One of the most common questions I get from those around me is “what kind of shoes do I wear?”
My number one answer; “You don’t need specific footwear to get on the trails!” Don’t wait until you get some new kicks, just get out there. Starting is the first step… heh. However, eventually we all want to wear the more appropriate coverings for our feet.
So let’s have a discussion about what kinds of footwear are out there. Now I will preface this by saying I am not a footwear expert and can’t speak to the super technical details. I have tried quite a few different pieces and can tell you my experiences.
There are four basic components of footwear: outsole, midsole, insole, and upper. The outsole is going to be the rubber on the bottom. This is the part that actually touches the ground. Companies develop all kinds of different compounds that create varying hardness, stickiness, and durabilities. The harder it is, the longer is should last, but it’ll be stiffer and likely yield less traction. Too soft and you’ll get great traction and more flex for added comfort, but they won’t last long.
Sometimes a manufacturer will include a “rock plate” (red) between the outsole (black) and the midsole (gray). This is normally a piece of plastic designed to protect the foot from sharp rocks, especially on footwear with a softer outsole and a thinner midsole where pointy rocks can hurt the foot more easily. Some can even be removed if you don’t like them, they are sometimes built into the insole, others only cover the forefoot, lots of variations.
The midsole is going to be the foam portion that separates your upper from the rubber and provides most of the cushioning when you step down. This is another component that gets a lot of science to create different densities for stiffness and rebound ability, how much it bounces back after being compressed during your stride.
The insole should be familiar to everyone since there have been commercials promoting them for as long as I can remember. This item adds some cushion and support, not to mention that it may help with odor! The unique point about insoles is that they are customizable to user preference and can be swapped out for something that the wearer prefers.
Finally, the upper is the part that holds your foot into the shoe. The materials are anything from cloth, to nylon, plastic, leather and more. There is an infinite number of designs that can be put together creating a system of choices that can be intimidating. Different materials and technologies make the upper support your foot in a plethora of ways. One thing about the hiking community you’ll hear repeatedly, is the concern over weight. This is one area of your footwear where the design can really make this noticeable. I’ve had boots that were super supportive leather clod hoppers weighing 2.5 pounds per, to super minimalist shoes weighing 6-7 ounces per. There are advantages to both and I hope to make your footwear search easier.
There are 3 base categories I’m going to talk about: cheap “Wal-Mart” shoes, your standard boot, and the running shoe.
When it comes to the “Wal-Mart” shoes and boots, my recommendation is to stay away from them. With cheap footwear all four of these components are going to be very sub par and possibly be harmful to you. CAN you use this kind of footwear to get out in the woods? Of course! If this is all you have, then don’t let it stop you. However, here are the reasons I say you should look elsewhere.
The most obvious reason is the sub par materials that are used to help keep the cost down. The outsoles and midsoles will tend to be harder, reducing comfort and causing increased impact on your feet and legs the longer you are on them. You might not notice it too much for a short 3-5 mile hike, but once you get into the 8-10 range you’ll likely find that you begin to feel every step. The uppers are going to be stiffer and less breathable most of the time too. Uncomfortable footwear leads to you deciding the TV looks more attractive than the woods.
So the next category would be your modern hiking boot, actually designed with hiking in mind. There are more brands than I know of available for you to look at. The materials are going to be more advanced, increasing the first noticeable thing… the price. On average, a good quality boot can range from $60 -$300. That aside for now, the next thing most will notice when comparing the name brand to the cheap ones, is comfort. The technologies involved that drive up the price, are often realized in short order.
Within this group you will mostly find 3 variations; low, mid, tall. The tall variation typically has an 8 inch height that most people recognize as military style boots. These are less common in the woods these days, but do still have their place. The main advantage to the tall boot is ankle support. If you’re going over tough terrain with a load on your back, these boots will definitely help prevent an injury to your ankle if worn correctly. Having worn them for over a decade between the Marine Corps and work; I find these to do their job, but are the least comfortable and the heaviest in the category. They also are pretty stagnant when it comes to style.
Now the mid height are going to be around the 6 inch mark and the low will be similar to your standard tennis shoe. These two have become the most common of the hiking specific shoe. The mid will still provide some ankle support if you are looking for that, and the low will be the lightest and most nimble of the group. If you want a shoe that has a more stylish look, then these two will provide that as well. When I got back into the woods I went straight for the low top hiking shoe; a couple years ago my work transitioned to allowing the mid height hiking shoe. If I had to choose between them, I would go with the low top shoe over the mid height easily. I feel they are more comfortable, I like the lighter weight, and they feel more nimble. That being said, there is one more category to discuss.
The trail runner. The big craze now among hikers is to ditch their stiff and heavy boots for running shoes designed for the trails. At first I was skeptical because growing up we were always taught that hiking is done in boots. Today however, technologies have gotten to the point where a 7 ounce running shoe is just as tough as a 5 pound hiking boot. The outsoles have rugged lugs for traction, and the midsoles are designed for a lot of impact forces. The uppers are often super breathable to expel heat, and flexible due to the lighter materials for that breathability. One thing of note, most people who choose to wear trail runners also try to keep our pack weight down. So if you haven’t shaved some gear and are still humping a monster pack, something with more ankle support might be warranted. For reference, a rough guess says that with my day hike gear, water, and camera gear, my pack weighs about 25-30 pounds. I should actually weigh it one of these days…
Now once again, with technologies comes a price tag. The average retail price of a quality trail shoe ranges from $100-$250. This can be scary for those of us on a budget (we’ll chat about that in a sec). I have to say, for the past two years I have exclusively been wearing trail runners, and will not look back. I bounce between two pairs, one standard pair for dry conditions, and one Gortex pair for hiking when it is wet out. Now a word of caution about Gortex, it is great about keep your foot dry, as long as the water doesn’t get inside from the top. If that happens, it is also very good about keeping water in… I normally bring both pairs and opt to wear the Gortex if it is looking like it is slightly wet. My Achilles heel is wet feet.
Which one should you look into? I can’t answer that, only your feet can. If I were to steer you in a direction, I would suggest either the low hikers or the trail runners. Make sure to try them on in socks a little thicker than you plan on wearing, after a few miles of ground pounding our feet tend to swell. My sock of choice; Darn Tough Socks. Spendy, but if you wear them out, they’ll replace them!
Like I said before, there are too many brands to list. I will toss out a few I trust though. For hiking shoes I like Merrell, Keen, Soloman, and I’ve heard excellent things about Oboz. Merrell and Keen are pretty common in most of the outdoor stores we can find in Iowa, such as Dick’s and Scheels. When it comes to trail runners; New Balance, Altra, Inov-8, Nike, Soloman, and Merrell all have solid entries. My personal shoe of choice is the New Balance 910v2 (910Gtx is the Gortex model), the red one above. Favorite part about New Balance, almost all of their models come in Wide/2E, and some even in Double Wide/4E!
Now that we’ve covered far more than I thought I would, let’s talk about stomaching the price for the higher quality boots and shoes. I often scour Amazon for good deals on name brands and have scored a few pairs for well under $50. In fact, most recently I snagged three pairs of New Balance running shoes that cost $100-$120 per, for a total of $120. Also, for you central Iowans, the Williamsburg outlet mall has a Merrell store and I’ve gotten some boots for as low as $25 before. REI is now in Des Moines and will have by far the best selection to choose from when it comes to being able to try them on, and they run deals all the time. So you see, there really shouldn’t be a reason to even think about buying the “Wal-Mart” shoe when you have access to name brand quality shoes for a price that is relatively close.
For those of you who are new to the trails, I hope this helps answer any questions you might have had. For those familiar with the dirt, maybe this post informed you of something you didn’t know and will improve your comfort on the paths you take.
Enjoy your hike!