Hiking (walking) boots are footwear specifically designed for protecting the feet and ankles during outdoor walking activities such as hiking. They are one of the most important items of hiking gear, since their quality and durability can determine a hiker's ability to walk long distances without injury. Hiking boots are constructed to provide comfort for walking considerable distance over rough terrain. Boots that protect the hiker's feet and heel are recommended. Hiking boots give ankle support and are fairly stiff. A less popular alternative is to use light trainers with thin soles. Footwear should be neither too loose nor too tight, to help prevent blisters and sore feet. Hiking socks that wick sweat from the feet, provide warmth, and cushion the feet are recommended and a thin, inner sock may also help. Most hiking boots are also designed for other outdoor activities such as backpacking, climbing, mountaineering, and hunting.
Prior to the 1970s and 80s most hikers wore hunting, riding, military or everyday work boots while hiking. Some even wore gym shoes. Grandma Gatewood famously wore Keds sneakers during her first thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1955. While so-called “mountain boots” were also available as early as the 1850s, they were mostly worn by climbers and adventurers from the upper classes who could afford their high price tags. One of the earliest uses of the term “hiking boots” appeared in the December 1914 issue of Mazama, the journal of The Mazamas mountaineering club. Use of this phrase in this instance, however, likely referred to “mountain boots”.
The first major improvement in mountaineering boots came about as a result of a deadly climbing accident in 1935. While descending Punta Rasica on the Swiss-Italian border, an expedition led by Vitale Bramani was caught in a severe snowstorm. Unable to descend along the icy rock walls, six of the climbers died from exhaustion, exposure and frostbite. As was the custom at that time, climbers wore heavy, hobnailed boots along the lower slopes of mountains. As they climbed higher they would exchange their boots for lighter rock climbing shoes, usually made with thin leather, felt-bottom soles that offered little protection against cold temperatures or moisture. Though they worked relatively well in normal weather conditions, the shoes offered virtually no grip in icy conditions. Convinced that inadequate footwear played a major role in the deaths of his six companions, Bramani was determined to find a solution to this problem. Two years later he introduced a sole with an innovative tread design that he called Carrarmato, an Italian word that means “tank tread.” The sole was made from vulcanized rubber, and featured heavy lugs that were designed to take the place of hobnails. The rubber lug pattern provided boots with outstanding traction, and allowed them to be used on a variety of surfaces, including uneven forest floors, bare rock, loose scree slopes and hard-packed snow. In 1937 Bramani launched his revolutionary new product. Taking the first two letters of his first name, and the first four letters of his last name, Vitale Bramani named his new company Vibram. Almost immediately the new lugged soles caught on with the climbing community, and eventually with hikers by the 1960s and 70s.
By the 1970s American bootmakers were beginning to turn their focus towards the production of lighter boots for day hikers and backpackers. One of the first boots to deliver on this promise was the Danner 6490, which weighed in at 3 pounds and 14 ounces. Since the introduction of that boot, manufacturers have made numerous advances over the years that have reduced the weight of hiking boots. This includes the use of lightweight leather or synthetic fabric uppers, replacing stitching with cement or injection molding to attach uppers to soles, and the use of shallower lugs.
The next major technological advance in boots came in 1980 when Danner and Donner Mountain Corporation introduced the first hiking boots made with Gore-Tex. Once the original high production costs were cut, the use of Gore-Tex in hiking boots became the industry standard. Nearly all hiking boots sold today are made with Gore-Tex, or a similar waterproof-breathable fabric.