The best types of hiking boots are the ones that keep your feet secure and comfortable on the trail. There are many types of hiking boots out there made with all sorts of different materials, but at the end of the day, it comes down to two things: personal preference and terrain type.
We’re commonly asked whether or not there is a difference between leather and synthetic hiking boots. In this article, we’ll address the major differences between leather and synthetic hiking boots – and believe us, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, there are a lot of differences.
First off, let’s clarify what exactly we mean by leather and synthetic boots. On any pair of boots or shoes, there are the boots’ uppers. The upper is the material that covers the top of your foot and on either side of your ankle, stretching from the soles of the boots all the way up to the collar.
The uppers can be made of either leather or synthetic materials. Now, if you’ve ever looked at dressy boots, you know that a nice pair of boots can be made with the leather of any type of animal, even ostrich, snake, and alligator.
But when it comes to hitting the trail, hiking boots are made of cowhide because it’s both incredibly durable, and flexible enough to keep your feet comfortable. There are several types of leather commonly seen on hiking boots that are created through any number curing methods. Synthetic boots, however, are made entirely of plastics like polyester and nylon, containing no animal products.
Full-Grain - Extremely durable leather with great abrasion resistance and good water resistance. Typically used for wetter climates and rugged terrain. As with our own skin it’s naturally waterproof and breathable. Leather also comes in a variety of thicknesses, this is a tradeoff, thicker the leather more support you will have however this also hinder flexibility and add weight. Typically you should look for 1.4mm or higher.
Nubuck - Buffed down full-grain leather that resembles the fineness of suede. It’s resistant to water and abrasion, with greater flexibility but lesser durability than full-grain leather.
Synthetic - Made from a number of synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, PU and “synthetic leather.” Typically, lighter than leather and less expensive however these tend to absorb water and you will need to rely on a waterproof membrane to keep your feet dry. Usually vegan-friendly.
Let’s take a closer look at the main differences between hiking boots crafted with leather and synthetic uppers.
As a general rule of thumb, leather weighs more than synthetic materials. Depending on your hiking style and/or where you’re hiking, weight can be a good thing or it can slow you down.
On short hikes, like casual weekend hiking, there’s usually no need to sport beefy backpacking boots with full-grain leather. As long as you’re not heading off trail into rugged, ungroomed terrain, lighter boots made with synthetic or a leather/synthetic mix will keep your feet comfortable and provide enough support.
If you’re on a serious backpacking trip, you’ll want heavier full-grain leather or nubuck leather boots. A heavier boot does a better job supporting your frame when carrying a heavy pack, decreasing the risk of straining your muscles and keeping you upright on difficult terrain.
However, there are exceptions to the rule. Leathers like split-grain are often combined with synthetic to produce a hybrid boot that’s both lightweight and slightly more durable than an all-synthetic boot.
Breaking in hiking boots is recommended before taking your boots on any hiking stint. But some materials break in easier than others.
Since full-grain leather is a much stiffer material than synthetic materials – and even other, more flexible leathers like nubuck and split-grain – it takes longer to break in. We recommend hikers spend at least a few days breaking in a pair of full-grain leather hiking boots to prepare for your first big hike with your new boots.
On the other hand, a pair of synthetic or flexible split-grain boots break in extremely fast. Some hikers don’t even feel the need to break these types of boots in after unboxing since they are already so flexible.
As with bags and watch straps, real genuine leather tends to be more expensive than synthetically made products. But with hiking boots, it’s not just the look and feel that separates leather from synthetic hiking boots – full-grain leather hiking boots also last longer if you look after them with cleaners and water repellent treatments such as Grangers or Nikwax.
Depending on how you treat them, a good pair of full-grain leather boots may last as long as it takes to go through 3 or 4 pairs of synthetic boots. That said, the upfront cost of real leather boots tends to be a lot higher than the cost of synthetic-made hiking boots.
So which is more cost effective? It really depends on your perspective and how often you hike. If you hike very frequently, it’s probably worthwhile to sink some more money into a nice pair of leather boots, as they’ll hold up longer, while synthetic hiking boots offer a great low price for casual weekend hikers.
Synthetics are much more prone to abrasion damage than leather hiking boots. If you regularly spend time navigating through heavy brush and rocky terrain, there’s always the possibility of tears if you’re not wearing leather boots.
In general, a pair of leather boots is not only going to hold up better to the elements, but also last longer as far as general wear and tear is concerned.
Live or travelling to a hot climate? Breathability should be a big consideration, suede leather and nylon combinations or full synthetic will provide the most ventilation. Ideally try to find a boot without a waterproof membrane as this considerable hinders air flow.
Oftentimes, synthetic boots are made with mesh materials that do a great job at keeping your feet nice and cool, these materials are widely used in running shoes where moisture management and air flow needs to be maximized due to the high activity rate.
It can be tough deciding whether it makes sense to wear leather or synthetic boots, but comfort should be a major factor. If it’s hot and you’re not going too far off the beaten path, we recommend synthetic-faced boots.
When it comes to choosing leather or synthetic boots, it mostly comes down to personal preference and what kind of trails you’ll be frequenting.
Serious backpacking adventure? Go full-grain leather without a doubt. Very wet climate, go leather for its water resistant nature. Short weekend hike on a well-groomed trail? Your feet will thank you for the lightweight, breathability of synthetic boots.
- Naturally water repellent
- Highly supportive upper
- Generally lighter
- Higher breathability