With so many different types, styles and brands of top quality waterproof hiking boots out there, the right choice for each individual (you) can be pretty confusing. This brief article will attempt to make some sense about the various types of materials that waterproof hiking boots are made from, specifically the upper section (above the sole) of the boots.

Since there are various qualities of boots available, we’ll only be referring to the top quality, professional-type boots and not the cheaper, less reliable boots that simply have been given the name “hiking boot” by a less-than-quality boot maker, if you get my drift.

Nubuk Leather

One of the current most popular upper boot materials is called Nubuk (nyoo’ buk) leather. This type of leather often is mistaken for suede, which it is not. Suede leather is made from the inside of a skin or hide. Nubuk leather, on the other hand, is made from the outside of the hide.

The hair is completely cut off and the skin is roughened, sanded and/or buffed, which gives it the soft suede look and feel. By using the outside of the hide, the tougher grain is what is exposed. This part of the hide is more durable and usually lasts longer.

In most cases Nubuk leather is more expensive than suede and stronger. However, even though it is stronger it tends to scratch easier and will easily mark with water spots though this is often only a temporary effect as the water spots fade as the skin dries.

Full-Grain Leather

Leather, for the purpose of making “fancy” business or leisure shoes is often split, which means that the upper portion, where the hair and upper epidermis are located is split away from the under or dermal section of skin. The dermal section, when tanned, usually creates a soft, easily manipulated type of leather and works well for shoes that are going to be used as casual or dress shoes because that leather is easy to smooth out and looks great with a polished finish on it.

Hiking boots or any type of boot that is going to be used for protection or for activity in which it will be exposed to unpleasant conditions certainly does not need to be made of soft, pretty leather. It needs to be tough, resilient and thick enough that small, sharp objects will not penetrate it.

For this type of feature we look to full-grain leathers in which the entire depth of the hide is used to cover the foot while, at the same time, giving some flexibility of movement.

Hiking boots made of full-grain leather usually have to go through a “breaking in process” in which the leather will become a bit softer or will give a little on the inside so that the wearer can establish some type of walking comfort.

Top Grain Leather

Remember the two layers of leather we discussed above, where we took the bottom layer and made nice, soft dress shoes? Well, they don’t let that top layer go to waste when they separate the two. Au contraire, mon ami. The top layer of that hide is also used to make the less expensive but still somewhat comparable boots that we often use to work in or even style in. Think certain brands of cowboy boots or walking shoes, etc. This layer is known as the top grain and those footwear items are often marketed as top-grain leather.

Many people, who don’t know the difference, are lulled into thinking that the term “top-grain” means “top of the line” or “best” leather, which is obviously not the case. It is just a name for the top layer of the full grain leather once it is tanned and ready for working.
Gore-Tex Leather Mix.

Many top quality hiking boots will be made of both leather and Gore-Tex fabric. Some of the leathers are Nubuk, some are full-grain leathers and some are suedes or top-grain leathers.

The Gore-Tex fabrics are put in between the leather areas in order to allow the better circulation of air around the foot. This usually keeps the foot dryer and also provides some measure of wicking of moisture to take place from the inside to the outside of the boots. This makes for added comfort.

Gore-Tex fabric also provides a measure of waterproofing to the boots as it is well coated with waterproofing substances and while allowing air to enter the boot it does a very good job of preventing water from entering.

Be sure and look at the description of the type of uppers that the boot is made of when looking to buy a good pair of waterproof hiking boots. This way you can make the determination about whether this is the type of boot you’re wanting to buy and that works best for your hiking activity.

If you’re going to be hiking in some very rough and uneven terrain or on rocky areas or even water crossings, you’ll probably want some full-grain leather uppers, which are more protective but are usually heavier.

The partial leather and Gore-Tex boots will provide some decent protection while also giving you a lighter boot that will keep you from tiring quite so quickly.
Nubuk is a bit lighter and also quite tough but not as tough and resilient as full-grain.

Many people have two or even three different types of waterproof hiking boots that they can use for different types of hiking trails. This is a good idea, especially if you are an avid hiker who hikes or backpacks often and experiences various types of terrains and environments.

Choose your waterproof hiking boots wisely and you’ll enjoy your outdoor time much more.

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