Hiking Footwear - A Deep Dive (Part 1)
By Gerhard Nel
So, in this series of articles I will try and explain the unexplainable. To define the ineffable. To make sense of a murky subject – taking a deep dive into hiking footwear. It might require two articles; it might require three. Let’s wait and see. Please also understand that this article is the opinion of the writer, and not of Forever Fresh Foods. We are not podiatrists or orthopedic surgeons or shoe salespeople. We are people that climb mountains using shoes.
With the increase in knowledge about human movement and massive leaps in technology, it is hard to keep up and make the best decision on which hiking shoes to buy for your specific needs. And, given the options available in South Africa (or lack thereof due to global supply chain issues), finding the ideal pair of shoes becomes quite the conquest.
In this series I will break down the various options, from the simplest to the more advanced, and try to reference it with real-life examples of options available in South Africa at the time of writing. In this article, however, I will focus on the following question: what should one look out for in a hiking shoe?
When I buy shoes, I consider the following:
The big head turner. We all love a bargain, but is it better to buy a cheap pair of shoes three times in a row, or a good pair of shoes once? If I knew, I would tell you…
The ultimate swing-vote. The decision is personal, but what you choose determines the options available to you. So,choose wisely. Or go read Born to Run. Whatever works. Ankle protection may decrease the chances of rolling an ankle. Although some people argue that this is untrue, as ankle stability and proprioception is more important than the height of the shoe collar. It then becomes a mud-slinging contest as old as time.
My personal approach is to use shoes with ankle protection on multi-day hikes and in remote places. And my reasoning is purely the risk/reward ratio to the prospect of rolling an ankle. I would prefer to decrease my chances of a rolled ankle when I am days away from civilization, thank you very much.
This is only important when looking at trail running shoes for hiking, as most hiking shoes and boots have a similar heel-to-toe drop. The “drop” refers to the difference in height between the heel and the forefoot, indicated in millimeters. “Zero drop” shoes (like Altra or Vivo Barefoot) are considered “barefoot” options. Shoes with a 4mm drop are considered minimalist, 8mm is considered “standard” for modern trail runners and anything above 10mm is considered “old-school”. Don’t quote me on this. Shoe drop is a contentious topic, which deserves a book on its own.
Most hiking shoes and boots fall into the “old-school” category. In general, there are benefits to a barefoot style for people that are willing to do the work to increase the mobility and flexibility of their feet, ankles, knees, and hips. The rest of us mere mortals, that sit on chairs and do yoga every now and then, should do research and make an informed decision to transition to zero-drop shoe nirvana over time.
But it should be said that zero-drop shoes are considered “cool” by the trail running community, and you will somehow be more enlightened if you are able to run an ultramarathon in zero-drop shoes. Not sure why.
The “outer sole” is the rubber part – the bottom of the shoe – the part that grips (or doesn’t). Soles are made up of lugs. Various factors make up an outer sole design, but in general we look out for the spacing and the depth of the lugs. Various soles are made for various applications.
The softer the sole, the more it will grip but the shorter it will last. The harder the sole, the less it will grip but the longer it will last. Its technical. In general, I would recommend buying shoes with aftermarket soles if you can. For instance, shoes with Vibram or Michelin soles. And if the sole looks like a road running shoe, don’t buy it.
It should also be mentioned that Table Mountain Sandstone is some of the oldest and hardest sandstone in the world. So, the rock of the Cape Fold Mountains eats soles. In the Western Cape of South Africa (where I live) your soles will take a beating, no matter what.
The classic military rule remains – one kilogram on your feet equals five kilograms on your back. At least according to a study by the US military from 1984. Is this true? I don’t know either, but it brings the point home. We walk up hills, gravity is real, and we should consider weight.
This relates to how flexible the sole is, and specifically from a side-to-side perspective. To test torsional rigidity, grab the shoe with one hand on the heel and one hand on the toe, and twist. The more flex, the less rigidity. For specific uses there is a sweet spot. When walking on a road, you need torsional flex to properly use your feet. When walking on rocky terrain, you need a bit of rigidity (hence why hiking and trail running shoes have a “rock plate”). When scaling snow-covered mountain peaks using crampons and an ice axe, you need stiff soles with zero torsional flex.
Often overlooked bur very important. The midsole is the “sponge” of the shoe. The part that does the shock absorption. A softer sole will be more comfortable, whereas a harder sole will be more durable. It is also a matter of personal preference. The burlier the shoe, the harder the sole will likely be. The sole could be tested when squeezed with a thumb. This way, you can compare the stiffness of various shoes in a shop to get a feel for the various options available. In general, I am only able to discern between “soft” and “hard”. And I prefer “hard” for hiking.
The “outer” is the, ahem, outside of the shoe. Materials range from synthetic, to nubuck, suede and full grain (oily) leather. Full grain leather is the most durable, but the heaviest. And it requires maintenance. But, if you maintain it, it will last for a long time. Suede and Nubuck look great when new, but I don’t like them. Not sure why. And synthetic outers (like a running shoe) will have zero maintenance and be light but might suffer on the durability front. Another factor is the number of seams. More seams = more things that can go loose. The shoe outer shouldn’t be a make-or-break factor unless you specifically want oily leather boots for durability. And in general, I would encourage you to use common sense when considering how tough the outside looks versus your intended use.
Most hiking boots come with a “waterproof” membrane. Ormore like a water resistance membrane. I don’t know. The idea behind these membranes is that they have micropores which will keep out water molecules but allow water vapor to escape (vapor is smaller than water molecules). But this is based on the premise that water does not collect on the outer of the shoe. And, for this, the outer is generally treated with a “durable water resistant” (DWR) coating to make water bead off. I don’t know if I believe this. Most hiking shoes in South Africa have their own in-house waterproof membranes (Hi-tec, Kway, Merrell, etc.). Which generally don’t work very well. And, coincidentally, these membranes are very good at keeping water in. So, they keep your feet dry, until the don’t, then they keep your feet wet.
More expensive shoe options have an aftermarket lining (e.g., Gore-Tex or Event). These work a bit better but in general, they just delay the inevitable.
My summary is that the more expensive the boot, the longer it will be for your feet to “wet through” when walking in rain or snow. A good rule of thumb for most shoes is between 2 and 6hours. And for more expensive brands perhaps they will last the whole day. If you are lucky…
I would recommend only caring deeply about waterproofing if you are planning to do real mountaineering. Where you may walk in snow for a prolonged period and there is a risk of cold exposure when your feet get wet. This might be important on Kilimanjaro or Mount Kenya, but your average South African hiker would prefer staying indoors in such conditions. That said, I have gotten nerve damage in my toes (peripheral neuropathy) when I walked in snow and sub-zero conditions with wet boots for 2 days. So, there is risk. Especially if you have blood circulation issues (like I do).
This rounds up part one of my series on hiking shoes. Stay tuned for instalment number two, where I will look at some options based on the criteria that I defined in this article. Until next time.