Time to hit the trail? I'm a field geologist, so that's my job. I wanted to find the best hiking boots for general outdoors activities, so spent months testing these at work. And I think we found a winner.
AU Editor's Note: These shoes are specifically for a US audience, but many are also available in Australia. -- Cam
These aren't boots dedicated to mountaineering, heavyweight backpacking, ice climbing or trail running. Instead, we wanted to test all-purpose boots for hiking. The kind that most people wear outdoors and which can handle most women's general needs. For the purposes of brevity, we limited our selection to above-the-ankle boots fitted with waterproof/breathable membranes and capped the price at $US250. We also excluded classic, all-leather designs as those are more suited to casual activities. These are boots you can move in, over long distances. Boots we didn't feel were up to snuff based on quality or performance didn't make the cut; availability of samples also influenced the included products.
We then set about testing the hell out of each boot over a period of several months. This included local circuit hikes, geology field study work and just having fun in the mountains. Terrain included relatively groomed trails, Mount Doom-levels of loose scree, boulder scrambles and even some light climbing. Each boot saw wet and dry conditions, and once we narrowed down our favourites, we focused destructive efforts on them to test build quality and endurance.
Here's what we found:
The Best Rough Terrain Boot: Salomon Quest 4D II GTX
This reviewer has a long track record of abusing boots. With demanding geology field assignments requiring hard miles through rough terrain, a boot that can take abuse and hold up is worth its weight in gold. This year's field assignments included harsh desert scree landscapes and wet Sierra Nevada trails. The $US230 Salomon Quest II 4D GTX was the favourite by far.
This boot provided excellent stability and ankle support in the harshest of terrain. From wet granite to steep mountains covered in limestone scree, this boot offered the best traction and stability of any tested. The lace system has a locking middle eyelet, allowing the wearer to custom fit the tension in the lower boot and leave the uppers looser, or vice-versa. The waterproof Gore-Tex liner delivered the dry experience it promised, with a minimum of swamp foot. And the generous toe box was much appreciated in long downhill scrambles -- seriously, there was enough room in there for an orgy of toes.
The Quest 4D II survived my abuse with a surprising amount of durability given the large number of seams incorporated into the boot's design. While many other boots tested had failed waterproof liners within 100 miles of use the Quest took a beating in the desert and then performed seamlessly in wet mountain environments. Overall the Quest II 4D GTX is an amazing blend of stability and comfort for rough terrain hiking but might be overkill for the casual hiker.
The Best Day Hike/Casual Boot: Ahnu Montara
These were the most comfortable out-of-the-box boots this reviewer has ever tried and they stayed comfortable through 14-hour days in the field. After finishing a day of geological mapping in a landscape that could only generously be compared to hell, the most comfortable part of my body was my feet. Their arch support and light weight combined for a noticeable lack of foot fatigue.
Unfortunately, the Montara's durability disappointed. Within 50 miles, the boots showed obvious wear, with the leather having noticeable cuts from the rough scree terrain. By the time the Montaras made it to water resistance testing, they had already suffered enough damage that I am unsure whether or not they soaked up water due to the existing wear or if the waterproofing simply sucked.
Even with the durability issues, the $US165 Ahnu Montaras offer an excellent compromise between hiking boots and hiking shoes. The Montara's are now my go-to choice for casual day hikes in dry terrain. It's also worth noting that the Ahnus fit narrow feet well and those with wider feet may need to look to another brand.
Mammut Comfort High GTX
An honorable mention goes to Mammut's $US195 Comfort High GTX boots. They are remarkably light and had the best water resistance of any boot tested: a 4-hour trek up a shallow stream in these boots left my feet dry and comfortable.
The Comfort High boots are outfitted with Gore-Tex Surround, a newer technology that is supposed to offer increased breathability, though this reviewer did not notice a significant difference in how warm and sweaty her feet got. Mammut's sole and footboard aims to provide "cushioning that supports natural foot roll," but this reviewer never felt stable in the boots. Something in the build seemed to lack the general stability of others on test, like the insole and shank were trying to change the expected motion of your booted feet. Possibly a pronation issue? This, coupled with a narrow toe box, did not make for the most comfortable all-day use. If you have wider feet, this boot may not be for you, either, as it seems to run about half a size small.
These $US130 boots claim to be 100% waterproof but breathability seems to be 0%. They were way too hot from the moment we put them on and heavier then any of the other boots tested. If you live somewhere cold and wet these may be the boot for you but they are certainly not a winner for any use but winter hiking.
Hi-Tec Altitude Lite
Just say no. Sometimes you get what you pay for. When we unboxed these and strapped them on the first thing said was"'Wow, it feels like I just strapped a cardboard box to my foot." These $US90 boots were the worst of both worlds- heavy, clunky, and unsupportive.
Keen Gypsum Mid
Keen makes a really nice boot, but there wasn't much about it that stood out, even at the $US150 price. Fit is roomy, with a nicely protective rubberised toe box, and the sole provided reliable feel and traction. The uppers of the boot were a little uncomfortable out of the box and did require a short break-in period. The waterproofing held up in mild wet conditions and didn't seem any less breathable then the average waterproof boot. The boots held up well to the rough terrain they were exposed to but didn't leave us with a lasting impression one way or the other.
Top photo: Chris Brinlee Jr