It's important to choose the right footwear for your style of bushwalking – just ask the experts.
Hiking footwear is an important consideration for every walker – the comfort of your feet will play a big part in your enjoyment of a walk. Blisters, hot spots, damp socks, sore soles and twisted ankles are all problems that involve footwear. Aiming to answer the eternal hiking question “are hiking shoes or hiking boots better?” we spoke to James from Melbourne outdoor retailer Bogong Equipment.
“If you look at the whole outdoor footwear category, ‘boots or shoes’ oversimplifies the product range and the customer usage,” says James. “Walking around Wilsons Prom with a daypack versus hiking through Southwest Tassie with a 25kg backpack are quite different applications for a similar product.”
James says it’s most helpful to first look at two key things – what foot shape you have and what sort of walking you will use your footwear for.
James reckons it's important to get your foot properly measured before trying on any shoes or boots. “If somebody has a very wide foot, it doesn’t matter if the shoe or boot perfectly suits their usage – they need to buy the one that fits their foot the best. That’s always the most important thing: suitability to foot shape,” says James.
“You need hiking footwear to be fitted properly. If you walk into a shop and they don’t measure your foot properly with a Brannock device, I’d encourage people to walk out, because they’re not checking to see what size you are … shoe sizing is a mine field, it’s variable between brands and models. Staff need to establish how wide your foot is and where the flex point is on your foot.
Type of walking trails
“When we are profiling a customer for hiking footwear, I break people into three main categories,” says James. “The first is customers that are day walking only – shortish walks, light packs, and single day usage. The middle category is customers with mixed use, where they will be day walking but they will also sometimes be carrying overnight hiking packs, and that is a key point of difference – whether or not they will be carrying a heavy pack. If you’re carrying a heavy pack it necessitates more structured, more supportive footwear. The third category is the customer who is most commonly going to be carrying a heavy backpack in rough terrain.
We try to ascertain what the most ‘hard core’ use of the footwear is going to be and we encourage people to purchase for that need,” James explained.
A question of ankle support
“Going back to the initial question of shoes or boots, my personal theory is that if you’re buying footwear for hiking, you should have something that supports the ankle. There’s no harm in having ankle support,” says James. But ankle support doesn’t necessarily mean ‘boots’. It can mean a middle-range item of footwear known as a ‘mid’ or a ‘mid-cut’.
“In many cases we have exactly the same product in a shoe or in a boot,” says James. “Something that is made as a shoe and then comes as an ankle support version is often called a ‘mid’ – as opposed to a boot. A boot is something that has a bit more structure under the foot.”
So does that mean a hiking shoe or ‘mid’ is not as strong as a boot?
“Hiking shoes are designed for use in the outdoors but they are most certainly designed for lighter packs, so in a lot of senses they are like a rugged sneaker, whereas boots have a different structure to them – you can imagine the different dynamic when you’re walking with a 20 kilo backpack on. It changes all the forces that are applied through the foot. So with a more structured boot, you can let the boot do the work rather than your foot.”
Wearing in new hiking shoes
“With the moulded plastic innersoles that they make these days, they can very precisely work out where to make a boot softer and where to make a boot stiffer – generally through the flex zone up to the ball of the foot they can soften it up. So most of those lighter-weight mids can be walked straight out of the box,” says James.
However, hitting the trail with brand new shoes is never a great idea. It’s worth wearing the shoes on training walks to get used to the feeling of more supportive footwear. “It’s more a case of the customer needing to get used to the footwear than the footwear needing to be worn in,” explained James.
Full-grain leather boot models suitable for people doing rugged multi-day walks are generally stiffer and will still need a good wearing-in period.