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Forget what the salesman told you. The most important piece of backpacking equipment isn't a tent, stove or pack. Save your money for a good pair of boots.

When the weather turns ugly and plans go awry, you always can leave that other stuff along the trail. Your boots will carry you home.

But before you rush out and buy a $300 pair of mountaineering boots, stop and ask, "What do I want to do?"

Boots that might work for an overnighter in Withlacoochee State Forest won't necessarily carry you to the top of Mount Rainier.

For starters, remember you will be carrying about 25 to 40 pounds of extra weight on an overnight trip. That is 25 to 40 more pounds of pressure placed on an arch every time you put a foot down.

Carrying this extra weight walking hour after hour, day after day, in shoes with poor support will cause your arches to collapse. That's why most hiking or backpacking boots have a steel shank that runs about three-quarters the length of the sole. The shank is a slightly curved piece of metal that gives a boot its support.

Boots are graded from ultralight to heavyweight by the density of the sole. If you plan to spend a week backpacking around Montana, you'll need a boot that's medium weight or heavier. If you are going to hike locally, on Florida's typically wet and flat trails, a lightweight boot will do.

Once you decide what weight boot you want, the outer material will be your next big decision. Boots made of nylon will be lighter than boots made of leather. But the latter will be cooler because leather breathes and allows perspiration and body heat to escape.

Waterproof boots cost more than boots that are water resistant (waterproof boots keep your feet dry if they are submerged; water-resistant boots keep them dry for a while, but eventually your feet get wet). Most waterproof boots have a breathable Gortex liner that adds to the cost.

Lightweight, water-resistant boots cost from $50 to $125. Don't try to waterproof your water-resistant boots because you'll only ruin the fabric or the leather's ability to breathe.

Once you've found a pair of comfortable, well-fitting boots, what do you wear on your feet with them?

Anything but cotton. Tube socks, the kind you used to wear in gym class, are about the worst thing you can wear on your feet when you are walking or hiking. Cotton socks soak up perspiration, which leads to blisters. Socks made of synthetic materials help transfer moisture, which keeps your feet cool and dry.

Don't be afraid to buy a sock that contains a small percentage of wool. Wool socks are durable. They work even better when worn with a thin pair of polypropylene or Thermax socks underneath.

Before you hit the trail, wear your new boots around town for a few days. Sure, you might look like a geek, but it beats getting a blister on the trail.