“When you have worn out your shoes, the strength of the shoe leather has passed into the fiber of your body. I measure your health by the number of shoes and hats and clothes you have worn out. He is the richest man who pays the largest debt to his shoemaker.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
When it comes to choosing footwear, the objective is simple (at least in theory): find comfortable, well-fitting shoes that are appropriate for the conditions in which you will be hiking.
Let’s break it down into six sections:
- Know Thy Feet
1. The Options
It is said that each pound (0.45kg) on your feet equates to at least five pounds (2.3kg) on your back. Having hiked many miles in both heavy leather boots as well as lightweight running shoes, I can personally vouch for the veracity of this backpacking truism.
However, before you race down to the local sports store to pick up the lightest shoes available, take a moment to consider that footwear represents the most subjective choice of all the items in your backpacking kit. Whilst initially it may feel great floating along the trail in a gossamer-like pair of running shoes, your joy could well be short lived if you do not meet certain criteria that will enable you to backpack safely and comfortably in lightweight footwear (see Know Thy Feet below)
The four main options for hiking footwear are:
- Weight – 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs) and up. Considerably more if soaked after days of walking through mud and crossing rivers.
- Generally require a long break-in period.
- The sole can be replaced when worn.
- The most durable, waterproof and warmest of all backpacking footwear. Also the most expensive.
- Fine if you are carrying an ultra-heavy load and are headed off-trail into snowy, mountainous terrain in sub-zero temperatures; overkill for pretty much all other hiking situations.
- Generally weigh between 1 (2.2 lbs) and 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs).
- Most popular footwear for backpackers.
Often made from a fusion of synthetic materials, suede and occasionally split-grain leather.
- Require very little break-in time.
- Comfier, more breathable and dry quicker than their heavier equivalents. Less so than trail runners and running shoes.
- Most high-end models come with a waterproof-breathable lining. Such linings usually work OK whilst the shoe is new, but lose their effectiveness after repeated wearings.
- Not as durable as heavier, leather models, but more durable than trail runners. Can’t be resoled.
- Lightweight, breathable, quick drying.
- Trail runners come in a wide range of weights from 0.5 kg (1.1 lb) to 1 kg (2.2 lb). They generally have more stability, support and better traction than running shoes. The catch? They are a little heavier.
- Great three season option for those with a light pack and no pre-existing foot conditions.
- I recommend models which don’t have a waterproof liner. The reason being, if you are choosing to go with trail or running shoes you want a shoe which is as breathable and quick drying as possible. A waterproof liner impedes both of these qualities.
- If you have strong ankles, a light load and are walking on a relatively mellow trail in dry conditions, then hiking sandals can be a good option.
- Lightweight: although generally not any lighter than running shoes.
- Best ventilation and quickest drying of all footwear options.
- In recent years, some of the better models (e.g. Teva, Keen, Merrell, Chacos) come with decent arch support and good traction.
- Although I occasionally wear sports sandals for shorter hikes, I never carry them solely for river crossings or to wear around camp. They often weigh as much as trail runners, and if a crossing is that difficult that it requires footwear, chances are you should leave your hiking shoes on. They will provide you with better traction and protection than any hiking sandals will.
2. Know Thy Feet
Factors such as foot type, injury history, pack and body weight and the dictates of the terrain in which you will be hiking, all take precedence over how much your footwear actually weighs when it comes to deciding on what footwear is right for you.
Make your choices according to the dictates of your own feet, balanced with what is appropriate for the environment in which you will be hiking.
If you have a history of foot/lower leg problems then chances are you will require footwear with greater cushioning, traction and support. For anything and everything to do with feet, a podiatrist represents your best source of expert advice.
Two questions: How heavy will your pack be? How heavy are you?
The heavier that you and your pack are the more cushioning and support you will need from your footwear in order to avoid injury. In other words, if you are in shape and carrying a lightweight pack, you can generally go with lighter footwear barring any pre-existing foot or lower leg problems.
Horses for courses. Find a balance between what is right for your feet and what is appropriate for the environment in which you will be hiking.
When carrying a pack over rugged terrain you want footwear that meets a few basic requirements. The principal of those being stability, durability and grip. If you have strong ankles, good balance and are carrying a lightweight pack (e.g. under 9 kg/20 lbs total weight), then chances are you will be fine with trail runners or even running shoes (with good traction). However, if you don’t tick any or all of the above-mentioned boxes, you will probably be better off with lightweight hiking boots that have a more rigid sole unit, a stable heel counter, yet are still substantially lighter than heavy duty traditional boots.
For extended stretches in below freezing conditions, where keeping my feet dry is a priority due to the risk of frostnip or frostbite (see Hot & Cold), I will generally wear lightweight goretex boots, layer my socks (thin merino liner under a wool blend medium weight) and wear full-length eVent gaiters to keep the snow from entering in the top of my boots.
An alternative system which I have also used is a combination of thin liner socks, gore-tex oversocks, breathable/quick dry (but in no way waterproof) trail running shoes and full-length eVent gaiters. The theory behind this system is that the gore-tex socks rather than the shoes provide the waterproofness which will keep your feet warm and dry. If using this technique in sub-freezing temperatures, it is important that before going to sleep, you place your wet shoes inside a plastic bag or stuff sack, which you then put inside your backpack at night. This will prevent your shoes from being frozen solid by morning.
Muddy & Wet
If you are hiking in seriously muddy or wet conditions over an extended period, it is not a question of if, but when your feet are going to get soaked. That being the case, leather boots become extremely heavy when saturated and take “forever-and-a-day” to dry. In such conditions, I will use a thin liner sock and trail runners (combined with gaiters), which are breathable, lightweight, quick drying, yet provide me with sufficient stability and traction.
In hot, dry or humid conditions, go as light and breathable as the dictates of your feet and weight allow. Avoid gore-tex in such conditions as it cuts down on the shoe’s breathability, causing your feet to sweat excessively which can lead to blisters. Ditto for leather boots. If you are ever going to try hiking in running shoes or low cut trail shoes, arid or desert-like environments are the places in which to do it.
Over the course of a long hike your feet WILL swell. This is especially true when hiking in hot conditions. Shoes that feel nice and snug in the store, will most probably feel tight and uncomfortable after a few long days on the trail.
Disregard the sales person who insists that the correct fit for hiking footwear is one finger between your heel and the back of the shoe. Two fingers are more like it. If possible, try the shoes on with the same socks you will be wearing on the trail. Before purchasing walk up and down stairs, run around the store and wiggle your toes vigorously. If there is any tightness whatsoever, the shoes are too small. Remember, your feet WILL swell.
No matter what your choice in footwear, go for at least a few hikes before embarking on a multi-day trek. Your feet need time to adapt. This especially holds true if you purchase boots, which may require weeks of regular wear before they feel completely comfortable.