Aching tootsies, barkin’ dogs, tired toes – these are things you never hear in conjunction with a successful hike. Keeping your feet happy and comfortable are the number one priority when you get out on the trail, and proper shoes are a key part of that endeavor. Before purchasing your next pair of hiking shoes, learn what factors will influence your decision.
In this article you will learn:
- How to Choose a Style
- How to Find a Good Fit
- How to Care for Your Shoes
Listen up and lace up! It’s time to talk shoes.
The shoe you choose for hiking will be mainly based on the activity you do most.
This is the footwear that probably pops into your mind when you think of hiking boots. These are meant for helping your feet support a lot of weight over rough terrain or multi-day backpacking trips. They are ankle-high, are often made of full-grain or split-grain leather and have thick soles to protect your feet and ankles from rocks and roots. While they provide great protection and are usually waterproof, the downside to these is that they can be clunky and heavy.
These rather modern inventions are a great, lighter-weight alternative for those of us who grew up with only bulky hiking boots. They stay below the ankle and are usually made of lighter materials than boots. They still have fairly stiff, supportive designs that are great for carrying up to 30 pounds – perfect for short backpacking trips or long day hikes on moderate terrain.
Similar to hiking shoes are approach shoes – these offer mainly the same features and support, but approach shoes usually also have especially sticky soles and a rubber toe rand (the part right in front of your toes). This allows people who want to do light rock climbing or scrambling an extra dollop of traction.
Trail Running Shoes
If your goal is speed-speed-speed, then trail running shoes are a great option for you. These shoes strip away extra toe and ankle support to leave you with a below-the-ankle shoe with excellent tread to stay light on your feet. With thinner soles, these are recommended for hikes or runs when you are carrying as little as possible, so you don’t get weighed down without good support.
Now that you have determined what type of activity you will be doing most often, you need to move on to what features within the hiking boot/hiking shoe/trail running shoe group are important for you.
Check to see if the shoes you are considering are waterproofed. Most hiking boots and many hiking shoes come with waterproofed leather, Gore-Tex, or some other technology to keep your feet dry. If you know you’re hiking in a climate where you will rarely encounter rain or only go on short day hikes, this might not be a feature you want to pay extra for.
If a shoe doesn’t come already waterproofed, there are sprays you can apply to shoes as well as waterproof socks.
Think about the type of terrain you are most likely to encounter in your hikes. The Rockie’s trails are notoriously, well, rocky, while in the Appalachias, the trails tend to be covered in gentle natural mulch from the abundant deciduous trees annual slough-off. If you know you’ll be covering bumpy, rocky ground, opt for thicker soles so you don’t feel every rock and pebble.
In the desert, pokey cactus spines threaten your feet and, if you enjoy bushwacking, any manner of sticks, rocks, and critters might slash at your shoes. To ensure that your shoes (and feet!) don’t get shredded in one of these hazardous environments, look into shoes with split leather uppers (the part of the shoe above the sole) or sturdy toe rands to protect you.
The tread of the shoe is made up of “lugs” – or the little things that stick out on the bottom of the shoe to create traction. The bigger and deeper and wider the lugs, the better you’ll stick to slick rock or wet, slippery surfaces. Consider how much of these you’ll see on your average hike.
Determining a Good Fit
Just because a shoe is in your size and it’s a popular brand, does not mean that it will be a good fit for you. It’s strongly recommended to make a visit to a local shoe store and try on the pairs you’re thinking about so that you can make sure they fit in the following ways. And, of course, always wear a new pair around the house for a few days before taking them out on the trail, and only take a long backpacking trip after you’ve taken several smaller hiking trips to ensure that your shoes won’t cause you regret halfway into a 5-day trek.
A Note About Socks (and Insoles)
Before trying on shoes, make sure you are wearing the socks or insoles that you will be hiking in so you get an accurate experience of what the shoes will feel like come hiking day. Socks should be non-cotton, moisture-wicking fabrics. Avoid bulky seams (they will rub) and take into account whether the shoe is mesh or sealed with a waterproofing – waterproofing will keep your feet warmer so you might not need as thick a sock.
Okay, now for what to look for.
It is important that your heel stays in place while you walk or even scale the practice-inclines some shoe stores provide. If it moves, it will quickly rub and develop a blister. If you find that your heel is slipping in a pair that you already have and love, try this tying technique to keep it in place:
First, lace your boots in a criss-cross pattern (making little x’s on the top of your foot), using all the eyelets and hooks provided. Where you would make your final knot – making one knot before beginning your “bunny ears” – instead, make two knots before making the bunny ears. This will keep the knot tight and the boot will stay in place.
Room for Toes
Make sure that the “toe box” – or the part where your toes hang out is spacious and your toes do not touch the end or the sides of the shoe, even when going downhill or splaying out your feet while on tippy-toe. You should be able to wiggle your toes around comfortably. If they touch the end, try the next size up.
Not Even a Little Tight
Keep in mind that feet swell during exercise and at high altitude, so don’t settle for a pair of boots that are almost big enough in the store, because on the mountain, they’ll be squished and miserable. If you are taking the plunge and buying online, be sure to read reviews of the shoe to see if people mention the sizes running outside of the norm. Some brands are famous for consistently narrow or wide shoes, so you’ll know if you might need to order a special version.
However, although your shoes should not be tight, they should not move around either. If you find that the shoe doesn’t move with your foot while you walk and instead slides around a little even after retying laces to be tighter in the problem area, move on to the next pair.
Caring for Hiking Shoes
As you can imagine, shoes come face to face with all matter of grit and grime on the trails which can cause wear and unfortunate odors too. To keep them working and smelling fine, follow these easy, shoe-care steps:
- Take out insoles and laces. You’ll need access to all the nooks and crannies.
- Brush away dirt. Using a brush with stiff bristles, get dirt off the cloth parts of the shoe as well from the between the lugs of the soles. If you can’t get all the caked-on dirt from the bottom, let them sit in a dish of ½” water for a few minutes and then try again, rinsing when done.
- Scrub with mild soap and warm water. Use a Gore-Tex friendly detergent if necessary, otherwise, dish detergent works great. Scrub with a soft cloth or a tooth brush for tougher stains. Remember to wash those insoles you took out too!
- Rinse in warm water. Repeat until there is no more soapy residue.
Bonus tip: If you have sap or some other gummy substance stuck to your shoe, put them in the freezer for a couple hours and then you can easily chip it away.
You’ll Be Walking on Air
Don’t be surprised if this next pair of shoes makes your feet feel happier than they’ve ever felt before. With the right shoe for the right hiker, all the woes on the trail fade away, and all you’re left with are amazing memories and unforgettable experiences.