When you’re squishing down a swampy trail, the last thing you want is to keep that feeling going in your boots for the rest of the hike. A good waterproof hiking boot means you won’t let the swamp in to begin with, but if you aren’t careful, you may end up cultivating one of your own.
Most waterproof hiking boots win that designation by including an internal membrane layer of Gore-Tex — that’s what the “GTX” means in so many boot names — or another proprietary waterproofing element. Think of it like thinner bootie inside the outer boot structure. And while it was once a harbinger of sweaty soles to come, waterproofing technology continues to evolve and improve both durability and breathability.
Fit is paramount in any hiking boot and should be the first thing you look for when choosing your pair; most brands will have a similar fit across their boot line. Once you find a style of boot that works with your feet, make sure they have a full waterproof interior, not just a membrane glued to the sole.
Travel and outdoors writer Lisa Maloney, author of the guidebooks “Day Hiking Southcentral Alaska” and “Moon Alaska,” has done extensive personal and professional testing of hiking boots. She recommends a waterproof option primarily if you’re hiking through wet or cooler trail conditions. “Waterproof boots can also be useful in winter because the waterproof/breathable membrane offers a little bit of insulation to keep your feet warm, without potentially overheating them,” she says. “So if you're looking for one pair of boots you can travel with in multiple seasons, a lightweight pair of waterproof boots could do the job.”
“A company may advertise footwear as waterproof but the the user has to be aware that there are limitations,” says Garry Green, a self-described avid hiker and backpacker as well a 30-plus-year specialty outdoor store wholesale buyer for Virginia’s Mountain Trails. “Nothing is waterproof but rubber, and rubber boots are uncomfortable to wear for extended periods.”
Green adds gaiters to his boots to make sure no water sneaks in through the top, along with a secondary waterproofing treatment. Since a waterproof membrane is internal, a secondary treatment prevents moisture getting into the layers of your boot between the membrane and the outside world. (Some boots come pre-treated, but will still likely need it to be refreshed over the course of their lifespan.)
The main trade-off you face in this category is that the boots will most likely be less breathable than a non-waterproof pair, since they’re carrying that second internal bootie rather than a mesh layer. If water gets inside the boot — or if you’re prone to sweaty feet — you’re stuck with it. If you regularly take hikes with high splash risk or through a warmer climate, you may want something that’s designed for maximum breathability instead.
Here are some of the boots that our research indicates are worth taking out for a test trek, winning accolades not just for their waterproof capabilities, but their performance as overall hiking boots as well.