I will make this disclaimer right from the start: I am by no means an expert on hiking gear....but I do know what I've tried that has worked well for me so I thought I'd do a few short reviews of the gear I own for those who might be newbies to the hiking world.
I doubt there would be anyone out there who does any type of distance hiking that will disagree with me on this point: of all the gear you purchase, it will pay you back many times over to get some good hiking boots. I've taken many a woodland (and desert) hikes only to return with my feet aching and sporting blisters to show for all my hard work. I truly thought that my Timberland's were great...and they are...just not for what I was doing. In February, based on the recommendations of the knowledgeable staff at the Mountain Crossings store located in the infamous Neel's Gap, I purchased my first pair of Keen Hybridlife boots and it has been a love affair since.
The model I chose is called the Shasta. It feels like it weighs almost nothing and I can honestly say I've never worn a more comfortable pair of boots. It was recommended that I go with one size larger than I would normally wear to accommodate any potential foot swelling that can be a common part of any distance hike. My first thought was this: wearing a shoe one size larger than I normally wear will equal one thing - sliding/blisters. I am happy to say that I was wrong...I should never have doubted the expertise of the salesman at MC. The day after I purchased my Keen's, I hiked to the soggy summit of Blood Mountain, providing me with my first opportunity to test the boot's waterproof claim. Again, they passed the test and then some! Not only was the trail basically a small creek, but it was also cold. My feet stayed warm and dry!
I think this is the appropriate time to share a very valuable piece of mountain hiking knowledge: when it rains in the mountains, it's a given that all the water WILL collect right in the middle of the trail. (On the Georgia section of the AT, this equates with lots of slick clay and rocks so step carefully!)
My most recent 19 mile hike included the AT Approach Trail to the summit of Springer and then returning almost the same way we came with the exception of a detour at the Lenn Foote Hike Inn....which I highly recommend. Once again, we were rained upon and spent about three hours sloshing down the trail, with the water covering the tops (not to the ankle however) of my lovely Keens. I'm happy to report that when we set up camp for the night and I removed my boots, my feet were still high and dry.
The only issues I had during my last hike I don't contribute to my Keen's. On day #3 of my most recent hike, I have to say that I could feel almost every rock under my foot if I stepped on it just right. This can be remedied by simple inserts and pretty much just more time and distance on the trail. During my hike back in February, right after purchasing the boots, I felt some pain in the ball of my feet. Upon returning to Dahlonega and speaking with the wonderful lady at Woodland's Edge, I purchased a heavier weight wool sock and made certain that my laces were pulled as tightly across the top of my foot as I could get them. I also stopped on the trail to tighten the laces if the need arose. There was some debate initially on the importance of purchasing boots with ankle support, but after listening to the advice of the young man at Mountain Crossings, I opted to buy a boot that provided my ankles some support. The last thing I wanted to do was roll my ankle when there might have been something small I could have done to help prevent me from doing so (I am not, after all, known for my grace and therefore require all the help I can get.) I might also add that after tripping on many hidden roots and rocks, I now know the importance of having a shoe with superior toe protection! I have not spoken to anyone with the Keen company but understand they have a good replacement policy. I intend to check that out in the near future, as I am considering a potential AT thru hike beginning March, 2013. Regardless of whether or not I am able to do that, I can say with certainty that I am very glad I listened and purchased my Keen boots. I believe it is money well-spent!