One thing that I know for sure about hiking is that taking care of your feet is absolutely crucial. Whether you are taking a short hike for the day or a longer backpacking trip you want to avoid dealing with blisters, wet feet or something more serious. As technology advances so do our options for taking care of ourselves. Of course this probably leaves you with more questions than answers. You might be wondering if your reliable hiking boots are a thing of the past? Or you might be curious as to why anyone would wear sandals on a backpacking trip? We will cover all of those questions and more in this ultimate guide to trail footwear.
Let’s start off with the traditional hiking boot. Every person who has ever seriously gotten into hiking has purchased a pair of these and for good reason. Hiking boots come in many different shapes and styles but the general ideas behind them remain the same. This type of shoe is durable and it provides plenty of ankle support. They come in low, mid and high cuts depending on what style and how much support you prefer. Moreover, they generally last longer than other types of trail shoes. People love hiking boots specifically for rugged terrain or times when they are carrying a heavy load and are looking for a little more support. If you want to go bushwhacking, hiking boots are a great choice.
Okay, so hiking boots sound great, why would I want to buy any other type of shoe? As with everything in life there are downsides that you should consider. For instance, hiking boots can be heavy and clunky. It is a commonly known fact among hikers that 1 pound of weight on your feet is equivalent to carrying 5 pounds on your back. If you don’t believe me, check out this study from the US Army on the subject. Or better yet, try hiking in shoes of different weights. You’ll be surprised at what a difference it makes.
Additionally, hiking boots are known for taking some time to break in. Especially if you choose to go with a leather boot rather than a synthetic material you will need to plan plenty of time before your trip to break in your shoes. If you don’t, you might end up with some avoidable annoyances. Also, although some hiking boots are waterproof, they are typically much harder to dry out if they do happen to get wet compared to other shoe options. Part of the reason for this is the thickness of the boots. Another aspect of it is that you cannot let leather hiking boots dry using heat. If you happen to leave your wet leather boots near a fire to dry you might come back to shoes that are too small. The heat dries out the leather and can cause it to shrink.
Other than the issue of drying your shoes, leather boots generally need more care than boots made of other materials. You need to be sure to use oil to treat and break in your leather boots. Leather boots also are generally less breathable and comfortable than synthetic materials. However, they do tend to be more durable and longer lasting than other materials. In general it is important to think about your specific needs and preferences when choosing any style of hiking shoe, but especially boots.
Next up on our big list of trail footwear are trail runners. Basically, trail runners are sneakers with a more aggressive tread. These shoes are lightweight, breathable and comfortable out of the box. That means no need to spend time breaking them in before your hike and that they dry faster if they happen to get wet. It also means that they are good for everyday life. If you are the kind of person who wants a shoe that they can wear all the time, then a trail runner might be a good choice.
It is because they are practical and lightweight that they are gaining popularity. As long as you are sticking to trails that do not require a lot of support and durability, trail sneakers are a perfect choice for a hiking shoe. I mentioned earlier that one pound on your feet is equal to five pounds on your back. That is another reason that backpackers are starting to favor trail runners. Every ounce counts when you are carrying everything with you. In that scenario the lighter shoe seems like an obvious choice. However, trail runners are not as supportive or durable as hiking boots which is the largest downside to this type of trail shoe.
You might be wondering why I have sandals on a list of trailshoes and why they are in a different category from camp shoes. Well, it’s actually for a similar reason that trail runners are gaining popularity. The need for stable and protective footwear is shrinking as the trails themselves become more well traveled. Hence, people are looking into footwear options for reasons other than protection.
Obviously sandals provide no ankle support and very little protection anywhere else other than the soles of your feet. Yet, they can be a great shoe if you are in an area with a lot of water crossing. With sandals you can just keep walking without missing a beat rather than having to remove your shoes and socks for each crossing. And, they dry very quickly compared to all other trailshoes.
Additionally, if you are a person whose feet tend to swell or get too sweaty this type of shoe can be a nice alternative. All I’m saying is don’t knock it until you try it. Some people swear by a nice pair of sandals for their trail shoe of choice.
I know this post is titled trail shoes and that camp shoes are by definition for camp not the trail. But stick with me for a second. Camp shoes are often looked at as a luxury by backpackers, but for some it is a luxury that they cannot afford to live without. A camp shoe is usually a light shoe like flip flops or crocs. The entire purpose of these shoes is to allow your feet to breathe after a long day of hiking. Camp shoes are also useful for avoiding blisters and trench foot. If you are on a long trip you might also want to use your camp shoes when you head into town to pick up supplies.
As long as we are talking about foot health I thought I would throw in some of the other helpful tips that I have picked up in my travels.
Having shoes that fit properly is the easiest way to avoid foot related injuries. I strongly recommend doing a toe-tap test when you try on a new pair of hiking shoes. Here is the test: when you are wearing your shoes, tap your toe against the ground. If you can feel your toes hitting the front of your shoe it's not the right fit. Toes constantly smacking against the front of your shoe is a recipe for pain. Now if you get out onto the trail and you notice that your shoe is rubbing in a weird way or that the fit is not quite right there is something you can do about it. Different lacing techniques can help to make things fit a little better. However, I would not rely on lacing techniques to make your shoes comfortable. This is a temporary fix not a permanent one. Do your best to find the right fit the first time.
Another easy way to adjust your hiking footwear to fit your needs is with insoles. If you are a person who needs more arch support, or has any other myriad of foot related problems buying insoles might be a cheap and easy way to keep you on the trail as long as you want to be.
Lock laces are this type of elastic shoelace that are held together using a plastic locking mechanism. Essentially, it is a piece of plastic that could save you from ever having to tie your shoes again. I am sure all of us have spent countless hours of our lives tying and untying shoelaces. Lock laces are pretty cool because they do not come untied. Not a necessity, but definitely a nice luxury to have if you want to maximize your hiking time.
People who hike frequently are very particular about their sock choices. If you learn nothing else from this article please walk away with this sock knowledge: cotton kills. Okay, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is stuck in your mind now, isn’t it? There are a few reasons that hikers avoid cotton socks and even say that cotton kills. First, cotton absorbs moisture and takes a long time to dry. Now you might not actually die from this but you can get some unpleasant foot fungi from having perpetually wet feet. You will also have a higher chance of hypothermia if you are hiking somewhere with snow on the ground. Basically any type of synthetic material is a better choice than cotton (spandex, nylon, polypropylene). But, the best option is merino wool. This is a type of wool that is thinner and softer than regular wool making it the ideal hiking sock.
Let’s cover the basic sock types and when they are useful.
First we have sock liners. These go under the sock. Their main purpose is moisture wicking. They also rub against the outer sock leading to less friction on your skin. What does this mean for you? Fewer blisters.
Lightweight socks are a good summer sock. A nice ankle cut lightweight sock will help your feet sweat less in the summer.
This particular type of sock is nice when the weather is a little bit cooler. Midweight socks are best in late spring or early fall. They are also a nice way to provide a little more cushion for your feet if they get sore.
I personally prefer heavy socks when I am sleeping. They are cozy and provide plenty of warmth throughout the night when I am camping.
Sock length is really up to your personal preference. I do think that shorter socks are nice for warmer weather. And, I would recommend higher cut socks for sandy or snowy areas just to provide a little more protection. With that being said, try out all the sock varieties and see what kinds work best for you.
Speaking of protection, do you know much about gaiters? Gaiters are an accessory that slides up your ankle and covers the top of your shoe. The intention is that the gaiter provides an extra layer of protection. If you have a lot of problems with debris getting stuck in your shoes, gaiters can be a nice way to prevent that. Some people swear by gaiters and some think they are kind of a hassle. Personally, I love gaiters if it is snowy and I only have my boots.
Of course whatever shoes and accessories you choose to wear hiking are entirely up to you. Hopefully this guide will help you to find the best footwear for your needs. But to be honest, as long as your shoes protect your feet and get you on the trail, we don’t care what you wear. As long as you find some hiking footwear that works for you, that's all that matters. Now get out there, have fun and stay safe!