As we move closer to Memorial Day weekend, a lot of people are looking toward bigger hikes through the summer and into fall. Many of you are all-season hikers, but a good set of people lace up their hiking boots in earnest once the warm weather seasons settle in.
This is the crowd I’m talking to. And the main topic in this post is going to be about footwear.
Millions of words have been written about all kinds of gear you might need or want for hiking. I’m not exaggerating about that. But when it comes to hiking gear, it always starts with what you slip on your feet.
Plenty of stories about newbie hikers getting in trouble on the trail include references to blisters, frostbite or injured ankles due to inadequate footwear. For most people, the wrong shoe or boot can become a painful nuisance. In more extreme cases – injuries, infections or other maladies – what you wear can be the difference between a great day outside and a major crisis.
But not every trail or outing requires heavy-duty boots. And some trails require more than a light shoe.
Let’s keep this simple so things don’t get too complicated. Basically speaking, you’re looking at three types of hiking footwear: a light shoe, a light boot and a heavy-duty boot. Here’s how I’d describe them:
Light shoe: In short, these are shoes for trail running. They’re going to be light, they’ll drain water quickly, and unlike regular running shoes, their soles are going to be more rugged as they’re designed to protect a runner’s feet from protruding rocks, roots and stumps. While designed for running, they are fine for hiking and desirable for people who are trying to cut weight in what they wear on the trail.
Light boot: Meant for hiking. These will have more rugged construction in the upper and the sole than a light shoe. Though you can run in them, they’re going to be heavier than is comfortable over longer distances. Instead, light boots are made to provide comfort and protection for your feet, but will not be so bulky to weigh you down. Light boots are designed for day hikers who might do some off-trail hiking or walking on more rugged, demanding terrain than a light shoe would warrant. Many light boots are low-top in design, so ankle support would be similar to a light shoe. Some will be mid-top for more support.
Heavy-duty boot: Meant for hiking under demanding conditions, including steep slopes, uneven or loose terrain, bushwhacking and possible water crossings and snow travel. These boots will have sturdy soles and uppers. A decent boot will also have some sort of waterproofing, and many will be fitted in a way where crampons can be strapped on when needed. The best of them will be puncture resistant to things like cactus, rocks and roots. The bulk of these boots will have a mid- to high-top for more ankle stability.
What you choose to wear is going to depend on where you’re going, your goals, and even your level of hiking experience. Here are some general scenarios and then recommendations. Keep in mind, no recommendation is absolute. Here goes:
Short day hike on well-maintained and easier trails: Comfort is key to enjoying a hike like this, so lighter footwear is called for. Go with the light shoe.
Day hike on hilly, more difficult terrain: In this case, performance is what matters. You’re going to need to protect your feet, keep your footing but still have enough comfort where the hike is enjoyable. The light boot is a good bet here, but a light shoe can be work if you’re confident in your hiking abilities or have a higher degree of familiarity with the route being hiked.
Exploratory hike that might include off-route bushwhacking: In this case, you’re going to be on uneven terrain with a high potential for encountering tripping elements like rocks and roots, and possibly puncture hazards like cactus, sharp rocks and broken or sharp limbs. Comfort and protection will be key, so light shoes are out. You can get away with a light boot, but a heavy-duty boot would be a better bet.
Mixed-terrain hiking that includes water crossings and/or snow travel: These types of hikes often include the same pitfalls as the exploratory hikes, but throw in the added problems of keeping your feet dry when encountering stream crossings, standing water or snow. The snow issue becomes more acute when the route is on a steeper slope or up a couloir, when the snow might be deeper. Postholing also becomes an issue, as you might be punching through snow and into unseen, uneven ground. In these situations, you’re going to want footwear that is waterproof, has ankle support and rugged overall construction. You can get away with wearing a light boot, but you’re better served with a heavy-duty boot that can handle the rigors of the route and keep your feet dry.
Long-haul hiking or backpacking: This could be anything from multi-day backpacking to thru-hiking. Your footwear is going to need to be engineered to protect your feet from everything listed in mixed-terrain hiking, but also must be comfortable and light enough to help you sustain extended periods of hiking while loaded with backpacking gear. The boot in question will also need to be durable enough to handle these demands over several days or weeks without breaking down. The heavy-duty boot is called upon here, but you’ll want to shop carefully to make sure that it meets all your demands while being as light as possible. If this is your game, you’ll want to research thoroughly and prepare to spend more on a high-end, heavy-duty boot. The extra money spent here will be worth every penny when you’ve been on the trail for a few weeks. Or months.
So there you have it. Any good hike always starts with what you put on your feet. Enjoy the trail!