Understanding Hiking Boot Jargon

If you are shopping online for hiking boots you probably keep running in to difficult descriptions. Ones that you aren’t quite sure about. Your online shopping can become an intimidating experience as a result.Buying hiking boots online can be an intimidating process because of this. There are a lot of things to consider. In addition most manufacturers use quite a bit of jargon to describe their boots. 

Right off the bat there is one difference that you should have clear before looking around for hiking boots. That is what makes: hiking shoes, backpacking boots, and day-hiking boots different. 

If you aren’t sure about what makes these three different you should check out our article on the subject. What Type of Hiking Boots You Should Buy?

There are of course a lot more things to consider. However, starting with a basic knowledge of the differences between these three will narrow your search sizably. You will then be able to easily understand the jargon below. 

Below is a basic list of the most common jargon that we find in most hiking boot descriptions. We wrote the list in logical order, instead of alphabetical. This means that we attempted to mention the most common terms first. We then built upon them in order for them to be more easily comprehensible. 

Our List of Hiking Boot Terms

Full-Grain Leather:

To understand what full-grain leather is you need to understand the very basics of leather preparation. Leather is surprisingly thick and as a result leather workers can split one cowhide into many layers. The top layer is full-grain, it is very expensive, beautiful, and durable.

Some very fine boots use full-grain leather, however, most manufacturers stay away from it because of the cost. A side note about full-grain leather boots is that you need to treat them with the right products. If you don’t they may not keep their beauty or shed water.

Top Grain Leather:

Top grain leather is the next layer that is directly under the full-grain leather when split. It has many of the advantages of full-grain leather. Since it is very durable and offers great support, while being a little softer than full grain leather. 

Top-grain leather often used on day hiking boots, and it is the most used material for backpacking boots. 

As I have mentioned (and will continue to mention) I love leather and I prefer it to any and all synthetic materials. After having said this, I feel that I need to mention two things about leather. Leather may not be as breathable or as waterproof as some other materials. Another downside is that leather takes a little bit more break-in time. Break-in time is very important to take into consideration when hiking. Obviously no-one wants to end up on the peak of a mountain with blisters all over their feet!

Nubuck leather:

Nubuck leather is basically the same piece of leather as top grain. The difference is that it is prepared differently. The exterior side of the leather is sanded to roughen it up. This results in a texture similar to suede. 

This process takes out, or hides, any defects that would otherwise be noticed in the leather. The process is usually done on leather that wouldn’t look right with its’ natural grain due to imperfections. Nubuck leather should not, however, be considered an inferior material. 

The process that it undergoes makes nubuck leather more comfortable and allows it to break-in somewhat faster. While it may loose some of its strength, it is still a very, very durable material. 


We all should know what suede is. However, the confusion starts when one asks what the difference between suede leather and nubuck leather is. 

The difference is subtle, but very important. Suede is thinner than nubuck and is taken from the layer underneath that doesn’t have any grain on it. 

Sued leather is “sanded” on each side, both inside and out. Whereas nubuck leather is only sanded on the outside. What’s the big deal? Glad you asked! Since suede is treated on both sides it is softer, more comfortable, and doesn’t really need breaking in. The downside is that it is thinner and softer. It therefore isn’t as resistant to wear and doesn’t provide much support or protection. 


Synthetics are obviously, man made synthetic materials, i.e, synthetic leather, polyester, or nylon. While I don’t personally like the idea of synthetic materials, they can have certain advantages. Especially when used for the upper part of a boot synthetic materials can be desirable. This is because they can be lighter, more breathable, and less expensive than genuine leather. Synthetic materials do, however, have one main disadvantage; they don’t hold up as well or last as long as real leather. 


This seems to be a no brainer (no water penetrates the outside of the boot). However, we decided to include it in order to emphasize the difference between water proof and water resistant. 

Water resistant will repel some water, but is not made to be completely immersed. If you are going to be crossing rivers, or treading mud water resistant boots will not keep your feet dry. Water proof boots should be capable of being completely immersed without water penetrating the boot.

The downside of waterproof boots is that in high temperatures they don’t really breath all that well. This can obviously cause sweating and discomfort to your feet.

Vegan Boots:

These boots won’t eat your feet 😉 Joking aside, vegan boots are produced without harming any animals and they use no animal products whatsoever. Above we explained synthetic materials, vegan boots are basically made entirely with those. In this way those who love those cute little cows: can buy a nice pair of boots without bothering their conscience. 

Insoles (footbeds):

This would be the inside section of your boot upon which the bottom of your feet rest. The insoles that you pick should have abundant cushioning. Good insoles will also wick moisture in order to keep your feet nice and dry. It is good to look for boots with removable insoles. This helps dry the boot out and it is nice also because it allows you to replace, or in some cases upgrade them.


This is the part of the boot that lays directly under the insole. The Midsole is important because it absorbs shock and is essential to the comfort of the boot. 

Midsoles also affect the stiffness of the boot. At first thought stiffness may not seem like a good thing. It can, however, be an important part of the boot. Stiffness affects the boots ability to protect your feet form sharp objects on the trail. Stiffness also affects the stability of the boot, the stiffer the midsole the stabler the boot. 

An able boot manufacturer will be able to balance the stiffness and comfort of the boot. Thus producing a practical and comfortable product. 

Midsoles are usually made out of the synthetic materials: EVA or Polyurethane which are explained further down in this article.


This stands for: Ethylene Vinyl Acetate. It is a flexible, foam-like, lightweight synthetic material. EVA is very effective at dispersing weight, providing stability, and is really great at making your boots feel comfortable and cushioned.


Polyurethane is also referred to as PU. As we mentioned above Polyurethane is a common material for the midsoles of hiking boots. However, it is not only in the midsoles. Since this Polyurethane is waterproof, many boot manufacturers use it as a shell for their boots. Boot manufacturers also commonly use it as faux leather. However, not usually quality boots since it is not very resistant as such. Polyurethane is lightweight, comfortable (midsoles) and durable (unless used as faux leather). 


Shanks are an important part of good hiking boots, but especially essential to backpacking boots. Their main function is that of safety as they protect your foot from sharp objects on the trail. They also contribute to comfort since they stabilize the boot when covering rough terrain. They also help diminish the weight of a heavy backpack.  

Rock Plates:

One of the purposes of the shanks is to protect the foot. The first line of defense, however, are the rock plates. Rock plates go under the shank, they increase comfort by protecting the feet from sharp objects on the trail.


Outsoles are the exterior underside of a boot. Rubber is by far the most used material, and for good reason. There are some high end boots that will actually combine rubber with carbon. They do this in order to provide a better and more resistant product.


Lugs are part of the outsole and refer to the tread design. When choosing the lugs (tread) on the bottom of your boot there are several factors to consider. Snow boots will have different tread than boots made for wet climates or hot dry climates. Rocky terrain will likewise require different lugs. While you can get “specialized” lugs most boots come with more generalized options.

Heel Brakes:

Some boots include these to help increase the traction that you will get out of the boot. Heel brakes are installed on the back side of the boot up from the outsole. They are designed to help to prevent slipping while descending a steep trail.


Crampons are an optional accessory to winter hiking boots. They are basically spikes that can be put on underneath your outsole in order to give you traction on ice. Many winter hiking boots specify whether or not they are crampon compatible. We highly recommend crampon compatibility for winter hiking. They are lightweight and easy to carry in your backpack. That way if you run in to a difficult icy patch on the trail you will have the optin of putting them on. 

There is a lot more to include on the subject of hiking boot terms and jargon! However, our purpose in writing this article was not to be an all-all-inclusive “dictionary”. Our purpose was to help educate you in the most basic, most commonly used, and most important hiking boot jargon. The termonoligy that you will likely run into when shopping for hiking boots online. 

So, now you should be ready to get online and buy your boots! Of course the real triumph will be when you are ready to get out on the trail. Remember that the right hiking boots will make all the difference!