I have been needing to get a real pair of hiking boots for some time. Not so much for "real" hiking, but for walking the dog in the park in wee hours across dew-laden grass and working in the yard. Hiking is certainly in my future, as well.
Unless you count combat boots, I had never owned a pair of real hiking boots. So, I really had no idea what to get. I had heard good things about Red Wing Boots. They have a subdivision, Vasque, that specializes in hiking boots. That also happens to be the brand that my wife has (and she likes them).
Red Wing Stores Apparently Don't Carry VasqueI tried heading to a Red Wing store, only to find out that, although we had many of them in the area, they generally only carried the main Red Wing line and Irish Setter, the hunting and fishing subdivision. Further, the sales person at the store I visited seemed to just read the labels in front of me, as opposed to being remarkably knowledgeable. I called their other locations and, while they were willing to *order* Vasque, none of them stocked them.
So, I headed to my local REI.
REI Knows Hiking Shoes And Their Clerks RockI was taken aback at the clerks at REI. This was my first time to set foot in an REI, so I have no idea is this was typical. However, I visited two REIs that day and every single person was surprisingly helpful and knowledgeable. Maybe I have low expectations...
What I WantedWe discussed options at length. I explained that I needed a hiking boots with the following qualities:
- A true boot, for protection against limbs, rocks, debris
- Waterproof, but still able to breathe so that they don't become a sweaty bath in the Texas summer
- Good for long hikes
- Not sure if I will need to hike with a heavy load, but let's assume that
- Wide fit
What I Tried
I tried a host of different boots, to include Vasque, Merrell, Asolo, Oboz, Keen, and Lowa. Among those, I tried around a dozen different boots, 2-4 lacings per boot, and a few repeats. I probably laced up a pair of boots about 40 times that afternoon.
The clerks guided me to boots 1 and 1.5 sizes bigger than my foot measurement. Five years ago, that would have been startling, but lately, I am relieved by that tendency, as I have come to learn that, for some reason, shoes designed for your foot size often end up smashing one or more toes in heavy use. I had a pair of cross-training shoes that literally smashed one of my toes so much on a 5k power walk that the nail gave up the ghost and fell off. Ouch.
REI has a fake rock formation for trying out the shoes and the clerks tell you how to use it to evaluate sliding along the boot, adequate room for toes, and sliding along the back of the foot.
Every clerk was infinitely patient and courteous.
The only boot that was a contender was, humorously, the first pair I tried - the Vasque Breeze. It was also the winner.
What was fascinating is that the pair I tried at the first REI felt too tight across the foot, but the pairs at the second REI did not. Further, for two of the pairs of Vasque I tried, the left foot created an uncomfortable pressure on the medial malleolus. Just the left foot. On two of four pairs I tried.
Given the fantastic service, I was obliged to buy the boots at REI, but the researcher in me couldn't help but check out the cost on Zappos for the same shoes. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were the same for the pair I wanted and only 15% less for a pair I did not. Well, given that 20% discounts are somewhat easy to come by, and they had one that day, it turns out that REI was cheaper overall; another pleasant surprise.
What I Learned
Here is what I learned from my excursion:
- Hiking boots would be a nightmare to shop for online unless you already know with certainty exactly which brand and size works for you
- REI has incredible customer service (at least in Plano and Dallas, Texas)
- The shape, support, and toe boxes vary wildly across brands and models; be prepared to try them on
- The fit of the boot really requires a good 5-15 minutes to get any real sense of how well they fit
- Vasque boots work great for me
Good luck with your hiking purchase!