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:
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.
C - 750 - 1000 grams The shaft of a C-shoe gives maximum support for the ankle. The sole is hard and not flexible. You can attach crampons. To be used in the (high) mountains, off-trail, glaciers and via ferrata with all sorts of packs.
There are also D-shoes, but these are not at all suitable for hiking, but for mountaineering and climbing high mountains, such as Mont Blanc, Mount Everest and the like. They can weigh between 750 and 2000 grams and are not made for prolonged hiking comfort. They do, however, offer maximum protection against the low temperatures at these altitudes.
The table above serves as a guide, but you don't have to follow it to the letter. There are experienced hikers who can make high mountain treks with an A or an A/B shoe. It is of course possible, but as a beginning hiker you should opt for more security and grip when you go hiking in the mountains.
■ Classic hiking shoe or boot
I have already discussed the classic hiking shoe in detail above. The pictures below show examples of shoes from all categories from A/B to D. However, only those up to B/C are most suitable for hiking in normal conditions. From category C upwards you go to a very technical, rather bulky shoe, good for alpine adventures.
■ Approach shoes
These shoes look like low hiking boots (type A) with an A/B, B or even B/C sole, but usually also look like climbing shoes. Originally designed for mountaineers and climbers for the approach to their climb. They are much more comfortable than the heavy, clunky alpine shoes. The soles of the approach shoes have an optimal grip. A flat piece of sole at the front, also called the climbing zone, also allows you to climb less technical sections. Approach shoes are comfortable to walk in, but be aware that the soles can wear out quickly due to their higher grip.
■ Trail runners
If we are talking about light shoes, then we must not forget the trail runner. They look very much like sports shoes or (depending on the brand) a very light A-shoe. However, they were originally designed for trail runners, i.e. sportswomen and men who run on hilly or mountainous paths, often in competition. What runners can do, hikers should be able to do as well and therefore more and more hikers choose trail runners because they are simply much lighter and it is less tiring to move around in them. Trail runners have a much shorter lifespan than a hiking shoe and are often not resoleable.
Hiking sandals are an option in hot weather. They keep the feet fresh with a low risk of blisters and give a kind of barefoot experience. As with hiking boots, they should provide enough shock absorption to allow for comfortable walking. Some models are a bit like trail runners and fully protect the toes. Others are completely open and offer hardly any protection at all. Crossing a river is often not a problem, but on the other hand, you will hardly be able to get through bushes. Hiking with heavy backpacks (>10 kg) is not an option, unless you are an experienced sandal or minimalist hiker.
One of the best known hiking sandal brands is Teva.
■ Minimalistic shoes
You may find it laughable, but minimalist shoes are on the rise. The purpose of these shoes is to give you the most natural walking or running experience with minimal protection. After all, our prehistoric ancestors did everything without shoes and were physically in better shape than we modern people.
Most minimalist shoes have strange shapes, because they have a completely flat sole (zero drop) and/or a wide front (a 'wide toe box' or 'foot shaped toe box'). The soles are often very thin, which means that you will feel every little stone or unevenness. This can seem very uncomfortable and it is for beginning minimalists, but you get used to walking in a natural way again - with smaller steps - and 'consciously' (mindful, if you like). The shape of the shoes also gives you more stability.
In fact, almost anyone can make the transition to minimalist shoes. However, the learning curve and the period of adjustment are different for everyone. Therefore, it can take a long time before you really feel comfortable in these shoes. After all, your feet and muscles have to get used to a natural way of walking that was denied to them for years. Therefore, it is important to start walking in minimalist shoes little by little and to build up gradually.
I myself have been wearing minimalist footwear since 2017 in everyday life and regularly during hikes, usually on short distances under 25 kilometres.
High shaft vs. low shaft
I often hear people say that they buy high shoes because they protect the ankle better. In a way, that is true, but we are dealing with an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. By continuing to use high shoes, you are perpetuating an untrained or 'weakened' ankle. Compare it to wearing a back brace to support your back. By using such a brace, you are not training your back muscles and you will not get very far without it. Of course, this does not mean that some people do not need it. The only way to strengthen the ankle is to walk regularly in low shoes, go barefoot and/or do specific exercises. Gradually, you will be able to cover longer distances, with a rucksack, without hurting yourself. Of course, this is a long process and many people opt for the convenience of a high shoe. Do what feels right for you.
A common rule of thumb is that every kilogram on your feet is equal to five times that weight in your backpack. This is another point of attention in your search for the ideal shoe. In the category table above in this article, you will find the weight you can aim for per category. Mind you, I have mentioned the weight per shoe and not per pair. So multiply by two!
Finding a new pair = try, try, try
This is what it really comes down to: testing as much and as long as possible. It is unlikely that the first shoe you put on will be the right one. That is why you should try on all shoes in an outdoor shop that are suitable for the type of walking you are going to do. You don't test a hiking boot in two minutes. Take your time!
It is best to try on shoes late in the day, when your feet are somewhat swollen from your activities throughout the day. Your feet will also swell during walking, so be sure not to choose shoes that are too small. Don't forget to bring the socks you will be wearing on your walk to the shop. Some shops even offer stockings.
The idea is that the shoe neither pinches nor is too loose. The ankle should fit tightly, without slipping. Once you have tied the shoe, you should not let your toes touch the tip of the shoe, even when going downhill. In order to know whether the shoe size is more or less right, it helps to first take the insole out of the shoe and then place the foot on it with the heel nicely at the back. If you then have about a thumb width left at your toes, you are already partly right. In some shops you can test the shoe on a special slope and see if the size is right. If the shop does not have a ramp, you can test this by deliberately pushing your front foot against the floor, as if you were braking sharply. If your toes touch the tip, try a bigger size. If you feel your foot slipping, first try a different lacing technique and then possibly try a smaller size.
Some brands sell shoes labelled S ("slim") or W ("wide"). These are shoes for narrower or wider feet and are also worth trying. Others take into account a Hallux Valgus ("Bunion").
Walk around the shop with both shoes as much as possible to make sure you have found the right ones. Just as no two feet are the same, no two shoes are the same. The left shoe may pinch, while the right shoe fits well. Walk at different speeds, brake sharply, go over the hill if available. After you have bought them in the shop, it is a good idea to test them indoors. If it turns out that something is wrong, you can return them to the shop. Make sure that you have not put them on outside, because then shops will not take them back.
Do not go to the shop just before closing time and - I repeat - take your time! Make sure you have nothing planned for the next few hours. If the shop does not have enough choice - which is certainly the case at the moment due to the many production problems caused by Corona - come back at a later date. Do not wait until a week before your departure to go to the shop for the first time, as there is then a good chance that you will buy just anything due to time pressure. Thru-hikes and treks in general are preferably planned months in advance and consequently you start looking for the material you need right away.
Keep in mind that you are the only one who can determine whether the shoe fits you well or not. If you have bought a pair of shoes that after five kilometres does not turn out to be ideal, the shop can do very little about it. So be sure of your purchase.
The right size
Do not be blinded by conversion tables of shoe sizes. Unfortunately, they are different for each manufacturer and therefore useless, as the table below proves. On the other hand, a size 42 shoe from e.g. Scarpa or La Sportiva can feel much smaller than a size 42 shoe from a German brand like Lowa or Meindl. However, once you have found your size with a certain brand, you can keep buying shoes with the same size in the following years, because the manufacturers normally work with a fixed mould around which the shoe is built. But, even if you know your size for a brand: always try the shoes on before you buy them.
Breaking in new shoes
In the past, new shoes almost always had to be broken in if you didn't want to get problems with sore feet or blisters along the way. Now this can still happen for some models. Especially the heavier leather models need time. The materials used need to become a little more flexible so that the shoe can adapt to your foot. You can break in your shoes every time you go to the supermarket or take a stroll at home. You can increase the distance a little at a time until you feel that the shoes feel right. It is also possible to break in a new shoe on a hike, but again, it depends on the shoe how quickly you can cover long distances with it.
If you have problems breaking in, try a different lacing technique first. If that does not help, ask your outdoor sports shop or the manufacturer whether adjustments can be made to the shoe. For example, a leather shoe can be widened or made more flexible if it turns out to be too narrow for your feet.
Some shoes can be resoled. Especially leather footwear from brands such as Meindl, Scarpa, La Sportiva, Hanwag and Lowa can be provided with a new sole. Depending on the model, this can cost between €80 and €160. This is usually a cheaper option for shoes of which the upper is still in very good condition and it is also good for the environment.
I remember very well how I bought my first hiking boot ever at Decathlon. It was one of their cheap house brands Quechua. There is nothing wrong with cheap, but the quality of this shoe left much to be desired. Although it was advertised as waterproof (not water-repellent), it leaked at first use and after the first rain my feet were soaked. Also, the shoes did not feel 100% good after a few kilometres. The direct consequence of both was that my feet were full of blisters. And walking with blisters is an anything but pleasant experience.
I thought it was my lack of walking kilometres and whether or not I had "hard" feet. I started taping toes and feet with all kinds of sports tapes. In hindsight, it turned out that none of that was necessary and that the "hard feet" thing was a bit of nonsense (I still have very soft feet and almost never blisters anymore). My choice of shoes and socks was wrong. I didn't know what to buy and didn't pay much attention to it. I had no idea about the different materials a shoe is made of, the advantages and disadvantages of each. So I bought just about anything. I then started to look into the world of hiking boots and the next boot I tried was a Meindl Vakuum GTX and it was a perfect fit and I rarely got a blister! My next model from Meindl, the Air Revolution 4.1, also gave me few problems.
To prove that positive reviews should not be the basis for your own choice, I bought a new pair of shoes in 2020. I was looking for a lighter pair and ended up with the much-praised Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX. This was only my fourth pair of walking shoes ever, as in the past I always had my shoes resoled instead of buying new ones. To be honest, the X Ultra 3 disappointed me. Not only did I get blisters again, but the upper started to show cracks after only 300 kilometres. After 500 km, the shoe was already irreparably damaged, while the sole was still in perfect condition.
At the moment I walk with Vibram Five Fingers V-Alpha (barefoot), Scarpa Mescalito (approach), Scarpa Mojito (approach) and Hanwag Tatra II GTX Wide (high B/C-walking shoe).
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