With everything from lightweight trail running shoes to super serious mountaineering boots now available in high street shops and online, outdoor lovers have never had more choice. But with choice comes confusion. I still regularly see some people dangerously underprepared on tough mountain trails while others are weighed down by serious alpine gear on short country rambles. So, just what do you need to consider when buying your next pair of outdoor footwear?
Firstly, you need to consider where you hike – what terrain are you going to walk on most often? Most of us have ‘go-to’ areas and trails that we spend a lot of our time on so this should be pretty simple. Do you mostly walk flat or gently undulating paths or do you often hike steeper, rockier or more technical trails? Also consider whether you’re planning to take things up or down a gear over the next year. After all, you don’t want to get 6 months down the line and have to splash out on a new pair because you’ve now decided that mountain trails are within your reach or physicality.
The second consideration to make is how you hike. For example, do you simply walk your dogs along forest paths for a couple of hours at weekends? With nothing but a bottle of water and a waterproof coat for company, your lightweight approach will mean you require less bulk and support. Or are you more of a day hike sort of person? Do you carry a daypack full of essentials for the long hours and varying terrains and conditions that you’ll be out in? Or do you backpack over the course of a few days or carry other heavy loads like children in child carriers? If so, you’ll need a fair bit more support to help your pack-horse status.
If your interest is in fast, lightweight walks and hikes over non-technical terrain, then trail shoes will probably be your best option. These generally vary from sturdy walking shoes to ultra-light trail running shoes designed for speedy adventures. These shoes have high levels of comfort, utilising similar technologies to trainers and sports shoes. Consequently, you’ll most likely find nylon uppers to keep the weight down and make them as flexible as possible. Furthermore, the midsoles are more often than not made of a pliable EVA, which provides good cushioning and flex. As a result, your foot is able to move within more of its natural range.
However, trail shoes are far from wimps. They will still have relatively rugged outsoles so finding grip in wet grass or on forest trails shouldn’t be an issue. Furthermore, most will also offer you a degree of waterproofness, usually via a technical membrane like Gore-Tex. This will extend your walking time as you’ll be able to get outside whatever the weather. Just be aware though that what you’ll gain in water resistance you’ll often lose in breathability. This, of course, may become a problem if your activities are particularly fast-paced, it’s mid-August, and your sweaty feet begin to expand!
I generally always have a pair of trail runners at home. For me, they’re a really flexible option that allows me to take on a wide variety of terrains in relatively short time frames. I use them for everything from walking the dog through the woods or forest, to off-road running. I personally opt for ones without a waterproof membrane just to improve the breathability factor, particularly for when I’m out running.
Day hiking involves being outdoors most of the day, often in a mixture of weathers and over varying terrain. As some of this terrain may be more technical you’ll need a more substantial form of footwear. Day hike boots are often manufactured with a range of materials in order to beef up their resistance to the environment and elements. So, like trail shoes, you may still find sections of nylon to keep the weight (and cost) down.
However, you’ll also find partial use of leather or nubuck too, which are hardier and naturally water resistant. These will usually feature around areas of high abrasion to make the most of their unique qualities. Full leather boots are still extremely popular with certain people too. These will generally be very durable, just ensure that you break them in properly before taking on long distances. You don’t want to be treating your feet for nasty blisters!
The midsoles in day hike boots will often still use EVA; they will just be a beefed up version to further protect your feet. By using firmer forms of EVA, boot manufacturers are able to create a stiffer boot with less flex. You may lose some of the trail shoe comfort, but you’ll gain increased durability. Good boot can last you years! Furthermore, as these boots are likely to be worn on rockier trails, the increased stiffness will actually result in feet that ache less at the end of the day. Well worth it in my opinion.
Day hike boots will usually be available in both mid and full boot forms. Again, depending on your speed, terrain and load you can very much personalise this to your circumstances. I personally love my mid boots. They’re more than adequate for the vast majority of what the UK can throw at me. Furthermore, they’re great for when I’m carrying the kids; providing me with that extra bit of stiffness and security that my trail runners don’t. Finally, should I decide to explore hills in winter, they’re compatible with mini crampons, further extending the use of this very adaptable boot.
Planning something more adventurous, like a summer in the Alps or some winter climbing in the Cairngorms? If so you’ll need dedicated mountaineering boots. These are designed for extremely tough conditions and therefore have ultra-stiff shells to offer maximum support and protection. They’ll be crampon compatible but check your boot rating (B1, B2, B3) to match them with the corresponding or best fitting crampon (C1, C2, C3). This will open up a whole new world of possibilities once you’ve built up the necessary skills and experience. So, with aggressive C3 crampons with vertical front points, you could ice climb Five Point Gully on Ben Nevis.
Whatever style of footwear you opt for my best advice would be to try a few pairs before you buy. So speak to staff in reputable shops and get their insight. Each brand may have a slightly different fit, which will either benefit or hinder your natural foot shape. If you plan to walk long distances in them you need them to be right for you.