Hiking Footwear – A Deep Dive (Part 2)
By Gerhard Nel
To recap, 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. In the first article I discussed the various factors that I consider when buying shoes. Please note the content of the previous sentence. These are factors that I consider. Follow my ideas at your own peril.
In this article, I will look at the classes of hiking shoe that are readily available in South Africa. And I will give a few comments on the strengths and weaknesses of each. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough words in the world to provide a full SWOT analysis of each option. But I will (roughly) address them and (loosely) use some of the concepts that I explained in Part 1 of this series.
Without further ado, here we go. I have listed them in order of burliness. I.e., starting with the least burly and ending with the burliest. What does “burly” mean? I don’t know.
Here we are:
Option 1 is the foot. Or, more accurately, your feet. They are tailor-made for the job. The come with toes, a bridge, and an ankle. When the toes are in alignment and well-conditioned, the provide decent grip and balance. The big toe (its hard to miss) is directly aligned with the bridge of your foot which is, in turn, conveniently linked with your ankle, knee and hip. So,the foot is the ultimate hiking machine. The problem with feet however is that most of us have lost our ability to use them for their intended purpose, and hence they would make hiking incredibly painful and slow. But it is recommended to use them on their own every now and then. Your ability to walk in foot-shoes is also relevant, as strong feet require less strong shoes. So, you would only consider the “minimal” options on this list of you are able to hike with your feet on their own.
Next up on the list is the very minimalist shoe. Cue options like Vivo Barefoot, Vibram Five Fingers and T-Rockets running sandals. These shoes mimic walking barefoot butprovide grip and protection from things like stepping in thorns or stubbing (breaking?) a toe. The benefit of a barefoot style shoe is that the shoe has no heel-to-toe drop. This places more strain on the lower leg but places the knees and hips in a more neutral position. Which would help with injury prevention along the line. But a big (massive) caveat is that you need decent foot and ankle mobility, as well as proper activation of the muscles in the lower leg, otherwise you may be prone to an injury of the foot and ankle. For example, issues that may arise are Plantar Fasciitis or Achilles Tendonitis (Google it).
Other challenges with minimalist shoes are a lack of durability, a lack of grip, and no support when carrying a heavy load. You also can’t use them in very cold conditions, as their design don’t really allow for wearing thick socks.
These shoes are a step up from the very minimalist shoe in terms of support, and the first real contender in this line-up. The brand Altra is well-known for their zero-drop trial running shoes. These shoes provide the benefit of a minimalist shoe, but also include the benefit of proper cushioning and torsional rigidity (if the specific model has a rock plate). The Altra Lone Peak shoe is a cult classic amongst thru-hikers in the United States.
The Achilles’ heel (pun intended) of the zero-drop trail running shoe, is durability. This is the same issue with the more supportive trail running shoes – the outers are generally made of materials that will not last a long time. Bearing in mind the high price of trail running shoes, their lack of durability makes them expensive.
In this category, I lumped together all the “other” trail running shoes. I.e., trail running shoes that have a heel-to-toe drop, a good grippy sole and a rock plate. The drop would usually range from 4mm to 12mm. The further away we move from minimalist shoes, the closer we move toward hiking shoe territory. These shoes have the same issues of durability in relation to cost, but the upside of a good trail running shoe is that you have the best chance of the best possible fit. The reason for this, is that you can support a local specialist running store, where they consider your gait, foot strike and intended use and could recommend a near-perfect fitting shoe. From narrow to wide to minimalist to bulky and everything in between. There are various options in this category. Brands to look out for are Brooks, New Balance, Salomon, Mizuno, Nike, Adidas, etc.
Now we enter the actual hiking category. Cheap hiking shoes refer to the various options by brands like Hi-Tec and Kway. These aren’t trail running shoes but aren’t boots either. They would have a soft midsole and questionable grip. Or, if you are lucky a hard midsole and decent grip. They will be light. This category is a minefield – some options last half a decade and some options last a season. But for beginners and individuals that walk on manicured trails, these provide a very decent entry point. I usually recommend starting with a pair of cheap hiking shoes, walk in them until they fall apart, and learn from your mistakes. Then you could easily justify buying something more upmarket.
These shoes are the same as the above category, except that you could expect a grippy outsole, a stiff midsole and good durability. This is also the first option that I would recommend for multi-day hiking, as they could withstand the rigours of wearing a heavy backpack (if you aren’t into boots). The classic in this category is the Merrell Chameleon. It’s a great shoe.
An approach shoe is a mix between a rock-climbing shoe and a hiking shoe. It is meant as the shoe in which you “approach” the climbing crag. They are usually stiff, strong, and made to carry a load. They are also designed with very easy rock climbing or difficult scrambling in mind. If you prefer to move fast over technical terrain which includes scrambling and walking off-trail, this shoe is a very good option. This is a specialist shoe that you will only find at specific outdoor shops (like Mountain Mail Order). Most approach shoes are imported in small quantities and could be expensive. Brands available in SA include Five Ten, La Sportiva, Black Diamond, Scarpa and Boreal.
This category deserves an honorary mention. This is the classic double-layer leather hiking boot with brass eyelets and an all-weather sole. The classic brand is Jim Green, and the design is unchanged since the 1970’s (or the 1870’s?). These shoes are highly durable and grippy, but not vey waterproof, heavy and require a substantial break-in procedure. You need to be strong, stupid, patient and/or determined to make a pair of these boots work. But if you could endure the break-in period and the heavy weight, they will reward you with years of durable off-trail use and strikingly good looks.
And, finally, the moment we have all been waiting for. The “normal” hiking boot. The boots in this category are like the boots under point 5, except that they also provide ankle protection. And they are usually made from synthetic materials. This is a good option for beginners – buy a cheap boot, use it until in breaks, and learn from your mistakes (or not). Brands include Hi-Tec and Kway.
Midrange hiking boots include boots made from leather, suede and nubuck and would sport a rock plate, a grippy outsole (potentially Vibram), and dysfunctional waterproofing. This category represents the best buy in my opinion and includes boots like Hi-Tec Altitude 6, K-Way Kili, Merrell Forestbound , and Keen Targhee.
This category includes options that are mostly available at specialist stores. They would include a very decent outsole,good waterproofing (like a Gore-Tex membrane) and good durability on the outer sole. This category is recommended for those that can afford it, those that hike a lot and can justify it, or those that place a high premium on good water resistance (for walking in wet or cold conditions). Brands include Salomon, La Sportiva, Boreal and Scarpa.
This is the last category that is recommended for hiking in SA. Mountaineering boots refer to boots that will keep you comfortable traveling in Alpine regions. They are durable, heavy, have good waterproofing, could usually be re-soled, and could be used for easy climbing. Some of them would also be compatible with crampons, which you need to travel on ice or glaciers. These boots are only available at select specialist stores, and brands include La Sportiva and Scarpa. They are only recommended for people that know what they are doing.
The million-dollar question, again – which one would I recommend? My recommendation would be to make your own informed decision, based on your needs and your budget. My personal favorites are categories 4 (normal trail running shoes), 8 (old school hiking boots) and 12 (light mountaineering boots).
But I would say the shoe that represents a happy medium for most people is category 10 (the midrange hiking boot). The Hi-Tec Altitude 6 deserves an honorary mention, as they arelight, affordable, grippy and made from full-grain leather.They also have a very comfortable, wider fit.
In the next and final article of this series, I provide you with some practical advice on the preparation and pitfalls of the shoe buying process itself. Until next week.