7 things to bear in mind when choosing hiking shoes
If you've bought a good pair, then you probably won't notice them whilst you're half way up that mountain. After all, you have other things to concentrate on like the stunning views or where's the best outlook point to stop for lunch. If you didn't buy a good pair, it'll be the only thing you'll think of the entire hike... "my feet... my feet... why wasn't I kinder to my feet?" Or worse - "that's a blister... that's definitely a blister...."
I'm talking, of course, about proper walking shoes or boots!
If, like me, you've ambled up mountains in utterly inappropriate shoes like trainers, you'll be overcome by how different it is when you've got the right equipment. Recently I invested in a decent pair of boots on some advice of a life-long friend. She said, and I quote, "Spend as much as you can afford, they will be with you for many years. Like good friends." I did follow her advice and I can tell you that my latest hike up a steep face was instantly more gratifying. I could concentrate on my surroundings, rather than the next place to plonk a foot: I was more stable and more secure in every step.
She also told me to walk around the shop, a lot, with the boots on before buying one. So here's some of the other great advice she gave me, along with some top tips for sizing and brand that I picked up from various helpful advisors in various shops.
Here's me happily meandering up a mountain track in my new boots.
In all I think I tried on around 60 pairs in 8 different shops. I'm not a very decisive person. Here's the things I should have known to start off...
1 - Start with the sock
Find a decent, supportive, walking sock first based on how thick you like them or what season you're intending to hike in. Take those socks with you when you buy your boots, or take local shops up on their offer to wear decent, similar socks when you try on your boots. It'll make a difference to the sizing of the boot.
2 - Get the right size. But it might not be the size you're used to...
Don't be surprised if you go up a size or a size and a half when you buy a new walking shoe / boot. When laced up, you should not be able to touch the end with your toes. Here's a handy tip I got from a very helpful gent in GoSport.
- Open up all the laces
- Shift your toes right the way forward so they're touching the end
- Stick an index finger down the back of the shoe.
If you can't fit a flat finger down the back of the boot - it's too small! Go up half a size.
Walk around in the show a-lot. Don't rush this. Also some shops have an incline for boot buyers, so you can try walking up/down an incline. See if your foot shifts forward on a decline. If you touch the end, re-tie the boot around the ankle and try again. If your toe touches the end, it's too small.
3 - What's the best brand?
There are a lot of brands out there. You'll have Salomon, Merrell, Lowa etc etc swarming around in your head. Are they better than others? Who knows. You do pay for the brand, just like anything else. But these brands know what they're doing.
4 - Budget
A good pair is rarely a cheap pair. There's many cheap store own-brands. They'll do the job but they won't be the best. CHF 120 will buy you a pretty decent pair of shoes. If this is too much, wait for the mid-summer or end of season sales and grab a pair in the sales. Reductions can be huge and it's worth buying quality.
5 - How chunky should the sole be? Is it still lightweight?
Now here's a trade-off. A thick soled boot with maximum support is going to be heavy. By the end of a long hike you can feel particularly worn out if you've been carrying mini-weights on your feet in the form of chunky soled shoes. Find something light-weight for your average mountain hike. Also, if you're off on a hiking holiday, will you be carrying it around in a backpack the rest of the time?
Vibram soles, spotted by the little yellow oval, are good quality and long-lasting. There are equivalents.
For the best grip on smooth surfaces, you'll need a softer rubber sole. The drawback here is that it will wear out faster. Harder rubber offers a less sticky grip, but wears better. A non-uniform tread pattern gives an overall better grip.
6 - How much support does an ankle need? - Shoe vs boot.
Lets say that a low-cut hiking shoe is a kind of mid-point if you don't need too much ankle support but appreciate a good sturdy sole.
If you want something even lighter, something like trail runners are often used on day hikes on easy terrain. Great if you're feeling energetic and might break out into a jog! Trail runners are only available in a low-cut shoe to stay as light as possible with flexible outer materials.
On the heavier end of the spectrum is the boot on or above the ankle. They have hard-rubber soles and are generally more durable in their construction. They might not necessarily be heavy! Many boots are now available at less than 1kg and they provide more stability in the ankle. Boots are best if you're hiking rough terrain or plan on heading off trail. Also highly recommended if you're carrying heavy backpacks on your hike.
Mountaineering boots are a whole next level of boot, suited for high alpine environments. There's added waterproof lining, insulation and they're adapted for snowy and icey conditions. They'll be heavy. They're a whole other article!
7 - Waterproof? Yes please.
Until recently most walking boots were a lightweight leather. Now, there's other more lightweight materials that are used and still perfectly waterproof. Look for 'Goretex' or equivalent.
A non-uniform tread pattern gives an overall better grip, perfect for clambering up the odd rock.
Now off you go! Head to the mountains with your new boots and take someone nice with you.
My mum and I at the top of Mount Baron, Annecy, France (August 2016)