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The best hiking boots for Kilimanjaro

Your hiking boots are arguably the most important item on a Kilimanjaro climb. We discuss what to look for in hiking boots so you're well equipped to go out and find a pair that's right for you and will serve you well on a Kilimanjaro climb.

You need warmcomfortable and water-resistant hiking boots to successfully and safely climb Kilimanjaro. So where can you find such boots?

Your hiking boots are arguably your most important item for a Kilimanjaro climb!

Choosing a good pair of hiking boots isn’t about choosing a brand (there are many excellent brands out there) but instead it’s about two things:

  1. Looking for boots that can handle the conditions you’ll experience on Kilimanjaro.
  2. Knowing what to look for in a boot to suit your feet.

We answer the first question below where we discuss why you need hiking boot, not hiking shoes to climb Kilimanjaro. We then answer the second question when we discuss the anatomy and characteristics of good hiking boots. Finally, we also address whether or not you need crampons, and the types of bootlaces that are best for trekking.

You’re doing a great thing by thoroughly researching your hiking boots – please read on as you need to find a pair early and wear them in before your trek!

 

Why you need boots, not shoes

We definitely recommend hiking boots over hiking shoes when it comes to climbing Kilimanjaro. The terrain of the mountain is rough and varied. You have to walk over roots and rocks, through streams and mud, over scree, across ice and snow, and more! So a quality pair of hiking boots is a must. 

Footprints in the snow on the summit of Kilimanjaro

The summit of Kilimanjaro is often covered in snow, so you need well insulated, water-repellent shoes

That said, you could opt to walk in hiking shoes some of the way, and boots the rest. A few Kili trekkers walk the first couple of days in hiking shoes because the temperatures near the base of the mountain are mild. They then switch into their boots higher up, where the ground gets rougher and the temperature drops.

This is totally fine, but just remember that there are countless steps where you can easily twist an ankle, or worse. Kili is an expensive exercise to risk a busted ankle preventing you from reaching the top.

All of the trekking routes up Kilimanjaro take you over rough and varied ground – hiking boots are definitely warranted.

Hiking boots also offer greater warmth than hiking shoes, which is important when trekking the top half of Kilimanjaro where the conditions are harsh. Our advice is therefore, once again, to go with hiking boots over hiking shoes.

Anatomy of hiking boots

Knowing some basic hiking boot terminology will help you in your search for the best hiking boots for Kilimanjaro.

Diagram labelling the different parts of a hiking boot

 

Characteristics of good hiking boots

Finding the best hiking boots for Kilimanjaro is an integral part of your Kilimanjaro preparation. There are so many different types and brands of hiking boots – both in-store and online – that shopping for them can be a bit daunting. The best way to enter the fray is to do so with some guiding principles. We give you a break down of what to look for when shopping for hiking boots for Kilimanjaro under the following three categories: 

  • The upper boot
  • Fit
  • The soles

But first, an important caveat. Much like nutritionists spread different ideas about what you should eat to be healthy, hiking boot experts have differing opinions as to what boots lead to the happiest and healthiest feet. Frustrating stuff, but there you have it.

Further to this, as research advances, we’re sure there will be different advice and industry standards to come in the future! With that being the case, we present both sides of the argument where debate exists to help you make up your own mind.

Trekker on Kilimanjaro route

When you're wearing good hiking boots you forget about your feet and are able to focus on the trek and the scenery, which is how it should be!

The upper boot

When it comes to the upper of a hiking boot, there are a few things to consider, as follows:

  1. Fabric
  2. Weight 
  3. Toe caps
  4. Insulation
  5. Ankle support

1. Fabric

Hiking boot fabric is a very important topic. But it’s worth noting that there’s no ‘best’ fabric. What works well for one person might not be ideal for another. That’s why we can’t declare any one boot the best boot on the market. It’s all about you deciding for yourself based on expert opinion and knowing your own feet. 

The two main hiking boot fabrics are leather and synthetics. And the two main concerns when it comes to boot fabric are breathability and absorbency. Unfortunately, the more waterproof a boot, the less breathable it is, meaning you usually have to settle on a compromise between the two. So here’s the 411 on leather and synthetic hiking boots ... 

Leather 

Leather is a natural fibre (often cowhide) that makes very tough and long-lived hiking boots. It’s an excellent choice for many, and often those with leather hiking boots swear by them. Hiking boots are often made with full-grain leather, reverse full-grain leather, or nubuck. Leather boots are breathable, as animal skin has pores. But if you wax them enough they can become waterproof. Leather hiking boots are great for Kilimanjaro, provided they’re broken in well. 

The pros of leather boots are as follows:

  • They’re tough, resilient and durable. 
  • They can withstand abrasive action much better than synthetic fibres.
  • A good pair of leather hiking boots can last years, even decades (though you may need to replace the soles). 
  • They can be made waterproof by waxing them regularly. 
  • They’re warm in cold weather.
  • With time they mould to your feet and become very comfortable.

The cons (or possible drawbacks) of leather boots are:

  • They tend to be more expensive than synthetic boots.
  • They take a while to break in. 
  • The more waterproof you make them, the less breathable they become. 
  • They require more care and maintenance than synthetic boots.
  • They’re heavier than synthetic boots.
Leather hiking boots on a rock, best hiking boots for Kilimanjaro

Quality leather boots can last for many years

Synthetics

Synthetic boots are any boots constructed from a human-made fabric. Many synthetic hiking boots are made from synthetic leather, nylon or polyester. The majority of Kilimanjaro trekkers climb the mountain in synthetic boots and find them excellent. Here are the pros of synthetic hiking boots:

  • They tend to be cheaper than leather boots (we all have a budget).
  • They’re quicker to break in.
  • They also require less maintenance.
  • They’re very breathable, which helps in the prevention of blisters.
  • They’re lightweight.

And the cons?

  • They aren't waterproof.  
  • They’re not as tough and durable as leather boots. 
  • They’re not as warm as leather boots.
Synthetic hiking boots, best hiking boots for Kilimanjaro

Synthetic hiking boots are popular for a few reasons, especially that they're easy to break in

Water-resistant vs water-repellent vs waterproof

A quick word on the matter of absorbency. You’ve probably heard the terms water-resistant, water-repellent and waterproof and you might even have thought they’re synonymous. Not so.

Waterproof materials are completely impermeable, so not a drop of water can get through. Water-repellent fabric is one step down, as it keeps most water out, but isn’t entirely waterproof. A water-resistant fabric is the least reliable – you might say it discourages water, but that’s all.   

‘Water-resistant’ is not the same thing as ‘water-repellent’. And ‘waterproof’ is another thing altogether.

 

On Kilimanjaro you walk through rainforest, and sometimes over ice and snow. Having a waterproof boot is very helpful here, though a water-repellent one is usually sufficient too. If you want to avoid the rainy season on Kilimanjaro, you can read about the best time to climb Kilimanjaro.

Choosing between leather and synthetic boots for Kilimanjaro

When it comes to Kilimanjaro, both leather and synthetic boots work well. Synthetic boots might be a better option for you if you have particularly sweaty feet or are prone to blistering, as they offer excellent breathability. Remember, the more you wax leather boots, the less breathable they become. 

Kilimanjaro isn’t a particularly wet climb, as you’re not walking in a monsoonal region or anything like that. But the lower portion of the mountain – which you hike your first day along most Kilimanjaro routes – has a rainforest climate and so does get plenty of rain, especially at certain times of year. Also, you’ve got the potential of ice and snow at the summit of the mountain to contend with. So water-repellent boots are a plus for a Kilimanjaro climb. You can’t afford wet feet when trekking in an arctic climate.

Trekker hiking through snow on Kilimanjaro

There's frequently snow covering the summit of Kilimanjaro, so you need boots that will keep your feet dry

2. Weight

You want to avoid boots that are too heavy for you to walk comfortably for long stretches. Each day on a Kilimanjaro climb sees you hiking for hours – and that's hours of up climbing for the most part. As mentioned, leather boots tend to be heavier than synthetic boots. We suggest when trying on the boots that you walk around the store for some time, lunging, squatting, air kicking and just generally putting on a show to help you ascertain if the boots are the right weight for you. 

In fact, some stores have treadmills you can use to help test out the boots. These are a fantastic resource and we recommend taking the time to really test out the boots on them.

Note that a boot may not feel heavy when standing in the store, but after hours of walking it could become troublesomely heavy. We suggest you ask the sales clerk for advice in this regard.

3. Toe caps

A toe cap (or toe shield) is a hard surface wrapped around the outer edge of the toe box. Some boot toe caps are even made from steel. The toe cap is a feature that helps to protect your precious toes (and the boot fabric) from things like falling rocks, thorns and bashings.

Not all hiking boots have toe caps – if the material is already tough enough, like certain leathers, then they’re not necessary. But if buying boots made with a relatively soft fabric like Gore-Tex, be sure to purchase ones with quality toe caps.

Hiking boots and leaves

Toe caps are added to softer hiking boots to help protect your toes from being bashed or squashed

4. Insulation

The inside lining of hiking boots is important as this determines to a large degree the warmth of your feet while trekking. This is very important on a Kilimanjaro climb where you enter some very cold climates near the top of the mountain, including an arctic climate at the summit.

The materials used to line the inside of boots vary, including fabrics like leather, microfibre and insulated or vegan lining. Synthetic linings can sometimes lead to extra sweating and bad odours. 

Winter hiking boots tend to use fluffy lambskin or insulated lining, but you don’t really need winter hiking boots for Kilimanjaro. These would be overkill for much of the trek. When worn with thermal socks, regular hiking boots that have a standard inner lining will see you through summit day of a Kili climb just fine.

That said, you certainly could opt for winter hiking boots if you plan to do most or many of your future treks in very cold conditions.

Group photo with Follow Alice flag at the summit sign for Uhuru Peak on Kilimanjaro

Even when there's no snow at the summit, it's still bleeping cold (!), so you need warm shoes

5. Ankle support

It’s important to think about your ankles when choosing hiking boots. One busted ankle could mean the end of your Kilimanjaro climb. For this reason many advocate choosing high-cut hiking boots. Our own Follow Alice team member Joel Ott swears by his Meindl boots, which saw him comfortably up and down Kilimanjaro.

High-cut boots have a high collar that wraps around your ankles to offer them support. You want to find boots that have a nicely padded collar as these are more comfortable for the ankles as well your shins and lower calves.

If you’re unused to high-cut boots, note that they can take a while to get used to. This is another good reason to spend plenty of time in your boots before hitting the slopes of Kili! 

The very best ankle support

It’s worth saying that the very best ankle support is strong ligaments and muscles in the feet and lower legs. Those who argue for a more ‘natural’ type of hiking boot say that artificial ankle support is actually unhelpful. They point to the fact that no ankle support can completely immobilise your ankle (to prevent sprains or breaks), and argue that you don’t actually want this anyway.

The argument against ankle support will likely ring prettily in the ears of those who hate high-cut boots! If you do choose to go with low-cut boots, be sure to still go with proper hiking boots, not regular trainers. You want the other characteristics of good hiking boots (like insulation and toe caps) to be in place. 

Group photo at the summit of Kilimanjaro, the best hiking boots for Kilimanjaro

As you can see, you can't be too precious about your hiking boots – boots are made to get dirty!!

Fit

The fit of a hiking boot is crucial. You’re going to be spending long hours in your boots every day, so the best hiking boots for Kilimanjaro are, naturally, ones that fit your feet very well. 

We strongly suggest that you go into a reputable outdoors store to find the best hiking boots for you. While shopping online can be tempting (especially when you find a sweet deal), you’re left on your own when the boots arrive to determine if they’re a good fit. It’s better to have someone who’s bread and butter is shoes to help you find the just right pair. 

When thinking about fit, we suggest you pay attention to boot size as well as the toe box.

Boot size

While you may be someone who is usually a size 6, for instance, don’t let that number stick in your head when shopping for hiking boots. Keep an open mind about what size you should purchase. For starters, the sizings of each brand may not be identical. And secondly, you often need a bigger boot size to your normal shoe size. More on that in just a moment.

A good guide when looking for the right size hiking boot is the index finger test. This test says that when your boots are on and laced, you should be able to fit your index finger between your (sock-clad) foot and the back of the boot. You want a boot that protects your feet but doesn’t distort or overly confine them. Ideally, you want a boot that allows for some engagement with the ground while still offering protection. 

Wear your socks when choosing your boots

It’s important to take your different hiking socks with you when you visit the outdoors store to buy your hiking boots. As discussed below, your hiking socks for Kilimanjaro should include sock liners, thermal socks and regular hiking socks. If you don’t have these socks already, ask the sales clerk to give you appropriate pairs to try on with the boots, and then buy those too. 

You need boots that are large enough to fit a sock liner as well as a thick thermal sock. It’s no use deciding a pair of hiking boots fits you well but they turn out to be too small when you add your Kili socks into the mix. This is another reason why you may end up buying hiking boots that are a size (or half a size) larger than you expected.

Did you know? Many people have slightly differently sized feet. In fact, around two thirds of the world’s population have unequal feet! Experts say that if your one foot is half a size bigger than your other foot, you should buy shoes to fit your bigger foot. This makes sense. Remember the saying …

If you want to forget all your other troubles, wear too tight shoes.

The toe box 

The hiking boots of the past few decades have mostly provided relatively narrow (or tapered) toe boxes that keep your toes pressed relatively close together. (The toe box, as you saw in the infographic above, refers to the front area of the shoe that houses your toes.)

Some now argue for the superiority of a wide toe box that allows for natural toe splay. Toe splay refers to how your toes naturally spread out when you walk barefoot. Toe splay is important in helping you to maintain balance.

When a shoe reduces or takes away toe splay, it often compensates for the reduced balance by giving you a wider front sole. But is this ideal? Narrow toe boxes can sometimes lead to nasties like ingrown toenails, neuromas or even dead toenails.

Whichever shaped toe box you choose, note that your toes shouldn’t touch the front of the boot. Far from it, in fact. Leave about a finger’s width between the front of the boot and your toes. If you can’t move your toes at all, they’re too confined. Your toes also shouldn’t be pressed up against the sides of the boot – again, that would mean your boot is too small

woman tying her hiking boots

The fit of the boot is critical to a happy trek

The soles

The soles of your hiking boots are a make-or-break feature. You want soles that have good tread and are waterproof, comfortable and durable. 

Sole thickness

There are two differing views when it comes to the ideal thickness of a hiking boot’s sole. The established viewpoint is that the thicker the sole, the more protection the sole of your foot receives. A thick sole prevents your foot being injured when you step on things like sharp stones, and it endures longer. 

Another reason for a thick sole is that the more weight you’re carrying (like a heavy rucksack, for instance), the longer it lasts. The army issues thick-soled boots because soldiers often carry heavy equipment. With Kilimanjaro, you only need to carry a slackpack with your daily items, as the porters carry the rest of your stuff as well as all of the food and camping equipment. 

The other viewpoint – the challenger – is that a thick sole is too rigid and holds your foot in one position. More specifically, your foot is prevented from feeling and making micro adjustments to the demands of the terrain underfoot. Advocates for this viewpoint also argue that a thinner sole lowers your centre of gravity and so improves your balance. Leonardo da Vinci said that the “human foot is a masterpiece of engineering”; should we be letting our feet do more of the work when hiking than the boot?

Trekkers climbing the Barranco Wall on Kilimanjaro

You need some flexibility to your boot, especially when climbing the infamous Barranco Wall!

The outsole

As you saw in our discussion on the anatomy of hiking boots, the soles of boots can be divided into three parts: the insole, midsole and outsole. When looking at the outsole of a hiking boot, you want one that’s decently wide, especially in the front half, for good balance. 

The lugs of the outsole are what afford you traction, which helps you to not slip. If you’re likely to tackle treks that ask you to walk across surfaces like grasses, streams, scree or ice, then you want good traction to avoid slipping. You need decent traction for climbing Kilimanjaro as the forest floor can be muddy and there’s snow and ice near the summit. 

tread of hiking boots, best hiking boots for Kilimanjaro

You want lugs that are deep and not too close together to afford the best possible traction when hiking

Outsoles can be made from various materials like polyurethane, plastic or rubber. For a hiking boot you definitely want an outsole that’s waterproof and durable. Vibram is an example of a brand that makes quality outsoles suitable for hiking boots. Their outsoles are hardy and abrasion-resistant, so cope well with rough terrain like that of Mt Kilimanjaro. 

Outsoles do tend to wear out before other parts of a hiking boot given the beating they take. But the good news is that you can often get a boot resoled, saving you ditching the entire shoe when the sole becomes too degraded. 

 

 

Tread 

The tread pattern formed by the lugs on an outsole can increase or decrease a boot’s grip. You want plenty of deep lugs with a fair bit of space between them to provide you with good traction when you walk. Lug depth is also important as abrasion from walking will wear them down with time. While most hiking boots should have this, check for lugs that cover the ball of the boot and its heel.  

close up of man's feet in hiking boots walking over dead leaves among trees

The grip of a boot matters, especially when walking on slippery ground like a mossy forest floor

The insole 

Many trekkers enjoy insoles with memory foam. As your feet heat up with walking, the heat spreads to the memory foam, which starts moulding to your feet. You also want an insole with decent arch support. Women especially tend to have insteps, and inadequate arch support can lead to foot problems.

Obviously if you’re someone who does have problematic arches, the best course of action in such instances would be to visit a podiatrist. They can offer custom-made insets if necessary. If you have such orthotics, check the sole of the hiking boot is removable as usually you won’t have room in the boot for both.

 

 

Kilimanjaro and crampons

Crampons are metal frames with spikes that you can attach to the bottom of your boots to help give you fantastic traction when walking in snow and ice. When hiking Kilimanjaro, you don’t need the hardcore crampons used by those tackling mountains like Everest. Instead, a pair of light crampons will do the trick. 

That said, crampons usually aren’t needed on a Kilimanjaro climb. The only time you might like to have them is when conditions are particularly icy at the summit. When this is the case, you can hire strap-on crampons trouble free in Tanzania just before heading to the mountain. If you travel with Follow Alice, we’ll advise you on arrival in Tanzania if our trek team thinks they’d be helpful, and assist you in renting a pair. Crampons can clip onto pretty much any hiking boot. 

The good news in all of this is that crampons aren’t something you need to research and buy for a Kilimanjaro trek.

Hiking boots with crampons, Tanzania, Kilimanjaro

Crampons help you to walk steadily across the snow and ice that sometimes cover the summit of Kilimanjaro

When talking about hiking boots, it’s essential to also talk about bootlaces ...

Choosing the right bootlaces

Bootlaces aren’t something most of us give much thought. We simply use what comes with a pair of new boots. And usually those do the job just fine. But should you like a little more insight into the ideal bootlaces, then read on ... 

Close up of synthetic hiking boots with long red shoelaces, best hiking boots for Kilimanjaro

Many hikers are unaware of the importance of good shoelaces for your hiking boots

The best bootlaces for hiking boots

We recommend round bootlaces (like those in the picture above) over flat ones for hiking boots. Round bootlaces are a bit more durable, being able to cope with stronger knots and tugs. Note that polyester or nylon bootlaces are more durable and water-resistant than cotton ones. Braided or paracord nylon bootlaces are super strong and an excellent option for hiking boots. Nylon laces are a touch more expensive, but they last very well.

You also want laces with aglets (plastic-coated ends) to make threading them through eyelets more manageable. Aglets have the added advantage of preventing the laces from fraying.

Close up of a leather hiking boot in the grass

This boot has aglets at the ends of the laces to prevent them from fraying – very useful

Finally, you want bootlaces long enough for the very top hooks or eyelets of the boots. Of course the laces that come with the boots you buy should be long enough for this. But if you ever need to replace your laces, measure them or take them with you to the store to ensure the new ones are the right length.

Old hiking boots and thick socks

Long bootlaces are useful as you can tie your laces in different ways to accommodate the varying terrain and any foot or discomfort issues

Break in your boots like a pro

A good pair of hiking boots is an absolute must on Kili. With a good pair, you can forget about your feet and just enjoy the beauty and challenge of the climb. With a bad pair, your trek can be can become miserable, even dangerous.

Your hiking boots shouldn’t be an afterthought in your Kilimanjaro preparation. Since rushed purchases lead to buyer’s remorse, give yourself plenty of time to shop around and find just the right pair (hopefully at the right price).

You also need to leave yourself plenty of time to properly break in the boots. You should do training hikes in your boots, as we discuss in How should I train for Kilimanjaro?

Unfortunately, quality hiking boots don’t come cheap. But speak to any seasoned trekker and they’ll tell you the same thing: hiking boots are an investment. A good pair of boots can last years, sometimes even decades.

Group photo on Kilimanjaro

Happy feet = happy climbers!

For this reason, try to think ahead to the sorts of treks you might like to do in the future. Consider the climate, terrain and other conditions of those routes to help you decide which boot is best for Kilimanjaro as well as those treks.

Be very careful to break in your hiking boots properly before your Kilimanjaro climb. This is especially important with leather boots. Even if your boots feel super comfy when you test them out (which they should), they still need breaking in. What's comfortable in-store isn't usually comfortable after a few hours of hard hiking. 

It’s recommended that you and your boots cover at least 100 km together before your Kilimanjaro climb. Start by wearing the boots around the house and on short outings like to get the groceries. Gradually level up by doing some longer walks, and then eventually going on increasingly longer hikes, backpack in place.

If you try to rush the process, you’re likely to get sore feet, especially with leather boots. This is another reason why you shouldn’t leave your Kilimanjaro preparation to the last minute – if you do, you won’t have enough time to properly break in your boots.

A word of caution: don’t listen to the folks who suggest quick-fix remedies like soaking the boots. The very best way to break in boots is to spend lots of time in them. Breaking in your boots properly is so important that it’s one of our top 10 tips for climbing and summiting Mt Kilimanjaro

Toe caps

If you find your toes are hurting or blistering – or your toenails are suffering – while breaking in your boots (or even after your boots are worn in), you might like to try out toe caps. Toe caps are gel ‘socks’ that you can slide over individual toes to protect them from friction and provide some extra cushioning. Again, you wouldn’t try something like this for the first time on Kili – experiment with toe caps before coming to the mountain to ensure they work and don’t produce any side effects.

A line of Kilimanjaro trekkers in red Follow Alice jackets looking out over the view with the sunset light on them

You should only attempt Kilimanjaro wearing properly worn-in hiking boots

We hope we’ve helped you to find the very best hiking boots for Kilimanjaro. And not only for Kilimanjaro – we want you to invest in a pair of boots that can accompany you on many other adventures! Because once you’ve ascended Kilimanjaro, you’ll doubtless have caught the trekking bug. 😄

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