Welcome to Part Two of our nine part series on choosing the right gear. Part two offers advice for choosing the appropriate footwear for a hiking tour through the Alps.
It is no coincidence that footwear tops our equipment list as the very first essential item. More than any other piece of equipment, footwear will either carry you along on a floating cloud of ecstasy, or strike you down and abandon your remains like a shriveled and smoking piece of charred bacon. Analogies aside, footwear will either make or break your hiking tour. Fortunately, with a little information, choosing the right footwear for the trail does not have to be a daunting task.
Today we’ll break the subject into 4 basic categories.
1. The basic levels of hiking boots and shoes.
4. Proper Fit.
1.The 3 basic levels of hiking boots and shoes. Begin your search for the right footwear by matching your activity with the correct category.
A. Lightweight hiking. These trail shoes and boots are designed for day hikes and very short overnight trips. Comfort, breathability and cushioning characterize this level and trail running shoes fall into this category. Our village-to-village tours essentially link multiple day hikes and since we usually don’t’ carry heavy overnight packs this is an appropriate level for many of our clients. However, we recommend that heavier hikers, people who need extra support, or anyone who plans to carry a few nights worth of gear across varied terrain consider the midweight level.
B. Midweight hiking/backpacking. These boots are more supportive underfoot and are designed for on and off trail hiking with light to moderate backpacking loads. These models are typically more durable and supportive than lightweight models. They are still intended for short to moderate trips over moderate terrain but we recommend this category if you’re unsure about the level of support that you require. This is a good, safe, middle-of-the-road category that will handle anything that you might encounter on any of our standard hiking tours.
C. Extended backpacking/mountaineering. These boots are designed for multiple day trips, on and off trail, with moderate to heavy loads. Long distance backpackers typically choose this category. They are extremely durable and supportive and they offer a high degree of ankle and foot protection. Some are even stiff enough to accept crampons for snow/ice travel. Many of our lighter day-hikers find this category to be overkill. However, consider this category if you like the highest level of durability and support available or if you believe that your activities demand it. Some of our clients are avid backpackers and mountaineers. These boots work great for them but beware, this level can be very, very heavy.
2.Materials. We recommend footwear that is lightweight, breathable, and waterproof on our standard hiking tours. However, you should also look for materials that complement your hiking/walking style.
A. Synthetic blends and split-grain leather. These materials characterize a boot that is lightweight and breathable so we typically find them in the light to mid-weight category. They tend to be soft so they are comfortable and they only require a short break-in period. They are typically less water resistant than full grain leather so we recommend that our hikers combine these materials with a waterproof barrier like Gore-Tex.
B. Full grain leather. Full grain leather is extremely water resistant, durable and supportive so we typically find it in the extended backpacking category. Full grain boots are designed for extended trips, heavy loads and hard terrain. They are not as lightweight or breathable as nylon/split-grain but full grain leather typically lasts a long time. Expect an extensive break-in period. These boots are extremely waterproof, (and hot) when mated with a waterproof barrier.
C. Waterproof barriers. Waterproof breathable barriers like Gore-Tex, when built into a hiking boot or trail running shoe, can do a great job of keeping water out while also helping perspiration to escape. They essentially catch any water that leaks through the outer material and seams. Waterproof performance depends on the type of barrier used, the materials protecting it, how well the boots are taken care of and the construction techniques used in manufacturing. (See notes on waterproofing in the next category). Waterproof barriers usually make a boot or shoe feel hotter.
D. Vibram sole. Vibram brand soles last forever! It increases the price of the footwear but it’s worth it.
E. Polycarbonate insole/steel shank. The insole is the material that strengthens the footwear and provides support under foot. Polycarbonate insoles come in varying degrees of flexibility based on the intended use of the footwear. A stiff insole for example, is designed for the backpacking, heavy load carrying crowd. Some extra-stiff boots will even feature a steel shank embedded within the insole. This is very stiff!
F. Unobtainium-Kevlar, carbon and the future. New materials come around every day. Try them if you like and let us know what you find.
A. Upper construction. Basically, the more seams a shoe or boot has, the higher the risk for leaks and blowouts. Leaking occurs when water seeps through the seams and needle holes between panels. Blowouts occur when general wear, repeated flexing or a snag cases a stitch to break and multiple panels to separate. In general, the fewer seams an upper has, the more water-resistant and the more durable it will be.
B. Lower construction. Soles are either stitched or cemented to the rest of the boot. Stitching is reliable and can be undone to replace the sole when it wears down. Cementing is faster and less expensive. Cementing is not always reliable or durable on less expensive models though stronger glues come out every day. Most cemented soles can also be replaced.
Notes about waterproofing: Waterproof leather is leather that’s been treated to be waterproof. Some synthetic materials are waterproof however no material is waterproof without watertight construction. Watertight construction refers to the techniques used to keep out leaks like seam sealing and special stitching. Watertight construction is usually combined with waterproofed materials and waterproof barriers.
3. Proper Fit. This is the most important element of the entire boot/shoe buying process. You might find a nice lightweight, waterproof hiking boot that’s breathable and manufactured from quality materials but it’s meaningless if it doesn’t fit properly. We recommend that you spend a lot of time testing different models to find the right fit. Here are a few suggestions to make the process easier.
A. Find a reputable outfitter. They should be able to measure your foot properly and identify the characteristics that make your foot unique, (bone spurs, pronation, supination, etc.). If you don’t believe that your salesperson knows what they’re talking about then find another.
B. Wear hiking socks to the store. If you don’t have hiking socks then buy some. Most outfitters will lend you a pair to try on but don’t walk away with new boots without treating yourself to new socks. We recommend synthetic, wool or a blend of the two. Avoid cotton socks at all costs! They hold moisture and encourage blisters.
C. Not all sizes are created equal. Manufacturers use proprietary lasts that are designed to accommodate certain types of feet. Some are narrower and some are wider. Each company is different so it pays to try a few brands.
D. They may feel strange at first. More supportive footwear will feel stiff. In general, you should be able to move your toes but you don’t want too much room or your foot will slide around.
E. Walk, walk, walk! Walk around the store, jump up and down and try the boots on an incline if you can. Many outfitters have stones and hills for simulating trail conditions. Try to walk uphill and downhill. Make sure that your foot does not slide forward when walking down hill. Make sure that your heel does not lift. Look for hot spots, places where the foot and shoe rub uncomfortably. You won’t be able to leave the store but try to stay in the boots for at least an hour if you can. Use it as an excuse to look at trekking poles and rain gear.
F. Remember that your feet change size throughout the day. They are the smallest in the morning and the most swelled in afternoon and evening. This is especially true following a long day on the trail. If the boots feel tight in the morning then they’ll probably feel really tight following your hike.
G. Consider custom foot beds. Custom foot beds offer more support than the standard foot bed that comes with the shoe. They’re custom molded to the shape of your foot and make an enormous difference at the end of the day. Your salesperson can help you with this.
Extra thoughts: Don’t’ forget to take proper care of your new footwear. Clean your boots and trails shoes by brushing away dirt and mud that can reduce breathability and ruin the materials over time. You can wash most fabrics with mild soap and water. If your boots get drenched then stuff them loosely with newspaper and dry them in a warm place. Do not place them near a fire, heater or other heat source. Leather boots will need to be conditioned on a regular basis. Again, your salesperson can help you choose the appropriate product for your footwear.
Join us next time for Part Three of our series: Base layers and general hiking attire. As always, please contact Ryder-Walker if you have any questions. We look forward to hearing from you.