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Hiking & Backpacking

Footwear

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When you’re hiking or backpacking, you spend a great deal of time on your feet. Not only are you walking more or less continuously, but you must deal with rocks, vegetation, and water. This means that ratty pair of gym shoes you wear when you mow the lawn probably isn’t going to cut it even on the best-kept trails. You need footwear that will cradle and protect your feet while supporting your arches and ankles. In this article we will discuss how to choose footwear for your trip. We will highlight the different types of hiking and backpacking footwear and when each type is useful, and we will gain some general knowledge about shoe construction and foot health.

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First Things First

You need to have a plan for your adventure. Factors like the length of your trip, the type of terrain, the expected forecast, and your level of experience all affect the type of shoe you will need. If you try to select footwear without thinking critically about what type of adventure you will pursue, it is likely that you will be disappointed with its performance. Ask yourself these questions to help get an idea of what features you will want in your footwear.

Ask youself: “How long do I expect to be hiking/backpacking?”
Because: The length of your trip can help you decide how resistant your footwear should be to abrasion, how supportive it should be, and how heavy they should be. For instance, a weeklong (or longer) trip will require tough, abrasion-resistant boots with a great deal of ankle support. A day hike with a lighter pack will not require this level of toughness or support, so opting for a lighter weight shoe is possible.

Ask youself: What type of terrain am I likely to encounter?
Because: Rocks, tree roots, and other obstacles are the primary reason for investing in a pair of hiking boots or shoes. You will encounter these even on the clearest of trails, which is why the midsole of hiking footwear is designed to protect your feet and give support. If you strike out from the trail, these obstacles become more treacherous, requiring mid- or high-rise boots with a shank for support and a plate for protection. The lug pattern you will choose will also depend on the terrain. Do you want a pattern that will stick to rocky, uneven surfaces? One that will maintain traction in mud? If there are streams to cross, you might want a waterproof boot. The terrain is probably the single biggest factor in choosing footwear for your outdoor adventure, so you will want fairly detailed knowledge about where you will be going.

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Ask youself: What’s the climate like? What weather am I likely to experience?
Because: This will help you determine what sort of features you might like to have in your footwear. If you are hiking in the Pacific Northwest, you may want to invest in waterproof footwear, for instance. Or if you are hiking in a hot, dry area with little underbrush, a ventilated shoe might be the better choice. If you think snow and ice is likely, you may consider an insulated boot, maybe even one that is compatible with crampons. You are going to want to keep your feet as dry and comfortable as possible, so knowing how much precipitation (or what temperatures) you can expect is always a good idea.

Ask youself: Objectively, how much experience do I have?
Because: Hiking, like any other sport, carries the risk of injury. Also like any other sport, the best way to reduce your risk of injury is by practicing. By no means does this imply that all new hikers or backpackers are doomed to get hurt, but it does mean that precautions should be taken. If you are setting out for a first-time hike, for instance, then you will need more ankle support than an experienced backpacker, especially if you have a cumbersome pack. If you are just beginning to build your backpacking experience, we would suggest sticking to at least a mid-rise boot to keep your ankle from twisting and becoming injured.

Now there may be some terms in the paragraphs above that you aren’t familiar with. “What the heck is a shank? Sounds painful.” Next, we will carefully examine the different types of footwear and the various components of your backpacking footwear system. You’ll want to keep your answers to the above questions in mind to help select which type is right for you.

All A-boot Footwear

The words boot, shoe, hiking, and backpacking were all mentioned above. The next few paragraphs will define what exactly we mean when we say hiking shoe vs. backpacking boot and so on.

Styles:

Hiking Shoe
A shoe is typically thought of as being a low-cut piece of footwear - more rigid than typical athletic footwear, less rigid than a boot. The top of these shoes sits below the ankle, meaning that they do not help to stabilize the ankle when you’re walking. This is ok if you are not encumbered by a heavy pack or walking on perilously rocky terrain. Hiking shoes do not provide adequate support or protection for these conditions. These shoes are lightweight, flexible and require little break-in time. Hiking shoes are great for day hikes, but more experienced hikers may use them for longer intervals.
Hiking Boots
Hiking boots are fairly flexible, requiring little break-in time for out-of-the-box comfort. These boots are similar to hiking shoes, except that they are typically mid- to high-rise footwear. Since the boot cut comes higher on the ankle, more support is given than in the hiking shoe. But since these boots are still less rigid than a backpacking boot, they are not particularly suitable for really long trips or for going too far off-trail - they simply don’t have the support you will need. Instead, you will find that these types of boots work very well for weekend trips with lighter loads.
Backpacking Boots
The toughest of all, backpacking boots feature an internal shank (a plastic piece that grants rigidity to the sole) and plate (a plastic piece that shields the foot across the midsole), they provide great support as well as excellent protection from rocks, roots, and other potentially painful roadblocks. The uppers of these boots are often made with full-grain leather for high resistance to abrasion and moisture, and they wrap around the ankle to increase stability. While this seems like it checks a lot of boxes, backpacking boots are also much heavier than hiking shoes or boots, making them impractical for shorter hikes with trails or light loads. Use these for extended trips or for off-trail hikes.

Components of Footwear

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Socks

Sometimes we get so excited talking about all the technical details about shoes and boots that we forget to talk about this vital piece of your footwear system. Socks are crucial to keeping your feet dry and comfortable. We suggest choosing a sock made of Merino wool. Why wool, you ask? Merino wool is exceedingly breathable, moisture-wicking, quick-drying and odor resistant. Getting a light or medium cushion hiker can help to protect your foot and ankle from rubbing against your boot as you stride, as well. These qualities add up to a sock that will help to channel perspiration away from your skin, keeping your foot dry and therefore less likely to develop a blister.

Insoles

This is another often-overlooked part of a footwear system. Until recently, very few makers of hiking boots and shoes included an insole that provides arch support, but maintaining support for the arch is incredibly important for your foot health, particularly when you are walking a great deal or carrying a heavy load. Be sure to ask your sales associate which boots come with a solid, supportive insole and which need to be supplemented with a pair of Superfeet insoles. Furthermore, if you wear orthotics, it is very important to try them on with your hiking or backpacking footwear. You should also bring them with you when you are shopping for a new footwear system.

Boot Uppers

Uppers are the top part of the boot or shoe - everything above the insole. This part is responsible for more than just how your shoe looks. The materials that frequently comprise uppers are listed below from lightest weight to heaviest.

Synthetic
Man-made materials that are super lightweight and quick-drying, but are less resistant to water and abrasion. These uppers are flexible and break in easily.
Split-grain
Synthetic inside, leather outside. This material is breathable and flexible with an improved resistance to water and abrasion compared to synthetic alone.
Full grain or Nubuck
Genuine leather. Very resistant to abrasion and water, but less breathable than Nubuck other materials. Initially difficult to flex, this material must be broken in.

Some other technologies can appear in the uppers of boots. For instance, this is where the waterproof/breathable lining in waterproof boots is hidden. Note that waterproof/breathable is still less breathable than a ventilated shoe because of the lining. The upper is also where you can find insulation for winter boots, connection points for gaiters and more.

Midsoles

Midsoles are responsible for cushioning your feet and protecting them from rocks, roots and other bumps in the road. These are usually made of one of two materials.

EVA
More compressible and weighs less. This less expensive midsole material feels comfortable right away, but breaks down relatively quickly.
Polyurethane
Tough and durable. This material protects better against uneven ground and lasts a really long time. Most likely in backpacking boots.

Shanks & Plates

Between the midsole and the outsole is where there might be a shank or half-shank, which add stiffness and torsional rigidity (which is a fancy way of saying ‘resistance to being twisted’) to boots. A shank covers the midsole from front to back, while a half-shank covers only the back half. This allows the ball of the foot to flex when walking. Why is stiffness in your boot a good thing?

Because a stiff boot is the best way to prevent foot injuries.

A stiff boot will stay level over uneven terrain, because by definition it does not flex. A running shoe, for example, over that same uneven terrain will flex, putting you off balance - causing you to fall and possibly roll your ankle. The stiffness of the boot, not the height, is what keeps you stable.

Plates also add some to the overall stiffness of the boot. However, the primary function of the plate, a thin piece which covers much of the bottom of the boot, is to add a layer of protection from bruises to the foot.

Outsoles

Outsoles are made of vulcanized rubber, which sounds really cool, but is just rubber with carbon added in to make it stronger. That’s not to say it’s a boring material! Vulcanized rubber is incredibly sticky, providing excellent grip and traction for uneven terrain. It is also very durable when used on the kinds of surfaces you will find in the outdoors. It may wear down more quickly (think 5 years or so) if you use it for daily use on sidewalk or other fine, gritty surfaces. A boot’s lug pattern is the way the bumps on the bottom of the shoe are positioned. Lugs spaced closely provide a lot of grip on smoother surfaces. If spaced farther apart, they can dig deeply into the soil or loose material, and mud flows out of them more easily. Usually, outsoles will feature a mixture of the two patterns, but keep in mind what the function of each pattern is and you will be able to “read” the shoe like a book!

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Boot Fit

Now that you know all the parts of footwear and which style you will likely want, you are ready to go try some on! We suggest going late in the day when your feet have a had a chance to swell. In general, you are looking for a fit that is snug in the heel and back of the foot, precise in the forefoot, and roomy in the toes. This type of fit helps to keep your foot from sliding forward and mashing your toes over and over again on longer descents. If you feel that the shoe is too tight in any way, then it is not the shoe for you. You also want to make sure that the heel is secure in the shoe and not moving around too much, as this will allow a blister to develop.

You should make it a goal to spend as much time on your feet as possible in the shoes that you’re trying on. If the shoes are still comfortable after shopping for an hour or two, you might have found a winner. Comfort is likely to be the best indicator of how pleased you will be with a given shoe - your body knows what it wants, so listen to it.

If you wear orthotics or if you are considering a pair of insoles, be sure to try them on with your shoes. Putting a piece of material in the shoe along with you foot can alter the fit. You want to be aware of how your insoles or orthotics will affect the fit of your shoe.

Once you have found a shoe that has the right fit, it is time to break it in. We suggest that you take your shoes out for a stroll as often as possible before committing yourself to wearing them for a number of consecutive days. Some footwear (especially leather or less flexible material) will take a larger number of small walks to break them in. You can help to speed this process along by applying a conditioner to the leather, but you should avoid doing this if you have plenty of time to break them in without conditioning. Over-conditioned leather may become too pliable and soft. This break in period helps the footwear to flex comfortably with your foot, to fit properly, to help with training, and to avoid creases at flex points that can create discomfort while walking.

Taking care of your feet is one of the most important things you need to do when you are hiking or backpacking. Developing blisters or any other foot problems can stall an adventure and make you less likely to want to go out for a hike again. Selecting footwear that is appropriate for the adventure you are having is crucial to the success of the trip. Your feet, legs, and back will all thank you for making a careful decision about which footwear to take along.