Last Updated on 06/07/2023
We compared leather Vs synthetic hiking boots to find out which is best. In this article, you will learn the pros, cons, and differences between leather and synthetic hiking boots. We share when leather hiking boots are better than synthetic hiking boots and vice versa.
What are leather hiking boots? Leather hiking boots are made from cowhide and are extremely tough and durable for rough terrain. They likely have a synthetic lining and occasionally some outer mesh panels, but for the most part, their outers are made entirely of leather.
What are synthetic hiking boots? Synthetic hiking boots are lightweight, cost-effective hiking shoes made from artificial materials like nylon, polyester, or synthetic leather, providing good support and comfort with less weight and durability than leather hiking boots.
Leather Vs Synthetic Hiking Boots
Deciding between leather hiking boots and synthetic hiking boots can be a tough choice. But it doesn’t need to take you 15 years (like it has me) to figure out which is best for you. I use both at different times of the year and in varying circumstances, but here are the main arguments for each in case you don’t want to read the whole thing.
- Leather hiking boots are more durable and generally last longer.
- Leather hiking boots can be easily maintained with wax.
- Leather boots start off a little stiff but get comfier over time.
- In cold and wet weather, waterproof leather hiking boots are the most reliable.
- Synthetic hiking boots are more breathable.
- Synthetic hiking boots are more lightweight.
- Synthetic boots are comfy out of the box but degrade faster.
- In hot weather, breathable synthetic boots without a waterproof lining are best.
Now let’s break these down into more detail.
Types of Leather Hiking Boots
There aren’t many different types of leather that are used on the hiking boot. In fact, there are just two: full-grain leather and nubuck leather. But then there are different types of construction which I also break down briefly.
Full-grain leather boots are a top choice for long-distance and rugged terrain hiking. Known for their remarkable durability and excellent water resistance, full-grain hiking boots are designed to withstand the harshest conditions. However, they’re also on the heavier side and require a substantial break-in time.
Nubuck leather boots, often characterized by their velvety surface, offer a nice balance between flexibility and sturdiness. They resist abrasion well and conform to the foot’s shape over time. However, they may require regular maintenance to keep their water-resistant properties. Nubick is a little bit like suede and so will show marks more visibly than full-grain leather or synthetic leather.
Single Piece of Leather
Leather boots that are made out of one or two pieces of leather have fewer stitches and seams, which are weak points. These are the toughest hiking boots because they rarely fall apart under pressure. The downside of having a single piece of leather for most of the upper boot is that it can reduce flexibility and may need regular waxing so the creases stay supple and don’t crack.
Hiking boots that are made up of multiple panels of leather have more stitches and seems but will generally have a better fit and more flexibility. Sometimes the stitches and seams can start to come apart after lots of wear which can compromise the structure and waterproofing of the boot. The benefit of having separate panels of leather for different sections of the boot is that they can be reinforced in high-wear areas.
Types of Synthetic Hiking Boots
Synthetic materials such as Polyester and Nylon are commonly used on hiking boots for their lightweight and quick-drying properties. With synthetic hiking boots, though, it is far more common to have a combination of materials including real leather and fake leather, for the reinforced areas. Here are the different materials you might get with a synthetic hiking boot.
Polyester boots are often chosen for their lightweight feel and breathability, which reduces foot fatigue on longer hikes. They also tend to break in faster than leather boots and can be worn straight out of the box if they are a good fit. However, they may not offer the same level of durability as leather hiking boots and can wear out quicker.
Nylon boots offer similar advantages to polyester, with added durability. They dry quickly and are lighter than their leather counterparts. On the downside, they are the sweatiest of all types of synthetic hiking boots, which is no fun in summer.
Faux leather is basically a synthetic fabric (usually more than one layer) that replicates the qualities of leather without using animal products and for less cost. Faux leather hiking boots are ok for day hikes and day-to-day wearing, but they do not last anywhere near as long as real leather and will often show signs of damage after not that many miles. I’m not a fan of fake leather; I am not gonna lie.
Hybrid hiking boots combine synthetic materials with real leather to create highly breathable, lightweight boots that are reinforced in high-wear areas with leather for increased durability and protection. An example would be mesh panels on the sides for breathability and leather patches on the toe, heel, and around the rand of the boot for durability.
Key Factors to Consider in Choosing Synthetic Or Leather Hiking Boots
Here are the key factors to think about when choosing between synthetic or leather hiking boots.
Weight is one of the key factors for most people doing long-distance hikes, but it may not be something new hikers think about. The heavier your boots are, the sooner your legs get tired. And you’ll soon notice their weight after hiking 20 miles.
The main compromise I have always found with lightweight hiking boots is that the soles wear down much faster. If you can afford to replace your hiking boots every 1000 miles, then lightweight boots are the way to go. Trail running shoes are also becoming very popular to hike in because of how lightweight they are.
We have a guide to lightweight hiking boots here, but what you will notice is that leather hiking boots are naturally heavier than most synthetic boots. But what actually adds the most weight is actually the sole and midsole, which can add significant weight the thicker and denser it is. Take the Meindl Burma Pro boots, for example; their soles last forever, but they weigh 1.58 kg per pair (and that is just a US size 8).
When choosing between leather and synthetic hiking boots, consider the nature of your hike. For shorter, easier trails, the lightweight feel of synthetic boots may be more suitable. However, for rougher terrains and longer hikes, the durability of leather boots might outweigh their additional weight.
On rocky terrain, like scree piles on the side of mountains, it is very easy to injure your feet on jagged rocks and small rock slides. I hope you never experience the pain of catching your ankle bone on a sharp rock! Leather hiking boots provide the best protection and durability in these situations; however, some boots like the KEEN Targhee 3 have a rubberized toe guard for the extra protection you might need.
Because leather is naturally waterproof and easy to maintain with wax, they are more reliable in wet weather than synthetic hiking boots, which rely almost 100% on the waterproof membrane for protection. Again, stitches and seams are weak points that can let water in, but leather still absorbs less water than synthetic outers. For waterproof synthetic hiking boots, I fully recommend Gore-Tex as the lining of choice.
If breathability is a priority for you, then waterproof linings should be avoided, and you should probably be drawn towards a synthetic boot with mesh panels like the Merrell Moab Ventilaors. Leather is typically less breathable than woven fabrics, although it is often unavoidable to get hot and sweaty feet in summer unless you are hiking in sandals.
Synthetic hiking boots are hard to repair if something breaks because they use a lot of glue to hold them together; they are also not as easy to waterproof with wax and, in fact, are not designed for that at all.
Leather hiking boots can be easily maintained with wax to retain their waterproofing and keep the leather protected and supple. If you want a pair of walking boots to last a long time, then you should absolutely go for leather.
In terms of comfort, synthetic hiking boots feel more like sneakers which means you can wear them straight out of the box and get a good fit. Because synthetic materials generally degrade faster than leather, though, the comfort can taper off after heavy use. Leather hiking boots can feel a little rigid at first until you break them in, but then once you do, they provide long-term comfort that gets better over time.
So to simplify, synthetic hiking boots are comfier out of the box but get worse over time, and leather hiking boots take some breaking in but improve over time.
Support and Stability
Leather hiking boots generally provide better ankle support and have a stronger build for stability; however, synthetic hiking boots with good lacing systems can be just as good and even better in some areas. The underfoot support, for example, on synthetic hiking boots, is often much more ergonomic around the arch of your foot. If you try a pair of walking boots on and they feel in any way unstable or unsupportive, then they won’t be right for you, that I can guarantee.
Synthetic boots for hiking are often much more flexible than leather boots; however, that stereotype doesn’t always hold true. The way to test the flexibility of a boot is to bend and twist it in every direction between both hands and compare the resistance to a different type of boot. An important area for flexibility is on the toe box, which should bend a good amount to allow for the foot’s natural movement when you walk.
Leather boots typically require a longer break-in period but offer excellent flexibility once broken in. Synthetic boots, on the other hand, break in quicker but may not provide the same level of foot conformity over time. One feature that does help, and is becoming more common, is a memory foam liner and innersole, which can make leather boots much comfier out of the box and less likely to cause a blister on your first few hikes.
Which is Best, Leather or Synthetic Hiking Boots?
Choosing between leather vs synthetic hiking boots comes down to personal preference and the specific requirements of your hiking needs. Hopefully, by reading this guide, you will be able to make an educated decision. Here is my attempt at condensing this entire article into two sentences.
Leather hiking boots are best for long-distance hiking or backpacking, traversing rough and rocky terrains, braving colder climates, providing supreme durability and support, and resisting water.
On the other hand, synthetic hiking boots are ideal for shorter hikes or day trips, on more even terrains, and in warmer climates, offering lightweight comfort and quick drying times.
By comparing leather vs synthetic hiking boots, you will see that they each have their pros and cons. Let us know what matters most to you in the comments.