There are many variations on the advice out there on how to pick the right shoe for a hike. Most of this advice is based on a single type of hiking style and what worked best for the person giving the advice. While such advice is useful, it is also often singular in its direction and not right for everyone. This article will hopefully clarify the best way of choosing a hiking shoe that is right for the style and needs of the reader.
Styles of Hiking Shoe to Choose From
- Boots: These are the traditional choice of yesteryear for hiking in. Usually crafted of a heavy leather and rising well over the ankle and partway up to the calf, boots were of a solid construction. The biggest advantage of boots is their toughness, but they lack flexibility and are often quite heavy. That is no small disadvantage when one accounts for the fact that 1 pound on the foot is the same as 6 pounds in the backpack, in terms of how hard one works to carry that weight. Many times they are also slow to dry without special devices. It is becoming rare to see someone choosing full boots for their hiking “shoe”.
- Walking Shoe/Lowtop: On the other end of the spectrum are the more standard walking shoes and sneakers. More often than not, these are composed of simple cloths that are not well suited for hiking. Choosing these is not unheard of, especially for short trips, but most people find that they do not fit the needs of a longer hike. One woman is well known for her hike of the Appalachian Trail in such inexpensive shoes as these, but went through 16 pairs before it was completed.
- Hiking Shoe/Hightops: Somewhere between a boot and a walking shoe, these range between sneakers and a more sturdy hiking shoe. Many varieties are suited for hiking and offer those fearful of sprained ankles a sense of comfort due to the higher sides. They lack the rigidity of hiking boots however, so aren’t as confining. Anyone hiking with a heavier pack might decide on choosing shoes such as these.
- Cross Trainers/Trail Runners: Invariably made from a material that doesn’t hold onto water for long, these are becoming very common. Those who prefer ultralight hiking are often found choosing these shoes. They are very light, have a good flex and a solid tread. They have all of the advantages of a normal hiking shoe, but with a lower ankle for a better range of movement.
- Other Options: Hiking sandals, shoes with individual toes and even choosing to hike barefoot are all options that some people decide to go with. Many of these choices are based on a desire for greater comfort, though sometimes may be a matter of aesthetics or philosophy. Many of these choices are focused on a single aspect of hiking that they excel at. The type of shoe with individual toes, for example, focuses heavily on flexibility and the ability of a human foot to grip. Climbing steep areas is especially easy in these.
Choosing Between Flexible and Rigid Shoes
This is often a matter of how much weight is going to be carried. The reason that heavy boots were the norm for hiking years ago is because the weight of a pack was often quite high by today’s standards. The lighter the load, the less rigid the shoe or boot needs to be to provide good support. By choosing to go with a lighter load, the shoes can be much lighter as well and gain the advantage of being more flexible.
Flexible shoes will ensure an ability to avoid certain types of blistering and improve comfort. The ability to flex can also help avoid twisting ankles from stepping on a loose or uneven obstruction.
Ankle Support in a Hiking Shoe
With a heavier pack, as stated above, a rigid boot provides ankle support at the cost of flexibility. When choosing to carry lighter loads, the insole is often what provides the support, keeping the foot positioned properly to avoid twists and sprains. With heavier boots, tight lacing and rigid material offer the support, though at the cost of the ability to flex the ankle when needed.
In lighter shoes, there is a greater degree of movement, but between the lighter weight carried and the ability to shift, there is not a noticeably greater chance of injury. Many people, this author included, swear by a lighter pack and an equally lighter shoe.
Hiking Shoe Material and Construction
Leather is the traditional choice for heavier boots. It is often more rigid and can hold out water for a longer period of time. Once water has gotten in, it is often a long time before the leather has fully dried out again however.
Gore-Tex brand and similar waterproof breathable materials are common for trail runners and other hiking shoes. These will keep out lighter degrees of wet weather, but will eventually dampen if for no other reason than having an opening for a foot to go in. The advantage is that it is light and will dry quickly after it has gotten wet.
Some shoes blend leather and waterproof breathable to take advantage of the traits of each. Avoid cotton unless having a material that absorbs, spreads and holds moisture is desired for some reason.
Hiking Shoe by Foot Type
Everyone’s feet are different. Some people have flat feet, low arches, wide feet, narrow feet or any other number of unique traits.
Some companies offer special shoes for certain situations. For example, New Balance offers a sizing that includes width for those with unusually wide or narrow feet who wish to go hiking. This sort of sizing can improve comfort greatly for some hikers.
Other situations require special insoles to compensate for the nature of the user’s foot type. Remember that nearly any shoe can be improved by finding the right insole for the planned usage and the unique foot shape of the user.
Choosing Based on a Type of Hike
- Style: Hiking style should not be discounted as a factor in choosing the right shoe. If a hiker prefers to go slowly and carry a heavier pack, a boot is obviously going to gain favor. If they enjoy moving quickly and carrying light weights, something a bit less bulky is probably going to be wanted.
- Length of the Hike: This is a factor that will be very important. Not only does a longer hike make investing in a slightly more costly shoe worthwhile, it also means that choosing a hiking shoe becomes a matter of knowing what will be coming. A boot getting wet and not drying out may be an inconvenience on a day hike, but on a hike that is going for several weeks or more, it can be a serious problem. A long hike is almost certain to see some sort of bad weather. Something to remember when choosing a hiking shoe for such a trip.
- Weather: As already expressed in depth above, weather is a serious factor in choosing what hiking shoe is right for a person. A low top in a snow storm is probably going to become irritating without the addition of gaiters. A backpacking trip in heavy rains is going to be a situation where any choice will get wet and the only difference is a matter of drying times and comfort. Heavy boots may cause a lot of problems in a high heat situation, while thinner material may be a problem in the blistering cold.
- Ground/Terrain: Hiking in a pair of Keds over flat terrain is one thing, climbing over mountains is quite another. Can it be done? Yes. Is it advisable? No. Matters of durability and tread become very important depending on the nature of the chosen hiking spot. Some treads have a greater advantage on wet surfaces, some have a greater advantage on rocky ground. When choosing a shoe, one should also take into account the hiking location.
Conclusions on Choosing a Hiking Shoe
No one brand is right for everyone. No one type of shoe is going to fit every need. Look at the nature of each aspect of a shoe and of the sort of hiking trip that is going to be taken. Make a point of choosing based on what will be needed, not on what is most expensive or what someone else says is the right choice.
Only the person hiking can decide what is the right choice for them. Try them out, flex them both on and off of the foot to see how much they can bend, especially the toes. Try angling a foot in various ways to see how it feels. Hopefully the right shoe will shine through and choosing one that is right for the situation will be easy. Happy hiking.