Few things can make an adventure more uncomfortable than a pair of ill-fitting hiking boots. Fortunately, footwear technology has come a long way in the last 15 to 20 years, with new materials, designs and approaches providing consumers with a vast range of footwear to choose from. The days of having to buy a pair of regulation stiff, heavy leather boots that inevitably gave you blisters are long past. Walkers can choose footwear that matches their adventures perfectly, resulting in a far more enjoyable experience.
Shoes or Boots?
Before you decide what to buy it’s important to think about what your new footwear will be used for. If you’re planning to do day-walks on well-formed tracks where you will be only carrying a very light daypack, then you probably don’t need to go for anything heavier than a pair of dedicated walking shoes – something that provides a bit more structure, grip and support than a regular shoe. However, if you enjoy multi-day bushwalks with a heavy pack in places where tracks can get very wet, muddy and slippery, then you’re best to go for a sturdy, heavier boot that will provide your foot with a good supportive platform. These days there are also many intermediate models between heavy boots and lightweight walking shoes.
Other things to take into account when selecting footwear is your ankle stability and fitness – if you have good strong ankles and are fit, then you can often get away with lighter footwear. If you have weak ankles or are unfit, then it’s worth considering going for a heavier shoe or boot, something that provides your foot with extra support and stability.
Uppers & Soles
The materials used in outdoor footwear varies greatly, but essentially they boil down to two categories: leather or synthetics. Leather is still widely used, though mostly in boots rather than shoes. Leather is breathable, durable, waterproof when properly cared for and provides good support. Some boots come purely in leather, but there are also lighter synthetic/leather combinations, which try to harness the best qualities of both materials. Leather boots are nearly always more expensive, but to offset their price they are extremely durable and can last a long time if properly cared for. Synthetics on the other hand, are cheaper, more breathable, lighter and often less supportive (although not always).
When it comes to sole materials, Italian rubber manufacturer, Vibram, still rules the roost, but there are plenty of other good alternatives also available. If you’re buying a quality brand you can expect they will use good quality rubber. The main choice you have with soles is their stiffness. For lighter, shorter activities, you don’t need anything too stiff. The more rugged the walking you’re doing, the better it is to have a more supportive platform.
Waterproof linings are great in boots but they are less effective in shoes because they are low-cut. Waterproof linings will keep your feet dryer in the wet, but equally they create another barrier through which vapour must escape – this means they make your feet hotter and sweatier, particularly in summer. Try a bamboo sock to reduce sweat and keep odour to a minimum. Waterproof linings – like GoreTex for instance – are best in synthetic or synthetic/leather boots, where the materials are not intrinsically waterproof. A good, well-made, full leather boot properly cared for is very waterproof, and generally doesn’t need a waterproof lining added.
Buying Your Boots
Now it’s time to try some on. Don’t just go for the first pair you try, it’s important to compare. If you wear thick socks when you walk, take some with you when you try them on instore (the same if you wear special insoles). Don’t be afraid to wear them in-store for a while to get a feel for. Fitting walking shoes is not that different from fitting regular shoes, however boots are a bit different as they can often feel super stiff and alien. If you’re new at wearing hiking footwear– it’s good to allow extra shopping time and wait for an experienced shop assistant to lead you through the process. Generally with boots it’s suggested you should be able to slide a finger down the back of the heel and the toe should be just touching the front – this should ensure your toes are not slamming into the front of the shoes going down hills.
Maintenance & Care
With any new shoe or boot it’s wise to ‘wear them in’ by doing some shorter walks. The stiffer the boots/shoes, the more they need to worn in before heading off on long hikes.
To insure your footwear lasts, protect them with a DWR (durable water repellant) treatment. In time this treatment wears off, when it does you will notice the water doesn’t bead off the boots as when new, and they start to absorb moisture. When this occurs it’s time to re-treat them. Be very careful when using dubbin on leather boots, as excessive use can coarse the stitching to rot. Apart from that, clean them after use and then store them in a cool, dry place.
Selecting appropriate walking footwear may seem a daunting task when you first look at the vast array of boots and shoes available. Ask questions and listen to the advice of experienced sales staff, tell them exactly the type of walking you do or intend to do and try on several different types to find the pair that suits you best.
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