- Gear advice
- Monday 23rd November, 2015
- By Paul
Shoes and boots for outdoor use come in many guises.
Styles, materials and shape vary enormously and picking an inappropriate or ill-fitting boot is one of the fastest ways to guarantee an unhappy day out whether on the hill or trail.
Where to Start
The first step is to identify your most likely kind of planned activity. Light trail shoes could be ideal for forest trail and canal towpath walks but an absolute disaster on a steep, rocky ridge. The reverse would be true for a pair of fully stiffened mountaineering boots. If you mainly walk on defined footpaths then a light boot or shoe would make perfect sense; easily broken in, affordable and useful day to day in mucky weather. For alpine mountaineering the choice is restricted to near rigid, crampon compatible, boots with limited foot flex and deeply lugged soles. Even with a perfect fit these take a long time to break in and always sacrifice freedom of movement on flatter ground for stability and security on rough terrain. The majority of walkers in our mountain areas will find that their requirements flit between these two extremes at times. Short of purchasing an entire footwear range to cover every eventuality the difficulty is finding the happy medium which allows the maximum comfort, stability and performance in most conditions. Try not to buy the stiffest heavy-duty boot to do everything just because of a rare trip somewhere more extreme. The most expensive is not the same as the most appropriate. The extra weight, stiffness and break in of these boots will confer no benefit on the majority of days but extract quite a cost in tiredness and discomfort by the end of a long day. In a similar vein, if you plan to do a lot of multi day backpacking trips then a stiffer boot will help reduce the fatigue of carrying a heavy pack over rough ground by providing more stability than a super light walking shoe or boot. A few years ago a German footwear manufacturer noticed a big upturn in sales of their traditional, heavy welted leather mountain boots in Holland, a country with a conspicuous lack of mountains. Curious, they asked the distributor where the extra demand had come from. The answer was that this traditional style of boot had become very trendy amongst Dutch clubbers for nights out on the town. Unsurprisingly this turned out to be quite a short lived fashion as the clubbers in question realised that dragging a couple of extra kilogram’s around on the end of your legs whilst your blisters develop real character doesn’t make for the best of nights out. By the same token dancing pumps are not that handy when climbing up Mullaghcleevaughan.
Shoes and boots for walking on footpaths, smoother terrain and gentler slopes. This kind of footwear first appeared on the scene in the nineteen eighties. They come in a bewildering range of styles and materials but all have some common features. These shoes and boots tend to be cut low to middling around the ankle, very light in weight. They are usually well cushioned, require very little breaking in and are forgiving of being badly fitted. Comfort is the major goal and many people use this kind of footwear for everyday activity as well as walking. The downsides should come as no great surprise to anyone. Super lightweight footwear will usually be less durable than traditional boots. Any waterproofing will be based on an inner liner of some kind often Gore-Tex, E-vent or other proprietary brand. If this is worn through by sloppy fit or grit in the boot then the boot will leak and be difficult to re-proof. If you are looking for a first pair of general purpose walking boots or trail shoes and don’t plan on using them across the Cairngorms or over icy slopes then this is the easiest place to get started.
Boots for a variety of on and off trail walking. Stiff enough to provide stability on rocky ground and carrying loaded rucksacks on shorter backpacking trips. These will be a little bit higher around the ankle, with a stiffer sole unit and an upper made with more rigid materials. The extra rigidity is to provide extra stability so that your leg and foot muscles are not having to work so hard to balance on coarse ground. The downside of this extra stability is that these boots will take longer to get used to. Even when these have been custom fitted to an individual foot there is still a period of careful softening up and breaking in before they could be unleashed on long trips. Traditionally made with full grain leather there has been an increase in boots made with a variety of synthetic materials over the last decade or so. There may be pros and cons to any choice of materials but overall the performance and durability is near identical for boots made with different materials. Waterproof versions will have an inner liner which is breathable to an extent. If breathability is important choose a boot without such a liner and accept the greater potential for leakage.
Does exactly what is says on the tin. These are boots for journeys across rough, steep terrain where you would normally be carrying a heavy pack. Stiff enough to take walking crampons and useful for anything short of vertical climbing. A suitable period of breaking in is required for these boots and proper fitting and adjustment is highly recommended. Ankle height is higher and soles are stiffer than boots in the midweight category. Materials used vary from full grain leather to space age Kevlar but no matter the construction, performance is given paramount importance by manufacturers. These boots come with or without waterproof liners. Choose depending on your personal preference. If breathability is more important then forego the liner. Boots in this area tend towards the top ofthe price range. The quality of construction and the fact that they are usually hand made in quite small numbers means that for most hill walkers these are the most expensive boots to purchase. If you are planning a lot of winter walking and multi day backpacking then these are a quality investment however if you just want to look a bit more rugged during a summer ramble then you might want to think before taking the plunge.
The North face of the Tour Ronde or Ben Nevis. Mt. McKinley or the summit of Everest. If these destinations are on your to do list and your preferred way of travelling involves as much vertical as horizontal then you will one day find yourself looking at full on mountaineering boots. These are characterised by their extreme rigidity. The sole unit is designed to have almost no flex. This allows secure connection to crampons and the best positioning on small footholds. Uppers are made from leather, textiles, plastics, composite fibres or often a mix of all of the above. Whilst the upper is often built quite high on these boots the ankle is usually articulated and made to be a bit more flexible in order to allow more precise footwork on rock or ice faces. Inners may be waterproof, vapour barrier or heavily insulated. The best option depends on the environment and personal preference. Although these are used to march in on expeditions and for access to routes it is important to remember that they are not “walking” boots. Using these for general hill walking around the west of Ireland is akin to using a tractor for motorway driving. It is possible but hardly comfortable or efficient.
It is important to remember at all times that shoes and boots are simply a part of a system that starts with your own unique foot. Good fit makes all the difference and the best fit will give a boot it’s highest performance, most comfort and greatest durability. The correct choice of quality sock is a huge factor and nowadays there are so many good socks available on the market that there simply is no reason to venture outside wearing any old football or cheap cotton sports socks. Quality insoles which support, cushion and stabilise the foot also make an enormous difference and can be moved around shoes and boots to provide consistent levels of support and comfort. Adjusting the volume and shape of the boot is the final part of the fit process. Boots and shoes are usually mass produce and may need a little stretching or adjusting in order to fit your not at all mass-produced foot. Given the enormous variety of shapes available in the human foot just about everyone could benefit from a little customisation.
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