Best Backpacking Boots for Summer 2018

Advertiser Disclosure

From the Appalachian Trail to the Sierra High Route, every summer thousands of backpackers gear up and set out to claim their piece of the wild unknown. I’ve joined this motley crew of vagabonds for the better part of three decades, and I can tell you one thing: when it comes to backpacking, its all in the preparation.

Once you round that first bend separating you from the convenience of your vehicle or the comfort of your lodge, what you brought is what you have. Without a doubt, the single most critical piece of backpacking gear is your footwear. On that note, I’ve done some exploration of my own to bring you the best backpacking boots for summer 2018.

Best Backpacking Boots (Winner): Lowa Renegade GTX Mid

For almost 100 years, Lowa has been the European benchmark for quality footwear.  Their commitment to excellence and best practices extends from materials and product design to labor policy and environmental impact. Made exclusively with components manufactured in Europe, Lowa’s products have earned ISO 9001 status for the highest process standards and quality.  It is no surprise that our pick for best backpacking boots goes to a piece of Lowa footwear: Lowa Renegade GTX Mid.

Construction & Functionality

When considering our pick for best backpacking boots, form is tied heavily into function.  In the interest of simplicity and consistency, I have broken down our comparative review to correspond with the main components of a boot.

Upper

The ‘upper’ refers to the portion of the boot that covers the ankle and the top of the wearer’s foot.  The upper of the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid is composed almost entirely of water-repellent nubuck leather.  Nubuck leather is top-grain cattle leather.  It has been buffed on the grain side (outside) to produce a short-nap velvet feel.  Above the nubuck, Cordura® nylon bands provide additional comfort and support to the ankle.

Lacing & Tongue

The Lowa Renegade GTX Mid employs Derby-cut lacing.  Derby-cut or ‘open’ lacing relieves pressure on the wearer’s foot and allows for a wider variety of foot volumes, including very high arches.  The lacing runs through open gromets for the top three crosses, allowing the wearer to easily tighten the boot for greater support.  Gussets along the sides of the padded tongue allow for greater comfort and flexibility of fit.  They also keep debris from falling into the boot.

Outsole

The ‘outsole’ of a boot refers to every surface that contacts the ground during normal wear.  In matters of performance, safety, and comfort, the material and construction of the outsole is critical when considering the best backpacking boots.  The outsole of the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid is a construction known as ‘Vibram Vialta’.  Vibram is a thoroughly tested, state-of-the-art material widely used in high-end athletic and outdoor gear.  Vialta refers to a patented tread pattern designed to maximize traction and stability during vigorous use.

Comfort

While each component of the boot combines elements of performance and comfort, the following four subcategories focus more on the wearer’s experience.  As with matters of functionality, here the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid comes through as top contender for the best backpacking boots.

Midsole & Arch Support

‘Midsole’ refers to the part of the boot that directly contacts the sole of the wearer’s foot.  Cushioned polyurethane (PU) comprises the midsole of the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid.   The majority of hiking boots contain either an EVA foam or polyurethane midsole.  While the EVA foam provides more generous comfort, the PU midsoles offer better support and protection from rough impact.

The Lowa Renegade GTX Mid employs a full-length nylon shank under the foot to support the arch.  External polyurethane Monowrap® frames add lateral stability while helping cut down on weight.

Lining

As indicated by the ‘GTX’ in the name of the product, the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid uses a completely waterproof, breathable Gore-Tex ® liner.  This keeps the wearer’s foot dry while wicking away perspiration and body heat.  If you’ve ever done any serious hiking, you know how critical this component is to maintaining the condition of your feet.

Weight

To have a standard metric, most shoe companies list the weight (and dimensions) of a men’s size 9.  While you won’t ever be ‘carrying’ your boots, you will feel the entirety of the weight every time you lift your feet.  Considering its durability, the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid comes in at a notably light 2 lbs, 7 oz.  Much of this economy results from the Monowrap® frames which stabilize the foot without adding much weight.

Percent Fit as Expected

Amazon has a very useful metric for comparing footwear: the percent of reviewers who report the shoe size they ordered fit the way they expected.  At the time of my review, 85% of purchasers of the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid reported the fit as expected.  The majority of the remaining 15% complained the boots were too small.  If you’re conflicted, consider sizing up ½ size.  Of course, I always recommend wearing your new boots around the house or to work for several days before any big excursion.

Durability

When it comes to contenders for best backpacking boots, the durability counts double.  First, you don’t want your footwear flagging mid-outing.  This could lead to serious discomfort, safety concerns, or even an excursion cut short.  Second, you want the boots you purchased to show up for you time and again.  Outdoor footwear is expensive and investing in new backpacking boots every year can be a major drain on your budget.

Durability reports of the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid are varied.  While reviewers report that the boots provide excellent protection on any given outing, some complain that the footwear begins to break down after only a few uses.

Flaws but not Deal Breakers

Limited Durability

Some reviewers of the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid mention disappointment in the longevity of the footwear. Specifically, the sole on some wearer’s boots began to peel away from the bottom of the midsole.  To their credit, in these cases of product malfunction, Lowa stood behind their reputation and replaced the boots.

Narrow Fit

As I mentioned in the % Fit as Expected section, the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid are sized a little small.  While some purchasers can compensate by buying up a size, beware if your feet are wider than average.  An ill-fit can cause a decrease in ventilation and an increased chance of blisters.

 

Best Backpacking Boots (Runner Up): Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX

With its slogan ‘Time to Play’, Salomon produces a full battery of sports and outdoor gear and apparel. Originally a French metal-working company, Salomon transitioned to manufacturing skis and ski equipment in the 1970s.  From there it expanded to include a vast array of products and accessories, including a world-class line of hiking boots.  The Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX are an impressive specimen and capture the runner-up spot in our evaluation of this summer’s best backpacking boots.

Construction & Functionality

Upper

Unlike the Lowa, the Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX has a partially synthetic upper.  The combination of nubuck leather and porous nylon offers protection, flexibility, and breathability.

Lacing & Tongue

As with the Lowa, the Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX has Derby-cut lacing.  Sheathe materials along the lacing provide protection and a soft flex.  This increases comfort by allowing the knots to hold while giving the wearer’s foot a slight degree of adjustment.  The Salomon also advertises an ‘ankle-lock’ lacing system which reviewers verify keeps your toes from smashing into the front of the boot when angled downhill. The tongue is both padded and gusseted to comfortably protect the bridge of the foot while sealing the top of the boot against debris.

Outsole

Alone in this comparison, the Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX comes equipped with proprietary ‘Contagrip’ rubber technology.  Developed by Salomon engineers, Contagrip is a combination of the words ‘contour’ and ‘grip’.  The rubber lugs are actually different densities depending on their location on the bottom of the boot.  Dense rubber covers areas of the boot, such as the toe and edges, which are expected to receive the brunt of impact.  More malleable rubber fills in the interior of the outsole, maximizing grip on the terrain.   According to Salomon, the lug design of the Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX is improved even over its predecessor, the Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX.

Comfort

Midsole & Arch Support

Unlike the Lowa, the midsole of the Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX is composed of dual density EVA foam.  This foam provides increased comfort over polyurethane but at the expense of some of the support.  Salomon adds to this effect by including removable OrthoLite footbeds on the top of the midsole.

The Salomon’s new 4D Chassis design provides the arch support.  While Salomon advertises the flexibility of the chassis, user reports indicate that the boot is still pretty stiff.  This is a potential advantage for long distance but hinders mobility in the short term.

Lining

Gore-Tex ® polyester lining absorbs and then wicks away body moisture while providing a completely water-proof seal.  Like the Lowa, the Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX will keep your feet cool and dry.

Weight

At 2 pounds 14 ounces, the Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX is the heaviest boot in our review.  While this is still considered a middleweight hiking boot, you should consider this when deciding of the Salomon is the best fit for your adventures.  If you’re primarily going to be doing day hikes or climbing terrain that requires dexterity, you may be better served with a lighter boot.

Percent Fit as Expected

At 75%, the Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX has a noticeably low percent fit as expected on Amazon.  The majority of the 25% who were surprised with the fit considered the Salomon boots too small.

Durability

Durability appears to be a major selling point of the Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX (and the Salomon name in general).  From respected outdoor apparel critics to average consumers, the unanimous consent is that these boots withstand some serious mileage.

Flaws but not Deal Breakers

Midsole Not for Heavy Carrying

The EVA foam midsole is very comfortable for lighter loads, but it cannot take the weight that a polyurethane midsole is designed for.  If you’re over 200 pounds or will be consistently carrying a pack that is over 40 pounds, consider a boot such as the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid.

Narrow Fit

This seems to be a frequent complaint with many contenders for best backpacking boots.  In conjunction with the 75% Fit as Expected Score, this raises a red flag for those hikers with a wider-than-average foot.

Best Backpacking Boots (Best Day Hikers) Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP

Rather than present a Best Backpacking Boots (Honorable Mention), I want to showcase a design that is perfect for lighter use: a day hiker or single overnighter.  Many adventurers are looking for a solid, comfortable boot that provides more support than a trail runner.  In this vein, I present the Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP.

In 1981, famed boot maker Randal Ivan Merrell was producing custom-order hiking boots for over $500 a pair.  That was until two executives from Rossignol ski company approached him with a proposal: join forces and continue R.I. Merrell’s dedication to quality with a line of outdoor footwear that could retail for the common adventurer. Since 1983, Merrell has been the producer of some of the finest boots and shoes in the world.

Construction & Functionality

Upper

The Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP has a more lightweight upper construction than either the Lowa or the Salomon.  While thin suede leather covers a portion of the boot, breathable synthetic mesh composes the majority of the upper.  To increase durability and foot protection, Merrell has covered the end of the Moab in a thick rubber toe cap.

Lacing & Tongue

The lacing for the Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP is more similar to that of a trail runner than a boot.  Without open grommets, the laces must be run through the grommets before pulling tight.  This decreases the flexibility of the lace-up.  Closed-cell foam fills the tongue making it surprisingly light yet rigid.

Outsole

Like all of Merrell’s outdoor footwear, the Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP has an outsole made of Vibram TC5+ rubber.  This innovative, no-mark technology gives these day hikers excellent grip on rocks and other slick areas of purchase.  The lugs (tread) on the outsoles is an impressive 5mm to help grip.

Comfort

Midsole & Arch Support

The Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP make for some seriously comfortable hiking boots.  The midsole is a proprietary EVA foam material called Merrell M Select FIT.ECO + blended-EVA.  The contoured footpads on the midsole are precisely zoned to provide maximum arch and heel support.  By limiting the area of increased padding, Merrell also keeps the overall weight of the boot down.

Like the Lowa, the Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP has a molded nylon arch shank.  This provides general stability and helps protect the foot from impact with the ground below.

Lining

The mesh lining of the Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP does not include GORE-TEX like the other two products in our review.  However, it is lined with an M-Select Dry membrane.  This proprietary material is Merrell’s own answer to GORE-TEX and serves the same function.  Internal product development helps to keep the boot more affordable.

Weight

As expected, the Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP is the lightest contender in our review of best backpacking boots.  At 2 lbs. 4 oz, it is only 75% of the Salomon Quest’s considerable heft.  However, at over two pounds the Merrell is still considered a hiking boot, not a trail runner.  Because Merrell is a scientifically-minded company, lightweight technology allows the boot to remain light while still providing the protection and support for extended hiking with a pack.

Percent Fit as Expected

The Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP shines with an 87% fit as expected average on Amazon.  In this category it tops out our review of the best backpacking boots.  Because the construction of the Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP is more similar to that of a shoe than a boot, it is more flexible.  It is not surprising that more purchasers find it as comfortable as they expected.

Durability

At 75% the weight and just over half the cost of our top two competitors, the Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP is not as durable in the short or the long term.  First, the lightweight materials that allow the Merrell to be so comfortable and versatile over short distances will not provide support for a heavier wearer or a hiker carrying a heavy load.  Second, the less expensive components will begin to wear out sooner than with a more substantial hiking boot.

Flaws but not Deal Breakers

Fabric and Stitching Wear Out

As suggested in the durability section, the Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP is not well-suited to heavy-duty use.  While the average purchaser rating on these boots is very high, some disgruntled users complain of wear & tear after a few months of heavy use.  This is more of a trade-off than a flaw.  With lighter, less expensive footwear the expectation should be decreased durability.

Failed Waterproofing

Of much more concern (to me anyway) than a shorter shelf-life is a recurrent complaint that the Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP is not waterproofed as advertised.  Without a controlled study, it’s impossible to say whether these are individual defects on a small percentage of boots or a more systemic problem.  It’s also possible that the users mistook water coming in over the top of the boots for leaks.  No boots are waterproof in a downpour or if you submerge them.

However, before moving on from this flaw we should note that, while the top competitors waterproof their boots with GORE-TEX, Merrell uses its own proprietary waterproofing material.

All the Nitty Gritty

Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP
Category Midweight Midweight Lightweight
Upper Nubuck Nubuck / Mesh Leather / Mesh
Waterproofing Gore-Tex Gore-Tex M-Select
Midsole Polyurethane EVA EVA
Outsole Vibram Vialta Contagrip Rubber Vibram TC5+
Weight 2 lbs. 7 oz. 2 lbs. 14 oz. 2 lbs. 4 oz.
Fit as Expected 83% 75% 87%

The Bottom Line

As with all our reviews, the bottom line really depends on you, the consumer.  There are numerous outdoor outfitters, many with excellent products on the market.  When it comes to selecting the best backpacking boots, it really comes down to your planned adventures.

If your calendar is full of fun day-hikes or exploring with a light pack, the Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP are a great fit at a reasonable price.

The Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX are some serious hiking boots for longer distances and heavier loads.

For my money, the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid provides an excellent balance of structure and versatility.  It is a finely-crafted backpacking boot from a tested producer.

Whatever hiking boots you choose to purchase this summer, please bring them home a few weeks before your big adventure.  Break them in and test them out.  Once they survive this test run, you’ll be able to enjoy them with confidence.  See you out on the trails!

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: I notice there are basically different ‘weight-classes’ of hiking boots.  Should I purchase a different style for different activities or focus on finding the single best fit for me?

There is no single answer.

Nevertheless, it is a fantastic question to ask yourself when considering the best backpacking boots for you.  In order to guide your own answer, try these two intermediate queries: ‘How much would I like to spend?’ and ‘How many different kinds of activities do I have planned?’  If the answer to both questions is ‘a lot’, consider purchasing several different kinds of footwear.  In any case, my personal advice is to shop for one style at a time, take it home, try it out, and enjoy it!

Q: Vibram? Contagrip? Cordura? FIT.ECO? What’s with all the different brands incorporated in each brand of hiking boot? Do I need to know what they do?

Manufacturers brand proprietary materials and components so that competitors can’t use them in their products.  Many of these are virtually the same, offset by small differences that aren’t noticeable to the end user.

Often the function is evident in the name of the product itself.  If not, the marketing team for the manufacturer will make sure you know exactly what the component does (and why you’re paying for it).  If your curiosity isn’t quenched, a quick Google search will tell you all you need to know.

Taking the kids backpacking with you this summer?  Check out this review of the Best Kids Hiking Backpack by Kimberley Mays.

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