In this post, we are going to discuss some of the most important physical and non-physical characteristics of shoes and boots for hiking (this piece is a fantastic resource about different types of backpacking footwear, their advantages, disadvantages, and main features).
Do you know what the purpose of wearing shoes is? Basically, footwear is intended to provide comfort for wearers and offer good protection for human feet against harsh conditions. Similarly, the main purposes of hiking shoes are to protect your feet against bruising and abrasion from rough wilderness terrain, to cushion your soles, and to provide good traction on a rough, steep, slippery, wet, and muddy terrain.
Backpacking shoes must also offer enough stability and be durable. A reliable hiking shoe is a long-lasting shoe that won’t leave you in the middle of the trail. For long-distance backpacking, shoes need to be supportive and, preferably, lightweight. They also need to feel flexible and comfortable when walking. However, on rough surfaces, shoes might have to be stiffer and more supportive.
Hiking footwear also needs to be functional and be able to respond to changing environments and different surface types. This usually depends on the boot construction. If you want to learn more about the components of hiking shoes as well as the materials from which they are made, you can check out our post on the anatomy of hiking shoes. Needless to say, these two topics are closely related because the perceived characteristics of a pair of trekking shoes depend very much on the materials as well as on the components of the footwear.
Here are ten of the most important characteristics of hiking footwear. This can be a great reference point for you when choosing footwear as it explains what to look for in hiking shoes:
Hiking boot fit
Fit is critical. No matter how well a boot is constructed, it will not function properly if it does not fit well.
Shoemakers say ‘the last is first’ to reinforce the importance of properly fitting footwear. The last is the foot-shaped form on which shoes are made, and the shape of the last has a significant influence on fit. Fit directly influences comfort. Proper fit is also a prerequisite of function.
Does a perfect fit exist?
Providing mass-produced trekking boots with a good fit is a challenging goal. For example, if a shoe manufacturer expects to fit 90% of their male customers with size 43, they will have to accommodate men weighing anywhere from 60 kg to 100 kg. In addition to this individual variability, people typically have different sized left and right feet. Their feet change in length, width, girth, and volume throughout the day and even during a given sports activity. Feet are active during hiking and backpacking and foot shape is exceedingly dynamic. Thus no static last shape can produce perfect fit in all situations and at all times for all people.
The benefits of shoes that fit well are the following:
- Proper stability and support for the foot
- Protection from foot injuries
- Adequate shock-absorption and comfort
- Prolonged wear and retention of shoe shape
What is a good fitting of the hiking shoe?
The shoe needs to have a shape and dimensions which maintain good health. Good fitting also means comfort in most cases. The optimal underfoot shape also gives a good fitting, if it is checked carefully. Insole and socks need to be checked as carefully as styling to ensure they fit the user. Generally, trekking shoes do not fit as firmly as fashion shoes. Our feet normally expand by 5% during the day. Keep this in mind when choosing hiking shoes.
Proper fitting of footwear to feet involves understanding feet, shoes, and the selection of shoes to achieve a required fit. With respect to feet, many sources of foot anthropometry are available. However, there’s one problem. It stems from the fact that the footwear sizing system is primarily based on foot length but footwear manufacturers resort to using length, width and girth measures. Hence, a mismatch in any dimension generally results in poor fitting.
In general, women’s feet are narrower and lower volume than men’s feet. This explains why men’s and women’s hiking boots are made on different sized lasts. Certainly, there are men with narrower feet who find that women’s boots fit them best just as there are women with larger, wider feet who prefer men’s boots.
How should hiking boots fit? A short guide on how to fit hiking boots
Take your time when choosing hiking footwear because fit is critical. Try on several makes and styles until you find something as close as possible to the perfect fit. It’s very difficult to find a pair of hiking boots that fit exactly but with this guide, you will know exactly what to do next time when choosing footwear.
Key factors to consider
Size is the first thing to consider. It’s an important measurement but shoe fitting may not be successful if only length from heel to toe is considered. Keep in mind that shoe sizing is not standardized so sizing between manufacturers is not consistent. Moreover, variability in size may exist even among styles of a particular brand.
Arch length is the measurement from the heel to the ball of the foot and is a more important measurement than the foot length. It will determine how the foot fits inside of a shoe, which determines shoe functionality. Considering the arch length is so important because the shoe needs to flex at the proper location.
The width of the foot is measured at the ball region. Just as with sizing, manufacturers use different measurements for measuring width.
The thickness of the foot (how much the foot occupies inside of a shoe) from top to bottom is another important factor to be considered in determining fit.
Unfortunately, fit is difficult to quantify because there is much subjectivity involved in how a person perceives the right fit. One person may prefer a tight fit, while another may prefer a looser fitting shoe. As a general rule of thumb, the right boot for you approximates the shape of your foot in volume, width, and length. If one of your feet is longer than the other (as is often the case), make sure it gets the best fit.
What else is important?
Consider shopping in the evening (or at least in the afternoon) because most people’s feet swell and expand during the day. In addition, visit the store at a quiet time and take along the hiking socks that you will wear on the trail. Make sure your hiking socks are made of synthetics, merino wool or blends of wool and synthetics. Cotton absorbs too much moisture. As a result, it feels cold and clammy, wrinkles, and is more likely to give you blisters.
Try on both boots
Make sure you try on both boots and after lacing them up firmly, stand and walk for several minutes. As a rule, boots should fit snugly around the heel, ankle, and instep but have room for you to wiggle your toes. It’s also important that your toes do not jam against the toe box when you press your foot forward (the best test of toe space is to stand on a downward incline for a while). Too tight as well as too loose boots can cause blisters.
Keep in mind that finding hiking boots that fit properly is much harder than finding a pair of comfortable lightweight shoes. The reason for this is that lightweight trekking shoes are softer and more flexible so they mold to the feet faster than leather boots. Keep in mind that plastic composite boot needs to fit well from the start; it has a rigid shell that will not conform to your feet as much as the lining of a leather boot will.
Always break in the boots
Make sure you wear your new hiking footwear (medium and heavy-weight models will need at least a short break-in period) at home for a few hours or even a few days just to check that they really do fit. Lightweight models are often comfortable out-of-the-box and don’t need a break-in period.
And one last thing, always go through the fitting process and don’t skip it even if you intend to buy the same model you’ve worn for years. Manufacturers sometimes do change things related to the process – lasts, factories, etc.
Resistance to slippage, the so-called “traction” has long been a selling feature for companies claiming exclusive tread patterns or outsole designs.
To measure traction, manufacturers conduct tests to determine the coefficient of friction and the slip resistance characteristics for shoes or materials under varying surface conditions. The coefficient of friction is a number between 0 and 1 indicating the slip-resistance of a material. The closer the value to 1, the slipping is less likely. Hiking shoe traction is achieved with an increase in outsole traction and with midsole stability.
The outsole is the layer that comes into contact with the ground. It is supposed to be durable and to provide enough traction. Most outsoles are made of rubber because the material is both soft and durable. Though there are several types of rubber, the outsole is usually made from blown rubber and carbon rubber. The former is lighter and softer but it is also less durable and wears faster than carbon rubber. Thus, blown rubber is usually used at the forefoot of the shoe, while carbon rubber is used mainly at the heel. The outsole must be designed according to the intended use of footwear. Having more relevant information and (especially) experience can be crucial in order to choose footwear with correct soiling. This will help you avoid slipping and stumbling.
To slip or not to slip
The two most frequent reasons for injuries on the trail (even in cold environments) are slipping and falling. Slips usually occur when a foreign substance such as water, sand, ice or mud comes between the shoe and the surface. Two types of slippage are possible in most activities. The foot can slip forward or sideways upon initial contact with the surface, or it can slip backward during the push-off phase. Although the most dangerous slip is probably in the forward direction, most tests have been done to simulate push-off slip.
Photo by Brodie Vissers
Conventional hiking boots often fail to provide sufficient ventilation. This causes discomfort to the wearers in hot climates because the feet become really hot and the lack of ventilation does not allow moisture to escape from the boot. This results in many skin problems such as blisters, rashes, and infections.
The fact that the shoe covers the foot results in an inside environment different from the surrounding air. The temperature and humidity will always be greater inside the shoe. The more the upper materials can transmit the moisture, the greater the reduction of perspiration around the foot. The more moisture absorbs, the more breathable the material, resulting in greater comfort. Using simple perforation is another effective measure to improve the breathability of trekking shoes. It’s very important to have adequately ventilated shoes to keep your feet dry. This helps to keep the feet warm and comfortable in cold weather conditions and cool and comfortable in hot climates.
The use of combinations of materials is common. Some uppers are constructed from synthetic fabric with patches of synthetic leather for durability. This decreases the weight of the trekking shoe, making it washable and breathable, so the feet don’t become too hot. Synthetic materials are usually more permeable than leather. The most common man-made materials in hiking shoe uppers are nylon meshes. Nylon mesh which is knitted instead of woven is more popularly used because its strength doesn’t depend on the tightness of the weave. Layering is also widespread. All these factors affect the overall breathability of the hiking shoe. If you’re looking for the best ventilated hiking shoes, you may be interested in this boot by KEEN.
For most good hikers, the weight of the shoe is an important consideration when choosing hiking footwear. That’s why many experienced backpackers prefer wearing lightweight hiking shoes such as the Salomon XA Pro 3D. Others give more credit to leather hiking boots as more solid and reliable footwear. In general, long-lasting hiking boots are heavier. When maintained in good shape, they can last several years or more.
How important is shoe weight?
Wearing heavy backpacking boots results in greater oxygen consumption and energy demands, thus hindering performance; however, it can also provide more ankle support and stability on the trail, especially if you carry a large and heavy pack. The general trend is to reduce shoe weight as much as possible without sacrificing performance, protection, and other characteristics.
Generally, try to evaluate shoe weight relative to other features. Even though the foot and shoe weigh relatively little, the weight factor is an important one to consider. You’ve probably heard that a kilo on the shoe feels like five to six kilos on the back. That’s because the foot and shoe are at the farthest distance from the hip axis, any added weight requires much greater muscle force to move it. Additionally, the foot moves through a longer distance than any other part of the leg. A reasonable backpacker needs to find the balance between the reduction in shoe weight and other important features (such as traction and cushioning).
How do manufacturers reduce shoe weight?
The lightness of the shoe is achieved mainly via the choice of upper materials and by using less cushioning. Nowadays, lightweight boots and shoes are usually made with synthetic materials. For example, some models of mountaineering boots incorporate synthetic fabric panels that partially replace leather. This reduces the shoe weight, the break-in time, improves comfort, and lowers costs. On the flip side, these boots are less durable and offer less stability on difficult terrain. They are also less waterproof than all-leather hiking boots.
Photo by Jan-Niclas Aberle
Cushioning is the ability of a shoe to absorb shock. Most companies use the terms “cushioning” and “shock absorption” interchangeably. Thus, regarding trekking shoes, shock absorption and cushion are different terms for the same thing.
How does cushioning work?
The human body has the ability to sense damaging motions as discomfort or pain. Poor cushioning ratings are a good predictor of discomfort and pain in feet. But how does cushioning work in reality? A cushioning system functions by increasing the duration of an impact, thereby reducing the shock load transmitted to the musculoskeletal system. During walking, the ground reaction force is approximately 1.25 times the body weight and during running, the ground reaction force can reach levels of 2 to 3 times the body weight. Thus, midsole cushioning is supposed to attenuate or dampen the impact forces acting on the body during usage.
Main cushioning materials
In the early days, rubber was used as a cushioning material. Nowadays, cushioning technology is quite varied with manufacturers marketing all sorts of air soles, pads, gel or fluid soles.
Some 20 years ago, Salomon Brothers industry report stated:
“No company has publicized that its cushioning technologies outperform another because generally, these cushioning technologies perform no better than regular polyurethane (PU) or ethylene-vinyl-acetate (EVA) foam. Investing in the creation and strong marketing of these technologies provides credibility to companies that their product will actually help with true athletic performance, and thus helps give a specific brand an aura of being an authentic athletic brand”.
Today, EVA and PU are still the most widespread materials for hiking shoe midsoles. EVA is a type of foam that provides cushioning increases shock absorption and decreases shearing. PU is a polymer that resists compression. It’s heavier and harder but it’s also more durable than EVA. Most shoes have either EVA or PU midsoles; however, some midsoles are made with the combination of both EVA (in the forefoot) and PU (in the rearfoot because it’s more resistant to compression and can absorb the impact better).
Shock absorption isn’t always the best solution
Even though midsole cushioning is supposed to attenuate or dampen the forces on the body, the actual force acting on the body remains relatively unchanged with footwear. Thus, most problems arise when a wearer of a shoe perceives a relatively false sense of security. What’s interesting is that this false sense of security increases impact and injury with users of expensive shoes. Why is that? The main reason is that users of expensive shoes tend to underestimate the loads (or alternatively expect the shoes to protect their feet) and hence are more prone to injury.
Another interesting finding was made in the 90s. Then three-quarter cut aerobic shoes were associated with a higher number of aerobic injuries. Apparently, it was perceived that the wearers had a false sense of security about ankle protection with the three-quarter-ankle shoes. That’s what often happens on the trail as well. Some hikers overestimate the ankle support and protection provided by their footwear and as a consequence, they suffer an injury.
Photo by Brodie Vissers
Footwear is intended to provide comfort for wearers. The ideal in-shoe microclimate is a boundary layer of air around the foot approximately 29°C with low relative humidity. Though keeping the hiker’s foot cool and dry is mainly a matter of comfort, it prevents the formation of blisters too.
What’s important for comfort?
Oxygen consumption and fatigue have been strongly correlated with comfort. If a hiking shoe is making the user consume more oxygen and the muscle activity is higher, the user will feel uncomfortable in that shoe. Improving the comfort of a shoe can result in a reduction in stress-related injuries. The breadth of the forefoot can also influence the perception of comfort. As a rule, narrow and shallow shoes lead to a higher incidence of forefoot injury. However, the fit of the hiking shoe is not solely sufficient for comfort. Differences in comfort have been associated with several factors. Among them: changes in muscle activity, foot shape, fit between foot and footwear, foot sensitivity, the weight of the shoe, and temperature.
Even though it is well known that fit or product compatibility is necessary for a person to experience comfort, safety, and satisfaction during use, the form has dominated the design and development of footwear over the last few decades. And it is only one of the factors, on which product performance depends.
Most people are able to identify what is a comfortable and non-comfortable shoe. Materials, especially on linings, are also important for a comfortable feel. Regarding the choice of lining material, you need to think about how moisture will be absorbed from the lining. Mesh lining is a good solution since it is breathable, moisture-wicking, and quick-drying.
Support and stability
Stability of the hiking shoe is achieved with cushioning, medial support and with a semi-curved or curved last: it supports foot movement. Proper design and correct inserts give additional stability. If you want to determine a shoe’s stability, just squeeze its rear part (the sides of the heel counter). Stable hiking shoes usually resist compression. They also resist twisting while flexible shoes twist easily.
Generally, the more surface area in contact with the ground the more support the shoe offers the foot. This means that a shoe that has a sole as wide as the upper can be advantageous for extra support.
Is ankle support that important?
Many people believe that for better ankle support, you need heavy, stiff footwear. Especially when carrying a heavy pack or hiking on rough terrain. However, most walking boots offer little ankle support, because of their soft cuffs. Only boots with high, stiffened cuffs give real ankle support. But the stiff ankle support restricts foot movement so much that when you walk in these boots, your walk is seriously hindered. Apparently, stiff-ankled boots and natural foot movement do not go together. Generally, it’s much better strengthening your ankles than torturing your feet in heavy, rigid boots.
Some of the greatest strain on your ankles occurs when you run over steep, rough ground. Yet trail runners never wear boots but low-cut and much lighter footwear. For traversing steep, rugged terrain, you need strong, flexible ankles and lightweight hiking shoes. They are less likely to cause blisters and what’s more, trekking shoes are more comfortable and less fatiguing to wear than boots. One of the main drawbacks of lightweight hiking shoes is related to the fact that they may not be able to provide enough support when carrying a heavy pack, especially on rough ground or descents.
An argument in favor of heavy boots to lightweight shoes is that stiff soles protect your feet from rough terrain and help support heavy loads. It might be true but there are also some shortcomings.
Downsides of wearing stiff-soled hiking boots
- They restrict natural foot movement which can make you feel unstable
- Stiff soles can’t flex enough to accommodate to the terrain
- They may prevent you from placing your feet naturally, leading to a slow and unnatural gait possibly leading to an injury
- Straining against the stiffness is energy-consuming and tiring
Sole stiffness is required only on rough and snowy terrain. Traveling on hard snow with a flexible boot is a disadvantage because:
- You won’t be able to kick good steps; and
- Crampon bindings may not stay on if a boot is too flexible
For this reason, mountaineers prefer wearing rigid boots such as La Sportiva Nepal EVO GTX. These days, plastic composite boots are very popular not only among mountaineers and ice climbers but also among all those interested in snow and glacier routes. Each plastic boot consists of two parts – 1) hard synthetic outer shell and 2) inner insulating boot. This configuration allows you to pull straps and bindings tightly without impairing circulation in the feet. It also makes stiff hiking boots suitable for use with crampons and snowshoes.
Rigid plastic boots – a no-no for backpacking
Though rigid plastic boots are perfect for snow and ice, they are a poor choice for general trail use. There are several reasons for this but three of the most significant ones are:
- Waterproofness is preferable in wet conditions but waterproof boots and shoes dry slower than non-waterproof hiking footwear. Moreover, waterproof footwear cannot keep your feet dry in prolonged wet conditions. The reason is that even if your feet do not get soaked from the outside, they will get soaked from the inside from all the sweat and condensation that will build up. Third downside of waterproof boots and shoes comes from the use of waterproof membranes. They cut breathability, which means that your feet will sweat more not only in hot but also in warm to cool weather. And finally, proper shoe care is of prime importance as you need to maintain the waterproofness of your trekking boots by applying DWR (durable water repellent) regularly.
- Stiffness makes walking less comfortable especially for multi-day backpacking trips and long trails in general. Moreover, stiff hiking boots require more time and effort to be broken in.
- A certain degree of warmth is desirable in cold environments, however, too much warmth causes the feet to sweat more than usual, which inevitably leads to moisture buildup in the footwear.
The durability of hiking shoes depends on the material, technology used, storage, duration of use, the terrain as well as the weather conditions (including humidity). Synthetics are much more prone to abrasion damage than leather hiking shoes. If you like hiking on rough and rocky terrain, you need durable hiking shoes or boots, preferably with an upper made of leather. In general, a pair of leather boots is not only going to hold up better to the elements but also last longer as far as general wear and tear are concerned.
Durability in the upper is achieved with toe bumpers and stitching as reinforced toe and heel provide durability and protection. Durability in the sole is achieved with materials and traction design.
Photo by Jana Sabeth
Tactical and military footwear is famous for its durability as well as the high level of protection it provides (especially from environmental threats). It’s because military personnel use their boots frequently, sometimes for long periods of time, in a range of conditions and environments. So their feet have to be protected from many threats, including abrasions, temperatures, humidity, potentially dangerous animals and plants. Moreover, the boots need to be abrasion and wear-resistant and to offer the capability for high performance in less than ideal conditions. And all of these should come at an affordable price. If you’re looking for functional and durable footwear, you can check out our suggestion for tactical boots.
A pair of good trekking shoes need to protect your feet against harsh conditions on the trail. These include cold and wet environments as well as hard and rough surfaces. To some extent, the level of protection depends on the weight of the footwear (heavier trekking shoes or boots often, though not necessarily always, provide better protection). However, much more important factors for good foot protection are:
- The material that your hiking shoes have been made of
- The presence or absence of additional features such as toe cap
When hiking on rough terrain, you need additional protection not only for your feet and heels but for your toes as well. Rubber toe caps provide additional protection for your toes acting as a buffer between you and the twigs and branches that you encounter on your way.
An integrated gusseted tongue is another useful feature offering better protection for your foot. The idea is to keep pebbles, sand, and debris out of your hiking shoes. Keep in mind that there’s often a tradeoff between needed protection level and functionality or required performance.
Our feet are unique and they have special requirements. One style will not fit all and therefore it is difficult to make a general prescription for appropriate hiking footwear. However, the best choice of a shoe is usually a compromise between the shoe’s walking comfort and its technical capability a.k.a. functionality.
Good hiking boots need to offer a balance between light weight, support, and stability; cushioning and functionality; stiffness and breathability. They must also be durable, protect your feet, and provide comfort. And above all, they need to fit. Fit is closely related to comfort. No matter how many functional features a boot might possess, if it doesn’t fit, people simply won’t buy it. The appearance is also important. As with fit, if the boot is unappealing to the eye, most consumers won’t buy it.
There is an axiom that the shoes designed to excel at one function will almost surely fail at another. However, today you can find wonderful shoes and boots for almost every use. No doubt, today’s hiking footwear is far superior to what existed years ago. The main reason for this – nowadays, design, construction, and functionality are more important than the identifying logo.
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4 thoughts on “10 Important Characteristics of Hiking Shoes Explained”
Hiking shoes or boots really need to be strong also they need more features than normal shoes or boots. The characteristics of hiking shoes you shown here is totally fulfilling my expectation. Now I know more about hiking shoes or boots. Do you have any suggestions blog about shoe cleaning?
You can check out our article about foot and boot care for backpacking. There you can find a lot of useful information on how to clean, condition, dry, and even how to waterproof your boots.
After all the time I have spent helping people on Spanish and Portuguese caminos to take care of their blisters, the photographs on this page of people wearing shoes without socks makes me quite worried that some readers will believe that this is ever a good idea.
Thank you for your message, Heidi. While we acknowledge that everyone can decide for themself if they want to do it or not, we do not endorse wearing hiking boots or shoes without socks. Having said that, we understand your concern about the two photos so we’ve just replaced them with more appropriate images.