Lucy and Susan (aka the barefoot sisters) hiked most of the 2,600 mile long Appalachian trail without any shoes, only wearing footwear when there was snow on the ground. Their mantra was to hike barefoot “only while it was fun”.
Working out what footwear (or lack of) can drastically change your approach and enjoyment of walking. It can make a big difference between what is ‘fun’ and what becomes a constant painful experience with every step.
Footwear is a personal choice and above all of the ideas, arguments, tech and medical advice the best tip is to wear something that is comfortable for you.
I started my outdoor footwear story by wearing a pair of Scarpa Trek’s absolutely everywhere. The now famous full leather stiff hiking boot and it’s siblings represent one end of the spectrum and are either loved or hated. They worked for me at the time, but since then I’ve had to opportunity to refine my choices and experiment more with other types of hiking shoes. I now wear a light weight trail runner for most of my walking.
6 Ways to choose the right footwear.
1. What terrain will you be covering?
Scrambling along the Western Arthurs requires footwear that’s better at climbing than a hike to Mt Kosciuszko along the flat metal track. I like having shoes that can bend and mould around rocks and tree routes giving me more grip.
2. What weather will you be walking in?
A winter trip along the Australian Alps track will require different footwear to a trip along the Larapinta. I find my trail runners to be fine in most conditions until I need to wear snowshoes. Remember you can always wear warmer socks too.
3. How fit are your feet?
Boots have long been recommended because of the superior ankle protection. They act as a strong fixed shape giving support. We don’t all need this high level of support though. Personally my feet are strong and I prefer to let my muscles do the work. My feet are less sore after a big day in trail runners than when locked into a boot.
4. What’s your budget?
Any historical look at Australian bushwalking will bring up the mighty and cheap Dunlop Volley. A tennis shoe that has probably spent more time in Blue Mountain canyons than on a tennis court. However recently the quality has suffered greatly. Trail runners are generally cheaper than boots, but mightn’t last as long.
5. What does your gut say?
In the end it comes down to comfort. Go with what feels good. You have to be comfortable with your choice. If you’re really unsure about the ‘toe shoes’ someone is recommending, then don’t take the risk for your next week long adventure.
6. Experiment and test thoroughly
Only time in your shoes will tell you what works for you. Never wear a new pair of shoes for a big walk. Try a pair of lightweight runners on a shorter walk to see if you like them.
Remember this is a personal decision that a retailer can’t make for you, nor can your outdoor friends, an online forum or even an eZine article! Gather the information and opinions and filter that that through what you want to do, and what’s important for you.
Why Trail Runners are my first choice
I thought boots were the best footwear for bushwalking. They were strong and almost indestructible. They were waterproof (well kind of), they had grippy soles and they had good ankle support (which apparently we needed when carrying our heavy packs).
I’ve since moved on to trail runners. A lightweight running sneaker that is designed for use on rough terrain, just like we walk on. I’m currently wearing Inov-8 X-talon 212’s. They are far lighter than any hiking boot I’ve worn, have better grip in mud and on slippery rocks and have enabled me to hike faster and further than previously.
Generally trail runners:
- Are lighter
- Dry faster
- More minimalist (more flexible, less arch support and lower heel raise)
- More breathable
Innov-8 x-talon 212s – my go to shoe for everything but snow
Don’t you miss the ankle support?
No. I travel reasonably light and don’t need the ankle support. For me I find having fit strong feet and ankles is better than supporting ankles with boots.
Do your feet get cold?
Occasionally. I can change socks depending on the weather. The only time they really get cold is when walking through cold alpine creeks. They are warm again 30 seconds later due to my smart wool socks. They dry far faster than in boots. My feet would always gets hot and sweaty in full leather boots.
Are they ok for off track use?
Absolutely. I’ve hiked, scrambled and walked through many places and find their nimbleness a great benefit when walking off track. Think ballet shoes, vs ski boots. Your feet and flex and grip the terrain far better. I feel more in touch with the ground I’m covering.
Do they wear out too fast?
Trail runners will wear faster than your full leather boots. They also cost less so you can replace them. I’m yet to have a big failure and have only seen small holes wearing through the top layer on one set (and extremely lightweight pair). I really don’t mind replacing them every couple of years.
Do your feet get tired in them on long multi-day walks?
No. However greater muscle strength in our feet is required. Just like your legs will get tired if you haven’t walked much then go on a big hike, if you always wear boots you may find your muscles are a bit tired in your feet too until they strengthen (a good thing IMHO). I find lifting the weight of boots constantly more tiresome.
Can you walk in the mud?
Yes. I’ve long ago disposed of the idea of clean dry feet when walking in muddy terrain, whether walking in boots or trail runners. I now focus on wicking the moisture away and managing the overall health of my feet. I wear gaiters just like with boots (or sometimes some smaller ones) and walk through rivers, creeks or mud with my shoes on. It’s really nice to stop for a break, take your shoes off and they’ll be dry when I’m ready to move. I also don’t need the coveted space around the fire in the hut to dry my boots overnight (which isn’t very good for your boots).
This article first appears in the March bushwalk.com eMag