Buying the right boot is essential for having a good thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, and there are hundreds of options out there for you. Boots range in cost from $50 to over $300. The most important features to take into consideration are weight, fit and the boot's construction. You also want to look at the support, waterproofing features, ventilation, sole and cushioning.
Though hikers have different preferences about boot weight, manufacturers have been focusing on making lighter and lighter boots throughout the years. The reason for this is that the heavier the boot, the more energy needed to move. Research has shown that reducing the foot load by one pound ultimately is like reducing the pack weight by six pounds.
Blisters and ankle problems can quickly turn a lovely hike into a painful one. Studies have shown that softer and lighter boots do not necessarily equate to fewer blisters, and that stiffer, heavier, and more supportive boots do not mean fewer ankle problems. Many hikers recommend breaking in the boots and / or toughening the feet by not wearing shoes before the long hike.
Knowing the features of the various types of footwear and boots will help you when selecting the perfect shoe for your hike. There are four general categories of hiking footwear. The first category includes trail running shoes, cross trainers and adventure racing shoes. These shoes are basically running shoes with extra features for mountain trails and rougher terrain. The next category includes hiking shoes, approach shoes, trail boots and light boots. These are generally made out of nylon, suede or other light-weight fabrics, with some leather, and are intended for use on well-maintained trails. These are followed by the off-trail boots and heavy boot category. These boots are designed for rough terrain and feature toe caps, cemented out-soles, molded mid-soles, and synthetic linings. Though they are heavier than the preceding category, they are designed to give support while also being shock resistant, waterproof and breathable. The final category is the rough and tough mountaineering boots. These are the type of boots you'd attach crampons to and climb Mt. Everest with.
The better the quality of construction, the less likely of getting wet feet. Look at the construction of the boot, the stitching and the materials used. Manufacturers will use leather and Gore-Tex to help with waterproofing. Many hikers prefer leather uppers but be sure the leather is properly treated before embarking on your walk. Less stitching on the boot seems to help as well. Keep in mind though that your feet do sweat, and thus, you may want to consider purchasing a boot that is waterproof and allows ventilation. Boots made of Gore-Tex generally do the job.
Support is also important to bear in mind. Remember the rougher the trail and heavier the pack, the more support needed in the boot. Hikers prone to ankle issues should be sure to look at the ankle support when making the purchase. Likewise, the rockier the trail, the stiffer the sole needed.
Just as important as selecting the perfect boot for your hike, it is also critical to break them in properly. Begin slow and work up gradually, paying close attention to the development of blisters. Once blisters do begin to emerge, cover the area with moleskin. Then rub leather softener inside the boot where the discomfort is coming from. Remember the heavier the boot, the more breaking in it needs.