The reason there are so many different kinds of hiking boots is because there is no single perfect pair. Instead, there is a perfect pair for every individual hiker, in every different kind of terrain. Here are the features to look for in hiking boots, depending on your situation.
Your Skill Level
Beginning hikers should look for hiking boots that have great sole tread, arch support, and impact absorption. New hikers often need to build up their muscle endurance, and can fatigue more quickly, so their shoes have a more important role in providing support and comfort. Ankle support is particularly important for beginners if they will be carrying a heavy pack.
Over time, the muscles of the body develop, and the boot doesn't need to provide as much direct weight support and protection. Advanced hikers may look instead for hiking boots that are lighter in weight, to reduce fatigue over long hikes.
Your Hiking Conditions
Of course, you can't always plan ahead for every kind of hiking condition you may encounter, but here is a rough guide to what you should consider.
Established hiking trails
If you are mostly keeping to established and maintained trails, you can choose low-cut or mid-cut hiking boots, which are lighter in weight and cooler to wear.
Rough trails or off-trail
If you are going off-trail into rough terrain, choose hiking boots with above-ankle support to provide greater stability. You will probably also want full-grain leather uppers to protect from jagged rocks and improve durability. You will also want excellent cushioning to reduce the impact of sharp rocks and uneven surfaces.
Wet conditions may include rain and weather, streams and rivers, or just wet underbrush that drops water onto your legs, feet, and boots. You should consider waterproof boots, and a high-cut hiking boot that will keep water from getting into the boot at the ankle.
Dry climates and weather also often mean heat. You will want hiking boots with great ventilation and breathability, to allow your feet to cool off while you hike. Avoid waterproofing and full-grain leather, opting instead for more breathable fabrics. Also look for a gusseted tongue that will help prevent dirt, sand, and pebbles from getting inside the boot.
Hot weather calls for fabric hiking boots that are well-ventilated and breathable. You may also want an anti-microbial liner that reduces odor.
The feet need to be protected from excessive cold. And cold weather also often means the risk of snow and ice, which means extra traction and slip-protection as well as warmth.
Cold weather has the effect of stiffening leather and rubber materials, making them less flexible and comfortable. For cold weather, you need a hiking boot with insulation, and a high rise that warms the ankle and keeps out cold as well as snow and moisture.
For the worst cold weather conditions, and hiking in snow and ice, consider technical hiking boots, which are usually insulated, have excellent grip and slip prevention, ankle protection, and easy crampon compatibility.
Other Features to Look for in a Hiking Boot
Once you have determined what kind of hiking boot is best for your needs, here are some general features to consider.
While heavy boots offer excellent support, durability, and protection, they also can cause fatigue and soreness. Hikers often say that “one pound of weight on the feet equals five pounds of weight on the back,” which is exactly what it feels like. Look for the lightest hiking boot that still has all the protection you need.
Again, the most rugged, durable hiking boots aren't always the most comfortable. Look for cushioning inside the boot and around the ankle. Look for shock absorption in the heel and in the toe, for rugged descents. And find a hiking boot with great arch support, or use an insole that conforms to the sole of your foot.
Everyone's feet are slightly different, and every manufacturer tends to size and proportion hiking boots slightly differently. Get the best possible fit you can, to prevent blisters, fatigue, and injury.
As you can see, is no single perfect pair of hiking boots for all hikers in all conditions. If you plan to hike in a wide range of terrains and environments, you may need to choose two or three different pairs of hiking boots, so that you have the right equipment every time.