The run-up to any walking holiday - or any break that features walking, for that matter - is an exciting tangle of anticipation and preparation. When it comes to the latter, one of the most important things to consider is footwear.
The hiking footwear market is absolutely flooded with options, which can make selecting your shoes an intimidating endeavour. While it's possible to spend hours and hours researching your various options for footwear styles and materials, doing so can be somewhat counterproductive. After all, it's easy to get so lost in what a particular material or brand offers that you lose sight of what's really important - reliable footwear that fits well and offers the support you need.
Of course, your existing hiking shoes or boots might already provide this. We have put together a guide to the most crucial aspects of finding the right footwear, which you can use to assess your current shoes or boots, as well as find new ones.
Hiking shoes or hiking boots?
A good place to begin is understanding whether you need hiking shoes or hiking boots. This is largely a question of your chosen destination and the kind of terrain you will spend the majority of your time on, but there are other questions to consider too.
Offering a balance between durability, flexibility and lightness, hiking shoes are generally the most comfortable of walking footwear. While offering a far greater degree of support than your average fashion trainer, they also offer less support than a hiking boot.
Wear hiking shoes if…
● You will be hiking along even, well-maintained trails.
● You will be embarking on occasional day hikes.
● You won't be carrying much weight.
● You are an experienced hiker who is used to longer, more rugged trails and carrying a certain amount of weight, i.e. you can rely on your muscles rather than the shoe to provide the part of the essential support.
Photo credit: iStock
Heavier than hiking shoes, hiking boots have stiff foot support, extra ankle support and often a reinforced outer layer, which can either be leather or synthetic.
Wear hiking boots if…
● You are hiking an uneven trail. Rocks, tree roots and other objects can all make a trail uneven.
● There is a high possibility of rolling your ankle - again, this will be particularly likely on uneven terrain.
● You will be tackling steep trails.
● You will be hiking in wet or snowy conditions, when the chance of slipping is higher.
● You will be carrying a moderately heavy load.
● You are relatively new to hiking and so in need of the additional support this sturdier footwear provides.
A note on heavy hiking boots
Most hiking boots, including those described above, fall into the category of 'mid-weight boots'. It's also possible to get heavy hiking boots, which are much weightier. These are designed to protect your feet and ankles not only from twisting and sharp edges, but water and mud. As these boots are usually not especially comfortable and really are quite heavy, only go for these if you are going to spend significant amounts of time blazing your way through particularly challenging trails.
An option that many occasional hikers don't consider is the hiking sandal, which is ideal for walking in warmer climes. These possess many of the positives of hiking shoes, such as tough soles and strong arch supports, but have the added benefits of being more breathable and super-light, making for particularly easy and pleasant walking (in the right conditions, of course!).
Wear hiking sandals if…
● You are hiking along short, well-maintained trails.
● You are walking in hot, dry conditions.
● You need a reliable backup if something happens to your hiking shoes.
Hiking footwear materials
Once you know broadly what kind of footwear you're after, it is time to take a look at materials. What a shoe is made of can impact its durability, water resistance, breathability and weight - so it really does make a difference.
Leather - full-grain and split-grain
Leather is the material traditionally used in hiking boots and shoes, chiefly because it offers a mix of durability, and abrasion and water-resistance. Full-grain leather offers the most protection, however the tradeoff is that it tends to be less flexible and breathable than its split-grain or synthetic counterparts.
Split-grain leather, meanwhile, is often mixed with a synthetic material, which means it makes for a more breathable, comfortable shoe - as well as one that's typically lower in cost. However, it also offers less abrasion protection and water resistance than full-grain leather footwear.
As a quick tip, full-grain leather shoes will need plenty of break-in time before your trip.
There are some big advantages to shoes and boots made with synthetics such as nylon and polyester. Not only are they usually lighter than leather options, but they typically dry faster and are much quicker to break in. However, they often wear faster than leather footwear too.
Waterproof membranes such as Gore-Tex are essential if you're going to be walking in wet conditions. After all, there is nothing more likely to ruin your enjoyment of a hike than wet feet! What you need to be mindful of here is that waterproof shoes tend to be less breathable, which can prove problematic in hot conditions.
EVA and our next material, polyurethane, are each commonly used in the midsole, which is the part of the shoe that provides cushioning and protects your feet from shock. It's this layer that plays the biggest role in how stiff your footwear feels. EVA is a softer, lighter material but can be used in increased density to offer more support.
Polyurethane in a midsole gives footwear more firmness and durability, so it's a good choice for uneven and arduous hikes.
Rubber and carbon
The outsole (the bit you can see when you turn the shoe or boot over) is usually made of rubber, but you would do well to look for options with added carbon if you'll be tackling hard trails, as this will make the sole of the shoe harder. Vibram is a well-known sole brand that many shoe manufacturers use, and is commonly held as a marker of quality. So, if you're unsure, this can be a good way to go.
As a quick tip, have a look at the lug pattern (i.e. the distribution of bumps on the outsole) as well as the material. Widely spaced lugs are good for muddy routes, as they shed debris more quickly, while more closely spaced lugs increase grip.
The fit: Useful tips
Photo credit: iStock
A good fit is important in any shoe, but for hiking shoes and boots, it is absolutely essential. Even though you will know what a good fit feels like, it can be hard to get it just right for this kind of footwear, largely because it is tricky to mimic the conditions you will be wearing them in when in a store and, in the case of boots, several days of breaking in is necessary.
However, these tips will help ensure you get the fit you need.
● Try on footwear at the end of the day
As you walk around, your feet swell a little. So, it's important to try on any potential walking footwear later in the day, when you have been active for a while and your feet will be at their largest. This way, you shouldn't inadvertently wind up with shoes that are too small.
● Wear the right socks
Always try on footwear in the type of socks you will be wearing while you're walking. Often, these will be thicker than you usual socks, which means if you wear a normal pair, you might end up with less room than you need.
● Bring any insoles or orthotics you intend to wear in the shoe/boot
If you usually wear any other orthotics, or intend to wear any kind of additional insole in your shoe, bring this with you. Slip it into the shoe before you try it on to make sure you get a realistic impression of how it will fit; an insole can drastically change the feel of a shoe.
● Test the length of the shoe
If you're unsure if the shoe is long enough, slip the shoes on and leave them unlaced. Stand up, slide your foot forwards until your toes touch the end, then try to place your index finger between your heel and the heel of the shoe. You should be able to do so comfortably.