Hiking with the right shoes: what to pay attention to when buying now footwear
Shoes are the most important aspect of hiking. They are not only to protect your feet from all kinds of injuries you might suffer, but also to walk comfortably in all conditions and to provide you with extra grip and suspension when you walk. Without the right footwear, a hiking trail can become a real agony and this is something you should avoid at all costs.
In this article, I will take a closer look at hiking boots. We will look at which materials a hiking boot can consist of, which types there are, how you should fit a shoe and how you can make your choice from the almost endless assortment of hiking boots. I will soon dedicate a separate article to shoe maintenance.
Content of this article:
Categories Classic hiking shoes or boots - Approach shoes - Trail Runners - Sandals- Minimalistic shoes
Different types of feet
No two feet are the same. Your own feet are the best illustration of this. There are normal feet, flat feet, hollow feet, people with naturally high insteps or wide feet and 101 others. We also do not have symmetrical feet. Everyone has a different walking style: some walk more on the outside of their foot (underpronation), others more on the inside of the foot (overpronation). The picture on the right shows how a sole can look like after walking 900 kilometres with underpronation. This can be (partly) corrected with adapted insoles.
So you see, shoe choice is a very personal thing. That's why you should not base your purchase of a walking shoe on reviews from others via Facebook, magazines, blogs and several websites. The only thing that might be interesting in those reviews is how practical and waterproof a shoe is. Everything else is completely useless and does not contribute to an easier choice.
Parts of a shoe
A shoe actually consists of only two major parts, an upper and a sole.
For the upper of a sturdy hiking boot, manufacturers mainly use leather in its construction. Full-grain leather is the most robust leather and is therefore very durable. It is also very water-resistant. You can recognise full grain leather by its shine. There is also split leather, better known as nubuck, velour or suede, which can be recognised by its rougher surface. Split leather is much less durable and prone to cracking, but it is more breathable and cheaper than full grain leather.
Hikers who prefer a vegan option will find shoes made from synthetic materials, such as synthetic leather, nylon, mesh or polyester. These are generally much lighter than real leather shoes and also dry faster. On the other hand, they are not very durable, but they are somewhat cheaper than leather shoes. Shoes with a "Vegan" label are mainly a convenient marketing tool for manufacturers.
In addition to a Gore-Tex membrane on the inside (see further), the upper also receives a hydrophobic treatment with a so-called DWR, about which more later.
The sole of the shoe usually consists of four parts: the footbed, the insole, the midsole and the outsole. The insole provides the stiffness of the shoe. The insole is usually made of plastic and can be quite thick. A stiff sole improves walking comfort on uneven terrain with a lot of stones and is therefore not necessarily a disadvantage. The insole is not to be confused with the footbed or insert. This is the removable sole that provides extra comfort. You can of course replace them with custom-made inserts or orthopaedic soles if necessary. Under the insole is the midsole, which acts as a shock absorber. Midsoles are mainly made of the plastics polyurethane (PU) or ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA). PU is more rigid than the softer EVA and therefore much more durable. (More about PU and EVA a little further on.) Finally, there is the outsole. For this, usually (vulcanised) rubber is used, whether or not mixed with carbon for an even tougher sole.
The monopoly on outsoles is held by Vibram, an Italian company. Well-known shoe brands like Lowa, Meindl, Hanwag, Scarpa and Merrell rely on the Italian rubber and use the whole range of Vibram soles, like the Arctic Grip, Mont or XS Trek, in their product range. Not all shoe brands have a Vibram sole. Often these are smaller brands or house brands of outdoor shops like Decathlon, which develop their own soles. But well-known brands, such as Salomon (Contagrip) or The North Face (Surface Control), also make their own. Some brands also have soles that are made by Vibram, but sold under their own name. Just think of the Meindl Multigrip.
Depending on the type of shoe, there is also a bumper around the shoe. Especially for mountaineering shoes, a good bumper, made of plastic or rubber, is important to protect the shoes against damage from stones and rocks.
I could go into detail about other technical details of a shoe, but they have no direct impact on your choice of footwear and therefore I will not talk about them.
Most hiking boots have a midsole made of PU or EVA. The advantage of the latter is that it provides much softer cushioning, which makes walking on it - especially in the beginning - very pleasant. Afterwards, however, EVA loses a large part of its cushioning capacity because the material simply remains compressed. In that case PU has the upper hand. It is generally less cushioning than EVA, but it will remain cushioning for a longer period, which is better in the long run.
PU however has one big disadvantage: namely that the material can crumble because of all kinds of factors. This is called hydrolysis. This process can happen in two ways: moisture gets into the PU and/or the shoes are not used for a long time. By high temperatures and UV-light the PU can dry out and become porous, which only accelerates the hydrolysis.
Most of the time you don't notice anything about it, until the outsole of your shoes falls off while you are trekking in the middle of nowhere. In that case, the only thing that helps is a firm tape to temporarily fix the sole until you are back in the civilised world. The PU starts to deteriorate in the middle of the shoe, so if you can see it on the outside, you are in an advanced stage of hydrolysis.
As I also just wrote: hiking boots that are not used enough, can suffer from hydrolysis. Therefore: use the hiking boots for their purpose and go hiking. This sounds logical, but I would like to emphasise it. It doesn't have to be every day, but the PU midsole of a shoe that has been stored for two years will deteriorate faster than the midsole of a shoe that is used every month. After all, movement ensures that the PU stays 'supple' and does not harden.
To make shoes (and clothing) waterproof, a waterproof membrane is usually added under the outer layer. One of the most well-known membranes is Gore-Tex. A shoe treated with Gore-Tex will keep raindrops out and let smaller sweat molecules pass through. However, Gore-Tex makes a shoe less breathable, so you will sweat more in warmer weather. So you need breathable shoes when trekking in warm conditions.
Shoes with Gore-Tex can be recognised by several things. On the one hand, they usually have a small "Gore-Tex" label on the outside of the shoe. On the inside you can recognise them by the grey liner that protects the membrane from dirt and friction and on which you can very vaguely read the brand name (see picture above). Other membranes are covered by all sorts of backer, mostly grey.
Most shoes also have a layer of DWR or Durable Water Repellent when they leave the factory. This should ensure that raindrops simply pearl off your shoes. The "durable" in DWR is anything but durable. To keep your shoes completely waterproof, you should therefore regularly re-spray and/or wax them. The repelling of raindrops ensures that the shoe remains more or less breathable. If the upper gets wet, the shoe will breathe less. Consider the water film as an extra barrier.
Certain brands have their own membrane, such as Futurelight at The North Face, Texapore at Jack Wolfskin or Dry-Line at Boréal.
Please note: depending on the type of shoe (e.g. the strength of the sole), a membrane in a shoe is not as durable as the one in a jacket. A broken membrane in a shoe is difficult or even impossible to repair.
Harmful to humans and the environment
Another important note concerning Gore-Tex and DWR sprays. Gore-Tex, for example, is made with very harmful PFCs, or polyfluorinated chemicals. Various DWR sprays can also contain PFCs. Both Gore-Tex and DWR sprays are used on shoes and clothing.
Various manufacturers, under pressure from public opinion, are now working to make their ranges PFC-free and to produce alternative, harmless waterproof membranes. Swedish outdoor brand Fjällräven was one of the first to ban the use of PFC. Since 2019, Jack Wolfskin's range has also been PFC-free, and brands such as The North Face are currently making the transition. Among DWR coatings, Nikwax and NST are PFC-free.
Gore, the company behind Gore-Tex, has committed to removing all PFC from its range by 2023. Already 85% of its merchandise had to be on the market without the harmful PFC by the end of 2020. But by the end of 2021, it appears that the company has been delayed and so that 85% PFC-free figure has not yet been achieved.
Hiking boots come in all shapes, sizes and weights. Depending on the type of surface and especially the environment in which you are going to hike, you will choose one shoe or another. In the 1970s, the German company Meindl started to categorise its shoes according to the type of terrain they would be used on. Not all brands follow this classification, but it does make the search for the ideal shoe for the walker easier. The table below is made according to Meindl's categorisation.
A - 400 to 550 grams This shoe has a low shaft and is normally not ideal to go trekking. The sole is soft and flexible. To be used on easy paths in woods and parks.
A/B - 500 to 700 grams This is a normal hiking shoe with a mid-high shaft and a more solid sole. This shoe can be used for day hikes or short treks on flat or hilly terrain with good paths.
B - 550 to 800 grams This is a shoe for the light long-distance trails. The shaft is high and goes completely around the ankle. The sole is sturdy, but flexible enough for comfortable hiking. Can be used in the mountains and on scree with a light pack.
B/C - 650 to 900 grams The B/C shoe looks a lot like a B, but has the possibility to attach light crampons. The sole is relatively hard and basically not flexible. Can be used for difficult terrain with lots of rocks, mountains and with heavy pack.