Feet are a very personal issue.
Everyone has different versions.
The scope of this discussion is limited to boot purpose and design characteristics and will not cover sizing or fit. Yes, after 34 years of teaching backpacking and snow-hiking, we have lots of thoughts on this, but that will have to be covered elsewhere. Sizing and fit would include topics like toe box design and size, the shape of the various lasts out there, shoe volume, tarsal height, heel boxes, and more.
Preface: The type of footwear that “works” for one hiker, most likely may not “work” for another. The best thing any hiker can do while selecting shoes is to try out different brands, styles, and designs to, eventually and costly, discover what “works” for them (much like sleeping bags)!
Why boots? Mountain Education (and some other highly reputable wilderness schools) requires our students bring to class and use medium to heavy duty boots because their purpose and design keeps you safe, able, and well protected from injury!
1. Boots provide unequaled protection for your feet, toes, and ankles.
Your feet, while backpacking, will take a beating! Shoe selection is one of the most important gear decisions you will make and everyone’s feet are unique and different, so this will be an on-going daily evaluation sometimes punctuated by blisters and pain. “Where the rubber meets the road” can be the most critical factor affecting a fun backpacking trip. When the feet hurt, the trip and every step in it can become miserable! When the shoes don’t “work,” they don’t allow you to do what you need to do and don’t protect you from injury, the trip is done.
The bottom of your foot takes the greatest beating, so it needs to be protected by a solid and firm surface that distributes sharp and broad impacts across the sole so your plantar fascia, tendons, and joints don’t become irritated and inflamed.
The sides and toes of your feet need protection from boulders, branches, the sides of trees, and stuff you might drop on your feet, so the material wrapping up the sides of the shoe needs to be durable and continuous. If you were to look at all the dings, dents, cuts, and scrapes in the leather of my boots, you would realize the frequency of these collisions and side-swipes!
The uppers of your shoes wrapping around your ankles hold them in place so that little pebble on the trail doesn’t “turn your ankle” and you go down. Ankles, similar to shoulder and wrist joints, are not the strongest. They are made to flex in nearly every direction, limited only by tendons and ligaments. Yes, tendons can be developed strong to hold in ligaments stretching under the weight of a backpack pounding down the trail, but there are always occasions where you’re not ready or paying attention to what you’re doing and you step on some uneven surface causing the ankle to shift, unsupported by muscles and tendons, you hear that “popping” sound as your ligaments tear, and you fall. A strong, tall boot upper is designed to provide sufficient support to protect against just this kind of crisis. It also protects against all those frequent abrasions and blows to the “ankle bone” on the side of your foot by passing rocks and boulders.
The upper’s lacing provides two protective functions, too! It prevents heel movement that causes blisters and keeps your toes from sliding into the front of the shoe on aggressive downhills causing damage to the nails and “black toe.” Little talked about, this latter development can ruin a trip, too!
2. Boots provide a functionally predictable, reliable, and durable platform on which to trust your weight and balance as you pound down on uneven trail surfaces, over rocks, branches, slippery snow, etc.
How many of you, when out walking on a hiking trail (note that I didn’t say walking path or sidewalk which are engineered flat and predictable), watch where you put each footfall? I didn’t think so. However, when you walk bare-foot, you sure do! Why? We know that the foot is tender, unsupported, and unpredictable when pain hits and it will react reflexively to move away from pain causing us to lose our balance and potentially fall.
When you know and trust that your feet are protected, you can be at liberty with your foot swings and placement. I can step on any manner of rock, log, uneven, or slippery surface and rest confident that my feet will not get hurt from the bottom, sides, or top. I can walk comfortably all day, every day reassured that my footwear is durable and reliable, yet flexible where needed. This is what you want out of a shoe, the freedom to go nearly anywhere knowing that your feet will be protected, your joints supported, and the shoes will allow you to do what you need to remain balanced and in control when the surface conditions get nasty.
3. Boots allow you to do things to control your balance that you can’t do with soft, flexible footwear, and that, too, can make or break a successful trip!
This is something that we take for granted, the number of times a day the muscles and tendons surrounding our ankles are called upon to suddenly tighten to make minute adjustments of our balance so we don’t trip, slip, or fall. On the trail, far from emergency help, a fall can end a trip and send you home in a helicopter at incredible expense, so maintaining your balance over all sorts of uneven and rough terrain is paramount to our safety. The more I can help my feet and ankles keep me from falling, the happier and more relaxed I will be!
As mentioned above, boots should hold the ankles in place, providing sufficient support so they don’t twist or roll sideways unexpectedly. Soft soles twist when on steep, sloped traverses like on snow. When they do, the shoe tends to slide sideways and you can slip and fall. Soft, rolled edges can’t dig into the mud or snow as efficiently as a boot’s harder, sharper edges, so you can’t maintain your balance by edging-in, standing on the edge of your shoe when on these types of surfaces. Separate heels are your brakes when sliding toe-first downhill. If you don’t have them, your shoes turn into skis when on snow or scree and off you go out of control.
Equipment is designed to perform a purpose. If you know the purpose you need or desire, you must look for the design elements that assure that predictable performance.
1. Durability of the uppers:
The heavier the material, the more durable, protective, supportive, and long lasting, all qualities I want in something whose purpose is to protect my feet from injury when I carry a heavy load and pound down steep, rocky, unpredictable trails. The best material is full-grain leather followed by split-grain leather and the thicker, the better when it comes to things trying to puncture, abrade, and lacerate your feet. Remember, when your feet hurt or get infected, you are miserable, can’t walk far, and will need to go home, the sooner, the better. Softer fabrics are an attempt at a lighter weight material, but simply cannot provide the same strength and durability as leather. Leather can take a repeated beating and still maintain its support and waterproof seal, since it can be re-coated as needed.
2. Stitching of the uppers:
Just realize this, the fewer seams, the stronger and more waterproof the uppers. The use of different materials overlapping in various ways in the design of the uppers may look cool and perhaps make the shoe lighter and more attractive, but allow branches and boulders to grab onto your shoe, making you fall, and seams to rip out, necessitating an off-trail trip for a replacement. Smooth, one-piece uppers solve these serious concerns and more! In reality, there will be one seam with multiple rows of stitching for strength and longevity. The smooth side (whether suede or smooth leather) also allows for ease of repeated waterproofing.
3. Height of the uppers:
If the idea is to provide support to your ankles so they don’t accidentally roll or twist and tall lacing so your feet don’t slide forward and collide with the toe box, over the ankle uppers is the way to go. Under the ankle uppers are lighter, but perform poorer in these two areas.
4. Lacing of the uppers:
The lacing over the toes usually doesn’t require much adjustment, so eyelets are good for the first few rows. However, the rest of the foot responds to pressure in different ways, so speed lacing, hooks, or D-rings are a good idea for the rest of the way to the top of the boot. Learning how to fine-tune your lacing pattern to accommodate pressure spots (should they appear) is a good idea. This would teach you how to lock a particular tightness in one area while loosening lacing in another.
Durability, fit-in-the-hand, and ability to hold a knot are the main concerns. Cotton on the outside (feels good in the hands) and nylon inside (for durability) is a good combination, generally speaking. Expect the cotton sheathing to wear out from friction, so carry a spare pair. All nylon is good, too, but watch its ability to hold a knot. Colors are fun, if that appeals to you.
6. Waterproof or not:
First of all, waterproof footwear is a good idea if you will be in and out of wet materials (mud, snow, rain, and creeks) all day. Thus, when snow-hiking, you need to keep your feet dry or at least have a time every day where you can dry your feet and shoes. Constantly wet feet leads to an infection called “trench foot.”
Some people have feet that sweat a lot in waterproof shoes, so they may need footwear that either breathes a lot (non-waterproof) or can actively ventilate as they walk. Boots that are a full size or so bigger than your bare foot allows for sufficient sock room for air to move around within as you walk. Too much room in any shoe will allow your foot, itself, to slide around, increasing friction and making blisters, and to extend or lengthen to fit the boot, especially when hiking long-distance.
Let’s talk internal waterproof membranes or Gore-tex versus traditional external wipe-on waterproofing applications.
Any waterproof material whose tiny holes can allow heat driven molecules of moisture out, but not large drops of water in can also be filled with dust and dirt and act like a wick allowing moisture in, if in an application that gets dirty through use. That’s why we periodically have to wash our dirty Gore-tex rainwear. So, putting this type of membrane in shoes that stomp around in the dirt is an expensive mistake. The external waterproofing of shoes makes sense, since it is absorbed by the shoe and dirt doesn’t affect it, but it can wear off, thus, the need to re-apply as needed. Simple and old-fashioned, but it works.
Some hikers say, “Forget the waterproof shoes and wear waterproof socks!” Waterproof socks are much like Vapor Barrier Liners (VBL), a simple example of which would be to put your feet in plastic bags, then into your shoes before you work out. Your feet don’t get wet from the outside, but they will be hotter without the ability to ventilate and may sweat more. If you don’t sweat much anyway, this might be an option for you. VBLs do have an application in keeping you warmer on cold nights in a sleeping bag, inside gloves when skiing, or inside your creek crossing shoes when crossing creeks.
Another issue with Gore-tex liners in externally multi-seamed shoes is that when the outside seams rip out, the liner often does, too!
7. Durability of the mid-sole and shank:
Most people don’t even think about the design of a shoe and how its midsole and shank protect the bottom of your feet, but after a long day of trail pounding, your choice of footwear will educate you quickly! Soft midsoles with no shanks (a flat plastic or metal bar that extends from your heel forward a particular distance toward your toes) allow trauma and shock to affect the structures of the bottom of your foot, namely the plantar fascia, the tendinous, wide band that runs down the bottom of your foot between your heel and toes that keeps your feet from collapsing and getting longer. If this fascia gets inflamed, every step you take will hurt and burn! Thus, there is a wise need for a material to protect this area of your foot. Do your own investigation by reading the journals of long-distance hikers. Usually those with lightweight footwear deal with this issue, either successfully or not.
Find out what your midsole and shanks are made of and how long the shanks are. You probably won’t understand how different densities of midsole protect the foot until you try the shoe on and pound onto various surface irregularities about the store or outside, if they will let you. Soft materials will allow pointed edges to push up into the foot, which over miles of steps on rough surfaces can inflame your plantar fascia. Harder materials distribute shock and offer more protection, but may require more break-in time, depending on the material.
Over the last six years, with two different pairs of one brand of boot, I was literally able to take the new boots out of the box at the trailhead parking lot and walk them into shape without a single blister! So, some heavy weight boots do not require extensive break-in time. (Yes, I have had some that did!).
A shoe with a half-shank will offer protection for the heel and arch, a three-quarter shank for the heel, arch, and ball of the foot, and a full shank for the entire bottom of the foot. Be aware that the material of a full shank may be so stiff that you can’t flex the boot as you walk. This may be necessary, as in the needs of a mountaineering or ski boot. Shanks are often made out of plastic, nylon, or steel. Half and three-quarter steel shanks still allow sufficient flexibility for comfortable walking.
8. The welt:
This is the junction between the upper and the sole and it can be vulcanized or stitched.
Any boot that is vulcanized (fused, melted, or otherwise glued together), which is the lighter way to go, is less maintainable by you. In all practicable terms, when the vulcanization fails on-trail and separates from the upper, typically at the sides of the ball of the foot where the foot flexes, water, dirt, and rocks can get in and you’ll need to go off-trail to find a shoe cobbler somewhere who can re-vulcanize your shoe back together. Typically, small town cobblers cannot do this and the shoe must be returned to the manufacturer. More time and expense.
Stitched welts, like the “Norwegian welt,” have been time-proven for durability, functional reliability, and long life. If one fails, the upper can be field glued back together, giving you enough time to go off-trail to the small town cobbler who can work on this design. He can also replace the entire Vibram sole, too.
9. Durability of the sole:
Thin, soft soles can be comfortable and work great for rock climbing or around camp, but won’t protect your feet from repeated pounding on rough surfaces nor last very long. Thick, dense Vibram soles provide great traction on multiple surfaces (snow, mud, scree, and rock) and can last for a thousand miles or more! They distribute and absorb shock wonderfully, keep your feet happy, have sharp edges for edge control, and can be replaced when worn out onto your comfortable upper.
10. Sole pattern, depth, edge, and design:
Your feet will need traction from all angles, since your body will need to move in a myriad of directions, so the sole pattern will need to be quite varied, from side-to-side to front-to-back. If you typically walk off your toes, side-to-side patterns under the toes for “push-off” are really nice. If you pivot a lot on the ball of your feet, you might want smaller circles or points under your foot in those areas to facilitate those movements. If you edge a lot, say on snow, you might want a mixed pattern along the edges of your shoes to hold you to the hill on traverses.
Narrow and shallow lugs will wear faster and quicker than wide and deep lugs. The density of the rubber will dictate longevity before needing to leave the trail and re-sole.
Rounded edges don’t work well when you need to kick side-steps into hard snow or get a grip on slippery surfaces like moss or wet wood. This simple design factor can single-handedly increase your confidence on snow, your balance when desperately on-edge, and keep you from falling, either down the snow slope or into the creek.
Single-piece soles or “uni-soles” do not have heels. They are basically a wave-form sole that is easy to for the manufacturer to make but which turn into skis when full of wet mud or snow. Boots typically come with a two-piece sole, an elevated heel structure and a full length front piece onto which it is glued, nailed, or screwed. This elevated heel must have a vertical front aspect, if it is to work well as a brake when you’re sliding downhill, toes-first. This is another crucial design that can save your life but which manufacturers have moved away from in the name of lightweight, cost, and simplicity. If you desire to do any cross-county, snow-hiking, or scree-scrambling, don’t leave home without this braking feature!
There are a variety of insoles on the market to fit each hikers individual foot concerns. Most footwear comes from the manufacturer with some sort of generic, soft, attractive insole that serves little other purpose. Most folks have foot issues that may require special orthotics, so these that come with the shoes get thrown away. Find out what you need for your particular feet in an insole, insert, and try it out on your nearest trail. Repeat as needed.
Go with what “works” for you.
Remember, muscles know no age, meaning no matter how old we may be, our muscles will adapt to the demand we put upon them. If you want all the benefits of heavy boots, your muscles will get used to them! Joints improve with use, so if you’re out of shape, just start out on the trail slowly, covering but a few miles each time you go out, and let the movement heal your joints. Talk with your Doctor or Physical Therapist about this.
I have used heavy leather boots for the past 50 years of mountain exploring and skills instruction and have never gotten a blister nor overheated. I have carried loads up to 80 pounds up and down some of the worst terrain imaginable and I’ve never even rolled an ankle (oh, they’ve tried many times!). I even like the weight on my feet because it causes my legs to swing better! The weight on my feet has never been like having too much weight on my back, as the Army study so long ago tried to prove. They “work” for me and have saved my life many times!
Since Mountain Education requires its students to wear boots on snow and dry trail, an interesting discovery has been realized, they like them! The current fad is lightweight footwear, so most new hikers go that way (everyone else does) because they don’t know yet what “works” for them. The Army study is so well set in their minds that they fairly adamantly refuse to even consider boots and fear the reprisals from fellow hikers…until they have to bring them to our wilderness skills courses. When we show them what boots can do, how they transfer shock, protect the feet from injury, and can be used reliably on edge on steep slopes, then walk with them for just a few days, they realize that they “work” just fine (of not, of course, because everyone is different).
In general, lightweight shoes are more fragile, will have to be replaced more often, and be more expensive in the long run. Case in point, I used one pair of boots to thru hike both the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails (5,600 miles, same uppers, 4 replacement soles)! Lightweight footwear will be less protective and supportive, allowing repeated trauma and shock to injure the foot and the ankle to roll (below the ankle uppers as in the popular “trail runners”).
Traditional, mid-weight boots:
Then there are these…