Outwit the tempting security of unnecessary ounces with lightweight hiking boots, shoes, or sandals.
The subject of hiking boots and footwear is pivotal in the world of day hiking and backpacking, and experts have differing opinions about what is right for your feet. But the discussion among hikers and gear experts alike harmonizes around one theme: lighter is better.
A backpacking rule of thumb says that 1 pound on your feet equals 5 pounds on your back. Meaning a pair of 4 pound, heavyweight waffle stompers take the same amount of effort to carry as a 20 pound pack. The benefits of lightweight hiking footwear appeal to everyone.
Traditional heavyweight defenders pitch protection from the elements with sturdy, full leather uppers and stiff soles with plenty of cushion. Heavy boots are also meant to support the ankle against twists and the feet under heavy pack loads. Most agree that heavier boots are necessary for hiking in wet, snowy, cold conditions.
Lightweight apologists favor a combination of thinner materials like nylon and suede. True these materials don’t keep heavy rain out, but they breathe much better, preventing feet from getting soaked in sweat. As for support, they assert that trail running is much harder on feet than any type of backpacking, and runners go for miles, day after day, in only lightweight running shoes.
Ultralight backpackers carry packs weighing less than 20 pounds for extended hikes and claim that running shoes and sandals meet all their needs. Some even hike with moccasins or barefoot, an experience worth having at least once.
What Should Your Hiking Footwear Do for You?
- Cushion the soles of your feet
- Protect against hot and cold
- Grip slippery, wet terrain
- Keep your feet dry, yet remain breathable
- Give support, yet allow full range of motion
Fitting Your Hiking Boots or Shoes
Your main goal is to find footwear that provides comfort and protection on the trail during your hiking vacation. That’s simple. But hiking boots and shoes are complex. Focus on what feels right to you. Otherwise you may find yourself carried away by the footwear selection parade
First get your feet sized using a Brannock device, which measures the length, width, and arch length of your foot. My foot has gotten wider in the last couple years and I’ve had trouble finding a good fit. A measurement with a Brannock device revealed that my foot was 11 ½ in length, while my arch length was 12 ½. This means that the widest part of my foot is a little more forward than usual. I’ve switched from size 11 ½ or 12 medium to 12 wide.
Try on a bunch of hiking boots, shoes, and sandals. A good salesman with trail miles under his belt can really be a help. When I select boots I like to hit a few stores all in one afternoon without buying a thing. Then I go home and think about it.
You want a fit snug to prevent your foot from slipping around, yet with enough room to allow your foot to exercise a full range of motion. Your toes should wiggle freely and not hit the end of the boot, even on a downhill slope. To check length, unlace the boots and slide your foot all the way forward. There should be just enough room for you to slide a finger between your heel and the back of the boot.
Hiking Boot Construction Basics
Uppers – the main part of the boot wrapping the ankle and covering the top of your foot, made from different types of leather, fabric, and nylon. Leather uppers are heavier and waterproof, great for winter use. Fabric and nylon uppers are lightweight and more breathable
Heel Counter – holds heal in place over sole, made of stiff synthetic material or leather.
Toe Box – keeps toes centered over front of boot, made of stiff synthetic material or leather.
Linings and Paddings – provide comfort inside boot, made from soft leather or synthetic material.
Sock Liners – waterproof layer between lining and upper, made of Gore-Tex or Sympatex.
Lacing – method of securing boot lace to boot: eylets, D-rings, pulleys, webbing, or a combination.
Gusseted Tongue – tongue sewn to both sides of upper to prevent rocks and dirt from getting down in the boot.
Scree Collar – rolls of foam at the top, back of the boot meant to keep of rocks and dirt.
Insole (Footbed) – cushioning, foot-shaped insert immediately under foot. Better insoles are contoured. The best insoles are custom made and quite expensive.
Midsole – flat, stiff, foot-shaped material below insole that connects to upper.
Outsole – thick, lugged rubber on bottom of boot for good grip.
Rand – rubber strip that prevents leaking at the joint between the upper and sole.
Many hiking experts claim that a stiff, leather upper is necessary for ankle support, especially under a heavy pack. The notion is that bracing the ankle will prevent twisting and injury.
However, heavyweight boots restrict the natural flexing motion of your ankle and can be very tiring, even painful, to your feet after only a few miles. Fatigued feet are more prone to injury. So what type of support do your feet need?
Maybe “support” is the wrong word. A foot needs to be held in place over the sole, something a stiff, heavyweight boot does very well. But lightweight hiking boots and shoes achieve the same thing.
A heel counter keeps your foot centered over the sole. All good hiking boots and shoes have one. Without it, your foot would slide to the side of your boot when walking on uneven ground. Slipping around inside your boot on rough terrain can cause a twisted ankle.
Both all leather uppers and Gore-Tex sock liners will leak after some use. Rubber boots are the only sure way to keep the rain out. But they don’t breath and will drown your feet in sweat.
Since completely dry feet are not possible for long, many experienced hikers use lightweight footwear and change out socks. Using 2 pair of socks during rainy times will help prevent blisters from wet feet. Another benefit to lightweight hiking boots, shoes, and sandals is that they are much more breathable and dry much quicker than heavyweight boots.