How to buy and break in the perfect pair of hiking boots

Hiking boot

The movie adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild opens with Reese Witherspoon inspecting her blackened toenails and bloodied feet—the result of wearing too-small hiking boots. In frustration, she flings her footwear over a cliff—a moment that may be far too familiar to some outdoor enthusiasts.

Even if you’re not setting out on a 1,100-mile journey of self-discovery, finding the right hiking boots can mean the difference between brutal blisters and a successful trek. Here’s how to keep your feet happy on your next hike:

Determine what type of boots you need

What type of terrain are you hoping to cover? What will the climate be like? Will you be carrying a load? How long will you be hiking for? Not all boots are created equal, so you’ll need to answer these questions before making your purchase.

For example, if you’re doing moderate backpacking or day hikes, hiking shoes may be your best option. For more hardcore adventuring—including carrying a heavier load, winter treks, or scrambling—you’ll want to look into hiking boots, mountaineering boots, and approach shoes.

Seek out professional advice

While countless retailers sell boots online, opt for an in-store experience instead. With a range of materials and styles to choose from, you’ll want to try on different options before investing. While there, take advantage of skilled professionals on staff to learn more about function and fit. And don’t forget to bring along the type of socks that you’ll be hiking in; wool, merino, or synthetic sweat-wicking socks are best.

Choose secure, not small

Like any other pair of new shoes, boots may not feel comfortable straight out of the box. Chances are, they’ll be a bit snug, but as Witherspoon’s character illustrated, they shouldn’t be too small. Make sure that you can wiggle your toes and that your foot is lying flat. Hiking boots also shouldn’t be painful, rub, or pinch.

Test them out

Hikes rarely happen exclusively on flat ground; that’s why you’ll need to walk up and down some stairs or ramps to get a sense of proper fit. As you walk, ensure that your heel doesn’t slide or lift.

Get your hiking boots ready for action

Once you’ve found your perfect boots, give them some love. For added comfort, slip in high-quality insoles, which will improve comfort and regulate temperatures. While hiking boots are often already waterproof, you’ll want to add a coating of waterproofing spray, paying careful attention to any seams. For leather boots, use oil to condition the leather and further improve their resistance to moisture.

Break them in

We don’t blame you for wanting to test our your new swag immediately. However, patience is key—while some models break in faster than others (fabric boots for example, require less time), you’ll need to give the boots time to mould to your feet. With your hiking socks on, wear your boots around the house or while running errands. Next, up the ante with short hikes before finally progressing to full day treks.