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How to Buy Hiking and Backpacking Boots: Secrets from a Footwear Manager

Updated on November 12, 2015
Though not all hikers and backpackers have a huge quiver of boots to choose from, choosing the right boot can make or break your trip.  These are some of my boots that I use.
Though not all hikers and backpackers have a huge quiver of boots to choose from, choosing the right boot can make or break your trip. These are some of my boots that I use. | Source

Though the secrets of the footwear industry aren't on par with the mysteries of the ancient pyramids, people buying hiking or backpacking boots find this information critical. However, the word "secrets" may be misleading, as if this information is only available by trekking through Nepal and studying with the great leather gurus. No, sadly this knowledge required no Himalayan sojourns.

Of course, I compiled what I learned from thousands of miles of backpacking experience, so maybe it did take a long journey. One day, I found myself accidentally managing a footwear department for a large sporting goods retailer. Though I'm still not too sure how I ended up there, it was "fun" outfitting people for their trips and training the staff to do so. Who's better to sell you boots, than someone with a passion for backpacking?

That part of life is thankfully behind me (anyone who ever worked retail will understand the "thankfully" part) but I'm still current when it comes to footwear trends in the hiking world. Anyone who has ever been in my gear dungeon understands that I am the Imelda Marcos of hiking boots.

For a hiker, well for me at least, there is no one boot that does everything I want it to do. A hiker needs a full compliment of footwear, especially for year around hiking. One of my favorite brands out there is Keen - mainly because of the wide forefoot which accommodates my squarish feet. That said, I have a myriad of boots from that company alone: waterproof, non-waterproof, insulated, non-insulated, low, and mid.

Before we begin with Hiking footwear buying tips, lets review the the three major mistakes people make when shopping for hiking boots.

  • Not trying enough brands and sizes on.
  • Buying them online or without trying them on first.
  • Buying too much or too little boot for the activity.


Source

5 Quick Tips

  1. Try on hiking boots at the end of the day when your feet are more swollen.
  2. Bring the socks you plan on hiking with you.
  3. Try on multiple brands in various sizes.
  4. Never buy the display model; people like cramming their size 13 foot into a size 9 to see "how it looks."
  5. Walk around in each boot, grab a pack off the wall, and go for a mini hike around the store.

The Niagara Falls Gorge where I often hike, is rocky and slippery.  You need a medium weight hiking boot with good durability and great traction.
The Niagara Falls Gorge where I often hike, is rocky and slippery. You need a medium weight hiking boot with good durability and great traction. | Source

Where Are You Going Hiking?

The first question any outfitter should ask of a perspective boot buyer, is "where are you going hiking?"

Though an open-ended question does inspire conversation and allow one to home in on the needs of the customer, it is one you need to ask yourself too.

What kind of hiker are you? Are you an ultra-long distance backpacker, an off-trail bushwhacker, heavy load hauler, or primarily a day-hiker? The kind of hiker you are, and where you plan on hiking affects the type of boot you plan on buying.


Lightweight

Three lightweight hikers: Keen Targhee, Merrell Refuge Core and Merrell Trail Glove
Three lightweight hikers: Keen Targhee, Merrell Refuge Core and Merrell Trail Glove | Source

Midweight

Midweight hiking boots: Danner Zig-Zag, Keen Red Rock, Danner Agitator.
Midweight hiking boots: Danner Zig-Zag, Keen Red Rock, Danner Agitator. | Source

Heavyweight

Heavyweight selections from Danner and Keen
Heavyweight selections from Danner and Keen | Source

Mountaineering

Mountaineering boots from La Sportiva
Mountaineering boots from La Sportiva | Source

How Much Support do you Need?

Though mountaineering boots offer an insane amount of support, they are pretty uncomfortable to wear if you are day hiking the local rail trail.

Generally backpacking boots can be divided into four categories:

Lightweight:

  • Sometimes little more than rugged sneakers, lightweight hikers are highly flexible, generally low-cut, and very comfortable. Lightweight hikers are made for day hiking on well-groomed trails and carrying a light pack. Generally, lightweight boots are low cut. Expect little to no break-in period with these boots, generally you can wear them right out of the box.

Midweight:

  • Most hikers and backpackers opt for boots in this category, as they offer the flexibility of a lightweight hiker with the support of a heavyweight boot. Most medium duty hikers are mid-cut on the ankle, offering more support. Make sure you break these boots in on a few day hikes before taking them out on a multi-day backpacking trip.

Heavyweight:

  • Designed for backpacking over rough terrain and carrying a heavy pack, heavyweight boots offer hikers great support. Heavyweight boots generally have uppers made out of full-grain leather and midsoles stiffened with a shank; these boots have substantial break in periods.

Mountaineering:

  • If you are wearing crampons and kicking steps into ice for hours - you need a mountaineering boot. These boots have stiff shanks, protective rands, and are crampon compatible. Most are insulated as well. Don't expect to break in mountaineering boots; they break you in.

Do high top boots prevent ankle inversion?

Most hikers credit mid to high height hiking boots with the ability to stop twisted ankles; however, that may not be the case. In a 1993 study of 622 athletes, James Barrett et. al. found that there was no significant difference between sprain rates for high-top and low-top shoe wearers.

Conversely, in the study, "Effects of High-Top and Low-Top Shoes on Ankle Inversion," Mark Ricard et. al. concluded that high-top shoes reduced ankle inversion by an average of 73o reducing ankle sprains.

I wear low boots for most of my backpacking and hiking; however, I carry a lightweight pack and am very conscious of my step placement. In the winter and for search and rescue missions, I always opt for mid and high height boots.

As with most things, the question to mid or not to mid, is personal preference.

The major components of a boot
The major components of a boot | Source
The heel cup on Keen boots holds my heel in well.
The heel cup on Keen boots holds my heel in well. | Source
Aggressive lug patterns help you from sliding off slick rocks.
Aggressive lug patterns help you from sliding off slick rocks. | Source
Gore-tex footwear is waterproof and breathable
Gore-tex footwear is waterproof and breathable | Source
Nikwax Fabric & Leather Footwear Clean/Waterproof DUO-Pack
Nikwax Fabric & Leather Footwear Clean/Waterproof DUO-Pack

Clean and waterproof your boots with Nikwax.

 
The Merrell Siren uses Q Form for a truly anatomical fit for women.
The Merrell Siren uses Q Form for a truly anatomical fit for women. | Source
Always wear gaiters?  Look for gaiter hooks.
Always wear gaiters? Look for gaiter hooks. | Source

Qualities of a Good Hiking Boot

Use the following guide to help you evaluate the trail-worthiness of hiking boots.

  • Durable Upper:

Though you should always wear the lightest boot you can get away with, if the bush rips apart your boots, you won't be happy. Leather boasts the most durability, but most backpackers choose a boot with mixed leather and Cordura nylon.

  • Stable Heel Cup:

A great fitting and stabilizing heel cup locks your heel into place and stabilizes your entire foot. Not only does this protect you from blister-causing heel slip but holds your ankle in a great support position too.

  • Aggressive Outsole:

Though we often make jokes about the "waffle stompers" in the early days of backpacking, the right tread can save you from sliding down a muddy slope or falling off that log you are trying to balance on. Modern hiking treads, the most popular from Vibram, are designed to inflict minimum damage to the environment while providing great traction.

  • Waterproof / Breathable Membrane:

Not all hikers need a waterproof breathable membrane in their shoes, however most choose this option. Though it is easy to make a boot waterproof or breathable, most uppers fail to combine the two.

Why breathable? Most backpackers easily sweat 1 cup of water out of their feet! If you can wring the sweat out of your socks at the end of the day, your boots may not be breathable.

The three best performers out there are Gore-tex, eVent, and KeenDry.

To maintain breathability and waterproofness, clean your boots regularly and retreat the DWR with a product like Nikwax at least once per year.

  • Anatomical Design:

As John Gray illustrated, women and men are different. The differences between the sexes don't stop at the feet nor in the science of the gait. Therefore, avoid companies that manufacture hiking boots by the "shrink it and pink it" concept. Most reputable manufacturers design boots for a specific sex.

Merrell, for example, uses Q Form midsoles to align the Q angle between women's hips and knees.

  • Gaiter Hooks:

If you don't wear gaiters, what's wrong with you? Anyway, for those hikers that wear gaiters, hooks (generally placed near the bottom laces) and fantastic for holding your gaiters in place. Sure, you can hook the gaiter hook on your laces, but, it tends to wear the laces out faster and not hold as well. Hint: If you are hooking onto your lace, wrap tape around around your laces to prevent abrasion.



The Brannock device is a staple in most boot stores.
The Brannock device is a staple in most boot stores. | Source

That Foot Measuring Thing...

Yeah, the metal foot measuring thing is called a Brannock Device, it takes practice to use, and is a poor method of fitting boots anyway.

The problem with Mr Brannock is that people follow his advice religiously without deviation. Before drinking the kool-aid of the shiny metal prophet, be advised that footwear sizes differ greatly between brands. Yes, he may claim you are a size 10, but you better try it on, especially if it is a brand you are unfamiliar with.

When it comes down to it, Brannock gets you in the ballpark, but rarely takes you all the way home. So if Brannock tells you you're a size 7, try on the 6.5, 7, and 7.5. Personally Brannock tells me I'm a size 10.5, but I range from size 10 through 12.

Though it measures length and width, the other downfall to our friend Brannock is that it cannot measure foot volume. Judging foot volume is a skill that is learned and best measured through boot comfort.

The important thing about buying hiking boots, is making sure you have the best fit. It doesn't matter what the boot looks like or what kind of accolades it has earned - if it isn't comfortable in the store, it won't be on the trail.

Insoles for Hiking Boots

Though the insoles that come with many hiking boots aren't too bad, you're best to replace them as soon as possible. Some endurance hikers even carry an extra set of insoles with them while hiking and switch midday. It allows the other pair to dry and rebound while still pushing the miles.

Sometimes a new set of insoles is all you really need. Was that boot comfortable at first and now you shudder to think of strapping it to your feet? When insoles wear out, most people tend to feel it in their knees and hips. So before investing in a new pair of hiking boots, try a new set of insoles.

Avoid the drugstore cheapies that your grandmother wears, and opt for a stabilizing foot bed like Superfeet - a brand trusted amongst hikers and backpackers.

Hiking socks from Smart Wool and Keen keep my feet happy.
Hiking socks from Smart Wool and Keen keep my feet happy. | Source
Smartwool Men's Hiking Medium Crew Sock (Large, Navy)
Smartwool Men's Hiking Medium Crew Sock (Large, Navy)

The smartwool medium hiking sock is a great all around choice.

 

Sometimes it's All About the Socks

You can spend $300 on a pair of Italian hiking boots, but if you don't wear the right socks, you just threw your money away.

Always opt for socks that are specially made for hiking and backpacking. Generally you have two options: wool or synthetic. Though some people swear by synthetic hiking socks, I generally feel that a good pair of MERINO wool hiking socks are the best thing for your feet.

Merino is a non-itch wool, harvested from Merino sheep, generally from New Zealand. The New Zealand Merinos graze in an extreme disparity of temperatures, hence their wool keeps you warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. If you are looking to impress people, the fancy term is thermal regulation.

Years ago, I converted all my cotton socks to wash rags. I've wore merino wool socks (mostly SmartWool), year around ever since; I can't imagine wearing anything else on my feet.

Socks offer padding, cushioning, and wick the sweat away from our feet; however, the sock is the final piece to a good hiking boot fit. This is why you must try boots on with the socks you plan on wearing.

Yes, some outfitters have "try-on" socks, but do you know the last time (if ever) they were washed?

Opposed to cotton socks, merino socks last for years and will last longer if you wash them inside out with cold water, and tumble dry low. Using fabric softener will inhibit merino's natural wicking ability.

Many backpackers wear two pairs of socks, one lightweight polypropylene wicking sock and a thicker wool sock. Tradition holds that this system reduces friction, hence preventing blisters. Personally, most hikers I know stopped the two sock system by upgrading to a superior merino sock. But, if the two sock system works for you, continue doing it.

This picture has nothing to do with discounts on boots, but I thought it was cool anyway.  This is the swinging bridge over Royalton Ravine - a great place for hiking.
This picture has nothing to do with discounts on boots, but I thought it was cool anyway. This is the swinging bridge over Royalton Ravine - a great place for hiking. | Source

Buying Shoes Online and Getting a Discount

Websites like Zappos have made shoe buying online easier than ever before with great pricing and "free" shipping.

However before moving that boot into your cart, think about the following:

  • With the proliferation of counterfeit production in Asia, make sure your retailer is reputable enough not to sell you knock offs that fall apart after a few miles.
  • Make sure the website offers free shipping both ways - that way when they don't fit, you can send them back.
  • Buying shoes online robs boot buyers of the experience of trying on many pairs of boots.
  • Trying shoes on at a brick and mortar retailer, then buying them online is just wrong. Someone just spent an hour with you finding the perfect boot, that is the service you pay for. Yes, you may save money, but most retailers will price match if you ask them.
  • If you ever have a warranty issue, a brick and mortar store will be glad to help you IF you purchased the original pair from them.

Besides price matching, there are ways to receive discounts on your hiking boots.

  1. Ask about any upcoming sales, and if you can get the price now.
  2. Many retailers offer discounts for outdoor clubs and organizations like the Boy Scouts.
  3. Ask if there is a discount for buying multiple pairs or for buying accessories like socks.

Got a rip in your boot's upper?  Maybe it is still under warranty.
Got a rip in your boot's upper? Maybe it is still under warranty. | Source

Your Old Boots May Be Under Warranty

Of course, if you have an old pair of boots that simply wore out or leak, they may still be under warranty. Most manufacturers offer a one year warranty, though you'd be surprised how many may honor it past that time in the name of good customer service.

I wrote extensively about this in "How to use a Warranty to Replace Your Boots." That article includes the contact information and warranty details for most major boot makers.

This page © Copyright 2012, Daniel Human

My New Favorite Hiking Boot - the Gypsum from Keen

Testing is finally complete on the this new hiking boot from Keen.
Testing is finally complete on the this new hiking boot from Keen. | Source

Reviewing the Gypsum

If you are looking for a heavier duty light to medium duty hiking boot, check out my "Review of the Keen Gypsum Hiking Boot."

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    • mrpooper profile image

      mrpooper 2 months ago

      Very informative hub. Great detail. Great job

    • profile image

      Mike 15 months ago

      Great article. My question is about waterproof boots. Let's say I have any pair of waterproof boots and walk through a stream that goes over the top of the boot, what good is waterproofing? (I always see pictures of hikers walking in streams.)

    • profile image

      23 months ago

      "Trying shoes on at a brick and mortar retailer, then buying them online is just wrong. Someone just spent an hour with you finding the perfect boot, that is the service you pay for."

      So glad this was said, this can be really frustrating

    • livetech profile image

      livetech 23 months ago from United Kingdom

      Really brilliant set of advice, perfect for first time hiker's reference. Ofcourse it's all about doing your best to avoid paying over the odds for the right shoe!

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      A 6 1/2 men's boot is always a tough call Krillco. I had customers in your predicament that would buy youth hiking shoes; however those boots weren't made for the weight or stride of an adult user.

      One option, I can think of, is the Vasque Breeze in a size 7; most people find that the sizing is about a half-size too small. Keen footwear would be another option as they measure their boots in arch length and not foot length. Therefore a size 7 would be very close to a 6 1/2. Try them on if you are looking for a pair.

      Thanks for reading!

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Thanks for reading and sharing DzyMsLizzy, I'm glad you liked my occasional jabs of humor. Though I don't have many poisonous snakes in my primary hiking area, I have hiked in snake-prone area. It is always surprising to place your hand on a rock and see a coiled snake nearby just poised to strike.

      I tried the slippery sock method but for me it was just kind of strange feeling. Perhaps I should have tried different types of soaps. I know that for some people it works. As the saying goes, hike your own hike.

      Though your primary hiking days may be behind you, there are still ample opportunities to enjoy nature - you just have to find what works for you. Thanks again!

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Thanks for the comment Rustedmemory - I agree good hiking boots are worth spending a bit of money on. You only have one pair of feet so treat them right.

    • krillco profile image

      William E Krill Jr 3 years ago from Hollidaysburg, PA

      Thanks for this great piece! I'm a very small size male: 6.5...try finding THOSE!

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

      First of all, Congrats on HOTD!

      This was jam-packed full of good information. I had to laugh at "..the Imelda Marcos of hiking boots." LOL

      I am (or was) primarily a day-hiker. An insane, irrational fear and phobia about snakes kept me from ever wanting to try backpacking. On the one hand, I always wanted to try it; but on the other, my phobia kept me from it.

      As for my hiking 'style,' I don't do cold weather, I'm a summer camper, and if I get hot, I am quite apt to "accidentally on purpose" slip into or fall into a creek. ;-)

      My father used to tell of boyhood overnight hikes, and their anti-blister technique was to wear a pair of socks that was thoroughly scrubbed into a bar of soap. The soapy residue would allow the sock to slide in the shoe, but not transfer the friction to their feet. At camp, they would lay the socks out to dry overnight, but not wash the soap out, and wear the same socks the next day. (ugh) But, apparently, that worked, for they avoided blisters.

      Sadly, due to hubby's health issues, and my knee replacement surgery, I guess my hiking and camping days are over. But I can still enjoy vicariously, I suppose. ;-)

      Voted up, interesting and useful. Also shared and pinned.

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Believe me Thelma, I was surprised at the honor as well. This has been one of my better performing Hubs over that time though with consistent year-round traffic. Thanks for reading and the compliment - I appreciate it.

    • rustedmemory profile image

      David Hamilton 3 years ago from Lexington, KY

      Upvoted. Very informative article on something you should invest money on if you need them!

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 3 years ago from Germany

      Wow! I never thought that a 2 years old hub will still become hub of the day. Congratulations for the HOTD award. You definitely deserved it. A very interesting, useful and informative hub. Thanks for sharing.

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 5 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Though many joke that women have the most numerous shoe collections, my outdoor shoes put many women's to shame. I already destroyed two pairs this year though.

      Oddly, I hope to wear out a few more pairs this year.

      Thanks for reading CC!

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      What a comprehensive hub! Holy shoes! Wow. You really know your stuff, too. Um...can I say my shoe collection of hiking shoes is woefully inadequate? At least compared to yours. Hehe. Voted up.

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 5 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Here hoping that none of us needs rescue. You are quite welcome, and good hiking to you!

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 5 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Looks like I should get a softer-soled mid-height boot - thanks for your advice! I also don't like throwing boots away, although I don't think I'd ever be at risk of needing rescue, if they are unwearable / unsafe and unrepairable ...

      Thanks again!

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 5 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Oooo- new boots, I just ordered myself a new pair too, even though - a pair of Keen watershoes for gorge hiking. The micro-siping you find on these kinds of hybrid canyon hiking shoes are the only thing that keeps me upright when walking though a foot of water over wet rocks. I expect them only to last one year before wearing them smooth.

      I wear my merino socks everyday- all year around and I still get several years of use out of them. I usually don't recycle them into rags until they become threadbare. I usually keep a sock rotation, keeping the newer socks for hiking until they start to wear down.

      What I've found with soles, is that the better the wet-grip, the softer the sole is and the quicker it wears down. My grippiest boots ever were a pair of 5.10 approach shoes, but I wore the soles thin rather quickly.

      With the lack of active cobblers, I haven't had a pair of boots resoled in years. Usually on a heavyweight resolable boot - once the sole has worn the upper is still in pretty good shape and can be used for a few more years. If the upper is starting to breakdown though, I would shop for new boots.

      I hate filling up our landfills and throwing things away, but we need to be safe and comfortable while in the outdoors. The fuel it takes to fly a rescue helicopter is more than the petroleum in a new pair of boots.

      Thanks for reading and commenting nifwlseirff!

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 5 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Just the article I needed - as I'm heading out to buy a new pair. I completely agree with the merino socks - a fantastic investment. How long do you find they last before needing replacement? I always get heel blisters (tiny heel, really wide feet, custom insole == lots of slippage), and go through the soles in a few years of solid walking. Most of the wrap-around soles don't seem to be re-solable, and I've found almost none that don't slip on wet pavement/stones. Current boots are Asolo, solid as anything, slippery as a snake in the wet. Would you normally recommend replacing boots when the sole is done for, or re-soling?

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 5 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Sounds like a fun hike, and to do it for charity, it is even better. For the rough terrain of the canyon, you'd probably want something with a little more support that a sneaker. Most folks opt for a light-to-midweight hiking boot. A friend of mine did the hike in the Targhee boot from Keen.

      Have a great hike, and thanks for reading JKlosek!

    • JKlosek profile image

      JKlosek 5 years ago

      This article was super helpful and very well-written. I am currently training for a charity hike that will have me trekking 24 miles across the Grand Canyon in one day and then 20 miles back (on a different route) the next day. I am really struggling over what shoes to get. When I run, I usually run with minimal weight sneakers but I am wondering if I need something with greater support for such a long trek.

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 5 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      My wife loves her Merrell Sirens, I'm sure you'll get a lot of good use out of them. The change of seasons is always a great time to invest in footwear, because of the lack of shelf space. Companies will mark down what they have on hand to make room for new product.

      My favorite markdown was the color change, the only thing that changed about the boot was the color and it was marked down $30.00.

      Thanks for stopping by OutdoorsMom!

    • OutdoorsMom profile image

      OutdoorsMom 5 years ago from Seacoast, New Hampshire

      This was a great hub! I was happy to see my siren merrells that I bought this year on your list of good shoes! They will be used mostly for day trips but some backpacking. Maybe next year I will invest in a pair of mids. We bought all of our hiking shoes during the winter this year and got great deals! Not sure if it was because they were seasonal or because new models were coming out, but it was still a sweet deal.

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 5 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      I've always found Asolo's boots to be a quality product, so you've made a great choice. Doing your diligence on new hiking boots pays off in comfort, even if you have to invest some time.

      Thanks for reading Hady Chahine!

    • Hady Chahine profile image

      Hady Chahine 5 years ago from Manhattan Beach

      As an avid hiker, I found your hub very informative. The last pair of hiking boots I purchased (Asolo’s) took me two weeks to purchase because I spent a great deal of time doing my due diligence, as you recommended here in your article. In the end, I am thankful for having invested the energy; money well spent relative to performance realized thus far. Thanks!

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 5 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Rapidly growing teen feet always pose a problem. I use to deal with a lot of Scouts going backpacking and what works best is planning on only using the boot for one year. Avoid the heavyweights and go for the midweights -they break in easily, offer enough support, and should last at least a year.

      Brands like Columbia, Hi-Tec, and Timberland offer great value - especially for folks with ever expanding feet.

      Have fun! Thanks for stopping by and commenting outdoorsmom76.

    • outdoorsmom76 profile image

      outdoorsmom76 5 years ago from Brownsburg, Indiana

      Thanks for the great tips. Trying to get my 15 year old son to go on a short backpacking trip with me this year. any advice for buying hiking boots for teens whose shoe size changes every 3 months?

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 5 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Hopefully it helps you out for your hiking needs! Thanks as always for stopping by and reading bankscottage.

    • bankscottage profile image

      bankscottage 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Another great Hub Outbound Dan. I'll be much better informed the next time I need to purchase a new pair of hiking shoes. Thanks.