10 Important Characteristics of Hiking Shoes Explained

Introduction

Footwear is intended to provide comfort for wearers and offer good protection for human feet against harsh conditions. The main purposes of hiking shoes are to protect your feet against bruising and abrasion from rough wilderness terrain, to cushion your soles, and to provide good traction on a rough, steep, slippery, wet, and muddy terrain. Additionally, trekking shoes must offer enough stability and be durable. A reliable hiking shoe is a long-lasting hiking shoe that won’t leave you in the middle of the trail. For long-distance backpacking, shoes need to be supportive and it’s better if they’re light. Shoes also need to feel flexible and comfortable in hiking, though on rough surfaces they might have to be stiffer and more supportive.

Hiking footwear also needs to be functional and be able to respond to changing environments, for example, changing surface types. Functional footwear materials and construction go hand in hand. This time we are going to discuss some of the most important physical and non-physical characteristics of trekking shoes and boots. Soon, we will post more about the components of hiking shoes as well as the materials from which they are made of. These two come hand in hand – the perceived characteristics of a pair of hiking shoes depend very much on the materials used for making the footwear as well as on their components.

Important characteristics of hiking shoes

  1. Fit of hiking shoes

No matter how well a hiking shoe is constructed, it will not function properly if it does not fit well.

Shoemakers say `the last is first' to reinforce the importance of properly fitting footwear. The last is the foot-shaped form on which shoes are made, and the shape of the last has a significant influence on fit. Fit directly influences comfort. Proper fit is also a prerequisite of function.

Providing mass-produced hiking shoes with a good fit is a challenging goal. For example, if a shoe manufacturer expects to fit 90% of their male customers with size 43, they will have to accommodate men weighing anywhere from 60 kg to 100 kg. In addition to this individual variability, people typically have different sized left and right feet. Their feet change in length, width, girth, and volume throughout the day and even during a given sports activity. Feet are active during hiking and backpacking, foot shape is exceedingly dynamic and no static last shape can produce perfect fit in all situations and at all times for all people.

Fit is difficult to quantify because there is much subjectivity involved in how a person perceives the right fit. One person may prefer a tight fit, while another may prefer a looser fitting shoe.

The benefits of shoes that fit well are the following:

  • Proper stability and support for the foot
  • Protection from foot injuries
  • Adequate shock-absorption and comfort
  • Prolonged wear and retention of shoe shape

What is a good fitting of the hiking shoe? The shoe needs to have a shape and dimensions which maintain good health. Good fitting also means comfort in most cases. The optimal underfoot shape also gives a good fitting, if it is checked carefully. Insole and socks need to be checked as carefully as styling to ensure they fit the user. Generally, trekking shoes do not fit as firmly as fashion shoes. Our feet normally expand by 5% during the day. Keep this in mind when choosing hiking shoes. As a rule, boots should fit snugly around the heel, ankle, and instep but have room for you to wiggle your toes.

Proper fitting of footwear to feet involves understanding feet, shoes, and the selection of shoes to achieve a required fit. With respect to feet, many sources of foot anthropometry are available. However, since the footwear sizing system is primarily based on foot length but footwear manufacturers resort to using length, width and girth measures, a mismatch in any dimension generally results in poor fitting.

  1. Traction

Resistance to slippage, the so-called “traction” has long been a selling feature for companies claiming exclusive tread patterns or outsole designs. To measure traction, manufacturers conduct tests to determine the coefficient of friction and the slip resistance characteristics for shoes or materials under varying surface conditions. The coefficient of friction is a number between 0 and 1 indicating the slip-resistance of a material. The closer the value to 1, the slipping is less likely.

Slips usually occur when a foreign substance such as water, sand, ice or mud comes between the shoe and the surface. Two types of slippage are possible in most activities. The foot can slip forward or sideways upon initial contact with the surface, or it can slip backward during the push-off phase. Although the most dangerous slip is probably in the forward direction, most tests have been done to simulate push-off slip.

Hiking shoe traction is achieved with an increase in outsole traction and with midsole stability.

Man-standing-at-waterfalls-edge

  1. Breathability

The fact that the shoe covers the foot results in an inside environment different from the surrounding air. The temperature and humidity will always be greater inside the shoe. The more the upper materials can transmit the moisture, the greater the reduction of perspiration around the foot. The more moisture absorbs, the more breathable the material, resulting in greater comfort. Simple perforation can also be used to improve the breathability of trekking shoes and it can be quite effective.

Synthetic materials are usually more permeable than leather. The most common man-made materials in hiking shoe uppers are nylon meshes. The use of combinations of materials is common. Layering is also widespread. All these factors affect the overall breathability of the hiking shoe.

  1. Weight

For most good hikers, the weight of the shoe is an important consideration. That’s why while many prefer wearing lightweight hiking shoes, some give more credit to boots as more reliable hiking footwear.

Wearing heavy backpacking boots results in greater energy demands, thus hindering performance; however, it can also provide more ankle support and stability on the trail, especially if you carry a large and heavy pack. The general trend is to reduce shoe weight as much as possible without sacrificing performance, protection, and other characteristics. Generally, shoe weight must be evaluated relative to other features. Even though the foot and shoe weigh relatively little, the weight factor is an important one to consider. We have already noted in a previous article that a kilo on the shoe feels like five to six kilos on the back. That’s because the foot and shoe are at the farthest distance from the hip axis, any added weight requires much greater muscle force to move it. Additionally, the foot moves through a longer distance than any other part of the leg. A reasonable backpacker needs to find the balance between the reduction in shoe weight and other important features (such as traction and cushioning).

The lightness of the shoe is achieved mainly via the choice of upper materials and by using less cushioning.

  1. Cushioning

Cushioning, in short, is the ability of a shoe to absorb shock. Most companies use cushioning and shock absorption interchangeably. Thus, regarding trekking shoes, shock absorption and cushion are different terms for the same thing.

The human body has the ability to sense damaging motions as discomfort or pain. Poor cushioning ratings are a good predictor of discomfort and pain in feet. But how does cushioning work in reality? A cushioning system functions by increasing the duration of an impact, thereby reducing the shock load transmitted to the musculoskeletal system. During walking, the ground reaction force is approximately 1.25 times the body weight and during running, the ground reaction force can reach levels of 2 to 3 times the body weight. Thus, midsole cushioning is supposed to attenuate or dampen the impact forces acting on the body during usage.

In the early days, rubber was used as a cushioning material. Nowadays, cushioning technology is quite varied with manufacturers marketing all sorts of air soles, pads, gel or fluid soles.

Some 20 years ago, Salomon Brothers industry report stated:

"No company has publicized that its cushioning technologies outperform another because generally, these cushioning technologies perform no better than regular polyurethane (PU) or ethylene-vinyl-acetate (EVA) foam. Investing in the creation and strong marketing of these technologies provides credibility to companies that their product will actually help with true athletic performance, and thus helps give a specific brand an aura of being an authentic athletic brand".

Today, EVA and PU are still the most widespread materials for hiking shoe midsoles.

Even though midsole cushioning is supposed to attenuate or dampen the forces on the body, the actual force acting on the body remains relatively unchanged with footwear. Thus, most problems arise when a wearer of a shoe perceives a relatively false sense of security. What’s interesting is that this false sense of security increases impact and injury with users of expensive shoes. Why is that? The main reason is that users of expensive shoes tend to underestimate the loads (or alternatively expect the shoes to protect their feet) and hence are more prone to injury. Another interesting finding was made in the 90s when three-quarter cut aerobic shoes were associated with a higher number of aerobic injuries. Apparently, it was perceived that the wearers had a false sense of security about ankle protection with the three-quarter-ankle shoes. That’s what often happens on the trail as well. Some hikers overestimate the ankle support and protection provided by their footwear and as a consequence, they suffer an injury.

Hikers-on-Green-Mountain-Trail

Photo by Brodie Vissers
  1. Comfort

The ideal in-shoe microclimate is a boundary layer of air around the foot approximately 29°C with low relative humidity. Though keeping the hiker's foot cool and dry is mainly a matter of comfort, it prevents the formation of blisters too.

Oxygen consumption and fatigue have been strongly correlated with comfort. If a hiking shoe is making the user consume more oxygen and the muscle activity is higher, then it is understandable that the user will feel uncomfortable in that shoe. Improving the comfort of a shoe can result in a reduction in stress-related injuries. The breadth of the forefoot can also influence the perception of comfort. As a rule, narrow and shallow shoes lead to a higher incidence of forefoot injury. However, the fit of the hiking shoe is not solely sufficient for comfort. Differences in comfort have been associated with changes in muscle activity, foot shape, fit between foot and footwear, foot sensitivity, the weight of the shoe, and temperature.

Even though footwear sales are increasing every year, the functionality and performance characteristics of footwear do not follow a similar trend. Product performance can be broadly evaluated based on its function, form, and fit. Even though it is well known that fit or product compatibility is necessary for a person to experience comfort, safety, and satisfaction during use, the form has dominated the design and development of footwear over the last few decades.

Most people are able to identify what is a comfortable and non-comfortable shoe. This measure, therefore, can be adopted in the assessment of footwear fitting. Materials, especially on linings, are also important for a comfortable feel. Regarding the choice of lining material, you need to think how moisture will be absorbed from the lining. Mesh lining is a good solution since it is breathable, moisture-wicking and quick dry.

  1. Support and stability

Stability of the hiking shoe is achieved with cushioning, medial support and with a semi-curved or curved last: it supports foot movement. Proper design and correct inserts give additional stability.

Controlling a motion is achieved with a heavy, more rigid, and durable shoe, and by limiting overpronation. Movement control is also achieved via the design of the midsole and waist area.

It is believed that for better ankle support when carrying a heavy pack or hiking on rough terrain, you need heavy, stiff footwear. However, most walking boots offer little ankle support, because of their soft cuffs. Only boots with high, stiffened cuffs give real ankle support. But the stiff ankle support restricts foot movement so much that when you walk in these boots, your walk is seriously hindered. Apparently, stiff-ankled boots and natural foot movement do not go together. Generally, it’s much better strengthening your ankles than torturing your feet in heavy, rigid boots.

Some of the greatest strain on your ankles occurs when you run over steep, rough ground. Yet trail runners never wear boots but low-cut and much lighter footwear. For traversing steep, rugged terrain, you need strong, flexible ankles and lightweight hiking shoes.

  1. Stiffness

An argument in favor of heavy boots to lightweight hiking shoes is that stiff soles protect your feet from rough terrain and help support heavy loads. However, this way you restrict natural foot movement which can make you feel unstable.

Stiff soles can’t flex enough to accommodate to the terrain. They may prevent you from placing your feet naturally, leading to a slow and unnatural gait possibly leading to an injury. Additionally, straining against the stiffness is energy-consuming and tiring.

Sole stiffness is required only on a rough and snowy terrain. That’s one of the reasons why mountaineers prefer wearing rigid boots.

  1. Durability

The durability of hiking shoes depends on the material, technology used, the terrain as well as the weather conditions (including humidity). Synthetics are much more prone to abrasion damage than leather hiking shoes. If you like hiking on rough and rocky terrain, you need sturdy hiking shoes or boots, preferably with an upper made of leather.

In general, a pair of leather boots is not only going to hold up better to the elements but also last longer as far as general wear and tear are concerned.

Durability in the upper is achieved with toe bumpers and stitching, and in the sole with materials and traction design.

  1. Protection

A pair of good trekking shoes needs to protect your feet against harsh conditions on the trail. To some extent it depends on the weight of the shoes (heavier trekking shoes or boots often, though not necessarily always, provide better protection) however much more important for good foot protection is the material that your hiking shoes have been made of as well as some additional features such as toe cap. When hiking on a rough terrain, you need additional protection not only for your feet and heels but for your toes as well. Rubber toe caps provide additional protection for your toes acting as a buffer between you and the twigs and branches that you encounter on your way. Another useful feature offering better protection for your foot can be an integrated gusseted tongue since it keeps pebbles, sand, and debris out of your hiking shoe.

Conclusion

Our feet are unique and they have special requirements. One style will not fit all and therefore it is difficult to make a general prescription for appropriate hiking shoes.

Good trekking shoes need to offer a balance between light weight, support, and stability; cushioning and functionality; stiffness and breathability. They must also be durable, protect your feet, and provide comfort. And above all, they need to fit. Fit is closely related to comfort and no matter how many functional features a shoe might possess, if it doesn’t fit, people simply won’t buy it. The appearance is also important. As with fit, if the shoe is unappealing to the eye, most consumers won’t buy it.

There is an axiom that the shoes designed to excel at one function will almost surely fail at another. However, today you can find wonderful shoes for almost every use. Today’s trekking shoes are far superior to what existed years ago. Nowadays, design, construction, and functionality have become more crucial than the identifying logo.

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