* Boots and souls thrive together in outdoors *
The significance of this piece of hiking gear cannot be emphasised enough. The fact that there is abundant advice complicates matters for choice of hiking footwear. I am going to keep it simple here when I share some thoughts about the what and how of hiking boots.
Let us consider two categories of footwear: i) ‘boots’ cover at least the ankles along with the wearer’s feet (some designs will have the covering go higher) and ii) ‘shoes’ cover feet but not ankles.
Shoes or boots?
The following table obviously does not cover all possibilities that influence choice of footwear, but can guide your choice of footwear.
|Duration||Pack weight||Condition of trail||Shoes/boots type||Comment|
|Day hike||Small pack||Maintained dirt track / paved track||Light shoes (e.g., runners)||Strong ankles will minimise risk of twisted ankles|
|Day hike||Small/medium pack||Mixed terrain with stones / boulders / scree||Hiking shoes; lightweight hiking boots||Strong ankles will minimise risk of twisted ankles|
|Multi-day hike||Medium/big pack||Maintained dirt track / paved track||Lightweight hiking boots||Your feet will love you for the support to ankles|
|Multi-day hike||Small/medium/big pack||Mixed terrain with stones / boulders / scree / snow||Sturdy hiking boots||Support to ankles will help minimise discomfort and chances of injury|
For the sake of convenience I will refer to all hiking footwear as ‘boots’, unless otherwise needed for specific reasons.
Synthetic or leather?
Canvas shoes tend to be comfortable because they mould themselves well to one’s feet. But they normally do not come with the kind of soles and padding that a hiker’s feet would love for sustained walking. Canvas shoes/boots usually do not last long.
Boots made of synthetic material tend to be lightweight, durable, dry fast and mould well to one’s feet (especially in comparison with those made of leather). Most models come with meshes that reduce weight and allow for sweat to evaporate. Boots made with waterproof fabrics are good for keeping your feet dry in drizzles and shallow stream crossings. But in downpours and through waters that rise above the collar of the footwear, water will enter in unless you are wearing gaiters. Waterproof boots also tend to be costly.
Leather boots are meant for arduous hikes where pack weights are considerable and mixed terrain a certainty. Leather is remarkably strong and versatile, and will stand a lot of abuse provided it is well taken care of. Leather weighs the most among all available materials, and dries slower. I have preferred leather boots over synthetic ones only when we were ‘backpacking’, i.e., when we had no support persons in any role, carried everything ourselves, were on long-duration itineraries (10 to 30 days or more) and were walking on well beaten trails as well as through boulder fields, scree, snow and off-trail country that involved bushwhacking.
Any footwear should be ‘snug’ with socks on – not too loose and not too tight. Before purchasing hiking footwear try it out in the gear shop with the pair of your hiking socks by walking around. If a shoe or boot is too tight or too loose then it increases the chances of you having a blister. Loose shoes/boots also make it harder to have firm footing.
How thick should the sole be?
Too thin a sole and your foot is going to feel every little protuberance on the trail, and not like it. Too thick a sole and you will not get a feel of the ground you are stepping on, which can be risky on terrain with tricky footing. If you choose your boots guided by the table given above, the thickness of the soles should be taken care of automatically. Avoid boots with stiff plastic soles, extra-thick soles and unnecessary metal fittings.
Hiking footwear normally has composite soles of multiple layers glued together. These tend to de-layer due to various factors like extent of use, exposure to terrain type, temperature range they have been exposed to, humidity during use and storage, mode of drying when wet and duration of storage. There is apparently some evidence to the belief that if a pair of boots is used regularly then it prevents/delays the composite sole from de-layering. Many friends of mine and I swear by this!
Moral of the story: use your hiking boots continually, and even if it means sometimes going to buy vegetables in the in them 🙂
Hiking boots tend to use two kinds of eyelets, which makes lacing up and unlacing very easy – it is possible to put on a boot or take it off by hooking and unhooking shoelaces through ‘hooked eyelets’ (on the vertical part of the boot) along with just a bit of loosening of the shoelaces threaded through ‘set eyelets’ (on the main body of the boot).
Safety-significance of different kinds of eyelets on a boot: differential loosening and tightening at different spots will achieve a) comfort through varying pressure on parts of a foot, b) better control on varying terrain conditions and c) prevent an injury like Achilles tendonitis.
It is a good idea to slide your feet into something simple and comfortable after reaching camp. Some then put on lightweight shoes, some sandals and some even chappals. I prefer lightweight shoes because they protect my feet from minor cuts and scrapes (remember, even minor cuts on a foot can get easily infected inside one’s hiking boots, unless taken care of) and make it easy for me to go on birding and photography walks around a camp. Sandals can also be good but do not protect all parts of the feet. The option of chappals is the poorest, there being considerable risk of the wearer slipping and falling while walking in and around his camp.
As compared to big clunky hiking boots, lighter footwear is also much softer on the grass and smaller vegetation in and around camp.
Boots can and should be washed. Use water. Read instructions of manufacturer before using mild soap. Use a soft brush to gently clean all seams and other tiny places like eyelets to get to the dirt that has lodged itself in. Leather boots will last longer if you periodically apply leather conditioning creams or solutions to your (dry) boots. These usually come in oil-based or wax-based products.
Wet boots, whether at home or in a camp in the mountains, should be dried gradually in shade and (at home) under a fan. Harsh sunlight or close contact with a heat source like a room-heater or campfire will damage synthetic material, degrade leather and destroy the glue used in boots.
Store boots away from direct light, ideally in low humidity conditions.
What if I cannot afford boots of costly brands?
Consider your hiking goals – e.g., are you going on that one single Himalayan hike to celebrate your fortieth birthday, or are you going to ‘take up hiking’ and are dreaming of multiple hikes down the years in various parts of the world?
Affordability is a significant for me. I usually buy canvas or synthetic shoes priced economically for my small duration hikes in the Indian Western Ghats, the mountain range close to where I stay. The size of such a pair is half/one size larger than my normal shoe size – I wear a fairly thick pair of socks or two pairs of socks to provide cushioning. I help these shoes last as long as possible by taking good care of them. And I flaunt them with their cuts and torn looks, which of course helps my pockets! My hiking in regions like the North Cascades and Himalayas have usually involved backpacking where I have used proper boots as described above, making them last through several hiking programmes year after year.
I have a friend in his late fifties who has been hiking and rock climbing for more than three decades now. He is remarkably fit and still climbs at fairly high grades. He is also one of those frugal outdoor persons – simplest of gear, simple clothing and simple food. A few years back he called me up specifically to tell me that he had finally bought a pair of hiking boots and was amazed at the feeling of sheer comfort and support to his ankles. I wonder if we should add age also to the list of factors that influence choice of footwear. Youth is magical where recovery from fatigue and injuries is fast, and niggling pain and injuries have short memories, and where a mind flourishing on sustained stimulation cares two hoots about trifling matters like aching knees and even painful blisters.
Click here for information that I have provided on socks.
Click here for information that I have provided on basic footcare.
Click here for information that I have provided on blisters.