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Boots or shoes? What is the best footwear for hiking?

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 your footwear.

Aiming to answer the eternal hiking question ‘are hiking shoes or hiking boots better?’ we spoke to footwear guru James from Melbourne outdoor retailer Bogong Equipment. And the answer to the simple question is not that simple. 

“If you look at the whole outdoor footwear category, ‘boots or shoes’ oversimplifies the product range and the customer usage,” says James. “Walking around the Prom with a day pack versus hiking through Southwest Tassie with a 25 kilo backpack are quite different applications for a similar product.”

James says it’s most helpful to first look at two key things. A) what foot shape you have and B) what sort of walking you will use your footwear for. So let’s start right there, with A) – your foot shape. 

Your foot shape is important – so get your foot properly measured

The shape of your foot will play an important role in the walking footwear that you choose. 

“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.”

“Different brands have different profiles,” says James. He explains that Italian brands can have a slightly narrower fitting, while American brands can be wider. The best thing to do is head to a shop with a range of brands – they will be more likely to have something that suits both your foot shape and your intended use. 

Think about the type of walking that you do

Part B) of James’ key factors to consider when footwear shopping is the type of walking that you do. 

“When we are profiling a customer for hiking footwear, I break people into three main categories,” says James.

“The first category 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, as a general principle, 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,” says James. 

Is the question shoes or boots… or is it how much ankle support and structure?

“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.”

So, what’s the best footwear for the average Park Trek walker?

We asked James for his recommendation for an average Park Trek client, considering that most of Park Trek’s tours involve carrying a day pack over several days of walking – sometimes shorter walks on well-maintained trails and sometimes long days on rugged trails.

“The most ideal product for them would be a ‘mid’ – a lightweight shoe with some ankle support,” says James. 

“There’s no harm in ankle support. If people don’t like that feeling around their ankle, you can fiddle with the lacing system to give yourself freedom but still have support.”

“A lot of people say ‘I’ve never had a problem with my ankle’. But when you’ve walked twenty kilometres and you hit a loose stone at an odd angle and your legs are tired, it’s a very different situation to just walking down the street. Having that ankle support there is a good thing.” 

Other footwear considerations 

Making the best hiking footwear choices doesn’t stop at just selecting your new shoes. There are a few more factors to consider. 

Do you need to wear your new hiking shoes in? 

“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,” says 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.

Get good hiking socks and consider innersoles

“Boots themselves are only one part of the footwear picture. Really good quality hiking socks are, in my view, an essential for hiking,” says James. “If you put some cheap explorers inside an expensive high quality boot, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Good socks are a real luxury and can sometimes make more of a difference than boots.”

So what makes a good hiking sock?

“A wool blend is good. A sock that is designed for hiking will have bands around the arch of the foot to keep it nice and tight. Proper hiking socks have a Y-shaped heel pocket and flat profile toe seams.”

“You can also add after-market innersoles to dramatically improve the fit and comfort of your hiking footwear,” says James.

Caring for your footwear 

To have a long life, hiking shoes need to be carefully cleaned and stored. After hiking, clean shoes with warm soapy water and a gentle scrubbing brush to remove dirt and mud. If there is a leather element to your shoe, it needs to be nourished with wax to stop it drying out, cracking and splitting, and to maintain the breathability of the shoe. Ensure that your shoes are fully dried before you store them – and store them at a reasonably stable temperature. 

“We often see glue failures on footwear that have been stored somewhere hot. Glues have a life span. If you chuck your shoes in the back shed and leave them there for a couple of summers, you’ll pull them out and wonder why the soles have fallen off,” says James. 

If the shoe fits…

To summarise what we’ve learned from James, if you’re hiking for several days with a day pack, consider ‘mids’. Hiking shoes and ‘mids’ are lighter weight and more flexible and wont need extensive wearing in. They are less stiff and structured because you need less sturdiness when you are not a carrying an overnight pack. ‘Mids’ have the advantage over shoes of offering ankle support. Heavier, sturdier boots and full leather boots are better for those doing extensive multi-day hiking carrying a heavy pack as they offer more structured foot and ankle support. 

hiking shoesmids / mid-cutshiking boots
light weightlight to mid weightheaviest weight
flexible soleflexible solestiff, structured sole
wearing in not requiredwearing in not required (but good to wear them to get used to them)wearing in required
no ankle supportankle supportfull ankle support
suitable for day walking carrying a day packsuitable for day walking with a day pack and some larger walks with heavier packsuitable for long and difficult walks carrying an overnight hiking pack

The last word from James is the same as the first word: if the shoes fits, wear it.

“I encourage people to buy the boot that fits them the best. It always comes back to fit. It doesn’t matter how ugly or pretty you find them, it doesn’t matter if it’s a little bit beefier than you need, or a little bit softer than you need… if it suits your foot, that’s going to be the boot for you,“ says James.

Park Trek would like to thanks James from Bogong Equipment for sharing his time and expertise. 

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