Hiking boots come in so many varieties that it can be hard to decide which pair is right for your outdoor needs. In Part One of my Anatomy of a Hiking Boot series, I discussed the differences in boot cuts and the benefits of each type of cut, pertaining to your experience on the trail. Today, I’ll shed some light on the different materials that companies use in the uppers of their boots, as well as how each material type performs when tested by nature. The materials used in hiking boot uppers impact the weight, breathability, durability, and water resistance of your boots, so choosing the right pair can have a huge impact on your comfort and safety.

I’ll start with leather boots, which can be made with three different types of leather: full-grain, split-grain, and nubuck. Full-grain leather uppers offer exceptional durability, as well as increased resistance to abrasions and water, and work great with heavy loads, long trips, or rugged terrain. However, they require a bit of “breaking-in” time and aren’t as light or breathable as other materials on the market.

Split-grain leather is a variation that separates, or “splits,” the rougher portion of cowhide leather from the much smoother outer portion. This type is commonly combined with nylon to create a lighter, more breathable boot that is also less costly. The downside, however, is that split-grain isn’t as resistant to water or abrasive elements.

Nubuck leather is just full-grain leather that has been buffed until it resembles suede. Like full-grain, it’s very durable and resistant to the elements, though, like full-grain, requires some time to fully break in.

Synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, and synthetic leather have seen a rise in popularity over the years, especially in modern styles of hiking boots. These materials are popular because they tend to be lighter than leather, they break in faster, and usually cost less. However, due to their external stitching, synthetic boots have been known to show wear much sooner.

Some outdoors enthusiasts spend more time on the trail or in the woods than they do in their own homes, which, to them, justifies spending a lot on a quality pair of hiking boots. However, there are many who don’t hike or camp enough to warrant such an expensive purchase. Like many outdoor products, the materials used in hiking boot uppers can make any number of differences in the overall performance of the boots. Take this into consideration the next time you find yourself in need of a new pair and really think about how often you plan on venturing out into the woods each year. 

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