February is wrapping up, the warm, rainy weather of March is coming, and the new spring shoes are hitting the shelves! I can hear the girlish screams of hikers everywhere as they rush the stores for the latest in Gore-Tex fashions.
If you’re looking for a new set of hiking shoes though, there’s more to it than just finding the pair that makes your legs look amazing. Where you’ll be hiking plays a factor, as well as how much you’ll be carrying, the possible duration of your trip, and what your views are on wet feet. Price always plays a factor, and my suggestion is to get the most for you money by searching through sites like Sierra Trading Post, Zappos, or the “last season” bin at your favorite retailer.
Parts of the Shoe:
We’ll start from the bottom and go up to the top. The sole of the shoe is the where the rubber meets the trail; you have several different tread and rubber options depending on the manufacturer. Deep, thick treads help in loose and sandy soil, digging into the terrain and giving you the most grip possible. The flip side of that though is that in muddy, or sticky terrain it clogs up the treads and you end up carrying the extra weight on the bottom of your feet which is an important thing to consider when a pound on your feet feels like a pound on your back (remember that for later). On the flip side, if you get shoes with too little tread you’ll find that they don’t give you enough grip when going uphill and that they don’t last as long simply because there isn’t as much rubber to take the wear and tear.
The rubber that the sole is made of makes a big difference as well; a name-brand rubber like Vibram usually holds up better than most, and some specialty rubbers by Montrail and Five-Ten (Stealth Rubber) provide substantially more grip in dry rocky conditions but it does wear out faster than the longer lasting Vibram varieties. When looking at the rubber sole of the shoe, also look at the glue lines that connect it to the rest of the shoe. If the glue looks sloppy or unfinished, my advice would be to stay away from that shoe because if the glue doesn’t look like it’s adhered well moisture can seep in and make the soles fall off your shoe. Not very common, but I’ve seen it happen enough times that I check to be sure.
Between the cushioning, sole, and the footbed is what’s called the “shank”. There’s a variety of different kinds of shanks, from full steel shanks to smaller flexible shanks, which function as the backbone of the shoe and is what gives your feet the support and protection they need. A full, stiff shank protects your feet from any sharp rocks and logs and gives you plenty of support for carrying heavy loads but it doesn’t flex with your foot so it can be cumbersome and tiring to try and move fast. Partial, flexible shanks allow your foot to move more freely so you can move faster and more freely but only offer protection and support for your arch and heel, and minimal protection at that.
Insoles come next and are the part of your shoe that will probably be worn out the quickest. Very few companies make a decent insole and I highly recommend ditching them almost immediately for an insole by Superfeet or someone similar which stands up to abuse. That good feeling you get when you first lace those shoes will go away after your shoes have several miles on them and the insoles are worn as thin as paper.
The final component of the shoe itself is the upper; this is the main body of the shoe which covers the top of your foot all the way up your ankle. Here you run into the plethora of options, running the gambit from thick and heavy leather to light and airy mesh. here’s also where you find Gore-Tex and all the other geeky fabrics which either try to keep water off your foot or tries to move sweat away from it. One thing to remember is that while Gore-Tex does an excellent job of keeping water out of a shoe, if water does get into the shoe it effectively becomes a fish tank and does a horrible job of draining or drying out. While that’s not a problem on a 2 hour day hike, if you’re going for a long hike or on a several day backpacking trip, it can make a huge difference. Some backpackers have gone so far as to ditch the Gore-Tex entirely and go with a lightweight material that, even if it gets wet, can dry out overnight while in the tent.
Now that we know the parts, let’s talk about the 4 types of hiking shoes available: the hiking boot, the low hiker, trail runner/running shoe, and the approach shoe just to name the major ones. Some companies market different halfbreeds, but for the most part they fall into the 4 categories above.
The Hiking Boot is the shoe most commonly thought of when you say, well, hiking boot. It’s big, heavy, stiff, with an upper made out of either very tough leather or canvas covering all of the ankle joint; all the way up to the knee if you’re a lumberjack or a heavy metal band. Usually with a full shank and beefy treads, this monstrous piece of footwear is best suited to crushing loads on horrible terrain. Don’t assume though that this is better option if you have weak ankles. These are the heaviest shoes available, weighing over 3lbs (and with that 7lbs on the back conversion that’s 21lbs) per pair. All that extra weight can put more stress on your ankles then actually support them.
Low Hikers are a slightly less beefy hiking boot, using lighter materials with a more flexible shank while still offering some ankle support and coverage. Weighing almost 2/3rds of a full hiking boot, low hikers (sometimes called light hikers) are the do it all pickup trucks of hiking shoes. If you’re not sure of what you need, light hikers are probably your best bet.
Trail-runners are the fast and light sports cars of the hiking world, with very flexible shank, a featherweight upper, and lower profile treads to keep you moving. On the light end, some trail runners only weigh half a pound per pair so you definitely can’t accuse them of slowing you down. If you’re looking at carrying a 30-40lb pack though, they might not offer you enough support though; you wouldn’t use a convertible to haul a load of lumber and the same principle applies.
Approach, “outdoor lifestyle” if you’re feeling preppy, shoes are really sneakers with a little beefier tread and rubber. They’re meant to look great when you’re walking around town and if you’re suddenly called upon to hike up a mountain to save a wounded bald eagle they won’t let you down. Personally, I don’t have much fashion sense so I wear low hikers irregardless.
After you buy your shoes, be sure to wear them for at least 1 week around town before going on a hiking trip. Blisters, cramps, and pain await you if you take brand new shoes on a long trip. And, if you’re going to splurge on a new pair of shoes, don’t pair them with cheap cotton socks. Get some kind of wicking material or wool to make the most out of your new kicks, and most importantly, hit the trial and get your moneys worth.
Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.