Hiking shoes are undoubtedly the most “difficult” to choose, yet the most important apparel for all hikers. You can make do with a slightly bigger or smaller sized shirt, but a pair of shoes with the wrong size, albeit marginally, will badly affect your hike. There are several factors to consider when choosing hiking shoes. Generally these factors fall into three broad categories known as the 3F Criteria: Function, Fit and Form.
We find the questions below extremely useful in helping hikers to choose the right pair of shoes for themselves:
- Does the shoes fulfill its function with regards to the terrains that you will be hiking on?
- Does the shoes fit your feet? Is it too big or too small for your feet?
- Does the form (appearance) of the shoes appeal to you?
Take some time to consider where and how your shoes will be used before you shop. Factors like terrain types, weather conditions, hiking duration, backpack load etc. will determine the kind of shoes you should buy.
Hiking shoes are generally divided into 4 types, based on their intended use.
1. Light hiking shoes (for day hikes)
They resemble running shoes (in fact, these shoes can be used for trail running), and are low-cut with flexible midsoles and non-rugged outsoles. As these shoes are mainly meant for day hikes, they do not come with waterproofing linings. They are usually lighter and made of synthetic materials like nylon and polyester.
Photo credit: Vasque
2. Mid-weight hiking shoes (for multi-day hikes)
They come in low-, mid- or high-cut with semi-rugged outsoles. There is usually a quarter or half-length shanks or plates between the midsole and outsole to absorb shock and to shield the wearer’s feet from puncture wounds and stone bruises. Generally they are quite flexible and will require a modest amount of time to break-in , but they lack the support and durability of heavy-weight hiking shoes. They offer some degree of water resistance but not waterproof protection. Their uppers are usually made of synthetic mesh fabrics (for better breathability) with some leather reinforcement sections. The leather reinforcement sections are usually made of spilt-grain leather (e.g. suede leather). The more expensive ones may come with full-grain leather reinforcement (e.g. nubuck leather), Vibram sole and/or waterproof lining (e.g. Gore-Tex).
Photo credit: Merrell
3. Heavy-weight hiking shoes (for week long hikes, non-technical mountaineering)
They come in mid- or high-cut with semi-rugged outsoles and with three-quarter or full length shanks and plates. They do not flex easily and require longer break-in time but provide excellent support and durability. They are usually waterproof or at least highly water resistance. Their uppers are mainly full-grained leather or spilt-grained leather. Almost all of them come with Vibram sole and Gore-Tex linings or their equivalences. As their name suggests, they are heavier in weight than the shoes in the former categories.
Photo credit: Lowa
4. Mountaineering boots
These boots have thick and stiff soles designed for the roughest terrains and may be crampon-compatible for winter climbing. You should not be considering them at all unless you are going for mountaineering expedition or glacier exploration.
Photo credit: La Sportiva
An ill-fitting shoe can lead to blisters, bunions, toenail pain, keen pain and lower back pain. To avoid these problems, you should always consider the shape and size of your feet when choosing shoes for hiking. Your shoes should conform to the shape of your feet and not the other way round. There are 4 main factors which you should be looking at.
There should be a comfortable space allowance between your big toe (or your second toe if you have Morton’s toe) and the wall of the toe box. A general guideline is one thumb’s width of space between the toe and the tip of the insole. Remove the insole of the shoe and place your foot on it to visually determine the amount of allowance. You should also be able to wiggle your toes comfortably inside the toe box.
The width of your shoes is also an important factor to consider when it comes to a good fit especially if you have wider or narrower feet than the norm. The shoes should fit snugly around the sides of your feet with no slipping and not too lose or tight. Some manufacturers make shoes with narrower or widener width options to cater for people with this need.
The “bulk” of your foot should fit securely and comfortably inside the shoe’s interior. There should not be uneven pressure, tightness or looseness on any part of your foot.
4. Arch Type
Our feet generally fall under three types of arch type: low arch, neutral arch and high arch. People with flat feet or low arches tend to over-pronate when they walk. People with high arches tend to under-pronate (supinate) while those with neutral arch usually have normal pronation pattern when they walk. Pronation is the inward rolling motion of the foot to distribute the impact force as it lands on the ground while you walk. Pronation is actually a natural and useful movement of the feet. However too much pronation or supination can cause stress, pain and injuries to your legs and back. A simple wet test (not covered here) can help to determine your arch type. If you have very low or very high arch, try to look for trekking shoes with design (for example supination-pronation system of LOWA) that can help to reduce or prevent over-pronation and supination. Alternatively there are also aftermarket insoles (like Superfeet) which can help to correct this problem.
After narrowing down your choices based on the first two criteria, you will find that there is not much selection available. After taking into account your budget as well as sizing availability, you may only be left with only one or two models to choose from. Therefore it can be a blessing in disguise if you do not need to worry about this criteria. 🙂