What Everyone Should Know About Hiking Shoes
Whether you go for a day hike or a multi-day trip, comfortable footwear is a must. So, what are the most important characteristics to look for when selecting your trekking shoes or hiking boots? We consider good fitting to be the most important feature of any hiking footwear. In short, your footwear needs to fit your foot. Additionally, among the most important characteristics of a hiking shoe are good traction, shock absorbency, waterproofness, breathability, good foot and ankle support, stability, light weight, and durability.
Types of hiking footwear
There are three main types of hiking footwear: running shoes, hiking shoes/boots, and backpacking boots. Each of them has its pros and cons, depending on the terrain and characteristics of the trail, season, weather and temperature, distance and duration.
Trail-running shoes, cross-trainers, and the like are popular and quite suitable below the snowline. But make sure they provide adequate traction, and consider the need for ankle support, especially if carrying a heavy pack. Good shock-absorbing heels are excellent for downhill travel. This type of footwear is not suitable for snow. If you plan to cross high passes, take along substantial boots for snow and cold or you risk serious frostbite. Substantial leather-and-fabric hiking boots with shock-absorbing heels are good for the hills. For high-altitude treks, you might consider taking two pairs of boots, a light, flexible pair and a more substantial pair for rugged terrain. For the substantial pair, make sure there is enough room to comfortably accommodate an extra pair of socks for the cold regions. In snow or wet weather, appropriate waterproofing material is needed. You might also want to try the footwear out at home on terrain similar to that in the place you intend to hike.
Once you have a well-fitting, comfortable shoe, the secret of foot care is in the socks. Good quality socks carefully blend wool and other materials to absorb perspiration and reduce friction. The outer pair, which should be soft and woolen to absorb the moisture, should be changed frequently. Synthetic socks as thinner inners worn under heavier outers allow the feet and the inner socks some movement inside the outer socks, decreasing stress and preventing blisters. Change socks twice a day or more, keeping a pair drying outside the pack, if you are having trouble with your feet. Take enough pairs for the journey. Knee-length gaiters can be very useful when there is still snow in the backcountry and when bushwhacking while wearing shorts. Select a model with waterproof fabric below the ankle and breathable fabric above.
Lightweight running shoes are a great choice for hiking, backpacking (with light load), and trail running. Comfortable and much lighter than ordinary hiking shoes or backpacking boots which reduces foot fatigue (some scientists claim that six times more energy is required to move weight on the feet versus weight in a backpack). Running shoes feature breathable mesh upper which is suppler than leather or heavy-duty nylon, but tends to prematurely rip and fray. It’s better if your shoes have reinforced toe cap for better foot protection. To protect the foot from hard and uneven surfaces, shoes may feature a soft foam midsole or rigid outsole. Midsole foam absorbs impact and is normally made of EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate). PU (polyurethane) foam is more resilient but heavier and more expensive.
Suitable for warm weather, especially if they aren’t waterproof, your feet will stay cooler, foot sweat will more easily evaporate, and your shoes and socks will dry faster after getting wet. In warmer weather and in prolonged wet conditions, footwear with high air permeability (i.e., a mesh upper) is overwhelmingly preferable to waterproofness because waterproof footwear is ineffective at keeping your feet dry in such conditions. The reason is that the breathability of waterproof fabrics is inadequate to keep up with normal rates of perspiration, and, with moderate use, the fabric’s waterproofness will be compromised. Remember that wet feet are prone to blisters and always try to keep your feet dry if possible.
They differ from trail runners in the stiffness of the midsole. Although a bit heavier, the stiffer flex provides a more solid platform when walking on rough trails, and it helps prevent bruising the bottom of the feet from stepping on sharp rocks. Heavier than running shoes but lighter than backpacking boots, they are suitable for hiking and backpacking with moderate load or on rough terrain. A pair of good hiking shoes also ensures ankle support and stability necessary especially if you are prone to ankle sprains or don’t have enough experience on difficult or long-distance trails. Waterproof hiking boots or shoes are especially useful when hiking in colder conditions, although they are useless if you have to walk for days across wet terrain. In such a case, your feet will get wet for sure no matter what type of trekking shoes you'd wear so you'd better choose breathable mesh footwear which will get dry faster.
High-cut with better balance and ankle support, designed to carry heavier loads. Heaviest of all, they feature a full-grain leather upper, thick rubber outsole, and highly constructed midsole with PU foam, rock plates, and a sturdy toe bumper. If you are carrying a heavy pack over rugged terrain that may lack trails (especially in cold weather), heavy-duty backpacking boots are a good choice because they provide more stability, support, and motion control. Keep in mind that although indispensable in some weather conditions and situations, heavy footwear causes premature fatigue and general clumsiness.
Always choose your hiking shoes according to the surface, weather conditions, distance of the trail and most importantly - according to your own preferences. In colder weather pick up waterproof hiking boots since they will keep your feet drier. In prolonged wet weather, your best option is a pair of hiking sneakers or trail-running shoes. If you need support and stability, backpacking boots might be your best option. Remember that fit is strictly individual and the same pair of shoes that can be very comfortable for someone might be extremely uncomfortable for someone else.