Covid has rekindled our love for walking as exercise – good for mind and mood, as well as for our bodies. Hiking is on the incline, and the perfect pair of walking boots are an investment worth making this winter as we prepare to wrap up and spend the colder months socialising outside in the fresh air, rather than indoors.
If you’ve recently found yourself dreaming of a ramble or yearning for the great outdoors, you’ll be in need of a decent pair of hiking boots to power up your adventures.
Choosing that pair can be tricky, especially because you’re looking at footwear that you want to last a good while. Generally speaking, a good pair of boots should keep you going for a minimum of three years; but a really great pair could last you seven, or possibly more.
So, which boots are the best for you? The key things to consider are weight, material and waterproof qualities. If you’re off for a mountainous hike in a wet climate, go hell for naturally water-repellent leather. Weekend walk on a neat, dry trail or a gentle wander around the grounds of a National Trust property? Opt for breathable, low-cut synthetic boots with an athletic, bouncy feel. City stroll? You might want to put a more fashionable foot forward. (Scroll down for a full guide on the benefits of leather versus fabric.)
Essentially, it’s a balancing act: think lightweight for day hikes, mid-weight for backpacking, and heavyweight for the stability you need for rough terrain and heavy loads. Of course, you quite possibly want one pair that can do all three – which is why I tested and reviewed a range of walking boots currently on the market, to find the best walking boots for women.
Here’s what I learned…
1. Scarpa Terra GTX
Why we like them: These perform well in the best and worst of British conditions, without compromising on weight or grip
The Scarpa Terra GTX’s are my favourite all-rounder boots for the conditions here in Blighty, thanks to their soft leather uppers and a trustworthy, waterproof Gore-Tex (GTX) inner membrane.
Scarpa is an outdoor footwear brand with roots in Italy and North America – but the Scarpa Terra GTX’s are designed specifically with fell walking across UK paths and hills in mind. They’re lightweight enough to chuck on for a casual stroll or picnic, but sturdy enough should you find yourself off the beaten track in wet, muddy conditions, or on a steep slope with a hefty bag in tow (perhaps on the cuesta of the Cotswold Hills, which have a a steep, west-facing scarp slope, and a plateau-like dip slope).
These boots have a thick but buoyant Vibram Energy sole (keep a note of that. Vibram is a market leader in functional soles, so if a pair of hiking boots flaunt their Vibram at you, you know they’re good quality). I found them to be comfortable straight away – agreeably plush, in fact – and they’re so nicely weighted that they make you want to skip and scarper your way through fields, rather than plod heavily.
The Meindl Bhutan boot is a serious trudger, suited to low level mountains (and even major mountain ranges). It’s heavy – but don’t let that put you off. The weight of the Bhutan will help you to keep your centre of gravity should you have a wobble, as will those high ankle sides (excellent if you’ve overstuffed your backpack, and are struggling to maintain your balance).
“Good hiking boots are a kit essential. Cheaper ones wear down quicker,” recommends health coach Bella Somerset, who runs small group treks in the Himalayas. “My Meindl boots have taken me hundreds of miles in the Himalayas and are still going strong – but you must wear them in, otherwise you can get nasty blisters.”
The Meindl is the boot to go for if you’re ready to tackle long distances over rough terrain. They look hardcore (because they are), but they’re rather luxurious in terms of comfort: the soft nubuck leather of the uppers is softly cushioning, they boast memory foam ankle support, and they lace up securely with strong fixings. And as they also happen to look rather stylish, there’s no harm putting them on for a gentler canal-side walk or a stomp through field and forest.
You’ll be the envy of your fellow walkers in these beauties. French brand Le Chameau has been stomping its way across all terrains since 1965; their boots are famously built to last (which is probably why the Duchess of Cambridge is regularly pictured walking around in her Le Chameau wellies). The country lifestyle brand also has a good line in walking boots, ideal for exploring nature: their ultra-lightweight, guaranteed waterproof Lite boots weigh just 625g and are made with environmentally friendly full grain leather, boast a ‘Deep Forest’ sole developed in partnership with tyre experts Michelin, and a memory foam sole – which means it only takes a few steps to wear them in.
Due to the tighter fit of the Chameau-Lite range, I’d recommend ordering a size larger than you would usually wear (I’m a size 6, but a size 7 in these). If you’re interested in how they manage to be so lightweight and breathable but also waterproof at the same time, they have a five-layer construction, preventing water from permeating the boot whilst simultaneously allowing vapour to escape easily.
Not all hikers are cut out for Scafell Pike. That said, despite its urban good looks, Grenson’s Nanette can handle a lot more than the average pavement walker can throw at it. Made of calf’s leather, the boots (favoured by Holly Willoughby on I’m a Celebrity) look rigid at first sight but are actually pretty much broken in from the off. I spent a day tramping around wet grassy terrain, and at the end my feet were in one piece and my ankles still felt supported (as someone who pronates merely walking to the newsagents, let alone hiking, support is high on my list of priorities).
What sets these boots above their fashion-oriented counterparts, though, is the sole – thick Goodyear Welted commando tread. Surprisingly, I find the boots incredibly light and don’t feel as though I’m lugging any extra weight around; something you’d never guess from just looking at them.
As a permanent sufferer of the cold, the shearling tongue, new for winter 2018, was a cosy touch. In fact, the Nanette is often marketed as a ski boot and US and Canadian fans rave about their weather-suitability in snowy conditions. But make no mistake, this is a thoroughly British boot – Grenson was founded in Northamptonshire, 150 years ago.
Just one piece of advice from Grenson: don’t dry them by the radiator and these cold-weather walking powerhouses should last and last. Let’s hope so. I’m taking them walking on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way soon; practical AND they’ll look good with an Aran jumper.
5. Vivo barefoot tracker hiking boots
I love these boots because they’re designed to feel as if you’re walking barefoot (despite being protected by soft heel-to-toe leather). My feet feel free but also ensconced; the flexible sole (it’s very bendy) is far thinner than that of so many other walking boots on the market, and it allows me to balance on my toes or on my heels, should I wish to.
I suspect that they’re excellent for alignment and posture, and with plenty of wiggle room for your toes, they promise “natural sensory feedback” from the ground, so if mindful hiking or forest bathing is your bag, they’ll definitely make you feel more rooted and grounded.
Yet the sole is still fairly firm, so they can still hold their own on wilder, rough terrains as well as easy scampers.
However, they do take some getting used to, and barefoot footwear tends to be Marmite: people love it or hate it. You have been warned.
Everyone said I was mad to take a box fresh pair of boots on a walking holiday. But I had a good feeling about this Sorel pair – built for serious wet weather and made from full-grain leather and waterproof suede.
I’m happy to report that they are a 10/10 for comfort. Rare is it that you can don a pair of walking boots, especially ones with leather round the ankle and wear them non-stop for a week, without a moment’s trouble. Plus, having got caught in a heavy hail storm, I can confirm that they are totally weather proof.
The rubberised sole has good grip and they look great, too. The only thing to be mindful of is the sizing – they come up a little small, so you’re probably best to go a half or whole size up, especially if you want to wear cosy walking socks.
7. Blundstone 584 rustic water-resistant Chelsea boot
Meet the best boots from Down Under. Blundstone was founded in the 19th century by settlers who emigrated from England to Tasmania and their Australian work boots have become synonymous with durability.
These water-resistant leather versions have found a permanent place in my hiking kit – the sheepskin inside sole means they’re seriously warm and the waterproof latex seams meant my feet stayed dry during a seriously rainy countryside hike, when others around me were drenched. They were also comfy; on first wear I had one tiny niggle around the elastic, but it didn’t come to anything and I’ve not noticed any rubbing since.
A friend who’s had hers for a couple of years tells me she might be getting to the point of re-waxing them to keep them fully weather-proof, but she’s a twice a day hardcore dog walker… so I don’t anticipate having to worry about that for a very long time.
8. KEEN women’s Terradora leather waterproof mid-hiking boots
Specifically designed for women, these have a nubuck leather upper, rubber outsoles, a breathable leather lining and one of those shock-absorbing EVA midsoles I like to go for.
The Terradora vie with the Scarpa Terra GTX’s in terms of comfort – but the Scarpa trump them when it comes to grip.
9. Berghaus Explorer Trek
The Berghaus Explorer Trek from the well-loved British brand is another brilliant example of a fabric walking boot designed well, and it comes recommended by the Duke of Edinburgh Award.
Like the Merrell Siren Edge Q2, it’s designed with fell walking in mind. They’re breathable, tough and well-cushioned, all at the same time, with an EVA midsole that absorbs stress and impact on the body. The sole is Berghaus’s own brand, OPTI-STUD®, and they have good grip even at vertiginous angles in wet conditions.
10. Danner Cascade Mountain Light women’s boots
The women’s Danner Mountain Light Cascade boots, first made in the Seventies, are quite possibly my top pick in terms of aesthetic. Just look at them! If you liked the look of the Meindl Bhutan’s, you’ll love these – worn by Reese Witherspoon in her Hollywood adaptation of Wild, the distinctive red laces are unmistakeably Instaworthy. But unlike so many other fashion-first hiking boots, they’re also practical and functional enough for hardcore backpacking, with a rugged Vibram Kletterlift outsole.
Unlike many of the other leather boots featured here, they’re not nubuck leather, but full-grain leather – so be warned, they need considerable wearing in, and they have a price tag to match. Long term, your patience, and the financial investment required, will be rewarded.
The one-piece leather design (which ages well and patinas over the years) means you’re fully protected from debris, and from the elements. They dry off quickly, and if you’re intrepid enough to wear them out, Danner offer recrafting services including part-replacement, leather care and restitching.
Hiking boot FAQ
Should I buy leather or fabric hiking boots?
So, man-made materials, or leather? Buttery, long-lasting leather hiking boots are a luxury when you get it right, but they can be harder to break in. They’re heavier, but more supportive than synthetic counterparts, and more durable (if cleaned and properly looked after). Like our own skin, leather is completely waterproof, yet breathable.
Full-grain leather is the most hardy against abrasion and water. The thicker it is, the more support, but the less flexibility and the more weight. Weight is another crucial consideration: weight lends support (crucial to reduce muscle strain if you have a heavy backpack, or if you’re hiking on difficult terrain), but it can drag you down. Nubuck leather is the finer, lighter leather that resembles suede. It’s more flexible and also water resistant, but not quite as durable.
Meanwhile, the technology of synthetic boots (usually polyester and nylon, vegan-friendly) has come a long way; they’re often lighter and less expensive, but can tear and will tend to absorb more water (luckily, clever waterproof membrane linings such as Gore-Tex (GTX), eVent or own-brand – such as Merrell’s M Select Dry – will still keep your feet dry).
“Much depends what kind of conditions you’ll be in; for example, you’ll need a highly waterproof boot for most UK conditions – but not for a trip to the Sahara,” says Chris Nichols, buying manager for footwear and equipment at Cotswold Outdoor.
What should I look for in a good sole?
Grip is crucial, especially for keeping yourself upright in our notoriously wet, muddy UK conditions, so don’t forget to check the soles. Vibram is a well-known, trusted provider of good soles, but Salomon have been producing their own Contagrip soles for 20 years, which are excellent too.
According to Nichols, the midsole shouldn’t be overlooked: “A stiffer midsole will be less instantly comfortable but provide much needed support when the conditions are difficult. Leather boots will often have a stiffer midsole which makes them for suitable higher up the hill or mountain.” Of course, the fit is also key; your hiking boots should be snug, but with wiggle room. Some brands offer wider and slimmer fits, depending on your foot shape.
Do I need mid-cut or low-cut walking boots?
You’ll also need to decide whether to go for a mid-cut or low-cut hiking boot or shoe. Mid-cut hiking boots provide extra support (so you’re less likely to twist your ankle – plus, your centre of gravity will be kept more stable if you have a heavy backpack) protect your ankles from cuts and stings, and keep more of you dry in rain and sludge.
However, lower shoes tend to be lighter, so they’re better for shorter hikes along well-maintained trails.
How should I care for and clean my hiking boots?
Looking after your boots could add years to their lifespan, and keep them waterproof. So don’t just chuck them aside when you get home: whatever material they’re made of, you need to remove mud with a soft bristle brush, or rinse them with warm water and bootwear cleaning gel if they’re really filthy.
If your boots are made of leather, they’ll require the application of light, breathable wax as an additional protective step. Leather is a bit like skin (well, it is skin), and wax helps restore the natural oils, so it can keep wicking away water without absorbing it. It also retains that smooth, smart leathery look.
How often you should spray or wax your boot depends on how often you hike: think once a month if you hike regularly, or just post-hike if you rarely use them.
Search the popular #whyihike hashtag on Instagram, and you’ll find all the inspiration you need – but what are the other benefits of hiking? According to Bella Somerset – a champion of the wellbeing benefits of hiking, and a mine of practical tips – the benefits of hiking for mental health are on par with the physical.
“As well as the cardiovascular benefits and the full-body workout of the physical challenge of hiking, trekking in beautiful scenery fosters connection and camaraderie, and makes for lasting friendships,” she explains. “The endorphins of hiking lift the mood and offers an effortless sense of awe and wonder. Personally, it helps me to calm my mind and gain perspective on life, which is why I started to take my clients hiking.”
“Instagram has exposed the beauty of hiking trails and sparked people’s wanderlust for adventure – and, ironically, their desire for a digital detox,” she adds. “Hiking in nature strips your life back-to-basics, as you carry what you need – and you leave your worries behind. The idea of transformational travel and transformational experiences is on the rise in the travel and wellbeing industry – it’s about having fun, but also returning with the means to make a positive change back home.”