The final frontier… starts at your feet! I have to agree. There has never been a more exciting time to be a light-weight bushwalker. Gone are the days of the heavy and cumbersome canvas packs and huge and bulky tents. The quality and technology of even the humble sleeping mattress has finally reached space-age status with the application of high-tech lightweight materials and special insulation coatings.
These days, we are surrounded by excellent technical resources – both material and informational – regarding methods and products available to improve the lives of the light-weight hiker. This is great for both the growth and interest in the sport, which is increasing rapidly. As more people of varying ages and fitness levels can access technology and resources to enhance and improve the comfort and safety of the hiking experience.
But what about footwear?
I look around at my fellow hikers, who spend hundreds of dollars on ultralight packs and gear, but the boots they are wearing are still heavy, cumbersome and rigid, and add close to 20% of their entire pack weight: Then they strap these bulky archaic devices to their feet and go hiking with them!
Are we embracing and guiding this technological change when it comes to our footwear, or are we enabling an industry to continue to manufacture backward products which disadvantage us?
The market is incrementally moving towards lighter, more user friendly and higher-performing products. But there is still plenty of misinformation and snake oil pervading the industry – much of it historical and self-imposed by hikers ourselves. Some of this is our own fault. As hikers, we are some-times too set in our ways – and the market provides us with correspondingly limited choices.
Interestingly, problems with foot-wear are not limited just to hikers. The Australian Army are having their own problems with footwear, they are endeavoring to come up with better footwear solutions for their troops. In this article, I will attempt to discuss some persistent myths regarding footwear.
First off, some things to consider when buying hiking footwear:
- Every kilogram of footwear on your feet equates to an extra five kilograms in your packs. (U.S. Army Research Institute, 1984).
- Every extra 500 grams on your feet, equals five percent more energy expended walking. (British Army Personnel Research Establishment, Ergonomics, 1986)
- Add an extra 1kg to your feet, and you are expending 10% more energy than people wearing lighter footwear.
- Your feet swell and grow during the day – up to a size larger – so try new shoes late in the day, preferably after a hour or two of walking.
- Your foot flattens when hiking, and can gain a size in length as well as width. Under load and continual use, your arch will flatten considerably, which makes your feet significantly wider than usual. Foot-wear which is already too narrow, will increase chaffing and squeezing of your toes and forefoot – leading to further blistering, discomfort and gait problems.
- As leather shoes age, they shrink lengthways and widen across.
- Many European brands of footwear – especially hiking boots – are designed for delicate, high-arched, narrow feet. They can be detrimental to people with wide feet, or flat arches.
- American footwear brands tend to accommodate wider feet and have a range of wider options available. New Balance can accommodate the widest feet in the industry, with a range of footwear up to 6E wide (extra, extra, extra wide)
What is the alternative to heavy boots?
“For traversing steep, rugged terrain you need strong flexible ankles and light, flexible footwear. Doing exercises to strengthen your ankles is better than splinting them in heavy, rigid boots.”
– Jörgen Johanssen
The best alternative to heavy hiking boots are Trail Running shoes.
- A typical pair of trail runner-style shoes might weigh about 300g per shoe.
- Some more extreme pairs weigh 200g. Minimalist pairs even less.
- This weight is up to two thirds lighter than a typical mid-weight hiking boot.
- Trail running shoes provide just as much support as trail walking shoes, but are lighter, less restrictive and more comfortable. The difference between trail running shoes and trail walking shoes / boots, is that trail running shoes use lighter materials, are less rigid, quicker drying and designed for excellent traction on most surfaces.
- Trail running shoes are designed to be light-weight, quick-drying, impact absorbing and provide excellent grippiness and traction.
- Trail running shoes are designed for rough terrain, and often have light-weight built-in protection such as rock guard soles and toe protection. Their soles are soft rubber and mould well to rough, difficult surfaces.
When it comes to trail running shoes, those who use them tend to similar have experiences. Once tried, people are surprised how much difference they make – and few desire to return to the old torture device – hiking boots. There are several different types, of varying comfort, weight, construction and materials. It is best to start with what feels comfortable for you.
- If you simply must wear boots, I will list some lighter-weight suggestions at the end.
- Otherwise, quality trail-running shoes can – and will – change your life.
The case against hiking boots
When it comes to hiking boots, the best place for them is on a construction site. On a construction site, you don’t need to walk very far and they are more likely to protect your toes if you drop something heavy. Otherwise, I couldn’t think of anything worse than walking long distances in hiking boots .Hiking 20 km in heavy, rigid boots seems like torture to me.
One poor lady I know broke her ankle wearing a pair of rigid leather European hiking boots while training near Mt Lofty. After months of recovery, she decided her old boots weren’t providing enough ‘support’, so she bought an even a heavier pair of boots. And broke her ankle again. She never completed her planned adventure, and she has subsequently retired from hiking forever.
It doesn’t have to be this way!
I have been wearing trail running shoes for over 5 years, and have never suffered any chaffing, strains or even a single blister – let alone any ankle or knee injuries. In fact, I have done more damage to my knees when I was dancing at a Christmas party than i have ever done while hiking on rough terrain wearing trail running shoes and carrying a 20kg pack!
So why do so many people still do it? Trudging all day wearing rigid, heavy boots weighing up to 2000 grams a pair? Especially now there are a variety of well-designed trail running shoes available at a fraction of the cost and weight? When it comes to boots, there are many myths – many self-imposed – others sold to us. I think there are four mains reasons people still use hiking boots:
- The ‘not that heavy’ perception – Why not carry a spare pair of hiking boots in your pack..? They only weight about 1-2kgs? Of course 1-2kg is damn heavy! But you carry them on your feet right? Well, you would be 5 times better off carrying them in your pack instead. The Army tells us it 5-6 times more efficient carrying the weight of heavy boots in your pack than on your feet.
- The ankle support myth – Boots really don’t provide much support, and if they did, it is to the detriment of proper walking gait, flexibility and capability– as well as potentially WEAKENING your ankles, due to improper gait, and not allowing your ankles to gain strength due to constriction.
- The waterproofing myth – Apart from Wellingtons, ‘waterproof ‘ boots and shoes do not perform as advertised. They are a lie. Period.
- The ‘durability’ conundrum – We believe if we buy heavy boots, they will last forever.. but they weigh several times more than trail shoes, and generally cost much more. Why not buy 3 pairs of trail shoes instead of the price of one pair of heavy boots? You would probably get more use out of the trail shoes, as they are comfortable enough to wear every day – and you won’t trip over your own feet nearly as much compared with boots!
1. The ‘not that heavy’ perception
Although it is obvious most boots are heavy, it not immediately obvious to us just how much they slow us down.
The 5:1 ratio tells us 1kg on our feet equals 5kg in our pack – so if you simply must carry boots, you are 5 time better off carrying them in your pack than carrying them on your feet! Furthermore, every extra 500 grams on your feet, equals five percent more energy expended walking.
- Boots can increase 50% in weight when wet, and can take many times as long to dry as shoes – up to a week in wet conditions.
- Boots often keep your feet wetter than shoes, adding to more weight, soggy skin and possible fungal and bacterial conditions.
- Heavy boots are holding you back – and more likely to cause you injury.
- You will be much faster, safer and more comfortable if you carry your heavy boots in your pack or not at all, rather than on your feet.
- With a lighter pack, you simply don’t need heavy boots.
- Buying the latest light-weight gear won’t help you nearly as much as wearing lighter footwear.
- A pair of hiking poles (and knowing how to use them correctly) will provide many times more support and stability than hiking boots or ankle brace ever will. Four points of contract will always provide more lateral stability than the heaviest, most rigid hiking boot.
The simple answer to alleviate and assist with many of the problems listed above come in one simple, comfortable, lightweight package – trail running shoes.
A Comparison of Footwear when dry
Despite my shoes being particularly large and bulky to begin with (owing to my ginormous feet size UK13 extra wide), the contrast between a minimal pair of trail runners and a reasonably light-weight mid-cut hiking boot is staggering.
My first heavy leather hiking boots (solid rubber soles and thick leather) weighed almost 1600 grams per pair. The footwear below are feather weights in comparison, but still very different when compared to each other even when dry:
- Minimal Trail 584g pair 2. Standard Trail 682g pair 3. Mid Weight Boots 1225g pair 4. Heavy Leather Hiking Boots1600g
Equivalent dry weights in pack (Five times weight on feet):
- Minimal Trail – 2900g (equivalent weight in pack)
- Standard Trail – 3410g (equivalent weight in pack)
- Mid Boots – 6125g (equivalent weight in pack)
- Heavy Leather – 8000g (equivalent in pack)
A Comparison of Footwear when wet
For this comparison, I submerged all my shoes in a bucket of water for 10 seconds, then shook them out three times before putting them on the scales.When wet, already heavy boots increase in weight by up to 700 grams – that’s like wearing another pair of shoes!!
- Minimal Trail 810g pair – wet: 38% increase
- Standard Trail 997g pair – wet: 46% increase
- Mid Boots 1903g pair – wet: 55% increase
- Heavy Leather – 2400g – wet: 50% increase
Equivalent weights in pack when shoes are wet (Five times weight on feet):
- Minimal Trail – 4,050g (equivalent weight in pack)
- Standard Trail – 4,985g (equivalent weight in pack)
- Mid Boots – 9,515g (equivalent weight in pack)
- Heavy Leather -12,000g (equivalent in pack)
2. The ‘ankle support’ myth
“It took 4 million years to develop our unique human foot and our consequent distinctive form of gait, a remarkable feat of bioengineering. Yet, in only a few thousand years, and with one carelessly designed instrument, our shoes, we have warped the pure anatomical form of human gait, obstructing its engineering efficiency, afflicting it with strains and stresses and denying it its natural grace of form and ease of movement head to foot.”
– New York Times – ‘You Walk Wrong’
- Strengthening your ankles and feet is far better than strapping on heavy boots.
- Boot’s offer little extra support – and if they do, they are restricting your movement: Flexibility of movement is more of an advantage than limited support.
- If you insist on extra ‘ankle support’ when hiking – try using ankle braces – or even better, hiking poles. They are both much lighter and provide better support than boots.
First off, ankle support of boots is debatable. Leather does not provide much resilience to lateral forces, but heavy rigid leather restricts movement and affects the way you move – which is much worse!
The use of boots to provide ‘extra ankle support’ inevitably leads to the opposite – weakened feet and ankles and other musculo-skeletal problems as well. Not only do boots restrict movement and weaken ankles, they also lead to exhaustion and complacency – and increased chance of injury late in the day – when hiking.
Ankle support is at least overrated and at best leads to false sense of security. It also increases tiredness as constricting your ankles and feet leads to an incorrect modification of your natural walking gait – tiring you out sooner and leading to aches and pains in muscles and places you didn’t know you had.
If the boots you are wearing do brace your ankles, then there are already affecting the way you walk – and not in a good way.
I have seen more injuries and falls at the end of a long days hiking by people wearing the heaviest ‘most supportive’ boots than i have people wearing simple trail running shoes on the same trail.
If this were to extend to ‘chronic’ injuries – such as muscle soreness, over-tightness, unbalanced walking gait and stress on ligaments and joints, i would say most people who wear boots are suffering some type of chronic injury every time they go hiking – or at least increasing their risk of incurring an acute injury due to their weakened feet and ankles.
Try rock hopping from rock to rock in a creek bed using boots – you are more likely to stumble, over or undershoot you footing, and mis-place your feet when wearing heavy hiking boots – even more so when you are tired and trying to balance with a heavy pack.
Rock-hopping in trail running shoes is a dream – you will notice you instantly become more nimble, balanced, precise and flexible – further improved with soft grippy rubber outsoles which mold to the surfaces to provide more traction.
In conclusion, boots on average are two to three times as heavy than shoes. Boots are more cumbersome. Boots are less flexible. If boots do provide more ankle support, they do so to the detriment of flexibility and manoeuvrability. None of these qualities help when hiking.
3. The waterproof boot myth
Waterproof hiking boots or shoes is an oxymoron. It is a lie sold to us by manufacturers.
- Boots can increase 55% in weight when wet, and can take many times longer to dry than shoes.
- Boots often keep your feet wetter and for longer than shoes, leading to skin problems, and discomfort.
- Once water – or perspiration – gets inside a ‘waterproof’ boot, it will be locked inside and not come out.
- There is no such thing as waterproof hiking boots.
- All shoes will eventually succumb to water if enough of it is present, and worse, when your waterproof hiking shoes get wet (and I promise they will) they will stay wet.
- Gore-Tex shoes take a long time to dry, and leather in particular, when soaked through, is heavy; the only option is to hope you can dry them out by a fire, after which they become brittle and unpleasant to walk in.
- You can wax them all you like, but eventually, with enough rain or walking in swamps, they will still get wet, and you will end up with wet feet.”
All footwear increases in weight when wet – but boots increase by at least 55%!
A few words on Gore-Tex footwear
Goretex waterproofing in footwear is a myth I will bust using simple mathematics. Your boots are waterproof because they Gore-Tex right? Wrong.
One of the reasons Gore-Tex has become so popular is it’s claimed breathability. But while it does breath, it does not live up to the hype. Feet still get sweaty in Gore-Tex shoes, and the perspiration often remains locked inside the shoe in your socks, so your feet get wet from the inside anyway. Gore-Tex’s effectiveness is further reduced by wear, dirt, perspiration, and body oils.
Gore-Tex and simple Mathematics:
- With a vapor shedding ability of about 10,000mL every 24 hours per square metre – Gore-Tex sounds like a wonder product.
- But mesh and polyester has a breathability rate of 20 times this.. and also, your boots are covered in leather.. and have a surface are of less than 10% of one square metre…
- So that maximum shedding rate drops to 1,000mL every 24 hours, or a maximum performance, under exacting laboratory conditions, with no leather covering, to perhaps 41 mL per hour..
- This reduces to even a fraction of that when it is covered in saturated leather.
- Your feet can easily sweat 41mL per hour – so your feet are still wet.
Conclusion about Gore-Tex:
- If you are walking in hot weather, with sweaty feet, your Gore-Tex boots are wet inside.
- If you are walking in heavy rain or swampy conditions, your feet are still wet inside your boots.
What’s The solution? It’s easy!
- Throw away your ‘waterproof’ boots.
- Strap on light-weight non waterproof trail running shoes.
- Let your feet get wet!
It’s a sock thing.
Managing wet feet is simple. The key to success with this technique is choosing the right socks! Rather than panicking about water, simply manage your socks and enjoy your new found freedom:
- Keep different socks for walking, sleeping and camp.
- Thin socks are best for hiking – they absorb less water and dry quicker – even while you are walking.
- What about chaffing I hear you ask?? Chaffing is caused by ill-fitting footwear that is usually the wrong size, width or cut. Furthermore, non-waterproof aerated shoes dry out much faster, and squeeze the socks dry much more effectively than thick heavy socks and boots.
- Warm wool socks for camping and sleeping – you can still use your wet shoes in camp, simply line then with a plastic bag first.
- If it’s cold and wet, try neoprene socks (wetsuit material) – it’s not waterproof, but it will keep your feet warm.
That’s it! Happy trails!
Three Lightweight Boot alternatives to heavy leather (if you simply must wear boots)
Although I don’t recommend boots due to restriction of movement, and overall weight, if you simply must wear boots, here are some lighter-weight suggestions (weights are for men’s size 9US):
- Vasque Inhaler II weight – 872g (soon to be available in Non-Gore-Tex – Also available in shoes!)
- Merrel Moab weight – 872g
- Vasque Breeze 2.0 weight – 1140g
- Jordan Smothermon and Rob Shaul – “1 Pound On Your Foot Equals 5 Pounds On Your Back: The 5 Thumb Rules of Hiking”
- Backpackingnorth – “Give your feet a break“
- Andrew Skurka – “Why waterproof shoes will not keep your feet dry“
- Sydney Morning Herlad – “The battle of the boot: army keeps review of footwear top secret”
- “Energy cost of backpacking in heavy boots” – by S. J. Legg and A. Mahanty, Army Personnel Research Establishment, Farnborugh, Hants, England. Publicerad i Ergonomics, 1986. Vol. 29, No. 3.