FEET FIRST – How to choose the right hiking shoes for you
Please note: this is not a sponsored post, it is the distillation of cumulative knowledge from our guides and the hundreds of thousands of kilometres we’ve walked over 26years of operation.
Whether you’re planning to trek the West MacDonnells or exploring a nearby national park, your hiking shoes can seriously make or break your experience.
Choosing the right footwear is the most important gear choice you will make. There’s nothing worse than blisters, cramped feet or even hot, sweaty feet – they can completely ruin a hike.
It’s vital that you choose the best fitting hiking shoes or boots for your feet, and that they’re designed specifically for your intended purpose. Shoe selection is a personal choice, because every one of us has different feet and tastes, although fashion should be the last prerequisite on your list.
When assessing what to buy, you should consider:
- Weight, durability and price.
- Comfort and warmth.
- The destination – and associated conditions like weather, terrain and length of the hike.
WEIGHT, DURABILITY AND PRICE.
Each kilogram of a shoe on your feet is the equivalent of about 5 kg in your pack, so think carefully about the weight of the hiking shoes you are buying.
Clearly, boots and shoes that are made of synthetic materials are lighter and cooler than leather products, have a much shorter break-in period and tend to cost less. Sadly, they are not quite as durable over the long run. The synthetics have a long way to go when it comes to durability. All of them seem to break, even the more expensive pairs. In general, leather boots tend to last a lot longer.
There are four basic categories for shoes and boots, each with its own pros and cons.
Low cut shoes around the ankle, normally have a softer more flexible sole. They’re great for easier day-hikes and walks.
Lighter synthetic shoes with mesh uppers are more suited to warmer climates, and if you search around you may find a pair for a really good price.
Light hiking boots or mid-cut boots are cut higher around the ankle than a shoe, just high enough to cover your ankle. These boots are usually a bit stiffer than most hiking shoes. They’re lightweight and good for a broader range of hiking or walking, from travel to colder climates and day hikes to easier multiday walks with a lighter pack.
Full-leather models or heavy high-cut boots are a whole lot stiffer with a higher-cut around the ankles. This type of boot is for serious trekking and bushwalking. They are suited for travelling over rough terrain, walking in cold regions, off-track and carrying a heavy pack for multiple days. Leather boots are significantly heavier than lighter synthetics, the only exceptions are the most expensive of all the categories. If you do have to carry a heavy pack then these boots might be the best option. I have a 30-year-old pair of Scarpas for this type of hike, a hangover from yesteryear that have been re-soled twice. They’re incredibly durable, weigh nearly 1.3kgs, nearly double the weight of cheaper synthetic shoes – too hot for hiking in Australia.
Hiking sandals with toe protection, are not strictly shoes but don’t discount the option of using them. They offer much more support and grip than then normal recreational sandals and are extremely light. They are perfect for very hot and humid climates and are easy to slip on and off, especially if you’re walking through water or traversing beaches as on the Cape to Cape. Not so good if you tread on a snake, so watch where you step.
There’s always a trade-off with shoe choice, but in my opinion, it’s best to spend a little more to get durable correctly fitting hiking shoes.
COMFORT AND WARMTH.
The notion that leather boots are uncomfortable is far from the truth, they simply need to be worn incorrectly. The first two weeks in new leather boots can feel like you’re wearing ski boots, and they are almost as warm. On walks in warmer climates, like the Larapinta, this is not a good thing. However, suffering from cold feet is a lot worse than hot feet.
In contrast, the synthetics are very comfortable from day one as long as you get the right fit, they can actually be better than runners, but they are not very warm. So, make your choices based on climate, time of year and destination.
If you are hiking in and out of the water, you’ll need to weigh up whether it’s more important to have a quick-drying shoe or a water-resistant boot. Modern waterproof footwear relies upon a synthetic waterproof lining sewn into the upper. Often this will be made from Gore-Tex or another comparable membrane-based material. It acts a bit like a low sock inside your boot, keeping water out from the sides and below. The alternative is boots designed with a full leather upper, which relies on the leather being treated to remain waterproof. Once wet, they definitely take longer to dry out.
Typically for cold, wet, snowy and muddy conditions choose waterproof and heavier. For hotter, humid and tropical conditions a non-waterproof option might be better. Either way, if you step in ankle-deep water, your feet are going to get wet.
Hot tip: most Auswalk guides pair leather hiking boots/shoes with some quick-drying hiking sandals, which you can wear through streams, as well as back at base to let your feet loosen up and breath.
Be specific and think about the kind of terrain you’ll be hiking on. Is the track well maintained like the Great Ocean Walk or is it rocky like the Larapinta Trail?
For a longer hike there’s a greater demand on your body and feet, thus you’ll need more support from your boot. A longer trip also usually involves carrying a heavier pack (unless you undertake a supported hike), so you will require further boot support; both under the foot with a stiffer mid-sole and around the ankle with good heel support.
Ask yourself the question: is the hike in icy cold or wet, hot, dry or humid conditions? The environmental factors like weather among other things will determine if you need a breathable mesh shoe or a waterproof boot.
THE POINT OF PURCHASE.
Try on hiking shoes before you buy. Please don’t buy directly off the internet without trying the shoes on, it’s a recipe for disaster. And please don’t buy your footwear the day before a multi-day hike – you’re rolling the dice if you do.
Bring your actual hiking socks with you when buying and trying on your boots, as you will need to allow for their thickness. Generally speaking, a decent pair of hiking socks will help to avoid blisters, provide added cushioning and temperature control with some socks designed with moisture-wicking benefits.
Feet swell throughout the day, especially if you’ve been walking for hours, so try on hiking shoes and boots in the second half of the day when your feet will be at their largest.
Foot shape plays an important part in making the right choice. Some people have narrow feet, whilst others quite wide. Likewise, some people have slender feet whilst other’s feet are quite voluminous. Men’s and women’s feet vary as well. Therefore, recommendations from friends may not suit everyone due to the difference in foot shape.
The ideal fit, as a general rule of thumb, is for your foot to be snug enough that it doesn’t move around when you walk. When you move your foot forward to the front of the boot, you should be able to slide two fingers down either side of the Achilles.
Lightweight shoes and boots are generally all very comfortable. No recommendations here as they all seem to have the same problem, a lack of durability. Please let us know if your experience is to the contrary.
For walking shoes with leather uppers, I recommended Keen. I was recommended Keen by one of the former owners of Auswalk, Monica Coleman. She walked thousands of kilometres each year, and her view was that they worked and were the best value due to their durability. They are on the warm side, but they add more support and protection.
Same goes for sandals, I use Keen, but you must get the enclosed toe sandals. It will save your toes and you will not regret it.
Scarpa wins hands down in the heavy boot category. My Scarpas are better now than when I first bought them 30 years ago. I am yet to use them on our Australian walks, but they’re great for the Himalayas or going seriously off track.
Good luck with your decision and see you on the track.