampons a lot, budget for a four-season boot for winter use and a lighter boot for the rest of the time.
Our advice would be to choose the lightest boot you're happy with, but bear in mind that on rocky ground or with a heavy pack, some people prefer a stiffer sole unit for added support. Fully-stiffened, four-season boots though tend to be too inflexible for comfortable walking and are a short-cut to the blister ward...
Different Fits: There's no such thing as the 'right boot', just the right boot for your foot. Different manufacturers make boots in different shapes and volumes based on what they reckon the typical buyer will want. That means Italian boots may be narrower than, say, American boots.
The shape the maker chooses is called a 'last' and is actually a wooden or plastic artificial foot, around which the boot is designed. You want the brand whose last is closest in shape and volume to your foot, so shop around and try different brands. The best reviewed boot in the world is useless if it doesn't fit you.
Leather or Fabric: Leather is a great boot material. Modern hides use special tanning processes to give a durable, highly water repellent finish while maintaining toughness and breathability. 'Fabric' boots on the other hand, tend to use a mix of Nylon or Cordura and suede leather with a waterproof liner for added protection. Fabrics tend to be lighter and can be more comfortable at first, but the waterproof liners can be sweaty in hot weather.
More and more boots are lined with a combination of wicking fabric and foam. High quality foam will give an immediately comfortable feel and minimise breaking in - not generally an issue with modern boots anyway - but fit is still crucial, so feel for tight spots and potential rubbing zones.
Waterproof Breathable Liners: Lots of boots, both fabric and leather, are now available with waterproof and breathable liners. In some conditions these work pretty well, but in warmer weather, they sometimes aren't breathable enough and can lead to very hot, sweaty, damp feet and eventually blistering.
Well-tanned waterproof leather performs extremely well and combined with a high-wicking lining, is arguably a better all-round solution for most walkers.
Construction: Most boots are made along the same lines: an upper, designed to encase the foot and protect and support it, a stiffener or shank element which gives the boot lateral stability and torsional rigidity which you need to walk on uneven ground, a mid-sole to provide cushioning and an outsole of lugged rubber which provides grip and protection. Some of this is visible from the outside, much isn't, and often it's the invisible bits which give better brands an advantage. There's a simple three step guide to checking the basics though:
1. Pinch the heel area of the boot upper between thumb and forefingers. You're looking for a stiff, supportive heel-cup, which is essential to stability. If the area feels soft and pliable, your heel is more likely to shift around leading to overall instability.
2. Grasp the forefoot and rear section of the sole and try and twist them in opposite directions. There should be minimal give. If the sole twists easily, it will give limited support on uneven ground and when using a heavy pack.
3. Try bending the forefoot. You're looking for a flex point that corresponds to where your foot bends. The boot doesn't need to be massively stiff, but it needs to flex where your foot flexes.
Get these three right and you're on the way to a good boot.
Other bits to look out for: Lace hooks might not sound interesting, but a well-designed set can make a real difference. Free-flowing eyelets are good - look for rounded contours - that make it easy to get an even pressure with one tug of the laces. Even better are setups that allow you to lace the ankle and forefoot sections at different tensions, particularly with full winter boots.
Rubber rands and toe bumpers are great for protecting the leather upper, particularly in stony or scree environments, less useful for lowland walking.
Buying Boots: First, put aside a decent amount of time. You don't want to make a snap decision. Shop in the afternoon when your feet will have swollen slightly, take your own walking socks along with you and choose a shop with experienced staff and a decent spread of brands.
Explain to the shop staff what you're looking for and try a selection of boots for fit. In general terms, you're looking for a comfortable fit with no tight spots. The boot needs to be long enough that your toes don't hit the ends on descents but still prevent your heel from lifting when climbing.
When you've found a pair that feel about right, wear them around the shop for ten minutes or so and see how they feel - watch out for rubbing, tight spots, heel lift or a forefoot that flexes in the wrong place. If you're happy, buy them and take them home. Next wear them inside for a while. Good shops will happily exchange a boot you're unhappy with as long as it hasn't been worn outside.
Large boots are not your only option in the great outdoors. Taking into account the activity you are going to undertake and the time of year, there are lots of options open to you.
For years, walkers wandered around in heavy, full leather walking boots, winter or summer, rain or shine. That's fine when there's snow on the ground but as fell runners demonstrate, you can handle some pretty tough terrain even in lightweight, barely stiffened shoes. So what's out there and what should you be aware of if you're in the market for a pair of outdoor shoes?
Why? Shoes have some major pluses over full boots - for starters, they're almost always lighter, and over the course of a day in the hills, that weight reduction adds up to less fatigue simply because you're lifting less weight against gravity.
Next, because shoes expose more of your foot area to cooling air, they also tend to be more breathable and, as a result, more comfortable in hot conditions. Some models include mesh panels for seriously hot weather.
High ankle cuffs may give an illusion of stability and the feel of the boot against your ankle may seem supportive, but boots can also be restrictive particularly on uneven ground. Because shoes allow your ankles to flex more easily they can be more agile and give improved balance and poise on uneven ground.
The faster you move, or intend to move, the more sense shoes make. Overall boots probably are more stable and sturdy and usually last longer, but if you're good on your feet and choose carefully then a good pair of shoes can be a fantastic alternative.
The Basics: One reason shoes are often regarded as less stable than boots is basic construction; many trainer type shoes are too flexible, however the basic tests detailed above in the boot section (heel cup, sole twist and flex tests) will help you choose a shoe that can offer as much support and stability as a boot and it's something you can do before buying.
Obviously on top of these considerations, you're looking for a good fit without tight spots or excessive movement. Pay particular attention to heel-lift with shoes - it's easier for your heel to rise up.
Trail Running Shoes: More and more outdoor footwear brands are producing 'trail-running shoes'. Some are actually quite good, many though lack the cushioning to cope with hard surfaces, although there is a new school of thought that this makes you move more naturally, as you can better feel the ground you are moving over. These types of shoes tend to be minimalist, close-fitting and sacrifice cushioning for a thin, heavily gripped sole unit that will improve stability by keeping your foot as close to the ground as possible. Look for a sole unit that combines a low profile with slightly more cushioning and support than a pure fell shoe. You should also look for a lacing system that allows a close, wrap-around fit to stop 'foot slop' on uneven ground and a grippy sole unit.
Many so called 'cross trainers' are effectively useless for off-road running. They're simply too heavy, lack cushioning and sole grip and have thick sole units that make them far too unstable on rough terrain. Some make perfectly adequate walking shoes, but simply won't cut it for running.
Trail Walking Shoes: Cushioning is less crucial than with runners and sole units can be near enough the same as lightweight walking boots. With a stable sole unit, a shoe can be just as effective as a boot but with greater agility and less weight.
As with boots, fit is crucial for all-day use, so try different brands until you find a pair that works with your particular feet.
Approach And Scrambling Shoes: Approach shoes were initially developed for climbers. The idea was to produce a climbing trainer that could be worn on moderately rough and scrambly ground during walk-ins to routes then swapped for rock boots. Of course, they also became a casual uniform shoe for climbers.
Quite a few now use sticky climbing 'rebound' rubber for all-round grip and a whole sub-set of shoes developed for use on scrambles and low-grade climbs with climbing-style lacing for a secure fit from the uppers together with refinements like toe and heel rands. The rubber on these shoes wears faster than conventional rubber in general use, but gives great grip on scrambles and rock generally.
If you're buying a scrambling shoe for use on rock with small edging holds or on via ferrata, look for one with a good, stiff, sole unit that allows edging on small ledges. If you anticipate more smearing, then flexibility, or at least lengthways flexibility is your friend.
Look too for lacing systems that start close to the toe like a rock boot for a good, close, non-rolling fit.
Waterproof Liners: As with boots, any waterproof / breathable liner will increase versatility in damp conditions, or at least keep the water out. The downside is that in hot conditions, your feet will tend to get hot and sweaty.
Hot Weather Walkers: If you're buying shoes especially for hot conditions, you have several options. One is a shoe / sandal hybrid based on rafting sandal technology but with a more sophisticated sole unit. The best of these work very well and expose as much of the foot as possible to cooling air. The other option is a shoe with mesh panels and no waterproof liner.