Parts of a Hiking Boot Explained

If you don't know your midsoles from your outsoles then this is the guide for you. Knowing a little about boot anatomy can help you choose a more dialled-in fit for your particular hiking needs.

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Written by: | Reviewed by: Brian Conghalie
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Browsing the product descriptions of hiking boots can be a disorienting business. Thankfully, the guys and gals at My Open Country are well versed in “bootspeak,” and to help you make sense of the mystifying world of hiking boot anatomy, we’ve drawn up a short, straight-talking guide.

Hiking Boot Terminology: A Glossary

Backpacking boots

These boots are typically more rugged and offer more arch support, ankle support, and weather resistance than day-hiking boots. Designed for carrying heavier loads, they usually have stiffer midsoles, more aggressive tread patterns, and a high cut above the ankle.

hiking boots closeup


The rim around the top of the boot.

Crampon Compatibility

Boots are graded according to their compatibility with different types of crampon:

  • B1: Compatible with C1 crampons, which are non-technical models that can be strapped onto any boot to provide added traction and grip on moderate ice and snow.
  • B2: Compatible with C2 crampons, which are used for hiking on glaciers and general mountaineering. These semi-rigid boots have toe and heel “bails” that are locked onto by heel and toe clips on the crampons.
  •  B3: Compatible with C3 crampons, which are used for highly technical mountaineering and ice climbing. These boots are fully rigid and have the same heel-and-toe bail system as B2 boots.


An alternative to standard lacing eyelets or hooks. Shaped like the letter, these are usually very robust but can rip out of the boot’s upper with over-exuberant tying.

Day-hiking boots

This umbrella term covers a wide variety of boots. The characteristics most common to day-hiking boots are lighter weight, a more flexible sole, and either fully or semi-synthetic uppers.

Intended for day hikes or shorter backpacking outings with lighter loads, these boots usually offer less ankle support, ruggedness, and durability than out-and-out backpacking boots. On the plus side, they typically take less time to break in, offer more comfort, and are cheaper.


The ring-shaped holes in the boot’s upper through which the laces are threaded.

Heel brake

An aggressive, usually lateral lug pattern used in the outsole to provide additional grip and traction, particularly in descent.


Hiking boots can come with two types of lining: waterproof membranes and/or insulation.

Waterproof membranes

“Waterproof” hiking boots typically use a waterproof/breathable membrane attached to or sandwiched inside the upper material. While this helps to keep your feet dry in wet conditions, they reduce breathability and add a hefty whack to the price tag.


Many 4-season hiking boots use synthetic insulating lining to add warmth to their boots.


The midsole is part of the boot located between the outsole and insole. This component provides added cushioning and acts as a buffer against shock and impact trauma to the sole of your foot.

The type of midsole used also influences the boot’s degree of stiffness. 

Stiffer midsoles make life more comfortable in steep, rocky, and uneven terrain by remaining relatively flat irrespective of how level the hiking surface is. On the downside, stiffer midsoles can cause foot fatigue and cramping on flatter trails.

The most common midsole materials are EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) and polyurethane.

  • EVA is usually found in cheaper boots and hiking shoes but is often lighter, bouncier, and more pillow-like than polyurethane. EVA is used in different densities to vary the degree of firmness the midsole offers.
  •  Polyurethane is usually stiffer and firmer than EVA, which makes it both more durable and more commonly found in mountaineering or backpacking boots.


The ‘outsole’ of your hiking boot is the bit you do the walking onDifferent brands use different types of rubber in outsoles. Some of the most common are Vibram (multiple), Contagrip (Salomon), and Skywalk (Scarpa).

As a general rule, harder outsoles offer better durability but are less “sticky” on rocky surfaces. Softer rubbers, conversely, wear down quickly but usually adhere well on slicker surfaces.

Lug pattern

This is the patterned tread on the outsole of your boot. Deeper lugs provide better traction and grip.  


These are thin inserts sandwiched between the midsole and the outsole (and below the shank, if there is one) that provide an added buffer against impact in rocky terrain.


The strip of rubber that either surrounds the entire boot or just the toe area (in which case it may be referred to as a “toe guard.”) This feature protects against abrasion and bumps or bangs to the base of your foot and toes.


Thin (2–5mm) inserts are placed between a boot’s midsole and outsole to increase rigidity and support, which can help when carrying heavier loads or hiking in steeper terrain.


The “upper” of a hiking boot is all of the material above the sole. Because it encompasses such a large part of the boot, this component influences a boot’s weight, water resistance, breathability, ruggedness, and overall performance more than any other.

The most common materials used in uppers include:

Full-grain leather

This type of upper is typically tough, durable, and highly water-resistant. It is most commonly found on backpacking boots and models intended for use in more rugged terrain.

On the downside, full-grain leather is heavy, restricts breathability, takes a long time to break in, and takes far longer than synthetic materials to dry out once wet.

Split-grain Leather/Suede

Found in both day-hiking and backpacking models, split-grain leather is typically combined with synthetic fabrics to save weight and enhance breathability. While cheaper, lighter, more supple, and more breathable than full-grain leather, split-grain is less water- and abrasion-resistant.  

Nubuck leather

Like suede, nubuck has a velvety and soft, napped finish. This fabric represents a sort of happy medium between full- and split-grain leathers, offering good water and abrasion resistance, lighter weight, and more suppleness.

Synthetic fabrics

The types of synthetics most commonly used on hiking shoes and boots are nylon, polyester, poly-nylon blends, and synthetic leather. Each of these materials is typically lighter, more breathable, quicker drying, and cheaper than leather but also lacks leather’s durability, abrasion resistance, and water resistance.

Parts of a Hiking Boot 101

Knowing your hiking shoe/boot terminology won’t make you a better hiker or your boots more comfortable, granted. However, awareness of the jargon can come in very handy when buying new boots and earn you some serious kudos amongst your hiking buddies!

If you have any comments or questions about the parts of a hiking boot or shoe, please drop them in the comments box below. And if you liked this post, please go ahead and share it with your friends!

Last update on 2023-06-01 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Kieran Avatar

Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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