There is something about hiking over rocks that has always been inspirational to me. Large sheer rock faces are a portal to the past. A reminder that we really are all standing on a giant recycled rock, spinning through space. Stick enough of them end to end on a trail however, and rocks stop inspiring me and start to become a strategic adventure that my trail shoes just aren’t always up for. All soles eventually wear thin. Stitching will come undone. Even the heartiest leather on your most reliable boots will crack and need to be replaced one day. Your feet on the other hand, are a little different. No matter how optimistic you are about medical technology and robotics, for the moment, you only get one pair! That means it’s important to have the right boots for the job!
Blisters are a hiker’s worst nightmare and nothing will give you a blister faster than a pair of boots that don’t fit. Hikers traversing rocky trails are even more likely to develop blisters.When trying on boots, there are a number of things to keep in mind. Don’t be deceived by the number printed on the tongue. Sizing varies from brand to brand. Remember to wear the socks you intend to wear while hiking, when you go to the store to try on boots. Your standard hiking sock configuration can add a full size to your foot. Make sure the heel of your boots grasp your (actual) heel snuggly. If you feel your heel slide or lift more than ¾ of an inch when you take a step, you are pretty much guaranteeing yourself a blister. A perfect fit is if you can put your thumb between the back of the boot and your heel without the thumb reaching the bottom of the boot. It is also important that your toes don’t jam against the tip of the boot when going downhill. Many good gear stores have incline ramps that allow you to test this.
Modern materials have created lots of great alternatives for hiking boots in different conditions but when it comes to hiking on rocky ground, there is still no substitute for full grain leather boots. Where fabrics can tear, leather can take the beating and protect your feet for longer.
For rocky terrain there is no question. You want a fully gusseted tongue. This bit of fabric, stitched in between the outer part of your boot and the tongue, will keep out debris that can cause discomfort and blisters. It will also help the boot fit snuggly under the laces which will prevent rubbing and keep your boot in position.
Most modern, high-quality hiking boots come with a pre curved rocker sole design. This is a great example of where hiking boot technology has really paid off. The curved design helps minimize effort by allowing the boot to bend slightly when rolling off of rocks and roots. This flex would naturally occur regardless of design, although incorporating it in the design has almost no downside.
When looking at tread, look for boots that will give good traction but won’t retain mud and rocks since a buildup of either can add weight and reduce traction. This isn’t always easy, due to the fact that most tread designs that are good for rocky terrain generally have lots of nooks and crannies that also hold a lot of mud.
The midsole is the material between the exterior sole and the interior of the boot. Stay away from compressible foam which is used in running and tennis shoes. It’s great for running, but when hiking, the foam will compress too much and wear out quickly. Instead, look for a polypropylene or polyurethane midsole. These materials are still slightly compressible but will provide more support.
Another essential feature for hiking boots used on rocky trails is a fiberglass or steel shank that runs the length of the boot. You can detect the length of the shank by trying to bend your boot in half. If it doesn’t bend much or only bends at a certain spot, that’s how long the shank is. This layer of metal or plastic provides support and protects your feet from feeling the uncomfortable nuance of every sharp rock on the trail. A shank is extra important if you or your pack weigh in on the heavy side.
The cuff is the section of fabric around the ankle. The most important thing to look for in a cuff is that it doesn’t rub. Aside from that, not much else matters. If you find that debris or water is making its way in via the cuff, gaiters will solve all your cuff problems.
Hiking Boot Anatomy
Now that you know the basic anatomy of a good hiking boot, you should have no problem finding one that works for you. Before you go scampering up a rock face, one last tip; always remember to break in your boots before your first hike!
Have a suggestion or a favorite hiking boot for rocky terrain? Leave it below in the comments.