By Dr. HOWARD FOX
The Greenbelt Conservancy
Whether you’re a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail or out for a 20-minute walk through the Staten Island Greenbelt, few things can make your experience rewarding or painful than the happiness of your feet. What you are wearing on them, how well they fit, and how well they function with every step will determine the comfort of your experience in the woods.
Some knowledge of the types of hiking boots available, their features, and how to select the best pair for you can change your hike from a walk through the Spanish Inquisition to a delightful journey where you never think once about your feet.
Getting off on the right foot
There are basically two types of hiking footwear: hiking shoes, which are low-cut shoes which are relatively flexible, suitable for day hikes or trail running, and hiking boots which range from mid- to high-cut boots suitable for longer hikes, backpacking and hiking rugged terrain up mountains. With some notable exceptions below, the heavier your pack, the more substantial your hiking boot should be.
Some of these are waterproof or insulated; made of leather, synthetics or a combination thereof.
A hiking shoe is a well-made sneaker with greater flexibility than a boot. Common to all shoe gear made for hikers, the sole is rubber with “lugs,” those lumps and bumps built into the bottoms for increased traction. In general, the shorter your hike and the lighter your pack, the lighter your shoe should be.
Experienced and fit hikers who already have built up considerable strength in their lower legs can make excellent use of a light shoe, even on long backpacking trips.
For our Greenbelt, a simple sneaker will suffice, but if the trails are muddy, a sneaker will not give you the traction a hiking shoe will provide. In snow and ice, sneakers are downright dangerous.
How high the top?
Hiking boots come in varying heights. The added height serves two purposes: increased ankle stability and support and increased protection from pebbles and other objects finding their way inside. If you have weak ankles or are prone to twisting your ankle, a boot that’s high enough to extend above the ankle is preferable to a low hiking shoe.
Leather boots are more supportive and outlast synthetics, but are rarely instantly comfortable and require some time to break in. Full-grain leather boots are the most durable and easiest to waterproof but are less breathable. Once broken-in, however, they can give you more than 20 years of dry, supportive and comfortable hiking on any terrain or condition. Full-grain leather boots are also the easiest to repair, adding countless miles to their value.
Split-grain leather is a combination of leather with a synthetic (typically nylon or polyester). They are less expensive, but don’t last as long. They tend to be more comfortable the moment you step into them. They are not as waterproof as full-grain leather boots and, unlike full-grain leather, it’s impossible to give them periodic waterproofing treatments. To compensate, many split-grain leather boots come with waterproof liners.
Boots made with all synthetic materials feel comfortable immediately. They cost less, but don’t last as long, and ankle support is less functional. They do breathe the best, though.
Gore-tex and eVent are brand-name membrane materials that allow moisture out, but not in. They make for very effective waterproofing. Some hikers dislike boots with these membrane materials and say it dramatically decreases breathability. Personally, I have not found that to be the case.
Insulated boots are designed exclusively for winter hiking or for folks with chronically cold feet.
When the shoe fits
In considering size, when in doubt, get a half-size larger than your known shoe size to account for swelling, thicker socks and sock liners as well as an orthotic (support device) or other type of innersole. It’s imperative to try on a pair of boots (with your hiking socks and orthotics) before you buy them. Good outfitters will have ramps and such to try your boots on.
Keep in mind different manufacturers have different sizing; some run big, others run small. If your feet are of significantly different size (or if your second toe is unusually long), try placing a felt pad in the tongue of the larger shoe. This will compensate for the extra room and will also absorb the shock to your instep rather than the tip of that long second toe.
Good hiking shoes/boots will have a removable innersole that allows you to replace it with an orthotic or device of your own choosing. If arch support is not a concern, Ganka Insoles, a felt/foam combination, are like walking on pillows, but offer zero support. They also add to the warmth of your feet in winter.
For hiking in the cold where ice on rocks is a frequent encounter, nothing will add more to your ability to hike anywhere than crampons. Crampons are a series of metal (steel alloy, light weight aluminum) spikes that protrude on the bottom of your boot to prevent slipping on ice. They attach to your boot either by strap bindings or stretchable rubber bindings. Most good modern-day snowshoes incorporate crampons on the bottom.
Between the soles
No discussion on hiking shoes is complete without talking about socks. The single worst type of sock you can wear, on or off the trail, is cotton. When cotton gets wet, it stays wet, and wet cotton not only saps warmth from your skin, it irritates your skin as you walk causing blisters and rashes.
The single best material to wear, in summer and winter, is wool (more realistically, a wool blend with synthetics). Wool wicks moisture away from your body. It dries quickly and doesn’t lose its insulating ability when wet.
The best scenario is a thin pair of sock liners worn under a thicker pair of wool socks. All friction and rubbing occurs between the sock liner and the sock, not your skin.
If your feet have unique issues that affect your selection in hiking boots, the best advice I could give you is to consult with your podiatrist before buying boots.
Dr. Howard Fox is a past president of the Greenbelt Conservancy. He is a practicing podiatrist and active hiker. He has articles published in major medical journals on gout, bunion surgery and kidney disease as it pertains to the foot. He served as chief of podiatry at Bayley Seton Hospital and Director of the Diabetes Clinic at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine.