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Hiking Boot Materials and Construction

Moisture Resistance and Breathability.

Whether water leaks in from the outside or sweat builds up on the inside, moisture can spoil a hike. It degrades shoes, irritates feet, and causes painful blisters.
Experts recommend looking for a combination of fabric mesh, to let the interior of your boots "breathe," and leather, for durability and protection from water and debris. Hiking boots that incorporate a waterproof lining may be the most effective at shielding feet from rain and puddles, but such membranes aren't as breathable as ventilating mesh, especially on low-end boots, so they may leave feet hot and sweaty. Even if you opt for waterproof hiking boots, experts suggest treating the leather with a waterproofing spray, cream, or oil. This is intended not to bolster the water resistance but to help preserve the leather, so the boots last longer. Check with the vendor to see if the boots you choose can take this treatment. Another piece of advice: Wear socks that wick away moisture. Prices for these accessories start at about $10 a pair, but some hikers allege they make all the difference.

The light hiking boots we researched deal with the moisture issue in a variety of ways. Our top choice, the Merrell Moab Ventilator, is not a waterproof hiking shoe, but many reviewers have found that it effectively deals with moisture. Outdoor Gear Lab, which named the women's version a best buy, explains that even waterproof hiking boots don't always keep water out, so many hikers prefer a shoe that's exceptionally breathable and will dry quickly if it gets wet, rather than trapping moisture inside. The leather and mesh upper on the Merrell Moab Ventilator is reportedly so breathable that it feels like open-window ventilation. In general this shoe works best for warm climates and summer hikes on sunny days. Hikers accustomed to cold, wet weather should consider other options. The Keen Alamosa WP, for instance, is a waterproof hiking shoe constructed from durable, water-resistant nubuck leather (a suede-like material) and fabric, combined with a breathable waterproof membrane. User reviews on Zappos laud the Alamosa WP for remaining waterproof all day in pouring rain, yet still managing to let feet breathe -- a feat not all cheap waterproof hiking shoes can pull off. The Keen Targhee II Mid waterproof hiking boots have a similar composition.

The L.L. Bean Waterproof Trail Model Hikers II have received an editors' choice award from Backpacker magazine, where testers express surprise that budget boots can so reliably keep feet dry. They chalk this up to the combination of a waterproof/breathable lining and well-designed tongue gussets. The Salomon Synapse is not a waterproof or even water-resistant hiking shoe, but it's constructed from breathable materials designed to whisk moisture away from the foot and allow for quick drying. A blogger at Utah Outside vouches for the breathability and points out that the design suits the state's dry climate. In wetter weather, he says, the solution is simple: an extra pair of socks.

Light Hiking Boots.

When shopping for a pair of hiking boots, pay attention to how heavy they are. The conventional wisdom is that one pound on your feet feels like five pounds on your back, so generally lighter hiking boots are better. L.L. Bean reminds customers that today's technology can provide a solid foundation with a much lighter weight. The heavy metal shanks in hiking boots of yore have been retired without sacrificing any support.

The exact weight of each shoe typically isn't listed and varies by size and gender, so we relied on reviews to point us toward lightweight hiking boots. Take the Keen Alamosa WP for example. Experts at Outdoor Gear Lab weighed a women's size 8 at 1.59 pounds, lighter than all but two shoes they've tested and just shy of our top pick, the Merrell Moab Ventilator, at 1.62 pounds. Several reviewers posting on REI report that the Merrells are light enough to wear all day without making feet feel weighed down. In reviews of the Salomon Synapse on Backcountry.com, consumers say they feel like they are walking on a cloud in these light hiking shoes.

Hiking shoes by nature tend to weigh less than higher-cut boots. A heavier boot may actually be a higher caliber boot able to accommodate more than just a day hike with a light backpack. That's not to say there aren't light hiking boots out there. Numerous reviews on Amazon note that Keen Targhee II Mid is plenty light enough for all-day wear.

Review continues below

Outsole and Traction.

Traction in hiking boots comes from the lugs, or treads, that are molded into the outsole of the shoe to help secure your footing. Lugs work on solid, slippery surfaces by concentrating downward pressure on fewer contact points and on softer ground by digging in and coming into contact with more surface area at different angles. The Keen Alamosa WP features 4mm lugs in a multi-directional pattern, while the Merrell Moab Ventilator boasts 5mm lugs. The description for the Salomon Synapse doesn't include a lug size, but reviews including this one on Amazon report that the outsole grips rocky terrain as well as soft, slippery areas. Many reviews of Bean's Waterproof Trail Model Hikers II on the L.L. Bean website laud the traction of the women's mid-cut boots even on steep inclines such as Grand Canyon trails. Any traction on Nevados boots such as the Boomerang II seems to have a tendency to wear down quickly, judging by reviews on Amazon. One buyer estimates the boots lasted him no more than 10 miles before the outsole was rendered useless.

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