Hiker tying the laces of Vasque backpacking boot

How to Choose Men’s Backpacking Boots

The connection between man and the trail, backpacking boots play a vital role in the kit of those who prefer to measure their time in the backcountry in days instead of hours. Unlike boots built for day-hiking, backpacking boots manage heavy loads, provide superior support, deliver supreme traction, and stand up to rugged terrain. Understanding how to choose men’s backpacking boots can mean the difference between an unpleasant trek and a dream trip.

Backpacking boots versus hiking boots

A common question we hear is “What’s the difference between a pair of men’s backpacking boots and the pair of men’s hiking boots I have in my closet?” A quick glance at the profile of both types of boots reveals that backpacking boots are taller than day hiker. This allows backpacking boots to provide more ankle support and protection.

Flip both boots upside down and you’ll discover that backpacking boots also have thicker outsoles and more aggressive treads, which allows a backpacking boot to help bear the weight of heavy backpacks and deliver sure footing on all types of terrain.

When learning how to choose men’s backpacking boots, you will note difference between the stiffness of their soles. Traditionally, backpacking boots feature stiffer midsoles than hiking boots. This supplies users with a more stable platform for their feet and reduces fatigue from traveling over uneven terrain.

Weight

One challenging facing men buying backpacking boots is finding the right ratio of support to weight. Backpacking boots are heavier than day-hiking boots because of superior durability and support. Heavier footwear reduces your body’s efficiency, revealing the truth of the old adage a pound on your foot equals five pounds on your back. Just imagine the luxuries five pounds represents — a bigger tent or a warmer sleeping bag spring to mind.

The gains of using a lighter pair of backpacking boots are nullified if your body needs the stability and support of a heavier boot. A good rule of thumb is to determine the level of stability and support you need and then choose the lightest model that meets your requirements and fits your foot. 

All About Uppers

The material used for a men’s backpacking boot’s upper goes a long way to determining how the boot performs and how long it lasts. Men’s backpacking boots are generally constructed using three types of material for the upper: full-grain leather, split-grain leather, and synthetics. 

Full-grain leather

Full-grain leather is the most robust material used for backpacking boot uppers. This tough material is what many of us think of when conjuring an image of a traditional backpacking boot. Leather uppers are durable, resist abrasion, and deliver excellent water resistance, especially when treated with a wax or conditioner. You might remember from your trusty old pair of leather boots that full-grain footwear requires a break-in period. So you’ll want plenty of break-in time with all-leather boots before hitting the trail.

Split-grain leather

Full-grain leather uses the whole hide. Split-grain, by contrast, separates the rough inner of the hide from the smooth exterior. Men’s hiking boots are often made with split-grain leather paired with synthetic material. Split-grain boots and split-grain/synthetic boots are typically lighter, less water resistant, and not as durable as their full-grain counterparts. On a positive note, they are also commonly less expensive. 

Synthetic

Backpacking boots made from synthetics like polyester or nylon are commonly lightweight, less expensive, and dry faster than their leather equivalents. Unfortunately, hiking boots made from synthetic material normally aren’t as waterproof and often have shorter lifespans than boots made using leather. But because synthetic material doesn’t stretch, they don’t require a break-in period and feel good right out of the box.  

Waterproof Protection

A backpacking boot touting itself as waterproof is built with a waterproof membrane or lining. Gore-Tex and eVent are common brand-name waterproof materials, but many companies employ their own proprietary membranes.

When considering how to choose men’s backpacking boots, you’ll need to think about waterproofness. Some people find a drawback to waterproof membranes: breathability sometimes cannot keep up with body heat production, resulting in boots that feel too warm. The benefit, however, of a waterproof membrane is obvious: it helps keep your feet dry.  

Waterproof boots are popular because backpackers’ feet are threatened by mud, puddles, stream crossings, and unexpected rain showers — all of which result in wet feet, an uncomfortable proposition for people spending long days on the trail miles away from dry footwear. However, if you’re a guy who primarily hikes in a warm, dry climate such as the desert, a non-waterproof boot may be the best backpacking boot for you. 

outsole

The outsole of a backpacking boot will influence the feel of a boot as well as its performance. The two most influential components of a backpacking boot’s outsole are the shank and tread pattern. 

Shank

One of the major differences between backpacking and hiking boots is the shank. A shank is a stiff piece of material (most often nylon) in the midsole of a boot. The shank’s job is to protect your foot from sharp objects, provide stiffness in the sole, and provide stability on uneven terrain. The shanks found in backpacking boots are typically thicker and longer than those in hiking boots. 

Tread Pattern

The configuration of a backpacking boot’s tread will affect how they perform. Boots with deep, narrow tread patterns are ideal for backpacking trips covering wet, muddy, and slick conditions, as well as trails with loose soil, thanks to their ability to bite into the trail and deliver superior traction. Alternately, smoother soles with shallower, wider lug patterns are best-suited for use on smooth surfaces like the slickrock of the southwest or granite slabs of the northeast because they increase the contact between the boot and ground, allowing maximum grip. 

insulation

Backpacking boots designed for use in the winter, at high-altitude, or for crossing snowfields will sometimes incorporate synthetic insulation for additional warmth. Because insulated backpacking boots are intended for use in snow and ice, they are also commonly waterproof and use a special rubber compound on the sole designed for maximum traction on wintry terrain. 

A word about fit and break-in

You’re going to spend days at a time in your boots so fit is critically important. Men’s backpacking boots should feel snug everywhere but tight nowhere, and offer room to wiggle your toes. Boots too loose in the heel are a frequent cause of blisters. A boot too tight in the toe box is often responsible for bruised toes and damaged toenails. 

When trying on boots, you’ll want to come as close as possible to simulating how you’ll use them in the backcountry. That means wear them with your preferred pair of socks and insole if you use one. We recommend that you try on boots at the end of the day, when your feet are swollen.

You’ll want to spend some time in your boots before taking them out for a multi-day adventure; the more stiff the boots, the more time you’ll need to break them in. Start by wearing them around the house and then for short hikes, gradually taking them on longer, more demanding trips. Trust your feet: they’ll tell you when the boots are ready for a big backpacking trip. Spending time on less-consequential trips before going big gives you a chance to identify any discomfort or hotspots.

The takeaway

Knowing how to choose men’s backpacking boots is critical — after all, you’ll be living in them for days at a time. The right pair of boots can mean the difference between a sublime trip and a sufferfest. Luckily, finding the ideal pair of boots can be easy — just listen to your feet. If you have a question about a particular product let an expert walks you through the features and benefits of some of our favorite footwear.

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